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History of light weapons

Written by Sakhal

From the stone to the most elaborate steels, the evolution of weapons is a path marked by some of the most representative milestones of technology.

History of light weapons

Stone Age

Either for hunting, defense or attack, the human being has always used weapons. During the Lower Paleolithic, he realized that by sharpening the hardest stones, such as flint, he could kill and quarter his preys. During the Upper Paleolithic, many thousands of years later, the invention of the handle constituted a true revolution, for fastening stone tools to a handle or grip notably increased their effectiveness. A subsequent revolution happened with the apparition of the first microliths, very small stone pieces which made possible the crafting of increasingly sophisticated weapons and tools, as for example arrows and spiked maces.

The last revolution of the Prehistory took place during the Neolithic, few millennials before the apparition of the first civilizations, when the long experience acquired in the manipulation of the diverse primitive materials (stone, wood, clay, fibers and leather) allowed to develop more efficient and precise weapons, even if their operating principle was still equally simple. It seems that the bow and the slingshot appeared roughly during the same period, prior to the Neolithic, but it was in this latter period when both weapons reached widespread use, with a further elaborate manufacture. But over time the bow demonstrated to be a much more practical weapon, more susceptible of receiving improvements, which would earn it a prominent place on the first armies that appeared following the end of the Neolithic, around 4000 BC.

Metals Age

The discovery of the first metals worked by the human, firstly copper and later its alloy with tin known as bronze, used for the first time in western Europe just after the end of the Neolithic, marked a milestone in the craft of weapons and tools. The manipulation of metals allowed the apparition of a new weapon, the sword, and the manufacture of the first helmets, breastplates and metallic shields. During the early Bronze Age axes and spearheads were still attached to their handles by means of leather strips or fiber ropes, but at the end of that period the adoption of sockets allowed a firmer attachment. Then, during the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Celtic tribes began to manufacture tools and weapons made of both bronze and iron.

The earliest swords had a short blade made of bronze and a rather unreliable attachment of that one with the handle; because of this these swords were suitable for thrusting but not for blows that are perpendicular to the axis of the blade. The method of attachment largely used in swords and daggers during the Bronze Age is very characteristic, featuring a wide arc on the handle where the also wide end of the blade was loosely embedded before being fastened by several rivets (usually from four to eight). The problem posed by this weak attachment between the blade and the handle was later addressed by topping the blade with a shaft which could be inserted deeply inside the handle.

As bronze demonstrated to be not strong enough for a totally reliable blade it started to be replaced by iron, and this gave way to a more widespread adoption of long-bladed swords, as the longer a blade is the higher the tension is that it has to endure on each blow. Still, bronze was a very suitable material for crafting the handle, as it has the advantage of being lighter and more ductile, allowing to craft handles of fine ornamentation and soft touch. Moreover, bronze and iron blades coexisted during centuries and it was not before the 15th century BC that the latter imposed themselves upon the former. Since iron deposits are sparse on the surface of the Earth, the production of iron blades was very limited until the ore began to be extracted from the underground.

Classical Age

Unlike bronze, which has a lower melting point, iron had to be worked by forge. Tempering processes were barely known and because of this a blade could be made sufficiently rigid only by making it unnecessarily short or thick. The advantage of iron blades was that they did not lose the edge so easily and that a strong blow could bent them rather than breaking them, as it happened to bronze blades. A bent blade could be straightened by using the right tools. Much later, the development of furnaces capable of melting iron allowed to obtain a much purer material. During centuries, metallurgical processes improved, including the techniques of forging, lamination, compactibility, carbon enrichment and temper, finally allowing to produce long blades of a high quality.

The prototype of European sword in these centuries was the Hallstatt from the late Bronze Age, from which derived not only the long swords used by the Celtic cultures, but also the Greek swords and the gladius adopted by the Roman Empire, which was a short sword for the infantry but longer for the cavalry and other corps. During these centuries, the problem of achieving the best attachment between the blade and the handle was addressed and finally solved. The Celtic sword, which had a blade of around 90 centimeters in length, survived throughout the Classical Age and continued in use during the early Middle Ages. At this point, a new element started to appear in the swords: the guard, intended to protect the hand of the carrier during combat. Regarding other types of weapons used by the military, they were more or less the same weapons that existed already in the Neolithic, with no revolutionary innovations beyond the gradual improvement of the material and the introduction of new designs. Axes, spearheads and arrowheads were made of iron and the effectiveness of bows was improved by refining their shape and using a diversity of materials on their construction, to achieve what is called a composite or laminated bow.

Middle Ages

Circa 1000 AC, iron blades had reached such a quality that there was little space for improvement regarding the material used for their construction. The aspects of weapons that would change from that point would be only those related to their design. European swords, from the Bronze Age to the Middle Age and beyond, were characterized by a straight blade of two edges, with lengths varying from 60 centimeters to one meter. This design was common as well in China, Arabia and North Africa. At the end of the Middle Ages the two-handed sword appeared in Europe, rather longer and heavier than a normal sword, to be used only by shock infantry. The saber, a sword of curved blade with a single edge, was developed throughout Asia during the Middle Ages and later introduced in Europe, where it became widespread only from the 18th century. Being lighter (while having a sharper edge), the saber was specially suitable for cavalry forces and so it would become the standard blade weapon in the armies of the whole world during the late Gunpowder Age.

Gunpowder Age

During the last centuries of the Middle Ages the crossbow had superseded the bow in the battlefield, because this latter required a costlier training process. From that time as well date the first experiments effectuated in Europe with gunpowder, destined to impulse the spherical stones fired by the first cannons, which were very primitive and unsafe contraptions. Apart from the stationary pieces, some portable cannons were built as well, and over time these were developed to become the first firearm which could be operated by a single person: the arquebus. To make this possible new mechanisms had to be added to the cannons, to make possible a fast ignition while the gunner held and aimed the weapon. The earliest of these mechanisms was that of match-lock type, which used a slow-burning match cord attached to a serpentine lock which was impulsed by a spring when released. Once having lighted the match, when the utilization of the arquebus was imminent the gunner only had to keep aiming to the target; then, to effectuate the shot, he only had to pull a trigger which would release the lock and impulse the burning match against a small pan (the flash pan or priming pan) holding the gunpowder used for igniting the propellant charge.

The match-lock mechanism was as simple and unexpensive as it could be. The inherent weakness of these primitive firearms was the match, which had to be kept constantly lit; this required great attention from the gunner, who had to reposition the match on the lock as it was consumed, and large amounts of match cord were burned for the sole purpose of having the arquebus ready to fire at every moment. Besides, the match was unreliable when affected by humidity and, when lit, it was recognizable by its glow and characteristic smell, posing additional danger in places where large amounts of gunpowder were stored. To address all of these important shortcomings, the match was replaced by a piece of iron pyrite, in a complex and expensive mechanism of wheel-lock type, in which the pyrite was attached to a lock, similarly as the match cord was in the previous type. When the gunner pulled the trigger, the lock and its pyrite was released and impulsed against a grooved steel wheel, which was released at the same time than the lock to effectuate a rotative movement. The friction generated on the pyrite when pressing against the fast-moving grooves created sparks that ignited the gunpowder on the priming pan. The shaft of the wheel had one of its ends, of square section, protruding outside the lockplate, to allow a spanner to be engaged for subsequent tensioning of the mechanism.

Both types of mechanism coexisted until the beginning of the 18th century, in a time when the more practical flint-lock mechanism was the common type. Despite its many shortcomings, the match-lock mechanism had been favored by its affordable cost and so it had continued equipping countless arquebuses and muskets on the armies. The wealthiest people could afford to pay for a wheel-lock mechanism, and so the personal firearms of the noblemen were usually of this type. Wheel-lock pistols appeared during the 16th century and continued in use during the subsequent century, and also match-lock pistols were produced for more humble pockets. The increasing adoption of firearms gradually moved the bow and the crossbow away from the battlefield, and blade weapons in general lost importance during the Gunpowder Age, at the end of which they had become merely symbolic to a large extent, albeit sabers remained as fundamental weapons for cavalry units (and also for sailors during the fierce boardings).

In the attempt to create a mechanism that united the advantages of both aforementioned types, a few different mechanisms of flint-lock type were experimented during the second half of the 16th century. They used a piece of flintstone attached to a lock, which after being released produced sparks when striking a pivoting steel frizzen. The working principle was similar to that of the wheel-lock mechanism, but the wheel and the complex components associated to it had been replaced by a much simpler and unexpensive mechanism. In the early 17th century the flint-lock mechanism adopted its definitive form, which would be used during the subsequent two centuries in every type of firearm. In fact, the idea of creating a revolver appeared while flint-lock mechanisms were still the only way of opening fire with a firearm.

Industrial Age

The first true revolver was devised circa 1814. This innovative flint-lock weapon did not have a self-rotating cylinder but it was self-priming, as it automatically released gunpowder into the priming pan when the lock was cocked. The process of reloading a firearm had to be optimized, not only when thinking of revolvers, but also for the conventional flint-lock pistols and rifles. Because of this soldiers started to receive prepared ammunition in the form of primitive cartridges, which consisted of cylindrical paper bags containing a bullet, stoppers and gunpowder. Also the logistics of production became an important factor at the beginning of the 19th century. Because of this the pieces of military firearms began to be serially produced, which allowed not only a faster manufacture but to exchange pieces between different firearms of the same type.

It was also at the beginning of the century when a new type of ignition mechanism appeared. The cap-lock mechanism used a percussion lock (the hammer) to strike a small cap containing a chemical primer to ignite the gunpowder charge. The new mechanism simplified the process of reloading a weapon, as no longer would be necessary to pour a small gunpowder charge on a priming pan, and this paved the way for the creation of the first commercial revolvers, circa 1835. In this time a typical revolver had a cylinder with five or six chambers where ammunition had to be loaded by the fore part, as on the rear part of each chamber there was a nipple where a percussion cap had to be fit. The chambers of these early revolvers could be loaded either with a bullet and gunpowder separately or with a cartridge, consisting of a bullet attached to a copper capsule filled with the propellant charge. Typically, after each shot the hammer had to be cocked manually to rotate the cylinder and leave the revolver ready for a next shot, but in some models there was a second trigger which cocked the hammer and rotated the cylinder.

The final improvement came when the detonating cap was integrated into the cartridge case; this made possible the general adoption of breech-loading firearms of all types and greatly streamlined the reloading procedure, paving the way for repeating, semiautomatic and automatic fire. This innovation has only one drawback: when a metallic case has to be ejected after each shot there is a risk of malfunction associated to the ejection process, which causes the weapon to get jammed. Because of this inventors experimented with caseless or self-consuming cartridges, but eventually accepted that the advantages of brass cases far outweighed this one drawback. Revolvers, rifles and shotguns gradually adopted the different types of integrated cartridges from the middle of the 19th century, becoming more reliable and faster to reload than ever. Conventional pistols were commonly of the cap-lock type until the end of the century, when the first commercial autoloading pistols appeared. On the other hand, integrated cartridges also made possible the production of the first practical machine guns during the second half of the century.

During the first half of the 20th century all the existing types of firearms were perfected to a greater or lesser extent, specially the autoloading pistol and the machine gun, which evolved to be much more manageable and compact. The advent of the Great War brought further innovations to the ample world of weaponry, and the first portable mortars and hand grenades, filled with explosives of greater power than ordinary gunpowder, were seen on the battlefield. In that time it was thought as well to create machine guns that were as portable as a rifle is, and so the first submachine guns appeared, even if only in very limited quantities. Submachine guns offered great firepower but they lacked the degree of precision required in the battlefield, so enhanced designs which fired more powerful cartridges from longer cannons were developed during the 1940s, bringing to life the concept of assault rifle which is the norm in every modern army. As the evolution of modern firearms consolidated during the second half of the 20th century, it is unlikely that the 21st century will bring any radical innovation in this field.

History of light weapons

Categories: Small Arms - Infantry - [General] - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2017-12-15

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