An Introduction to Military Small Arms Evolution Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

An Introduction to Military Small Arms Evolution

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A reenactment of an historical military scene.

Before we start, it should be noted that this is an introduction to military small arms, and by no means an exhaustive analysis of the subject. Much has been left out but it is hoped the most relevant and pertinent developments have been included, such that the reader will come to appreciate the role that small arms development has played in human affairs. Emphasis will be placed on shoulder-fired arms for the most part since they have probably played the most important roles in deciding the outcomes of battles and wars since the 16th Century.

The Handgun

That said, the first small arm on record appears to have been a small, metal tube attached to a stock or handle, balanced on a forked stick and ignited with a slow burning match. This 'handgun', as it was called by its Germanic inventor, was awkward, inaccurate and slow to reload.

In order to fire this contraption, one hand was employed to align the tube with the target, while the other held the match to ignite the powder charge - thereby propelling a lead ball or even a small rock towards the intended target. In this sense, it differed very little from the artillery pieces of the era, which were larger tubes of metal or wood wrapped in metal strapping intended to propel large stones against enemy fortifications or swarms of smaller stones against enemy infantry formations.

The Matchlock

The handgun was eventually replaced in the 16th Century by the matchlock. This was a distinct improvement because the match was now held in a springloaded lever, or cockpiece, that when released by a trigger mechanism would ignite powder held in a pan next to a touch hole1 in the side of the tube or barrel. This powder charge would in turn ignite the main powder charge inside the barrel.

The barrel was still typically supported by a forked stick but the shooter - or musketeer - could now use one hand to steady the weapon along the stock against the shoulder while the other hand could trip the trigger causing the cockpiece to quickly propel the match into the powder charge in the pan. After the weapon was discharged, it could be reloaded by placing the butt of the stock on the ground or one's foot, pouring gunpowder into the muzzle, or mouth, of the barrel followed by a lead ball, which would in turn be rammed by a stick or rod down to the powder charge. The weapon would then be elevated and held level while another smaller charge of powder was deposited in the pan - after the cockpiece had been recocked of course. Then the firing procedure was repeated.

The chief drawbacks to this system - other than the time needed to reload and the inherent danger associated with handling gunpowder in proximity to a lit match - were that the pan and match were both vulnerable to the elements, and the match itself might give away the musketeer's position, especially after dark. The latter drawback was particularly relevant in the career of the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes.

When Cortes launched a night assault on superior forces who had been dispatched to Mexico by the governor of Cuba to arrest him, the presence of fireflies convinced Cortes' opponents that they were being attacked by a large force of musketeers. Many, therefore, surrendered without mounting an effective resistance. Thus, a well known drawback of the matchlock proved fortuitous for Cortes and distinctly unlucky for his enemies.

The other drawback - vulnerability to weather - was even more relevant, however, since a sudden shower or errant breeze could dissolve or blow away the powder in the pan. Also, tipping the weapon could dump this 'priming charge' on the ground, rendering the weapon useless as well.

The Flintlock

These drawbacks were addressed near the close of the 17th Century by someone in the Spanish Netherlands who devised what would come to be called the Flintlock. The Flintlock used an L-shaped piece of metal to cover and seal the pan, thus making a well-machined flintlock distinctly more impervious to weather than a matchlock.

The L-shaped piece was called a frissen and it pivoted on the front of the pan, the horizontal part of the L covering the pan while the vertical part was intended to provide a source of incandescent metal shavings to ignite the priming charge. The flint was held in the beak of the cockpiece, which had evolved into a roughly S-shaped springloaded lever designed to propel the flint into the frissen. The sharp edge of the flint would shave metal off the face of the frissen, while friction would heat the shavings to incandescent temperatures. The cock would also more or less simultaneously force the frissen forward uncovering the pan and allowing the incandescent metal shavings to ignite the priming charge in the pan. From then on the ignition sequence was identical to what happened with the matchlock.

The flintlock was such an elegant and effective innovation that it remained in service well into the 19th Century. The weapon could be elevated without losing the priming charge and even fired upside down, freeing the musketeer to assume a far more aggressive and mobile stance. Coupled with the invention of the paper cartridge and the bayonet, the flintlock musket became the preferred infantry weapon of the age. It could, in practiced hands, be fired several times per minute or used as a short pike with the bayonet fixed.

One of the premier examples of this particular weapon is represented by the so-called Brown Bess musket carried by troops of the British Empire beginning in the late 1720s and early 1730s. It was a long, heavy arm firing a .75 calibre lead ball. It went through at several iterations during the 18th and early 19th Centuries before being supplanted by the caplock rifled musket of the mid-19th Century.

The Rifle

During the American Revolution, another weapon began to gain some attention. German colonists in Pennsylvania, particularly Lancaster County, had been perfecting the old Jaeger hunting rifle for a number of years. The original Jaeger was a heavy-barrelled flintlock utilising a large bore rifled barrel.

Rifling is a groove or grooves cut into the inside surface of the bore in a spiral pattern to force the ball to spin. This spin significantly improves the accuracy and range of the ball. Because of the improvement in accuracy, the Lancaster County gunsmiths concluded that they could get by with smaller balls on the order of .50 calibre or less. The Lancaster Rifle then evolved into a much lighter and more graceful weapon suitable for the American frontiersmen who preferred it for both hunting and fighting. About this time Kentucky was being exploited for settlement so the Lancaster Rifle became better known as the Kentucky Long-rifle.

Some of these same frontiersmen were employed by the Continental Army as sharpshooters and they inflicted a heavy toll on British troops sent to subdue them. British officers, in red jackets, were particularly conspicuous targets for the deerskin-clad sharpshooters firing from tree limbs or other high places, with rather disastrous results for the British command and control system.

The major drawback to the rifle as a general issue infantry small arm was that it took longer to reload than a smooth-bore musket. The rifle ball needed to be undersized in order to be quickly rammed down the bore. In order to properly engage the rifling the rear of the ball was shrouded with a cloth patch. This imposed an extra step in the loading process.

Interestingly enough, a British officer named Ferguson devised a breech loading rifle that could be loaded as fast or faster than the typical musket of the day because the ball didn't need to be undersized. However, his invention died with him on a hill in Carolina during the American Revolution.

The Rifled Musket

To put the situation in perspective, we should note that the average smooth-bore musket could regularly hit a man-size target at about 100 yards. The average rifle extended that effective range to around 300 yards. However, because muzzle-loading rifles were slower to reload, they continued to be reserved mostly for sharpshooters or snipers until the advent of the Minie bullet in the 1850s.

The Minie bullet got around the problem of the patch by dispensing with it. Although the bullet was still undersized for the bore, it had a hollow base, the skirt of which would expand upon firing to engage the rifling. At this point, the muzzle-loading rifled musket, as it was called, became the preferred infantry weapon since not only could it deliver the same frequency of fire over greater distances, but also with substantially more terminal effect because it was in fact a bullet not a ball and therefore heavier.

Fine examples of this type of weapon were represented by the British Enfield and the American Springfield. Both were .577 or .58 calibre weapons loaded with paper cartridges. The rear of each cartridge was bitten off and the power charge deposited in the bore. Then the Minie bullet, already patched with greased paper, was rammed home.

Percussion Cap Ignition

By this time flintlock ignition had been replaced by the percussion cap. The cap was simply a copper cup with a fulminate of mercury or similar compound deposited inside. The cap was placed on a hollow cone that threaded into a channel similar to the old musket touch hole.

One of the useful properties of fulminates is that they ignite when struck by a hammer or similar implement. The cock was replaced by a springloaded hammer which, when triggered, would strike the cap causing the fulminate inside to ignite and send hot gas through the cone and into the chamber where the main powder charge would then be ignited.

This system is essentially still in use although the cap is now part of the metallic cartridge, not a separate component of the ignition system. We shall have cause to consider this more thoroughly later in this Entry.


The muzzle-loading system still left much to be desired since it frequently left soldiers vulnerable to enemy fire and was difficult to accomplish with a fixed bayonet. For this and related reasons, a viable breechloading system was sought during the American Civil War and towards the end of that conflict a British design called the Allen Conversion was adopted by the American military. Ironically, an American design called the Snyder Conversion was adopted by the British about the same time.

Both conversions involved cutting open the chamber of a rifled musket and attaching a movable breechblock. In the case of the Allen Conversion, this breechblock pivoted at the front and locked at the rear. To open the action, a small lever, attached to the rear of the breechblock, was lifted pivoting the breechblock upward and exposing the chamber. The front of the breechblock included a claw similar to the claw on a carpenter's hammer that could pry out a spent cartridge case which would be discarded. A fresh cartridge would then be inserted into the chamber and the breechblock moved back into its locked position. A firing pin transmitted the impact of the hammer through the breechblock to the cap of the cartridge. This in turn would fire the cartridge.

This system relied on the invention of the metallic cartridge to function. Earlier breechloaders, notably a late 1840s early 1850s model Sharps rifle, had used paper cartridges ignited by percussion caps. The metallic cartridge was better suited for the task at hand.

Metallic Cartridges

The first metallic cartridge was simply a percussion cap with a small lead ball inserted and propelled by the fulminate. It was necessarily low-powered and hence quite useless for anything other than target shooting in the parlour. Later, a copper or brass case was included. The percussion cap was placed in a pocket at the rear or head of the cartridge case during manufacture. The case was open at the front or mouth where a powder charge followed by a bullet would be inserted.

One might note that this is essentially the same system we've become familiar with during this discussion excepting that the cap or primer as it's usually called replaces the cap and cone; the case becomes an inner liner for the chamber to contain the powder charge and hold the bullet aligned to enter rifling of the bore. This would prove to be one of the most significant inventions in small arms development.

An alternative method of igniting a metallic cartridge involved placing fulminate in the hollow rim of the case. This type of ignition came to be called rimfire as opposed to the previously described cap inserted in the head pocket which came to be called centrefire, since the cap or primer was in the centre of the case head rather than the rim. A weapon set up to fire rimfire ammunition could not fire centrefire ammunition and vice versa, because of the different primer locations.

Initially rimfire cartridges were more common, however, because they tended to be less reliable and because the hollow rim of the case tended to make the case weaker than the solid rim of the centrefire system, centrefire eventually became the preferred ignition system for military cartridges.

Repeating Arms

During the American Civil War, two repeating type weapons were introduced. One was devised by a gunsmith in the employ of Oliver Winchester named B Tyler Henry. Henry used the Volcanic pistol patent, which Winchester had acquired from Smith and Wesson, to design a .44 calibre rimfire rifle and cartridge capable of delivering 15 shots before reloading.

It relied on a tubular magazine underneath the barrel and an action that transported each cartridge to the chamber using a pivoting cartridge carrier and a toggling breechblock activated by a finger lever. The action also cocked the hammer.

A second, competing design was introduced by Christian Spencer. It employed a .50 calibre bottlenecked rimfire cartridge. A bottlenecked cartridge has a larger case than bullet. The case is, therefore, tapered rather like the neck of a bottle to hold the smaller bullet.

Spencer's rifle was fed by a seven-shot tubular magazine located in the buttstock of the weapon. Unlike the Henry magazine, the Spencer magazine was detachable. It was, therefore, possible to carry spare magazines thus facilitating even more rapid reloading.

The breechblock on the Spencer was a quarter circle section of metal that rotated, hence exposing the mouth of the chamber and allowing a cartridge to be inserted under magazine spring pressure into the chamber. Like the Henry rifle, the block was activated by a finger-lever - however the hammer needed to be cocked manually.

Both weapons saw action in the war primarily on the Union side where they proved devastating to numerically superior Confederate forces. Indeed, the rebels are said to have complained about, 'Those damn Yankee rifles you load on Sunday and can shoot all week.' Since most massed infantry engagements were probably decided before troops armed with singleshot rifles had expended a half-dozen cartridges each, the rebel complaint was not as much of an exaggeration as it might first appear. If one typically saw action two or three times a week, the complaint would more or less accurately describe the capacity of a Henry rifle.

Other Entries in this Series

See The Bolt Action and Associated Developments of Military Small Arms for the next Entry in the series.

1Also known as a flash hole.

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