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Material Witness: V20N2

By David Lake

Steel, Simplified.

Steel is the stuff of which the modern world is made. It is pervasive in history and its presence and application mirrors the rise and fall of man and his kingdoms as well as his proliferation around the globe. Scientists and engineers of the past century have been largely unsuccessful at creating its replacement. Barring the limitations imposed by the basic laws of physics, there are not many problems that cannot be solved by the judicious application of steel in one of its many forms. There is perhaps no better example of Mankind’s technological triumph than when he used steel to create the gun.

The oldest known “gun” by todays definition was developed in China (agree most anthropologists and archaeologists). The first guns created by the ancient Chinese were likely bamboo- or other hollowed out wooden tubes, which may not have been used to fire a projectile. There is some conjecture that these guns were first implemented as “shock and awe” technique- firing off bursts of flame and smoke to intimidate and confound a battlefield foe. It is unclear when exactly the gun would be used to fire a projectile- which was likely an accident the first time it happened. Man’s inherent need and ability to fix and improve things around him would ultimately adapt the simple pyrotechnic display into an implement crafted from steel, and intended to fire a projectile. The rest of the story of the gun follows man through the middle Ages, the time of exploration and conquest, and ultimately the industrialization and modernization of manufacturing and the globalization of commerce. There are marked times, usually times of war that spawned the great advancements in the science of the gun. Mounted cavalry, siege weapons, personal body armor, cannon and naval warfare all demanded that the gun become more potent and precise. Distance and accuracy and power would become requisite qualifications of the gun. Sometime in the last 500 years, the science of the gun seems to have reached a plateau, relatively speaking. Every shooter from a matchlock pistol to a shore gun battery...

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