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The Chinese are believed to be the first to use gunpowder, now called “black powder.” 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.

  • Matchlock ignition was developed in the early 1400s. When the trigger is pulled, a lighted wick is lowered into a priming pan located next to a vent hole drilled into the closed end of the barrel. When the priming powder ignites, it lights the main charge.
  • Wheel lock ignition replaced the wick of the matchlock in the 1500s. When the trigger is pulled, a coiled spring forces the rough-edged steel wheel to spin against a piece of iron pyrite, creating sparks to ignite the powder in the priming pan.
  • Flintlock ignition appeared in the late 1600s. When the trigger is pulled, the hammer holding a piece of flint falls against a steel cover (the frizzen) sitting over the priming pan. The hammer knocks the cover out of the way, and the collision of flint and steel causes sparks that ignite the powder in the priming pan.
  • The percussion lock (also called “caplock”) replaced the flintlock in the early 1800s. Early percussion locks used priming compounds inside a metallic foil cap placed over the vent hole. When the hammer strikes the cap, the resulting spark ignites the main charge.
  • 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.