firearm, device consisting essentially of a straight tube to propel shot, shell, or bullets by the explosion of gunpowder. Although the Chinese discovered gunpowder as early as the 9th cent., they did not develop firearms until the mid-14th cent. By that time, firearms, particularly in the form of heavy cannon, were in general use in Europe and Asia Minor. With such firearms, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. From the 15th cent., when the matchlock appeared, to the end of the U.S. Civil War, firearms became increasingly important in battle, and military tactics had to adapt constantly to successive improvements in their design. The early matchlocks, which depended on a lit match for firing the gunpowder, were supplanted first by flintlocks (perfected at the turn of the 17th cent.) that used a striking flint for firing, and then by various breach-loading firearms (perfected in the middle of the 19th cent.), which used bullets fitted with shells full of gunpowder that was ignited by the impact of a firing pin. In the 15th cent. firearms also came into use in hunting. Firearms were spread throughout the world during the period of European expansion. In some areas they were rapidly integrated into the existing culture and economy. Firearms are generally classified either as large firearms, i.e., artillery, or as small arms.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.