Firearms, hand-held or small mounted weapons from which projectiles are discharged by an explosive. Firearms, also called small arms, include pistols, rifles, shotguns, and machine guns. All firearms are called guns, although gun is used specifically to mean a cannon of low trajectory—one that fires its projectile in a path nearly parallel with the ground. The use of gun to mean a pistol is colloquial, although these weapons are popularly called handguns.
Primitive guns are said to have been used in China as early as the 12th century, but they did not come into use in Europe until early in the 14th century. The first firearm in Europe was the hand cannon, consisting of an iron tube, or barrel, into which gunpowder was loaded. Stones were the first projectiles. Later, iron balls were used. The gun was fired by applying a slow match (a slow-burning wick) to a touchhole bored in the rear. The hand cannon was fitted with a wooden stock so that it could be held when fired. Its weight required the shooter to support the barrel on a forked stick, which also served as a ramrod.
The early shoulder-fired guns were generally less effective than longbows and crossbows. Firearms are often credited with ending the supremacy of armored knights, but actually the longbow and the pike (as well as political and economic factors) were responsible.
The rifled barrel, which has interior spiral grooves to spin the bullet and thus stabilize its flight, was known in the 16th century. It required a tight-fitting ball. Hammering the ball down the barrel was slow and unsatisfactory. German gunsmiths found that a smaller ball, rammed down with a patch of cloth or other material, would follow the rifling. They brought the idea to Pennsylvania, where they developed the Kentucky rifle.
Breech loading—in which the ammunition is inserted in the rear of the barrel rather than in the muzzle—was a better solution to the rifling problem, and was tried as early as 1471. It proved unsafe until better steel was developed in the middle 1800's.
In the matchlock a trigger was pulled to bring the slow match to the touchhole. In the 16th-century wheel lock, a key was used to wind a coil spring in a serrated (toothed) wheel. When the trigger was pulled, the released spring revolved the wheel against iron pyrites, producing sparks that ignited powder in a priming pan. The flame touched off the powder in the barrel through a touchhole.
The snaphance substituted a hammer holding a piece of flint for the wheel. This was developed into the 17th-century flintlock, in which the steel struck by the flint was attached to a cover that protected the priming pan until the trigger was pulled.
In 1807 Alexander Forsyth, a Scot, patented the percussion lock. In this, the hammer struck a cap of mercury fulminate, which detonated, driving a spark through a tube to ignite the powder in the barrel.
The metallic cartridge of the mid-19th century combined primer, powder, and bullet into a single unit. It was loaded in the breech. The breech-loader was developed into various types of repeating, semiautomatic, and automatic firearms.
In most countries of the world, ownership of firearms is considered a privilege and is highly restricted. In the United States, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is set forth in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that the right is not absolute, a position supported by most constitutional scholars. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 and earlier laws bar the sale of short-barreled shotguns and rifles, fully automatic weapons, certain pistols, silencers, and such other weapons as mortars, rocket launchers, mines, grenades, and bombs. The 1968 act originally barred the interstate sale of rifles, shotguns, and pistols, but amendments passed in 1986 removed the ban on shotguns and rifles.
States and municipalities also have gun-control laws, often more strict than the federal laws. Some communities, for example, ban the private ownership of pistols.
Gun control laws have caused widespread controversy in the United States. The National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization of gun owners, considers most gun laws to be an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms. The NRA opposes attempts to pass federal laws limiting the ownership of pistols on the grounds that such laws might lead to legislation restricting ownership of all firearms, including hunting rifles and shotguns. The NRA also argues that law-abiding citizens would unfairly be prevented from obtaining weapons for protection, while criminals, using illegal means, would be able to continue to obtain firearms.
Gun-control advocates believe that by limiting the availability of such weapons as handguns, the number of murders and accidental shootings could be reduced, and contend fewer guns would end up in the hands of criminals.