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The first firearms were tubes closed at one end, usually made of brass or cast iron. Early firearms were loaded by pouring black powder and shoving a projectile into the tube from the muzzle end, and then igniting the powder using a lighted wick or match. The powder burned, creating pressure that launched metal objects or arrows. These firearms are called "muzzleloaders" due to their loading process.

Frontier hunter with muzzleloader

Advances in ignition systems were the major changes that brought about modern firearms.

The next advance, in 1835, was to arrange a series of percussion locks and barrels on a rotating wheel (cylinder) to allow a rapid succession of shots (Patterson revolver). With a single hammer and trigger, multiple shots can be fired without reloading—a repeating firearm. The percussion cap revolvers are the forerunners of modern revolvers.

The percussion cap also paved the way to the self-contained ammunition we have today—cartridges and shotshells. In the mid-1800s, gunpowder, the projectile, and the primer were put together into a single housing that could be loaded quickly.

Actions were developed to allow shooters to load cartridges and shotshells at the rear, rather than the muzzle, end of the barrel.