They Are Called HANDguns Not HANDSguns for a Reason

If you say “hand cannon” today, the typical gun owner is likely to think of an extremely large handgun like the Desert Eagle or .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum, guns that make “Dirty Harry” Callahan’s .44 Magnum revolver seem small by comparison.

But the term hand cannon has deep roots in firearms history, going back to the 14th century when combatants were literally holding small cannons on sticks in their hands.

“Hand cannon” on display at the Springfield Armory Museum in Massachusetts. Photo by Sandra Stroud Yamane

Cannons themselves were the result of the application of the “Gunpowder Revolution” to weaponry. Using the explosive power of chemicals (a compound of charcoal, potassium nitrate, and sulphur) rather than human or mechanical power to launch projectiles greatly increased the potential destructive force of the weapon. The difference between a cannon and a human arm, sling, or catapult launching a rock or ball is clear.

From the first cannons to today’s small arms, the basic operation of firearms has been surprisingly consistent over time. A projectile is propelled down a barrel by expanding gases produced by a rapidly burning (i.e., exploding) propellant. The early hand cannons actually took at least two people to operate – one to hold the weapon and one to ignite the powder. Efforts to design an ignition system that could be operated by one person set in motion the evolution of personal firearms from the 15th century to today, from matchlock, to flintlock, to percussion cap, to metallic cartridge.

A firearm that could be operated by one person went along with efforts to develop a firearm that could be operated with one hand: HAND guns rather than HANDS guns.

Today I take the two handed grip on the revolver or pistol for granted. In the gun classes I observe, shooting with one hand is only taught because of the possibility that one hand could become disabled. So I was interested to see an article in the 1970 edition of the Gun Digest Annual advocating “Two-Fisted Handgunning.”

Although handguns are almost as old as hand-held guns (hand cannons) themselves, this article reminded me that the relative balance between long gun and handgun shooting in American society really only began to tip in the 1960s. The popularity of the AR-platform rifle notwithstanding, handguns and handgunning really are the core of Gun Culture 2.0 today.




  1. First, my uncle, a lifelong MD and artist, had several of those ancient hand cannons. When he died, I think they were going to be donated to one of the Buffalo museums. Second, what I recall from the sixties, when I first started shooting, was that competitive shooting at bullseye targets was always one handed, classically standing at right angles to the target with gun hand extended. Of course combat or self defense shooting (Dirty Harry mythology notwithstanding) is two handed for accuracy and stability. Unless you get your strong hand shot….

    Shooting as Zen and for competitive form or just plinking at the old tin cans in the back forty seems lost on Gun Culture 2.0 in favor of treating the world as a place where you have to go around armed in anticipation of potentially having to blow criminals away. Perhaps that is one reason the whole topic of guns is so polarizing. Its turned into an Us v Them mentality, i.e., seeing bad guys behind every bush. I suppose it sells guns, just as making bicycles out of plastic with ever changing parts standards ensures they will see planned obsolescence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am definitely interested in seeing more systematic work done on how people get into guns today. I know many are drawn in by the self-defense concerns, but I also know there are some who have a friend take them plinking and they have fun. And of course some of both. (Who and how many, who knows?!?!). Before I ever thought of shooting a gun, I remember being amazed by the competitive recreational shooting on Top Shot.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I got into guns via my stepdad, a life NRA member under Gun Culture 1.0. He is now in his eighties and does carry for self defense but he initially got into guns as gunsport, hunting, reloading, and tinkering, as he was a professional machinist. He was seriously into competitive shooting in the Buffalo area for a while and even now, most of his interest in guns is due to fascination with guns, not defense. Same here, although defense is not something I fail to consider. But my first line of defense is live where there are not a lot of crooks. But that is an option I have. Some don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think self-defense has become a more common way to get into recreational shooting in large part because of the damage done, intentionally and unintentionally, to the ability to casually shoot anymore. The idea of “bad guys” being a primary reason is more a symptom than a cause, as the days of having a “back 40” for rural folks, or “open city dump” for more urban people, to just walk/cycle/short-drive-to are gone. Scalia with his rifle on the NYC subway going to the school range, or kids having .22s and shotguns in the classroom coat closet to hunt or just shoot on the way home, are victims of urbanization, liability concerns, and active societal intervention by anti-gun policy makers.

      Now to “go shooting” for most people involves investing several hours of time to drive to a range, often crowded and noisy, often located in industrial areas or further out in the country, and having to pay to use it in a very controlled manner.

      Most indoor ranges don’t allow rifle shooting, or are at such short ranges it isn’t much fun, and shooting at paper targets gets old regardless. So, pistols will naturally be more common than rifles for urban/suburbanites. And “plinking,” tossing out cans or bottles or clay pigeons and shooting them (in a safe area, picking up the real debris) isn’t allowed even on most outdoor rifle ranges, much less on most public lands outside of formal ranges..

      The rise in the action shooting sports I can see as not so much a “militarization” of shooting culture, but as the only way to have real “fun” when shooting anymore. Bullseye and other positional competitions are demanding disciplines and during their heyday the people who used to shoot them had a lot of active casual shooting opportunities available on the side that most of us today do not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • All good points. It was pretty normal when I was growing up to go out behind the house a hundred yards and set up a row of empty soup cans and blast away at them with a 22LR rifle or pistol. That augmented the time at the range. We had school-issue target rifles for the rifle team (because they had to meet interscholastic specifications) and club (which got the team hand-me-downs) but those of us who were active in those organizations would be bringing in boxes of 22 LR along with our lunch and books. No one went screaming out the door.

        Interestingly, my stepdad’s home still is quasi-rural and when I get back to Western New York, that is the first thing he wants to do when I get there: grab the current favorite firearm and drag me out to the “back 40” to put holes in nondescript objects. Its as fun now as when I was a teen, and the old guy can still out-shoot me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Khal,

        I’m a Rush nerd so your step-dad story made me think of “Red Barchetta.” =)

        Anchorage is pretty land constrained, but we used to be able to just drive north or south for a half hour and shoot in various gravel pits or washes. Now all the pull outs are blocked off by DOT or the Railroad, in large part due to slobs leaving shot up trash everywhere. I should have included those types as part of why the anti-gun crowd was able to impose restrictions on casual shooting opportunities. Justifiably pissed off landowners, public and private, who wouldn’t/didn’t care as long as people didn’t hurt anything or trash the place.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. David, in your “Awash in a Sea of Faith and Firearms…” paper you conclude with this statement: “…Early analyses show that individuals with judgmental images of God are more attached to their guns, while a higher level of attachment to religion is associated with a lower level of attachment to guns…”

    You draw a clear distinction between belief in a judgemental God and the general idea of religiousness. Not surprising to me to see a huge difference, as I once as a teen went to a fundamentalist church and years later, was heavily involved in a Jesuit and more contemplative community at Stony Brook and the U of Hawaii. Are you going to follow up with this idea in a second paper?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was recently sent a dataset that has some very good questions about religion and guns, so I am trying to find time to explore this data (and talking with a colleague about collaborating on some analyses). So, stay tuned!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, the term “hand cannon” IS a modern one. The period term was “handgun” (various spellings including “handgonne”), and referred to any gun that could be operated by hand. It fell out of use in the early 19th century, to be resurrected in US English early in the next century. Everywhere else and until relatively recently in the US, “pistol” was the term for a one-handed gun, “revolver” being short for “revolver pistol”. It was the rise of the self-loading pistol that led to the shift of “handgun” as an overarching term for what American gun owners now thought of as distinct sub-classes of firearm.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m catching up on these posts.

    This is interesting to me because Askins was an advocate of Point Shooting, even wrote an article or two on it for the NRA, and was a highly successful competitor, using the one-handed grip.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.