A History of Hunting with Firearms

A History of Hunting with Firearms

While the history buffs are cracking their knuckles excitedly and getting ready to refute my every word, everyone else is remembering the puddles of drool they left on their desks while their history teachers droned on in class. But before you prepare yourself to feel a drowsiness that rivals your favorite cold medication, you should know that Lewis and Clarke had air rifles. In the early 19th century. Purportedly, these rifles were smokeless and able to hit a target as far as 150 yards away. And they had laser sights.

Okay, I lied about the laser sights. But you’re awake, so let’s get into some highlights.

The Long Road to the Long Rifle

As early as the 15th century, matchlock rifles became common in Europe and Asia. It was likely the first mechanically-fired device, and it allowed users to be much more intrepid than they had been before. That may not sound like much, but imagine having to stay close to fire just to be able to use your weapon. And to complicate things further, imagine life before the advent of the trigger. To hold a match in place, the matchlock rifle had a bent piece of metal, called a “serpentine” that acted as the first trigger. It was also much cheaper to produce than its predecessor, the wheel-lock rifle, which was much more mechanically complex.

The downside of the matchlock was, you guessed it, you need a lit match ready for whenever you need to fire. After all, rain can already ruin a day of hunting without any help from wet matches. The Solution? The Flintlock Rifle.

“But wait,” you’re probably saying. “Flintlocks are still susceptible to moisture.” And, you’re right, they are. Flintlocks made their spark through the percussive action of striking a flint, which meant shooters no longer needed a lit match at the ready. Sure, flintlocks weren’t the most accurate weapon, and they were far from the most elegant, but they provided the impetus that American gunsmiths refined into the American long rifle.

“So it was long. Big deal,” you say. But the longer barrel was a very big deal. It was the longer barrel made sighting easier, and tended to allow for a lower caliber lead ball. The American Long rifle, unlike many of its predecessors, did not rely on tight-fitting lead into a smooth bore. Those tightly packed lead balls caused more fouling in the barrel, and ultimately more wear and tear. Instead, the American long rifle had a spiral pattern cut into the bore to reduce fouling.

To a see simple, straightforward timeline for firearm development, I recommend History Detectives on PBS. And, if that’s not enough, checkout this article at history.com.


Rifling is not just what I do in my purse when my keys disappear. As early as the 15th century, European gunsmiths began making the aforementioned spiral grooves into the bores of firearms. And as you probably suspected, the name ‘rifle’ refers to the grooves cut into a wall of the bore. These walls may originally just have been for collecting soot, but once they were made with their signature helical shape, life for hunters vastly improved.

The added spin it gives to a bullet not only increases distance, but also stability. And for anyone facing down a large, charging animal, every little bit of distance counts. Just know where your keys are when that happens because one type of rifling is more than enough.

For the long rifle enthusiast, I highly recommend you take a look at Warfare History Network.

From Fighting Lines to the Hunt

The hunting rifles of today are largely the military weapons of yesteryear. After the Revolutionary War, the American government began to fund small gunsmiths who made weapons and parts that had previously been needed. Flintlock rifles became more widely available, and made by companies like Remington—who is still a market giant today.

Remember Lewis and Clark and the Air Rifles? Those were also a military relic repurposed. Originally an Italian invention, it was adopted by the Austrian army in the late 18th century. Unlike matchlock muskets, the Girandoni air rifle was resistant to rain and didn’t produce the smoke and noise of its predecessors, making it a sophisticated tool for any marksman.

In addition to all those selling points, it weighed roughly half of what a musket weighed. Unfortunately, its sophistication was the very reason it had been abandoned by the Austrian military. Maintaining air rifles could be complicated. To say the least, the amount of maintenance the Girandani demanded wasn’t always worth the impressive firepower they provided.  But it’s worth pointing out that, at .46 caliber, the size of the solid-lead ammunition used for the Girandoni is not too far removed from the ammunition used by some hunters today.

Pump Action

When I say ‘pump action,’ I don’t mean sensible heels. Sorry, friends. The pump-action firearms used today can trace their roots back to the Spencer Pump, a repeating rifle made for the Union Army during (you guessed it) the Civil War. Sporting a tubular magazine that could hold around seven shot shells, the Spencer offered that greatest of marksman one shot a day for a week without a reload (or, you know, for the worst marksman, seven shots per minute). Humor aside, the Spencer was a game changer.

The pump action also had a second trigger to re-cock the action in the event of a misfires caused by the paper or hand loads that were common at the time. Spencer was even said to be the manufacturer of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite weapon. And a glowing endorsement from Honest Abe isn’t bad at all!

The Power of Polymers

As early as the 1950s, Eugene Stoner incorporated plastics into his design when he made the AR-10 and AR-15. In the following decades, Styer did the same for their “Bullpup” design, and Gaston Glock also famously used plastic for the Glock 17. Polymers have made firearms lighter, more durable, and less vulnerable to the elements- attributes that any hunter can appreciate.

If you’re weighing the pros and cons of plastics, take a look at this article at Spec Ops. And no matter what kind of firearm you’ve chosen as your companion this hunting season, rest assured that you’re carrying an impressive piece of history.


By: Lanna Perkins, Education Writer

A History of Hunting with Firearms