Firearms: An Illustrated History – Book Review
“Some parents say it is toy guns that make boys warlike. But give a boy a rubber duck and he will seize its neck like the butt of a pistol and shout bang!” – George F. Will
Since the first appearance of black powder weapons, firearms have both fascinated and horrified. Guns have played a crucial role in the fate of individuals and nations. Guns have been objects of beauty and symbols of hate. United States history in particular is inexorably linked to firearms. The pivotal moments in the American story often centrally include firearms. Beginning with “the shot heard ‘round the world” to the current debate over the Second Amendment, guns have rarely left the collective American conscious. And firearms continue to shape our world today. The Smithsonian, in partnership with Dorling Kindersley (DK) Publishing, has attempted to capture the historical development and impact of firearms in one volume. Titled Firearms: An Illustrated History, the book analyzes the 700-year-long history of guns, in five major eras divided into several sub-chapters examining specific weapons, developers or events in greater detail. Each period opens with a summary of the major developments and improvements in firearms production associated with that historical epoch. Readers will trace the evolution of firearms from the earliest black powder cannons to today’s most advanced military weapon systems.
Firearms is a thorough study, with information on over 300 weapons including their country of origin, dates of use, physical dimensions, caliber and individual brief vignettes. Historically significant weapons, such as the timeless M1911 pistol, the iconic AK-47 or the highly collectible WWII German Luger, are examined in two-page portfolio layouts. These individual studies describe the weapon and associated accoutrements like powder flasks, gun carriages or specialized ammunition. The authors systematically examine attempts to improve weapon design and performance, often with mixed results. Similarly, the book highlights individuals who advanced firearm design and performance like Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (of Smith and Wesson), Claude-Etienne Minie or Oliver Winchester. Nor is the book limited to Western weapons, as the authors examine Chinese, Indian and other gun makers’ wares. At 320 pages, there is more than enough space to profile history’s best-known firearms as well as the unique, arcane, obscure or simply bizarre. Who knew cigarette pistols actually existed outside the world of James Bond?
As with any Smithsonian publication, the real value in the book is found in the amazing photographs of the weapons themselves and most are in full color. The pre–Industrial Revolution firearms in particular are incredibly beautiful works of art, richly detailed with intricate scrollwork, ornamentation or inlays. By comparison, today’s “function over form” design approach to weapons design appears very basic and aesthetically crude. For example, while a Holland and Holland rifle is no match for an M4 carbine in a combat environment, the hunting rifle looks much better mounted over the fireplace. Firearms: An Illustrated History includes many period photographs and paintings depicting weapons manufacturing or the weapons’ use on the battlefield, on the hunt and on the silver screen. The book’s jacket further contains two exclusive colored 8” x 11” prints of the Smith and Wesson Model 10 and the Colt Single Action Army Model 1873—suitable for framing.
At its core, Firearms is a coffee-table book guaranteed to provide several evenings’ worth of entertaining reading to any gun or history enthusiast in search of a general overview of firearms development. The photographs are plentiful and visually appealing. As the book’s title implies, Firearms: An Illustrated History, is not a technical manual or purchaser’s guide as there is no information on weapon maintenance, buying or selling. Prospective buyers searching for those details would be better served with Shotgun News or a visit to the website gunbroker.com. Nor do the authors weigh the merits, social cost, morality or ethics associated with firearms—an odd choice given firearms’ often infamous role in history. Regardless, the book will serve well as a ready reference on firearms, albeit with limited information on most weapons.
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.