1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gun

GUN, a general term for a weapon, tubular in form, from which a projectile is discharged by means of an explosive. When applied to artillery the word is confined to those pieces of ordnance which have a direct as opposed to a high-angle fire, in which case the terms “howitzer” and “mortar” are used (see Ordnance and Machine-Gun). “Gun” as applied to firearms which are carried in the hand and fired from the shoulder, the old “hand gun,” is now chiefly used of the sporting shot-gun, with which this article mainly deals; in military usage this type of weapon, whether rifle, carbine, &c., is known collectively as “small arms” (see Rifle and Pistol). The origin of the word, which in Mid. Eng. is gonne or gunne, is obscure, but it has been suggested by Professor W. W. Skeat that it conceals a female name, Gunnilde or Gunhilda. The names, e.g. Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle and faule Grete (heavy Peg), known to readers of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great, will be familiar parallelisms. “Gunne” would be a shortened “pet name” of Gunnhilde. The New English Dictionary finds support for the suggestion in the fact that in Old Norwegian gunne and hilde both mean “war,” and quotes an inventory of war material at Windsor Castle in 1330–1331, where is mentioned “una magna balista de cornu quae vocatur Domina Gunilda.” Another suggestion for the origin of the word is that the word represents a shortened form, gonne, of a supposed French mangonne, a mangonel, but the French word is mangonneau.

Fig. 1.—Hand Gun. Fig. 2.—Mounted Man with Hand Gun.

Firearms are said to have been first used in European warfare in the 14th century. The hand gun (see fig. 1) came into practical use in 1446 and was of very rude construction. It consisted of a simple iron or brass tube with a touch-hole at the top fixed in a straight stock of wood, the end of which passed under the right armpit when the “gonne” was about to be fired. A similar weapon (see fig. 2) was also used by the horse-soldier, with a ring at the end of the stock, by which it was suspended by a cord round the neck; a forked rest, fitted by a ring to the saddlebow, served to steady the gun. This rest, when not in use, hung down in front of the right leg. A match was made of cotton or hemp spun slack, and boiled in a strong solution of saltpetre or in the lees of wine. The touch-hole was first placed on the top of the barrel, but afterwards at the side, with a small pan underneath to hold the priming, and guarded by a cover moving on a pivot.

From General Hardÿ de Périnï’s Turenne et Condé 1626–1675.
Fig. 3.—Musketeer, 1626.

An improvement in firearms took place in the first year of the reign of Henry VII., or at the close of Edward IV., by fixing a cock (Fr. serpentine) on the hand gun to hold the match, which was brought down to the priming by a trigger, whence the term matchlock. This weapon is still in use among the Chinese, Tatars, Sikhs, Persians and Turks. An improvement in the stock was also made during this period by forming it with a wide butt end to be placed against the right breast. Subsequently the stock was bent, a German invention, and the arm was called a hackbutt or hagbut, and the smaller variety a demihague. The arquebus and hackbutt were about a yard in length, including barrel and stock, and the demihague was about half the size and weight, the forerunner of the pistol. The arquebus was the standard infantry firearm in Europe from the battle of Pavia to the introduction of the heavier and more powerful musket. It did not as a rule require a rest, as did the musket. The wheel-lock, an improvement on the matchlock, was invented in Nuremberg in 1517; was first used at the siege of Parma in 1521; was brought to England in 1530, and continued in partial use there until the time of Charles II. This wheel-lock consisted of a fluted or grooved steel wheel which protruded into the priming pan, and was connected with a strong spring. The cock, also regulated by a spring, was fitted with a piece of iron pyrites. In order to discharge the gun the lock was wound up by a key, the cock was let down on the priming pan, the pyrites resting on the wheel; on the trigger being pressed the wheel was released and rapidly revolved, emitting sparks, which ignited the powder in the pan. The complicated and expensive nature of this lock, with its liability to injury, no doubt prevented its general adoption.

From General Hardÿ de Périnï’s Turenne et Condé, 1626–1675.
Figs. 4 and 5.—Musketeers, 1675.
Fig. 6. (left)—Moorish Flint-lock.
Fig. 7. (right)—Indian Matchlock.

About 1540 the Spaniards constructed a larger and heavier firearm (matchlock), carrying a ball of 10 to the pound, called a musket. This weapon was introduced into England before the middle of the 16th century, and soon came into general use throughout Europe. The snaphance was invented about this period in Germany, and from its comparative cheapness was much used in England, France and Holland. It held a flint instead of the pyrites of the wheel or firelock, which ignited the powder in the pan by striking on a piece of furrowed steel, when released by the trigger, and emitting sparks.

As a sporting weapon the gun may be said to date from the invention of the wheel-lock in the beginning of the 16th century, though firearms were used for sporting purposes in Italy, Spain, Germany, and to some extent in France, in the 15th century. Before that period the longbow in England and the crossbow on the Continent were the usual weapons of the chase. In Great Britain little use appears to have been made of firearms for game shooting until the latter half of the 17th century, and the arms then used for the purpose were entirely of foreign make.

The French gunmakers of St-Étienne claim for their town that it is the oldest centre of the firearms industry. They do not appear to have made more than the barrels of the finest sporting arms, and these even were sometimes made in Paris. The production of firearms by the artists of Paris reached its zenith about the middle of the 17th century. The Italian, German, Spanish and Russian gunsmiths also showed great skill in the elegance and design of their firearms, the Spaniards in particular being makers of fine barrels. The pistol (q.v.) is understood to have been made for the first time about 1540 at Pistoia in Italy. About 1635 the modern firelock or flint-lock was invented, which only differed from the snaphance by the cover of the pan forming part of the furrowed steel struck by the flint. Originally the priming was put into the pan from a flask containing a fine-grained powder called serpentine powder. Later the top of the cartridge was bitten off and the pan filled therefrom before loading. The mechanism of the flint-lock musket rendered all this unnecessary, as, in loading, a portion of the charge passed through the vent into the pan, where it was held by the cover or hammer. The matchlock, as a military weapon, gradually gave way to the firelock, which came into general use in the last half of the 17th century, and was the weapon of Marlborough’s and Wellington’s armies. This was the famous “Brown Bess” of the British army. The highest development of the flint-lock is found in the fowling-pieces of the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, particularly those made by Joseph Manton, the celebrated English gunsmith and inventor. The Napoleonic wars afforded English gunmakers an opportunity, which they fully utilized, of gaining the supremacy over their foreign competitors in the gunmaking trade. English gunmakers reduced the weight, improved the shooting powers, and perfected the lock mechanism of the sporting gun, and increased the range and efficiency of the rifle. This transference of the gunmaking craft from the Continent to England was also assisted by the tyranny of the foreign gunmaking gilds. In 1637 the London gunmakers obtained their charter of incorporation. The important gunmaking industry of Birmingham dates from 1603, and soon rivalled that of London. Double shot-guns do not appear to have been generally used until the 19th century. The first successful double guns were built with the barrels over and under, and not side by side, and were invented about 1616 by one Guilliano Bossi of Rome. In 1784 double shot guns were described as a novelty. Joseph Manton patented the elevated rib which rested on the barrels. The general success of the double gun was eventually due to the light weight which the better material and workmanship of the best gunmakers made possible, and to the quickness and certainty of ignition of the modern cartridge.

The objections to the flint-lock were that it did not entirely preserve the priming from wet, and that the flint sparks sometimes failed to ignite the charge. In 1807 the Rev. Alexander John Forsyth obtained a patent for priming with a fulminating powder made of chlorate of potash, sulphur and charcoal, which exploded by concussion. This important improvement in firearms was not recognized and adopted by the military authorities until more than thirty years later. In the meantime it was gradually developed, and the copper percussion cap invented, by various gunmakers and private individuals. Thomas Shaw of Philadelphia first used fulminate in a steel cap in 1814, which he changed to a copper cap in 1816. It was not until the introduction of the copper cap that the percussion gun could be considered in every way superior to the flint. In 1834, in the reign of William IV., Forsyth’s invention was tested at Woolwich by firing 6000 rounds from six flint-lock muskets, and a similar number from six percussion muskets, in all weathers. This trial established the percussion principle. The shooting was found to be more accurate, the recoil less, the charge of powder having been reduced from 6 to 41/2 drs., the rapidity of firing greater and the number of miss-fires much reduced, being as 1 to 26 nearly in favour of the percussion system. In consequence of this successful trial the military flint-lock in 1839 was altered to suit the percussion principle. This was easily accomplished by replacing the hammer and pan by a nipple with a hole through its centre to the vent or touch-hole, and by replacing the cock which held the flint by a smaller cock or hammer with a hollow to fit on the nipple when released by the trigger. On the nipple was placed the copper cap containing the detonating composition, now made of three parts of chlorate of potash, two of fulminate of mercury and one of powdered glass.

In 1840 the Austrian army was supplied with the percussion musket, and in 1842 a new model percussion musket with a block or back-sight for 150 yds. was issued to the British army, 11 ℔ 6 oz. in weight, 4 ft. 63/4 in. in length without bayonet, 6 ft. with bayonet and with a barrel 3 ft. 3 in. in length, firing a bullet of 141/2 to the ℔ with 41/2 drs. of powder. This musket was larger in bore than that of France, Belgium, Russia and Austria, and thus had the advantage of being able to fire their balls, while the English balls could not be fired from their barrels. But the greater weight and momentum of the English ball was counteracted by the excess of windage. This percussion musket of 1842, the latest development of the renowned Brown Bess, continued in use in the British army until partially superseded in 1851 by the Minié rifle, and altogether by the Enfield rifle in 1855. For further information as to the history and development of military, target and sporting rifles see Rifle.

Illustrations are given herewith of a German carbine of the 16th century, with double wheel-lock (fig. 8); a snaphance (fig. 9); several forms of the Brown Bess or flint-lock military musket (English, William III., fig. 10; George II., fig. 11; George III., fig. 12; French, Napoleon, fig. 13); and of the percussion musket adopted in the British service in 1839 (fig. 14). Examples of non-European firearms are shown in figs. 6 and 7, representing a Moorish flint-lock and an Indian matchlock respectively. Figs. 15-18 represent various carbines, musketoons and blunderbusses, fig. 15 showing a small blunderbuss or musketoon of the early 18th century, fig. 16 a large blunderbuss of 1750, fig. 17 a flint-lock cavalry carbine of about 1825 and fig. 18 a percussion carbine of 1830. All these are drawn from arms in the museum of the Royal United Service Institution, London.

Modern Shot Guns.—The modern sporting breech-loaders may be said to have originated with the invention of the cartridge-case containing its own means of ignition. The breech-loading mechanism antedated the cartridge by many years, the earliest breech-loading hand guns dating back to 1537. Another distinct type of breech-loader was invented in France about the middle of the 17th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries breech-loading arms were very numerous and of considerable variety. The original cartridge, a charge of powder and bullet in a paper envelope, dates from 1586. These were used with muzzle-loaders, the base of the cartridge being ripped or bitten off by the soldier before placing in the barrel. It was only when the detonating cap came into use that the paper cartridge answered well in breech-loaders. The modern breech-loader has resulted from a gradual series of improvements, and not from any one great invention. Its essential feature is the prevention of all escape of gas at the breech when the gun is fired by means of an expansive cartridge-case containing its own means of ignition. The earlier breech-loaders were not gas-tight, because the cartridge-cases were either consumable or the load was placed in a strong non-expansive breech-plug. The earliest efficient modern cartridge-case was the pin-fire, patented by Houiller, a Paris gunsmith, in 1847, with a thin weak shell which expanded by the force of the explosion, fitted perfectly in the barrel, and thus formed an efficient gas check. Probably no invention connected with firearms has wrought such changes in the principle of gun-construction as those effected by the expansive cartridge-case. This invention has completely revolutionized the art of gunmaking, has been successfully applied to all descriptions of firearms, and has produced a new and important industry—that of cartridge manufacture.

About 1836, C. Lefaucheux, a Paris gunsmith, improved the old Pauly system of breech-loading, but its breech action was a crude mechanism, with single grip worked by a bottom lever. The double grip for the barrels was the subsequent invention of a Birmingham gunmaker. The central-fire cartridge, practically as now in use, was introduced into England in 1861 by Daw. It is said to have been the invention of Pottet, of Paris, improved upon by Schneider, and gave rise to considerable litigation in respect of its patent rights. Daw, who controlled the English patents, was the only exhibitor of central-fire guns and cartridges at the International Exhibition of 1862. In his system the barrels work on a hinge joint, the bottom lever withdraws the holding-down bolt; the cartridge is of the modern type, the cap being detonated by a striker passing through the standing breech to the inner face. The cartridge-case is withdrawn by a sliding extractor fitted to the breech ends of the barrels. Daw was subsequently defeated in his control of the patents by Eley Bros., owing to the patent not having been kept in force in France. The modern breech-loading gun has been gradually and steadily improved since 1860. Westley Richards adopted and improved Matthews’ top-lever mechanism. About 1866 the rebounding lock was introduced, and improved in 1869. The treble wedge-fast mechanism for holding down the barrels was originated by W. W. Greener in 1865, and perfected in 1873. A very important improvement was the introduction of the hammerless gun, in which the mechanism for firing is placed entirely within the gun. This was made possible by the introduction of the central-fire cartridge. In 1862 Daw, and in 1866 Green, introduced hammerless guns in which the cocking was effected by the under lever. These guns did not attain popularity. In 1871 T. Murcott patented a hammerless gun, the first to obtain distinct success. This also was a lever-cocking gun. About the same time Needham introduced the principle of utilizing the weight of the barrels to assist in cocking. In 1875 Anson and Deeley utilized the fore-end attached to the barrels to cock the locks. From this date hammerless guns became really popular. Subsequently minor improvements were made by many other gun-makers, including alternative movements introduced by Purdey and Rogers. Improvements were also introduced by Westley Richards, Purdey and others, including cocking by means of the mainspring. In 1874 J. Needham introduced the ejector mechanism, by which each empty cartridge-case is separately and automatically thrown out of the gun when the breech is opened, the necessary force being provided by the mainspring of the lock. W. W. Greener and some other gunmakers have since introduced minor modifications and improvements of this mechanism. Next in turn came Perks and other inventors, who separated the ejector mechanism from the lock work. This very decided improvement is universal to-day. A later innovation in the modern breech-loader is the single trigger mechanism introduced by some of the leading English gun-makers, by which both barrels can be fired in succession by a single trigger. This improvement enables both barrels to be rapidly fired without altering the grip of the right hand, but deprives the shooter of the power of selecting his barrel.

Repeating or magazine shot-guns on the principle of the repeating rifle, with a magazine below the single firing barrel, are also made by some American and continental gun-makers, but as yet have not come into general use, being comparatively cumbersome and not well balanced. The difficulty of a shifting balance as each cartridge is fired has also yet to be overcome. Several varieties of a combination rifle and shot-gun are also made, for a description of which see Rifle.

The chief purposes for which modern shot-guns are required are game-shooting, trap-shooting at pigeons and wild-fowling. The game gun may be any bore from 32 to 10 gauge. The usual standard bore is 12 gauge unless it be for a boy, when it is 20 gauge. The usual weight of the 12-bore double-barrelled game gun is from 6 to 7 ℔ with barrels 30 in. long, there, however, being a present tendency to barrels of a shorter length. These barrels are made of steel, as being a stronger and more homogeneous material than the barrels formerly produced, which were mostly of Damascus pattern, a mixture of iron and steel. Steel barrels, drilled from the solid block, were originally produced by Whitworth. To-day the makers of steel for this purpose are many. The standard charge for the 12-bore is 42 grains of smokeless powder and 1 oz. to 11/8th oz. of shot. Powder of a lighter gravimetric density is occasionally employed, when the weight of the charge is reduced to 33 grains. This charge of powder corresponds to the 3 drams of black powder formerly used. The ordinary game gun should have a killing circle of 30 in. at 30 yds. with the first barrel and at 40 yds. with the second. Improved materials and methods of manufacture, and what is known as “choke” boring of the barrels, have enabled modern gun-makers to regulate the shooting of guns to a nicety. Choke-boring is the constriction of the diameter of the barrel near the muzzle, and was known in America in the early part of the 19th century. In 1875 Pape of Newcastle was awarded a prize for the invention of choke-boring, there being no other claimant. The methods of choke-boring have since been varied and improved by the leading English gun-makers. The pigeon gun is usually heavier than the game gun and more choked. It generally weighs from 7 to 8 ℔. Its weight, by club rules, is frequently restricted to 71/2 ℔ and its bore to 12 gauge. The standard wild-fowling gun is a double 8-bore with 30-in. barrels weighing 15 ℔ and firing a charge of 7 drams of powder and 23/4 to 3 oz. of shot. These guns are also made in both smaller and larger varieties, including a single barrel 4-bore, which is the largest gun that can be used from the shoulder, and single barrel punt guns of 11/2-in. bore, weighing 100 ℔. While no conspicuous advance in improved gun-mechanism and invention has been made during the last few years, the materials and methods of manufacture, and the quality and exactitude of the gun-maker’s work, have continued gradually and steadily to improve. English, and particularly London-made, guns stand pre-eminent all over the world.  (H. S.-K.)