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War Inventions by  Charles R. Gibson


 

 

HOW GUNS WERE INVENTED

[17] YOU know that when the shepherd boy went out to fight the great big Philistine soldier neither of them had a gun. You know the reason why: guns had not been invented at that time.

If you had happened to be one of the children living about three thousand years ago, and if you had seen David and Goliath, I wonder what you would have thought about their weapons of war. Of course you can judge better now that you know the result of the fight, but if you had seen them before the fight I have no doubt that you would have said that the shepherd boy could not have any chance against the giant soldier who possessed such a large sword.

It is true that the Philistine soldier's great sword was a deadly weapon of war, but it was of no use until he got close up to his enemy, [18] whereas the shepherd boy was able to attack the huge soldier from a distance. You know how the boy threw a stone from his sling, with such force and with such a practised aim that the stone struck the soldier right on his forehead and killed him.

You have heard, doubtless, how the ancient Romans used to fling heavy stones at their enemies by means of a simple machine called a balista, and how they shot heavy metal bolts by means of large catapults. Then you know of the powerful cross-bows which shot deadly arrows, and how that gave rise to the long-bows which the archers could carry conveniently.

In all these weapons you see that the idea was to attack the enemy from a distance. The archer himself had to supply the energy which forced the arrow towards the enemy. With a gun it is different, for the soldier merely points the gun in the proper direction and pulls a trigger, when bang goes the gunpowder or other explosive, and off flies the bullet towards the enemy.

Who, then, invented guns? And when was the first gun invented? These are very simple [19] and direct questions, but they are not answered so easily. I could tell you who invented the different kinds of guns within the last hundred years or so, but no one can find out when or by whom the first gun was invented. From that fact you will be able to guess that it must have been a very long time ago.

We have old writings which tell us of guns being used seven hundred years ago, and we believe that there must have been some sort of guns more than two thousand years ago, which takes us back before the time of Christ. A Greek historian, writing at the time of one of the wars of Alexander the Great, tells us that the Hindus "had the means of discharging flame and missiles on their enemies from a distance."

You must not picture these ancient people as possessing guns at all similar to what we know as guns nowadays. The early attempt at guns may have helped to frighten the enemy from approaching the walls of a besieged city, but it is not likely that they did any real damage to the enemy at a distance. However, we see that away back before the time of Christ, people had the idea of guns.

[20] But a gun that would shoot far and straight was not made so easily as you might imagine; it is only in recent times that we have been able to make really accurate guns.

The first idea was to make a gun from long bars of iron, fixing them firmly together so as to form a tube, iron hoops being used to tie them together, just as a wooden barrel is hooped together. These tubes, or guns, were called cannons, because the French word for a tube is canon.

These early guns shot heavy stone balls. Then, about five hundred years ago, came the idea of making a solid cast-iron cannon and solid cast-iron cannon-balls. We have preserved many of these old weapons of war, and you have probably seen some of them in our parks or other public places. If you were to examine one of these old guns you would find that it is just a great iron tube closed at one end. We call the closed end the breech of the gun, just as we speak of the hinder part of a horse's harness as the breeching. Then we speak of the open end or mouth of the gun as the muzzle, just as we may speak of the projecting nose and mouth of an animal as its muzzle.

[21] If the old cast-iron cannon which you examine has been very well preserved, you should find a small hole near the closed end or breech of the gun. You probably know that this little chimney, or passage, leading down into the open bore of the gun, is called the touch-hole.

I have no doubt you have pictured to yourself some old-time soldiers firing one of these guns. We see them putting a quantity of gunpowder in at the open muzzle of the gun, and pushing it along the barrel until it is hard up against the breech or hinder part of the gun. Then they place a soft wad against the powder to keep it in its place. Then we see them place a big, round, solid ball of iron into the muzzle and ram it back against the wad. The cannon-ball is a loose fit for the bore of the gun, so the soldier wraps it in an oily cloth, before ramming it home. Then a little gunpowder is poured down the touch-hole. This is called the priming charge, as its duty is to set off the big charge of gunpowder crowded in behind the cannon-ball. You see the connection between the word "priming "and the word "primer," which describes your first lesson-books. Both [22] words are made from a Latin word meaning "first."

When these soldiers of long ago have their gun all ready, we see one of them apply a light to the powder in the touch-hole, and this priming charge soon passes the flame on to the large charge of gunpowder within the gun. The sudden explosion of the powder sends the cannon-ball flying out of the muzzle of the gun, and towards the enemy.

All this seems very primitive to us nowadays, and yet it was with such weapons that the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon fought at Waterloo in 1815, and which our armies have used even in later wars.

Large cannons were very heavy things to move about with an army, so attempts were made long ago to supply the foot soldiers with small guns which they would be able to carry about just as the old archers carried their long-bows. Some six or seven hundred years ago the infantryman was given a miniature cannon, mounted with a wooden butt end, which he could steady against his chest. These hand-guns had a touch-hole, to which the soldier applied a flame just as in the larger cannons. [23] Then someone suggested that the soldier would be able to take much better aim if he had not to worry about finding the touch-hole. And so a trigger was attached, and when this was pulled, it brought a lighted match down on to the touch-hole. It is not difficult to guess what led to this invention, for the old cross-bows had triggers, which when pulled released the springs and shot the bolts or arrows.

Then it was found that the soldier could not get his eye down low enough to take proper aim, while the butt of the gun rested on his chest. This difficulty suggested the butt being made suitable to rest against the shoulder, and you know that this plan, which was adopted four hundred years ago, is still in use to-day.

These early hand-guns, in which a trigger pulled a lighted match against the touch-hole, were called "match-lock muskets." The lock of any gun is the mechanism by which it is fired, so you see the meaning of the word match-lock. But why should the gun be called a musket? This was a name given to describe the quickness of firing; the name having been made up from the French word for a sparrow- [24] hawk. You know how very rapid are the movements of these birds.

You must not picture these old-time soldiers with matches such as we possess. If you have any friends who are "very old," you will find that they can remember the invention of the matches that light by merely rubbing their heads. The musketeers who used the match-lock muskets had no such self-lighting matches. They had to carry several yards of slow match wound round their muskets, and when they wished to shoot, they had first to produce a spark by means of a flint and steel, and thus light the end of the slow match. Imagine a musketeer on the battle-field, with wind and rain extinguishing his match, and the wind blowing the gunpowder out of the small pan fixed over the touch-hole.

These difficulties led to the invention of the wheel-lock musket, in which the lock, or firing mechanism, consisted of a small wheel, with teeth, which by rubbing on a piece of flint produced sparks which set the powder alight. When the trigger was pulled, not only did it set the wheel in motion, but it also uncovered the pan at the same moment. Before the [25] trigger was pulled, the soldier had to wind up the firing mechanism, just as you wind up a clock. All this meant delay.

By-and-by the difficulties of this wheel-lock musket led to the invention of the flint-lock musket, in which a piece of flint was made to strike a piece of furrowed steel, and thus produce the necessary sparks. This was done without any clockwork, and therefore saved a lot of time. It was these flint-lock muskets that were used in the battle of Waterloo. Among the soldiers of the Duke of Wellington this musket was nicknamed "Brown Bess," from the colour of its barrel.

Although it was a famous musket in its day, it was really a very poor affair. One of the great soldiers of these days said that this musket might shoot a man if he were only 80 yards away, but that a soldier would be very unfortunate indeed to be wounded by one of these muskets if the enemy was firing from a distance of 150 yards. He adds these words: "provided his antagonist aims at him." By this he means that a soldier might be hit by a stray bullet flying along, but he need have no fear of anyone who was trying to shoot him from [26] a distance of 150 yards. Then he goes on to say that to try and shoot at a man 200 yards away would be as ridiculous as to try and shoot at the moon, as he would have the same hopes of hitting it.

Although this "Brown Bess" was a great improvement on the older match-lock musket, it became evident that soldiers must have something better. It was certainly a step in advance to have done away with the necessity of a naked flame to ignite the powder, but this flint and steel lock did not always produce sufficient sparks to set off the gunpowder.

Some boys know how annoying it is if a toy pistol keeps misfiring. How very much more annoying it must have been to Wellington's soldiers to find their muskets continually miss-firing when they had a real enemy to attack. But people could see no way out of this difficulty until a solution of it came from a very unexpected quarter. A clergyman in Scotland invented an entirely new method of firing guns. His name was the Rev. Alex. Forsyth, and his church was in Aberdeenshire. Up to this time all guns had been fired by bringing a flame [27] or a spark in contact with a small priming charge of gunpowder, which carried the flame to the gunpowder within the gun. This clergyman's idea was to make the pulling of the trigger cause a small hammer to strike a small brass cap containing some chemicals, which would go bang whenever they were struck. The explosion of this small percussion cap was the means of setting off the charge of gunpowder within the gun.

I have no doubt that many of the seemingly wise people of these days would pooh-pooh the invention because it was the idea of a clergyman. What could a clergyman know about guns? But it very soon proved to be a good idea, as we shall see.

It may interest you to know that this is not the only case in which a clergyman has become an inventor. It was a clergyman who invented the first power-loom for weaving cloth by machinery. Strange to say, it was also a clergyman who invented the first knitting machine, and the descendants of this machine now enable a girl to knit one hundred pairs of socks in a day. Then it was also a clergyman who invented the reaping machine, which saves [28] the farmer so much time and labour in cutting down his hay and corn.

But what about this warlike invention of the Rev. Alexander Forsyth? The Government gave it a fair trial. It was tested against the famous "Brown Bess." So that the test would be fair in every way, it was agreed to fire 6000 shots with the flint-lock muskets, and other 6000 shots with the new percussion-cap muskets. Each misfire was to be counted as a bad mark against the gun. The famous "Brown Bess "got very nearly 1000 bad marks in firing 6000 shots. The clergyman's percussion-cap gun was then fired 6000 times, and at once it became apparent that it was making very few misfires, and when it finished, instead of having 1000 bad marks, it had only 36. No further proof was required as to which of the two guns would be the better for soldiers to fight with.

Even when Queen Victoria ascended the throne of Great Britain, it was the custom to load guns from the muzzle. There was no other way of getting the cannon-ball into the cannon, except by the mouth or muzzle, as the hinder part or breech was closed in. Of [29] course there was the open touch-hole, but no one but a lunatic would try to put a cannon-ball down the touch-hole.

Some people had made guns that would open at the breech end to allow of loading, but such guns had not been a success. These guns were called breech-loaders, to distinguish them from muzzle-loaders. You may think that our great-grandfathers were rather stupid to have worked away so long with guns which could be loaded only by the muzzle. But there was a real difficulty in making a breech-loading gun, for the breech end, which was to be capable of opening, might be blown out by the force of the explosion within the gun. If the breech-plug was shot backwards in place of the bullet being shot forwards, the gunner might be killed instead of the enemy. The plug which closes the breech after loading has to be so secure that it cannot be blown out, and it must fit so well that none of the gases produced by the explosion can escape.

You will remember that when the old-time soldier was loading the cannon-ball into the cast-iron cannon, the ball was such a loose fit that he wrapped an oily cloth around it before [30] ramming it along the barrel of the gun. A cannon-ball, if made a tight fit for the bore of the gun, could not have been used. It was only when the breech of the gun was made to open that a really well-fitting ball could be used. This was a great advance. Not only did it enable the shot to take full advantage of the explosion, but we shall see in the next chapter how it enabled the shots to fly much straighter when they left the gun.


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