Historical timeline of the development of modern weapons starting at 1364 with the first recorded use of a firearm and ending in 1892 with the introduction of automatic handguns.
1364 – First recorded use of a firearm.
1380 – Hand guns are known across Europe.
1400s – The matchlock gun appears.
Before the matchlock, guns were fired by holding a burning wick to a “touch hole” in the barrel igniting the powder inside. A shooter uses one hand for firing, and a prop to steady the gun.The first device, or “lock,” for mechanically firing a gun is the matchlock. Powder is held in a “flash pan,” and ignited by a wick, or match, in a movable clamp. Both hands remain on the gun, vastly improving aim. Early matchlock guns are extremely rare. The matchlock shown here was made around 1640, and is typical of the muskets used by militia in Colonial America.
1498 – Rifling principle is discovered.
1509 – Invention of wheel lock (rose lock).
The next major advance, the wheel lock, generates a spark mechanically. With no wick to keep lit, the wheel lock is easier to use, and more reliable than the matchlock. However, wheel locks are expensive to produce. Matchlocks, at half the cost, remain in common use. This is an early (ca. 1540) multi-shot, wheel-lock pistol, made for Emperor Charles V. In this weapon, two locks are combined in one mechanism, to give each barrel separate ignition.
1540 – Rifling appears in firearms.
1607 – Settlers arrive in Jamestown, Virginia.
1630 – The first true flintlock.
The flintlock solved a longstanding problem. Some time in the late 1500s, a lid was added to the flash pan design. To expose or protect the powder, the lid had to be moved manually. The flintlock mechanism was designed to push back the lid and spark a flint at the same time. The flintlock ignition system reigned for two centuries, with virtually no alteration. The flintlock pictured here is a typical British “Brown Bess” musket. Marks on the gun indicate that it was used by German mercenaries during the American Revolution.
1637 – First use of firearms proof-marks.
1750-1850 – Dueling pistols come into fashion.
Around 1750, men stop carrying rapiers, and guns became the weapon of choice for a duel. Various guns were used, until a true dueling pistol was officially standardized in 1777, as “a 9 or 10 inch barreled, smooth bore flintlock of 1 inch bore, carrying a ball of 48 to the pound.” Often lavishly decorated, the pistols are made until dueling falls out of favor in the mid-1800s. This pair of 1786 flintlock pistols was made with ivory stocks and unusually elaborate decorative details.
1776 – American Revolution.
1807 – Percussion-detonating principle patented.
1825 ca. – Percussion-cap guns are in general use.
1830 – The back action lock appears.
1835 – The first Colt revolver.
Samuel Colt developed the first mass-produced, multi-shot, revolving firearms. Various revolving designs had been around for centuries, but precision parts couldn’t be made with available technologies. Colt was the first to apply Industrial Age machining tools to the idea. Mass production made the guns affordable. Reliability and accuracy made the Colt a favorite of soldiers and frontiersmen. The Colt depicted is a Third Model Dragoon percussion revolver (ca. 1853). A Colt with such lavish decoration and gold inlay is extremely rare.
1840 – Guns begin to use pin-fire cartridges.
1847 – The telegraph is invented.
1850 – True shotguns in common use.
In the second half of the 18th century, musket design branched out. This period produced a number of single-purpose firearms. The forerunner of modern shotguns was the fowling piece, developed specifically for hunting birds. Among the upper classes, fowling was a leisure sport. Fowling pieces for the very affluent were often lovely works of art, but impractical for hunting.
1854-56 – The Crimean War. The last war to use only muzzle-loaded guns.
1859 – The first full rim-fire cartridge.
1860 – Spencer repeating carbine patented.
Introduced at the start of the Civil War, Spencer repeating guns were technically advanced, used cartridges (a recent development), and could fire 7 shots in 15 seconds. But the Army didn’t want a repeating gun, fearing that soldiers would fire more often, constantly need fresh ammunition, and overtax the supply system. But in 1863, President Lincoln test-fired a Spencer. His approval led to the purchase of 107,372 Spencer repeating carbines and rifles (of 144,500 made), and the Spencer became the principal repeating gun of the Civil War.
1861 – Breech loaded guns in common use.
1861-1865 – American Civil War. Both breech and muzzle loaded guns used.
1862 – The Gatling Gun is invented.
1869 – Center-fire cartridge introduced.
1870-1871- The Franco-German War. Breach-loaded guns are dominant.
1871 – First cartridge revolver.
1873 – Winchester rifle introduced.
Winchester rifles were affordable, and produced in such great numbers, that the Winchester became the generic rifle. The Winchester had such a powerful hold in some regions that it actually became known as “the gun that won the West.” In 1887, Winchester came out with their first repeating shotguns. The next major milestone for Winchester came in 1903, when the company introduced the first automatic rifle that would become widely used.
1876 – Custer defeated at Little Big Horn.
1877 – First effective double-action revolver.
1879 – Lee box magazine patented.
1892- Advent of automatic handguns.
The first automatic pistol was created by Joseph Laumann in 1892. But the Borchardt pistol of 1893 was the first automatic with a separate magazine in the grip, and this remains the defining feature of the breed. More automatics came in rapid succession, including Browning, Luger, Mauser, and Colt models. By the turn of the century, just 8 years after Laumann, automatics were firmly established.
1900 – Historical firearms period concludes.
Contemporary period begins.