As shooters and hunters were very familiar with the modern centerfire cartridge, and it seems to be a study in simplicity. A metallic case that holds the powder and the bullet, fired by primer in the base of the case. Simple. But getting to that simplicity is nothing short of one of the most fascinating stories in history.
Gunpowder was probably invented in China in the 9th century, and not for the reason you think. Chinese alchemists had been experimenting with salt peter and sulfur, two of the three ingredients of gunpowder for centuries as medicinal concoctions, looking for the mysterious potion of immortality.
Gunpowder and the handgun spread west across Mongolia into the first great Muslim empires. The handgun seems to have arrived in Europe in the late 1300s. In fact, the first use of the phrase handgun is in English history records from 1386.
If you think carrying extra ammunition is a problem today, imagine having to carry a box of glowing coals. This led to the next step in ignition systems, the matchlock.
The revelation of the matchlock was that the whole process could be accomplished with a single hand. Which meant for the first time, the musketeer could use both hands to aim the gun. By the mid 1400s, handheld guns had sights to facilitate that aiming.
Of course, the matchlocks single massive drawback was that the match had to stay lit, something of a problem in rain, snow or damp. But what if the musketeer could generate a spark on demand to ignite the primer powder? Enter the wheellock.
The true origins of the wheellock are lost to time, although they seemed to have emerged from Nuremburg, Germany or Vienna, Austria just as the 16th century dawned. Some historians credit Leonardo Da Vinci with the invention of the wheellock, which he illustrated in 1508 in his Codex Atlanticus.
Wheellocks were only a way station to the future. They were quickly superseded by the snaphaunce, one of the predecessors of the flintlock. Instead of a wheel spinning against a piece of flint, the flint is held in the hammer and struck against the steel anvil above the priming powder.