When Were Guns Invented? A Brief History of Guns

By: Jeff Harder & Sharise Cunningham  | 
fire lance
Historians generally consider the Chinese fire lance to be the first gun. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

They've existed for more than 1,000 years and have affected warfare — and society in general — in ways perhaps no other invention can match. We're talking about guns.

Once just the weapon of the world's military forces, guns are now considered a right of the average citizen by some people, especially in the United States, where it's written into the Constitution. So, when were guns invented?


The Invention of Gunpowder

It all started in China around 850 C.E., when Chinese alchemists accidentally created gunpowder while trying to develop a "fountain of youth" potion. The resulting black powder, called "huo yao," was a blend of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur.

The then-reigning Song Dynasty was the first to have used gunpowder in warfare; they did so against the Mongols, whose constant invasions into the country plagued the Chinese throughout the period.


The First Guns

The Chinese attacked the Mongols with fire lances or "flying fire" — arrows fixed with tubes of gunpowder that, when ignited, would propel across enemy lines.

More gunpowder-based weapons followed as the Chinese perfected a variety of weapons against the Mongols over the next centuries, including the first cannons and grenades.


Gunpowder Arrives in Europe

Gunpowder made its way to Europe in the 13th century, likely over the Silk Road trade route through Central Asia. Rival nations refined gunpowder recipes in the ensuing centuries before arriving at the optimal mixture: approximately 75 percent saltpeter, 15 percent charcoal and 10 percent sulfur.

hand cannon
Hand cannons, like the c. late-14th-century one depicted here with powder bag and ramrod, made firing by a single soldier simple. The hand cannon is quite possibly the first personal firearm.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

By 1350, rudimentary gunpowder cannons were commonplace in the English and French militaries, who used the explosive technology against each other during the Hundred Years' War. As the centuries continued, new and improved cannons were designed, many of which were small and portable.


The Hand Cannon

Eventually, the hand cannon was developed in the early 15th century; it was the first real personal firearm. The Ottoman Turks used these and other cannons during the successful siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The powerful new weapons essentially rendered traditional walled fortifications of Europe defenseless.


Invention of the Modern Handgun

Historians generally consider the Chinese fire lance as the first gun. But before the 15th century, these early guns were tricky to fire — they required both hands and a burning wick to ignite the powder.

Development of the Matchlock

Enter the invention of the lock, an internal firing mechanism that made shooting a hand-held firearm more efficient, easier and safer. The first was a matchlock, followed by a series of enhancements until we get something more akin to the guns we know today.


The first known gun to use a matchlock was the 15th-century French arquebus, a short-barreled long gun (rifle) held at the shoulder yet small enough to be handled by one person. A gunpowder-soaked cord in an S-shaped arm burned at both ends until it touched a flash powder pan, sending a small ball soaring toward its enemy.

Despite their greater accuracy, they were cumbersome weapons that required at least two minutes between firings.

Impact of Early Guns

Guns slowly replaced old-guard weapons because they were more economical rather than more lethal. Becoming a highly skilled (and highly paid) swordsman or archer required lifelong devotion, but a few weeks or months of training could turn a lower-class soldier into a capable gunner.

Besides increasing the field of soldiers, guns have had a far-reaching influence on the nature of armed combat, from the distances at which dueling armies engage one another to the types of wounds soldiers incur. In military technology, only the horse — which dominated battlefields for millennia — has proven more important to modern warfare than the gun.


Firearm Innovations

The Chinese fire-spurting lances are a far cry from the guns used today. Here's how some of the best known modern guns came to be.


Revolvers are pistols that can fire multiple bullets without reloading. Although the basic design dates back to the 17th century, revolvers only took off when Samuel Colt produced his version in 1835.


Colt used interchangeable parts to manufacture his firearms, which helped his pistols become the most widely used in the U.S. Civil War (1861–65).

Machine Guns

During the U.S. Civil War, soldiers used an early machine gun known as a Gatling gun. Invented in 1862 by Richard Jordan Gatling, the Gatling gun used a hand-crank mechanism to shoot rapid-fire.

The invention of smokeless gunpowder led to the development of the Maxim gun by Hiram Maxim in 1884. Unlike hand-cranked Gatling guns, Maxim guns were recoil-operated and famously used in conflicts including the Spanish-American War (1898) and the South African Boer War (1899–1902).

Maxim-style guns remained popular during both World Wars, but the assault rifle eventually replaced them.

Assault Rifles

Assault rifles can switch between automatic and semiautomatic firing. German inventor Hugo Schmeisser developed the first assault rifle during World War II, the "sturmgewehr" (“assault rifle”) 44.

Later in the Second World War, Russian inventor Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov developed the now-famous AK-47. (AK stands for “automatic Kalashnikov.”)


First Gun FAQ

What was the first gun ever made?
The Chinese fire lance, a bamboo tube (or metal tube) that used gunpowder to fire a spear, invented in the 10th century, is regarded by historians as the first gun ever made. Gunpowder was previously invented in China in the 9th century.
What did the first gun look like?
The earliest gun, the Chinese fire lance, had a gunpowder-filled tube (normally bamboo) attached to a spear. When ignited, the tube projected flames and added shrapnel such as pottery shards at the target.
When did the British army start using guns?
Rifles fully replaced the musket as military weapons in the late 19th century. The first order to build 1,000 rifles for the British Army was made in January, 1776. A pattern by a gunsmith, William Grice, was approved for official issue.
Who brought gunpowder to Europe?
The information about how to make gunpowder spread quickly throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe as a result of the Mongol conquests. But gunpowder was first brought to Europe in the 13th century, possibly by traders, over the Silk Road trade routes through central Asia.
What was the first fully automatic gun?
The Maxim machine gun was the first fully automatic machine gun. It was developed by an engineer and inventor, Hiram Maxim, in 1884 in England. This automatic gun was also known as the Vickers-Maxim or just Vickers.

Lots More Information

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  • Britannica.com. "Machine gun." (Sep. 13, 2023) https://www.britannica.com/technology/machine-gun
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