The History of Firearms

Man aiming gun
Daniel Allan/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

Since the introduction of the flintlock musket in the 17th century, military small arms have gone through a series of significant changes over the years.

One of the first major advancements was the puckle gun. In 1718, James Puckle of London, England, demonstrated his new invention, the "Puckle Gun," a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock gun fitted with a multi-shot revolving cylinder. The weapon fired nine shots per minute at a time when the standard soldier's musket could be loaded and fired but three times per minute.

Puckle demonstrated two versions of the basic design. One weapon, intended for use against Christian enemies, fired conventional round bullets. The second variant, designed to be used against the Muslim Turks, fired square bullets, which were believed to cause more severe and painful wounds than spherical projectiles.

The "Puckle Gun," however, failed to attract investors and never achieved mass production or sales to the British armed forces. Following the business venture's failure, one newspaper of the period observed that "those are only wounded who hold shares therein."

According to the Patent Office of the United Kingdom, "In the reign of Queen Anne, the law officers of the Crown established as a condition of a patent that the inventor must in writing describe the invention and the manner in which it works." James Puckle's 1718 patent for a gun was one of the first inventions to provide a description.

Of the advances that followed, the invention and development of revolvers, rifles, machine guns and silencers were among the most significant. Here's a brief chronology of how they evolved.  


  • Samuel Colt invented the first revolver—named after its revolving cylinder. He was issued a U.S. patent in 1836 for the Colt firearm equipped with a revolving cylinder containing five or six bullets with an innovative cocking device. 


  • The breech-loading rifle was invented by Captain Patrick Ferguson of Pitfours, Scotland.
  • John Moses Browning was the prolific gun designer who invented the Winchester rifle (30/30), the pump shotgun and the Colt 45 automatic. He is best known for his automatic pistols and was the first one to invent the slide, which enclosed the barrel of a pistol and the firing mechanism.
  • Samuel Gardiner Jr. received a U.S. Patent in 1863 on a "high explosive rifle bullet" in .54, .58, and .69 calibers. Fused to explode in less than three seconds after firing, it ensured that any soldier hit by the projectile with a range of 400 yards faced the danger of the bullet exploding within the impact wound. The U.S. Government purchased 110,000 rounds of such ammunition for issue during the Civil War. Criticizing the use of similar ammunition by the Confederates, General Ulysses S. Grant complained that "their use is barbarous because they produce increased suffering without any increased advantage to using them."
  • A rifle scope is a refractor telescope used on a rifle. In 1880, August Fiedler (Stronsdorf), the forestry commissioner of Prince Reuss, managed to build the first telescopic sight that really did work.
  • Canadian John Garand invented the M1 semiautomatic rifle in 1934.
  • The development of assault rifles started during World War II, beginning with the German Sturmgewehr, the first rifle that could fire a medium size bullet at high rates of fire. In response the U.S. military began developing their own assault rifle, which resulted in the M16 assault rifle. It was first issued to American Soldiers in Vietnam in 1968 and designed by Eugene Stoner, a Marine Corps Veteran.
  • The 1941 Johnson Model Rifle one of the most innovative rifles of its time period. The Johnson rifle was invented by Melvin M. Johnson Jr.

Machine Guns

  • Richard Gatling patented his design of the "Gatling Gun," a six-barreled weapon capable of firing a (then) phenomenal 200 rounds per minute.
  • Hiram Maxim was born in Sangersville, Maine in 1840 and was the inventor of the Maxim Machine Gun and the Maxim Silencer. In 1881, a friend of American inventor Hiram Maxim told him: "If you wanted to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with." 
  • The Thompson submachine gun or Tommy gun was invented by General John T. Thompson. It was the first handheld machine gun. Thompson was driven by the thought of creating a handheld machine gun that would help end the First World War. However, the first shipment of prototype guns destined for Europe arrived at the docks in New York city on November 11, 1918, the day the qar ended. When the British army ran out of weapons to fight the war, the STEN submachine gun was quickly put into production to supply the soldiers.


  • Hiram Maxim (born 1853) invented the Maxim Silencer or Suppressor. It attached to the front of the barrel of a pistol and allowed the firearm to be fired without a loud bang. Invented in 1909, the Maxim Suppressor was the first commercially successful silencer.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Firearms." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The History of Firearms. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Firearms." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 6, 2021).