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History of the Flintlock

by Sarah Winn

If you write historical fiction that takes place any time between the middle of the 17th to middle of the 19th century, and you plan to make any mention of firearms, you’ll need to know about flintlocks. Here's a summary of what I have learned from my research.

The history of guns is closely associated with the development of gunpowder and gunlocks. The Chinese are generally given credit for inventing gunpowder (black powder) in the 11th century, using it mainly for pyrotechnics. Their knowledge slowly drifted westward. The first written account of gunpowder in Europe appeared in the writings of English monk Francis Bacon in 1242.

The first guns were metal tubes with one end opened and the other closed, and with a small fuse or touch hole bored into the closed end. This hole was packed with either additional powder or a match-fuse to which fire had to be applied in order to detonate the main charge in the tube. It was difficult to hold a weapon in one hand, light the fuse with the other, and aim all at the same time. The varying qualities of early metal and gunpowder also made this a dangerous procedure, so the next step was to develop a mechanical device to light the charge—the lock.

The matchlock first appeared in the mid-1400's. It was a moveable arm to which a match (a chemically prepared wick or cord) was attached. After the match was lit, pulling the trigger would drop the match down to ignite the powder. The user of such a weapon had to have a source of open-fire readily available and could not use the gun in rainy weather.

In the early 1500's the wheel lock was invented. Pulling the trigger in this mechanism caused a metal wheel to turn against a small piece of pyrite. This created a spark that ignited the fuse powder, making it no longer necessary to have open fire handy in order to fire the weapon. The wheel lock was a sophisticated mechanism for the time and therefore expensive and somewhat unreliable. Guns equipped with this lock were used mostly by the wealthy, who usually carried matchlock weapons as a backup.

Flint was first used in the snaphance lock in Holland around 1570. Rather than a spring driven wheel turning against pyrite, this mechanism used a spring-loaded arm (hammer or cock) with jaws that held a shaped piece of flint. In front of the hammer was a small pan adjacent to a vent leading into the barrel. The pan held priming powder and had a cover that prevented the powder from falling out or being ruined by rain. Above the pan was another hinged arm, part of which formed the steel or frizzen. When the frizzen was swung out of the way, the gun could not be fired.

When ready to fire, the frizzen was placed over the pan, the cover of the pan pushed away, and the trigger pulled. The trigger action caused the hammer to fall, strike against the frizzen, and send sparks into the powder pan. This lock was simpler and less expensive to produce than the wheel lock and flint did not crumble like pyrite. I have seen estimates of the number of strikes possible with one piece of flint that ranged from 20 to 50.

The true flintlock was invented about 1610 by a Frenchman, Marin le Bourgeouys, and was originally called the French lock. It differed from the snaphance in that the frizzen and the flash pan cover were in one piece and retained in position by a strong spring. The arm or cock that held the flint was attached to a notched tumbler, which could be locked into place. This gave the flintlock three positions: uncocked, half-cocked, and cocked. In the half-cocked position the tumbler was locked in the first notch of the tumbler, holding the cock upright and freezing the trigger. The gun could be safely loaded while half-cocked. To fully cock the lock, the cock had to be pulled back so the tumbler was caught in the second notch. Pulling the trigger while in this position would release the tumbler, send the cock flying forward to strike the frizzen and create the sparks necessary to ignite the powder. The flint striking against the steel also knocked the cover from the pan to expose the powder there. After firing, the lock was said to be uncocked.

The safety feature of the half-cocked position made the French lock preferable to previous locks, although it must have failed on occasion, hence the cliché about going off half-cocked. Nevertheless flintlocks became the most popular types of locks and were in use for at least two hundred years.

The above dates should not be used as an exact time-line for a particular gunlock coming unto general usage. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary shows that the word "flintlock" did not come into common English usage until 1683. Technology did not spread as quickly then as it does today, and gunsmiths maintained a certain loyalty to the locks developed in their localities. The expense of re-equipping armies also played a role, so if you want to be historically accurate for a particular time and place, you'll have to do more involved research.

But the flintlock eventually became the lock of choice in all types of handheld firearms and even in artillery. It was used extensively in the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. By 1800, every army in Europe was equipped with flintlock muskets. Some of the soldiers in the early days of the American Civil War had flintlocks, especially among the Confederates who were armed with their personal hunting weapons.

During the 1800's, the invention of the percussion cap, breech-loading guns, and metal-jacketed bullets brought about a swift decline in the use of flintlocks, although flintlock equipped rifles continued to be favored by some hunters through most of the century.

For close-up photographs of flintlocks see: How Stuff Works

How to Fire a Flintlock

by Sarah Winn

Whether firing a pistol, musket, rifle or even a flintlock-equipped cannon, the following steps had to be accomplished:

  1. Half-cock the hammer.
  2. Pour a measure of gunpowder down the barrel.*
  3. Wrap a lead ball (the bullet) in a piece of cloth or paper and ram it down the barrel on top of the gunpowder with a ramrod.**
  4. Remove the ramrod from the barrel.***
  5. Place a small amount of gunpowder in the flintlock's pan. Sometimes a finer grade of gunpowder was used in the pan to insure an even and quick burn.
  6. Snap the frizzen in place over the pan.
  7. Pull the hammer back to the cocked position.
  8. Aim.
  9. Pull the trigger.

*Early on this was done from a powder horn. The development of paper cartridges in the 1630’s simplified the procedure. They contained uniform amounts of powder and the ball. The shooter tore the paper cartridge open with his teeth, poured a small amount into the pan, the rest into the barrel, and used the paper as wadding for the ball. The paper made step 3 un-necessary. It also reversed the order of steps 2 and 5. Soldiers on the battlefield, who used paper cartridges, got gunpowder in their mouths. The saltpeter made them extremely thirsty. Even after the development of the paper cartridge, however, many hunters continued to use the powder horn so they could vary the charge according to the type of game they were hunting.

** The bullet/cloth combination was used so the bullet would fit tightly and thereby keep the gases produced by the explosion of the gunpowder from escaping around the bullet rather than expelling it from the barrel. Early on, there was so much variation in the internal diameters of barrels that individuals preferred to cast their own bullets. Even soldiers carried small molds into which they could pour molten lead and this was a common activity around the nighttime campfires.

*** In the heat of battle, especially with inexperienced troops, it was not uncommon for a soldier to forget this step and send his ramrod out of the barrel along with the bullet. Of course, this mistake made it impossible for him to reload his weapon.

Once a standardized paper cartridge had been established, it became possible to develop a drill for training soldiers to load flintlock-equipped weapons. Here’s a version used by the British Army:

“Prime and load”: make a quarter turn to the right, bringing firelock down to the priming position and open the pan.

“Handle cartridge”: draw the cartridge from the pouch. Bring it to the mouth, holding it between the forefinger and the thumb, and bite off the top of the cartridge.

“Prime”: Shake out some powder into the pan and place the last three fingers on the hammer. Close the pan.

“About”: turn the piece to the loading position, placing the butt upon the ground. Raise the elbow square with the shoulder and shake the powder into the barrel. Place the bullet and paper into the muzzle.

“Draw ramrods”: force the ramrod half out of its holder and seize it backhanded exactly in the middle. Then draw it entirely out, turning it at the same time to the front and place one inch into the barrel.

“Ram down the cartridge”: push the bullet well down to the bottom of the barrel and give it two very quick strokes with the ramrod.

When recruits had become proficient at the above drill the commands “Present” and “Fire” were added. There was no command of “aim” since muskets had a maximum range of 100 yards and under battlefield conditions were usually fired at 50 or less yards. The soldier merely had to point in the direction of the approaching enemy line and look across the top of the weapon to see that it was roughly lined up with the target.

Amazingly, a well-trained British infantryman could fire a flintlock-equipped musket 5 times in a minute. This is why the musket continued to be the weapon of choice for many armies long after the more accurate rifle had been developed. Rifling, spiral grooves cut into the inside of a barrel, cause bullets to spin, making them travel further and more accurately, but the bullets have to fit tightly in these grooves in order to do this. Early on, the fit was accomplished by wrapping the bullet in small patches of greased leather and later by specially shaped bullets with metal flanges that could be forced into the grooves. Both of these methods required laborious hammering, which made muzzle-loading the rifle a much slower procedure. While the ramrod was used to load rifles, riflemen often carried small hammers to pound against the ramrods.

A tightly grouped squadron of musketeers, forming a square, and taking turns shooting, could reload quickly enough to keep cavalry from over-riding them while they reloaded. Riflemen could not. Therefore, they were used primarily as snipers and often accompanied by musketeers for protection. Whether they used muskets or rifles, all soldiers had to stand to reload their weapons.

Another problem for the battlefield soldier was fouling. Exploding gunpowder and burning wadding left ash and other residue in the barrel that needed to be frequently cleaned out. In larger weapons, such as cannons, the barrel was swapped out after each firing to removed residue and cool the barrel to reduce the danger of powder exploding prematurely during reloading. This necessitated a water source. In the navy, buckets of water could easily be dipped from the sea and set beside each cannon. In India during the British colonial period, sepoys were employed to carry water to both artillery and infantrymen during long battles. When no other source was available, it was not uncommon for infantrymen to use their own urine to clean out their weapons, giving added meaning to the phrase “the stench of the battlefield.”

Until the smokeless variety was developed in 1884, gunpowder produced a good deal of smoke when it exploded. Targets on battlefields soon disappeared in gray clouds, making close-range firing a necessity. Snipers could take only one shot before smoke revealed their positions. Bits of ash produced by the exploding gunpowder often blackened the soldiers’ faces, and could be hot enough to cause small burns.

When the trigger was pulled on a flintlock-equipped weapon, the sparks falling on the powder in the pan produced a small explosion a second or so before the main powder charge exploded (the well-know “flash in the pan”). This was a problem for hunters because the flash set game to flight and the hunter’s success was often based on how well he anticipated which way the game would go. It was also a possibility for the explosion of the powder in the pan to fail to cause the charge in the barrel to explode, leaving the shooter with the ticklish problem of what to do next. He could reload the pan and try again only after making sure no burning residue might cause a delayed explosion in the barrel. If the explosion failed because the main charge had become wet, he was then faced with having to remove the wedged in bullet before he could replace the damaged powder. It’s no wonder, “Keep your powder dry,” became a common admonition.

Reference: Hogg, Ian V. The Story of the Gun. St. Martin’s Press. 1996.

The Development of Hand-Held Firearms in the 19th Century

by Sarah Winn

In the 19th century, hand-held guns progressed from flint-lock, muzzle-loading, single-shot weapons, using black powder, to Browning's automatic, magazine-loading pistol, using smokeless powder. To make all these advancements, improved gun powder, breech-loading, the self-contained bullet, and ways to use recoil-power to cock the gun and eject the spent shells had to be developed. The following is a summary of this development. The list by no means includes all the hand-held weapons that were popular during this period, but I have tried to include those that represented major advancements in gun technology.

1800: Flintlock musket was in common use in every army in Europe.

1800: The Baker rifle was introduced into British army. The bullet had to fit tightly in the barrel of this rifle so that, when it was fired, it would fit into the rifling inside the barrel and cause the bullet to spin. This was accomplished by wrapping the balls (bullets) in leather patches or molding special balls with flanges on the sides. This made the rifle more difficult to load, but it had greater range than the musket. Sometimes musketmen were sent with riflemen for protection, since they could reload more quickly.

1807: The Reverend Alexander John Forsyth developed the use of fulminate of mercury as primer. This extremely sensitive substance would explode when struck with sufficient force and Forsyth's work led to the invention of the percussion lock.

1808: Forsyth began production of the "scent-bottle" hunting weapon using fulminate of mercury as the primer. The weapon received this nick-name because the small container, which dispensed the fulminate needed to ignite the powder, was said to resemble a woman's perfume bottle. This weapon reduced the time between the explosion of the priming powder and the powder in the barrel, a boon to hunters.

1812: Johannes Pauly made the first breech-loading sporting gun. The breech rested in the stock, and when a catch was pressed, the muzzle dropped and the breech rose in the air. The breech end of the barrel was then loaded with a cartridge made from a paper tube containing powder and ball and fitted into a brass head. The head had a hole in its base into which a pellet of priming mixture was placed before loading. The barrel was then snapped back into an upright position. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer struck the priming powder pellet in the base of the bullet.

1815: The name Kentucky rifle was given to American frontier rifles following the Battle of New Orleans because the volunteers from Kentucky used them so effectively in that battle.

1816: Legend has it that Eliphalet Remington Jr. cast his first gun barrel at his father's forge in the Mohawk River Valley near what would become Ilion, NY. Gun barrels eventually became in important part of the family business.

1818: The first American patent for a revolving pistol was awarded to Captain Artemas Wheeler, Elisha Haydon Collier, and Cornelius Coolidge. It was known as the Collier revolver and produced by John Evans and Sons of London. It was not a success in America because it was costly but was used in quantity by the British forces in India. The cylinder of this flintlock pistol had to be rotated by hand. Although the Collier could be converted to a percussion lock, the last one was manufactured in 1827.

1819: Joseph Egg, a London gun maker, is generally credited as the inventor of the copper percussion cap. Fuminate of mercury exploded more violently when it was contained between thin sheets of copper.

1822: Englishman Joshua Shaw was given an American patent on the percussion cap.

1824: A London chemist began to manufacture percussion caps.

1830's: Henry Deringer, a Philadelphia gunsmith, began to make small, but large-caliber, pocket pistols, first as flintlocks and then percussion caps. These became so popular that all small pistols came to be called Deringers. A newspaper report on the assignation of Abraham Lincoln (1865) spelled the name as Derringer, a misspelling that has persisted.

1835: Frenchman Casimir Lefaucheaux introduced the pin-fire cartridge to be used in a drop front weapon. A pin extended from the side of the cartridge that consisted of a brass case that contained a percussion cap, a powder charge, and a shot or bullet secured in the mouth of the case. When rifle was fired the pin was driven into the priming powder. This weapon is generally considered the first practical breech-loading gun.

1836: The first practical revolver was patented by Samuel Colt. He patented his design in France, England and the U.S. thereby tying up the principle of a revolving cylinder for the next 21 years.

1837: The British army switched to the Brunswick rifle which used the percussion lock.

1837: The more reliable percussion cap made it possible to build pistols with multiple barrels. Early double barrels also used double firing mechanisms and triggers. These weapons still had to be loaded from the end of the barrel. The number of barrels on pistols ranged from 2 to 6. Pistols with more than two barrels came to be called Pepperbox pistols.

1838: The Colt Paterson revolver was introduced. The gun was manufactured in Paterson, N.J., and therefore, named the Paterson. The cylinder was mounted on a central pin attached to the butt frame. The barrel was a separate piece that was locked onto the front end of the butt frame by a wedge. Bullets were loaded in the front of the cylinder, percussion caps in small notches in the back. When the hammer was cocked by the thumb, the cylinder also revolved, bringing the chamber in line with the barrel and a percussion cap in line with the hammer.

1841: The company formed to produce Colt's revolvers, the Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co., went into receivership.

1845: Eugene Lefaucheaux, the son of Casimir, patented a pinfire revolver. Bullets of 5, 7, 9, 12 and 15 mm and shot cartridges in every bore from 4 to 28 went into production and some were still being produced until World War II.

1845: The Dreyse Needle Gun was developed by German Johann von Dreyse. It used a cartridge that consisted of a conical bullet with a percussion cap in its base. The bullet was attached to a paper tube of gunpowder. The cartridge was loaded into the opened breech end of the barrel and this opening was closed by pushing a bolt and turning it down in front of a lug on the barrel. When fired, the long firing pin, "needle" pushed through the powder and struck the primer in the base of the bullet. This weapon was the grandfather of all bolt-action rifles.

1845: The Remington Company took over a contract to make 5,000 U.S. Model 1841 "Mississippi" rifles for the U.S. Army. At that time, Remington did not own the tooling and machinery necessary to make the guns. It would be 1848 before Remington actually started production of these weapons.

1845: Remington bought out the contract to supply U.S. Navy with 1,000 Jenks Navy Carbines. This weapon used William Jenks patented breech-loading system and Edward Maynard's patented tape priming mechanism (primer was contained between two layers of paper tape) instead of the percussion cap. Remington also got the services of the inventor William Jenks and another promising gunmaker, Fordyce Beals.

1845: Guncotton (nitrocellulose) was discovered by a chemistry professor at the University of Basel, Christian Schonbein. It was hoped the substance would replace gunpowder, but it proved to be too volatile to manufacture safely.

1846: An Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, combined glycerin with nitrogen to make nitroglycerin which would become gunpowder's first serious rival, although it would be years before men learned to control its power.

1846: French army Captain Minié developed the pointed bullet with a hollow base. This made rifles much easier to load, because the thin sides of the base of the cartridge expanded when the powder exploded and molded itself into the rifling of the barrel, eliminating the need to use leather patches or molded flanges on the bullets. This bullet was used widely in the Civil War, but another misspelling soon had it commonly referred to it as the "minnie ball."

1847: The Colt Walker revolver was introduced. It was named after Samuel Walker, a hero of the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army.

1848: After years of having others manufacture his weapons, Samuel Colt set up a new company in Hartford, Connecticut. Eli Whitney Jr. helped him develop machinery that allowed Colt to produce revolvers with the first, truly, interchangeable parts.

1848: The Dryse Needle gun was adopted by the Prussian Army, but they tried to keep the rifle secret.

1848: E. Remington & Sons contracted with the U.S. Navy for the first un-welded steel (cast steel) gun barrels ever used by the armed forces. This weapon would be known as the Jenks carbine.

1851: Christian Sharps set up his own company in Hartford, Connecticut. At first Robbins and Lawrence in Windsor Vermont made the weapons and Sharps designed and marketed a range of single-shot breech-loading rifles and carbines that were heavily used during the Civil War and the settling of the West. Eventually Sharps took over his own manufacturing. A company bearing his name continued to manufacture rifles for both military and sports uses long after his death in 1874.

1854: A Frenchman, Flobert, placed a small ball in the mouth of a percussion cap and used it in a small-caliber rifle used for indoor target shooting. This came to be known as the Flobert BB Cap.

1854: Englishman Charles Lancaster developed a shotgun cartridge made of gas-tight copper. This was the first "center fire" cartridge. This design is still used today for large caliber weapons. The cartridge was called a shot shell. It led to the common usage of "shotgun" for smooth-bore, long-barreled guns that used this shell.

1855: Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson formed the Volcanic Company. They manufactured pistols that were loaded by a lever action that pushed rounds from a tubular magazine housing 8 to 10 rounds.

1855: Rollin White took out U.S. Patent that contains the general principal of, "Extending the chambers through the rear of the cylinder for the purpose of loading them at the breech from behind." This patent tied up the development of revolvers that could use rimfire cartridges

1856: Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson developed the brass cartridges that made breech-loading rifles practical. They also obtained the rights to the Rollin White patent, thus gaining control of the revolver cartridge market.

1856: Fordyce Beals was awarded a patent on what would become the 1st Model Beal's Pocket Revolver, the first pistol made by Remington. It was a single-action, 5-shot, .13 caliber cap and ball revolver.

1857: The Colt patent expired and Smith and Wesson brought out a revolver that used a .22 rimfire cartridge and was breech-loaded. This would be the only breech-loading revolver sold in US for the next 14 years.

1857: Oliver Winchester, a shirt manufacturer, acquired the rights to the Volvanic Co. and renamed it New Haven Arms Co. This company introduced a lever-action carbine that was sold in various calibers and barrel lengths.

1858: John F. Thomas, an employee of E. Remington &Sons Armory, was issued a patent for the percussion cane gun. Made to look like an actual walking cane with a fancy carved handle, these weapons were intended as self-protection for a gentleman. They were manufactured until the 1880's.

1860: The rimfire cartridge was patented in U.S. by Smith and Wesson.

1860: The Spencer rifle, developed by Christopher Spencer, had a removable tubular magazine in the butt that held 7 copper, rimfire cartridges. Downward pressure against a lever, which also acted as a trigger guard, ejected any empty casings in the chamber and upward pressure loaded the next round. After loading, the hammer had to be manually cocked. This weapon saw a lot of use during the Civil War, but by 1869 the factory closed. Much of its equipment was bought by Oliver Winchester.

1861: B. Tyler Henry invented and patented the Henry rifle that used .44 caliber Henry cartridges, with a fifteen-round tubular magazine in the butt. Some 14,000 of these rifles were sold between 1861 and 1866. The weapon had drawbacks however. The shooter's forehead rested against the barrel which grew heated with prolonged use. Also the tubular magazine had to be disengaged to reload from the front, taking the weapon completely out of action. The magazine also had slots which allowed dirt to enter.

1864: Prussia easily defeats Denmark in a war thanks to the Dyeyse Needle Gun.

1864: Using the design of the Needle Gun, Antoine Alphonse Chassepot developed a bolt action rifle for the French Army. It was a smaller caliber than the Needle Gun so it had longer range and better accuracy.

1864: A Remington & Sons Co. gunsmith, Joseph Rider, was issued a patent on a "rolling block action." This system was made up of a hammer piece that is brought to cocking position, and a semi-circular breech block that is rotated back to open for extracting the spent shell casing and inserting a new cartridge.

1865: William H. Elliot was issued a U.S. Patent for a double barrel pistol that came to be known as the Remington Double Derringer. Versions of this weapon continued to be manufactured well into the 20th century.

1866: The New Haven Arms Co. name was changed to Winchester Arms Co. They issued the Winchester Model 1866 which solved all the drawbacks of the Henry rifle. It was in production from 1866 to 1898. 170,000 of these rifles were manufactured: some as carbines with a round barrel, some as the sporting rifle with either a round or octagonal barrel, and some as a musket with a round barrel.

1866: Prussia wins another quick victory against Austria. All of Europe takes notice of the Prussian's breech-loading rifle.

1866: The British army converted their muzzle-loading Enfield rifles to breech-loaders using a design submitted by a gunsmith named Joseph Snider. His breech block hinged on the side and opened sideways so the rifleman could put a single cartridge in the revealed trough. When the breech was closed, the rifleman could manually cock the weapon and fire. Large numbers of the Enfields were converted and were known as Snider Rifles.

1867: The Remington Company signed a contract with the U.S. Navy for 5,000 Remington Model 1867 Rolling Block Navy Carbines. This contract would save the company from an after the Civil War financial crisis and set the stage for the "rolling block" to become the favorite system for military rifles and carbines around the world.

1869: Rollin White's patent expired and everyone started making revolvers that loaded from the back of the cylinder.

1870: The Prussian Needle gun was pitted against the French Chassepot rifle in the Franco- Prussian War. The French rifle proved superior, but the Prussians had better artillery, so they won.

1871: The German Army adopted the Mauser M1871, developed by Peter Paul Mauser. This bolt-action, single-shot weapon fired an 11 mm. bullet from a metallic cartridge. It had a handle in front of a lug in the gun body that could open and close the bolt. The firing pin was withdrawn when the bolt was open so the weapon could be loaded. As the bolt was closed, the firing pin was cocked.

1871: Colt Peacemaker revolver was patented. It was breech loading with a top-strap frame. This weapon originally intended for military use, but it became the iconic weapon of the American West and has been manufactured by the Colt Company for 135 years.

1871: The Martini-Henry Rifle was chosen by the British Army to replace the Snider. The Martini breech system had a lever under the stock just behind the trigger. A downward pull on this caused the front end of the block to drop, exposing the breech and partially extracting the empty cartridge case and cocking the striker. The rifleman removed the used cartridge, inserted a new one, pulled the lever back against the stock, took aim and fired. The barrel of this weapon for designed by Alexander Henry.

1873: The French Army converted their Chassepot rifles to use a metallic, center-fire cartridge.

1873: Winchester Model 1873 was released. This Model is often called "The Gun That Won the West." It was also issued as a carbine, sporting rifle or musket, but it used .44-.40 bullets, the same caliber used in the Colt single action revolver making ammunition supplies simpler for gun users.

1880: Breech-loading shotguns come into common usage due to the development of the modern shotshell.

1880's: Copper jacketed lead bullets were introduced.

1882: A patent was granted to Christopher Spencer and Sylvester Roper for a pump-action shotgun. This led to the production of the Model 1890. The Spenser pump was heavy and ill-balanced.

1884: Hiram Maxim originally from Sangerville, Maine, but working in London, demonstrated his first machine gun that used recoil energy to extract the spent shell and feed a new one into the chamber.

1884: Mauser improved the M1871 rifle by adding a tubular magazine, with a cartridge lifter under the barrel that was operated by the movement of the bolt. This rifle could be loaded with eight rounds and could be fired as rapidly as the bolt could be operated.

1884: Smokeless gunpowder, containing mainly nitrocellulose or both nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine was developed and came into general usage.

1885: Hiram Maxim presented an improved machine gun that had a water-filled metal-jacket around the barrel to disperse the heat created by firing ten shots every second. Maxim's machine guns were not hand-held, having to be mounted on legs or a wheeled carriage, but their development proved it was possible to reload a weapon using the power generated by firing the first bullet-an automatic weapon.

1886: The Modele (1886) Label Rifle was developed for the French Army. It was a bolt-action rifle with a tubular magazine concealed in the woodwork below the barrel. It was loaded by pushing the rounds nose first into the magazine opening below the chamber until it was full (8 cartridges). There was a cut-off device that turned the rifle into a single-shot weapon. Otherwise it fired in rapid bursts. This was the first military weapon to use the new smokeless powder and thereby allowed the rifleman's position to be concealed while the target was not obscured by the cloud of smoke that black powder produced.

1886: The Winchester Model 1886 rifle was based on a patent by John Moses Browning. It had an immense range of options including ten different calibers, from .33 WCF to .50-110 Express. The most popular was the .45to.70.

1888: Nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose combined to form ballistite, the first nitrogylcerine powder and the preferred propellant for shotguns and rifles.

1888: Schyler, Hartley and Graham, a NY arms company that also controlled the Union Metallic Cartridge Company of Bridgeport Conn., bought E. Remington & Sons and changed the name to Remington Arms Company. This merger gave the company a commanding position in the small-arms ammunition field.

1889: The Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre Company was formed in Belguim to manufacture a Mauser style rifle for the Belguim army. The company eventually became known as Fabrique National or just FN.

1890: Steel jacketed lead bullets were made and fitted into clips for rifle magazines.

1892: An Austrian named Laumann took out a patent for what is considered the first automatic pistol. It was manufactured by Oesterreichisches Waffenfabrik in Steyr, Austria. It did not sell in great numbers.

1893: Winchester introduced the Model 1893 pump-action shotgun designed by John M. Browning.

1893: The Mauser design magazine was introduced in the Spanish Model rifle. This was the most successful of all rifle magazine systems.

1893: Borchardt, a German, designed an automatic pistol based on the Maxim machine gun. It used a 7.63 mm cartridge designed for it and carried a magazine in the butt that fed cartridges into the breech-block.

1895: A patent was issued to Peter Paul Mauser for an automatic pistol designed by his employees, the Ferderle brothers.

1896: The Mauser C/96 military pistol went into production. It had a 10 cartridge capacity and a wooden stock could be added to the pistol butt to make it a shoulder-fired weapon with an accuracy of 200 yards. It quickly outsold the Borchardt.

1897: Winchester replaced the Model 1893 pump-action shotgun with Model 93 which used the new smokeless powder. (A lawsuit by Roper was overturned.)

1897: John M. Browning patented a pistol using blow-back operation and a newly designed .32 caliber cartridge. The Colt Co. turned down the design so Browning went to FN in Belgium.

1899: The FN company brought out the first Browning automatic pistol. This gun was 7.2 in. long, with a 4.8 in. barrel and an 8-shot magazine. It used .32 caliber cartridges and weighed slightly less than 27 ounces. It was intended for military use and therefore designed to fit in a belt holster. This gun was not a great success.

1900: The Model 1900 Browning was a smaller version of the Model 1899. It was 6.35 in. long with a 4 in. barrel and a 7-shot magazine. It weighed 22 ounces and was 4.6 in. in height. It had a detachable magazine that could be quickly removed after firing and replaced with a freshly loaded magazine. It also had a safety lever on the left rear of the frame. When this was thumbed down the gun could not be fired or loaded. The safety features and the size made the weapon convenient to be carried in an overcoat pocket and this pistol became the most popular weapon for civilian use through most of the 20th century.

1903: FN issued the Model 1903 automatic pistol that used the 9mm Browning Long cartridge. This weapon was purchased as a military pistol by several countries. It continued in production throughout the 20th century. Because of it simple design, it was copied by many manufacturers despite the patent.

And so the basic problems for manufacturing hand-held weapons were solved. Work would continue to make guns faster, more powerful, and more deadly, but all of these advancements would be carried on the backs of 19th century developments.

Glossary of Terms Associated with Firearms

by Sarah Winn

These definitions were compiled from a number of references. Dates appearing in parenthesizes come from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and indicate earliest recorded use of the word as far as could be determined.

Action: the working mechanism of the firearm which determines the way it is cocked, fired, and reloaded.

Arquebus or Harquebus: (1532) a matchlock gun which was portable but so heavy that it was usually fired from a forked stand. It was the forerunner of the musket and rifle.

Assault Rifle: an automatic or semi-automatic rifle with a magazine.

Automatic: (1902) A firearm that advances bullets into the chamber and expels the spent shells automatically.

Backstrap: There are two gripstraps that attach the grip to the rest of the frame. The backstrap is the one exposed at the rear of the grip (the palm of the hand covers it).

Ballistics: the science of cartridge discharge and bullets' flight. In modern-day police work it often refers to matching the markings on bullet casings to identify weapons possibly used in the commission of crimes.

Barrel: the round metal tube of a firearm through which the shot is fired. The barrel imparts direction and influences velocity of the projectile or projectiles.

Black powder: The earliest type of firearms propellant. It was made of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal. Invented in the 12th century, it was used as the chief firearm propellant into the first half of the 19th century.

Blunderbuss: (1654) a muzzle-loading firearm with a short barrel and a flaring or large muzzle to facilitate loading many small balls. This became a favorite weapon of sailors and pirates, because on ships in heaving seas, it was impossible to aim effectively so the shattering shot increased the possibility of hitting a foe.

Blowback: an operation system in which the slide or breech block is driven to the rear by direct gas pressure on the cartridge case head. This system occurs in self-loading or automatic firearms whose breechblock and barrel are not mechanically locked together at the moment of firing.

Bolt: a mobile device that closes the breech of a weapon.

Bolt action: a gun mechanism activated by the manual operation of the breech block.

Bore: the inside of the barrel of a gun, excluding the chamber. It is the channel through which the bullet is fired.

Boxstock: this term refers to a flintlock weapon in which the cock holding the flint is mounted in the center of the weapon rather than on the side.

Breech: the part of the firearm at the rear of the barrel (closest to the person firing the gun) and the area sometimes used for reloading.

Breech Block: (1881) the block in breech loading firearms that closes the rear of the barrel against the force of the exploding powder and prevents gases from escaping.

Bullet: (1579) a round or elongated missile (originally of lead) to be fired from a firearm.

Butt or buttstock: in a handgun, it is bottom part of the grip or grip frame. In longer hand-held weapons it is the rear or the shoulder end of the stock.

Butt Box: a compartment in the butt of a rifle to hold patches and small tools. It is often covered with a decorative brass lid.

Caliber or Calibre: (1568) the internal diameter or 'bore' of a gun. It also refers to the size of a cartridge. The diameter of the cartridge is measured in millimeters in the European system and in hundredths of an inch in the American system. When gun barrels were made by individual gunsmiths, there was variation in caliber from gun to gun. Since early bullets needed to fit closely so the gases created by the explosion of the powder charge would drive the bullet, they were molded for individual weapons. Soldiers and hunters frequently sat around campfires at night, melting lead and pouring it into molds.

Carbine: (1605) a short musket or rifle used by cavalry.

Cartridge: originally this word came from the French carouche and consisted of the powder and ball in a paper packet, with the percussion cap or priming powder separate. The modern version is a metal case containing the primer, powder, and metal projectile (bullet). Centerfire: a cartridge in which the primer or primer assembly is seated in the center of the base of the metal case. This can also refer to a firearm which uses centerfire cartridges.

Chamber: the part of the firearm that contains the cartridge before it is fired. A revolver has multiple chambers.

Charger: a device made of pressed metal that holds a group of cartridges, so they can be easily and quickly loaded into the magazine of a weapon.

Clip: a device, normally of metal, that holds a group of cartridges and is inserted into the magazine with the cartridges to load the gun.

Cock: the noun refers to a pivoted piece which is normally spring activated and causes the match, pyrites or flint on a matchlock, wheel lock, or flintlock mechanism to spring forward and strike the steel.
The verb form of this word refers to the action of pulling the cock into firing position. This had to be manually done with all older weapons. Cocked and loaded: the practice of carrying a semi-automatic pistol with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and the safety engaged, so the weapon can be fired more quickly.

Cylinder: the part of a revolver that holds the chambers where rounds are inserted prior to firing.

Crane: the swinging unit that hinges the cylinder of a revolver with the frame.

Deringer: a percussion lock, single shot, pocket pistol made by Henry Deringer in the 1830's. The gun was so popular that the name was applied to all pocket sized weapons as they evolved into revolvers. (This name is sometimes spelled with two -r's).

Double-action: a pistol or revolver in which the long pull-through on the trigger will rock the hammer back against the mainspring and release it at the top of its travel to fire the shot. On a revolver, subsequent shots may be fired the same way; on a pistol the slide will normally cock the hammer after the first shot so that subsequent shots are taken with just a light pressure on the trigger.

Double-action only: such handguns function in much the same way as double-action guns, except it is not possible to manually cock the hammer.

Double barrel: a firearm with two barrels, either side by side or one above the other.

Dum-dum bullet: this term originally referred to the jacketed .303 bullet with an exposed lead core, developed by the British military in India's

Dum-Dum Arsenal. Its meaning grew to cover other types of expanding bullets.

Ejection port: the opening through which spent cartridge cases are ejected.

Extractor: a claw-like mechanism that pulls the empty cartridge case from the chamber so that it can be ejected by a separate mechanism: the ejector.

Field stripping: the act of taking apart a firearm for regular maintenance and cleaning.

Firearms: (1646) a weapon from which shot is discharged by gunpowder. Usually refers to small arms only.

Firing Pin: the mechanism that strikes the rear of the cartridge and ignites the priming powder.

Flintlock: (1682) a lock in a gun or pistol having a flint in the hammer for striking against a steel and creating a spark to ignite the charge. Firearms fitted with such locks were also referred to as flintlocks.

Folding stock: a metal shoulder piece that can be folded back against the main body of the weapon when it is not in use.

Fowling piece: (1596) a smooth-bore, long-barreled gun that fired multiple pellets and was used for hunting birds or small animals. Forerunner of the shotgun.

Frizzen: the vertical iron face of a flintlock firing mechanism against which the flint strikes to produce sparks. It is usually formed by an extension of the pan cover. This is also called the steel.

Frontstrap: the forward of the two gripstraps. When the weapon is held, the fingers cover it.

Full cock: the position of the hammer or striker when the firearm is ready to fire.

Full metal jacket: a bullet enclosed in copper or steel which helps prevent damage and misfires.

Full-moon clip: a clip designed to hold ammunition to fill the cylinder in a revolver.

Fulminate or fulminate of mercury: (1826) a compound which can be detonated by percussion, friction, or heat. Learning to control it, led to the development of the percussion cap.

Fusil or Fuzee: (1680) a light flintlock musket. British soldiers who used these were called fusiliers.

Gauge: the caliber (inner diameter of the barrel) of a shotgun. It is expressed as the number of lead balls that just fit the gun barrel it would take to make a pound. The British call this "bore."

Grip: the handle of a handgun.

Hammer: in the percussion lock, this was the arm that struck the percussion cap and ignited the propelling charge. In a modern weapon, it is the part of the weapon that drives the firing pin.

Hammer spur: the extension on an exposed hammer that acts as a cocking aid.

Handgun: (15th century) a pistol or revolver held by hand when fired.

Hangfire: a cartridge that discharges after a delay. This is dangerous.

Loading gate: the hinged cover over the opening through which cartridges are inserted into the magazine or chamber on a revolver.

Lock: the mechanism for exploding the charge or cartridge of a firearm.

Lock plate: a metal plate mounted on the stock of a firearm. Traditionally, in a flintlock or percussion firearm, the firing mechanism is attached to this plate.

Long-barrel handguns: muskets, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns.

Magazine: The part of a firearm containing the reserve ammunition and out of which cartridges are mechanically fed to the chamber for firing.

Magazine catch: the catch that releases an opening in a firearm so a magazine can be inserted.

Magazine safety: a device that prevents a firearm from being discharged when the magazine has been removed.

Magnum: a heavily loaded metallic cartridge or the firearm specifically designed to fire it.

Mainspring: the source of energy needed to fire a gun. Cocking the hammer compresses the mainspring, generating potential energy

Match: (1549) a chemically prepared wick or cord used in the firing of firearms or powder (matchlock). What we today refer to as a match, a source of fire, was not developed until 1827.

Matchlock: (1637) a firing device in which a slow-burning match was lowered over the hole in the breech of a musket to ignite the charge. Firearms equipped with such a lock were called matchlocks.

Musket: (1587) a heavy, large caliber, smooth bore, muzzle-loading, shoulder firearm, equipped with a matchlock or flintlock. It usually referred to military firearms.

Musquettoon: a short musket with a large bore, similar to the blunderbuss.

Muzzle: the forward or open end of the barrel.

Needle fire: a type of ignition in which the firing pin was needle-shaped and when fired, drove through the base of the cartridge and the powder charge until it impacted the primer at the base of the bullet.

Pan: the small container located on the side or top of a flintlock firearm and used to hold the priming powder.

Patch: a greased piece of cloth or leather wrapped around the ball before it is loaded into a muzzle-loading rifle.

Patch Box: A compartment built into the stock of a muzzle-loading rifle for carrying patches (also known as butt box).

Pawl: (1626) a pivoted tongue or sliding bolt on one part of a machine that is adapted to fall into notches or interdental spaces on another part (as a ratchet wheel) so as to permit motion in only one direction.

Pepperbox pistol: a percussion pistol with more than one barrel (as many as six) arranged around a central spindle. Each barrel had it own percussion cap. To fire, the weapon had to be cocked, the cylinder lined up with the barrel by hand and locked into place. After firing, the barrel was unlocked, the cylinder repositioned and then the weapon could be re-fired. After all bullets had been fired, each barrel had to be emptied and reloaded. This has been called the first revolver.

Percussion Cap: a small, metal, explosive-filled cup which fits over the nipple that leads to the main charge in the breech end of the barrel of a percussion firearm.

Percussion Lock: a mechanism for firing a firearm by striking a hammer against a small cap filled with primer which ignites the main charge.

Pistol: (1570) a handgun whose chamber is integral with the barrel. Usually refers to any handgun except the revolver.

Primer or Priming Powder: highly explosive powder used to ignite the less volatile gunpowder. (See fulminate.)

Ramrod: a wooden or metallic rod used to push the ammunition to the breech end of the barrel of a muzzle loading weapon.

Recoil: the "kick" or backward movement of a weapon caused by the firing of the weapon.

Revolver: (1835) a handgun with a cylinder of several chambers brought successively into line with the barrel and discharged with the same hammer. Rifle: (1772) the noun refers to a weapon with a rifled bore fired from the shoulder.

Rifle, Rifled or Rifling: (1635) the verb means to cut spiral grooves into the bore of a firearm. This causes bullets to spin when they are fired, increasing their velocity, distance traveled, and accuracy. Originally only "rifles" were rifled, but eventually this technique was applied to pistols. Today only shotguns have smooth bore barrels.

Rimfire: (1868) a metallic cartridge in which the priming compound is deposited in the hollow rim of the case around its entire circumference. The firing pin crushes the rim against the rear face of the barrel.

Rimless: a type of cartridge in which the base diameter and the body diameter are the same. Normally such cases have an extraction groove machined around it, yielding a "rim" of body diameter.

Round: all the parts necessary to form a unit of ammunition that will fire one shot and/or a shot fired by a weapon or the member of a military unit.

Single-action: (1900) pistols or revolvers on which the hammer must be cocked before the first shot may be fired. On single-action revolvers the hammer must be drawn back for each shot; on single-action pistols the slide will automatically re-cock the hammer for the second and subsequent shots.

Shotgun: (1776) a shoulder-fired weapon with a smooth-bore barrel that normally fires a multi- pellet shot. Today they are popular hunting weapons but have some military and police uses.

Small arms: a firearm that can be used by one man.

Stock: the part of a long firearm that is held against the shoulder to steady it for aiming and to absorb the force of the recoil when the gun if fired. Tap action: on weapons containing more than one barrel, this term refers to the selection of the barrel to be fired by means of a ring mounted on the side of the weapon.

Topstrap: part of a revolver frame extending over the top of the cylinder and connecting the top of the standing breech with the forward portion of the frame into which the barrel is attached.

Trigger: (1621) the part of a firing mechanism that sets the hammer in motion and is finger- operated.

Touch-hole: in early muzzle-loading guns, this was the small hole in the breech-end of the barrel though which the explosive charge inside the barrel was ignited.

Wheel lock: (1670) a gunlock for a muzzle-loading firearm in which sparks are struck from a flint or piece of iron pyrite by a revolving wheel.