Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Firearms have exerted a fascination since medieval times, and today's weapons are more accurate and effective than the first designers could have imagined. The rifle has been developed for use both in target shooting and for hunting, while the machine gun was exclusively developed for major conflict - and has demonstrated its devastating efficiency.

The first muskets
The history of rifle development goes back to 14th-century Europe, when firearms using gunpowder as a propellant first appeared. These hand cannons, which could be loaded and fired by one man, were hazardous and not very effective. In the first section, "Early rifles" discover the designs that were successful and those that failed, and the many developments leading to selection of certain weapons for major conflicts. For example, flintlock muskets and pistols were used during the American Revolutionary Wars of 1775-83 and in the Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815. Soldiers were drilled to fire in short-range volleys, waiting (often under artillery fire) until they could see the whites of the eyes of the approaching enemy infantry - difficult to imagine today. Following the volley they launched a bayonet charge against their shocked and battered opponents. In the American Civil War (1861-65), M1816 flintlock muskets were still in use with some of the Confederate forces.

The Mini6 rifle bullet system revolutionized firearm developmment. When the propellant charge exploded, the lead bullet expanded and cut into the twists of the rifling. This produced a spin that made it travel in a straight line and so gave it accuracy over a long range - which had never been achieved before.

In just a few years, Alexander Forsyth's percussion lock would change the face of infantry combat forever.

From the American Civil War to World War I
Flintlocks may have been an incredible innovation in the 1700s, but as the second section of the book, "Rifles from 1800-2000" shows, 1807 saw a huge step forward. The Reverend Alexander Forsyth developed the first percussion ignition system for sporting guns. Forsyth's system was rather cumbersome, but, unlike flintlock weapons, it was weatherproof. About seven years later an English gunsmith, Josef Egg of London, invented the percussion cap, which was made of copper and filled with black blasting powder and potassium chlorate. These developments ultimately led to the modern magazine- and belt-fed weapons detailed in these pages. By World War I most combatants had equipped their soldiers with a magazine-fed bolt-action rifle, which could be fired fast, in all weather conditions, from the prone position.

Early machine guns
The inspiration for the world's first machine gun is said to have been a visitor to the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881, who said to the American engineer and inventor Hiram Maxim, "If you want to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other's throats with greater facility." The gun he showed the British Army four years later had the firepower of all the riflemen in an infantry company. The potential of firearms in warfare, which we take for granted today, was just being dreamed of. Section three, "The machine gun age 1883-2000" charts the incredibly fast-paced development of machine guns - once that potential had been spotted, arms manufacture exploded into a race of innovation.

By the end of World War I, the first submachine guns (SMGs) had been developed. These compact, fast-firing weapons fired a pistol-calibre bullet and were ideal for the confined spaces of the trench systems of the Western Front. The book explores the ways that warfare conditions, allies and enemies alike influenced each country's weapons development, coming up with ever more devastating armories — for example, problems with cumbersome SMGs in World War I led the Germans to develop the MG34, the world's first General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). This versatile new weapon was widely copied by all armies after World War II, and classics such as the AAT-52 and RPD are introduced on these pages.

The final development in the story of infantry weapons came just before World War II, but "New developments" shows how modern weapons designers are still drawing upon past guns, such as the Russian PK and the 19th century Gatling, to produce today's awesome fire power.

The Maxim gun was the world's first true machine gun. For mobility on the battlefield it could be mounted on a light gun carriage, with the crew protected by a shield.

In developing the MG34 (above) between the wars the Germans came up with a wholly new concept - the General-Purpose Machine Gun - a weapon that could be used as a light or medium machine gun. The MG42 that followed was an improvement.

No comments:

Post a Comment