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How Do Firearms Work

How Do Firearms Work
September 20, 2023 44 view(s)

How Do Firearms Work

To the uniformed, notably those who have never held a firearm, the principle is quite simple. You point the gun, pull the trigger, and a bullet is fired. That may explain the action, yetit doesn't actually answer the question. The operation is a bit more complicated, as it requires a variety of components. Firearms are fairly simplistic in design, yet complex in that each is built around the right mix of the chemical and mechanical – that is the materials used to make the ammunition (the cartridge and bullet) as well as the actual tool that fires it. Moreover, today's firearms are also the product of centuries of innovation, refinement, and improvement.  

A Myriad of Firearms

Firearms have been a part of human civilization since the middle ages, likely as early as the middle of the 14th century. Gunpowder, a key component in the propellant that “fires” a round, originated in China and spread to Europe, where it was initially used in small cannons and even handheld “hand cannons.” The latter weapons were as dangerous as the name suggests, and no doubt many a user was killed by, or at least suffered serious injury, as the result of a catastrophic failure.

From Matchlock to Flintlock 

The evolution of firearms is also a long and complex tale, one where the aforementioned powder was literally poured down the barrel of a gun, followed by a small round ball (which is why even today ammunition is typically called “rounds”). The original ignition system involved a slow burning wick that wasn't all that dissimilar to that of a candle. A trigger mechanism would lower the wick into a small pan of powder, which, in turn, would ignite the powder in the barrel. 

These first “matchlock” firearms were used throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. They were generally reliable, but couldn't be used in damp or inclement weather. The next major step forward, the wheel lock, was drastically more complicated, as it involved a friction-wheel mechanism that created a spark that served to ignite the powder. Developed in Europe around the year 1500, it was not only slow to arm, but the system was complex to manufacture. 

However, the underlying principle-to create a spark rather than to have a lit fuse that slowly burned—was sound. That is why within 100 years, it led to the far more reliable flintlock, an ignition system that remained in use for more than three centuries. These firearms first saw widespread use in the court of the French King Louis XIII, although there had been attempts at least half a century earlier to devise a form of flint ignition mechanism.

The principle of a flintlock is very simple. A piece of flint strikes a metal plate, causing a spark, which ignites the gunpowder in a small pan that further ignites the powder in the barrel. The modern term “flash in the pan” originated from a situation where the pan ignited but failed to set off the chain of events that fired the round. Flintlocks were widely used by the military powers of Europe and saw use in such conflicts as the Thirty Years War, the American Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. A trained soldier could load and ready the weapon and take three aimed shots per minute with a flint lock rifle. 

Percussion Caps and Cartridge Ammunition

The 19th century saw a major leap forward in firearms design. This included the development of percussion caps, which replaced the use of a flint. Instead, the hammer of the firearm would fall when the trigger was pulled onto a preplaced cap, which served to ignite the powder poured into the barrel.

In addition, for centuriespowder was literally poured from a powder horn (often the actual horns from animal and later metal casks) down the barrel while the round was then carefully loaded. This often resulted in an inaccurate amount of powder. Too little and accuracy was an issue; too much and the barrel would rupture. In time, preloaded cartridges contained a measured portion of powder and the ball.

By the middle of the 19th century, however, cartridges very similar to what we use now had been developed. These contained a primer (which was much like the percussion cap), the propellant, the casing, and the bullet.Although the term “bullet” is often used informally today to refer to a complete cartridge, bullets technically only refer to the actual projectile. Most modern rifle and pistol casings today are often made of brass or steelwhile some shotgun cartridges utilize plastic casings. 

The Mechanical and Chemical

Since the introduction of cartridge ammunition in the middle of the 19th century, there have been further developments. Within 50 years, the standard gunpowder—known as black powder—was replaced by a “smokeless” powder based on nitrocellulose. The combustion energy this innovation provided spurred the development of the modern firearms we now take for granted, whether it’s a bolt-action rifle or a semi-automatic handgun or rifle.

With semi-automatic firearms, including handguns and rifles, some of the energy from the firing of the round is used to work a receiver – the area where a magazine of cartridges connects with the chamber/barrel – to discharge a spent/empty casing and to load a fresh cartridge. With semi-automatic firearms, each pull of the trigger results in a single round being fired and a new round loaded, until the magazine is empty of cartridges.Fullyautomatic firearms work with a similar principle, but the gun fires as long as the operator depresses the trigger. 


What was the earliest form of firearm?

Although no one knows exactly who invented the first firearms, the principle dates back to the 10th century when an early form of gunpowder was created. The powder was loaded into bamboo tubes along with pellet projectiles and operated by a single person. The technology spread from Asia to Europe, and the first “hand guns” were used in the late 14th century. The first “matchlock” guns – which used a slow burning wick or match – were introduced in the early 15th century. Firearms slowly evolved from matchlocks to wheel locks to flintlocks over the next century. In the early 19th century percussion caps were developed, leading to the eventual development of the modern firearm cartridge.

What is the difference between a cartridge and bullet?

Answer: A cartridge is all of the components that make up the ammunition that is loaded into a firearm. A bullet, also known as a round, is just the projectile. The rest of cartridge will consist of the propellant, the primer, and the casing. The propellant is what is used to launch the projectile; the primer is what in essence ignites the propellant. The casing is what holds these components together. It is ejected automatically in most semi-automatic and fullyautomatic firearms. Bullets were originally called “rounds” because the earlier versions were round stones and later were cast metal balls – hence they were round.

What is the difference between semi-automatic and fullyautomatic firearms?

This is an area where there is a lot of confusion. Many early firearms required multiple steps or “actions,” which included the cocking of the firearm by pulling back the hammer with the thumb. This was often needed to be repeated with each shot, which manually loaded a new round into the chamber.

The development of “self-loading” or “automatic” firearms reduced the steps. A semi-automatic firearm only required that it was cocked or “charged” the first time. After each pull of the trigger, a new round was chambered by using some of the energy from the firing of the round, and the gun was ready for a subsequent shot. “Fully-automatic” takes this a step further, where it loaded and continued to fire repeatedly. The action is the same, but the firearm keeps operating as long as the trigger is held resulting in fully automatic operation. 

What is the difference between muzzle loading and breech loading?

Almost all of the earliest firearms in history were muzzle loading, meaning that the powder, ball or “round” was literally dropped down the front (muzzle) of the weapon, and carefully pushed to the rear with a ramrod. This process was used in weapons from the massive cannons that were used against medieval walled cities to the smallest of handguns.

The earliest attempts at breech loading began in the 14th century, but it took the tools and machining of the 19th century to perfect it. With the development of cartridges, firearms could more easily be loaded at the breach. A number of systems was devised that allowed the breech to be opened, a round loaded, and then the breech locked back in place. 

What is rifling, and how does it affect accuracy?

Early firearms were smoothbores (just like modern shotguns), and firing a projectile at a target meant the shooter had to stand within 100 yards or so to ensure an accurate shot placement.  Rifling (essentially grooves in the barrel), along with modern cartridge design, imparted spin to the projectible that allowed accurate shot placement out to several hundred yards.


Plain and simple, the firearm is a tool. The basic principles of firearms have existed for more than 1,000 years. Although the concept is simple, the operation involves a rather complex balance of raw materials and precision designs. All you really need to know is that when the gun is properly loaded, all you need to do is pull the trigger to activate a complex series of events that sends the bullet to the target. 

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