Guns Past and Present
Our fascination with guns is not a recent phenomenon. When we begin researching the subject we quickly discover that the history of firearms in general, and guns in particular, goes back a long way.
Early guns were really just very small cannons and, as such, needed gunpowder to propel the ball towards the target. The earliest reference to gunpowder being used in Europe was made by Bishop Magnus in 1280 when he wrote that it had been used at the Siege of Seville in 1247. A hundred and fifty years later handguns were known in Italy and had already been used in England since 1375. These guns would have been large, heavy and somewhat unwieldy. The first mechanical device for firing a handgun did not appear until 1424 and the earliest reports of bullets piercing armour do not occur until a year later. The rifling of the barrel (spiral grooves on the inside of the barrel to make the bullet spin and thus increase accuracy over long distances) was invented towards the end of the 15th century, in 1498, though did not become commonplace in small weapons until the mid-16th century.
By the second half of the 18th century pistols had been developed and gained favour quickly with the duelling fraternity, being the favoured weapon in most duels. The popularity of duelling with swords died out between 1750 and 1770.
The main breakthroughs in gun development have been concerned with the firing devices and the loading methods. Originally guns were fired through the application of fire (in the form of matches or their equivalents) but as time went by the wheel-lock was invented which generated a series of sparks. This was superseded by the flintlock mechanism where a piece of spring-loaded flint produced sparks by striking a piece of flint. By the 17th century the flintlock had been widely adopted. Not until the early 19th century was the percussion system introduced (in which a detonator is set off by means of a sudden blow). Nowadays many weapons are fully automatic, which means they will keep firing for as long as the trigger is pressed.
Innovations in loading techniques were slightly slower. Guns were generally often muzzle-loaded (like cannons) until the mid-19th century. Breech-loading did not become widespread until the end of the 19th century. Apparently the last war in which everybody used the muzzle-loading technique was the Crimean War (1854-1856).
Gun technology continues to advance today, with firearms becoming ever smaller, lighter, faster and more efficient. You don’t have to be a soldier to have one – in some countries they sell them in supermarkets these days, they fit easily into a handbag or a pocket. It seems that our fascination with firearms continues to grow. Some statistics say that even young children see thousands of shootings in films and cartoons before they even reach adolescence!
Opinion is often divided as to whether we all have the right to carry a gun. Generally, people believe that we each have the right to defend ourselves but are unsure whether that means going about our lives armed to the teeth. Accurate statistics on firearms are hard to come by, but relatively recent figures indicate that per 100,000 people in the USA, 3 were shot dead in 2000. In the UK the figure was one in a million, while in South Africa 71 people in every 100,000 were shot dead in 2000.
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. Our fascination with guns is not a __________ phenomenon.
2. The first mechanical device for __________ a handgun did not appear until 1424.
3. Not until the early 19th century was the percussion system __________.
4. Breech-loading did not become widespread until the __________ of the 19th century.
5. Gun technology continues to advance today, with firearms becoming ever smaller, __________, faster and more efficient.
Guns Past and Present
For use with Talking Point worksheets
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