Firearms are projectile weapons that use directed chemical explosions to propel projectiles at high speeds and are the most commonly used weapons in the world today. Firearms first emerged in China around 1100 and in Europe around 1300, after which they evolved into a form which made them a primary weapon of war by 1500. Over the next five centuries, developments in firearm technology would move warfare more and more towards ranged combat, with melee being a minor consideration in war.
Types of Firearms
- Muzzel Loader: The earliest firearms were loaded by cramming powder, wadding, and projectile(s) down the barrel of the weapon from the front. Various subtypes appeared as trigger mechanisms improved over time.
- Handgonne/Firelance: The first firearms developed consisted basically of a small metal (or in the very earliest instances, bamboo) tube that was sealed off at one end with a hole drilled on its backside on a wooden handle. These first appeared during the Song Dynasty in China and began appearing in Europe around the 14th century. They were fired by putting a burning stick or wick into the drilled hole. Handgonnes were inaccurate and mainly used for their intimidating effect (especially against horses), though they did have good armor penetration and were successfully used against Knights by the Hussites during the Hussite wars (July 30, 1419 – May 30, 1434).
- Arquebus/Matchlock: A more refined version of the Handgonne, an arquebus has a mechanism which brought a flaming wick (sometimes referred to as a match) to the powder to fire (often no more complex than an S-shaped bar bolted to the side of the weapon) to make it easier to fire, load and allow a greater degree of control. Maximum range was about 100 meters and these weapons, rate of fire was limited to at best three or four rounds per minute (which would remain constant for muzzle loaders). As such Arquebuses were most effective when fired in volleys by soldiers in tight formation. Arquebus-armed soldiers often used special staves as gunrests in the field. Arquebuses would remain the most common type of firearm from the mid 15th to the mid 17th century due to their simplicity of manufacture.
- Wheel-lock: Wheel-locks use a spring-driven wheel grinding against a flint to generate a shower of sparks to ignite the powder. These had several advantages over arquebuses (they did not require a wick to be lit before firing and could be fired in the rain), but were more expensive and maintenance intensive, needed to be wound up before firing and was mostly used by cavalrymen.
- Flintlock: Flintlocks use a piece of flint to strike a spark into a pan of powder to ignite the charge and fire. The flint is part of a spring loaded mechanism attached to a trigger. These were cheaper than wheel locks and more reliable and easier to use than Arqebuses. As such Flintlocks were the most common category of firearm between the mid 17th to mid 19th centuries.
- Caplock: A caplock uses an explosive cap that can be detonated by a strike from the hammer to ignite the powder. This was the final form of muzzle-loading firearm to be developed and see widespread use. These became common from around 1840 to 1870, before being superseded by breachloaders.
- Pistol: Any compact, short-barreled firearm which can be fired easily with one hand. Particularly small pistols are known as Derringers. Due to the short length of their barrel and lack of stocks, pistol are low-range firearms. Early pistols were first used as cavalry weapons.
- Smooth-Bore Musket: The primary gunpowder weapon before the invention of the rifle. Even after the invention of the rifle, the Smooth-bore, notably the British Brown Bess, was still the primary weapon of almost all armies as most early rifles were incapable of being fitted with a bayonet and were much slower to reload. Even when rifles were designed with a bayonet in mind the slow reload times still made them less desirable with general armies. Smooth-bore muskets were cheap and easy to manufacture resulting in their being deployed even into the American Civil War and didn't leave army service until the general deployment of breach loading rifles.
- Shotgun: A shotgun is a smooth-bore weapon designed to fire shot rather then solid ball ammunition. Starting with the Blunderbuss and evolving into the shotgun as we know it today. Some early shotguns were simply large caliber muskets used for sport hunting. With the invention of breech-loading and cartridge ammunition, came the creation of the double-barreled coach gun. John M Browning is famous for his multiple shotgun designs.
- Rifle: Any firearm with a barrel that has several spiral groves cut into it to improve ballistics. Rifled firearms have a longer effective range than smoothbore guns. Rifles first emerged in the 16th century and were used by skirmishers and hunters, but they came to replace smoothbore guns by 1850. While rifles had a longer range than smoothbore firearms, they were also more labor intensive to produce and, until the invention of the Minie Ball, required wadding, a fact that slowed down loading time. The term eventually applied to any long-barreled firearm.
- Breech-loader: A single-shot weapon with a "door" or "hatch" that allows it to be loaded from the back end, as opposed to stuffing the shot down the length of a barrel. Breech-loading rifles were the primary type of rifle around the 1860s to the 1890s, although some experimentation occurred earlier (such as the Ferguson Rifle, developed in 1776).
- Repeater: Any firearm which can store multiple shots inside itself to minimize the time between firings. Although there was some experimentation with the idea earlier, these weapons only became common and practical in the 19th century. One of the earliest widely-used types of repeater was the Colt Revolver. The term has fallen out of use because modern firearms are typically repeaters.
- Bolt-action Rifle: First developed in Germany in 1836, a bolt-action rifle has a mechanism that the wielder unlocks and draws back to open the barrel and eject a spent casing. The wielder then returns the "bolt" to its original position to insert a fresh cartridge. The first bolt-action rifles were breech loaders, but they were later replaced by repeaters. Bolt-action rifles would be the primary service rifles in use from the 1880s to the 1940s
- Semi-automatic Firearm: Semi-automatic weapons use reaction force from the weapon discharge to eject the empty casing from the firing chamber and load a new round from the magazine. Some experimentation with semi-automatic firearms began in the 19th century, though they began to become common in the first years of the twentieth century with the adoption of semi-automatic pistols.
- Automatic Firearm: A firearm that can discharge repeatedly with a single pull of the trigger. Such a weapon can continue firing on one triggering until it runs out of ammunition or suffers a mechanical failure of some kind.
- Gatling Gun: An early rapid firing weapon and the first to be adopted on a large scale by various militaries of the world, the Gatling Gun was conceived of by Richard Gatling during and for the civil war. Gatling weapons have multiple barrels that revolve, bringing in new cartridges and ejecting old ones. The original Gatling Guns, while having rates of fire of several rounds per second, were technically not automatic being hand cranked and fed by gravity magazines. While they were capable of firing off large volumes of fire per minute, they were also somewhat unreliable and were overshadowed by fully automatic weapons starting with the Maxim gun. However, in the 20th century Gatling Weapons were revived as motorized fully automatic weapons. Having multiple rotating barrels, said guns could achieve rates of fire of thousands of rounds per minute due to the fact that they had multiple barrels firing.
- Submachinegun A fully automatic personal weapon firing pistol-caliber ammunition. These weapons were first used by the German army toward the end of the Great War as part of a plan to overcome enemy trench lines, and they would be the primary handheld automatic weapon during World War II. Modern submachineguns are mostly used by police and as secondary weapons. Pistol-scale submachineguns now exist.
- Assault Rifles A fully automatic personal weapon firing specialized rifle-calibre ammunition. The first assault rifle (the Federov Automat) was developed in 1916. Assault rifles were first issued en mass by the German army during World War II and became the primary infantry weapon in the 1950s. The primary characteristics of assault rifles are small caliber ammunition, high fire rates, high-capacity magazines, and the ability to quickly reload by replacing the magazine.
- Anti-materiel Rifles: These rifles shoot large bullets at high velocities, making them powerful enough to significantly damage vehicles and equipment.
- Black Powder: The first propellant to be devised that is used by firearms, a mixture of Saltpeter, Carbon (usually charcoal) and Sulfur.
- Smokeless Powder: A propellant used in firearms developed after the 1880s, smokeless powder gets its name because it burns more efficiently than black powder, thus reducing the amount of smoke released, significantly decreasing the amount of waste that accumulates inside the barrel, and providing more energy per gram.
- Musket ball: The first purpose-made type of ammunition was a simple lead sphere. Balls would gradually be superseded by the more aerodynamic "bullet" shape, improving range and firepower.
- Cartridged Ammunition: Cartridged ammunition consists of a projectile in an external casing with propellent and a percussion cap for ignition. The first cartridges were made of paper, but metal casings later became the norm. This massively simplified loading and made breach loading and repeating firearms practical.
- Bayonet A blade attached to the front of a firearm, allowing it be used as a spear in close quarters. Bayonets began to emerge in the 17th century in France, allowing infantry armed with firearms to fend off cavalry charges.
- Magazine: An internal compartment in a firearm that contains multiple bullets to be moved into the chamber. A magazine is a necessary component in many repeating firearms. When repeaters began to become common, most magazines were built-in components of the firearm itself, containing individual rounds or rounds held in place by a metal clip. Modern firearms have detachable magazines that are removed and replaced to reload the weapon.
Firearms in Science Fiction
In various science fiction series (especially those set in or close to modern times), firearms are often the primary form of small arms.
- The United States Colonial Marines in the Alien series make use of various firearms
- The TR-116 is a firearm made by the Federation in Star Trek.
- In Stargate, the forces of Earth make use of various projectile weapons and have exported firearms to their allies when needed.
- Firearms are used in the Star Wars universe, generally by civilians among the more backwards sections of the Galaxy.
- Firearms known as "autoguns" and "stubbers" are used by the Imperial Guard in Warhammer 40,000, usually on primitive worlds that can not get more modern lasguns.
Firearms in Fantasy
Many fantasy writers steer clear of gunpowder weaponry, preferring to have their fiction in worlds in which gunpowder is absent or at least unrefined for military purposes, for several reasons.
- The most common reason for this is that most fantasy is based on mythology conceived of well before the development of firearms.
- Many fantasy writers are interested in pre-gunpowder means of warfare and romanticized conceptions about pre-gunpowder warfare, particularly the need for martial skill. One of the key reasons why firearms displaced earlier weapons of war was the ease with which it is possible to train conscripts in their use (especially with the introduction of movable type printing allowing for the mass production of training manuals), thus making it possible to cheaply train armies of peasant Arquebusiers in months who could defeat heavily armed and armored knights who had been trained from childhood in various ways of war. Firearms also represent a certain level of unwanted modernity on a thematic level.
- In some settings, supernatural abilities are fairly commonly available which are more useful than at least early firearms and could conceivably divert societies from going along lines of development which would lead to the development of firearms (such as Bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender).
Their are exceptions to this rule, however, such as the Warhammer Fantasy and Iron Kingdoms tabletop fantasy games, which involve heavy use of firearms.
Firearms in Politics
Their is a divide in ideology in regards to civilian firearm ownership. This is between those who believe that believe in tight regulation and restriction of firearm ownership for the purposes of preventing and limiting their use in violent crime and those who believe that such laws are counter productive and infringe on individual liberties (the latter viewpoint being common in the United States). There is some division of opinion of this matter among SD.net's population, and debates on the subject can get heated.