1260 - Gun powder formula developed

Though China is known to have invented fireworks, a precursor to gunpowder, Roger Bacon is credited for being the first to document the formula for modern gunpowder. A Franciscan Friar of Ilchester, Bacon documented the invention of gunpowder by hiding it in anagrams. Years later, he began referring to it openly as "the powder." He describe gunpowder as being "wrapped in parchment and ignited to give a blinding flash and stunning noise". It consisted of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur mixed in a 7:5:5 ration.

1300-1335 - Development of the firelock

Firelock firearms were the first firearms. Its crude design consisted of a tube of iron loaded with powder and was fired through the insertion of a heated wire.

1411 - Development of the matchlock

Matchlocks were similar in form to firelocks, but they consisted of a Z-shaped piece of metal, called a serpentine, which was attached to the side of the firearm that was pulled up to fire. Here's a picture of a german matchlock gun.

How It Works

"The contemporary crossbow used a similar Z-shaped catch to retain the bowstring and release it, and this was adapted to become the 'match lock.' In the first models the stock of the gun was slotted to allow the serpentine to pass through, and a pivot held it in place. The section above the stock held the match, while the section below acted as the trigger, being pulled back to bring the match to the vent. In a very short time the gunsmiths simplified construction by placing the vent in the side of the gun and surrounding its outer end with a 'pan', a saucer-like depression into which the priming powder was placed. This allowed the serpentine to be attached to the side of the stock, doing away with the need to cut slots in the woodwork. Then the whole affair, serpentine and pan, became a self-contained unit 'lock', attached to the 'lock plate', which was in turn attached to the side of the weapon." --- (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Firearms)

circa 1500's - Invention of rifling

"Rifling" is the term for the spiraling grooves cut along the inside (the bore) of a rifle. The spiral grooves cause the bullets to be fired with a spinning motion, greatly increasing the accuracy and distance of the rifle. Before rifling was invented, smooth-bore firearms (bores did not have rifling) were very inaccurate over even short distances, often being unable to hit a target from over 100 yards.

1515 - Development of the wheel lock

An improvement on the matchlock, the wheel lock consists of a spring-driven wheel that produces a spark which is set in motion by pulling the trigger. It was too expensive for mainstream use at the time, so the matchlock remained in use.

How It Works

"The wheel-lock mechanism is perpetuated in the cigarette lighter of today, a serrated wheel which is revolved rapidly in contact with a pyrophoric stone so that burning particles are thrown off. In the cigarette lighter the sparks strike a wick or a stream of gas; in the gun they were directed into the pan where they ignited the priming. When ready to fire the 'cock' was thrown forward; this was a hinged arm carrying a piece of iron pyrites in a jaw, so that the pyrites was held firmly against the wheel surface alongside the powder-charged pan. the wheel-lock was more expensive than the matchlock, and for this reason it was not widely adopted as a military arm. Instead, it became the preferred system for sporting and privately owned weapons, and the lock makers and gunsmiths were able to lavish their artistic talent upon wheel locks. As a result some of the finest specimens of decorated weapons are from the wheel-lock period." --- (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the worlds Firearms)

Mid 1500's - Muskets and the Snaphaunce

Muskets, derived from the Spanish mosquete, was a heavy, muzzle-loading, shoulder firearm. The musket used the Snaphaunce mechanism.

How It Works

"The basic mechanism of the Snaphaunce was that of a spring-loaded arm, the 'cock', which carried a shaped piece of flint in jaws at its outer end. The pan was now covered by a steel 'frizzen', an arm which was hinged ahead of the pan and which had an upturned and concave face at its free en. The relative positions of cock and frizzen were so arranged that when the cock fell forward, under the impetus of its spring, the flint was driven hard across the covered face of the frizzen so as to strike sparks. At the same time, curved face of the frizzen and its pivot point led to complex interplay of forces in which the impact of the cock caused the frizzen arm to fly up so as to allow the struck sparks to pass into the pan and ignite the priming." --- (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the worlds Firearms)

The origin of the name "snaphaunce" is somewhat unknown. One speculated origin is from the Dutch phrase "snap Haens", which means "hen thief". It seems poachers used this type of lock for their captured. Others say it's derived from the German word "Schnapphahn" or "snapping hammer".

1640-60 - Development of the flintlock

The quality of the snaphaunce lock was received so well, that it became popular in Europe and eventually reached the French where they took the best aspects of the gun and brought them together to create the flintlock.

How It Works

"The flintlock musket, a smooth-bore weapon loaded from the muzzle, fired a spherical bullet of lead that propelled by a charge of gunpowder. Firing was effected by a trigger that released a spring loading flint to strike a steel surface and caused a spark to ignite the priming gunpowder in a pan over the touch hole." (Firepower)

The flintlock prospered especially in military firearms. The mechanism was relatively simple, strong, reliable, and inexpensive. It eliminated the danger of carrying burning slowmatch. The majority of early colonial American firearms were modeled after European weapons, particularly the flintlock shoulder and handguns. Muskets were copied of the Charleville (Ardennes), a famed French rifle.

1704-1776 - Development of the breech-loading rifle

In 1704, a Frenchman named LaChaumette designed the first breech-loading mechanism. He had little success in getting his design issued to the French military. In 1721, LaChaumette fled to England, escaping religious persecution. Soon, he would obtain British patents for his technology and made models for King George I.

About fifty years later, a man named Patrick Ferguson took a serious interest in LaChaumette's invention. He made many substantial improvements on the design, and it resulted in the creation of the most advanced military rifle of the 18th century. One of the improvements Ferguson made was modifying the design of the breechblock. He designed it so that it formed a flat breech face at the rear of the barrel of the rifle when the breech was closed. This minimized the build of fouling on the mechanism which could cause misfires and other dangerous accidents. Another modification by Ferguson was the design of the screw threads and providing recesses at certain areas of the breech plug. Fouling would accumulate in these recesses instead of on the screw threads, which would lead to the mechanism to malfunction.

British military authorites doubted the effectiveness of Ferguson's design. On April 27, 1776, Ferguson demonstrated the effectiveness of his rifle. At a range of 200 yards in hard wind and rain (all of which are conditions that made the current military standard-issue rifles extremely inaccurate if not unusable), he continously fired at targets while both standing and moving all at a steady rate of four shots per minute, a rate of fire unheard of at the time. Impressed by the demonstration, the British military ordered 100 rifles to be produced under the supervision on Ferguson. The following year, Ferguson was given command over 100 riflemen in the special Light Company regiment to test the rifles in actual combat in the American Revolution. On September 11, 1777, the first real test of the Ferguson rifle turned out to be its last. Ferguson was shot in the right arm and wounded, rendering him incapable of leading the regiment which dispersed after the battle and all survivors returned to their former regiments. The rifles in use were taken away and seemingly disappeared, with only a rare few surviving to modern day even though other similar rifles were manufactured by the East India Company for private buyers.

Ferguson remained in the British military after recovering, becoming an Inspector General in Georgia and the Carolinas. Ironically, Ferguson met his end in 1780 at the Battle of King's Mountain, where he was killed by American sharpshooters armed with flintlock rifles, the rifle his invention was designed to replace.

1807 - Development of the percussion-ignition system

"The smoothbore musket rapidly gave way to the rifled barrel once it had been introduced, for its accuracy was far superior. So, too, did the flint give way to the percussion cap." --- (Musket to M14)

The percussion-ignition system was an important invention in the history of firearms. Before then, the most advance firing mechanism in firearms was the flintlock. The main problem for the flintlock and its predecessors was that they had a slow discharge. Reverend Alexander Forsyth of Belhelvie, an expert in chemistry, mechanics, and sharpshooting, began work to develop a firing mechanism capable of instantaneous discharge. In 1800, a scientist named Edward Howard of the Royal Society discovered fulmate of mercury, a substance capable of a violent explosion if struck. Using his findings, Forsyth began experimentation with explosive powders. In 1807, he patented an ignition mechanism, which relied on a detonating powder consisting mainly of potassium chlorate.

How It Works

"The percussion cap settled down to a very simple pattern, that of a top hat of copper with a small coating of detonating powder inside the crown, secured there by a coat of varnish which also served to waterproof it. The gun vent now ended in an upturned 'nipple' with a central hole, upon which the cap was placed, open end down. The hammer fell, crushing the cap against the edges of the nipple and thus firing the detonating powder so as to send a powerful flash down the vent." (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Firearms)

Another important feature of the percussion-ignition system was its ease of modifying current flintlock rifles. This was very important for the military, since upgrading from flintlock rifles to percussion-ignition systems was as simple as removing the flintlock and replacing it with a percussion lock.

1835 - The First Revolver

An Englishman named Sam Colt developed the first revolver, using the percussion-ignition system. He patented it in England in 1835, and later patented it in the United States in 1836. Colt's revolver had an 'open frame' design, which meant that the butt frame (consisting of the hammer and the cylinder), was separate from the barrel, which connected to the front of the frame by a removable key. Reloading the revolver involved taking apart the gun, until later when Colt developed a lever-rammer which allowed the chambers to be reloaded without taking it apart.
There was another man of notable mention named Robert Adams. He was Colt's competitor in revolver development. Colt, however, won the contracts with the British Army and Navy. Later, a man named Lieutenant Beaumont improved Adams' revolver design, which allowed the wielder to choose between single-action or self-cocking action. This improvement allowed the Adams revolver to replace the Colt in the British military.

1862 - Invention of the Gatling Gun

The first advance in firearms toward repeating firearms was the Gatling gun. It was designed by Dr. Richard J. Gatling in 1862. These weapons consisted of six barrels mounted arounda center shaft, which rotated like a revolver by a hand crank. The Gatling Gun was capable of shooting up to 600 rounds per minute. The Gatling gun was used little during the Civil War, but it saw more action in the Spanish-American War.
Many improvements came later for the Gatling gun. Later models had as many as ten barrels. It was adopted by the U.S. Navy, where the Gatling gun was coated with brass to prevent corrosion from the salty sea air. Some had shorter barrels so they could be carried by hand or even mounted on camels. The Gatling gun saw worldwide use, often winning a battle in a matter of seconds once it was set up.

1884 - Invention of the Modern Machine Gun

Recoil is the effect during the firing of a gun from the force of the pressure of the gas inside the barrel resulting from the explosion of the gunpowder. Hiram Maxim came up with the idea that a gun's recoil could be used as energy to fire the gun, in essence making a gun virtually self-propelled. He then developed a gun able to coninuously fire powered by the force of its own recoil, feeding itself cartridges from a belt of cartridges made of a cloth belt with loops to hold the rounds. The machine gun mechanism was very powerful, producing a lot of heat. The original machine guns were air-cooled, but a water-cooling system soon replaced it.

"A machine gun firing at 1000 rounds a minute generates about 200 horsepower. The Maxim gun would begin to boil the water in the jacket after about two minutes sustained firing." (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Firearms)

A man named John M. Browning used Maxim's firing mechanism to create the famous Colt-Browning .30 caliber machine gun. Introduced in 1895, the water-cooled machine gun became a standard, lasting for many years in the military services.

Here is a picture of a tripod-mounted machine gun.