Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry

Who Invented the Gun?

I was watching the Michael Shannon-led miniseries “Waco” and this led me to think about all those guns. Seriously! But whatever. I’m here to take a look back at the creation of the gun.

Who Created the Gun?

As this is often the case with this type of question, when it’s this old, it’s hard to put one name on the invention. Before the gun, came the gunpowder.

So, first, who invented gunpowder?

Saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal are the main ingredients in “gunpowder,” as it came to be known. When combined, these substances will burn quickly and explode to act as a propellant.

This was during their search for a life-extension elixir in the ninth century CE that Chinese monks discovered gunpowder. Saltpeter, the essential component, was used by them for therapeutic purposes since the late-century BCE. It took no time to realize how incendiary this discovery was and it was promptly used in battle.

Warfare and commerce were at the heart of the Mongol society and this helped the spread of the gunpowder to the rest of the world. The main problem at that time was measuring the different ingredients properly to get an explosion. It took some time—well into the 13th century—to find the perfect ratio. As the Europeans adopted gunpowder as a key strategic element to fuel their thirst for expansion, saltpeter became an in-demand resource and there was a lot of it in India, so the Europeans went there and the global economy and power structure of the world changed.

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
A Flintlock Pistol, here in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

But what about the inventor of the gun?

The “fire lance,” sometimes known as the first real gun but is technically its ancestor, appeared in China in the tenth century. It was made of a bamboo or metal tube filled with shrapnel and gunpowder, which was lit to create a flame and launch the projectiles.

Late in the 13th century, metal tubes were used in place of the fire lance barrels to create hand cannons with metal barrels. Those hand cannons are the real “first” guns. Discovered in the Acheng District, one of nine districts of the prefecture-level city of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, Northeast China, the Heilongjiang hand cannon has been dated to 1288.

Numerous innovators and civilizations from various parts of the world contributed to the development and improvement of weapons. In Europe, significant developments took place in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One of the most important developments in firearm design is the matchlock mechanism. It introduced a trigger mechanism that ignited the gunpowder using a slow-burning match. Before that, the musketeer had to apply a match directly to the gunpowder by hand. The matchlock was first used by the Janissary Corps of the Ottoman Army dating the mechanism from 1394 to 1465.

Later, around 1500, came the wheellock, a friction-wheel mechanism that creates a spark that causes a firearm to fire. Then, in the early 16th century in Western Europe, Flintlock was introduced. It was a flint-striking ignition mechanism. It was in use for over two centuries before being replaced by the percussion cap (invented by an English American artist named Joshua Shaw) and, in the early-to-mid 19th century, by the cartridge-based systems.

And the bullets? Different types of projectiles were used throughout the centuries. And in 1812, Swiss inventor and gunsmith Jean Samuel Pauly invented a cartridge containing a primer, making it the first self-contained cartridge.

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