The modern firearms we see today have their roots in China. Gunpowder, the main component that is used in firearms was discovered in China in the 10th century AD. It was discovered by Chinese monks and alchemists during their search for the elixir of life. After two centuries or so, it began to be used as a weapon in the form of rockets. A narrow tube was filled with it and ignited to hurl objects to cause injury to the opposing armies.
Within a few centuries, gunpowder spread to Europe through trade contacts. Other peoples such as the Mongols made widespread use of gunpowder in their conquests and expeditions against other kingdoms.
The early firearms were very simple in construction. It was very difficult and time-consuming to mobilize and use them. At the same time, they lacked precision and accuracy. Hitting a target was a matter of chance rather than that of marksmanship. However, they were still very successful and effective in deterring standing enemy armies.
The disadvantages and clumsy nature of early firearms made it necessary to search for alternative design avenues and this lead to development of newer technologies. With the progress of time, the guns became smaller, more mobile and at the same time more accurate. They also became more automated. Examples of such developments include the match lock and wheel lock guns. The guns had a mechanical way of igniting the gunpowder which made firing the gun much easier.
The next milestone in gun technology was the flintlock. Invented in the 1630s, the flintlock was completely automated and revolutionized the role of guns in warfare. The gun was very easy to load and fire and this made it a very popular weapon of choice in wars. However, the flintlock could fire only a single bullet at a time.
Guns with the capability of firing multiple bullets without manual intervention had to wait for another century until James Puckle patented his machine gun. Guns at that time has to ignited either by using a spark or a smouldering wick. This posed a serious problem in moist conditions. This was overcome with the discovery of the percussion cap. The percussion cap contains a chemical substance that explodes upon impact. Thus by using a sealed percussion cap, guns could be used equally effectively even in moist conditions.
After the invention of the percussion cap, small arms became more and popular. In 1835, Samuel Colt designed the Colt revolver. This was the first handgun ever to be mass produced. It was also the first handgun capable of firing multiple shots. After the success of the Colt revolver, several other companies also started manufacturing small arms and handguns.
By the year 1850, the shotgun came into use. Unlike other guns, the shotgun doesn’t have a rifled barrel and because of this they neither have a good range nor precision. However, they have tremendous stopping power and hence are used even today by law enforcement agencies in many countries throughout the world.
The next development was the invention of the Gatling gun. This gun was invented in 1862 and was the first gun capable of firing multiple rounds continuously. It was capable of firing 200 rounds in a minute. This firing rate was phenomenal at that time. However, it was very bulky and not easy to mobilize.
The true rifle capable of automatic firing had to wait for 50 years more after the Gatling gun. By this time, the true potential of the guns in winning wars came to be realized and thus newer ways of using guns began to be researched. In one such experiment, the American army tested the first aeroplane mounted machine gun in the year 1912. This laid the foundations of air warfare. Most fighter aircraft in use today have a gun in their arsenal.
When the world wars broke out, the search for better guns continued. The governments of the warring countries started investing lots of money and efforts into developing better guns and weapons. It was at this time that sniper rifles came into popular use. The world wars changed the way wars were fought. Newer strategies like trench warfare and guerrilla tactics made it necessary to identify and eliminate potential enemies from a distance. This is where sniper rifles proved to be useful. With their long range, accuracy and telescopic sights, sniper rifles were often employed to eliminate higher ranking military officers to demoralize the enemy. World War II saw the highest use of sniping tactics. In fact in Germany and the Soviet Union, special military units were created and schools were setup to train and improve sniper skills.
After World War II, the world saw the emergence of two super powers: USA and the Soviet Union. Confrontations and conflicts between these two countries led to the Cold War which further led to the development of not just guns but also other weapons of mass destruction. The cold war affected almost every country in the world. The entire world split into two camps waiting for war with each other. This created a massive demand for weapons and led to the creation of a huge weapons industry. The Soviet Union and the USA were the major players that produced weapons on a massive scale and shipped them to third world countries.
The Soviet AK-47 obviously triumphed in the weapons race. Its durability and low manufacturing costs made it possible to mass produce it and distribute it to almost all the countries that fell in the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union. Even today, it is widely employed and is the standard weapon of choice in many countries in the world. The USA also sought for newer and better guns when it entered the Vietnam War. The older M14 proved to be ineffective in jungle warfare and thus was replaced with a smaller weapon—the M16. Today, this is standard rifle used by the United States Army.
The direction in which gun technology is progressing is unpredictable. Laser guns and other fictional weapons have not yet been invented and found to be of any potential use. However, newer technologies are constantly being researched. Accuracy, reliability and lethal power are what are guiding the gun design and development industry.
The guns of the future or the “ultra weapons” as they are known now will feature cutting edge technology and even artificial intelligence. As evident from today’s trends, they will be computerized and thus have pinpoint accuracy and precision. Several companies and organizations have already started research in the next generation guns. Once such company is Metal Storm—an Australian gun design company that specializes in ultra-modern gun technology. The guns produced by Metal Storm are powered by an electronically controlled ignition system which gives it the capability to fire millions of rounds in a minute. This is exactly what guns of the future will look like—deadly accurate and deadly lethal.