Initial Publication: 26 December 2014.
Revision 1.0 Dated 26 December 2014.
Revision 1.1 Dated 23 January 2015.
Revision 1.2 Dated 3 July 2015.
Introduction to the Firearms Design Library
For something that has been so fundamental to the human race for so long, gun design has a rather anemic bibliography. We wrote about this absence back in 2012, and drafted a conceptual design approach based on Raymer’s Aircraft Design – A Conceptual Approach. But almost immediately, Forgotten Weapons had a post offering technical notes by John G. Rocha from 1968, which we noted in a follow-up was “the nearest thing we’ve seen to a weaponry version or Raymer or Roskam’s aero engineering conceptual-design books.”
So here’s what we have found. We have organized them into general references (things about the design of guns in general), specific references (things about the design of a specific gun), manufacturing references, and Reference Repositories, where we provide some hints about finding such things as patents.
This document is far from complete and is a living, evolving document. We expect to add to it from time to time, and we invite contributions & suggestions. (No one of us is as knowledgable as all of us together, after all). As a “page” versus a “post,” it will permanently be available in the top bar of WeaponsMan.com. We will note the Revision and Revision Date of the document at the top.
A point of departure here is Chinn’s magisterial The Machine Gun, a work in five immense volumes; the one most germane to design is Vol. IV, which contains extensive design information in Part X. These are widely available as (somewhat scroungy) .pdfs; the hardcovers are harder to come by, as they were never printed in enough volume as to meet demand. The books as a whole provide a history of rapid fire small arms, as well as design information current to the World War II period.
Chinn himself cited one of the best works to appear aimed at teaching the design of firearms, Charles E. Balleisen’s 1945 Principles of Firearms. It was one of a series of books published by Wiley that included Davis’s The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives, a reference still in some use today; Bliss’s Mathematics for Exterior Ballistics; and Hayes’s Elements of Ordnance, which dealt with “automotive combat equipment.” These books graced many an Army and Marine officer’s and many a defense engineer’s library in the mid-20th-Century.
Balleisen was an Army Ordnance officer, and wrote:
The purpose of this book is to expound the concept that an automatic firearm is a piece of machinery operating in accordance with well-known laws of physics and hence capable of being analyzed and designed in accordance with common engineering practice. This approach does subject is believed to be new in this country, although much similar material has been published in France and Germany.
While some of his matter is dated today, 70 years later, and Balleisen obviously can’t account for postwar inventions, patents and developments, the basic engineering principles and mathematics in this book make it very useful for the engineering, design, or analysis of conventional small arms today. He gives examples from the common arms of the day, such as the Browning machine guns. Each chapter also suggests further references, almost all out of print, and many in foreign languages (especially German).
Balleisen’s book is probably the best reference for the would-be small arms designer. At present, you will be forced to hunt down a copy of this long out-of-print work, as we did.
Chronologically next after Balleisen is John Rocha’s Technical Notes: Small Arms Weapons Design that were published by Rock Island Arsenal the year it took over small arms design from Springfield (1968). Against its somewhat disjointed nature — it really was a set of notes intended to go with face-to-face instruction unlike most of these other tomes.
Perhaps intended less than some of these others for designers, and more for technically oriented analysts, is Brassey’s 1999 Small Arms: General Design by DF Allsop and MA Toomey. It is lighter on the “sheet music” than, say, Balleisen or Carlucci & Jacobson, and is full of mostly British examples that are clear and concise, and of course it is much more modern, both in terms of its examples and its engineering sophistication, than the former.
There is some math in here but it’s largely of the analytical sort that might be used in initial conceptual design and analysis phases, some suggested metrics for probability of incapacitation and that sort of thing. However, there are excellent sections on barrels and on waste heat management, with all the math you need to substantiate barrel cooling issues, although we haven’t checked it against the Colt and ARL tests to destruction to see if it predicts the failures accurately.
Thanks to the commenters who not only recommend this long out-of-print book, but also sent us a link to a bookstore that had a reasonably priced copy (it’s a copy withdrawn from a military library, as it turns out). This out-of-print work is less technical and deep, but considerably more modern, than Balleisen; its examples are primarily British. Like many out of print technical books, it can get expensive on the used-book market. A partial scan is available on Scribd but is a poor one with many missing pages.
A more up-to date version is the the Rheinmetall Waffentechnisches Taschenbuch, which was also published in English. Both versions cover small arms but also midrange weapons like machine cannons and large crew-served artillery. From the 1980s and 90s, they are out of print and demand a considerable premium on the used market.
The most recent volume is: Ballistics: Theory And Design Of Guns And Ammunition, by Donald E. Carlucci and Sidney S. Jacobson, and published by CRC Press. Ballistics is the next generation of Rocha, in that it is a textbook to a graduate-level engineering course taught at Picatinny Arsenal to degreed engineers new to the world of weaponry. This book is modern, taking advantage of the last 70-odd years of advances in gas dynamics, FEA, and dynamic analysis, which are considerable. In includes analysis of secondary forces that are assumed away in Balleisen, such as the effect of rifling upon the gun itself (not just the projectile). It goes far beyond Balleisen in its analysis of all three regimes of ballistics: interior, exterior, and terminal; and it includes such things as fragmentation and shaped-charge effects. Its equations lend themselves well to computer analysis with Matlab or a similar product. It includes some thought-provoking details, like an analysis of buttress threads. The section on sabots (Section 4.12), for example, suggests why the shotgun sabots that we’ve discussed here before (made by hw97karbine) don’t work well. Against that, it is considerably drier than Balleisen’s book, and while it gives you the sheet music to analyze everything, it lacks concrete examples of the things of most interest to small arms designers.
Two Volumes by H. Peter are principally of use in the conceptual design and engineering substantiation of artillery pieces and tank main armament, but they can be adapted to smaller-calibre guns. They are Armament Engineering: a Computer Aided Approach (2003) and Mechanical Engineering: Principles of Armament Design (2004), both are published on-demand by Trafford and available at Amazon. They show how to apply modern engineering methods using common software like Matlab and Excel.
Specific References – Guns
These are references to the design of specific guns. Unlike the General References above, these are limited in scope to a single firearm; while you certainly can use them for points of departure to design something different, you’re on your own for the extrapolation.
Specific References – Features
These are references to the design of specific parts of guns. Unlike the General References above, these are limited in scope; while you certainly can use them for points of departure to design something different, you’re on your own for the extrapolation.
Any engineer working on guns ought to have a solid understanding of such basics as statics and mechanics, stress analyses, materials science, and industrial processes, which are fundamentals of the craft but beyond the scope of this page. Those vary from very established fields in which references are fairly stable, to fields undergoing ongoing revolutions today. Fortunately all of those have excellent reference lists and bibliographies handy online, so we’ll stick here strictly to information specific to the manufacturing of guns.
This begins with an understanding of the gunsmith’s craft as practiced in the small shop for centuries. It is still possible to make your own barrel and to make the rifling machine which rifles it out of wood as John M. Browning did in the century before last. Even if you are having your guns made by a modern hammer-forging process, and your function is, perhaps, to make a CAD drawing of the necessary mandrels, it helps to know how this has been done historically and why, for instance, benchrest shooters still tend to use barrels that have been lapped by hand to final smoothness in a process Browning would recognize from his apprentice days.
Unfortunately, much gun manufacturing knowledge today is closely held and proprietary. But it begins with the gunsmith’s art as practiced for centuries, and only in the last century has come to apply the mass production techniques from the automotive and aerospace production worlds.
Chinn, George M., Lt.Col. USMCR. The Machine Gun. Washington: Bureau of Ordnance, Department of the Navy.
Rocha, John G. Technical Notes: Small Arms Weapons Design. Rock Island, IL: Rock Island Arsenal, 1968.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.