Thursday, April 29, 2010

Famous Small Arms: The Brown Bess Musket

The Brown Bess was a famous firearm that has had a very long service history. This ubiquitous weapon officially served various divisions of the British military between 1722 and 1838 and was still used in many parts of the British Empire long after that. American troops used them against British forces in the American War of Independence, Mexican soldiers used them against Americans in the battle of the Alamo and Zulus against the British in the Anglo-Zulu war. Some weapons even saw service during the Great Mutiny of 1857. Many replicas of this weapon may still be found in the various arms bazaars of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This means that this is one of the longest serving small arms in history.

At the time it was introduced, most western armies had a history of using individually purchased firearms. This meant that each firearm was manufactured according to the standards of the gunsmith that made the weapon and the wishes of the purchaser, which meant that often, two firearms could not interchange parts or fire the same bullets, even if the two users were serving in the same regiment. This led to increasing problems for armies to supply ammunition and spare parts to their various units.

In order to rectify the situation, several western military forces began standardizing their small arms. In England, the Royal Board of Ordinance published a standard document dated Sept. 15th, 1714. The standard design that they adopted was a musket called the "Land Pattern Musket". It was called a "Pattern Musket" because a master musket was made and stored in a "pattern room" and any contracted gun-maker could use it as a standard reference and take measurements as needed. The Royal Board of Ordinance was to be in charge of the master patterns and they were in charge of accumulating parts and to inventory them at the Tower of London armory. The firing mechanisms, barrels and other iron components were to be largely supplied by firms in Birmingham, while most of the brass components, wooden stocks and final assembly work were to be done in and around London. The board was also given the responsibility of ensuring that the parts met the quality and tolerances required by the specification.

The majority of opposition to this new standard came from the association of London manufacturers (a union of gunmakers called the "London Gunmakers' Company), that saw this as a change from the traditional control they held over the existing English arms industry. Quite a lot of opposition also came from some of the army officers as well. At that time, many officers were rich and influential people who had bought their commission (i.e.) paid a sum of money to be given an officer's commission rather than being promoted on merit. Officers would be given governmental funds to equip a regiment and any money left over was to be kept by the officer. Prior to the new standard being introduced, the standards were merely vague requirements and as a result, many officers would purchase from a wide range of manufacturers of varying quality and price. In the end, the Board of Ordinance won out and the gun began to spread throughout the world.

At the time that this was introduced, the typical 18th century firearm was a large smoothbore weapon (i.e. no rifling). The height of technology development at this time dictated that the most advanced weapons used a flintlock firing mechanism and muzzleloader loading mechanism. Due to the quality of gunpowder during this era, large amounts of black residue would quickly build up inside the barrel. To cope with this residue, the average bullet (they were spherical balls) was built slightly smaller than the barrel diameter. Unfortunately this meant that upon firing, the ball would bounce off the walls of the barrel and proceed in a direction determined by the last contact with the barrel, which means it wasn't very accurate past 50-75 yards or so. With these limitations, the standard 18th century tactic was to use long lines of men who were trained to load very fast, but not necessarily shoot accurately. Troops would fire at each other at around 50 yard ranges and then follow it up with a charge and hand-to-hand combat.

With these tactics in mind, the new Land Pattern musket was designed to deliver a large, low velocity ball. It also had a bayonet socket so that it could be used as a spear or a pike, when charging upon the enemy. Lastly, the weapon had a very sturdy wooden stock so that it could also double as a club in close combat situations

No one is entirely sure about how the Land Pattern musket acquired the nickname "Brown Bess", but this is what it was known by through a large part of its history. Some say it had to do with the walnut wooden stock that the gun used, others say it is because of the anti-rust treatment of the barrel that made it look brown, still others think it came from the German words "Braun Buss", i.e. the Brown Gun or the Strong Gun. Nevertheless, there exists a newspaper mention from the Connecticut Courant (April 2nd-9th, 1771) that refers to it as the "Brown Bess" which means the name was already in widespread use by then.

There were several variations of the Land Pattern Musket built as the years progressed: Different models had different barrel lengths, different materials and different firing mechanisms, but they all fired the same caliber bullet (0.75 caliber). The basic pattern had a round barrel of .75 caliber with no rifling, This was attached to a walnut stock and held in place by a vertical screw near the back of the barrel and lateral cross-pins that connected to tenons welded on the underside of the barrel. The wooden stock terminated about 4 inches before the front of the barrel, so that a bayonet could be attached. Near the front of the barrel and attached to the top was a rectangular stud that served a dual purpose: it secured the bayonet to the muzzle and also served as the front aiming sight. The weapon did not have a rear-sight. Under the stock were four small brass pipes through which the wooden ramrod could be slid into and stored. Firing mechanism was usually flintlock, though percussion locks were used later in its history.

The first model of this series was the "Long" Land Pattern musket. Introduced in 1722, this weighed 10.5 pounds and had a 46 inch barrel, with an overall length of 62.5 inches. It also had brass furniture, a curved lockplate, a walnut stock with carvings near the firing mechanism and a wooden ramrod. This weapon was called the "King's Pattern" and was the official British Infantry weapon from 1722-1768 and was still in service in some of the divisions of the British Army all the way until 1793. While the prototype was standardized in 1722, resistance from various sources (gunmaker unions and powerful, influential people) ensured that it did not really start large scale production until 1728. Later improvements to this model in 1742 and 1756 slightly altered the shape to the stock, reduced the amount of carvings on the weapon and changed the wooden ramrod to an iron one with a steel button tip.

It was found some years later that shortening the barrel a little bit did not detract from the accuracy of the weapon. This discovery led to the next model in the series, the "Short" Land Pattern musket. Introduced in 1742, it was about the same weight as the "Long" musket above. The name "Short" is a bit of an exaggeration, as it was only 4 inches shorter than the "Long" model. It first entered service in 1740 in the hands of the British mounted infantry forces (Dragoons) who wanted a slightly shorter weapon for easier use. In 1756, the British Marines started to use the shorter version as well and made slightly more changes to the basic design in 1759. Like the "Long" model, this version also featured an iron ramrod with a steel button tip. In 1768, the British Infantry adopted the "Short" as their new standard as well and started to gradually convert all their existing units from using "Long" pattern muskets to the "Short" version. It took up to 1793 before this conversion process was done completely. These weapons lasted until 1797 when they began to be replaced by the next version (the India pattern musket). The "Short" model was also responsible for the entire family of weapons being nicknamed the "Brown Bess".

The third major edition was called the India Pattern. This was the most popular form of the weapon. Originally developed to the specifications of the East India company in 1795, these weapons were later adopted as the standard British infantry musket between 1797 and 1854. The India pattern muskets were a bit lighter (9.7 pounds) and also had a slightly shorter barrel (39 inches) and overall length (55 inches) than the previous "Short" model. Other differences included a more reinforced flintlock and only 3 pipes holding the ramrod instead of four. Throughout the Napoleonic wars, over 3 million of these weapons were manufactured and distributed to various British regiments and this weapon remained in service for a very long time. The East India Company had added a simple spring catch to their bayonets to keep them from slipping around the barrel, but this particular invention was never adopted by the British Army.

There were also specialized New Land Pattern weapons issued only to specific British regiments between 1802-1854. These were very similar in size to the India Pattern musket, but were slightly heavier (approx. 10 pounds). The main differences were a slightly different trigger guard shape, a notched rear-sight (all the previous models had no rear-sight at all) and a browned barrel.

There was also a Sea Service Pattern musket in service between 1778 and 1854. These were only 9 pounds in weight, with a 37 inch barrel and overall length of 54 inches. The ramrod was held in place with only two pipes (instead of 3 or 4 from previous versions) and the butt of the weapon has a flat plate with squared corners. There were two versions of this weapon, one with a bright finish that was issued to the Royal Marines and another with black finish that was used by the seamen.

A Cavalry Carbine variant was also introduced between 1796-1838. Since it was to be used by mounted horsemen, the barrel was much shorter (26 inches) and overall length was 42.5 inches. Due to its smaller size, the weapon weighed around 7.5 pounds only.

Flintlock firing mechanisms were somewhat unreliable in wet weather. Towards the end of the 1830s, with the invention and rising popularity of the percussion lock firing mechanism among civilian hunters, it was decided to replace the flintlock mechanism of the Brown Bess with a percussion lock. The first weapons that were to be replaced with the new locks were the 1839 model. Unfortunately a large fire at the Royal Arsenal destroyed most of these specimens, so a new 1842 pattern was developed. These remained in service until 1854 or so, along with the older models.

The Brown Bess was eventually made obsolete by newer breechloading weapons with rifled barrels. Since the Brown Bess was a muzzleloading weapon, it took longer to load than a breechloading weapon. Also, the smoothbore barrel of the Brown Bess only made it accurate to around 75 yards or so, whereas rifled barrels were accurate over much longer ranges. Rifles had been used by some British troops, as early as 1776, but it was the change in tactics that had a lot to do with making the Brown Bess obsolete. It was no longer considered good practice to line up soldiers 50 yards away from the enemy and fire upon them, hoping to hit someone. The newer tactics called for better marksmanship and therefore a more accurate and longer ranged weapon. Hence the British military stopped using the Brown Bess by 1838. However it continued to be in use by other troops around the world for many more years and saw extensive use in India for years to come.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Loading Mechanisms: Breechloader

In the previous post of this series, we've discussed the development of the muzzleloader . Now we will consider the other loading mechanism: the breechloader. To recap, a muzzleloader is loaded via the open end of the barrel (or muzzle). A breechloader is loaded near the closed end of the barrel (i.e.) near the trigger. The barrel is usually opened via a hinge or a plug, the gunpowder and bullet are put in and then the hinge is closed. One of the main advantages of breechloading weapons over muzzleloaders is that they are much quicker to reload. Another advantage is that the shooter doesn't need to expose himself to enemy fire to reload the weapon. With a muzzle loader, one must stand the weapon up vertically, put the safety on, stand up and pour the powder down the barrel and then use the ramrod to shove the bullet home into the base of the barrel. With a breechloader, one simply breaks open the breech, loads in the cartridge and then closes the breech and fires. The figure below shows a 16th century breechloading weapon that opens via a hinge.

Public domain image courtesy of

The breechloader mechanism was known in the early history of firearms, but didn't really become popular until around the mid 19th century, because breech loading weapons need more precision manufacturing than muzzleloaders to actually work. After the 19th century, when manufacturing techniques reached the required standards, virtually all modern weapons made since then are breechloading.

The main challenge of breechloading weapons is to find a good way to seal the breech so that the expanding gases don't escape out that way. One of the early ways was by using a screw plug, as in the case of the Ferguson rifle, which will be studied below. The later development of metallic cartridges contributed much more to modern breechloader development.

The Ferguson rifle was invented by one Major Patrick Ferguson of the British Army in 1776.

Public domain image courtesy of

It consisted of a screw plug at the breech, which could be unscrewed by turning the trigger guard. The user would tilt it forward and initially load in a lead ball of a slightly larger diameter than the barrel. The lead ball would roll forward and get stopped by the start of the barrel threads. Unlike most muzzleloaders, the ball did not need to be wrapped in a cloth or paper patch to provide a tight seal, since it was a slightly larger diameter than the barrel. Then the user would pour in some gunpowder to fill the loading chamber and then turn the trigger guard the other way to screw the plug back in. Excess gunpowder in the breech would be sheared off by the screw plug rising back up. Then the user could cock the weapon and be ready to fire. The firing mechanism itself was a flintlock, which was the height of firing mechanism technology at that time. Upon firing, the lead ball would slightly deform and keep the tight seal as it made its way through the barrel.

Such a loading mechanism was already known in Ferguson's time. In fact, one John Warsop had invented a similar mechanism and received a patent back in 1720. However, Warsop's design had a single threaded screw and needed 4 to 12 complete turns to open the breech for reloading. It was also loaded from the bottom and therefore more cumbersome to load. The innovative features of Ferguson's design were:
  1. Use of a twelve start thread screw plug instead of a single start thread like the Warsop design (i.e.) the screw had 12 separate threads spiralling from the top to the bottom. Hence, instead of turning the screw plug 12 times to unscrew it like the Warsop design, it was only necessary to turn the screw plug once in a Ferguson rifle to unscrew the plug.
  2. Top loading mechanism, so the user could drop the ball and gunpowder from the top.
  3. The screw threads were interrupted by vertical slots cut into them Some excess powder would fall into these gap between the screw threads when the plug was screwed back in, and the remaining excess fouling could simply be wiped off.
  4. The top of the screw plug was of a slightly larger diameter than the screw hole. What this meant was that the screw plug could not be removed from the rifle even if it was fully unscrewed. This was done so that it is not possible to drop the screw plug even in the heat of combat.
A good rifleman using a Ferguson rifle could load and shoot up to 6 rounds per minute. Major Ferguson himself demonstrated the rifle to senior officers on a very rainy summer day of 1776 and got their approval. To quote a newspaper of that time,

"Length 50 in.; weight 71/2 lbs.; bayonet 25 in. long and 11/2 in. wide, and being of fine temper and razor edge was called a sword bayonet; folding rear sight with leaves of 100 to 500 yds. The rotating breechblock has 12 threads to the inch, and opens or closes with one complete whirl of the guard. When open, the top of the screw is level with the breech bottom, a ball dropped in slides forward into a chamber slightly larger than the rifled diameter, the muzzle is tipped downward, powder put in to fill the chamber back of the ball, the guard is turned and the screw rises to the top and removes any surplus powder, while making the breech gas tight. When fired, the ball takes the rifling."

Unfortunately, there is a big difference between getting approval and gaining widespread acceptance and orders were initially placed for 300 weapons, of which only 200 were made and these were delivered to Ferguson's own unit (and were withdrawn from service shortly after, in spite of their success in the Battle of Brandywine).

There were a couple of reasons for the failure of this innovative weapon. The first was that the senior military officials didn't think it was manly at that time for soldiers to reload and fire while lying under cover in a prone position. Standard tactics of that era called for soldiers of opposing sides to meet face to face and shoot each other standing up.

The second reason for failure was the cost of manufacturing. It cost approximately 4 pounds to manufacture a Ferguson rifle, whereas a muzzle loading "Brown Bess" musket cost only 2 pounds at that time. It also took a skilled gunmaker more time to make a Ferguson rifle than a Brown Bess. Manufacturing a twelve-start thread screw plug required very specialized skills and not all gunmakers at that time could make those. At a time when the British Army would need to manufacture 50,000 rifles to replace their existing Brown Bess muskets, the total capacity of skilled gunmakers in England who could make the twelve-start thread screw plug was approximately 1000 per year. While mass production technologies for manufacturing were being pioneered during the time that the Ferguson rifle was being developed, no one in England thought to apply them to gun manufacture. It was left to the Americans, specifically Eli Whitney, to do this in 1790.

So despite the success of the weapon in the Battle of Brandywine, Ferguson's superior ordered the rifles to be locked up in a New York warehouse and his own unit was re-equipped with Brown Bess muskets. The remaining orders were also cancelled and thus the Ferguson faded into obscurity. It was not until a century later that breechloaders became popular again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Loading Mechanisms: Muzzleloader

Now we will move on to loading mechanisms. The first loading mechanism we will consider is the muzzleloader (i.e.) a weapon that is loaded from the muzzle end (the open end) of the weapon. Since muzzleloaders were easier to manufacture, early firearms were virtually all muzzleloaders. The diagram below shows a typical flintlock muzzleloader weapon.
To load the weapon:
  1. The user first enables the weapon's safety mechanism so that it cannot go off when loading. In the case of a flintlock, the user puts the mechanism at half cock and pushes the safety lever. In the case of a matchlock, the user makes sure the lit match is kept well away from gunpowder.
  2. The user places the butt of the gun on the ground, taking care that the barrel is pointed away from the user.
  3. The user takes their powder from their powder horn (a conical container hanging from the waist that contains gunpowder) and pours out a certain amount of gunpowder into a measuring tube or measuring flask.
  4. The user then closes the powder horn and returns to their waist. The user then pours the powder from the measuring tube into the top of the muzzle (or barrel). The user also taps the barrel a bit to make sure the powder has settled in the bottom of the barrel near the pan.
  5. The user then takes a bullet (in those days, it was a ball) and wraps it in a patch of lubricated paper or cloth to surround the bullet. Since the diameter of the bullet is usually smaller than the barrel, the patch surrounding it ensures a tighter fit.
  6. The user then pulls out the ramrod which is a long thin rod stored under the barrel and uses it to push the bullet all the way into the barrel, so it is sitting on top of the gunpowder. The user then returns the ramrod to its storage tube under the muzzle.
  7. The user now lifts the weapon off the ground and opens the cover over the pan (called the frizzen for flintlocks and pan cover for matchlocks and wheel-locks). The user then adds some priming gunpowder into the pan and closes it. In the early days of firearms, the priming gunpowder was finer than the main gunpowder in the barrel.
  8. The user then cocks the rifle to full cock and disables the safety mechanism. Now the weapon is ready to fire.
This procedure is a bit cumbersome and many developments were done to speed this up. For instance, in the above diagram, you may note that the gun has a compartment (patch box) in the side to store patches of lubricated paper or cloth, so that's one less thing that the user has to fumble around to find.

In later flintlocks, the gunpowder was developed so that there was no need to carry around any separate priming gunpowder. The user would simply pour gunpowder down the barrel and a little would dribble out of the bottom of the barrel through the touch hole into the pan and the user would top it off with a little more from their powder horn. The same gunpowder was fine enough to be used as both a priming powder, as well as the main powder charge.

Then came the invention of the paper cartridge. Instead of the user carrying around a powder horn, a bag of bullets, another bag of patches, a separate horn of priming powder and a measuring flask or two, the user would simply carry paper cartridges, each containing a bullet and a pre-measured quantity of gunpowder. The outer paper casing of the cartridge would be lubricated with grease, lard or beeswax so that it could be used as a patch. The greasy outer casing also had a couple more advantages: it made the cartridge somewhat water-resistant and on firing, the grease or wax would melt and mix with the gunpowder residue, making it easier to clean the barrel. All the user had to do was tear off the top of the paper packet with their teeth, pour the gunpowder in the cartridge into the muzzle, then use the paper to wrap the bullet and push it down the tube with the ramrod. A little bit of the left over powder could be used to fill the pan if needed.

These advances made loading muzzleloaders much faster. The new cartridges were also one of the causes of the Great Indian Mutiny. A rumor that spread among the Sepoys (i.e. Native Indian soldiers) was that the cartridges were greased with the fat of cows and pigs (which were animals revered by the Hindus and treated as offensive by the Muslims) and by tearing the cartridges with their teeth, they would defile themselves.

Muzzle loading weapons stayed popular for quite a while. Famous weapons such as the Brown Bess musket served the British infantry for over 100 years.

Exotic Firing Mechanisms: The Gyrojets

In the world of firing mechanisms, one more development must be mentioned: The Gyrojet or rocket powered bullets. The Gyrojet family of small arms were conceived in the 1960s and a company called MB Associates (or MBA for short) developed a pistol, carbine and rifle using the principle of rocket propulsion.

Unlike conventional pistols, the gyrojet weapons didn't need as thick a barrel or firing mechanisms since the pressure on leaving the barrel was still relatively low. The ammunition consisted of a projectile with four tiny rockets placed at an angle off the center. Upon firing the four rockets, the projectile would spin about its axis and thereby achieve spin stability in the air. In a normal weapon, the bullet is at its fastest velocity just when it leaves the barrel and slows down as it travels in the air. In the case of a gyrojet round, the velocity builds up as it travels in the air. Hence, gyrojets were less lethal in close ranges, but got more lethal as it gained speed until the rockets burned out. In the case of gyrojets, the rockets would burn out approximately 60-70 feet outside the barrel and would reach a velocity of about 1250 feet-per-second at this point, after which the rocket propellant would run out and the bullet would travel under its own momentum. The accuracy was also better than conventional firearms over longer distances, because the trajectory of the round was flatter.

The firing mechanism of the gyrojet weapons was absolutely unique. Like a percussion firing mechanism, the rockets were ignited by a primer which was sensitive to percussion. Unlike a conventional weapon, when the trigger was pulled, a lever would strike the front of the bullet and push it backwards into a fixed firing pin. The force would ignite the primer, which would in turn ignite the four rockets and then the round would move forward.

Unfortunately, the gyrojet family of weapons never took off for a few reasons:
  1. They were large caliber rounds and a new Gun law was passed in 1968 which classified Gyrojet bullets as "destructive devices" since they were explosive rounds greater than .50 caliber. This meant people had to pay extra taxes and get a special permit to own a gyrojet based weapon.
  2. Didn't offer too much advantage over conventional weapons.
  3. Bullets and the weapons cost much more.
  4. Loading speed was much slower than conventional weapons
However, the gyrojet weapons were much lighter than their conventional prototypes since they didn't need to be built at strongly (as most of the acceleration happens after the round has left the barrel). Also, the barrel didn't need to be rifled, as the spin to the projectile was provided by the four off-center rockets.

Since Gyrojet weapons never became popular, manufacturing stopped in the late 1960s. Some weapons are still available as collector's items, but the bullets cost over $100 per bullet.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Percussion Lock or Caplock Mechanism

So far, we've covered firing mechanisms all the way to the flintlock. The flintlock was a major advancement in firing technology and it stayed active for over one hundred years. One of the disadvantages of it (and all previous technologies, the matchlock, snaplock, wheel-lock etc.) is that when firing the weapon, the basic principle in all these weapons is to light some gunpowder in a firing pan which is attached to the barrel, but located outside the barrel and have the pan connected to the main gunpowder charge inside the barrel by a touch hole. The flame first lights in the firing pan and then travels through the touch hole and lights the main charge of gunpowder, which then ejects the bullet. Because of this, there is a noticeable delay from when the flame lights in the pan to when the gun actually fires.

The next big advance was due to a Scottish clergyman, one Rev. Alexander Forsyth. The good clergyman was also an avid hunter and liked to go bird hunting in the marshes. While hunting, he noticed that the birds would often spot the flame from the pan and immediately change direction. Since there is a delay between when the contents of the pan light up and when the gun discharges, this delay was long enough for many birds to escape. Rev. Forsyth made several experiments and finally settled on using mercury fulminate as his ignition mechanism. His patent application (granted April 11th 1807) reads as follows:

"I do make use of some one of the compounds of combustible matter, such as sulphur or sulphur and charcoal, with an oxymuriatic salt; for example, the salt formed of delphlogisticated marine acid and potash (oxymuriatic of potassium), or of fulminating metallic compounds, as fulminate of mercury or of common gunpowder, mixed in due quantity with any of the aforementioned substances, or with an oxymuriatic salt as aforesaid."

The specification is pretty broad and doesn't reveal too much, so we'll study what this means. First, we determine what a fulminate is. Ordinary black gunpowder and some other explosive materials have the property that they may be ignited by striking them with some force between two metal faces. However, the resulting explosion doesn't provide any more force than if they were lit with a flame. A fulminating substance is one that is reliably ignited by percussive force and the resulting explosion is more energetic than if it were lit by a flame or by any other means. The most well-known fulminate is potassium chlorate. Some readers might have played with a roll-cap toy pistol as kids, where the tiny caps explode when struck under pressure. There are other fulminates such as mercury fulminate, silver fulminate, gold fulminate etc.

The earliest research into these substances was made by a Frenchman named Peter Bolduc, prior to 1700. There were several reports published between 1712 and 1714 by the Royal Academy of Sciences, of experiments by Nicholas Lemery. Bayen, the chief physician of King Louis XV discovered mercury fulminate in 1774, Fourcroy studied them in 1785, Vauquelin in 1787, and Berthollet discovered silver fulminate in 1788. Until then, no one thought of using fulminates to firearms. The first few experiments by Berthollet ended in failure because the material was deemed too sensitive and he finally gave up after a couple of close calls. An Englishman named Howard invented a new priming gunpowder in 1800 using the research of Fourcroy and Vauquelin, but it was also not too popular. Finally, it was left to Rev. Forsyth to make the necessary discoveries and get the patent. In his patent application, he also reveals his firing mechanism:

"Instead of permitting the touch-hole, or vent, of the species of artillery, fire-arms, mines etc. to communicate with the open air, and instead of giving fire by a lighted match, or flint or steel, or by any other matter in a state of actual combustion, applied to a priming in an open pan, I do so close the touch-hole or vent by means of a plug or a sliding-piece as to exclude the open air, and to prevent an sensible escape of the blast, or explosive gas or vapour, outwards, or from the priming or charge; and, as much as it is possible, to force the said priming to go in the direction of the charge, and to set fire to the same, and not to be wasted in the open air."

The basic idea of his patent ran like this:

Public domain image courtesy of wikipedia
It consists of a small metal nipple sticking out in the back of the barrel, with a hole that leads into the barrel. The main charge of gunpowder is loaded into the barrel. To the nipple is placed a small copper cap containing a percussion sensitive explosive such as mercury fulminate or potassium chlorate. The hammer is pulled back against spring pressure. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer is released and hits the copper cap covering the nipple with sufficient force to detonate the mercury fulminate (or potassium chlorate or whatever). The flame from the resulting explosion travels into the barrel and ignites the main gunpowder charge.

With this invention, there is very little delay from when the trigger is pulled to when the gun discharges. It is also not affected by weather and was more reliable than some of the previous systems. While Mr. Forsyth did get his patent and win a significant case of patent infringement in 1819 (Forsyth vs. Reveire), he did not pursue his invention very further and went back to his pastoral duties in his church. As a result, some manufacturers found creative ways to evade his patent and others waited for his patent to expire before making weapons that used this system.

Future firing mechanisms such as cartridges also use this same basic idea (i.e.) use a tiny amount of pressure sensitive explosive to detonate the main charge of explosive. In fact, this principle is still used in the majority of weapons to this present day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Flintlock

The flintlock was the next big advance in firing mechanisms. The flintlock was based on a Spanish invention called the miquelet lock. The flintlock took its ideas from the snaphaunce lock, which was itself an improvement over the snaplock. In a flintlock, the pan cover and the steel plate (a.k.a, the "frizzen") are combined together.(public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Like the snaplock and the snaphaunce, this weapon has a serpentine hammer, which has jaws at the end, to which can be screwed on a piece of flint. Like the other two weapons, it has a steel (called a "frizzen") facing the piece of flint. When the trigger is pulled, the flint strikes the steel and releases sparks. Here's where the flintlock's innovation comes in. The steel frizzen is shaped like the letter 'L'. The horizontal part of the 'L' covers the firing pan where the priming gunpowder is. So the flint on the falling hammer strikes the frizzen and causes sparks of hot steel to form. As it is falling, it also pushes the frizzen away from the flint, thereby opening the pan cover and exposing the pan's contents. So the generated sparks will fall into the pan and light the priming powder that is in the pan.

If all goes well, the priming gunpowder in the pan will light. There is a tiny hole in the pan that leads to the main charge of gunpowder in the barrel. The flame will travel through this tiny hole and light the main charge and the weapon discharges. If all doesn't go well, the sparks may not fall into the pan, or the powder in the pan may light, but doesn't light the main charge. This is called a "flash in the pan", i.e. a flashy initial start, but no results.

The advantages of this weapon over its predecessors are many:
  1. Unlike the matchlock, this weapon doesn't require the user to carry an lit match at all times to discharge the weapon. Hence it is much safer to use, especially in larger groups of soldiers or near gunpowder supplies. It can also be used more reliably in rainy weather.
  2. The mechanism is not as expensive to manufacture as the wheel-lock and doesn't require as much specialized metallurgical and mechanical knowledge to manufacture.
  3. Unlike the snaplock, the cover for the pan opens automatically when the trigger is pulled. Hence it is possible to carry the firearm loaded in damp conditions and not worry about the gunpowder getting wet, as the pan cover opens right as the sparks are generated.
  4. Unlike the snaphaunce, there are fewer parts in this firing mechanism, as the pan cover and the steel are the same part. Hence, this leads to better reliability and less cost.
To load a flintlock, one would first fill the barrel with the main gunpowder charge and bullet. Then, the user would position the hammer at half-cock, i.e. they would pull the hammer back against spring pressure to a position called "half-cock" which was a "safe" position from which the hammer would not normally spring back. Then the user would pull back the frizzen cover and load the pan with priming powder and close it. Finally, the user would pull the hammer back to its full extent (i.e. full cock position) and the weapon would be ready to fire.

While the half-cock position was supposed to be "safe", sometimes a faulty safety mechanism would release the hammer from this position and it would strike the frizzen. Striking the frizzen from the half-cock position wasn't supposed to have enough force to cause sparks to form, but occasionally this would happen and the weapon would discharge. This is the origin of the modern-day phrase "going off half-cocked", which means "to take a premature action".

Flintlocks stayed with us for a very long time. The mechanism was invented in the 1600s and was used till at least 1850 or so. Some flintlock weapons are manufactured even in this present day, for hunting enthusiasts who prefer to use black-powder weapons.

The Snaphaunce

The next development from the snaplock was called the Snaphaunce. The origin of the name is believed to have come from Dutch Snap Haan which means "pecking cock". It was somewhat similar to the snaplock, but it borrowed one feature from the wheel-lock. Remember that we said, for the snaplock, one needed to open the firing pan's cover by hand before firing the weapon. With the snaphaunce, there was an additional mechanism connected to the trigger so that it would slide back the pan cover and expose the priming gunpowder automatically, as the trigger was pulled.

This meant that a person could walk around with a loaded weapon in damp conditions and keep the powder dry, as the pan cover would open just before the gun was about to be fired. These weapons were commonly used by thieves and highwaymen, as they were cheaper to manufacture than the wheel-lock, but didn't share the matchlock's weakness of having a fire lit at all times.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Snaplock

Due to the price of the wheel-lock mechanism, it was generally only popular among the elites of society and among people who were close to major clock-making centers and had access to the materials and technologies needed to construct one. For instance, wheel-lock mechanisms never really caught on in Russia, China, India or most of Asia in general. The matchlock was still the weapon of choice for the common soldier due to its lower price and simplicity of construction.

However, there was still a need to develop a more reliable ignition system than the matchlock, but without the huge price of a wheel-lock mechanism. That need was fulfilled with the invention of the snaplock system in the late 1540s in Southern Germany.

This system consists of an S-shaped "cock" as seen on the left with a clamp on top with two jaws. The name "cock" is because it historically strongly resembled the head of a rooster. In other countries, the shape resembled a dog's head more and therefore is called a "dog" in some languages. In between the jaws is held a piece of flint, which is screwed on between the jaws. To the right of the mechanism was a steel plate (simply called the "steel" or later, "frizzen"). To prepare the weapon to fire, one would move the cock back under spring pressure (so called "cocking the weapon"). One would then position the steel plate so that it was over the pan (the pan is in the middle of the picture above). Upon pulling the trigger, the cock snaps forward with great force due to the spring pressure. The flint piece comes in contact with the steel plate and strikes it hard. The force of this drops hot steel sparks into the pan. The pan contains some priming gunpowder and a tiny hole that leads to the main gunpowder charge in the barrel.

If everything works right, the falling sparks ignite the gunpowder in the pan which burns first and the flame travels through the hole and ignites the main charge in the barrel, which discharges the weapon. If everything doesn't go to plan, no sparks may be generated or sparks may be generated and not fall into the pan or the powder in the pan may burn without igniting the main charge in the barrel (the classic "flash-in-the-pan", a strong flashy start initially with no result).

Like the matchlock, the snaplock sometimes had a cover over the pan to protect the priming gunpowder from adverse weather. Right before using the weapon, the gunner would slide the cover out of the way manually and then fire the weapon.

The resulting mechanism was a lot cheaper to manufacture than the wheel-lock. Like the more expensive wheel-lock, a snaplock weapon could be carried around with the weapon cocked and ready to fire at a moment's notice. The delay between pulling the trigger and the weapon firing was longer for a snaplock and it also had a higher rate of misfire than a wheel-lock. So for those who could afford it, the wheel-lock was still considered a more dependable choice. For the military exchequer who purchased weapons in the thousands, the matchlock was priced lower and hence the common soldier was still supplied with matchlocks. The people who really used the snaplock were mounted knights who wanted cavalry pistols. Hence it didn't see as much widespread use as the matchlock and didn't really catch on until the 1600s.

Even though it didn't see as much widespread use as the matchlock, it was the snaplock that influenced the design of other later firing mechanisms, the Spanish lock (miquelet), the snaphaunce lock, the English lock and later, the flintlock. These mechanisms will be discussed in the following articles. Due to the development of these more reliable firing mechanisms, the snaplock was considered obsolete and a peasant's weapon by the 1640s and fell out of fashion in most of Europe, except in Russia.

The Wheel-lock

In some of the previous posts, we've discussed matchlocks in detail. One of the major problems of a matchlock is keeping the slow match lit during damp conditions. Another problem is that it is easy to determine the position of a matchlock man in the dark, since the flame from the slow match gives away his position. This second issue is not a problem for large groups of men, but is a problem for individuals who wish to stay concealed.

It is not surprising then that after the wheel-lock was invented, it was quickly adopted not only by sportsmen and hunters, but also by highwaymen and burglars. The technology behind the wheel lock is similar to cigarette lighters and the clockwork wind-up cars that were common during the 1950s to the 1970s. The wheel-lock was first invented in the Nuremberg area of Germany in 1517.

It consists of a steel wheel A which has a serrated edge and a serpentine arm B. On the end of the serpentine arm is a jaw mechanism. As you can see above, there is an item (marked in dark gray) held between the two jaws and the screw around the jaws is tightened so that the item is held in place. This dark gray item is a small piece of iron pyrite. The serpentine arm itself can be placed in two positions. In the first position, the serpentine is moved so that the iron pyrite piece is not touching the wheel and it is in the "safe" position". When it is ready to use use, the serpentine arm is moved so that the iron pyrite piece touches the wheel A and the arm is held in place under spring pressure. The wheel itself is attached to a round mainspring (like the kind used in old wind-up clocks and watches), which is wound tightly using a key. When the trigger is pulled, the wheel is released and spins round and sparks fly from the iron pyrite piece (similar to a modern cigarette lighter). Some sparks will fly on to the pan that is just under the pyrite piece and light the priming gunpowder in there. There is a tiny hole in the pan that leads to the main charge of gunpowder in the weapon's barrel. If all goes well, the gunpowder in the pan burns and the flame travels through the hole in the pan and ignites the main gunpowder charge in the barrel, thereby discharging the weapon. If all does not go well, only the gunpowder in the pan burns and therefore you get the classic "flash-in-the-pan" i.e. a spectacular start, but no results.

To make sure that the priming powder does not get wet in the rain, the trigger mechanism is also sometimes attached to the pan cover. In some models, pulling the trigger does two things simultaneously:
  1. Release the wheel so that the unwinding mainspring will rotate it.
  2. Slide open the pan cover so that the gunpowder (priming powder) is exposed.
This mechanism has quite a few advantages over the old matchlock:
  1. It isn't affected by the weather.
  2. With a matchlock, the user to keep paying attention to the match to make sure it is lit. This is not needed with a wheel-lock
  3. There is less danger of igniting a neighbour's powder supply by accident.
  4. One can leave a loaded wheel-lock pistol wound up and ready to use at a moment's notice.
On the other hand, constructing a wheel-lock requires knowledge in metallurgical techniques such as the ability to make a spring that can be wound up and clock-making technologies in general. So it is no surprise to discover that Nuremberg was also a big clock-making center around the time the wheel-lock was invented (some people even credit a Nuremberg watch maker by the name of Peter Henlein with inventing the first mechanically driven pocket watch).

In the 1500s, clock-making technology was strictly guarded by certain guilds and thus, wheel-locks mechanisms were more expensive to manufacture than matchlocks. There was also the problem of somewhat unreliable springs in early models, but this problem was quickly solved. Maintenance of the parts also required a skilled gun-maker who was familiar with clockwork mechanisms as well.

Due to the cost of manufacturing, wheel-locks were not as widespread as matchlocks. However it was more convenient to use on horseback and also by rich hunters. Soldiers who were in charge of guarding the gunpowder also preferred wheel-locks, since it didn't have a lit fire source unlike the matchlock. Thus there wasn't a danger of lighting the gunpowder supply by accident.

Robbers and highwaymen also quickly adopted it because it allowed one to carry a concealed weapon. It was also popular with assassins for the same reason and thus it was banned by several European city-states and throughout the Holy Roman Empire. By 1532, the Nuremberg city council complained that although law-abiding citizens were not allowed to own wheel-lock handguns, highwaymen and robbers all carried them, so that the law was unenforceable.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Matchlock Technology: The Caliver

The caliver or the culiver was an improved arquebus (i.e.) a light matchlock weapon. One of its main improvements over the arquebus was that it was built to a standard size, which meant that soldiers could load bullets much easier. With the earlier arquebus, no two of them had the same caliber, which meant that soldiers would either have to deform or cut bullets to fit into their barrels, or they would have to cast bullets individually for their weapons. With the caliver, this step was unnecessary as their barrels were built to a standard diameter or caliber. In fact, the name of the weapon, "caliver", owes its name to "caliber", since these weapons were originally called as "arquebuses of caliber", which is to say, "arquebuses of a specific barrel diameter". This was later shortened and corrupted to "caliver".

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Matchlock Technology: The Arquebus

The Arquebus was a type of firearm that was commonly used between the 14th and 17th century. It was a type of matchlock, the barrel was generally a smoothbore (i.e. it had no rifling) and it was loaded from the muzzle end (i.e. a muzzle-loader). The user was called an Arquebusier or a Harquebusier. The word is derived from Dutch Harkbuss which means a Hook-gun.

The Arquebus was first employed by the Chinese towards the middle of the 14th century and by early 1500, they had spread to Europe and were being used by Hungarian troops. Images of arquebusiers can be found in Rembrandt's famous painting titled The Night Watch.

Most early arquebusiers were usually knowledgeable about the construction of their weapon. Quite a few of them were the actual makers of their own weapons as well. The weapons weren't known for their accuracy, given the smoothbore barrel and primitive sights. A crossbowman or longbowman could fire with greater accuracy and range. However, firing a crossbow or longbow took literally years of practice to become proficient with the weapon, whereas an arquebus could be mastered by anyone in a lot less time. Once people had mastered the art of producing gunpowder and shot, it was easier to mass produce ammunition for an arquebus as well, whereas fletching (the art of making arrows) was still a craft that needed highly skilled labor to produce.

On the other hand, an arquebus was vulnerable to heavy fog and rain, since the user needed to keep his slow match lit. This is a problem with all matchlocks, as the article on matchlocks indicates. There was also a danger that the sparks from one person's arquebus could set fire to the powder supply of the person next to him. Unlike a longbowman, an arquebusier was generally helpless after his shot was fired and his weapon was heavier to carry, so it was not surprising that the bow was considered a superior weapon for many years.

To compensate for the arquebus's weaknesses, some strategies were evolved. For one, an arquebusier was sometimes accompanied by an assistant called a varlet, whose job was to help the arquebusier carry all his gear and keep a fire going. Since reloading took some time, tactics involved placing the arquebusiers in lines of three, so that when one line was done shooting, they could move to the back and reload, while the next two lines fired a volley each. Arquebusiers were also equipped with a sword as a second line of defence, if they couldn't reload in time. In order to compensate for inaccuracies of the weapon, commanders would line up several men next to each other and order them to shoot at the same time, in the hopes that at least some of them would hit the enemy troops.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


In our previous discussion that covered some early portable firearms, we've seen how the early firearms were used by soldiers. To recap, they would hold the weapon with both arms and try to manipulate a lit rope (a slow match) with the tips of their fingers towards a touch hole on the side of the barrel, while still holding the weapon with their hands. Needless to say, the technique was extremely cumbersome and prone to inaccuracy. Hence, one of the first major developments in small arms history was the invention of the matchlock.

As far as firing mechanisms go, the idea of using a trigger to activate a weapon was not a new invention, as they had been used by crossbows in centuries before. So it was only logical that the idea would be borrowed for firearms as well.

Part List:
  • A - Flash pan cover
  • B - Flash pan (with touch hole)
  • C - Serpentine (or cock)
  • D - Trigger
  • E - Slow match (i.e. a lit rope)
  • F - Sear
  • G - Pivot
  • H - Flat spring
  • I - Tumbler link
  • J - Barrel
  • K - Lock plate
The soldier would load the barrel with gunpowder and a bullet. Then, they would pour a little extra powder into a flash pan (part B in the picture). The flash pan has a tiny touch hole leading into the main gunpowder charge inside the barrel. Many rifles featured a cover on top of the flash pan, so that they could keep the powder in the flash pan safe from the elements, until the moment of use. A slow match (E) would be attached to a curved lever called a Serpentine or a Cock (because it resembled a rooster's head in some early weapons). You can see the serpentine labelled as C in the above figure. The trigger D is connected to a sear lever F, which is connected to a tumbler link I. When the trigger is pulled, the serpentine C is pulled towards the flash pan B and lights the gunpowder charge in the flash pan. This in turn burns through the touch hole and ignites the main charge inside the barrel. A flat spring H is used to return the sear lever back to its normal position.

You can see an animation of the mechanism working below (if you cannot see the animation running below, click on the image and it will open into a larger window that shows an animated image):

This was the first real firing mechanism used in small arms. It wasn't always reliable though - many a time, the gunpowder in the flash pan could be blown off or become wet in the rain, or the slow match could go out. As a precaution against the rain, the slow match rope would be lit on both ends, so that if one end went out, it could be re-lit from the other end. Sometimes when the trigger was pulled, the contents of the flash pan would ignite, but it wouldn't burn through the touch hole and therefore fail to ignite the main gunpowder charge inside the barrel. Such a phenomenon was called a flash in the pan. This phrase is still part of the English language and now means "something which starts off initially very bright and showy, but soon fails to deliver anything of value."

  1. It was difficult to use in wet weather because of the problems of the powder in the pan getting damp and the slow match going out in heavy rains.
  2. It was quite dangerous to have around large quantities of gunpowder. For instance, when a group of soldiers were loading their weapons from their powder horns (i.e. a large container that hangs from the waist and carries extra gunpowder), there was always a chance that the open flame from one person's matchlock could set off another person's supply.
  3. Since the slow match was always lit, the glow could give away a person's position at night time. The slow match also had a pretty distinct smell that could let people know that a person carrying a matchlock was nearby.
Nevertheless, matchlock technology stayed alive for a very long time. The Janissary troops of the Ottoman empire were using these weapons in the mid 1400s. By 1526, they were introduced into India by the invasion of Babur, the first Moghul ruler of India. In 1543, a Portuguese vessel was wrecked off Tanegashima island in Japan and some of its crew showed the local Shogun their matchlock weapons, which the Japanese were very quick to clone and use for their own local wars. Well into the 19th century, matchlock weapons were still being used in India, China and Japan. There were even some records of rebels using matchlocks in East Timor well into the 20th century.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Slow Match

Recall that in the last post, we said that soldiers would carry a slow burning rope tied around the waist, so that they could light their crude firearms quickly at any time. This special rope or cord is called a slow match or match cord.

The origin of this term has to do with the Greek word mixa (the word for "lamp wick"), which was adopted by the Romans and became mica, which in turn was borrowed by the French and became meche, which became the English word match. In the late middle ages, match cord was the only way to carry around a quickly available source of fire. In fact, when matchsticks were invented, the term "match stick" itself originated from the fact that it was a replacement for "match cord".

So what is this "match cord" or "slow match" made of? The original match cords were made of hemp or flax fibers. Remember that at this time, cotton was a luxury item in the west and people only knew that it came from a plant somewhere in India. As late as 1350, Sir John Mandeville wrote in his famous book of travels that "There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie." So obviously, cotton was out, and the cheaply available hemp and flax fibers were the materials of choice to make the cord.

So how would they ensure that the cord could burn slowly for a long time without going out? The first step is to treat the cord in lye (Potassium Hydroxide). The reason for this is because unprocessed plant fibers normally contain a lot of lignin, which produces most of the ash when the cord burns. In order to reduce the amount of lignin, the cord would traditionally be soaked in a lye mixture. A lye solution is traditionally produced by taking a barrel, filling it about halfway with ashes left over from burning firewood and filling the rest with water (usually rainwater was used for better quality lye, since it is relatively purer compared to other sources of water). After letting it sit for a few days, the liquid from the barrel is filtered through a cloth filter and this is the lye solution. The rope to be prepared is put in this solution and the whole is boiled for about an hour. The rope is then taken out and rinsed in water until the rope can be placed in a pan of water without discoloring it. This means all the extra lye has been washed out of the rope. As an additional precaution, a little bit of vinegar (acetic acid) would sometimes be used in the final rinse to neutralize any remaining lye.

Next, the rope would be treated with a saltpeter solution. Saltpeter is essentially potassium nitrate (KNO3). Sodium nitrate (NaNO3) was also used sometimes, but potassium nitrate is less hygroscopic (i.e. it doesn't absorb moisture from the atmosphere as much) and thus became the chemical of choice. The traditional way to make saltpeter in Europe during the middle ages (since it wasn't available as mineral deposits as was the case in India and China) was to use urine. The urine was placed in a barrel containing straw and allowed to sit for a few months until it turned "sour". Sometimes manure was used as well. Urine from monks was considered to be of better quality, with the urine of bishops being the best of all. The resultant was then washed with water to extract the chemical salts and filtered through wood ash. The solution could also be crystallized by drying in the sun, if it was desired to use the saltpeter crystals for gunpowder manufacture. In the case of making match cord, the solution was used and the treated rope from the previous step would be soaked in the solution and left for a day or so. Then the cord would be taken out and dried in the sun.

The resulting match cord burns very slowly, but has some resistance against being put out by humid and foggy conditions. A length of match cord would usually be wound a few times around a person's waist and both ends would be lit as a precaution and left to hang from the person's belt. That way, if one end was accidentally put out, it could easily be re-lit using the other end. A soldier could therefore walk around all day carrying his crude firearm and always have a source of fire ready to be used at short notice.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Early Portable Firearms

The earliest portable firearms were due to development of the small cannon. The earliest known firearms were pyrotechnical and were used to frighten and stampede enemy horses. These were common in China and later spread from North Africa to Southern Europe.
It consists of a hollow iron tube A, roughly about 5-6 feet long. To one end of this tube is attached a wooden handle B. The entire metal tube A and part of B are tightly bound by hemp rope, hide sinews, horse hair etc. The right end of tube A is completely sealed off. It is then filled first with a few inches of coarse gunpowder, then a bullet made of glass, wax, steel filings etc. is added, then another few inches of gunpowder, then another bullet etc. The alternating layers of gunpowder and bullets are added until the tube is completely filled. The sides are filled with a finer gunpowder. At the muzzle end (the left end) of tube A, a thin rope fuse is added.
The weapon is then pointed at the target, using the handle B and the rope fuse is lit. The weapon will then burn a bit of gunpowder and discharge the first bullet. It will continue burning a bit more and then discharge the second bullet and so on. The weapon will continue to discharge bullets as long as there is gunpowder left in the tube and the gunner simply keeps the weapon pointed at the target. Since the bullets are made of wax and flammable materials, this weapon discharges flaming balls of fire and hot metal.

Weapons like the one above were the first portable firearms. The only advantage of this type of weapon is portability. It certainly had a number of disadvantages: it lacked accuracy, it could not be stopped once it was lit, no control of when the next bullet would be discharged, good chance of the weapon exploding due to too much pressure etc. The disadvantages of this weapon meant that it could only be used to scare masses of foot soldiers, cavalry etc.

The next development came from the French and Italians. It consisted of a small cannon called a bombarde, which was attached to a straight piece of wood. The wooden stock was curved on the bottom surface so that it could be supported on the shoulder.

To fire the weapon, the soldier would place the stock on their shoulder and use both arms to support the weapon. The soldier would also use one of his hands to light the fuse in the middle of the weapon.

A modification of this basic weapon made it suitable to be used on horseback as well. Instead of being attached to a piece of wood, a long iron rod was welded to the back of the bombarde. The other end of the iron rod ended in a ring and a rope was passed through the ring and suspended around the neck of the horseman. The front end of the bombarde was supported by a Y-shaped rest which was projecting from the front of the saddle. The horseman would carry a slow burning rope tied around his waist. To fire the weapon, the horseman would use his left hand (as shown in the illustration above) to point the weapon to the target and use the right hand to take the end of the slow burning rope and light the cannon. Such a weapon was called a petronel and was the grandfather of the modern pistol and carbine.

A better picture of these weapons is shown below, courtesy a public domain image from wikipedia:

Historical Precedence

Since time immemorial, Man has always sought to kill from a distance, whether for hunting or for warfare. Studies of our ancestors from the period of Neanderthals and Cro-magnons have shown that they had knowledge of throwing spears, atlatls, slings and bow/arrows. Even monkeys have been known to assail people by throwing sticks, fruits, dung etc.

It is surprising then that in some early societies, weapons that kill at a distance (e.g. bows and arrows, slings etc.) were not considered weapons of the warrior. The Macedonians under Alexander the Great fought in phalanxes of foot soldiers and the Roman legions used the short sword and shield effectively. Ancient vikings preferred the axe and the mace for war, even though they used bows and arrows for hunting regularly.

On the other hand, in some other parts of the world, the bow and arrow were considered legitimate to use in war. The Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both mention the deeds and exploits of several legendary archers. Native American history is also full of stories of warriors using bows and arrows.


The invention of gunpowder in China happened around 800 AD or so. Deposits of saltpeter, which is one of the components of gunpowder, have been known to occur naturally in parts of India and China. The Chinese were certainly aware of the use of saltpeter for medicinal purposes and it is theorized that around 800 AD or so, some unknown alchemist had managed to combine sulphur, saltpeter, petrochemicals and honey, to produce a substance that burned violently. The Chinese were very quick to use gunpowder to wage war. Initially, gunpowder was used to produce rockets, bombs, flamethrowers etc., but around 1100 AD or so, it started to be used to launch projectiles at the enemy and thus the primitive firearm was born. The knowledge of gunpowder and firearms spread from China to Europe via the Arabs, via Spain and Greece and then spread northwards. By 1267 AD, Roger Bacon had written his Opus Majus which contained a formula for manufacturing gunpowder. Firearms technology was introduced to India by Muslim invaders from central Asia and the technology rapidly spread southwards into other kingdoms in India

In England, gunpowder manufacture didn't seem to happen until the 14th century. Until then, even though gunpowder was being used in war, the ingredients to manufacture it were purchased from outside. Records show that royal presents from that period often included a barrel of gunpowder. According to extant records, the first industrial manufacture of gunpowder in England started in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the first mills were opened in Kent and the right of manufacture was granted to a family by the name of Evelyn.


Welcome to the Firearms History, Technology and Development blog. In this blog, we will trace the history of firearms development over the years, advances in technologies and the world wide development and spread of firearms technology.