Continuing on with an excerpt from our new book, The Rookie’s Guide to Guns and Shooting, Handgun Edition…
American pioneers have great success with long, rifled-barrel flintlocks known as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles. Meddling politicians influenced the design of the California Rifle around this time, but adoption was limited due to the fact that it had no barrel, stock or bullets. As guaranteed 30 minute wild game delivery required great accuracy, early riflemen developed skills with their long rifles.
Also during the 1700’s, flintlock pistols replaced swords as the personal defense weapon of choice. In fact, flintlock pistol sets were commonly used for dueling. Dueling was a practice where stubborn men shot at each other from close range in order to settle arguments like “tastes great” vs. “less filling.” Dueling fell out of vogue in the 19th century when astute practitioners figured out that it really, really hurt to get shot.
Scottish Clergyman and international arms dealer Reverend John Forsyth develops the percussion cap. In addition to providing a fine beat to marching bands worldwide, Forsyth’s invention allowed for more reliable ignition of firearm charges. The percussion cap was a small metallic cup, treated with mercuric fulminate – a highly explosive compound that ignites with sharp pressure. With the advent of the percussion caps, guns could be reliably stored in a ready-to-fire condition.
Samuel Colt receives a patent for his revolver design. Horses celebrate as cowboys no longer have to carry the weight of 6 separate single shot flintlock pistols. The Colt design features a revolving cylinder that holds 5 or 6 bullets. Revolvers capable of holding more than one cartridge are immediately banned in New York City. As a result, times are tough for the fledgling Colt company and doors are shut in 1841.
In a corporate resurgence, Samuel Colt teams with Captain Samuel Walker Texas Ranger and introduces the most powerful handgun of the day, after Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum of course. Not wanting to cross Clint Eastwood, the two Samuels abandon plans to name their creation “The Most Powerful Handgun in the World” and call their revolver the Colt Walker. It remained the second most powerful handgun in the world until the introduction of the .357 Magnum 90 years later, at which point Clint Eastwood had shifted focus to making touching romantic films.
1840 − 1870
Up until this time, nearly all guns were “muzzle loaders.” This means that powder and projectiles had to be dumped into the muzzle (front end) of the gun, then stomped like wine grapes down into the barrel. Efforts to stomp powder charges and lead bullets down dirty rifle barrels with bare feet greatly slowed down many important battles. While the invention of the percussion cap made a big difference, things were still slow and cumbersome.
Starting in 1840, with the invention of the pin-fire cartridge, guns made the leap from muzzle-loading to breech (back of the barrel) loading. With a self-contained cartridge, shooters could load rifles and revolvers from the back in one smooth motion. No longer did folks have to worry about three separate components – powder, projectile and percussion cap – for each shot.
During this era, Colt held the patent for the revolving cylinder concept, which is still the basis for modern revolver designs. However, it was another partnership between Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson that increased popularity of the self-contained cartridge for revolvers. Smith & Wesson obtained a patent for their design and enjoyed a virtual monopoly on cartridge revolvers until 1869.
As a side note, Horace and Daniel dabbled with a lever-action pistol design, but soon scuttled the idea and sold the rights to Oliver Winchester, a shirt manufacturer. Having had his clock cleaned by low-cost clothing firm, Men’s Wearhouse, Winchester decided to give firearms manufacture a go.
Overjoyed at scoring two suits for the price of one from Men’s Wearhouse, Oliver Winchester releases a series of repeating, lever-action rifles including models 1866, 1873, 1876 and 1886.
Colt begins shipment of its famous Single-Action Army Revolver 1873. Production actually began in 1872, but seeing as Federal Express had not yet been invented, Colt was forced to rely on the Pony Express to fill its distribution channel. This slowed down retail availability considerably. Dubbed The Peacemaker, the Colt Single-Action Army Revolver was featured in many great western movies. And many not very great western movies.
Actor Roger Moore is issued a Colt Single-Action Army Revolver for the upcoming James Bond movies, From Carson City With Love and Gold Rush Finger. Movie production is placed on indefinite hold when Moore fails to come up with a believable cowboy accent. Production assistants also blame the fact that Moore had difficulty walking in chaps without debilitating chafing.
The French Lebel bolt-action rifle is placed into military service. The 8mm Lebel ushered in a new era of military history in that the French actually fielded a weapon. Oh, and the Lebel was the first military rifle to use smokeless powder. Up until this point, battles were often called on account of smoke as opponents could not see each other, or the scoreboard, through the voluminous clouds of black smoke created by gun powder. The advent of smokeless powder allowed battles to proceed in a more orderly fashion. A side benefit of smokeless powder was the ability to propel bullets faster than ever – allowing for longer range and more accurate shooting.
1889 − 1896
Revolvers were here to stay. During this period, both Colt and Smith & Wesson introduced early versions of modern double-action revolvers. The two most important developments were a swing-out cylinder which allowed for easy ejection of spent cartridge cases and load of fresh ones and true double-action operation which allowed shooters to operate the handgun by simply pulling the trigger.
Speaking of swingers, British secret agent James Bond is born in this century.
Stay tuned for the the next phase in firearm history…
The Rookie’s Guide to Guns and Shooting, Handgun Edition is available on Amazon.com now!