Firearm (tool)

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This article is about the tools. For other uses of "Firearm", see Firearm (disambiguation).
Lyle gun after firing with the projectile in the air

A firearm can be used primarily as a tool, instead of as a weapon, to project either single or multiple objects at high velocity through a controlled explosion. The firing is achieved by the gases produced through rapid, confined burning of a propellant. This process of rapid burning is technically known as deflagration. In older firearms, this propellant was typically black powder, but modern firearms use smokeless powder, cordite, or other propellants. Many firearms such as mortars do not have rifled bores to impart spin to the projectile for improved flight stability, such as is seen with firearms used as weapons, although some are rifled. The lack of rifling can prevent tangling of grappling hook lines, buoy lines, and such, although some firearms intended for use at the longest ranges in these applications are rifled.


In the Middle Ages the term "firearm" was used in English to denote the arm in which the match was held that was used to light the touch hole on the hand cannon. The term was a variation on the contemporary terms of bow arm and drawing arm still used in archery. Due to the effects of firing the ordnance (barrel) at the time, the gunner had to be located somewhat behind the weapon, steadying brace with the other hand, hence the name "hand gun" became synonymous with the "fire arm". The first firearms used as tools were weapons placed into alternative service, such as Manby mortars.

Until the mid-19th century, projectiles and propellant (black powder) were generally separate components used in a muzzle-loading firearm such as a rifle, pistol, or cannon. Sometimes for convenience a suitable amount of powder and a bullet were wrapped in a paper package, known as a cartridge. This evolved into the form of a tubular metal casing enclosing a primary igniter (primer) and the powder charge, with the projectile payload press-fit into the end of the casing opposite the primer. Cartridges were widely adopted, and as of World War I it had become the primary form of loading. Mortars use a similar concept of encapsulation; however the projectile and casing are generally a single piece that is launched from the firearm, with rope lines attached to the single piece.

A problem for firearms is the accumulation of waste products from the partial combustion of propellants, and small flecks of the cartridge case, known as fouling or gunshot residue. These waste products can interfere with the internal functions of the firearm. As a result, regularly used firearms must be periodically partially disassembled, cleaned and lubricated to ensure the firearm’s reliability.


Main article: History of firearms

The earliest depiction of a firearm is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 12th century of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it.[1] The oldest surviving gun, made of bronze, has been dated to 1288 because it was discovered at a site in modern-day Acheng District where the Yuan Shi records that battles were fought at that time.[2]

The Europeans, Arabs, and Koreans all obtained firearms in the 14th century.[3] The Turks, Iranians, and Indians all got firearms no later than the 15th century, in each case directly or indirectly from the Europeans.[3] The Japanese did not acquire firearms until the 16th century, and then from the Portuguese rather than the Chinese.[3]


The Manby Mortar was invented by Captain George William Manby, also the inventor of the portable fire extinguisher. On 18 February 1807, Manby looked on helplessly as a Naval ship, the Snipe, ran aground 60 yards off Great Yarmouth during a storm. By some accounts, a total of 214 people drowned, including French prisoners of war, women and children. Following this tragedy, Manby experimented with mortars, and so invented the Manby Mortar, later developed into the breeches buoy, which fired a thin rope from shore into the rigging of a ship in distress. A strong rope, attached to the thin one, could then be pulled aboard the ship. His successful invention followed an experiment as a youth in 1783, when he shot a mortar carrying a line over Downham church. His invention was officially adopted in 1814, and a series of mortar stations were established around the coast.[4] The Manby Mortar was used by the Waterguard and later by H M Coastguard for many years. The first recorded rescue using the Manby mortar was on 18 February 1808; Manby himself was in charge of the mortar and a crew of seven were brought to safety from the Plymouth Brig Elizabeth stranded off the shore at Great Yarmouth.


Lyle gun being fired.

A Lyle gun was used to shoot a line towards people in distress in order to rescue them and save their lives. The Lyle Gun was toted to the shoreline usually by Surfmen that manned the L.S.S using the tool. The iron wheels that supported the cart had wide bands on the outside the wheel to keep it from sinking into the soft sand especially when it came to being used on the beaches of Cape Cod and other stations along the east coast of North America. The projectile that carried the line to the craft in distress was fired over the ship to ensure its target. The line fired to the ship in distress was one of several designed to support the breeches buoy which would carry survivors back to shore on a line that would take them over the waves.

The Lyle gun could shoot a projectile about 300 yards.

Examples of later firearms based upon the Lyle gun are widely seen in maritime museum displays, such as at the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum in Glen Haven, Michigan.[5] The exhibits there focus on the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Great Lakes shipping history. In the summer, demonstrations are given of rescue drills and equipment used to fire a rescue line from shore more than 400 yards (370 m) to a ship in "distress".


Rifles are also commonly used to launch grappling hooks for various purposes. For example, grappling hooks are currently used by combat engineers breaching tactical obstacles. A grappling hook is launched over the open ground in front of the obstacle and dragged backwards in an attempt to detonate trip-wire-fused land mines, and can be hooked onto wire obstacles and pulled to set off any booby traps on the wire. A tool available for this purpose is the rifle-launched grapnel, a single-use grappling hook placed on the end of an M4/M16 rifle. A grapnel can clear up to 99 percent of the trip-wires in a single pass.[6]

Grappling hooks were originally used in naval warfare to catch the rigging of an enemy ship so that it could be drawn in and boarded. Later, grappling hooks were also used in rescue work or to assist in scaling walls. The most common design consists of a central shaft with a hole at the base of the shaft, called an "eye" to attach the rope, and three equally spaced hooks at the end of the shaft, so arranged that at least one is likely to catch on some protuberance of the target. Older designs were almost always firearms, either mortars or cannons, for special use with Lyle guns or similar tools. Some modern designs feature folding hooks to resist unwanted attachment. Modern grappling hooks used in rescue work are propelled by firearms, compressed air, or rockets.


Industrial shotguns have long been used for specialized applications in servicing lime kilns, blast furnaces, and even for making seismic shots. Typically of 8 gauge, industrial shotguns are much larger than shotguns designed for use as weapons and are designed for firing using fixed mount stations, not being intended for firing from the shoulder. They are used for removing lime deposits from inside kilns and for removing slag deposits from inside blast furnaces, both being used during routine maintenance.[7] When used for generating seismic shots, they provide very repetitive and consistent peak amplitude levels. Industrial shotguns have also been used in lesser sizes (most commonly 10 and 12 gauge) for use in bird control around airports. Both blanks and slugs are used in industrial shotguns, depending on the exact effect desired, blanks most commonly being used for bird control.

Flare guns and survival guns[edit]

Main articles: flare gun, firearm and Survival kit
An Orion-brand single shot, breech loaded, 12 gauge flare gun. Its design is typical of commercially available flare guns.

Firearms used as weapons are also often considered "tools of last resort".[8] Intended for use in survival situations, often with dual-use capability in some cases to launch signal flares and to defend against large predators such as bears, the primary aim of such firearms is not killing, per se, but survival and rescue. Dedicated flare guns also exist that fire flares. They are typically used as a distress signal as well as other signaling purposes at sea and between aircraft and people on the ground. The majority of flare guns are 12 gauge, but they should not ever be loaded with live ammunition. The amount of pressure generated by a typical 12 gauge shotgun shell (11,500 psi according to SAAMI) far exceeds the pressure most flare guns can control. Firing shotgun shells from a modern plastic flare gun can have deadly results for the user and should not be done.

The most common type of flare gun is a Very pistol (which can also be spelled Verey pistol), which was named after Edward Wilson Very (1847–1910), an American naval officer who developed and popularized a single-shot breech-loading snub-nosed pistol that fired flares. Modern varieties are frequently made out of brightly colored, durable plastic.

The older type of Very pistol, typical of the type used in the Second World War, are of one inch bore. Newer models fire smaller 12-gauge flares. In countries where possession of firearms is strictly controlled, such as the United Kingdom, the use of Very pistols as emergency equipment on boats is less common than, for example, the United States.

Flare guns may be used whenever someone needs to send a distress signal. The flares must be shot directly above, making the signal visible for a longer period of time and revealing the position of whoever is in need of help.

While not intended as weapons, flare guns can and been weaponized in some situations. In 1942, at Pembrey Airfield in Wales, a German pilot mistakenly landed at the field. The duty pilot, Sgt. Jeffreys, did not have a conventional weapon; he grabbed a Very pistol and used that to capture the German pilot, Oberleutnant Armin Faber.[9]

AR-7 rifle intended for use as a survival tool.

Compact and lightweight survival firearms such as the Armalite AR-7 have been specifically designed for small game hunting and also for personal defense. The prototype of what would become the AR-7 was designed by Eugene Stoner at ArmaLite Inc., a division of Fairchild Aircraft. The rifle shares some of the features of the bolt-action AR-5, another rifle designed by Stoner for ArmaLite and adopted by the United States Air Force in 1956 as the MA-1.[10] The MA-1 was intended to replace the M6 Aircrew Survival Weapon which was a superimposed ("over-under") twin-barrel rifle/shotgun in chambered in .22 Hornet and .410 bore, using a break-open action. The AR-5 had the advantage of rapid fire, using the same .22 Hornet cartridge used in the M4 Survival Rifle as well as the M6. The AR-7 was a completely different design, using a blowback semi-automatic action in .22 Long Rifle.[11] Like the bolt-action AR-5, the AR-7 was designed as a survival rifle for shooting small game. The rifle can be disassembled into its component parts (barrel, receiver, magazine, and stock), which can be stored in the stock. The AR-7 was constructed primarily of aluminum, with plastic for the stock and buttcap. The AR-7 measures 35 inches overall when assembled. It disassembles to four sections (barrel, action, stock, and magazine), with everything stowing inside the ABS stock. Fishing hooks and line are also commonly stowed inside the ABS stock. The AR-7 measures 16 inches long when configured for storage. The rifle weighs 2.5 pounds so this is even light enough to take along backpacking. It floats in water, as did the previous AR-5/MA-1 design. The rear sight is a peep sight, which comes on a flat metal blade with two different size apertures. It is adjustable for elevation (up-down). The front sight is adjustable for windage (side-side). Accuracy is sufficient for hunting small game in survival situations, for obtaining food at ranges up to 50 yards.

Direct fastening systems[edit]

Main article: powder-actuated tool
Direct fastening cartridges.
A powder-actuated direct fastening tool.

Cartridge based concrete anchoring and steel anchoring systems have been devised for firearms used as tools, such as developed by Hilti and Ramset with their so-called powder-actuated tools. Typical calibers range from .22 cal up to 9 mm for the cartridges, which propel anchors and nails into concrete, steel, and other materials. Developed in World War II to temporarily repair ship damage quickly in the case of hull breach, this technology is today commonly used in construction and manufacturing to join materials to hard substrates such as steel and concrete.

In Australia and the Netherlands, these tools are classed as firearms, since they fire a projectile with potentially lethal force. As such, their ownership and use is regulated in Australia and the Netherlands. The owner has to register the tool, and an operator of one of these tools is required to have a license and to have undergone training in their use. These laws are in keeping with Australia's and the Netherlands' strict firearm laws.

From 1958 onwards, the so-called "direct-acting" tools have been quickly replaced by "indirect-acting" tools. In the former type, the combustion gases from a blank powder cartridge directly drive the fastener into the base material. The nail can reach velocities of hundreds of meters per second making it a highly dangerous projectile.

In modern indirect-acting tools, the combustion gas drives a piston inside the tool "barrel" which in turn "hammers" the nail into the material. The piston cannot leave the tool barrel as it is retained by a stop-ring or piston brake. Of the total energy contained in the ensemble of moving piston and nail, ~95% is contained in the piston. Due to a piston mass of ~100...150 g, piston and fastener reach much less than the limit velocity of 100 m/s limited by official approval.

Modern PATs include multiple safety devices: The tool must be pressed to the work surface with >50 N force before it can be triggered. The trigger must be pulled only after full compression or the tool will not work (no "bump-firing" allowed). The tool must pass drop tests in all directions to prove that it will not fire even if dropped on the muzzle or knocked against a hard surface.

European legislation[edit]

With the coming into effect of the EC Machinery Directive (2006/42/EC), powder actuated tools are distinguished from weapons and are now considered "impact machinery", provided they are "designed for industrial or technical purposes only".[12] After the testing and approval defined by the Machinery Directive for tools of this type, PAT must carry the CE mark from July, 2011 at the latest (but can since January, 2010). This means that for bringing them to the European market, the manufacturer no longer needs a firearms-type approval from a respective authority but a CE approval from a European accredited test laboratory ("notified body"). Firearms legislation no longer applies to PAT.

A European safety standard (EN 15895) is under development and is expected to be effective at the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011.

See also[edit]

General firearm (tool) topics
Gun technology and science
Gun-related terminology
Types of firearms


  1. ^ Chase 2003:31–32
  2. ^ Needham 1986:293–294
  3. ^ a b c Chase 2003:1 "The Europeans certainly had firearms by the first half of the 1300s. The Arabs obtained firearms in the 1300s too, and the Turks, Iranians, and Indians all got them no later than the 1400s, in each case directly or indirectly from the Europeans. The Koreans adopted firearms from the Chinese in the 1300s, but the Japanese did not acquire them until the 1500s, and then from the Portuguese rather than the Chinese."
  4. ^ "Obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine". The Gentleman's Magazine (F. Jefferies): 208. January 1855. 
  5. ^ "Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore - Maritime Museum". National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  6. ^ Field Manual 3-34.2 Combined Arms Breaching Operations. 31 August 2000. Para. C-57 and Table C-2
  7. ^ Winchester 8 Ga clinker gun
  8. ^ "U.S. Geological Survey Firearms Safety Program Fact sheet 2005-3012". United States Geological Survey. April 2005. Retrieved 2009-04-02. "The firearm is a tool of last resort and is only used when other deterrents are exhausted or impractical." 
  9. ^ Pembrey Airport: History
  10. ^ Pikula, Sam (Maj), The ArmaLite AR-10 Regnum Fund Press (1998), ISBN 9986-494-38-9, p. 35
  11. ^ Armalite History
  12. ^


  • Chase, Kenneth (2003). Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82274-2. 
  • Crosby, Alfred W. (2002). Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79158-8. 
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science & Civilisation in China. V:7: The Gunpowder Epic. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30358-3. 

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