From the first, which got America’s revolution started on sound footing in 1775, to the last which was adopted by the military in 1985, versions of all of these firearms have been or are used by private U.S. citizens and our armed forces.

There is a long and important connection between private arms makers and the U.S. Armed Forces. Phil Schreier, the senior curator for the NRA’s National Firearms Museum, put it this way: “History teaches us that without the civilian gun market, gun innovation would fall on its face. Government procurement contracts come bureaucratically slow. If gun companies had to solely rely on them most would stop innovating. This would let America fall behind the world. Pretty soon we’d be dependent on other nations for our military’s firearms and our American people wouldn’t know how to use them.”

There is no better time to look back on these guns than Memorial Day. In chronological order, these are the ten guns that shaped America:

American Long Rifle

Ten Guns That Shaped America
This flintlock Long Rifle has been dated to 1780. It and many others shown here can be seen in the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. photo courtesy NRA Museums

School kids learn that on the night of April 18, 1775, hundreds of British troops marched from Boston to nearby towns. And they learn that Paul Revere and others sounded the alarm and that Colonial militiamen mobilized to confront the Redcoat column. They are also taught that an initial confrontation on the Lexington town green started the fight that led to a British retreat from a large force of Americans at Concord.

However, one small but important fact few learn is some of the colonists actually had more advanced arms than the British troops. Some had American Long Rifles. The British had Brown Bess guns—smoothbore muskets. The British preferred the Brown Bess cause it lobbed a big bullet and is faster to load than a muzzleloader with a long rifled barrel—you have to twist a bullet down a rifled barrel, and that takes time.

Though <i>The Patriot</i>(2000) was largely fantastical, the Kentucky Long Rifle used by main character Benjamin Martin was period accurate and made for Mel Gibson by artist Frank House, who trained several actors to use the flintlocks.” class=”wp-image-1587″/><figcaption>Though <i>The Patriot</i>(2000) was largely fantastical, the Kentucky Long Rifle used by main character Benjamin Martin was period accurate and made for Mel Gibson by artist Frank House, who trained several actors to use the flintlocks. <i></i></figcaption></figure>

<p id=Redcoats were geared for close-quarter engagements between masses of troops, but the Americans at Concord didn’t fight that way. They had rifles that could hit a man-sized target at 200 and perhaps 300 yards, whereas the Brown Bess was only accurate to maybe 75 yards. And those New Englanders were hunters, so they’d learned to be marksmen.

They used these skills and their rifles’ technology by laying behind rocks and trees and shooting the Red Coats long before they got close enough to use their smoothbore muskets. There were downsides to American Long Rifles. They were comparably expensive to make, and their production rate was slow, as small arms makers produced them one at a time. So, though Gen. George Washington made significant use of snipers, most American revolutionaries were later armed with smoothbore muskets—many of them made in France. Nevertheless, small, private rifle makers in the colonies made it possible for the war to begin on good footing for the colonists. This helped to get the public behind the revolution.

Colt Walker (aka Walker Colt)

This is a counterfeit example of the now-rare Colt Walker percussion revolver photo courtesy NRA Museums

In 1836, Samuel Colt perfected and patented a revolving handgun by bringing together features from previous guns and fashioning them into a mechanically reliable revolver. Colt even thought of developing an assembly line to manufacture his product. School textbooks often call Henry Ford’s use of an assembly line nearly a century later (in the late 1920s) a major innovation, as that’s how he produced the Ford Model T, but Colt had the idea first.

Colt wrote in a letter dated 1836 that the “first workman would receive two or three of the most important parts and would affix these and pass them on to the next who add a part and pass the growing article on to another who would do the same, and so on until the complete arm is put together.”

The English gave Colt a patent for his revolver. The U.S. also gave Colt a patent for a “revolving gun” on February 25, 1836. These early revolvers were used by Texas Rangers to defeat Comanches.

In previous fights, frontiersmen had to get off their horse to use a flintlock rifle to fire one shot at a Comanche, a tribe renowned for swiftly shooting arrows from horseback. Even if the frontiersman killed one Comanche, he’d often be killed by others before he could load powder and ball down his muzzleloader, prime the firearm, cock it, aim, and fire. When armed with a Colt revolver, however, a Ranger could fight from horseback and fire multiple shots. This changed the frontier.

Clint Eastwood famously used a pair of monstrous reproduction Colt Walker revolvers in <i> The Outlaw Josey Whales</i>.” class=”wp-image-1590″/><figcaption>Clint Eastwood famously used a pair of monstrous reproduction Colt Walker revolvers in <i> The Outlaw Josey Whales</i>. <i></i></figcaption></figure>

<p id=Colt didn’t know his revolving handgun had proven effective on the frontier. His Patent Arms Company went bankrupt and ceased operation in 1842. But then Capt. Sam Walker of the Texas Rangers wanted to purchase revolvers from Colt to arm 500 Texas Rangers who’d been absorbed into the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Walker had been in a troop of 14 Rangers led by Capt. John Coffee Hays on June 9, 1844 when they’d used Colt’s early Paterson revolvers to win the battle of Walker’s Creek (not named after Sam Walker) against a much greater number of Comanches.

Walker wrote to Colt that he wanted 1,000 revolvers. Walker would then meet Colt in New York City in 1847. As great a revolution as the Paterson revolver was, Walker told Colt it had shortcomings: the revolver was too fragile and too difficult to reload.

Colt seems to have welcomed the criticism and agreed to modify his revolver according to Walker’s suggestions. Not having a factory to complete the order, Colt made a deal with the Whitneyville Armory run by Eli Whitney Jr., son of the famed inventor of the cotton gin, to produce the new revolvers. With this new design, he produced 1,000 Colt Walkers, as requested.

Not designed to be carried in a belt holster or even to be used by a man not on horseback, the revolver, fully loaded, weighed almost five pounds. Unlike the Paterson, which fired five shots, the Walker fired six. The Colt Walker was the most powerful handgun ever made at the time, and held that title for a good while. It used 60 grains of blackpowder to shoot .44 caliber lead balls.

The Walker colt had a few problems and was never produced in large quantities. The metallurgy was spotty and they had a tendency to chain fire and explode. Also, the lever under the barrel that operated the loader would loosen and fall open under recoil, preventing the cylinder from rotating. These issues were corrected and the gun design improved in the following Colt Dragoon models, which were produced in much larger numbers. The risk of a chain fire was mitigated by dabbing glycerine or grease on the front of each chamber, a practice that still survives among muzzle-loading pistol shooters.

Sharps Rifle

A Sharps 1859 Carbine in .51 caliber.
A Sharps 1859 Carbine in .51 caliber.

Christian Sharps developed rifles known for their accuracy. Before forming the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Conn., in 1851, Sharps worked at John Hall’s Rifle Works in Harpers Ferry, Va., and then with the firm A.S. Nippes in Pennsylvania. While working in Hartford, Sharps’ Model 1853 Carbines were nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles,” says the National Firearms Museum, after noted New York clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher.

Approximately 900 of these arms were shipped in heavy crates marked BIBLES for use by anti-slavery ‘Free Soil’ settlers who were fighting against pro-slavery forces in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ during the 1850s. One of the most famous Free Soilers was John Brown, who later used Model 1853 Carbines in his ill-fated attempt to capture the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

The buttstock of this carbine is carved “Rappahannock Station Nov. 7 1863” and was captured from Confederate cavalry forces by Union General John Buford’s troops. Rappahannock Station is now known as Remington, Virginia. photo courtesy NRA Museums

Confederates actually bought 2,000 Sharps-manufactured rifles before the outbreak of the Civil War, but to get more of them during the conflict, the Southern troops had to capture them in battle.

The Sharps was a single-shot rifle originally made for use with paper cartridges and primer caps.

To operate it, the hammer was manually set to half-cock and then the lever, which also served as a trigger guard much like the Spencer’s design, was pulled down to open the breech. A new cartridge could then be loaded. Once the breech was closed and a cap was placed, the hammer could be fully cocked and the gun was ready to fire. By the 1870s, the Sharps had transitioned to use metallic cartridges. A spent casing was extracted when the lever opened the breech so it could be removed by hand. The powerful and accurate rifle, sometimes paired with a scope, became a staple of buffalo hunters on the North American plains.

By 1874, the Sharps rifle was available in a variety of calibers and had been adopted by the armies of a number of nations. It was one of the few rifle designs to successfully transition from cap-and-ball to metallic cartridges.

A Sharps carbine being fired by a U.S. calvary soldier in <i>Dances With Wolves</i>.” class=”wp-image-1597″/><figcaption>A Sharps carbine being fired by a U.S. calvary soldier in <i>Dances With Wolves</i>. <i></i></figcaption></figure>

<p id=The military Sharps was a cap-and-ball falling block rifle in many variations with an unusual pellet primer feed. The device held a stack of pelleted primers and flipped on over the nipple each time the trigger was pulled and the hammer fell—which was designed to make the rifle easier to fire from horseback than if the rider had to manually place a cap for each shot.

Why didn’t more soldiers have Sharps in the U.S. Civil War if they’d been around so long? Again, because of cost. Compared to a muzzle-loading Springfield, the Sharps was very expensive to produce, plus ammunition had to be manufactured for it. Only 11,000 of the Model 1859s were produced, most going unissued or given to sharpshooters.

The carbine version of the Sharps was popular with calvary on both sides of the war and was issued in larger numbers than other carbines, especially because it could be converted to metallic cartridges developed in the 1860s. Many converted Sharps were issued to troops during the Indian Wars in the years directly following the Civil War. Almost 90,000 Sharps carbines were produced and was the most common firearm carried by Union calvary regiments, though many were replaced by repeating Spencers by the end of the war.

Spencer Repeating Rifle

Ten Guns That Shaped America
The Spencer was designed in 1860 by Christopher Spencer. It is a lever-action, seven-shot rifle fed with cartridges from a tube in the rifle’s buttstock. photo courtesy NRA Museums

The Spencer repeating rifle was a lever-action, seven-shot rifle fed with cartridges from a tube magazine in the rifle’s buttstock. It was designed by Christopher Spencer in 1860.

The Spencer was adopted by the Union Army and was used by cavalry during the American Civil War. It was popular, but it was complicated to build and could not be manufactured at a rate that could replace the then standard-issue muzzleloaders.

The Spencer carbine was a shorter and lighter version first produced in 1863. In 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant supplied Gen. Phil Sheridan with 10,000 mounted men equipped with Spencer seven-shot carbines, a prototype of which had been personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln. These rifles, which the Southern Confederacy didn’t have the manufacturing capability to match, contributed to the Union’s victory.

Unlike later repeating rifles that hung the magazine tube beneath the barrel, the Spencer’s tube was located in the buttstock. To reload, a magazine tube insert containing the spring was removed, and seven fresh cartridges were placed into the tube before the insert is replaced.

Gene Hackman with the action open on a Spencer 1860 in the 1992 film <i>Unforgiven</i> (top) and Clint Eastwood removing the magazine tube insert to reload.” class=”wp-image-1599″/><figcaption>Gene Hackman with the action open on a Spencer 1860 in the 1992 film <i>Unforgiven</i> (top) and Clint Eastwood removing the magazine tube insert to reload. <i></i></figcaption></figure>

<p id=Working the lever, which doubled as a trigger guard, extracted a spent casing and then fed a new cartridge from the mag tube, but the lever did not automatically cock the hammer. The hammer then had to be manually cocked before the rifle could be fired.

The earliest Spencers used copper-cased rimfire cartridges. A device called the Blakeslee Cartridge Box contained tubes filled with seven cartridges each. The idea was that the tube could be dumped right into the mag tube for quick reloading—but since the cartridge-box tubes were made of thin metal, they tended to bend during transport and carry, thus not allowing all of the cartridges to be dumped.

The rifle was initially chambered for .56-56 Spencer loaded with 45 grains of black powder. They were also available as .56-52, .56-50, and a wildcat .56-46, a necked down version of the original cartridge. The cartridge length was limited by the action size to about 1.75 inches. It was a solid design and the first truly reliable repeating rifle, though it was outshined by the high capacity and ease of use featured in repeating designs from Henry and then Winchester.

1903 Springfield

Ten Guns That Shaped America
The Springfield Model 1903 rifle, which was based on Mauser patents, was the most successful bolt-action military rifle in U.S. history photo courtesy NRA Museums

The Model 1903 Springfield, formally known as the “United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903,” was officially adopted as a U.S. service rifle on June 19, 1903.

It saw service in World War I and was officially replaced as the standard infantry rifle by the faster-firing semiautomatic M1 Garand starting in 1936. However, the M1903 Springfield remained in service as a standard issue infantry rifle during World War II, as the U.S. entered the war without sufficient M1 rifles. The Model 1903 introduced a lot of Americans to bolt-action rifles.

Over one million U.S. Model 1903s were manufactured before production was discontinued in 1941. Many soldiers came home from World War I and wanted bolt-action rifles for hunting and sporting purposes.

The M1903 that was originally adopted by the U.S. military was chambered in .30-30 and had a 24-inch barrel with no carbine version created, as the rifle was deemed short enough for both troops and calvary. The War Department stided several examples of the Spanish Mauser Model 1893 that had gained a deadly reputation in the 1898 Spanish-American War. They then applied some feature from the Krag-Jorgensen rifle to a bolt and magazine system from the Mauser Model 93 to created what became the Model 1903. The gun was such a Mauser copy that the U.S. government lost a suit brought by Mauser and had to pay $250,000 in royalties to Mauser Werke.

Over 80,000 M1903 rifles had been produced by January 1905 at the government-owned Springfield Armory. However, when Theodore Roosevelt objected to what he considered a thing and flimsy spike bayonet design and mount, the rifle was retooled for a blade-type bayonet and called the M1905. Improved sights were also added.

The rifle had to be modified again when the new “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906″ ammunition was adopted, better known as the .30-06, with spitzer-shaped (pointed) bullets. The sights had to again be retooled based on the ballistics of the new cartridge.

By the time of the 1916 Pancho Villa Expedition, the 1903 Springfield was in the form we know and the form that was issued to troops through World War II, providing troops with long-range accuracy, power, and reliability.

M1 Garand


M1 Garand Rifle

The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1” was adopted on Jan. 9, 1936

The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1,” better known as the M1 Garand, chambered in .30-06, was adopted in 1936 by U.S. Armed Forces as a standard-issue service rifle, the first semi-automatic firearm to hold that spot. It replaced the M1903 bolt action models.

During the interwar years, John Garand, a Canadian-born design engineer and Springfield Armory employee, worked on a design for a new gas-operated semiautomatic rifle chambered for the standard .30-06 military round that would be named the M1.

All told, over 3.5 million M1s were produced at the Springfield Armory. An additional 500,000 were manufactured by Winchester Repeating Arms Co. General George S. Patton called this rifle “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” It gave American troops a significant edge in combat over enemy soldiers, the majority of whom were armed with slower firing bolt-action rifles.

For more on the extensive history of the M1 Garand, go here.

AR-15 and M16 Rifles

Ten Guns That Shaped America
The AR-15 was developed by ArmaLite Corporation, a subsidiary of a California aeronautics company. Its patent was later bought by Colt. photo courtesy NRA Museums

The AR-15, and its military offspring, the M16, got their start in an American aeronautics company. In 1955, the ArmaLite Corporation, then a subsidiary of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, submitted a gun design to the U.S. Army. It was the AR-10, a .308 Winchester rifle devised by Eugene Stoner (a former U.S. Marine who had served in Aviation Ordnance during WWII) but based on George Sullivan’s concepts. Sullivan was an engineer who saw an opportunity to use new manufacturing methods and materials to create new gun designs.

The AR-10 was made with anodized aluminum, a plastic butt stock, and other modern materials that were common in the construction of aircraft at the time, but not firearms. The Army was then searching for a new service rifle. The AR-10 was a modern rifle, a new rifle for an age that had molded plastic cups, dashboards, and toothbrushes. It was also a modular rifle, making it far easier to service and use than previous designs. It also weighed only 7.25 pounds without a magazine—about two pounders lighter than the M14 it was competing with.

The Army, however, was skeptical. Time magazine profiled the AR-10 and called it a new “aluminum rifle” produced “at no cost to the taxpayer” and said the rifle “gave promise of being superior.” At the time, the Springfield Armory was still making guns for the U.S. military, as it had since George Washington founded it. Sure, civilian gun designers had always collaborated with the Armory and built new designs for soldiers and citizens alike, but if this rifle was accepted, it could mean the end to the Armory, as the Armory was counting on making the M14 for years to come and didn’t have the know-how to make plastic stocks and rifles with anodized aluminum parts.

Some of the U.S. Army’s leadership was also reportedly turned off by ArmaLite’s media blitz. The AR-10 didn’t win a military contract, but its offspring, the AR-15 later would. The AR-15 was chambered for the lighter and faster 5.56mm (or .223 Remington). However, before the military bet on the new AR-15, ArmaLite’s parent company hit hard times financially and decided to unload ArmaLite.

In January of 1959 the AR-15′s design and manufacturing rights were sold to Colt for the rock-bottom price of $75,000 and a 4.5 percent royalty on future sales. Colt’s experienced firearms engineers went to work and quickly tweaked the AR-15′s design. The biggest change they made was relocating its charging handle from under the carrying handle to the rear of the receiver. Colt then started a public-relations campaign that knocked the M14 for being too old-school as they talked-up the benefits of the lighter AR-15.

The original AR-15 weighed less than 6 pounds without a magazine, whereas the M14 weighed on average 9.2 pounds when empty. The AR-15 finally had its day. In 1963 a full-auto version made for the U.S. military was dubbed the M16. That same year Colt began selling semiautomatic AR-15s to U.S. consumers. It became the standard U.S. service rifle and forever changed miitary preference from large, long-range chamberings to lighter rifles that fired smaller, faster projectiles.

For a deep dive into the history of the AR-15 and AR-10 rifles and their designer, go here.

M4 Carbine

Ten Guns That Shaped America
The M4 carbine was adopted in the 1990s as a more compact alternative to the full length M16 rifle. photo from

The M4 carbine is the progeny of the M16 rifle, which was born from the AR-15. The M4 is a shorter and lighter variant of the M16A2 assault rifle. It is a gas-operated, magazine-fed, selective-fire rifle. Like the rest of the M16 family, it fires the .223 caliber, or 5.56mm NATO round. U.S. Armed Forces carry versions of this carbine. Its selective fire options include semiautomatic and three-round burst (like the M16A2 and M16A4), while the M4A1 has the capability to fire fully automatic instead of three-round burst (like the M16A1 and M16A3). They are also capable of mounting the M203 grenade launcher. The M4A1 carbine is a fully automatic variant of the basic M4 carbine.

The M4A1 is used by almost all U.S special-operation units. The U.S. Army lists its maximum effective range at about 500 to 600 meters. A team of engineers from ATK and Heckler & Koch (H&K) thought they had a rifle that could replace the M4 when they combined forces to create the XM8– an assault rifle with a “smart” grenade launcher–in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The XM8 design was originally part of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program (OICW), which was developing a “smart” grenade launcher that a shooter could program to explode at a certain distance. The system, however, couldn’t meet stringent performance and weight requirements and was prohibitively expensive. The XM8 project was formally cancelled in 2005. Many sources now say the U.S. Army won’t replace the M4 until a new infantry rifle makes it possible for a technological leap ahead.

In 2014, the U.S. Army had about a half million M4s and was reluctant to make a big and expensive change without a very good reason for doing so. Some of the M4′s critics have been very vocal. For example, U.S. Army Senior Warrant Officer Russton B. Kramer, a 20-year Green Beret, told The Washington Times that if you want to improve your chances of surviving on the battlefield, you have to modify your M4 with over-the-counter products.

Other active and former U.S. soldiers have said they’re not being forced to buy products from the civilian marketplace to keep their M4s running. What they’re doing is trying to make them more accurate with better triggers and sights, and more ergonomic with better grips and other products. Steve Adelmann, a retired SOF Operator who spent 22 years in the U.S. Army and who currently owns Citizen Arms, said, “I can’t speak for everyone, but my experience was that aftermarket parts were purchased to upgrade, not to keep guns running. I consulted several current armorers and grunts about The Washington Times article to see if my recollections were incorrect. To a man they backed up my observations.”

Many agree that the modular nature of the M4 platform allows soldiers (or citizens with AR-15-type rifles) to upgrade or replace uppers and other parts. For now, this is easier to do than developing and procuring an entirely new system.

For a deep dive into the history of the M4 Carbine, go here.

1911 Pistol

The Model 1911 pistol served as the standard-issue sidearm for the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 to 1985. In total, the U.S. military bought around 2.7 million Model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols. photo courtesy NRA Museums

“People think of semiautomatic pistols as being space-age technology, but the truth is perhaps the greatest pistol ever invented, one still carried by cops, civilians, and some in the military, is the Model 1911, a gun designed when the Wright brothers were still selling bicycles in Ohio,” says Phil Schreier, the senior curator for the NRA’s National Firearms Museum.

The Model 1911 pistol was the result of a search for a suitable self-loading pistol that would replace the variety of revolvers then in service. Designed by John Browning (1855-1926), the need for the a new and more powerful semiautomatic pistol became clear to the U.S. military when American units fought Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The U.S. forces were using the then-standard Colt Model 1892 revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt.

The Moros frequently used drugs to numb themselves to pain, and the .38 Long Colt cartridge didn’t have enough knockdown power to stop them. Also, the revolver was slower to reload than new semiautomatic pistols. In 1906 this search for a better handgun led to military test trials. Field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held, and the Colt Model 1911 won easily and was adopted by the U.S. Army on March 29, 1911, thus gaining its designation, Model 1911.

It was adopted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1913. Originally manufactured only by Colt, demand for the Model 1911 in World War I became so great that it was also manufactured in the government-owned Springfield Armory, making the 1911 yet another civilian invention that was picked up and manufactured by contract by the U.S. government.

The Model 1911 pistol was subsequently widely copied. It quickly became popular with civilian shooters in competitive events. Soon full-sized and compact variants were made available for civilians as carry guns. The Model 1911 was replaced by the 9mm Beretta M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm, but due to its popularity, the Model 1911 has not been completely phased out.

For a deeper dive into the history of the 1911 and the other guns designed by John Browning, go here.

Beretta M9 Pistol

Ten Guns That Shaped America
The Beretta M9 was the official U.S. service pistol from 1985 until 2017, when the various branches of the military began replacing it with the modular SIG Sauer P320 pistol, designated as the M17 and M18 (compact). photo courtesy NRA Museums

The semiautomatic M9 pistol was part of a limited group of guns tested in the U.S. military’s XM9 trials to determine a successor to the Model 1911 pistol. Beretta’s M9 (essentially a military-specification Beretta 92FS) won the trial, narrowly beating out the SIG Sauer P226 for cost reasons, and became the new U.S. service pistol.

Beretta began making guns in northern Italy centuries ago, just a few years after Leonardo DaVinci died. Beretta’s pistols would influence the next generation of gun designs. In the mid-1980s, it was seen as the pinnacle of high-capacity 9mm handgun technology by people who didn’t know anything about Glocks yet. This was reflected in pop culture. Mel Gibson, for example, carried a Beretta 92 in the 1987 action film “Lethal Weapon” and was cast as the younger, hipper cop beside the older, and revolver-carrying, Danny Glover. The Beretta 92FS was widely issued by U.S. police departments when they switched from revolvers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In December 2014, Beretta unveiled the M9A3, an updated version of the M9 under the Army’s Enginering Change Proposals under the existing contract. That same month, the Army decided not to evaluate the M9A3 at all and instead pursue the MHS program.

In January 2017, it was announced that a version of the SIG Sauer P320 pistol built to military specs would be adopted as the M17 pistol with a carry-sized model adopted as the M18. The military said it was chosen because it was the only pistol that allowed for the swapping of differerent grip length and slide-barrel length combinations. The pistol beat out the Beretta APX as well as entries from Glock and FN, among others.