Have you ever wondered about the progression that took humans from gunpowder and explosive (and exploding) metal weapons to the highly engineered firearms of today? The easy answer is centuries of research, development, and experimentation, but, as with anything in history, there is more to it than that. Every component of your AR 15, from the direct impingement system down to the materials used play a key role in the function of your firearm; without those years of development and engineering, firearms in general would likely lack a great deal of the accuracy and function that has developed – and that’s before we get into the customization that’s so specific to the AR!
As you undoubtedly learned at some point in your school years, gunpowder originated in China and was not, as the name implies, created in pursuit of a firearm-specific propellant – the appellation came years after the substance was developed. However, gunpowder was, arguably, the origin of firearms. According to Kenneth Chase, author of Firearms: A Global History to 1700, a gunpowder-powered weapon was developed during the 1200s in China which historians call the fire lance. Picture a device that is a partially-stable blend of spear, hand-held cannon, and rudimentary flamethrower. As was the case with many early gunpowder-fueled weapons, it was highly explosive and not particularly accurate. Despite the powerful punch provided by the gunpowder, the fire lance wasn’t particularly accurate; a fighter would need to still get awfully close to his combatant to have a hope of hitting him, but the fire lance was just as likely to injure the man who wielded it. In an effort to make them more stable and accurate, the barrel of the hand-cannon shifted from clay to metal – which then created the very basic components of our modern day firearms.
Making the Journey West
As the fire lance continued to evolve and become more accurate and stable, the technology behind gunpowder and idea of the gunpowder-fueled weaponry traveled west from China. Historians are unsure whether it was taken along the Silk Road with traders or if it was Mongol invasions that pushed the technology west but, by the mid-1300s, there are mentions of both gunpowder and firearm-like weapons in historical documents in England, Italy, and Russia.
As the technology traveled, so did the structure of the weapon. It was altered more and more to be suitable for soldiers, which meant longer barrels to increase precision and flint striking mechanisms to make firing simpler. Of course, the other problem is that ammunition wasn’t exactly standard at this point – think of the cannon-loading scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Ammunition was, more often than not, whatever was at hand: rocks, nails, bits of metal, and pretty much anything else that looked like it would make a decent projectile.
Ammunition didn’t become more standardized until the 1850s and made that transition alongside firearms. In the 1850s, the Springfield Armory created a breech-loaded rifle, the first of its kind, and that loading source encouraged more standardized ammunition. Then the Civil War came and pushed firearm advancements even further. The Gatling gun became the first successful multi-fire firearm and the Maxim was the first self-loading firearm, both of which changed how soldiers fought.
From there, the needs of soldiers continued to fuel advancements and enhancements, particularly during World Wars I and II. Soldiers needed weapons that could shoot further and more accurately but were still light enough to carry, along with sufficient ammunition. Armalite originally developed the AR 15 for military use (the firearm is called the M16 in its military iteration).
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