This week’s question was asked by a kid.
QUESTION: The Bill of Rights says people can buy and keep guns, so who invented the gun?
ANSWER: The Second Amendment to the Constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791. It reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Like so much stuff we use in everyday life, the gun had no single inventor. It’s a trail of improvements going back over 600 years.
The first gun was essentially a hand cannon made from a strong metal tube, open at one end and a hole drilled into the tube near the closed end. Gunpowder was loaded into the tube and a ball or bullet rammed down the barrel. Next, some wadding was stuffed down the barrel to keep the metal ball from falling out.
A fuse, or a bit of poured powder, was stuck into the drilled hole. When the fuse was ignited, the gunpowder behind the ball turns into a gas. Gases take up a lot more space than a solid. The expanding gases pushed the ball out of the open end of the barrel with great speed. People started using hand cannons around the year 1430. Today, those hand cannons would be called pistols.
Of course, there is no gun without gunpowder. China is believed to be the origin of gunpowder. In 1250 AD, the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon devised a formula for gunpowder: a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter.
The blunderbuss, a gun associated with the pilgrims, had a short barrel and flared muzzle. The widened barrel sped loading and spread the shot. The ignition mechanism for a gun is called a lock. The matchlock had a slow-burning rope that was ignited ahead of time, and then moved into position to light the gunpowder when desired. Rainy weather put it out, and the rope glowed at night.
The flintlock was a big breakthrough and was the standard for over 300 years. Flint is a kind of rock. When flint strikes steel, the hot sparks of iron ignite the gunpowder. The flintlock was the soldier’s main firearm during the Revolutionary War.
The percussion cap was perfected by the time of our Civil War in the early 1860s. The cap, about the size of a pencil eraser, was made of a chemical compound called mercuric fulminate, which is highly explosive. The cap fit over a nipple from which a tube extended to the powder waiting to be lit.
The cartridge came along near the end of the Civil War. The powder and bullet were enclosed in a metal shell with the powder sitting right behind the bullet. The powder was ignited by a sharp blow to either the rim or the center of the shell.
The term “lock, stock, and barrel” is a figure of speech meaning “all” or “everything.” The “lock” is used to hold ready the spark instrument. The “stock” is the part of the weapon held by the user. The “barrel” is the pipe that conveys the bullet. Collectively they are the whole weapon, and therefore “everything.”
It has been 213 years since the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. The 33 frontiersmen ran out of trading goods, whiskey and food. But during their 28-month journey to the Pacific and back, the Corps of Discovery never ran out of weapons, bullets and gunpowder.
Advancements in weaponry were inevitable. Rifling was the placement of helical grooves in the barrel of a gun to impart a spin to the bullet in its path through the barrel. The gyroscope effect, much like the spin of a football pass, greatly improved accuracy.
The Gatling gun was the first rapid-firing weapon, a forerunner of the machine gun. The Union used Gatlings in the trenches during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in the last year of the Civil War from June 1864 to April 1865. The Gatling gun was a hand-crank-operated weapon with six barrels revolving around a central shaft.
The United States is commemorating the 100th anniversary of our entry into World War I. The new, improved version of the Gatling gun, the machine gun, was employed by both sides. The machinery of war outpaced the tactics of the Great War, leading to devastating losses on both sides.
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Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.