A firearm is type of device which propels one or more projectiles at high velocity by ignition of a combustible propellant in a confined space. With few exceptions firearms are designed to be used as weapons for both offensive and defensive application against a target as well as for sporting activities, signaling and ceremonial purposes. The discipline of using a firearm effectively is called marksmanship and is practiced by both professionals and sporting enthusiasts for hunting and target shooting. The effectiveness of firearms is often enhanced by optical devices or sights which magnify the target and allows accuracy at a greater distance.

Development of Firearms

We find the first historical mention of gunpowder in China during the 9th century. This explosive mixture of charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate was destined to be weaponized, and deployed in weapons known as fire-lances which were used as far back as the mid 1oth century. The fire lance, was a gunpowder filled bamboo tube on the end of a pole which was fired by lighting a wick and used to project flame much like a small flamethrower. Twelfth century drawings show that bamboo was upgraded to metal and enlarged. This design was also loaded with a single projectile and benefited from refinements to the manufacture of gunpowder that approximated modern formulas. This successful integration of all 3 basic firearm components ( gunpowder, metal muzzle and a single projectile) is viewed as the first effective firearm design. These hand held cannon devices spread across the middle east and moved west into Europe were they were downsized and mechanisms for igniting the gunpowder became more advanced to allow for practical deployment by infantry.

Enhancements to the mechanisms used to ignite the powder were the primary improvements to these weapons over the next several centuries . The first of these technologies was known as the matchlock, also known as the arquebus or musket. It was the first in a series of successful mechanical innovations that subsequently included the wheel-lock and the flintlock which coincided with the introduction of the rifled barrel. Unlike it's smooth-bore predecessors the addition of ridges within the barrel caused the projectile to spin along it's trajectory, significantly improving effective range and accuracy. Finally the cap-lock systems was the last stage in the series of the muzzle-loaging firearm designs that saw widespread use in the 19th century.

The modern era of firearms officially of began with the introduction of the metal cartridge (a.k.a. Round or bullet) in the late 1800's. While cartridges containing both the projectile and gunpowder in one casing were not a new idea, the newer metal versions were loaded via a breach and into a chamber instead of through the muzzle. It wasn't long before inventors produced versions which could fire repeatedly without the need to reload. Repeating firearms house bullets in a component called a magazine which can be internal or external and either fixed or removable for fast reloading.

Basic Types of Firearms

Numerous types of firearms exist for different applications. The most common are individual or small arms of which there are two main classes. The first is the long gun variety and is designed be operate with two hands. These include rifles such as the M1 Garand of WWII fame and shot-guns like the equally famous Windchester Model 12. The second group of small arms are handguns designed to be operated with one or both hands. This category includes automatic pistols like the Colt Model 1911 and revolvers like the 1851 Colt Navy used during and after the American Civil War. Much larger firearms designed for transport and operation by more than one individual belong to a class of arms called artillery and include cannons

Historical Significance of Firearms

The historical impact of firearms is profound. Their introduction into Europe and other continents permanently altered the socio political landscape forever. Prior to the proliferation of these weapons, superiority in combat was limited by the ability of individuals and groups to afford training and equipment. Under the European feudal system and even throughout the Renascence, both training and equipment were accessible only to the privileged or wealthier social classes. This concentration of overwhelming authority rapidly began to deteriorate with the advancement and availability of firearms which brought greater equality on the field of combat. The new reality that resulted was that any person regardless of their sex, physical stature or economic status could quickly be trained to defeat an individual with all of the equipment and training afforded them by their wealth and privilege. This realization of greater combat effectiveness for the average person eventually gave way to the formation of larger armies , utilizing a new set of strategy and tactics based on the use of small arms and artillery. Thus firearms changed the face of both politics and warfare forever.