Firearms Research Paper

This sample Firearms Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

Between the eleventh century and the 1830s, firearm technology developed fairly slowly and equally around the globe; the developments that most affected societies occurred after industrialization and were adopted by the military. Today the mass production of personal firearms—ranging from hunting rifles to handguns to paramilitary weaponry—has brought the impact of firearms well beyond the military sphere.

The history of firearms can be divided into two eras: an age of smoothbore weapons (weapons whose barrel has an unrifled bore), up to about 1830, and an age of rapid technological innovation and industrialization after 1830. The first age saw relatively slow technological development and relatively few disparities in the impact of firearms around the globe. The second age, however, created vast disparities in military strength throughout the world and had a much broader impact upon society as a whole.

Invention and Spread of Firearms to 1830

Gunpowder first appeared in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279), probably during the eleventh century, an ironic by-product of a Daoist search for an elixir of immortality. It was used by the Chinese in fireworks and in warfare in the form of bombs launched by catapults, proving especially useful in naval warfare. Historians disagree over whether it then spread to Europe via Silk Roads trade routes or whether Europeans invented gunpowder independently. Either way, once in Europe gunpowder was put to use as the moving force behind projectiles, and firearms were born. The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon in manuscripts dates to the late 1330s.

Gunpowder was used first in cannons. By the fifteenth century handheld firearms had also appeared in the form of muskets and their lighter cousin the arquebus (a portable gun usually fired from a support). Both forms of the technology spread not just through Europe but also to most of the rest of the world over the next century. The Ottomans had better cannons than the Europeans by 1450, specializing in huge siege guns that helped them take Constantinople in 1453 and also fielding a musket-bearing corps of janissary (slave) infantry. The Mughals made effective use of cannons in the early 1500s, as did the Ming Chinese. Muskets made it to Japan in 1542 on a Portuguese ship; Japanese smiths soon manufactured muskets as good as European models, and Japanese generals pioneered effective battlefield use of the weapons. African kingdoms traded for muskets and then fought European armies on equal terms in places such as Morocco and Angola in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Native Americans made effective use of musketry against Europeans in frontier wars during the seventeenth century.

Characteristics and Impact to 1830

Almost all the cannons and handheld guns in this age shared certain characteristics. They were smoothbore weapons and therefore fairly inaccurate individually (rifled muskets—i.e., weapons with spiral grooves cut into their bores—existed, but they were very slow to load and used only for hunting). Even smoothbores were somewhat cumbersome to reload, so rates of fire were low compared to bows—the best eighteenth-century units could manage only two to three shots a minute. To achieve a significant battlefield effect, these slow, inaccurate guns had to be employed en masse, either as cannon batteries or in large units of infantry, though skirmishing was also possible in the right terrain. But guns had advantages. The penetrating power of cannon shot was far superior to traditional torsion or tension artillery (catapults and the like); muskets likewise had great penetrating power, rendering much armor obsolete. Above all, handheld firearms were easy to learn to use: several weeks’ practice could turn raw recruits into reasonably effective musketeers, whereas good archery was a skill acquired over decades.

The varied impact firearms had in this age derived from these characteristics. Their penetrating power and ease of use combined to pose a potential threat to mounted elite warriors, who found themselves and their mounts suddenly more vulnerable. Nevertheless, cavalry forces did not cease to be effective with the advent of firearms, and in fact the most formidable armies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the Ottomans, the Manchus, and the Mughals, combined the tactical mobility of steppe cavalry with artillery trains and a corps of infantry musketeers. But firearms meant that steppe cavalry could no longer be an independent threat to sedentary armies, especially when their opponents added fortifications and firepower together. So gunpowder played a role in ending the long role steppe nomads had played in Eurasian warfare, but to characterize the great Asian powers of the age as “Gunpowder Empires,” as some historians do, is to overemphasize the role of cannon in what really were synthetic systems in which steppe-style cavalry was still vital.

The notion of “Gunpowder Empires” also derived from the impact of firearms on fortifications: they supposedly rendered pre-gunpowder forts obsolete, thereby facilitating wide conquests (at least until new forms of fortification were devised to counter cannon fire). While such an effect was briefly true for some areas of Europe, in many other places, such as India, fortifications could already withstand gunpowder, so guns had little effect on conquest. And in Europe, a new form of fortification arose in Italy around 1525. From one perspective, the trace italienne simply restored the defensive status quo. But some historians see in the new fortifications (or, alternately, in the tactical implications of handheld firearms for infantry battle in the European context) the seeds of a “military revolution.” Briefly, the various versions of this theory see gunpowder necessitating larger armies, either to besiege the new fortifications or to provide mass fire on the battlefield. Larger armies in turn required governments to become more organized in order to pay for them. Better governments and their bigger, better armies then launched Europe into its position of world leadership. The military revolution theory therefore inserts firearms as a causal factor in both the emergence of the modern state and the rise of Europe. The theory has been much debated, and is in its simplest form a vast and technologically determinist overstatement, at the very least; some historians doubt that there was a military revolution at all in early modern Europe. Certainly no area of the world derived a decisive edge from the use of gunpowder weapons alone before the nineteenth century, simply because the technology was so widely diffused. Whatever edge European arms had by the late eighteenth century was based on organizational techniques, not technology, and was limited in its reach by transport problems.

On the other hand, the combination of firearms, especially cannons, and full-rigged oceangoing ships did create a revolution of sorts at sea, though claims for even this must be qualified by the lack of serious competition from Asian powers (arising largely from different interests, not technological barriers). Still, effective exploitation of the seas lay at the heart of growing European influence in the world by 1800, and the European leader in this sphere, Great Britain, was arguably the first to create a “modern” fiscal-military state and military-industrial complex focused on the navy. By 1800, also, Napoleon and the armies of the French Revolution were bringing to a pinnacle the operational and tactical art of land warfare in the age of smoothbore firearms.

Technological Innovations since 1830

The first great change in the smoothbore equation came in 1830, when rifled muskets that could be reloaded as rapidly as smoothbores appeared, thanks to the invention of a bullet with a hollow base. The ball was smaller than the rifled bore and could be rammed home, but the base expanded when fired, filling the rifling. The spin imparted by rifling increased both accuracy and range, which almost tripled in effective terms. Suddenly, cavalry were driven from any significant battlefield role, and infantry attacks became much more expensive and difficult. Further innovations followed in the course of the nineteenth century. Breech loading allowed infantry to reload lying down and so take greater advantage of cover. Better metal casings allowed bigger, more powerful shells. Smokeless powder allowed further concealment. Mechanisms for rapid or multiple shots, including the invention of machine guns, gave two or three men the firepower of an entire Napoleonic brigade. Similar improvements affected larger firearms. Land artillery and naval guns saw the introduction of aerodynamic exploding shells, steel barrels, and armor-piercing points. Perhaps more important than any particular improvement was the introduction of interchangeable parts in gun manufacturing, which allowed the industrialization of weapons making. Mass production meant that armies could be supplied with new weapons more quickly, which encouraged more rapid technological change and soon led to the widespread commercialization of firearms beyond military uses. The twentieth century saw firearms mounted on motorized vehicles and carried into the air on planes, and by the end of the century munitions were becoming “smart” as computer technology began to change firearms significantly.

Impact since 1830

These changes in firearms technology vastly increased the impact of firearms in the world. In Europe and the United States, where the new technologies were developed, firepower led to a series of tactical revolutions first visible in the trench warfare around Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864. At first, almost all the changes favored the defense in battle. Attempts to break the defensive power of artillery, machine guns and rifles led to the development of mechanization for increased mobility, including mobilization of armies via railroads and then the use of vehicles with internal combustion engines on land and in the air for troop transport and as fighting vehicles. Firepower also called forth the use of armoring, first on ships and later on tanks and other land vehicles. Greater and greater firepower carried by more mobile armies, air forces, and navies inevitably spread the impact of war far beyond the traditional frontline, increasingly blurring the distinction between combatant and noncombatant.

Very much unlike the firearms technology of the smoothbore age, firepower in the industrial age created (and continues to create) vast disparities in military capabilities around the globe. Small armies of Europeans armed with rifles and machine guns could by 1870 face down many thousands of indigenous warriors. Firearms, in other words, became central to creating the imperialism of the nineteenth century as well as to its maintenance well into the twentieth. But the widespread availability of firearms embodied in a worldwide arms trade, a trade later given impetus by ideological conflicts such as the Cold War, also helped bring down colonial empires in the second half of the twentieth century. Following in the footsteps of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Army, the leaders of anti-colonial rebellions (and later of antigovernment insurgencies of all stripes) made use of firepower through guerilla tactics to cause major problems for conventional armies. The firepower of such groups also increased their ability to damage civilian populations, a problem often exacerbated by ethnic or nationalist tensions in civil wars. Arms-control agreements focused on weapons of mass destruction have done little to stem the worldwide flow of personal firearms to any group that wants them.

In addition, the industrialization of weapons manufacturing and the widespread availability of personal firearms—ranging from hunting rifles to handguns to paramilitary weaponry—that resulted from mass production carried the impact of firearms well beyond the military sphere. Given the potential for damage that modern firearms give to individuals and small groups, most governments that were capable of doing so moved to restrict the availability of firearms to the civilian population, an extension of previous policies aimed at disarming the general populace in favor of the central authority, thereby maintaining a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But weak or faction-ridden governments proved incapable of enforcing such policies, with bloody results that often showed up in periods of civil war or insurgency. And the policies of the United States government (inspired by some readings of the Second Amendment) have traditionally imposed fairly minimal restrictions on gun ownership and use, resulting in high levels of gun-related violence and murder rates significantly higher than those in comparable industrialized countries with more restrictive policies. Meanwhile, the image of firepower has entered mainstream popular culture around the world through films and computer games, the “shoot-‘em-up” being a major genre of each medium. The impact of firearms in world history, whether military, political, social or cultural, therefore stands as a case study of the growing complexity and interconnectedness of technology and human social relations visible in all areas of world history.


  1. Blackmore, H. (1961). British military firearms, 1650–1850. London: Herbert Jenkins.
  2. Blackmore, H. (1965). Guns and rifles of the world. New York: Viking Press.
  3. Boothroyd, G. (1962). Guns through the ages. New York: Sterling Publishing Company.
  4. Boothroyd, G. (1970). The handgun. New York: Crown Publishers.
  5. Brown, M. L. (1980). Firearms in colonial America: The impact on history and technology, 1492–1792. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  6. Chase, K. (2003). Firearms: A global history to 1700. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. DeVries, K. (1992). Medieval military technology. Boulder, CO: Broadview Press.
  8. Ezell, E. (1983). Small arms of the world: A basic manual of small arms (12th rev. ed.). Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
  9. Francis, P. H. (1961). The origins and development of firearms and gunpowder. London: Broadacre Books (Bradford).
  10. Hayward, J. F. (1962). The art of the gunmaker. (Vols. 1–2). London: Barrie and Rackliff.
  11. Keegan, J. (1993). A history of warfare. New York: Knopf. McNeill, W. The pursuit of power: Technology, armed force and society since AD 1000. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  12. Morillo, S.; Black, J.; & Lococo, P. (2009). War in world history: Society, technology and war from ancient times to the present. (2 vols.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  13. Peterson, H. L. (1961). History of firearms. New York: Scribner.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655