A Brief History
On July 19, 1814, Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and though he lived only to the age of 47 became rich and famous as the man that made the repeating firearm a practical reality. Here we list 10 of the most important designers of firearms and their components (no significance to the order listed).
1. Samuel Colt, Revolver.
The familiar revolving cylinder pistol is the legacy of Mr. Colt, the man about which it is said, “God created men, and Sam Colt kept them equal.” The revolver is so closely associated with Colt, that in French, the word for revolver is “Le Colt.” Colt revolvers are frequently cited as “The gun that won the West,” and until the advent of practical semi-automatic pistols in the early 20th Century the revolver ruled the world of handguns. Colt’s first patent was granted in 1836, and he kept a monopoly on revolvers until 1857, firmly establishing his design as the archetypical revolver. Even after the invention of practical semi-automatic handguns, the revolver remained a mainstay of police forces in the United States until the 1980’s. Sam Colt may not have invented the revolver concept, but he certainly invented the design that made it practical (a design that relied on the invention of the percussion cap). Colt also deserves credit for manufacturing techniques that made the mass production of his pistols possible.
2. Hiram Maxim, Machine Gun.
An American born in 1840, Maxim moved to Britain in 1881, and became a British citizen in 1900. Maxim was an inventor of a wide range of extraneous things, including formulations of smokeless gunpowder and explosives, electric lighting (including a claim that he invented the light bulb), medical devices, amusement park rides and of course, the machine gun. In 1883, Maxim’s recoil operated machine gun became the first fully automatic practical machine gun, and the design was so sound that it lived on in mainstream military use for the next 100 years. (The US .30 caliber machine guns and the M2 Browning machine gun were recoil operated as well, with the M60 that appeared in the 1950’s and 1960’s switching to gas operation.) During World War I, both sides used versions of Maxim Guns to great effect. The ruggedness and reliability of the Maxim Gun was far superior to other early attempts to invent machine guns, making it the first practical machine gun. (Note: Hiram’s son, Hiram Percy Maxim, invented the first practical silencer/sound suppressor for firearms.)
3. Charles Howard, Alexander Forsyth, Joshua Shaw, Percussion Cap.
It is not entirely clear as to exactly who made the first percussion cap, but we know Howard discovered fulminates, the chemical compounds that are pressure sensitive that used in percussion caps and ammunition primers that detonate when struck by a hammer or firing pin. The Reverend Alexander Forsyth of Scotland is credited with the idea of using fulminates to initiate ignition of gunpowder in firearms, which he patented in 1807. Proper metallic percussion caps (that later became primers in metallic cased ammunition) are credited to Joshua Shaw of the United States as of 1814 (patented 1822), although there is argument as to whom actually invented the percussion cap first, with some arguing Francois Prelat, Joseph Egg, Joseph Manton or Peter Hawker deserve credit for the invention. In any case, the metallic percussion cap was the state of the art firearms ignition system from around 1820, to the mid-1800’s when the percussion cap technology was adapted for use in the Dreyse Needle Gun (1841) and in the manufacture of centerfire metallic cartridges (1860’s).
4. Clement Pottet, Hiram Berdan, Edward Boxer, et al, Centerfire Ammunition.
Utilizing the technology of the percussion cap, Pottet made the first practical centerfire cartridges, but Berdan and Boxer (and others) improved on the Pottet design to make metallic cased centerfire ammunition we recognize today. So called “fixed” ammunition, one piece ammo consisting of primer, powder, case and projectile in a single cartridge that does not have to be assembled by the user and will not fall apart is the invention that makes machine guns (automatic weapons) and many other repeating arms possible.
5. John Moses Browning, Prolific Gun Designer.
Browning is perhaps the single greatest designer of firearms in history, with 128 patents to his credit. Although he is long gone (1855-1926) this American from Utah designed guns that are still in widespread use today, notably the M1911 .45 Automatic Colt Pistol, the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol, Browning Auto-5 semi-automatic shotgun, Remington Model 8 Semi-automatic Rifle, Winchester 1897 pump-action shotgun, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), several of Winchester’s Lever action rifles, and a host of civilian market pistols. Browning designed guns for at least 6 firearm manufacturers, many of which were copied by other gun makers, and he is the father of many important ammunition calibers in common use today, including .25ACP, .32ACP, .38ACP, .380ACP, .45ACP, .50BMG and 9mm Browning Long. (Note: ACP stands for “Automatic Colt Pistol,” and BMG stands for “Browning Machine Gun.”) The odds are quite good that if you have fired a gun, you probably have used a Browning designed firearm or ammunition.
6. Louis-Nicolas Flobert, Smith & Wesson, Rimfire cartridges, Bored through cylinder.
Frenchman Flobert invented a cartridge consisting of a percussion cap with a small (.22 caliber) round ball attached to the open side creating a low power cartridge suitable for arcade type amusement shooting, as the cartridge contained no gunpowder, relying only on the primer compound for propulsion. Smith & Wesson created the .22 Short rimfire cartridge for their Model 1 revolver in 1857. The Model 1 introduced the “bored through” cylinder to the revolver, allowing the use of metallic cartridges that could be rapidly reloaded (compared to laborious muzzle loading Colt revolvers of the time). With the American Civil War creating a huge demand for handguns, Smith & Wesson came up with larger calibers for their rimfire ammunition more appropriate to use in combat. Other repeating and breech loading guns of that era borrowed the rimfire concept (Henry, Spencer, Ballard, Winchester 1866) that of a metallic cartridge with priming compound lining the area around the inside of the rim, the priming compound being ignited by the firing pin striking the rim of the cartridge and in turn igniting the powder in the shell case. Centerfire priming systems rapidly overtook rimfire for most larger calibers, but the .22 (in Short, Long, and Long Rifle form) has persisted in enormous quantities to today, presenting an inexpensive way for shooters to enjoy shooting. Other rimfire calibers such as .22 WMR (Winchester Magnum Rimfire) and the currently popular .17 caliber rimfires have kept this technology relevant in modern shooting.
7. Paul Vielle, Alfred Nobel, Smokeless Powder.
Attempts to harness the power of nitroglycerine as a replacement for black powder (gunpowder) began as early as 1846 with the first use of “gun cotton,” followed by various attempts to use paper, wood, and gelatinized substances with potassium and nitrates to create a practical and powerful new propellant. These efforts met with limited success and unlimited failures, until Alfred Nobel, the man that invented Dynamite came up with his version of “smokeless” powder (it’s not really smokeless, just a lot less smoky than black powder) he called Ballistite. Frenchman Paul Vielle had invented what he called Poudre B in 1884 and Hiram Maxim invented his version around 1890. The British version of smokeless powder, Cordite, was first manufactured in 1889. Practical nitro-cellulose gunpowder is several times more powerful than black powder, burns cleaner (not fouling guns as quickly) and creates far less smoke. Had smokeless powder not been invented, machine guns would quickly foul and jam, making them impractical.
8. August Kotter, Barrel Rifling.
The first known “rifling,” cutting helical grooves in the inside of a gun barrel dates from 1498, in Augsburg, Germany, with August Kotter improving the system that imparts a spin on the ball or bullet that enhances accuracy. Serious attempts to use barrel rifling to enhance accuracy followed the work of Kotter in the 16th Century. By the 18th Century, rifles were used for precision shooting, such as hunting and competition, while smoothbore muskets remained the main form of military longarm. The problem with rifled barrels is that the projectile (ball or bullet) must fit tightly, causing slower loading when using muzzle loading weapons and are susceptible to becoming unusable due to fouling much quicker than smooth bore weapons. The invention of the conical, hollow base bullet sized a bit smaller than the bore to replace the ball solved this problem and made rifled bores standard for military as well as hunting arms. This technology also made cannons many times more accurate.
9. Claude-Etienne Minie, The Minie Ball.
The improved accuracy of rifled bores in long guns was well known by 1826, when Minie invented the projectile that bears his name (although in English, we pronounce the projectile “mini-ball). Using a conical, hollow based bullet with grooves on its side to hold grease, the Minie ball is a bit smaller than the bore of the rifle or rifled musket, making it much easier to load (in a muzzle loading weapon) than a tightly fitted patched ball. Combining greatly improved accuracy with rapid loading, the Minie ball made smoothbore long guns (other than shotguns) obsolete. Others had understood the concept of the hollow base conical bullet, but it was Minie that perfected and popularized it.
10. Eugene Stoner, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Hugo Schmeisser, Assault Rifle.
Prior to World War II, automatic rifles were already in service, and semi-automatic rifles as well, but none were fairly lightweight and highly controllable in full automatic fire. Hugo Schmeisser of Germany invented the first assault rifle in 1942, the StG 44. Weighing only 10 pounds and using a 30 round magazine, the StG 44 fired an intermediate cartridge less powerful than the main battle rifle cartridges of the day but substantially more powerful than a pistol cartridge. The StG 44 and all assault rifles are defined by using such an intermediate cartridge or a rifle cartridge fed from a detachable magazine and capable of semi-automatic and full-automatic fire. This concept was continued by Kalashnikov in the Soviet Union in his masterpiece, the AK-47, an assault rifle that virtually defines the term, with an incredible 75 million built world-wide, plus another 25 million derivative designed guns! It has been estimated that about a fifth of all firearms in the world are AK-47’s or their derivatives. Stoner is the inventor of the M-16/AR-15/M-4 family of American assault rifles, in service as the standard US military rifle for longer than any other shoulder weapon (since 1969). Over 8 million of the Stoner designed rifles have been made, and in the United States the semi-automatic only version of the AR-15 has become the most popular rifle in the country, with about 10 million of the rifles owned by citizens. (Note: Despite looking just like their military kin, semi-automatic only versions of these rifles are NOT assault rifles. Assault rifles are only ones capable of full automatic fire or selectively single shot action. Pistol caliber weapons, such as sub-machine guns or their semi-automatic clones are also NOT assault weapons.)
Question for students (and subscribers): We ask our readers to nominate other contributors to firearms engineering for inclusion on this list in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Edwards, William B. The story of Colt’s revolver;: The biography of Col. Samuel Colt. Stackpole Co, 1953.
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube: