A rifle is a weapon
The first rifle: a tube with a hole
Charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur - the highly explosive mixture of these three substances revolutionized the development of weapon technology. It is believed that gunpowder was developed in China. It became known in Europe around the middle of the 13th century - initially as noise-making fireworks.
It is estimated that the oldest known rifle was built around a hundred years later. The term rifle, however, is a bit exaggerated: It was a simple tube that was closed at one end. The powder charge was ignited through a drilled hole with a glowing wire or a piece of coal.
The arquebuses, weapons that were ignited with a fuse but already had wooden handles, soon developed from this early form. With these "hook bushes" - the name arquebus comes from the old German word "Hakbuchse" - a good shooter could aim surprisingly well: at 50 meters he hit a playing card and at twice that distance a stag.
Leonardo da Vinci as a weapon developer
Leonardo da Vinci was probably the first to develop the ignition wheel mechanism in the early 16th century. In the catalog of his inventions there is at least one draft: a toothed wheel hits a flint and creates a spark that is directed into the ignition pan.
The complicated and expensive system consisted of at least three dozen moving parts. That is why it did not replace the matchlock in the military, but it made it possible for the first time to manufacture weapons that could be operated with just one hand - the pistols.
Whether the name for these handguns comes from the Czech word "pistale" (pipe, pipe) or refers to the arms factory in Pistoia, Italy, is still a matter of dispute. One thing is certain: the term had already established itself at the end of the 16th century and is still used today for all handguns whose ammunition is in a magazine - and not in a drum, as is the case with a revolver.
Around the same time, gun manufacturers were developing another improved ignition device: the flintlock. A flint was attached between a pair of jaws. If you pulled the trigger, the stone shot forward and sparked a piece of steel. The resemblance to a pecking cock's head gave this system its name: snap-cock.
A priest goes duck hunting
One clergyman of all people succeeded in one of the greatest inventions in the history of firearms. The Scottish pastor Alexander Forsyth had two hobbies: chemical experiments and hunting.
If he went duck hunting, he was annoyed that the birds were always warned by the flashes and smoke of the detonator. That is why he brewed the so-called bang powder from explosive salts and other chemicals in his home laboratory and patented it in 1807. This cracking powder developed enough heat to ignite a load of black powder.
Before the invention of the cracking powder, a spark had to be created with stone and steel, which then ignited the igniter. This then started the propellant charge, which drove the projectile through the barrel of the weapon. Thanks to the new technology, the time from being pulled to igniting was significantly shortened - and the enemy, in Forsyth's case the ducks, was not warned by the smoke.
Forsyth's so-called percussion system formed the basis for another decisive development: the unitary cartridge, in which the detonator, propellant and projectile are combined in a metal case. It came into use from the middle of the 19th century.
A Colt just in case
Colt, Samuel Colt - to this day this name is almost synonymous with revolver. As a young man, the American Colt was interested in firearms. The idea for his famous revolver technology is said to have come to him as a sailor on the high seas while he was watching the steering wheel.
The innovation consisted of a rotating drum in which the charge was arranged in a circle so that six shots were available without reloading.
In 1836 Colt owned the patent rights to his invention and built a factory in New Jersey. But business was bad, the Americans were too attached to their tried and tested rifles.
Five years later, Colt went bankrupt - but he didn't give up. Indeed, the civil war that broke out in 1861 brought Colt's weapons the breakthrough. Irony of fate: Samuel Colt died just a year later.
08/15: A machine gun becomes a saying
Hiram Maxim, the man whose invention changed warfare to an unprecedented extent, actually specialized in electrical lighting and power generators.
With this, the Briton had already amassed a considerable fortune at the age of 40 - and then allowed himself to be persuaded by the financier of his biggest competitor with a generous annual settlement to retire.
But Maxim was not a fan of tranquility - and so he began to be interested in firearms. In 1884 he invented a weapon that automatically reloaded as soon as a cartridge was fired: the first machine gun (MG). Maxim used the recoil of the weapon to eject the empty case and reload.
The most famous MG, the name of which even made it into the ranks of idioms, was probably the 08/15, which was used by the Germans in the First World War.
The term probably became synonymous with "mediocre" and "average" because the 08/15 was the first rifle that was used uniformly throughout Germany - until then, each part of the country was responsible for equipping its soldiers itself.
The war and destruction took on unprecedented proportions, partly because of these new weapons. Almost ten million people lost their lives between 1914 and 1918.
From trench sweep to assault rifle
The machine guns of the First World War had a clear disadvantage: They were so unwieldy and, above all, heavy that they had to be operated by several soldiers - good for defense, hardly usable for attack. Trench warfare called for smaller, lighter, high-rate weapons.
In 1918, the Bergmann company therefore delivered the MP18 submachine gun, developed by Hugo Schmeisser, to the German troops. It was not the first submachine gun to be produced, but the one with the most legendary reputation and the telling nickname "Trench Sweeper".
The MP18 was one of the main reasons that the Versailles Treaty forbade Germans from making or owning submachine guns. In the Second World War, however, German soldiers were equipped with submachine guns, as were soldiers in all other armies.
However, the submachine gun also showed a military disadvantage in World War II: its short range compared to the rifle. The Germans therefore developed the first assault rifle and introduced it in 1944.
The term comes from the propaganda of the National Socialists: The "Sturmgewehr 44" was considered the ideal weapon for the storm troops, suitable for targeted single fire at great distance as well as for continuous fire in close combat. Assault rifles are standard armament in most armed forces today.
Author: Katrin Lankers
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