So handguns, those little tiny guns that you can hold in one hand and go boom with and bang bam the guy’s dead. Sounds like a great idea, don’t you think? It’s like a little portable grim reaper you can keep in your waistband.
But wait- how do we go from this:
A lot of things happened between then and now and I’m going to guide you through this wonderful world that is handguns.
Some of the very first guns were handguns. Or rather, hand cannons. The Chinese were way ahead of the game as far as guns are concerned so portable firepower in ancient times always leads back there. These things were pretty tricky to use so most people were still content with bows and arrows and ballistae and catapults and other forms of hurling big ol’ chunks of “You’re dead” at the enemy.
HOWEVER eventually some clever folks got off their lazy butts and started making guns more useful on the battlefield. You can usually tell when guns started coming into play in Medieval times by how much armor the soldiers wore. As time went on, traditional metal armor didn’t really do much against guns so people basically stopped wearing the stuff because it became useless weight. That is, until modern armors were developed but that’s something else entirely.
So by the time of around the New World’s discovery by Europe your average handgun looked like this
a lot better looking than the Chinese example, but still pretty far away from what we’d use today. It works in essentially the same way, a burning cord or “match” is touched to a hole in the rear of the barrel where the powder is. This catches the powder aflame and the resulting explosion pushes the ball out of the barrel and it heads off somewhere in the vague direction of the enemy.
So now we’re in the year 1630 and some very bright fellows in France come up with a better way of catching that powder on fire. This is that mechanism! Say hello to our good friend Flintlock.
This takes the world by storm since it’s a lot easier to slap a rock on your gun and have it light the powder with that as opposed to standing around like an idiot with a bit of flaming cord in your hand. When this caught on most firearms decided to adapt themselves to how it works so our handgun now looks like this:
Looking more familiar? It should, we’re starting to get into a time where pistols are more than just short cut-down muskets. You’ll usually see these being tossed around in pirate movies by some scurvy swashbuckling salty sea dogs.
Speaking of pirates, they would often carry many of these around. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) would carry around five or six of them. This may sound like a lot, but these tended to fail to fire frequently, and took a long time to reload even under ideal conditions (Raiding an merchant ship is not an ideal condition for reloading a flintlock pistol) because you had to pour powder down the muzzle, shove a ball down there, then put powder in the priming pan before you could shoot. So the carrying of multiple guns was commonplace for pirates and privateers and even folks on the land.
Of course these things were about as accurate as they were reliable, because the inside of the barrel of one of these things was about as interesting as the inside of a piece of plumbing pipe, and was about as effective at getting the round where you wanted it to go.
To make a round accurate you need at least one of two things:
- A stupidly long barrel to stabilize the round enough to be properly lobbed in the correct trajectory
- A method by which to spin the projectile in order to stabilize it
Now they definitely tried the first thing on muskets and it had limited success, but these things were typically relegated to wall guns at castle walls for defending against sieges, not exactly the type of thing you’d shove in a belt and use as a last ditch weapon.
What guns needed was rifling which thankfully did come about in the late 1400s in Germany. However it was an expensive process to carve out spiral shaped grooves in a barrel to stabilize the bullet/ball/whatever and it made the guns less accurate with that gross messy black powder they used so this didn’t really catch on until almost 300 years later except for hunting guns, which benefited from the extra accuracy.
Luckily around the time of the American Revolution, rifles finally got their time to shine and people saw their advantages. By the 1800s guns were being rifled more and more, and were thus infinitely more accurate than their smoothbore ancestors. However the problem remained that these were still flintlock guns, and weren’t reliable on a good day, heaven forbid it be raining or be a little too humid out there on the battlefield. Otherwise you’re in for a clump of moist, useless gunpowder in a moist, useless gun.
This problem was solved in around 1839 with the percussion cap which allowed a gun to shoot reliably no matter what the weather was. Now our handgun looks about like this
Not too much different, but as you can see, our hammer does not have a chunk of rock sticking off of it. Rather, now the hammer serves to strike that nipple right there where it’s resting in the image. What the shooter would place on that nipple would be a cap, containing a handy little chemical: Mercuric Fulminate. This would be struck by the hammer and the chemical would explode from the pressure. The flames from this combustion would travel through the tiiiiiiiiiny hole in the nipple to where the powder is comfortably seated in the chamber, far away from the air or other things which might mess with its explosive mojo.
So we’ve got rifling, and a reliable method of firing the gun, now we’re cooking with gas! Unfortunately, at this time in history handguns were still quite unreliable compared to rifles, and were generally seen as a “last ditch” weapon, used some time before your fighting knife and quite a long time after your rifle ran out of ammo. However, we’re about to change that and handguns will soon become respectable fighting tools in their own right.
For years people had tried to come up with guns that could fire more than once without having to reload the silly thing from scratch.
Unless you can’t tell, none of these designs really took off because they were
- Hard to aim properly
- Hard to carry comfortably
However soon something great came about which changed everything about firearms and the way people fought with them- the revolver.
Most people credit Samuel Colt with the invention of the revolver, but many people over centuries had experimented with the idea of a revolving group of cylinders, each containing powder and ball for multiple firings. An Englishman by the name of Elisha Collier invented this in 1814, a fair bit before Colt got his business running.
This is what we consider the first “true” revolver. It’s a flintlock but let’s give the guy some credit he came up with a great thing here.
A revolver mechanism allows the shooter to fire once, then fire again, then fire again and so on and so on about five or six times (or up to nine depending on which gun we’re talking here) before having to reload. Compare this to the practically maddening time it took to reload a standard rifle after every shot and you’ve attained fire superiority over fifty men with just fifteen. This was a big deal.
Unfortunately for Elisha, Samuel Colt was far more successful with his designs and in 1836 he came up with the type of revolver which is most familiar to us today, the Colt-Paterson
This blew everyone’s mind. A reliable gun that can fit on my hip AND I can shoot it five times without reloading? That’s the best thing ever!
So while handguns were still a tool of last resort, something which you’d use to either get away from someone else’s rifle, or get to your own, it wasn’t something people had to only hope would help them.
Revolvers evolved over the course of the 1800s, as evidenced by these images.
Things like Double Action (which means that the gun can be fired simply by pulling the trigger, as opposed to having to manually pull the hammer back with each shot in a Single Action revolver) Metallic cases (the powder, the bullet, and the priming material all wrapped up neatly in a little metal tube instead of packed separately right into the gun) and Smokeless powder (new propellants that replaced gunpowder, they burned cleaner, produced less smoke, and were more powerful. This meant that guns were even stronger and more reliable than ever before) all improved the handgun just as they did every other type of firearm. However this still was not enough, progress needed to be made.
This is the Borchardt C-93. This was invented in 1893 and was adapted from the mechanism that made Hiram Maxim’s machine gun work. As you can see it’s a little awkward, and while reliable, it was ill-balanced, overly complex, and often too clumsy for battlefield use. However it paved the way, and soon new designs popped up here and there. The idea of using a pistol’s own power to reload itself was a tantalizing one indeed, as it would offer faster reloads, a quicker shooting gun, and offered possibilities of increased capacity. In 1896 Paul Mauser came out with the C-96, shown here with optional stock accessory, transforming it from pistol to carbine.
This was a wildly popular weapon, its use being seen anywhere from Russia to Africa, where a young Winston Churchill considered it his favorite handgun while in British military service.
The Mauser C96, while groundbreaking was not the perfect pistol design. It was decidedly front heavy, and had a very high bore axis (meaning that where the round is being fired is very high in relation to the hand holding the weapon) giving it a very strange recoil impulse. It also had to be reloaded via stripper clips, which gave it a disadvantage compared to designs to come.
In the very late 1890s and early 1900s, a Mr. Georg Luger designed a pistol based off of the previous Borchardt’s toggle link mechanism. This weapon was adopted by the Swiss Army in 1900 and in 1908 was chosen as the official sidearm of the German Army.
The Luger was sleek, it shot well, it shot accurately, it had a very pronounced and comfortable grip angle, and was beloved by anyone who got a chance to shoot one. It had a major drawback though, the toggle link mechanism while refined, was still susceptible to dirt and dust, and was thus incredibly unreliable in the dirty, grimy conditions of WW1 that the Germans were soon to face. This design was an engineering dead end. There was essentially nowhere else for it to go. Meanwhile, in America, there was a man who was about to change self-loading pistols forever.
This is John Moses Browning. The man invented and patented 128 unique firearms and forever changed the way we shoot each other.
If I took the time to explain every handgun he designed and the details about it (something I personally don’t know) then I’d be here all night. Let’s just tackle the big boy here.
This is the Model 1911 Pistol that John Browning designed. It fires from a detachable magazine, uses a short recoil mechanism with a full length slide, and it is what every single semi automatic pistol on the market today is derived from, no exceptions. This handgun changed the way that people not only viewed automatic handguns (which had a reputation for being unreliable) but handguns as a whole. They are not only methods by which to secure stronger firepower, but are formidable weapons in their own right.
Small advancements have been made since then, but for the most part operation has been the same.
Double stack magazines, staggered for the ability to fit more rounds into the grip without increasing length.
Frames made from high strength polymer, for lighter weight and ease of manufacture.
Striker fire mechanisms, as opposed to hammers, for increased user ease and (arguably) reliability.
The evolution of the handgun has for the most part been one of leisure, piggybacking off of the advances of other forms of small arms. However handguns do each individually not only hold a rich history of their own design, but of all the designs that came before it. And I think they’re pretty neat.