The smallest of all small arms is the handgun (or pistol). There are three common types of handguns: single-shot pistols (more common historically), revolvers, and semi-automatic pistols. Revolvers have a number of firing chambers or "charge holes" in a revolving cylinder; each chamber in the cylinder is loaded with a single cartridge. Semi-automatic pistols have a single fixed firing chamber machined into the rear of the barrel, and a removable magazine so they can be used to fire more than one round. The Italian-made Mateba revolver is a rare "hybrid," a semi-automatic revolver. Each press of the trigger fires a cartridge and rotates the cylinder so that the next cartridge may be fired immediately. The British firearms firm Webley also made an "automatic revolver" around the turn of the 20th century.
Handguns differ from rifles and shotguns in that they are smaller, lack a shoulder stock, are usually chambered for less-powerful cartridges, and are designed to be fired with one or two hands. While the term "pistol" can be properly used to describe any handgun, it is common to refer to a single-shot or auto-loading handgun as a "pistol" and a revolver as a "revolver".
The term "automatic pistol" is sometimes used and is somewhat misleading in that the term 'automatic' does not refer to the firing mechanism, but rather the reloading mechanism. When fired, an automatic pistol uses recoil and/or propellant gases to automatically extract the spent cartridge and insert a fresh one from a magazine. Usually (but not always) the firing mechanism is automatically cocked as well. An automatic pistol fires one shot per trigger pull, unlike an automatic firearm such as a machine gun, which fires as long as the trigger is held down and there are unspent cartridges in the chamber or magazine. There are, however, some fully automatic handguns (often referred to as machine pistols) so, to avoid such ambiguity and confusion, the term semi-automatic (or semiautomatic) is preferred when referring to a firearm that fires only one shot per trigger pull.
Prior to the 19th century, all handguns were single-shot muzzleloaders. With the invention of the revolver in 1818, handguns capable of holding multiple rounds became popular. At the end of the 20th century, most handguns are semi-automatic, although revolvers are still widely used. Generally speaking, military and police forces use automatic pistols due to their high magazine capacities (10 to 17 or, in some cases, over 25 rounds of ammunition) and ability to rapidly reload by simply removing the empty magazine and inserting a loaded one. Handgun hunters use revolvers almost exclusively because hunting cartridges are generally much more powerful than autopistol cartridges (which are designed for self-defense) and the strength, simplicity and durability of the revolver design is well-suited to them. Lawfully armed citizens carry either type, depending on personal preference.
Handguns come in many shapes and sizes. For example, the "derringer" (a generic term based on the mid-19th century "Deringer" brand name) is a very small, short-barreled handgun, usually with one or two barrels but sometimes more (some 19th century derringers had four barrels) that have to be manually reloaded after being fired. Carefully matched single-shot duelling pistols were used primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries to settle serious differences among "gentlemen": Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are probably the most prominent Americans who used duelling pistols to settle their differences. Fully automatic, relatively easily concealed machine pistols, such as the MAC-10, GLOCK 18, and the Beretta 93R, were a late 20th century development.
Handguns are small and usually made to be carried in a holster, thus leaving both hands free. Small handguns can easily be concealed, thus making them a very common choice for personal protection. In the military, handguns are usually issued to those who are not expected to need more potent (and more expensive) firearms, such as general and staff officers, and to those for whom there is no room for a full-sized rifle, such as armored vehicle and air crews. In this last role, they often compete with the carbine, a short, light rifle, which is also usually issued to airborne infantry because of its small size. Outside the military, handguns are the usual armament for police (in those jurisdictions where police are armed) and, where legal, for private citizens. Private citizens in most jurisdictions usually carry only concealed handguns in public except when hunting, since an unconcealed firearm would attract undue attention, and would therefore be less secure, although there are significant numbers of states in the US that continue to permit open carry of handguns. In the United States, the number of states which permit concealed carry has recently grown to over 35, and several states have well over 200,000 permit holders. Despite Second Amendment constitutional roots in the United States, the concept of citizens carrying a concealed firearm for self-defense is often a contentious political issue; see gun politics for more information.
Handguns are also used for many sporting purposes and hunting, although hunting usage is usually viewed as somewhat atypical due to the limited range and accuracy of handguns. Some hunters, however, do their hunting in areas of dense cover where long guns would be awkward, or they relish the increased challenge involved in handgun hunting due to the necessity of approaching the game animal more closely. Small-bore (e.g., .22 caliber rimfire) handguns have long been very popular for competitive target shooting, partially due to the low cost of both the firearms and the ammunition, and there is also a rapidly growing number of sporting competitions for larger calibers.
United States M1903 Springfield rifle.
One pump-action and two semi-automatic shotguns, 20 boxes of shotgun shells, a target thrower, and three boxes of clay targets.Most modern long guns are either rifles or shotguns. Historically, a long smoothbore firearm was known as a musket. A rifle has a rifled barrel that fires single bullets, while a shotgun fires packets of shot, a single slug, a sabot, or a speciality round (tear gas, Bolo Shell, lead powder, etc.). Rifles are often built for accuracy and long range and are aimed, while shotguns are usually designed to quickly hit a moving target and are instead "pointed". Rifles have a very small impact area but a long range and high accuracy. Shotguns have a large impact area with considerably less range and accuracy. However, the larger impact area can compensate for reduced accuracy, since shot spreads during flight; consequently, in hunting, shotguns are used for flying game.
Rifles and shotguns are commonly used for hunting and often to defend a home or place of business. Usually, large game are hunted with rifles (although shotguns can be used¡ªdeer hunting with a shotgun is possible with the use of buckshot, sabots or slugs) while birds are hunted with shotguns. Shotguns are sometimes preferred for defending a home or business due to their wide impact area, multiple wound tracks (when using buckshot), shorter range, and reduced penetration of walls, which significantly reduces the likelihood of unintended harm, although the handgun is also commonly preferred.
There are a variety of types of rifles and shotguns based on the method they are reloaded. Bolt-action and lever-action rifles are manually manipulated. Manual manipulation of the bolt or the lever causes the spent cartridge to be removed, the firing mechanism recocked, and a fresh cartridge inserted. These two types of action are almost exclusively used by rifles.
Slide-action (commonly called 'pump-action') rifles and shotguns are manually cycled by shuttling the foregrip of the firearm back and forth. This type of action is typically used by shotguns, but several major manufacturers make rifles as well.
Automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns both use either recoil or propellant gases to operate the firing mechanism that extracts and loads cartridges and recocks the firing mechanism. Semi-automatics employ an interrupter mechanism to only fire one shot per pull of the trigger, while full-automatics do not have such a system and fire multiple shots with a single pull of the trigger.
Both rifles and shotguns also come in break-action varieties that do not have any kind of reloading mechanism at all but must be hand-loaded after each shot. Both rifles and shotguns come in single- and double-barreled varieties; however due to the expense and difficulty of manufacturing double-barreled rifles are rare. Double-barreled rifles are typically intended for African big-game hunts where the animals are dangerous, ranges are short, and speed is of the essence. Very large and powerful calibers are normal for these types of guns.
Rifles have been in nationally featured marksmanship events in Europe and the United States since at least the 18th century, when rifles were first becoming widely available¡ªone of the earliest purely "American" rifle-shooting competitions took place in 1775, when Daniel Morgan was recruiting sharpshooters in Virginia for the impending war with Great Britain. In some countries, rifle marksmanship is still a matter of national pride. Some specialized rifles in the larger calibers are claimed to have an accurate range of up to about one mile (1600 m), although most have considerably less effective range. In the second half of the 20th century, competitive shotgun sports became perhaps even more popular than riflery, largely due to the motion and immediate feedback in activities such as skeet, trap and sporting clays.
The direct ancestor of the firearm is the fire-lance, a gunpowder-filled tube attached to the end of a spear and used as a flamethrower; shrapnel was sometimes placed in the barrel so that it would fly out together with the flames. The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon is the illustration of a fire-lance on a mid-10th century silk banner from Dunhuang. The T¨º-An Shou Chh¨ºng Lu, an account of the siege of De'an in 1132, records that Song forces used fire-lances against the Jurchens.
In due course, the proportion of saltpeter in the propellant was increased to increase its explosive power. To better withstand that explosive power, the paper and bamboo of which fire-lance barrels were originally made came to be replaced by metal. And to take full advantage of that power, the shrapnel came to be replaced by projectiles whose size and shape filled the barrel more closely. With this, we have the three basic features of the gun: a barrel made of metal, high-nitrate gunpowder, and a projectile which totally occludes the muzzle so that the powder charge exerts its full potential in propellant effect.
The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 1100s of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it. The oldest surviving gun, made of bronze, has been dated to 1288 because it was discovered at a site in modern-day Acheng District where the Yuan Shi records that battles were fought at that time; Li Ting, a military commander of Jurchen descent, led foot-soldiers armed with guns¡ªincluding a Korean brigade¡ªin battle to suppress the rebellion of the Christian Mongol prince Nayan.
Firearms in the West
One theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road through the Middle East; another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century.
First mention of firearms in Russia is found in "Sofiiskii vremennik" chronicle, where it is stated that during the 1382 defense of Moscow from Tokhtamysh's Golden Horde, Muscovites used "tiufiaks" firearms (Russian: "§ä§ð§æ§ñ§Ü§Ú"; this word derives from Turkic "t¨¹feng", meaning "gun"), which were of Eastern origin.
Around the late 1400s in Europe, smaller and portable hand-held cannons were developed, creating in effect the first smooth-bore personal firearm. As the centuries progressed, these hand-held cannons evolved into the flintlock rifle, then the breech loader and finally the automatic.
Breech loaders became practical in the 1860s when metallurgy developed sufficiently that brass could be worked into fixed ammunition. Previously each round was custom made as needed: the shooter poured loose powder down the barrel, used leather or cloth for wadding if time allowed, selected a suitable projectile (lead ball, rocks, arrow, or nail), then seated the projectile on top of the powder charge by means of a ramrod. Performance was erratic. Fixed ammunition combined a primer, the pre-measured charge, and the projectile in a water resistant brass "cartridge case". Most importantly, the soft brass expanded under pressure of the gas to seal the rear end of the barrel; which prevented the shooter from being maimed by escaping high pressure gases when he pulled the trigger.
A repeating firearm or "repeater" is a firearm that holds more than one cartridge and can be fired more than once between loadings. Some repeating firearms require manipulation of a bolt, lever, or slide to eject the fired cartridge case, draw a fresh cartridge from the "magazine," and insert it into the firing chamber, and "cock" (draw to the rear and place under spring tension) the hammer or striker, so that pulling the trigger will fire the weapon. Others use either the firearm's recoil, or a small portion of the propellant gas drawn from the barrel, to operate the firearm's mechanism and ready it for the next shot. Such firearms are sometimes called "self-loading," but are more commonly known as "semi-automatic," if they fire one shot for every pull of the trigger, or "automatic" or "full auto" if they continue to fire until the trigger is released or the magazine is empty. A revolver is a unique type of firearm in which a rotating cylinder holds a number of cartridges; the cylinder "revolves" to align each "chamber" or "charge hole" with the rear of the barrel, hold the cartridge and contain the pressure (up to 65,000 pounds per square inch or 450 MPa) produced when the cartridge is fired. Thus the cylinder serves as both magazine and firing chambers. There are also "single shot" and multiple-barrel firearms, which hold only one cartridge per barrel and must be reloaded manually between shots.
Early firearms had to be cocked and caught by the "sear," which holds the hammer back, before each shot. Pulling the trigger allows the hammer or striker to fly forward, striking the "firing pin," which then strikes the "primer," igniting an impact-sensitive chemical compound (historically, first fulminate of mercury, then potassium chlorate, now lead styphnate) which shoots a flame through the "flash hole" into the cartridge's propellant chamber, igniting the propellant.
The earliest repeating firearms were revolvers, (revolving rifles were sometimes called "turret guns") and were "single action" in that they could only be fired one way: by manually cocking the mechanism (drawing the hammer to the rear with the thumb) before each shot. This design dates from 1836, with the introduction of the Colt Patterson, or even earlier. Though they are slower to reload and fire than some other types of firearms, single-action revolvers are of a simple, strong design, and are still made, though they are nowadays used more often for hunting than for self-defense. The double-action revolver is a design almost as old as the single action. A double-action revolver can be fired in either of two ways. One can cock the hammer (the action of which moves levers to rotate the cylinder and align a fresh cartridge with the rear of the barrel), then pull the trigger for each shot ("single-action mode") or one may simply pull the trigger, through a longer, heavier stroke. This causes levers and springs to both rotate the cylinder and draw the hammer to the rear, then release it, firing the cartridge. Firing a double-action revolver in single-action mode tends to be more accurate, because the trigger pull is much shorter and lighter (usually four or five pounds / 18−22 pascals of pressure is required, whereas in double-action mode twelve to twenty pounds / 53−90 pascals is needed) and the firearm is less likely to be moved off target by the effort required of the shooter in pulling the trigger.
Self-loaders are firearms that use some of the discharge energy to reload the firearm. These are also called semi-automatics. These are typically fed from a tube or detachable magazine, commonly but incorrectly referred to as a ¡°clip¡± (which correctly denotes a magazine reloading device used in certain rifles, or a retainer for flangeless bullets used in certain revolvers).
Automatics (also called full autos, machine guns, or machine pistols) were not practical until the development of smokeless powder in the late 1800s. Black powder caused too much fouling of the mechanism to allow automatics or self-loaders to be reliable.