Fire Lance Painting 15th Century

Gun History: From the First Firearms to Today’s Modern Weapons

Gun history is longer and more complex than most people realize.

Firearms completely changed the way that wars were fought.

Believe it or not, the first gun dates all the way back to the 10th century.

Today’s modern weapons have gone through many technological advancements since then.

Let’s go back to the beginning


Invention of Gunpowder 

Chinese gunpowder, or “huo yao”, exploded into existence by accident. 

While alchemists worked on a cure for indigestion, they discovered a volatile substance.

It consisted of three powders:

  • elemental sulfur,
  • charcoal,
  • and saltpeter (potassium nitrate)

Those happen to be the ingredients of gunpowder.

Chemistry of Gunpowder ingredients
The Chemistry of Gunpowder Ingredients

The Chinese gave it the nickname “fire medicine” that still gets used today in some parts.

Check out episode 5, season 1, of the History Channel show Mankind: The Story of All of Us. It covers the invention of gunpowder.

The First Guns

Many historians consider the first guns to be those invented near the start of gunpowder.

These date back to China during the 9th and 10th centuries.

The “fire spurting lances”, or “fire lances”, were the first firearms. 

A Chinese fire lance as depicted in the Huolongjing
A Chinese fire lance as depicted in the Huolongjing

They consisted of a bamboo or metal rod that was hollow on one end to hold the gunpowder.

Their design was very simple and primitive, but it would prove to change the battlefield.

These lances allowed a single person to work.

They could shoot fire and lead balls at their enemies, and soon saw many upgrades.

More cannon-like devices appeared that were bigger, heavier, and more powerful.



European Hand Cannons

Gunpowder and guns were first created in China, but the Europeans took them to another level.

Europe began receiving gunpowder from the Chinese via the Silk Road trade route. 

They began to deploy it on their battlefields.


Fire Lance Painting 15th Century
Fire Lance Painting 15th Century


Cannons saw heavy use in the early part of the 13th century and marked the end of the medieval era of Europe.

Cannons completely changed the landscape of war.

They were able to destroy entire groups of enemies despite their distance and armor.

Before long, more ideas emerged. Propelling a big ball of lead towards an enemy proved deadly. 

People then wanted the same deadliness in a weapon that was smaller and lighter.

This idea led to the first handheld gun, also known as the hand cannon.

It consisted of a long barrel and pole like the earlier Chinese fire lances. 

Although awkward and hard to use, it would grow in popularity over the 13th century.


Centuries of Firearm Advancements

Every year inventors pushed the design of hand cannons forward.

In the 15th century, the matchlock was invented and this would allow the guns at the time to take a huge leap forward.

This simple device allowed a gun to hold a match that ignited the gunpowder via a trigger.

This allowed faster firing times as well as a safer device. 

Other advancements included barrel rifling, increased the accuracy of the guns.

Rifling is cutting grooves on the inside of the barrel of a gun, causing the bullet or projectile to spin.

This spin creates a more consistent trajectory, allowing for much-improved accuracy and efficiency. 

These advancements kept increasing the usefulness and efficiency of all firearms.

This occurred up until major conflicts such as the Revolutionary War and even up to the Civil War.

It was around this time that a man by the name of Samuel Colt came along.

He would again take the state of firearm design to the next level.


Repeating Firearms and Bullet Cartridges

Samuel Colt invented the Colt Revolver in 1836.

This handheld gun could fire five shots, but did not need to be reloaded after each shot.

This changed the game.

Colt Paterson Revolver 5th Model
Colt Paterson Revolver 5th Model (source: Wikipedia)

Most firearms at the time needed to be reloaded after every shot you took.

Speed is critical when your life depends on it.

Ten short years later, bullet cartridges came around.

These consisted of the gunpowder, projectile, and ignition source.

They were all contained in one metal cartridge.

It would decrease reloading times and maximize new gun advancements.

Inventions of bullet cartridges and repeating firearms changed the landscape of war.

A single man could use a gun that was capable of firing many rounds a minute.

It also had much-improved reloading times.


The Machine Gun and 19th Century Advancements

Guns saw many advancements through the 1800s.

After the amazing Colt revolver, the machine gun was invented about 50 years later.

The invention of the machine gun caused devastating casualties.

Old warfare tactics were no match for this new technology.

The first machine gun was the Maxim gun, invented by Sir Hiram Maxim.

It was created in 1884 and changed the definition of “rapid fire”.

It was capable of sending more bullets downrange than anything before.

Here is a video of the inventor himself giving a demonstration of the Maxim machine gun.

Another noteworthy advancement came with the bullets themselves.

Instead of the simple, round ball fired for hundreds of years, bullets took the form of a slug with a concave bottom.

This allowed it to expand when fired and grip the inside of the barrel better.

Creating this seal allowed the bullet to build up more pressure.

This resulted in higher speeds and improved accuracy.

Check out this video that goes deeper and shows more about the Maxim gun in action:


20th Century Evolution of Guns and Gun Accessories

In the 20th century, the cannon started to become smaller and handheld.

The same thing happened with the machine gun.

They became lightweight and manageable, while still providing a high level of fire.

Optics and aiming systems became commonplace with firearms.

The higher level of accuracy they enabled gave their owners an important advantage.

Firearms finally had enough power and range to make optics necessary.

Bullets became smaller and lighter, traveling faster than ever before. 

These new bullets allowed for more power and less recoil. 

Thanks to many wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, rapid-fire and quick reloading times also improved.


Guns Now

Guns have gone through many changes throughout their history.

They evolved from simple fireworks to highly engineered weapons of war.

These days it seems like AR-15 rifles are always in the news.

It’s a popular rifle platform that can be customized to work in almost any situation.

Rifles in the ArmaLite 15 (AR-15) style are now being referred to as Modern Sporting Rifles (MSRs).

Savage Recon 2.0 MSR rifle with red-dot and tripod
Savage Recon 2.0 MSR rifle with red-dot sight and tripod, owned by Paris Vega our editor.

The tactical usefulness of MSRs have influenced other types of guns as well.

Now you can mod your rifle, shotgun, or pistol with high end custom parts.

Even with all these advancements, gun technology and designs are changing fast.

Accuracy, size, reloading, and power will all keep getting better.

The desire to survive and thrive in an uncertain world pushes us forward.

At the very least, militaries around the world will keep investing in new weapons to gain the tactical edge.

War never changes, but the way we fight it always does.