This article is divided into three parts. In the first part we consider the historical background of the development of firearms, in particular the invention of gunpowder and its effect on social structures, particularly in Europe. In the second part we examine the nature of firearms and the categories that relate to their design and use. Finally, in the last part guns in the community and the thorny issue of societal control over possession and use of firearms are addressed.


History of Firearms

At its root, the history of firearms is the history of explosives. Credit for the invention of gunpowder goes to ancient China. Ancient alchemists put minerals and plants together, hoping to make some medicine that would make people immortal. Almost by chance, the alchemists discovered that an explosion would occur if certain kinds of ores and fuel were mixed in the right proportions and heated. Inadvertently, they had laid the foundations, which would lead to the invention of gunpowder.

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In November 2003, Chinese archaeologists discovered a network of caves at the Laojun Mountain in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province, which was identified as a large saltpeter-manufacturing base, believed to have been used to produce gunpowder more  than  1,000  years  ago. According  to  historic records, ancient Chinese found that the mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon was explosive, which led to the invention of gunpowder sometime before the Tang Dynasty (618–907).

In the Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques, edited in 1044 by Zeng Gongliang, three formulas for making gunpowder were recorded, each an explosive mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. These have been identified as the earliest formulas for explosives. The method of powder making was introduced to the Arab world in the 12th century and to Europe in the 14th century. The explosive powder was originally used for making fireworks, but observation that compression of the powder, before ignition, leads to more powerful explosions suggested its use as a mining  and  demolition  tool.  Before  too  long,  the capacity to maim and kill was recognized too.

Invention of Guns

In January 2001, Wang Yulang of Harbin Institute of Social Sciences went to north China’s Heilongjiang province to help catalog a collection of locally gathered artifacts. In the collection, he found a blunderbuss, made of copper. The blunderbuss, 38 centimeters long and weighing 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds), was probably made about 700 years ago, possibly sometime during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). It has been confirmed as being at least 100 years older than the previously designated “oldest firearm,” a similar blunderbuss, which was probably made in about 1332. The newly found weapon has two Chinese characters carved on its barrel: “Shen Fei,” meaning flying magically.

The suggestion is sometimes heard that the Chinese invented gunpowder but only used it for fireworks. The earliest illustration of a cannon dates from China around 1127, close to 150 years before the development of cannons in the West. The Song also used gunpowder to make fire lances—actually flame throwers—and many other gunpowder weapons, such as antipersonnel mines.

Once the genie—knowledge that igniting gun power that had been compressed at the end of a tube would expel a solid body with massive (and often fatal) force—had been let out of the bottle, there was no putting it back. Guns and explosive devices burgeoned.

And that it was great pity, so it was,

This villainous saltpetre should be digg’d Out of the bowels of the harmless earth, Which many a good tall fellow had destroy’d So cowardly; and but for these vile guns,

He would himself have been a soldier.

—William Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Sc.3

According to one academic, Shakespeare’s condemnation of “villainous saltpetre” (I.iii.60) and “vile guns” (I.iii.63) tells us more about contemporary Elizabethan anxieties (Henry IV, Part 1 was written in about 1596) than about the new technologies of war (guns). Before the mid-16th century, gun powder had been imported to England, principally from France; however, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), gunpowder factories had been established in Surrey at Long Ditton and at Godstone in the county of Kent. Although by the early 14th century, there existed rudimentary cannons or “siege engines,” historical documents suggest that the Scots were exposed to cannon fire (cannons were referred to as the “crackeys of war”) in one or more battles during the reign of King Edward III (1327–1377). Nevertheless, the actual practice of warfare at the time of Henry IV (1399–1413) still depended more on the skill of archers and their deployment than upon firearms of any kind.

Despite Shakespeare’s apparent abhorrence of guns and explosives (a view that continues to be shared by many people in countries around the world), it was the invention of gunpowder that brought the Feudal Age to an end. The kings of Europe used cannons, based on Chinese designs, to alter the social structure of Europe. The existence of such powerful armaments enabled kings to destroy the castles of the feudal lords (who challenged the king’s omnipotence). Thus,  the  development  of  centralized  nation-states was able to take place.

The existence of firearms also changed the nature of warfare forever. Although the development of the bow and arrow had removed some of the immediate need for close-quarters combat, most fighting had been undertaken by swordsmen, halberdiers, and assorted foot soldiers. Thus, the art of war before the existence of guns was easy; all the healthy men of a tribe or a nation could be marshaled and sent into the field to fight, at very short notice.

Consequently, the invention of firearms made the art of war more difficult because the process of making a citizen a soldier required a period of training. Thus, instead of every able-bodied man being ordered out to fight, comparatively small (but trained) standing armies came into being.

Gun Development


Before  we  consider  the  way  in  which  firearms have developed, it is essential that we have a definition to work with. First, the expression firearm does not include simple explosive devices, such as bombs, mines, antipersonnel mines, and so on. The problem is, however, that although one may apply the “I’ll know one when I see one” logic to the problem of defining a firearm, most countries in the world have a slightly different legal definition of a firearm, which seriously complicates matters.

For instance, some legal definitions suggest that there is a distinction between a firearm and a gun, although the term gun is often used as a synonym. For example, from a British perspective, the term gun legally refers only to smoothbore firearms, machine guns, and naval artillery, distinguishing it from weapons that are rifled (i.e., have helical [spiral] grooves in the weapon’s barrel [bore] that spin the projectile in flight and impart accuracy.) From such a viewpoint, a rifle is not a gun. By contrast, the American National Rifle Association (NRA) suggests that the British practice of restricting the term in such a way is erroneous. The NRA suggests that the term gun is properly used for rifles, shotguns, handguns, and airguns, as well as cannons. This is an insoluble semantic debate, which will not be pursued further here.

For reasons of semantic precision, we state that use herein of the term firearm does include guns, and offer the following definition based on NRA documents. A firearm is a rifle, shotgun, or handgun that uses gunpowder  as  a  propellant.  The  word  includes machine guns. Airguns are not firearms.

Strictly speaking, in the United States, by federal definition  (under  the  1968  Gun  Control Act),  and in England (by the Firearms Act of 1968), antique weapons are exempt from such legal classification. The exemption is, however, one that relates to ownership and possession. (The word antique has different meanings here, too. In the United Kingdom, it refers to artifacts more than 100 years old kept as a “curiosity or ornament,” whereas in the United States, the expression means firearms manufactured before 1899, a firearm for which ammunition is not generally available, or a firearm incapable of firing fixed ammunition. In the State of South Australia, the expression refers to a weapon that was made before 1900 and that was designed to fire breech-loading cartridges and for which live rounds of ammunition are not commercially manufactured; or a firearm that was not designed to fire loaded cartridges and that is used solely for curiosity, display, or ornamental purposes and not to fire projectiles. The foregoing does not alter the fact that such antique items do fall within the general and broad definition of a firearm provided earlier. In an examination of the development of weaponry, it is to a consideration of such ancient weapons and their evolution that we now move.

Historical Development of Firearms


Early  cannons,  later  to  develop  into  the  class of weapons known as artillery (or ordnance), were excessively dangerous. The weapons were muzzleloaders; that is, they were prepared for firing by inserting gunpowder at the open end of the barrel, compressing it (tamping it down) at the end of the body (the chamber), and then inserting a projectile into the barrel to rest on the powder. A flame or fuse was applied to a small hole (the touch hole) at the rear of the weapon, causing the powder to explode and the projectile to be expelled.

Usually made of iron bars held together with hoops of iron, these early cannons were wider at the mouth than in the body of the barrel and fired stone balls. They had a tendency to explode when fired, and some reports suggest that they were considered so dangerous that convicted prisoners were brought from jail to operate them in times of conflict. By about 1400, cannons were cast from bronze, and the first cast-iron guns were in use by 1461.

The development of cannons was very slow. Sailors under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and soldiers directed by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) used cannons that had barely changed from those described previously: cast-iron muzzle-loaders, firing  balls  surrounded  in  heavy  grease  clouts  (to make them fit the barrel). Each of Nelson’s guns required a crew of at least eight men. When a shot was fired, the gun crew hauled the heavy gun inboard with ropes, swabbed it out, and recharged it.

In 1856, Henry Bessemer (1813–1898) developed a way of mass-producing steel by a process known to this day by his name (the Bessemer process). Steel has a far higher melting point than iron, and as a consequence, it was possible to solve an ordnance problem. Muzzle-loading guns were very energy inefficient. The ball (or shot in hand and shoulder weapons; see later discussion) left the muzzle before the full power of the powder explosion had been used up, and if the charge was too great or poorly compressed, an iron gun tended to melt internally and explode.

Thus, in 1869, staff at the Royal Gun Factory in London designed a large gun with an inner steel tube in place of an iron one. There was a rapid increase in the size of cannons. The first weighed about 35 tons, but that was rapidly followed by cannons weighing about 81 tons and even one that weighed 110 tons.

The change in military capacity brought about by the invention of steel was massive. In Nelson’s time, firing did not begin until ships were within a few hundred yards of one another. However, in World War I (WWI) at the Battle of Jutland (1916), the two sides were  15  miles  apart  when  the  battle  commenced. Later in WWI, the city of Paris was fired on from a distance of more than 60 miles.

Loading and Firing  Mechanisms

Contemporaneously with the development of cannons, smaller weapons were being developed. Muzzleloaders like their bigger brethren, the earliest “hand gonnes” were little more than a small cannon with a similar touch hole for ignition. The user was required to place the barrel of the gun on a stand, bracing it with one hand against his chest. The shooter then used the other hand to touch a lighted match to the touch hole. This gun was notoriously inaccurate (because it was a muzzle-loader, the shot had to be smaller in diameter than the barrel of the gun and thus, when expelled, tended to wobble about in the barrel, making the direction of the discharge very imprecise). Such guns had an effective range of only about 30 to 40 yards.

For many hundreds of years, arrow makers (fletchers) had known that if, when an arrow was made, the fletchings (usually feathers) were set at a slight angle, it caused the arrow to spin when released from the bow and to travel further and be more accurate. It is not surprising therefore that in the development of handheld weapons, rifling was first used in gun barrels during the 15th century. Nevertheless, it was comparatively rare and was not commonly found until the development of steel gun barrels and of ammunition (bullets) that accurately fit the internal dimensions of the barrels.

Generally speaking, improvements in the design of handheld weapons were mostly in connection with ignition systems.

Firing a weapon by touching a match or fuse to a small hole while at the same time holding the gun steady was excessively difficult. In addition, even if the gun could be held steady, there was no guarantee that the powder would ignite.

Although there were intervening designs, including the match lock (about 1400) and the wheel lock (1517), the key improvement was that the touch hole was moved to the side of the gun barrel, and a cup was placed at the opening with a lid on it. The cup (called a flash pan), which had a small cover to prevent the use of the firearm being affected by the weather, held a small amount of gunpowder that could easily be ignited. When the powder began to burn, some of the fire would go through the touch hole and ignite the gunpowder inside the barrel, thereby firing the gun.

Later ignition systems on guns with a flash pan were designed to ignite the gunpowder in the flash pan automatically at the press of a lever or trigger. This was accomplished by either putting the end of a burning wick into the flash pan or using a flint and steel combination to throw sparks into the flash pan (flintlocks, developed in 1612).

In 1805, the development of the percussion cap was a precursor to all modern firearms. The key feature of this ignition process is that it does not use an exposed flash pan. As a replacement for that inefficient system, the weapon is manufactured with a simple tube at the breach end, which leads straight into the gun barrel. An explosive cap (filled with fulminate of mercury, which explodes when struck) is placed on top of the tube. The flames from the exploding chemical go down the tube, into the gun barrel, and ignite the powder inside the barrel, expelling the bullet.

This new percussion cap firing mechanism was a significant development in firearms design, improving the reliability of weapons and enabling ammunition design to develop at a significant pace. The development of the percussion cap was the first stage in the development of rotating-block guns (revolvers; e.g., the Colt .45), which could be practically guaranteed to fire. By the late 1800s, commercial production of such multiple-shot side arms was well underway.

Small  Arms: Handguns, Long  Guns,  and Machine Guns


Handguns are small, potentially concealable weapons, commonly lightweight. Outside the military world, handguns are the usual armament for the police (in those jurisdictions where the police are usually armed) and, again in some jurisdictions, for possession in public by private citizens where an appropriate license or authority is held. Handguns with a fixed firing chamber are pistols. Pistols are sometimes single shot, particularly when used for target practice, but can also be capable of holding multiple rounds. Most pistols that hold multiple rounds are semiautomatic (a semiautomatic pistol reloads the chamber with a new round automatically once the weapon is fired, without additional action by the user; each shot fired requires operation of the trigger mechanism) or are revolvers. There are a small number of fully automatic pistols (e.g., the Glock 18 and the Mauser C96) in which a single depression of the trigger fires multiple rounds. The revolver holds a number of firing chambers in a revolving cylinder, and as with the semiautomatic weapon, each shot fired requires operation of the trigger.

Long Guns

Long guns fall into one of two categories: rifles or shotguns. A rifle has a rifled barrel and fires single bullets. By contrast, most shotguns are smooth bore (i.e., have no rifling) and fire large packets of shot or, alternately, a single slug.

Rifles are manufactured for accuracy and long-range targets and are usually aimed. Shotguns, which have large impact area with a small range, are usually simply pointed at the target.

A short rifle (commonly with rapid fire capability) is usually called a carbine. The carbine is distinguished from the submachine gun (see later) by its type of ammunition. Carbines use rifle rounds, whereas handguns and submachine guns do not.

Machine Guns

A machine gun is typically a small-caliber fully automatic weapon capable of firing bullets in rapid succession. The trigger does not have to be pulled for each round to fire; the weapon fires as long as the trigger is held down.

Machine guns are divided into two classes: light machine guns and heavy machine guns. Each of these types of weapon has a slightly different practical purpose. The former are used for laying down a wide band of continuous fire (known as a cone of fire) in order to suppress enemy activity; the latter are far more accurate, capable of sniping (with rapid fire) over large distances. Weapons known as submachine guns are light machine guns that fire the types of ammunition normally used in pistols.

Guns In The Community And Firearms Control

The issue of the presence of guns in the community and whether or not there should be controls on private ownership is a matter of enormous contention. It is not the purpose of this article to support either gun control or freedom to possess guns philosophies. It is merely to report on the two sides of an argument, common around the world, which are summed up in the viewpoints of two American organizations: the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Handgun Control Inc.

According to the NRA, the following data exist with regard to firearms ownership in the United States:

  • Privately owned firearms in the United States: more than 200 million, including 65 to 70 million handguns. The number  rose  by  52  million  during  the 1990s.  (Source:  Bureau  of  Alcohol,  Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)
  • Gun owners in the United States: 60 to 65 million; 30 to 35 million own handguns
  • American households that have firearms: about 45%

Handgun Control, Inc. simply maintains that these data suggest, particularly when coupled with data on the volume of crime (particularly homicide) in which firearms are used, that the number of weapons in circulation is excessive and requires restriction.

The U.S. Constitution enshrines the people’s right to keep and bear arms in its Second Amendment. It reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

In practice, there are certain restrictions on gun ownership (e.g., on “assault” weapons—a tricky term in its own right), and the laws governing gun use vary considerably from state to state.

Amending the Constitution to prohibit guns is rarely discussed. Many Americans view the right to bear arms as an important civil liberty, but opinion is divided between those who insist on the unfettered right to bear arms and those who advocate stricter controls. However, because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates (2000) that 66% of the 15,517 murders that year were committed with firearms, and because many fatal shootings in recent years involved teenagers, gun control is a source of impassioned debate in U.S. politics.

The core issue is whether or not it is lawful (i.e., constitutional) to impose stricter controls on gun usage.

Proposed gun control legislation has concerned childproof locks, background checks on gun purchasers, the outlawing of some types of assault weapons, and most recently, the creation of a nationwide database of ballistic fingerprints in order to track the movement of the nation’s guns.

The influential firearms lobby, headed by the NRA, believes gun ownership to be a personal and moral right and dismisses the link between gun ownership and high gun violence with its slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Advocates of firearm control argue that the Second Amendment is anachronistic, belonging to the long-gone days of the frontier. They point to the high levels of gun-related murder and violent crime in the United States to stress the need for reform. Handgun Control Inc. retorts that “Guns don’t die; people do.”

The issue of removing the number of guns that are already in circulation is rarely discussed.

The Problem

Various (selected) research reports the following information:

  • Homicide is  the  second  leading  cause  of  death among 15to 24-year-olds overall. In this age group,  it is the leading cause of death for African Americans, the second leading cause of death for Hispanic Americans, and the third leading cause of death for Native Americans.
  • In 1999, 4,998 youths ages 15 to 24 were murdered— an average of 14 per day.
  • Guns are a factor in most youth homicides. In 1999, 81% of homicide victims ages 15 to 24 were killed with firearms.
  • A disproportionately high number of 5to 14-yearolds died from suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm deaths in states and regions where guns were more prevalent.
  • In a study by a Harvard research team, it was stated that across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides.
  • Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Such apparently straightforward research findings are strongly criticized (often with some justification) on the grounds of their apparent bias toward the gun control lobby, generally on the ground of methodologic or statistical impropriety. On the other hand, despite such dispute, there is a limited amount of research offering alternative hypotheses.

The real problem here is that almost without exception, such studies are correlational. Correlational studies describe the observed relationship between instances of two events. A systematic pattern can be seen in the occurrences of events that are correlated. The relationship is expressed in the form of a correlation coefficient (a number between −1 [negative correlation] and +1 [positive correlation]). When the events involve observed frequencies of events, a positive correlation means that as one increases, the other increases as well; a negative correlation means that as one increases, the other decreases. Correlation does not imply causation in any way.

In other words, just because two events are correlated does not mean that one causes another, or has anything to do with the other—correlations deal only with observed instances of events, and any further conclusions cannot be inferred from correlation alone. Most statisticians accept that a strong correlation, however, does often warrant further investigation to determine causation. Many of the studies to be found in this contentious area do show correlations, but where they are quoted (they often are not), they are weak.

One contentious study conducted by Martin Killias of the University of Lausanne compared, using a database of 18 countries, the numbers of households with guns, the overall frequency of homicide, and homicide using a gun. The latter matrix produced a correlation coefficient of 0.56 (statistically significant but not excessively strong), and its identification was a significant factor in the additional restrictions placed on gun ownership in the United Kingdom. However, it is argued by opponents that there is little meaning in the extant correlation between the number of households with guns and homicides with guns because the correlation with “all homicides” is statistically not significant (0.39). This suggests that the total number of homicides is likely to be unaffected by a restriction on guns in the home; therefore, such a ban is viewed as illegitimate.

Generally speaking, the arguments of the opponents to gun control revolve around the idea that the blame for gun homicide lies with the persistence of violence in the United States, and not with ease of access to guns. Violence is seen as being the consequence of poverty (particularly in the poorer Southern states) based on the cycle of government dependency; broken families; the failure of public education; and the cultural disintegration that has allegedly been taking place for decades. The federal government is seen, from such a perspective, as being largely responsible for this state of affairs.

There is a certain irony in the fact that those who advocate the freedom to own (and use) weapons, who are usually defined as conservatives and are seen as being on the right wing of political thought, use the shibboleths of the liberals (left wing) in their explanation of violence and gun-related homicide.


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