7 Firearms That Changed American Warfare

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The news passed unnoticed by most people last December, as Russia mourned the death of Mikhail Kalashnikov. The Russian military leader’s signature invention, the Kalashnikov assault rifle — better known as the AK-47 — symbolized Soviet military might during the Cold War. In a similar vein, a number of uniquely American firearms have come to define certain chapters in U.S. history, from the earliest days on the frontier, through the world wars, Vietnam and beyond. Here are seven American-made firearms, several of which are still in use, that have played a pivotal role in U.S. military history.


7. Pennsylvania Long Rifle

The long rifle gave American colonists an advantage over British troops in the American Revolution.

William H. D. Koerner’s painting, Tomahawk and Long Rifle, shows the advantage the long rifle gave early American settlers.

Although historians disagree on the specifics, a German immigrant, Martin Mylin, is believed to have produced the first long rifle in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as early as 1705. The rifled barrel, consisting of a pattern of lands and grooves, put spin on the projectiles, giving them far more range and accuracy than the muskets used at the time. These long rifles were accurate up to 300 yards, more than five times the accurate range of muskets. While muskets still saw heavy use in battle throughout the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, long rifles played a key role in many conflicts. In the American Revolution, sharpshooters could hide in sniper positions in the woods or on hilltops and take down British soldiers, whose muskets were unable to return effective fire at that range.

Long rifles also proved useful in settling the American frontier, both in terms of hunting and in subduing Native Americans. The legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone became so associated with the Pennsylvania Long Rifle that many people referred to it as the Kentucky Rifle. This firearm still enjoys immense popularity in parts of rural America — the long rifle remained in common use in Appalachia throughout much of the 20th century — and many people in the region still own long rifles passed down from their ancestors.


6. Gatling Gun

The Gatling gun's tremendous rate of fire conveyed an enormous advantage to troops who had one.

Reenactors fire an early Gatling gun; Observe the Banana via Flickr

Invented by Richard Gatling during the Civil War, there weren’t enough Gatling guns at the time to make much of an impact in the war. But the U.S. Army quickly embraced the fearsome weapon, adopting it the year after the war ended. This hand-cranked, six-barreled machine gun used rotating barrels to deliver 350 rounds per minute — an unheard of rate of fire in that era. Several European powers also used the guns to subdue uprisings in their Asian and African colonies. Although the Gatling gun fell out of favor for many years in the U.S. military with the advent of automatic weapons, its design elements can still be seen in use, most notably in the 30 mm gun on the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 plane, which spews an amazing 4,200 rounds per minute.


5. Springfield Breechloader

Springfield manufactured the first breechloading rifle used by the U.S. military.

Collection of Winchester 1866 breechloaders in the Springfield Armory National Historic Site; National Park Service

The musket represented the state of the art in firearms technology in the 16th century, but its shortcomings quickly became apparent. From their inception, firearms had been designed as muzzle-loaders; to fire the weapon, a load had to be packed down through the end of the barrel. This posed obvious problems. They were slow to load, limiting fire to three or four shots a minute. When the barrel became dirty from use, it got clogged, which could leave bullets lodged in the barrel. This would frequently result in deadly explosions. Despite its flaws, the musket still served as the primary weapon for both Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the U.S. military had seen enough, and solicited American munitions manufacturers to provide a breech-loading design that could be added to the existing inventory of muskets. The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, earned the rights to manufacture these new breech-loading guns. By 1873, Springfield had manufactured almost 100,000 breechloaders, quickly making muzzle-loaded weapons obsolete.


4. Winchester Model 1873

The Winchester Model 1873 is known as the Gun that Won the West.

James Stewart fires a Winchester in the trailer for the 1950 movie Winchester ’73.

Earlier variations of this legendary model saw only limited action in the Civil War. Later, Winchester turned out enough rifles to make them accessible — and affordable enough — for the average man. This gun gave U.S. troops and frontiersmen a considerable advantage in the Indian Wars in the late 19th century; hence the gun’s popular nickname, “The Gun that Won the West.” This iconic lever-action weapon is familiar to anyone who has seen old Western movies or TV shows. In fact, this Winchester remains so popular almost 150 years later that the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. sells working models of this weapon.

3. Colt .45 Caliber M1911

The Colt .45 M1911 is making a comeback in the U.S. military because of troop complaints about its replacement, the Beretta 9 mm.

The M1911 .45 caliber pistol has been a longtime favorite with U.S. troops; Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone

This semi-automatic handgun is one of the most effective close-quarters firearms ever produced. The relatively large caliber and low bullet velocity gives this gun its legendary stopping power at short range. U.S. military personnel used the Colt .45 in all the country’s wars and conflicts from World War I up through the intervention in Grenada in 1983. The Beretta 9 mm handgun, which uses a smaller-caliber and higher velocity round, officially replaced the Colt in 1985, but the move generated controversy; many troops have criticized the 9 mm’s lack of power. As a result, many service personnel, particularly those in special operations, still use the Colt. In 2012, the U.S. Marine Corps ordered 10,000 new guns based on that M1911 design, what it calls the “Close Quarters Battle Pistol.”


2. Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun

The .50 caliber machine gun played a key role for Allied Forces in World War II.

U.S. Marines man .50 caliber guns in an exercise; USMC/Lance Cpl. Karim D. Delgado

After his experiences in World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing decided the U.S. Army needed a new machine gun capable of defeating vehicles and planes. A Utah firearms inventor named John Browning provided the answer: a belt-fed, .50-caliber heavy machine gun. (By the way, Browning also designed the aforementioned Colt .45, and holds an astounding 128 gun patents.) Introduced in 1923, the first .50 caliber machine guns were water-cooled; the air-cooled version entered production in 1938. This Browning model played a critical role during World War II, with America churning out about 2 million of them for the U.S. and Allied forces. Production of the Browning .50 caliber machine gun continues today, with many of them currently deployed to Afghanistan. This weapon is so reliable and versatile, the Pentagon has no plans to replace it anytime soon.


1. M16

The M16 has been a mainstay of U.S. ground forces for a half-century.

A U.S. Marine with the Special Reaction Team fires his M16 in training; Lance Cpl. Brendan Roethel

The U.S. military fought in Vietnam with the M14 rifle, by most accounts a superb weapon. However, its detractors argued it was too heavy and the 7.62 caliber ammunition unnecessarily added to the weight. The Army opted to give the M16 another chance; the weapon’s prototype had been rejected a few years earlier in favor of the M14. When it was finally adopted in the mid-1960s, it still had problems and earned a reputation for jamming in combat when exposed to the harsh jungle conditions of Vietnam. But a series of improvements corrected the flaws and the M16 and its cousin, the M4, continue to serve in combat today, a half-century later.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.