Hand-Picked Daily GUN DEALS, and Exclusive Coupons Codes >>>
We review products independently. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission to help support our testing. Learn more.

Firearm Firsts: Historical Guns That Laid the Groundwork

We walk through some of the first firearms in each category to make a splash -- from the first gun ever to the first machine gun to the first rifle.
We review products independently. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission to help support our testing. Learn more.

    Why are firearms such a huge part of our culture?

    It’s a tough question. From a shooter’s perspective, there are tons of answers. However, history also plays a massive role.

    45 Colt Revolvers and Ammo

    Today, we will be looking at the historical firearm firsts.

    To keep it from being a full-blown novel, I’m looking at categories that are most popular in the current world of firearms.

    Sometimes the firsts get shoved aside for the popular

    That being said, let’s take a look at some historical milestones in the world of firearms.

    Table of Contents


    The First Gun: Chinese Fire Lance

    Where did it all start? Who birthed the firearm industry we enjoy all so much?

    The first modern gunnish-style weapon traces itself back to 10th century China.

    The Li Hua Qiang, or “Pear Flower Gun,” as depicted in the 14th-century Huolongjing ‘Fire Dragon Manual’

    In a bizarre turn, guns were first attached to melee weapons. You know how a bayonet turns a rifle into a spear? Well, the Chinese fire lance did the opposite.

    It was a spear with a firearm attached.

    They started as pyrotechnic devices used to stun and surprise an enemy. However, as gunpowder improved, they saw a chance to improve its effectiveness.

    An artist’s interpretation of a Chinese soldier wielding an early fire lance (Photo: TyrannoNinja)

    They started loading those devices with pellets and debris to make a very early version of a shotgun. Imagine dodging the blade of a spear just to get zapped by some crazy device at the end of the spear, or a calvary man riding at you and sending a blast of early buckshot to your chest before you can even fight back.

    By the 13th century, fire lance barrels were made from metal, eventually leading to the first hand cannons.

    The fire lance spread out of China and into Japan, the Middle East, and Europe, where they caught on like wildfire.

    First Rifled Rifle: German Rifles by Augustus Kotter

    When I say rifle, I am talking about a long gun with a rifled barrel. Smoothbore guns firing a single projectile at this time weren’t known for accuracy.

    To get the best accuracy, guns of the time often used a ball that was as close to the same size as the bore as possible.

    (Photo: Gun University)

    However, in 1498 a man named August Kotter produced the first spiral rifling pattern that would impart spin on the projectile. In 1520 August, Kotter improved on the design.

    Even at this time, shooting competitions existed, and men with muskets competed. The rifled bore had such an effect that references exist to banning grooved barrels because such rifles outshot muskets so easily.

    Military forces were still using simple muskets for hundreds of years after the invention of rifling, but rifles stuck around for those who could afford them. Due to the higher production costs, rifles made more sense for individual shooters rather than large armies.

    Muskets were used in mass throughout the civil war, but rifles still found their way into the hands of trained marksmen. Winslow Homer’s 1863 painting ‘Sharpshooter,’ depicts a Union soldier with a rifle and early telescopic sight. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

    Massed formations also required expedient reloads, and rifled weapons were slower to reload due to tighter tolerances. These large formations firing black powder weapons resulted in a heavy cloud of smoke, making individual aiming difficult anyway.

    Additionally, high-volume firing would eventually clog the rifling.

    Despite this, there are plenty of examples of limited numbers of rifled firearms being used by sharpshooters in the English Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and dozens of other conflicts.

    The First Repeater: Kalthoff Repeater

    A repeater is defined as any single barrel weapon capable of multiple discharges between ammunition reloads. Most modern firearms fall under this category.

    Semi-automatic rifles and pistols, lever actions, bolt actions, pump actions, and others all qualify as repeaters.

    Although the repeating mechanism was advanced for the time, the Kalthoff was still a smoothbore gun and had yet to make use of early rifling technology. (Photo: Firearms History)

    The earliest known repeater comes from the 1630s in the form of the Kalthoff Repeater, designed by members of the Kalthoff family. This early repeater used either a rectangular breech block with multiple chambers or a cylindrical breech block.

    Capacity ranged between 6 to 30 shots. Magazines could be positioned in the ramrod position, and powder magazines were often in the stock. A proto-lever action would cause the ball to feed to the chamber and push a charge of black powder behind the projectile and in the priming pan.

    The Kalthoff repeater had several different designs that gave the average rifleman a crazy degree of firepower for the eta. However, the weapons were expensive, complex, and slow to manufacture.

    A closer look at the lever device used to actuate the Kalthoff Repeater. (Photo: Firearms History)

    If something broke, it required a special gunsmith to fix it. Fouling would make the lever hard to operate. If the powder got wet, it would clog the magazine and render the weapon unusable until it could be cleaned.

    Even so, they were used by the Danish Scanian Guard in small numbers and might have seen some limited action.

    First Pump-Action Shotgun: Spencer Roper Model 1882

    In the late 1800s, shotguns were primarily single and double-barrel models. These powerful weapons were capable but slow to reload and had limited capacity.

    At the time, the firearms world was beginning to revolve around repeating firearms like revolvers and lever actions.

    Christopher Spencer and Sylvester Roper teamed up to create the first pump-action shotgun. Roper had previously designed a revolving shotgun, but unfortunately, revolving long guns are notoriously tricky.

    A look at a few models of the Spencer-Roper shotgun. (Photo: HistoricalFirearms)

    The gun premiered in 12- and 10-gauge and featured a rather complex action.

    Actuating the pump dropped the entire breech block below the receiver. This allowed the next shell to enter the action while the previous shell ejected from the barrel.

    Spent shells eject out of the top as seen above. (Photo: GunMagWarehouse)

    The hammer spur sat in the trigger guard and resembled a second trigger. Spencer Roper shotguns wore super small pumps that are just downright cute. Later models featured larger, more robust pumps.

    These guns were reasonably successful, but in 1899 the company declared bankruptcy.

    The designs were purchased and produced by a man named Bannerman. However, after Winchester’s advent of the 1893 and later 1897 shotgun, the Spencer Roper faded into obscurity.

    First Machine Gun: Maxim Machine Gun

    The Maxim machine gun likely made the biggest initial splash of all the weapons on this list. While many of these older guns would go on to influence modern arms design, the Maxim gun changed small arms design completely.

    Hiram Maxim himself behind his groundbreaking invention, the Maxim Gun.

    In 1884 Hiram Maxim gave the world the Maxim gun.

    It became the first true machine gun and completely changed how wars were fought. During World War I, every side wielded some form of the Maxim gun — mowing down thousands of opposing soldiers. 

    The Maxim Gun was quite literally hell on wheels when it made its debut in the late 1800s. (Photo: Vidmulia)

    The recoil-operated firing system took advantage of the recoil exerted on the breech block. This moved the bolt and barrel together, with the bolt moving further than the barrel. The action operated the weapon and allowed it to fire full auto.

    The internal operation of the Maxim Gun as seen in the video game World of Guns.

    A fully automatic firearm requires a lot of ammunition, and magazines simply weren’t enough. Thus the ammo belt was created. Belt-fed mechanisms allowed the weapon to be fed continuously for hundreds of rounds.

    The effectiveness and importance of this gun on its future counterparts cannot be understated. Maxim guns have even been found in service to this day in places like Syria and Ukraine, underscoring the gun’s longevity.

    A Ukrainian soldier is seen preparing an M1910 Maxim during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Andrii Marienko/UNIAN)

    First Semi-Auto Rifle: Mannlicher 1885

    Ferdinand von Mannlicher is an awesome name and that awesome-named guy brought us the first semi-auto rifle in 1885 — aptly named Model 1885 self-loading rifle design.

    The Mannlicher 1885 is shown without its top-mounted magazine. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

    The weapon used recoil operation, which required the bolt to reciprocate slightly with the barrel for a short amount of travel. After this short travel, the bolt unlocks and continues to move rearward and ejects the spent cartridge case.

    A top-loading, spring-free gravity magazine drops a fresh round downward. The recoil spring pushes the bolt back forward and a new round into the chamber. He made both full-auto versions and semi-auto variants.

    A cutaway showing the internals of the Mannlicher 1885 semi-automatic rifle. (Photo: WHB Smith, ‘Mannlicher Rifles and Pistols‘)

    This 1885 design gave off serious retro-futuristic vibes but was doomed from the start. The black powder round it fired was filthy, and this early semi-auto fouled too easily for serious use.

    Mannlicher’s model 1885 influenced the operation of the Browning M1919 and M2 machine guns.

    First Semi-Auto Pistol: Salvator Dormus Pistol

    Some early semi-auto pistols satisfy my aesthetic needs — they look so cool and unique. The first semi-auto pistol, the Salvator Dormus, looks especially cool.

    A look at the rare Salvator Dormus pistol, of which only about 50 were ever produced. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

    The Maxim gun inspired many arms makers to experiment with automatic and semi-automatic designs, including pistols. Numerous designs began to pop up across Europe, but historians credit the Salvator Dormus pistol as the first real semi-auto pistol.

    The Salvator Dormus came to be in 1891, with two members of the aristocracy creating the firearm. Archduke Karl Salvator and Count Georg von Dormus collaborated to develop a semi-automatic pistol.

    The weapon uses an internal 5-round magazine fed by en-bloc clips and fired 8mm Dormus ammunition. When the clips emptied, they ejected into the grip, and the grip could contain three of them before needing to be emptied.

    The Salvator Dormus is shown open and ready to load in the en-bloc clips. (Photo: Forgotten Weapons)

    It is a single-action firearm with an exposed hammer and a fascinating safety that completely blocked the hammer from engaging the firing pin and held the bolt open.

    The designers used a delayed blowback system that used the shooter’s trigger finger to create a delay for the blowback design. The trigger locks the bolt in place, and it’s not released after firing.

    Roughly 20 examples were sent in for the Austrian military trials. However, other designs were considered superior by the time the trials took place, leading to the early demise of the Salvator Dormus.

    An early patent for the Salvator Dormus — designated the M1891. Zl. 42/2086

    First Submachine Gun: MP 18

    Larger belt-fed machine guns were a dominant force during WWI, but they were heavy and required multiple people to operate in many cases. But a shift in warfare tactics showed there was a severe need for portable, rapid-fire weaponry.

    The world’s first submachine gun, the MP 18, was the answer.

    The MP 18 above is shown here with the early drum magazine. (Photo: National Interest)

    Hugo Schmeisser designed the MP 18 for the Imperial German army. Sturmtruppen carried the weapon into battle; however, it came too late into the war to make a major impact.

    Schmeisser’s MP 18 fired the famed 9mm Luger round and used a very simple open bolt, straight blowback operation. The magazine fed from the side, utilizing a 32-round drum magazine, and later used 20 or 30-round stick magazines.

    The MP 18 stuck around for a few decades and was in service with a number of forces. Germany even fielded the MP 18 during World War II.

    A German soldier is seen carrying an MP 28 during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. The MP 28 is a select-fire version of the MP 18 that accepts stick magazines. (Photo: Unknown Author)

    The MP 18 laid the groundwork for most SMGs for about the next 50 years. Open bolt blowback operation became the standard for SMGs during the Second World War. It wasn’t until the MP5 was developed in the 1960s that closed bolt SMGs became popular.

    First Assault Rifle: StG 44

    Much like World War I, a new set of small arms problems arose during World War II.

    The war moved fast, and troops from all countries had SMGs in hand. However, there seemed to be a need for handheld firepower that blended the portability of SMGs with the extended range of infantry rifles.

    After the release of the StG 44, the days of major militaries using large full-powered rifles to arm the bulk of their forces were numbered. (Photo: The Armory Life)

    This led to the creation of the world’s first assault rifle in 1943, the StG 44. Like the MP 18, it was too little too late, and the Nazis got stomped into the dirt before the StG 44 could make any real difference. Hugo Schmeisser was once again the lead designer of the weapon.

    The StG 44 offered better range, lethality, and controllable automatic capability. To achieve this, it fired an early “intermediate” cartridge that was sized somewhere in between a pistol caliber and full-powered rifle rounds.

    An StG 44 is seen here with an optical sight mounted. The effectiveness of this combination led to the development of the modern-day infantry rifle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Das Bundesarchiv)

    Inside the StG 44 sat a gas-operated, long-stroke gas piston system that fired from a closed bolt. The weapon used a 30-round detachable magazine and could even be fitted with optics.

    While both the Brits and Americans found the StG 44 fragile and somewhat unreliable, the Americans commented that its accuracy and handling were excellent.

    The StG 44 was ahead of its time and later influenced all modern arms design in one way or another. Design cues from the StG44 are clearly present in guns like the world-renowned AK-47.

    AK-47 (Left) and the StG 44 (Right). The results are in — you are the father. (Photo: Small Arms Review)

    Its capability was never in question and has even been spotted in the hands of fighters in Syria in recent years.

    Final Thoughts

    Historic firearms are fascinating — but often times the very first gun of its kind is buried in favor of the first “successful” gun of its kind.

    Guns like the Colt Single Action Army and earlier models are often praised to the point of forgetting the designs that came before them. (Photo: American Hangunner)

    Looking at true “firsts” is interesting, even if they were considered failures because they paved the way for other firearms to follow.

    Are there any firearm firsts that we missed that you want to see? Let us know in the comments below! Interested in getting your hands on a historical gun but don’t want to break into a museum? Check out our article on the Best Historical Guns You Can Still Buy.

    The Best Gun Deals, Coupons and Finds

    Subscribe to Pew Pew Tactical's sales and deals email.

    2 Leave a Reply

    • Commenter Avatar
      Chuck Cochran

      Good article. It's difficult to condense how much Firearm Technology has advanced, especially in jusr the last 180 years. The dead ends, the forks in the road that have advanced our ability to contain a small explosion and launch projectiles now to the point of pinpoint accuracy is a fascinating subject. I've studied it for nearly 50 years, and still feel as if I've only scratched the surface. I applaud your choices for weaponry that stood out and opened the door for the next advance.

      October 2, 2022 9:58 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Great article. You gotta know where you came from before you know where you're going. Applies to both guns and people.

      October 1, 2022 6:30 pm
    Join the community! Log in
    Please provide a valid email address.
    Password is required.
    Please provide a valid display name.
    Please provide a valid email address.
    The password should contain at least 8 characters with at least one number or special character.
    Please accept in order to continue.
    By unsubscribing, you will not be able to access exclusive training courses in your profile. You will still be able to save and access your products and articles.
    Trouble logging in?
    Type your email address and we’ll send you a link to reset your password.
    Please provide a valid email.
    Type your new password and hit button below to confirm it.
    Field is required.
    Account already exists
    We already have an account registered for email address () which is linked to your Facebook account.
    To log in type your Pew Pew Meter password below.
    Field is required.
    Account already exists
    We noticed that you have previously logged in with your Account which is linked to the same email address () - we can link both of your accounts together.
    In order to link your accounts, hit button below and log in to your Account with the same email as above.

    Account in Pew Pew Tactical means more.

    Login or create a free account to get the following
    Access and save hundreds of reviews, gun guides, and articles!
    Find the best daily deals on guns, gear, and ammo
    Manage your newsletter subscriptions and comments