Handgun History: Breechloader to Striker-Fired

If you wanted to be incredibly thorough with every minute detail, handguns could be traced all the way back to the days when the Greeks used slingshots loaded with rocks as projectiles. Around 1 BC, those rocks were being inscribed with messages like “dexai!” which translates to “catch!” so you can see the attitude behind battle has been around awhile. It should come as no surprise that for a very long time, people have been interested in advancing technology to figure out how to have superior weaponry. After all, if you’re being attacked, you’ll want to defend yourself as successfully as possible. That’s one reason handguns have seen such a fantastic evolution over the centuries. Here’s a look at their development from the breechloader to the modern striker-fired handguns.

Advent of the Breechloader

In the 1700s, advancement meant access to more than one round at a time and perhaps a better loading method. Eventually, inventors figured out how to make guns work while being loaded from the breech rather than the muzzle. The moment the breechloader became mainstream—at least for the military—took place in 1776. A Scotsman, Major Patrick Ferguson, decided to show off his invention, a gun that would become known as the Ferguson rifle. It was one of the first breech loading rifles created. Ferguson was an officer during the Revolutionary War.

Ferguson breechloader rifle
The Ferguson rifle was one of the first of its kind. (Photo credit: Journal of the American Revolution)

In the hands of its inventor, the Ferguson rifle proved it could do impressive things (by that era’s standards, anyway). Ferguson fired his new rifle six times in under a minute while firing offhand at a target 200 yards away and then fired four more times as he moved toward the target. Just in case viewers weren’t impressed yet, he went ahead and got the inside of the barrel wet and shot the gun again. These capabilities were big news in the 18th century.

Both muzzleloaders and breechloaders continued to see regular use, but the tide was changing to favor guns being loaded from the breech.

Time for Centerfire

Not long after the Ferguson rifle became a thing, centerfire cartridges were invented. The earliest recorded form of centerfire rounds took place around 1808 at the hands of Jean Samuel Pauly. He created the very first integrated cartridge that didn’t have a percussion cap, and although it didn’t get fine-tuned for a long time after that, it was still the first centerfire design we’re aware of from a historical perspective.

Wheel Guns

Revolvers were invented before semi-automatics. Most people logically point to Samuel Colt as the creator of the first revolver; Colt received his patent for that gun in 1835. His design made it possible for the gun’s cylinder to rotate on its own rather than being turned manually, among other things.According to Colt, he came up with the idea while aboard a ship at sea, and there are some historical arguments regarding whether he really came up with the design himself. However, he does receive handgun history credit for that first modernized revolver.

colt breechloader revolver 1835
Samuel Colt is credited with the invention of the first modernized revolver in 1835. (Photo credit: Thought Company)

Other versions of the revolver involved matchlock and flintlock guns. Those guns, which had multiple chambers but were not really like today’s revolvers, date back to the 16th century.

Smokeless Powder

In 1884, Paul Vielle invented smokeless powder. At that time he chose to call it “Poudre B” with the “b” standing for “blanche” to refer to the whiteness of the powder. It was quite a discovery because not only was it three times as strong as the old black powder but it produced far less smoke. Suddenly, firing guns didn’t go hand in hand with being temporarily blinded by the haze.

smokeless powder
An example of smokeless powder. (Photo credit: Royal Society of Chemistry)

From there, things in the handgun timeline moved pretty quickly. By 1887, Alfred Nobel came up with the formula for Ballistite by using nitro-cellulose, and it only took a tiny amount of the powder to propel projectiles fired from guns.

Semi-Automatics Arrive

Finally, in 1892, the Schonberger-Laumann arrived. It was a blowback-action gun made by an Austrian named Joseph Laumann, and many firearms historians believe it was the first semi-automatic pistol to be invented. The Schonberger-Laumann was chambered in 7.8x19mm and had a 5-round internal magazine. Laumann had been working on his gun at least since 1891.

The other semi-automatic to appear at that time was the Salvator Dormus, an 8mm blowback-action handgun that qualifies as the first semi-automatic pistol to get patented. Despite beating the Schonberger-Laumann to patenting, it was a failure, and there aren’t many around for collectors today.

The Era of the 1911

As its name suggests, the 1911 platform officially arrived in 1911. Well, ~ish. The M1911 was designed by John Moses Browning as a semi-automatic, single-stack, magazine-fed gun chambered in 45 ACP.

Colt 1911
An example of a 1911 made by Colt. (Photo credit: Colt)

The 1911 was designed as a short-recoil handgun, but it wasn’t technically the first of that kind. Credit for the original short-recoil rightly goes to Hiram Maxim, whose Maxim gun used a recoil system. Of course, the Maxim gun was a little bigger than the 1911, considering it was a heavy machine gun.

Striker-Fired Firsts (Not Glock)

The Heckler and Koch VP70 was the gun that technically introduced striker-fired actions to the gun world. There was, however, a predecessor to the VP70: the Ortgies.

The Ortgies striker-fired pistol.
The Ortgies striker-fired pistol. (Photo credit: Drhoehl at English Wikipedia)

The Ortgies was another hammerless handgun with a striker-fired action. It was designed in 1919 by Heinrich Ortgies and produced in 7.65mm, 6.35mm, and 9mm Kurz. The gun had various features that made it rather distinct from the VP70 and Glocks, which is one reason the VP70 is seen as the first striker-fired handgun.

There were other iterations of striker-fired handguns but going through them all would take us far off track. Instead, let’s consider the most popular of those handguns currently on the market.

Gaston Glock began work on his first handgun in the early 1980s. By 1983, the Austrian Army had adopted the first generation Glock 17 as their new standard issue pistol, and by 1984 the polymer pistol had passed NATO’s durability tests. Glock is the brand many, if not most, gun owners think of when it comes to striker-fired actions, and it’s understandable. In a few short decades the company’s handguns have grown to incredible popularity. It’s possible almost all of us have owned or shot a Glock at some point.

History Being Made

Handgun history is far from over. Changes continue to take place in technology and although they might be made in inches rather than leaps and bounds, advances are still occurring.

What’s your favorite modern handgun platform? 1911s, revolvers, or striker-fired guns such as Glocks? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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