Gunsmith Lore and Legend, Vol. 1

Gunsmith Lore and Legend, Vol. 1

Gunsmiths are not just made out of necessity and love for a craft, they’re born out of history, literature, and even the foundations of the English language. There’s so much interesting stuff out there that it can be hard to know where to start. While we can’t hit all of the highlights in one short article, I think you’ll find the few gems included here intriguing.

Gunsmith Etymology and Ethos

The etymology of the word ‘gun’ is no less than epic. While it’s hard to pin down any one source, the word may originate from an old Norse word, gunnr, which means battle. The relentless way that Vikings did battle would have been enough to introduce such a word to the English Lexicon. It was likely the reign of Norse kings over the British isles that would have brought the word into common use.

A Viking moniker is fitting for the firepower that would be a tactical advantage in England’s imperialist wars against the Scots, where it is believed that the British first used canons (in the early 1300s). Maintaining that tactical advantage meant professionals were needed to keep armaments in peak working condition. So, being a smith in the West suddenly meant having a kind of expertise.

‘Smith’ is the most common surname in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand — and for good reason. Smiths were the veritable backbone of early towns and settlements across the
world, and the capabilities of a smith would make or break businesses that depended on their wares and services. The undeniable importance of smiths even made their way into some of the
most recognizable stories in Western literature.

Legends of Smiths and Wizards

A lumberjack and a cursed axe are recipe for an unforgettable disaster story, and while you might think that a medical professional would be the only hero that could save the day in that tale, you’d be sorely mistaken. The lumberjack in that story, Nick Chopper, turned to a smith to rebuild him. Such a grim scenario hardly seems like it has a place in children’s book, but in case you didn’t recognize the name, Nick Chopper is the Tin Man from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its many follow ups.

And it’s likely not by coincidence that L. Frank Baum chose a smith to polish-off the origin story of one his beloved characters, pun intended. Smiths were working-class heroes with abilities that made them wizards in their own rite!

Even the Dark Lord Sauron from The Lord of Rings had to employ the services of an elven smith by the name of Celebrimbor to forge the rings power. And the next time you sit down to watch the Peter Jackson movie, check out how they make the rings at the beginning. That’s not forging, that’s casting! I mean, they had all of these smiths working on that movie and not one person pointed out the difference between forging and casting?

At the risk of adding additional nerd credibility to this article, it’s also worth pointing out that the fire of Orthanc in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was an explosive substance that we can only liken to gunpowder; and who were the only ones who could make gunpowder in those stories? Wizards. Gandalf made fireworks, while Saruman went the next step and made an explosive. Obviously, modern day gunsmiths aren’t always inclined to make ammunition. But historically, gunsmiths were the complete arbiters of firepower.

The Inevitable Nod to Chinese History

You’ve likely looked at the bold subtitle and thought, “Yeah, I know it all started in China. I haven’t been living under a rock, after all.” You also probably already know that the Silk Road helped spread gunpowder into the West from China, and how it transformed the world forever. But did you know that Gunpowder is said to have been discovered by alchemists who were trying to make a potion that would grant eternal life? See, you probably thought we were done with wizardry. Not yet!

According to historian Brendan Buchanan from the University of Bath, saltpeter was once thought to be a key ingredient in allegedly life-prolonging potions. The addition of sulfur and hot charcoal had -needless to say- explosive results (sorry, but I couldn’t resist).

Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, was famous for his obsession with finding an elixir of life. He even sent his subjects to faraway places in hopes of retrieving rumored mythical potions. His obsession led him so far as to experiment with drinking mercury- and while it obviously killed him, that isn’t where his part in the story would end. Qin Shi Huang was survived by the twelve monumental bronze statues he commissioned, which were said to have been built from the bronze weapons his armies had claimed from conquered enemies (an obviously favorite pastime).

Tubes made of bronze would later be combined with black powder to create the Chinese fire lance, which is believed to be the first gun in known history.

While that may sound like a great starting point for an article, that’s actually where this one ends. There are a million great stories that have led up to the present and where you are now. Endeavor to be the next great story, and keep doing great work.


Written by: Lanna Perkins, Education Writer

Gunsmith Lore and Legend, Vol. 1