The First Firearms
Life is full of firsts. In fact, life is full of so many firsts that I could probably spend an entire work day rattling off first after first that I have experienced. Luckily for you, I have no plans to do such. But you will not get away without hearing at least a few.
In continuing my tendency to shove my own personal interests down the throats of our readers, I would like to begin with my first comic book. Unfortunately, the details are a bit hazy. In fact, all I can remember is that my first comic was a "Batman" comic that was purchased from a spinner rack in one of our nation's fine 7-11 convenience stores on one of my many sick days from school.
Like my first comic, my first major league baseball game is a bit cloudy as well. All I can remember is the matchup. The Texas Rangers went up against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. And considering the Rangers played pretty good ball throughout the mid to late 1990s, it is probably safe to assume they claimed victory over a flailing Orioles franchise – one that, save a season or two, has been flailing since Peter Angelos was awarded ownership.
Then there was the first piece of writing for which I was paid. Surprisingly, it was not written for Keepshooting.com, though this is my first full-time paid gig. I was actually paid to write a college acceptance essay for one of my good friends. I guess he figured that since I was accepted into the school, I must have written a pretty okay essay. And since his writing skills were a bit lacking, he offered me a small incentive to pen his essay as well. Ethical? Probably not, but it filled my gas tank. Anyway, it is about time I get to the topic at hand. After all, this blog is designed to entertain old readers and bring in new ones, not drive away the few we have.
It is pretty evident that we here at Keepshooting.com place a great deal of importance in the firearm, firearm accessories and ammunition aspects of our business. As such, I have decided to take some time and scratch the surface of the first firearms. To do such, we must travel across the globe to China. Then, we need only go back about 1,200 years or so. It is in that area, during that time period, that we would witness the birth of gunpowder.
The Development of Gunpowder
You cannot talk about the first firearms without at least a passing mention of the development of gunpowder. After all, no gunpowder probably means no firearms.
Gunpowder is the one chemical explosive that predates all others. In fact, nearly 1,000 years would pass before the invention of other explosive compounds like nitroglycerin and TNT. Anyway, gunpowder, commonly referred to as black powder, is attributed to the Chinese and is believed to have been created sometime during the ninth century.
Gunpowder consists of a chemical mixture of sulfur and charcoal, both of which serve as a form of fuel, and potassium nitrate, commonly referred to as saltpeter, which serves as an oxidizer. Saltpeter, known to the Chinese as early as the first century, was often used in combination with sulfur as a medicinal compound. As such, it is believed that gunpowder was originally developed by Chinese alchemists who were searching for the elixir of life, a legendary compound that confers immortality upon the user. Obviously, they were unsuccessful. They did, however, create a compound that would change the world – and weapons technology – as they knew it.
The Fire Lance: A Predecessor
As noted, gunpowder would go on to have a great impact on weapons technology as the realization of its applications as a propellant soon followed its discovery.
Believed to have originated during the 10th century, Chinese fire lances were the predecessor to our concept of firearms, which is odd considering they resemble nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, fire lances were among the first weapons to use gunpowder. Existing as an extension of the Chinese qiang, or spear, the fire lance traditionally consisted of a bamboo tube that was filled with gunpowder. Upon ignition of the gunpowder, the fire lance would expel a burst of flames at a target. Often, soldiers were believed to have included small projectiles along with the gunpowder.
You have to believe that the usefulness of the marriage between gunpowder and bamboo tubes was integral in inspiring the designs that led to more modern firearms.
The Hand Cannon
Like the Chinese fire lance, hand cannons are one of the earliest recorded types of firearms. You can make the case that it was the earliest form of portable firearm and you can certainly make the case that they were the predecessors to modern handguns. Oh, and you can also thank the Chinese for their development as well.
Simple in design, the hand cannon typically consists of nothing more than a barrel and a handle. Because most lacked any sort of firing mechanism, hand cannons required manual ignition. In order to achieve a blast, gunpowder was loaded through the muzzle, followed by a projectile – often lead. A fuse was placed in a touch hole and lit, resulting in an ignition of the gunpowder and a discharge of the projectile – pretty simple stuff. It was also pretty inaccurate stuff. Aiming was futile, as was the control of any ballistic properties of the projectiles. Regardless, hand cannons had a huge impact on weapons technology.
So where do we look to find the first evidence of hand cannons? Like gunpowder and fire lances, hand cannons are believed to have originated in China – Sichuan to be exact. A sculpture, dated to the 12th century, depicts a soldier carrying a hand cannon as it expels both flames and a cannonball. It was not until the 14th century that hand cannons made their way to Europe.
The crude technology that made hand cannons possible eventually gave way to matchlocks, the arquebus and muskets.
As noted, matchlocks effectively made hand cannons a thing of the past. No longer would manual ignition of gunpowder be required for a discharge. Thanks to the matchlock, recognized as the world's first firing mechanism, shooters could finally focus on aiming their weapons. Also thanks to the matchlock, the world was introduced to the arquebus, one of the first modern firearms and the direct predecessor of the musket.
Dating back to the mid-15th century, the arquebus is a smoothbore, muzzle-loaded firearm that distinguished itself from hand cannons with the presence of a matchlock. The matchlock utilizes a slow match, which is held by an s-shaped lever known as the serpentine. Upon pulling another lever on the underside of the arquebus, think trigger, the serpentine would be manipulated such that it dropped the slow match into a flash pan, which held a priming powder that, when ignited, would travel through a touch hole in order to ignite the main propellant and discharge the projectile. Finally, things are starting to come into focus.
Muskets, Rifles and More…
A short time later, the arquebus would be replaced by muskets, which would, in turn, be replaced by rifles – not quite the rifles we know and love today but rifles none the less. And it was in this way that firearms continued to develop.
Today, there are more firearms than I care to familiarize myself with. And it all goes back to gunpowder and ninth century China.
While we are on the subject, why not check out our extensive selection of firearms. We have many of the top models from the most trusted brands, including Glock, Mossberg and Smith & Wesson. Until next time, keep shooting.