It’s inarguable that firearms have played major roles throughout the course of history, but what about the men behind the guns? There are several ways to rate the gunmakers, but I want to focus on those geniuses who truly changed the industry. I understand that many of you will feel that I may have left out someone or another, so please feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments section. Let’s begin and take a look at some of the men behind guns that have helped shape our history.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning with Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (February 1840 – November 1916). Although many people consider the Gatling Gun to be the first machine, it was still not truly automatic, though it was capable of unleashing approximately 200 rounds/minute. Unlike Maxim’s Machine Gun, the Gatling Gun was hand-powered from a crank. The iconic American-born firearms inventor developed his revolutionary design while working in London, which ultimately gave a tactical advantage to our cousins across the pond. The American gunmaker began constructing his machine gun back in the early 1880’s, but it wasn’t truly commissioned until 1886.
In addition to creating the first truly fully-automatic machine gun, Maxim’s Machine Gun was famous for utilizing recoil energy for its reloads. This was likely inspired by a childhood event where Maxim was knocked down by the heavy recoil of a rifle. While it may seem innocuous, he theorized that all of this recoil energy could be used to operate the gun itself instead of going to waste. In fact, he went on to patent several blowback, gas, and recoil operated devices in his search for the ultimate machine.
Once the Maxim Machine Gun was accepted by the British government, it didn’t take long for it to be used in countless wars and battles across the globe. In truth, Maxim’s invention became a military staple by 1900 for its ability to mow down enemies. Many believe that it has even caused more battlefield deaths than any other firearm in history. In addition to the countless battles it was used in, the Maxim Machine Gun was used extensively by nearly all major militaries during World War I. Unfortunately, many forget that this invention completely changed military formations for good, effectively solidifying its place in history.
Further Reading: Automatic Weapons Overview
Samuel Colt (July 1814 – January 1862) is synonymous with firearm invention, making him an easy pick for the most influential gunmakers in history. Although he didn’t invent the revolver, he certainly perfected its manufacturing and production. Colt was inspired by the clear need for a firearm that could fire more than one shot before needing a timely reload. The result was the legendary 1836 percussion cap revolver and the Gun that won the West.
However, Colt’s influence wasn’t just with being one of the first to perfect the revolver. He continued to revolutionize the handgun industry and was the biggest name in firearms for over two decades. Likewise, Colt was responsible for perfecting the mass production of firearms and for incorporating interchangeable parts. As the man behind the “Peacemaker”, the Gun that won the West, it’s easy to see why Samuel Colt was one of the most influential gunmakers in history. Plus, we can’t ignore that he supplied both sides in a number of conflicts, including the American Civil War and sold well over 2 million revolvers in his lifetime.
Although John Moses Browning died in 1926, his legacy still lives on today. Browning is regarded by many as the biggest weapons pioneer to ever live, and reasonably so. The firearms inventor was perfecting repeating guns throughout his life and is responsible for some of the most significant guns in history. While Browning may have begun his career working with revolvers, he left his mark on nearly all types of firearms, including shotguns, lever-action rifles, automatic machine guns, and modern semi-auto pistols. As the godfather of autoloading firearms, he would go on to develop the first telescoping bolt, pistol slide, and gas-operated weapon.
Unlike many of these other inventors, much of Browning’s work is still in use today throughout the world. In fact, the prolific inventor died with over 120 patents in his name, including some of the most revolutionary designs ever seen. Besides for the crafting the first lever-action shotgun, he also conceived the first semi-auto shotgun and several of the first ACP cartridges (including .32 ACP, .45 ACP, and .50 BMG).
While John Browning founded the still-popular Browning Company, the inventor worked extensively with a few other big names in the industry. In addition to his work with FN Herstal, Browning also spent time developing firearms for Winchester, Remington, and Colt. His influence is unlikely to ever be surpassed, especially considering that the estimated production of his models exceeds 30 million!
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Further Reading: Browning Arms Company Review
Eugene Stoner (November 1922 – April 1997) is one of the most important firearms inventors of the modern era, being the man behind the ArmaLite AR-15. Even before the AR-15 became a market staple for civilian firearm enthusiasts, the military version of his design, the M16, is one of the most widespread military rifles in the world. His intro to the gun world came with his prototypes for the AR-3, AR-9, AR-11, and AR-12, though none of these saw much successes.
Nevertheless, all of that changed with his AR-5 Survival Rifle and AR-10 infantry rifle. It wasn’t long after crafting the AR-10 that the military requested Stoner to produce the AR-15 (M16) in 5.56 NATO (originally .223 Remington). Although he personally created nearly two dozen firearms, none are as instrumental as the M16. This rifle’s history and influence are far too elaborate to detail here, so I recommend checking out my piece dedicated to the past, present, and future of the M16.
Further Reading: Top New AR-15s
There’s not much debate over how significant the AK-47 has been since its debut in 1949. The legendary and iconic assault rifle was designed by the Soviet inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov (November 1919 – December 2013). The military general and engineer designed the AK-47 out of necessity after realizing the need for a practical, dependable, and durable automatic rifle. However, his ingenuity was made clear by his application of several weapon technologies.
The AK-47 might be the defining weapon of the 20th century, yet it still widely used around the world today. Many people rely on these rifles simply because they are easy to find and can handle all kinds of environmental and user abuse. In actuality, you’d be hard bent to find a global conflict, battle, or war in the last 75 years where AK-47s weren’t a major force. Lastly, with well over 100 million units produced, the AK-47 is the most widespread firearm ever created and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to beat it.
Further Reading: History’s Most Influential Firearms