You may have found yourself daydreaming about history's greatest guns. Maybe you are curious about when were guns invented in the first place.
From then on, guns developed rapidly.
Think about it:
We started with a handheld cannon in China, and within a century cannons were battering down fortified city walls in Europe.
Only a few centuries after that we had massed infantry shouldering deadly muskets.
And then along came several key innovations that changed things forever. The breach-loading rifle. The revolver.
But more importantly, the machine gun.
No doubt about it, few tools have had an impact on human history like the gun.
And what do guns say about the societies who create them? The Chinese may have invented the first gun, but it was Europeans who took it to new heights.
The British and French proved very deft at introducing firearms, but then the Germans, Americans, and Russians took guns to a level never seen before.
No doubt about it, the invention of the gun changed things.
The World Before Guns
Before guns came along, weaponry was relatively unchanged.
War was expensive.
Archers and knights took a lifetime to train.
All that armor and all those swords and arrows had to be produced by hand. That meant experienced smiths.
There weren't many of those.
A King would have to consider the costs of war very carefully. Losing his archers or horsemen in a foolish battle could be devastating to the Kingdom.
There were a few exceptions:
Rome, of course, could field massive armies and lose entire legions without blinking. The Persians were the same.
Those are rarities in history.
Most kingdoms couldn't afford a single battle, let alone a war.
Fast forward to the year 1288.
More American civilians own a gun than the entire Russian Army.
When Were Guns Invented?
It's a familiar story and it usually goes something like this:
The Chinese invented black powder for fireworks, and the Europeans took the powder and learned to make guns.
Wait a minute.
We can thank the Chinese for making the first guns.
In 1970, archeologists in China uncovered a hand cannon from the year 1288.
It's basically a metal tube that could be held in the hand. A ball and powder get rammed down and then a flaming wick pulled into the powder.
No doubt about it, this is the first recorded gun in history.
But that's just part of the story:
Europeans got hold of the idea via merchants and immediately saw the potential.
Since the fall of Rome, Europe had been divided into dozens of warring, jealous, petty kingdoms.
And where Rome had brought a central government, philosophy, commerce, and rule of law, Europe left on its own was stuck in a dark age.
"I love shooting guns! Not at animals or people, but I love shooting blanks!"
- Molly Q
The first real guns
As it turns out, Italians were some of the most adventurous traders of the medieval ages.
Merchants like Marco Polo traveled to the ends of the world, including China, in search of new trade. And they brought back not only tales of dazzling Mongolian conquests, but new technologies as well.
Like the gun.
Italian city-states armed the first militias with rudimentary guns.
Suddenly they had a cheap way to go to war. Serfs cost nothing and could be trained to fire a gun in a few weeks.
And there was a bonus:
Guns were also cheap to make.
The technology spread quickly across Europe.
These are just a few of the earliest guns which proliferated through Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries:
But you know what else?
By the time Spanish conquistadors landed in North America, they were fully armed with powerful guns and cannons.
Yet the gun had only been in Europe for a hundred years or so.
92-percent of the world's nations have gun control laws on the books.
The Most Influential Guns In History
You'd have to say that guns changed all of Europe. Suddenly the Church lost its grip.
The Enlightenment happened. The Kingdoms set sail armed with cannons and conquered new lands. New empires were born.
All thanks to a little Chinese hand cannon.
Since then, guns evolved rapidly. Most of the evolution was military.
And guess what?
It still is.
But some guns get made for peace. The shotgun was created for pheasant hunting.
And while the bolt-action rifle began as a military weapon, today it is the most popular form of a hunting rifle in the world.
Originally it was a toy, then became synonymous with policing the wild American west.
It all boils down to this:
Every major leap in gun design changes the world around it.
As it turns out, those early matchlock muskets gave way to the smoothbore flintlock muskets of colonial-era America.
We're talking about the French Charville musket and the British "Brown Bess".
These were smoothbore guns firing a 0.69 caliber ball. Compared to Spanish arquebus' they look positively modern.
The minie ball changed things. Suddenly muskets could deliver a high-caliber round from nearly a mile away, and with good accuracy.
The American Civil War showed what kind of carnage that could cause.
You see, the entire world watched the American Civil War. It was the bloodiest war in history until then. But more specifically, Europeans were looking at the weaponry.
Designs came fast and furious. The repeating rifle. The Gatling gun.
And the bolt-action rifle.
Let's take a look:
The Gatling Gun
Did you ever wonder why Civil War regiments lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and blasted away at one another? I mean, that seems suicidal.
The answer is simple:
It's all about concentrating firepower.
You see, those took a lot of time to load.
- Bite open pouch
- Pour powder down barrel
- Drop minie ball in barrel
- Ram it all down with a ramrod
- Attach a percussion cap to the primer
- Do it all over again
Well trained infantry could fire three rounds a minute.
They needed entire regiments simply to put down the same firepower that one soldier can put down today.
The way he saw it, if his gun could end the war quickly, the killing could finally stop.
Unfortunately, the Union wasn't interested in his design until late in the war, when 13 were used at the siege of Petersburg.
After the war, the U.S. Army finally bought the design. They called it the Gatling Gun.
The grandaddy of the machine gun was finally in service.
The Colt Peacemaker
We all love the image of the frontier cowboy and his Colt Peacemaker. Colorful characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid come to mind.
Check this out:
A great American inventor, Samuel Colt, patented the first real revolver in 1836.
But it wasn't until 1847 that Sam Walker (of Texas Rangers fame) bought 1,000 of them.
The Colt Revolver was on everyone's mind.
But there were design flaws that needed improving.
For instance, you had to pour the powder into each cylinder separately and then add a cap on the end. Also, it took three or four actions to fire.
Along came Smith & Wesson, two entrepreneurs, who created the modern bullet we all know. Suddenly there was the proper cartridge for the proper gun.
But that's not all:
By the time the Civil War broke out, officers and cavalry on both sides were using modern revolvers.
After the war, Colt took all the previous improvements to design and created what would go down as the colt peacemaker single greatest revolver in history.
The Colt Peacemaker.
Aptly called "the gun that settled the west," the Colt Peacemaker was accurate, powerful, and easy to carry.
The U.S. Army bought it and it was in service until the 1930s!
The shootout at the OK Corral with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday only lasted 30 seconds and didn't take place at the OK Corral.
French Model 1886 Lebel Rifle
This is interesting:
The French Model 1886 "Lebel" rifle took the concept of smokeless cartridges and bolt-action rapid fire and packed it all into one hard-hitting infantry weapon.
French designers created the first true bolt-action rifles just after the Civil War ended, in 1869. But the technology didn't see action until the Great Sioux War of 1876.
You see, that's when Winchester sold their Hotchkiss Model Carbines to the U.S. Cavalry. The British created the Henry-Martini while the French had the Fusil Gras.
All of these bolt-action rifles had several problems:
- They used smokey black powder in their cartridges
- Each round had to be manually loaded into the breach
Then the French Lebel released in 1886 and changed guns forever.
You see, the French created a spring-loading clip that could carry five rounds and loaded the next road with a pull of the bolt.
You get the picture.
More importantly, they created smokeless gunpowder.
General Tramond and Colonel Nicolas Lebel led a government-run project to create a new gun for the modernized French Army.
The Model 1886 "Lebel" rifle was it.
Every gun created since uses smokeless gunpowder, and most military weapons have used spring-loading magazines.
As it turns out, the story of guns takes yet another turn in 1898.
That's when Germany puts out the Mauser K98k bolt-action rifle, often called the best bolt-action rifle ever made.
The Mauser would become the standard infantry rifle of the German army in both World Wars.
Today it's still used as a hunting and sniper rifle by people around the world. In fact, every bolt-action rifle since has been modeled on the Mauser's basic design.
The ubiquitous rifle got its start when the Mauser brothers, Paul and Wilhelm, fell in love with the Winchester bolt-action rifle and wanted to improve upon it.
They spent the 1870's trying to sell their designs to the French and Prussian governments, but nobody seemed interested.
But then things changed:
With Germany unified into a single state, and a new Kaiser and a new Imperial German Army looking for modern weaponry, the brothers' design gained new traction.
Although Wilhelm had passed away, Paul finished their design and signed a contract with the German government in 1898.
The Mauser was born.
So what makes the Mauser so special?
The gun fires a 7.92 millimeter smokeless round with high muzzle velocity.
More uniquely, it featured a locking lug at the back of the bolt, and a second tangent sight right in front of the chamber.
In short, German infantry could now rapid-fire a rifle with deadly accuracy.
The weapon saw action in South Africa against the British, but more importantly, proved rugged and able in the awful conditions of the First and Second World Wars.
German infantry loved their Mausers. They never let them down.
The Maxim machine gun
Next, the machine gun shocked the world.
The machine gun changed everything, from the way governments use foreign policy to the way police keep order.
But mostly, it changed the way wars are fought.
Here's how it happened:
American inventor Hiram Maxim was trying to get rich. His fiddling with telephones and electrical wires in the late 19th Century was getting him nowhere.
One day his friend told him "If you really want to get rich, just create something that will allow Europeans to kill each other faster."
All joking aside, within three years Hiram Maxim had the first working prototype.
The gun featured the first recoil-operating system. It used the energy produced by the firing of a bullet to push the bolt back, eject the shell, and chamber the next round.
It was fed by a leather belt filled with bullets, and fired 600 rounds a minute.
The operator only had to hold down the trigger.
The world dubbed it the " Maxim machine gun."
Both England and Germany scrambled to buy it. Maxim sold to both.
They were used extensively in the Boer War in South Africa, on both sides. But it was during the First World War that the true horror of the weapon came to light.
No longer could infantry advance across open ground. Maxims mowed them down by the thousands.
Today automatic weapons are taken for granted.
But they all exist thanks to the Maxim machine gun.
Think of a modern semi-auto pistol. Chances are, you're thinking of something that looks a lot like the Colt M1911.
1911 is when Colt radically changed the way pistols worked.
Until then, they were revolvers. After that, they were semi-automatic with magazine clips in the handle.
But guess what?
More than 100 years later and the Colt M1911 is still in service. It's still sold at gun stores.
It's the most successful handgun in history.
But let's rewind a moment:
The famous M1911 is a direct result of the bloody guerrilla war in the Philippines.
The Spanish-American war ended, but Filipinos refused to accept American occupation and fought a war that resembles the Vietnam War a century later.
The U.S. Marines in the Philippines didn't have a good close-quarter weapon that worked in tropical conditions.
Every semi-automatic pistol since is based on Browning's design.
Enter John Browning. He set out to change that.
Although the war was over when he released the first prototype in 1906, the U.S. government showed interest, and Browning forged ahead.
In 1911 the ubiquitous semi-automatic handgun was finished.
It went into action with the punitive raids against Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916.
Then the U.S. entered the First World War, and the M1911 showed it could hold its own in the mud and hell of that war.
Pablo Picasso used to carry around an M1911 loaded with blanks, which he would fire at people whom he found dull.
M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
There's no doubt about it: John Browning is the father of modern weapons.
He was the Steve Jobs of guns.
Browning gave us the M1911 pistol, the automatic shotgun, and the B.A.R. The M1918 B.A.R. followed on the heels of the M1911 in providing revolutionary ways to use firepower.
The B.A.R. saw service in the closing months of the First World War.
It would also be used by American police forces during the Great Depression era.
And it became the mainstay of the military in the Second World War.
The gun was revolutionary in the stalemate of the First World War in that it providede gun with the lightweight mobility of a rifle.
Browning saw a gap in armaments at the time. Infantry slogged forward in No Man's Land through hails of machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire.
Once the survivors had captured an enemy position, strong counter-attacks were sure to follow. They only had bolt-action rifles to fend them off.
The B.A.R. gave them the ability to pin down enemy strongpoints and fend off counter-attacks. It revolutionized the war.
But then more changes came:
In World War II every infantry squad was organized around the guy carrying the B.A.R.
Communist forces in the Korean War had nothing that could match it, and it stayed in service right through the Vietnam War.
The B.A.R. is the predecessor of today's assault rifle.
In fact, one could say it is the world's first assault rifle, although it wasn't recognized as such at the time.
"I have a love interest in every film -- with a gun."
- Arnold Swarzenegger
The Tommy Gun
Were you waiting for this one?
Any lover of Dick Tracy or 1920's-era gangster movies will appreciate the iconic Thompson .45 submachine gun.
That big round drum of ammo and the forward hand grip make it unique in firearms history.
But while Al Capone spraying the streets of Chicago with bullets is fascinating on the big screen, the real Tommy Gun had a rocky start.
Check it out:
Brigadier-General Thompson created the gun to help break up the deadlock of trench warfare in World War I.
Like Browning, he recognized the need for mobile firepower.
His design, the iconic Thompson submachine gun, came too late for the war, but it quickly grew in popularity with America's post-war mafias.
In the hands of Prohibition-era gangsters, it earned the nickname "Chicago Typewriter."
It featured a circular 100-round drum magazine and looked good with a trench coat and a fedora.
Isn't the Tommy Gun famous for its use in World War II?
The U.S. Army adopted the Tommy Gun in 1939.
The army version replaced the drum magazine with a 30-round box magazine, making it much easier to carry.
It proved its worth and goes down as the grandfather of all submachine guns that would follow.
Bonny and Clyde killed more people with a Tommy Gun than all of Al Capone's gangsters combined.
Hitler's zipper. The bone saw. The electric machine gun.
Whatever nickname the soldiers who came up against it had, the MG-42 was terrifying.
Simply stated, the MG-42 is the most iconic German weapon of World War II. It was deadly and had such a high rate of fire that it sounded like a zipper or a saw.
Machine guns ever since have taken design cues from it, including it's carrying handle and the barrels that can be easily swapped out.
Best of all (or worst of all, depending on which end of the gun you were facing), it could fire up to 2,000 rounds per minute at a range of over 1,100 yards!
But that's not all:
The MG-42 evolved from the lighter MG-34 machine gun which the Germans started the war with. While the 34 was a decent machine gun, the Wehrmacht wanted something that was easier to produce.
Design teams went to work and came up with the stamped-metal MG-42.
Machine gun design changed forever.
And with such power, they redesigned how infantry units worked. Previously, automatic weapons supported the rifles, laying down fire while the infantry advanced.
Now, the MG-42 became the center of the infantry squad, with the rifles supporting it. An MG-42 moving forward ripped apart anything in front of it.
By now you're starting to realize that America has the lion's share of iconic guns. Of the 14 most influential guns in history, Americans created seven of them.
The M1 Garand is one of those.
So let's get to it:
As America's first semi-automatic battle rifle, it dominated the battlefields of World War II.
While German and Russian armies toyed with semi-automatics, nobody but the USA issued them as their standard infantry gun. All the other countries relied on WW1-era bolt-action rifles.
Also, the M1 has the honor of being the first long-stroke gas-piston firearm, which the AK-47 would copy a decade later.
But first, picture this:
American soldiers in World War II. They're firing round after round from their trusty M1 rifles. When they fire off five rounds, the clip spring ejects from the top with a "ping."
Meet the M1 Garand.
The M1 has a unique history compared to other American firearms. It was intentionally designed by the U.S. government looking to keep its military up to par with other powers.
It was the 1930s and both fascism and communism were on the rise. The liberal democracies of the world were looking weak by comparison.
War was coming.
Canadian John Garand, an engineer working with the Springfield Armory, designed the long stroke gas-piston system to meet the government requirements.
In 1936 the M1 started to deploy to the military.
By the time America entered the war in 1941, every combat arm of the U.S. Armed Forces was equipped with M1s.
What a game changer!
Canadian Warrant Officer Ash Bunch holds the longest confirmed sniper kill when he took out an ISIS terrorist 3,871 yards away
It begins with a Red Army tank driver in the thick of World War II and ends with the most mass-produced weapon in history.
In fact, after the Maxim machine gun, no other gun influenced the world like the AK-47.
It still does:
What sets the AK apart is the smaller-than-normal round it fires. At 7.62 millimeters, the round is lighter and easier to carry, although it lacks the stopping power of many World War II weapons.
What's the catch?
The AK-47 is machine pressed. It uses the same long-stroke gas-piston action as the M1 Garand. But it can fire on full-automatic as well as semi-automatic.
Because it's rugged, simple, and light, anyone can learn to use it in a matter of hours.
And use it they do:
The Viet Cong hid crates full of AKs in the mud and under rivers. When they cracked the case, the weapons came out and were ready to fire.
Today the AK is the main battle rifle of dozens of nations, as well as terrorist groups and freedom fighters.
Even Mozambique features an AK-47 on their flag!
AK was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a tank veteran of the particularly brutal war between Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Nazi Germany.
After the war, the Soviet Design Bureau held a competition to update the Red Army. Kalashnikov's design won in 1947. The gun went into production in 1949.
Since then, the AK has been responsible for more deaths around the world than any other weapon.
It's also a cultural icon, and Mr. Kalashnikov is celebrated as a hero in Russia.
The production team of the film "Lord of War" purchased 1,000 real AK-47s because they were cheaper than the props!
Now we move on to another part of the world.
This is a place where you wouldn't expect one of the most iconic submachine guns to come from. We're talking about Israel.
The Uzi is a high-powered submachine gun that's just a bit larger than a pistol. That's thanks to the design of the telescoping bolt and the magazine which fits into the hand grip.
The Uzi has an incredibly high rate of fire. We're talking more than 600 rounds a minute.
It's a snappy, deadly, and powerful little gun that changed what a machine gun is supposed to look like.
Born in war. With the birth of Israel in 1948, the surrounding Arab nations immediately attacked.
The Israeli Defence Forces used a mix of left-over weapons from World War II but it was quickly apparent that something better was needed.
Major Uziel Gal developed the iconic gun that bears his name.
The Uzi became the standard weapon of Isreal, but it wasn't until President Ronald Reagan was shot by one in 1981 that the world sat up and noticed.
But you know what else?
The Uzi became the weapon of choice for cocaine smugglers and Columbian cartels. It's small and easily hidden, yet great for hit and run shootings.
It's the weapon of choice for law enforcement across North America. It's also the gun of choice for the violent criminals they pursue.
No other gun sums up 21st Century America like the Glock.
Here's what makes the Glock different:
First, it's lightweight. A polymer frame houses an all-steel firing mechanism, but the upper portion of the gun is made from a solid block of steel.
It's extremely pointable.
The solid block of steel means that users can make the Glock an extension of their arms. That alone makes it incredibly accurate.
And with 17 rounds of nine-millimeter ammunition, there's plenty of firepower to use.
Curtain-rod maker who designed the Glock in 1981.
He overheard two Austrian Army officers complaining about the lack of modern handguns in the world, so Gaston Glock set to designing a new one.
Today the venerable Glock is the standard sidearm for the British and Canadian armies, the US Marines and Air Force, and most law enforcement around the world.
And let's not forget millions of responsible gun owners who love this lightweight yet powerful pistol.
Gaston Glock test-fired all of his Glock pistol designs using his left hand, so that he could still use his dominant right hand if the gun exploded.
How These Guns Changed The Nations That Made Them
Ever noticed how when one of your friends gets a new lover, they change?
Or when someone wins a lot of money, they never go back to who they used to be?
The nations that gave us weapons like the Glock, the AK-47, and the Tommy Gun are like that.
Think about it.
Where would Russia be today if it wasn't for the AK-47?
Sure, they might have come up with something else, but most likely they would have needed to buy weapons from another country.
Maybe they would have collapsed earlier.
That means no AKs for the Vietnamese. No AKs for revolutionaries and terrorists around the world.
The entire second half of the 20th Century would have been so different!
That's not how it went down, though.
You know the score.
The AK-47 and all the other guns which changed history also changed the nations they came from.
President Garfield's assassin used a gun he thought would look best in a museum!
The Mauser and the MG-42 changed Germany.
But they did much more than that:
Well, thanks to those two guns, two wars tore the world apart.
Germany ended up divided for forty years.
The German government disbanded and a new democracy put together in 1991.
Thanks to American guns, the nation is one of the most powerful ever seen in history.
No other country has brought so many guns to the world quite like America has.
Here are the facts:
The trope that America loves guns is quite true.
And thanks to the Gatling gun, the Maxim machine gun, the B.A.R, the Tommy Gun, the M1, and the M1911, America was able to win several major conflicts.
The AK-47 isn't the only gun designed by the Russians:
We just don't hear about them because none of them had quite the same impact on the world as the AK.
But the PPsh submachine gun was a veritable portable weapon system. German soldiers would throw their own guns away and pick up a Soviet gun if they found one.
Nevertheless, the AK changed Russian society.
It made them proud.
And it kept Communism alive much longer than its expiry date.
But that's just part of the story...
Like Russia, Israel can thank its very survival partly to a gun.
The Uzi, to be exact.
The Uzi is so ubiquitous that it shares space with the Russian AK-47 as the most mass-produced firearm in the world.
Thanks to the Uzi, Israel managed to survive several brutal invasions.
And more importantly, defeated multiple terrorist attacks.
The Uzi is Isreal.
It's a no brainer.
Lastly, the land that started it all still exists.
China gave us both black powder and the hand cannon to use it in.
But here's the surprise:
Nothing changed for them.
China is so vast, and their culture so deep, so ancient, that only seismic events seem to affect them.
We're talking Mongol invasions or Communist takeovers.
Little hand cannons that change the course of history for the rest of the world?
A bump in the road for the Chinese.
Final Thoughts On The History Of Guns
No matter how you feel about guns, one thing is undeniable:
The invention of the gun drastically changed the world and the course of human civilization. And the history of guns is absolutely fascinating.
There is much to learn about the history of guns, far more than we can cover here.
But try this:
The next time you pick up your gun, whether for hunting or protection or target practice, remember the long history of firearms that have brought us to where we are today.