One of the most efficient tools mankind has created (other than that all-important CCW permit that you have or are signing up to get) is the handgun. They have been used as tools for protection, as tools to sustain life, and have even become a source of recreational enjoyment – but they did not always look like nor function as how we picture handguns now. This article will dive into the history of one of the most common self-defense tools, the pistol.
Cannons: Handgun’s Ancestor
Before the handgun, there was the cannon, a large piece of artillery with the ability to fire heavy projectiles, which was developed sometime in the early 1200s A.D. The basic mechanism of the cannon is quite similar to how pistols function today.
Function of the First Cannons
- The muzzle (the open end of the cannon) would be loaded with gunpowder and a projectile.
- The touchhole (a small hole on the rear end of the cannon) would then ignite the gunpowder through either a torch or smoldering ember.
- This combustion reaction would create a chamber of rapidly expanding gases which would subsequently eject the projectile from the barrel.
Eventually, gunsmiths were able to apply this concept to a smaller piece of firing equipment – the first handguns were called hand cannons! For the next few centuries, gunsmiths aimed to perfect this weapon by creating a firearm that would allow for more rapid repeat shots and more precise targeting.
The First Pistol: The Wheellock
The next significant type of firearm developed was called the matchlock, which improved the ignition mechanism of firearms. Previously, soldiers would have to balance between holding their hand cannon and the manual ignition piece (called a slow match), but the matchlock had its own part that would hold the slow match, called a serpentine.
Gunsmiths would go on to improve the design of the matchlock, and the first pistol, the wheellock was created. Unlock the matchlock, the wheellock pistol was self-igniting. It used pyrite (fool’s gold) to automatically ignite the gunpowder.
Function of the Wheellock
- The wheellock would be loaded.
- The wheel of the firearm would be charged by cranking it with a spanner (a type of wrench).
- Once the wheel was charged, the portion of the firearm containing the pyrite (referred to as the dog, which is a type of spring) would be lowered to the pan of the gun.
- At time of firing, the trigger would be pulled, causing the wheel spring to rapidly spin against the pyrite. This friction would create the sparks needed to project the bullet.
The wheellock pistol could possibly be considered the first concealed carry firearm as well since there was no burning wick outside of the weapon.
Pistols in the 19th Century
After the development of the matchlock, the next successful firearm design was called the flintlock (circa the 17th century), which was sparked by a piece of flint rather than pyrite. Shooters were satisfied with this design for the next 200 years, until the caplock pistol was invented during the 19th century. The major improvement of the caplock pistol was the introduction of a percussion cap. The percussion cap concealed the smoke of the gun when firing and decreased the time between the sound of the shot and actual impact.
This firearm design proved so successful that in the 1830s, pistols were mass produced. The first type of mass-produced pistol was called the 5-shot Colt Paterson revolver, which almost looks like the pistols we are familiar with today. These pistols allowed for a much quicker succession of shots, unlike previous firearms.
The development of the Colt revolver jump started the golden era for pistol development. Today, pistols are one of the most favored tools for self-defense. In our future blogs, we will delve further into the advancement of these firearms – the fully automatic gun, but for now, we wanted to share our appreciation for the gunsmithing of the pistol throughout history.
Do you want to learn more about how to handle a pistol and other firearms for the purpose of self-defense? Sign up for one of our concealed carry courses, where we cover everything from firearm safety to proper shooting stances. Visit this link to find a course in your state near you!