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.
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.