A Brief History Of Ammunition
We all use it for our sporting and hunting needs, but do you know where and how ammunition first came to be? While it's a long evolution of various cultures touching the technology and leaving their own unique mark on it, we'll cover the high points of the development of this remarkable technology so you can better appreciate modern ammunition. In this article, we'll focus on the first firearm ammunition, but the history of ammunition like rocks used with slings and arrows stretches much further back in human history.
The Emergence Of Firearm Ammuntion
Long before the days of repeating rifles and large caliber cartridges, the history of firearm ammunition starts in China. By 900 AD, the Chinese had developed gunpowder after first experimenting with fireworks. Gunpowder was first employed as a weapon by the Chinese, and they created “fire lances” that were tubes of gunpowder attached to the end of spears. Fire lances were held up to attackers like a crude flamethrower and only burnt for a limited time. From there, the explosive properties of gunpowder were improved, and soon primitive guns appeared in china around the late 1200s and early 1300s.
Most historians place the appearance of the first firearm in the year 1260. Firearms were then filled with various forms of shrapnel, and most would consider that the first emergence of ammunition even if it wasn't standardized. The origin of the cannon is somewhat of a cross between Chinese and Arab technology, but historical records hint that the first cannons were used by the Arabs against their enemies sometime in the 1300s. So depending on your definition of ammunition, the use of primitive cannons by the Arabs could be considered the first ammunition as well.
Over the years, gunpowder and the concept of ammunition slowly migrated to European culture. As it migrated, it shrank in size, and soon hand cannons were employed alongside larger artillery cannons. Hand cannon projectiles shrank alongside the cannons themselves, and soon muzzle-loader technology was revolutionizing the world. Muzzleloaders were loaded via the muzzle or end of the rifle or hand cannon, and loading these weapons usually was a three to four step process. First loose gunpowder was poured down an empty barrel. Next, wadding of paper or leather was pressed down the barrel to improve performance. While not absolutely necessary, wadding was employed in situations where time wasn't an issue, however in battle or in a pinch, this step could be skipped. Finally, the bullet itself was loaded into the barrel, and everything was pressed together with a "ramrod" or long metal rod to ensure maximum bullet velocity. The powder was then ignited by several different ignition sources including matchlocks, wheellocks, snaplocks, flintlocks, and finally percussion caps. Muzzleloader technology remains in use today, and although it is considered more of a hobbyist sport, there are many modern advancements available like Muzzleloader scopes.
Muzzleloader technology remained the prominent method of shooting ammunition for several hundred years, but ammunition designs evolved in that time from round ball shapes to the more reliable shapes that resemble the bullets we know today. Two prominent designers, Englishman William Greener and Frenchman Claude-Etienne Minie, created rifle bullets that left the barrel while spinning to increase accuracy. Rifled barrels further created a spin on the bullet to maximize accuracy. In addition, the cartridge concept was important to the advent of modern ammunition as well. Paper cartridges first emerged in 1586, but the use of brass soon replaced paper as the primary cartridge material. Muzzleloaders soon turned exclusively to fixed ammunition where the bullet was "seated" or surrounded by a brass cartridge. By the time that breech loader technology emerged in the mid 1850s, the modern cartridge was taking shape.
The Modern Cartridge
The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts is where it all began. Breech loaders first appeared in America in 1850 and by 1865 they were in mass production. Instead of loading via the muzzle, breech loaders broke apart and ammunition was inserted into a chamber near the end of the rifle. This meant that ammunition could be loaded and fired much quicker than muzzleloaders, and soon this technology outpaced that of the muzzle loaded rifle. The cartridge designs already in use with muzzleloaders fit well with breech loading rifles, and the form of the modern cartridge began to take shape. Powder was contained in a brass container that was slightly smaller than the barrel but created a tight seal, and a bullet was seated on top of the brass container. A new ignition source needed to be created, and thus the primer was born. Breech loading rifles were built with firing pins that would strike the primer, ignite the cartridge, and propel the bullet down the barrel. The breech could then be broken, the spent cartridge ejected, and a new cartridge inserted. The spent brass cartridges could also be salvaged and reloaded for future use as long as they weren't sufficiently damaged. As breech loaders evolved, the ability to repeat this process became more and more viable, and soon the repeating rifle emerged as the pinnacle of current firearm technology.
Bullet designs have also evolved over the years to match the advent of breech loading technology. Bullets are still primarily made of lead, but since this substance is toxic to the human body, this may change as firearms continue to evolve. However, today lead remains the primary material in use, and in 1882 Major Eduard Rubin of the Swiss Army is credited with encasing the first lead bullet in a copper jacket to decrease friction on the bullet as it leaves the barrel. This concept is still utilized today. Bullets can also be tipped with a variety of materials like plastic that streamline the bullet in flight but still convey a wealth of energy on the target. This can also be accomplished by the popular "hollow tip" bullets, but the hollow point can reduce range and accuracy a bit. There are several other bullet designs available depending on use like armor piercing, less lethal, and non-toxic to name a few.
Modern Rifles employ a wide array of calibers today, but some are more popular than others, and availability can have an effect on who shoots what caliber. The .22 LR cartridge is generally regarded as the most widely used cartridge today, but the list of other calibers is nearly endless. Hard to say what ammunition advancements lie ahead, but needless to say it has come along was from 1260.
Want to read more like this? Be sure to explore the history and function of holsters in Holsters – Origins And Current Options.