Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Little Firearms History and Predictions

"What is Past is Prologue." These words are engraved on a statue in front of the National Archives of the United States and they came from a Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The past is the necessary foundation for the present and the future. I wonder sometimes if gun design has become all prologue and no future.

You start reading about the history of firearm development and you'll see an interesting period. It began right before the Civil War, but war needs slowed it down. Innovation actually exploded in the period from about 1866 through about 1914 (if you are a firearms historian, your years may vary).

Many gun design concepts were born or perfected; repeating guns using a revolving cylinder, lever, bolt, or pump action. John Moses Browning and others realized you could use recoil to work a gun's action and semi-automatics were born. Hiram Maxim saw that semi-automatics could easily be modified for fully automatic fire and true machine guns were born.

Cartridges replaced percussion cap, bullet, and powder. In 1857, Daniel Wesson patented what we now call a .22 Short. Over the next twenty years, cartridges evolved with new rimfires and new centerfire cartridges. Black powder gave way to smokeless powder starting in the 1880s.

So by 1914, almost everything we have today was in place. I'm not saying we haven't made advances in metallurgy, parts design, and manufacturing techniques. Everything about guns has improved, but the same basic concepts underlie improvements. Your new Kimber .45 is based on a design that is a little over 100 years old.

Take a look at a revolver. The Smith & Wesson "hand-ejector" of 1899 included a swing out cylinder. By 1905 it was perfected. Today's revolver is mechanically little different from a 1905 model. Still need convincing. Look at a Mauser rifle bolt made about 1910. Not a lot of change there either. Granted, there were some false starts particularly in cartridge design. Pin-fire, needle guns, and other ideas were weeded out.

Since 1914, we have had surprising little innovation in guns. There have been attempts to make caseless ammunition--the powder is somehow pressed or cased in a plastic film that burns away when shot. A few guns are made that electronically fire cartridges with an electronic primer. The biggest true innovations have been electronic sights. For aging eyes like mine, a red dot sight is a Godsend.

These facts lead to questions.

Have we reached the highest point of firearms development possible? If so, will the next period of innovation see the development of energy weapons like in Star Trek? Will chemical/mechanical guns become quaint and non-threatening and less regulated while governments concentrate on "modern" weapons?

If firearms, other than electronic sights, have not reached their highest development, where is conceptual innovation today? Do government regulations actually make it impossible for the next John Moses Browning or Daniel Wesson to innovate?

Will the next round of innovation include civilian shooters? Will governments control new weapons? Already, we gunnies can't own machine guns made after 1986 and the only real improvements, though not new concepts, have been made in military full autos.

Will a new period of development be good for gunnies or bad?

I don't have a crystal ball, but let me make a couple of educated guesses.

Caseless cartridges will come about because you deny an enemy in asymmetrical warfare the ability to glean cartridges from a battlefield and turn them into a military asset. New development will occur and lead to weapons other than firearms. Development will be in government hands either in their labs or in contracted company labs. New auto-fire concepts will come out, but true innovation will be energy weapons either electro-magnetic impelled projectiles or laser-type energy.

Civilians will be left out of the loop since governments will jealously guard new weapons. Any new auto-fire weapons will be guarded too. New weapons will become available on black markets and firearms will be seen as little more than antiques. Gunnies will be able to own them with little hassle, however criminals will soon find ways to acquire new weapons.

Prognostication is never accurate, so if you have any ideas, I would be glad to hear them.

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