The process of creating a stunning, reliable, beautiful weapon comes from a combination of art and design; science and craftsmanship; experience and intuition. The most famous weapon makers of all time often improved the work and design of previous masters, and eventually outshone their predecessors.
Whether we’re talking about legendary swordsmiths who crafted exquisite blades 1,000 years ago, or gunsmiths who revolutionized warfare with their intuitive designs and applications, history will always remember these famed weapon makers for what they were: revolutionary masters.
Like it or not, war and weapons have been around since the dawn of time. Cavemen realized rocks could be sculpted into edged weapons. Thousands-year-old cave paintings show archers raining hell on their enemies. Whether for survival, sport, or conquest, weapons have evolved at the rate of technology’s evolution. And while there are hundreds of names that could be mentioned as the most famed weapon makers in history, here are 10 who revolutionized the craft.
10. Richard Gatling – The Gatling Gun
Richard Gatling was an American inventor during the Industrial Revolution. He became best known for inventing the Gatling gun, the first successful machine gun and precursor to modern-era machine guns. He was also a prolific inventor of things besides weapons. At the age of 21, he created a screw propeller for steamboats, though the invention had been patented just months prior.
He created the Gatling gun, surprisingly, after he realized that many lives lost during the Civil War were due to disease, rather than gunshots. The gun was based on Gatling’s seed planter, first using a hand-cranked mechanism that fired 200 rounds per minute – far-and-away more than any firearm up until that point. When he replaced the hand-crank with an electric motor, his Gatling guns achieved a rate of 3,000 rounds per minute.
9. Hikoshiro Sadamune – Sadamune Swords
Hikoshiro Sadamune, also called Soshu Sadamune, was a 13th and 14th century Japanese swordsmith of the Soshu school. His works are widely considered some of the finest blades ever created, and are often compared to other great swordsmiths such as Soshu Masamune (his teacher and possibly adopted father), and Muramasa Sengo.
After becoming a student of legendary swordsmith Masamune, he completed his teacher’s training and inherited the -mune part of his name. Sadamune is believed to have had four students of his own, who in turn formed a long lineage of swordsmiths under the name Nobukuni.
His swords are known for the intricate horimono images – or carved images – on the blades. One signed copy of his work exists: a tanto blade, which is a traditional, short Japanese sword worn by the samurai. The blade was formerly owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second “Great Unifier” of Japan, and successor to Oda Nobunaga.
8. Eliphalet Remington – Remington Rifle
Eliphalet Remington was a Colonial gunsmith who designed the Remington rifle, and founded the E. Remington and Sons company (now the Remington Arms Co., LLC). As a young man, Eliphalet followed in his father’s footsteps and became a blacksmith in Herkimer County, New York.
He developed his first flintlock rifle design at the age of 23, developing the barrel himself, using a firing mechanism bought from another gunsmith. After bringing his gun to a shooting match, the rifle impressed competitors so much that by the end of the day he had received so many orders that he was officially in the gunsmithing business. Remington began to manufacture them in high quantities.
His company ended up being the primary suppliers of weapons to the United States and other Allied powers during both World Wars. Remington’s most successful and well-known firearm is the Model 700 bolt-action rifle, designed in 1962, over 100 years after Eliphalet Remington’s death.
7. John Garand – The M1 Garand
Canadian-American weapon designer John Garand is known for creating the first successful semi-automatic rifle used in active military service: the M1 Garand. After starting out as a machinist at a textile mill as a teenager, and then working at a tool factory in Rhode Island, his fondness for target shooting turned him on to designing guns as a hobby.
In 1917, his hobby became his vocation as the US Army took bids on light machine gun designs, and Garand’s was selected by the War Department. He was appointed to the US Bureau of Standards, tasked with perfecting the weapon. His first model was too late to be used in WWI, but the War Department kept his position.
It took over 15 years to perfect his semi-automatic infantry rifle to the Army’s specifications. The resulting M1 Garand began mass production in 1936, and it became the first standard-issue semi-automatic rifle for the US.
General George S. Patton called the M1, “The greatest battle implement ever devised.” During WWII, the M1 Garand gave US forces a huge advantage over the Axis’ slower-firing, bolt-action rifles. It was also standard-issue in the Korean War, and to a limited extent in the Vietnam War.
6. Eugene Stoner – M16
Indiana-born firearms designer Eugene Stoner is most associated with developing the AR-15 rifle, which would eventually be adopted by the US military as the M16. Many historians regard him as one of the preeminent firearms designers of the 20th century. During WWII, he served in the Aviation Ordnance in the US Marine Corps, in the South Pacific and northern China.
In 1945, Stoner became a design engineer in the aircraft equipment company, Whittaker. In 1954 he worked as chief engineer for ArmaLite, and designed a series of small arms, including the AR-3, AR-9, AR-11, and AR-12. None of these saw significant production. His revolutionary AR-10, selective-fire infantry rifle was submitted for rifle evaluation trials by the US Army.
The AR-10 was smaller, lighter, and easier to fire than its competitors, but was entered late in the testing cycle, and was rejected by the Army for the M14. His AR-15 was designed from the AR-10 model, with a slightly smaller caliber to meet minimum Army penetration requirements. ArmaLite sold the rights to the AR-15 to Colt, and the US military later adopted the rifle as the M16 rifle. In all, he designed 10 weapons for ArmaLite, and 10 for other companies.
5. Mikhail Kalashnikov – AK-47
Lieutenant-General Mikhail Kalashnikov was a Russian inventor, military engineer, writer, and general. He is most famous for developing the AK-47 assault rifle, the most widely used assault rifle in the world, as well as it’s improvements, the AKM and AK-74. According to Kalashnikov, he was a “self-taught tinkerer who combined innate mechanical skills with the study of weaponry to design arms that achieved battlefield ubiquity.”
He apparently felt sad about his weapons’ uncontrollable distribution, and called his rifle a “weapon of defense,” and not a “weapon of offense.” Despite that, in 2004, out of an estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, 100 million belonged to the Kalashnikov family, and three-quarters of those were AF-47s (75 million).
Originally designed between 1946 and 1948, the AK-47 remains the most popular rifle in the world because of its ease-of-use, its reliability under harsh conditions, and its low production cost. In 1949, the AK-47 became the official assault rifle of the Soviet Armed Forces, and was used by a majority of the states of the Warsaw Pact. During his career, Kalashnikov designed approximately 150 models of small weapons.
4. Sengo Muramasa – Muramasa Blades
Muramasa Sengo was a famed swordsmith during the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries) in Japan. He was said to be a “most skillful smith, but a violent and ill-balanced mind verging on madness, that was supposed to have passed into his blades.” His weapons were believed to hunger for blood, and to compel their wielder to commit murder or suicide.
He started the Muramasa school, and was believed for a while to have been a student of legendary weaponsmith Masamune. That claim has since been debunked, as Muramasa crafted swords nearly 300 years after Masamune. His first signed work was dated in 1501, and by 1535, Muramasa blades were recorded in the hands of Daimyo and generals.
In 1603, his swords fell out of favor after Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun. It was said that Ieyasu lost many friends to Muramasa blades, and had cut himself badly on one, and thus forbade his samurai to wield them. Due to the stigma attached to them, this only grew Muramasa’s legend in plays, dramas, and literature. Characteristics of his blades include a unique mirror-image created by the hardening process.
3. Samuel Colt – Colt Revolver
Samuel Colt was an American inventor and industrialist. While he was an influential and innovative weapon designer in his own right, Colt was famous for being a businessman. He was like the Henry Ford of firearms. Colt was a trailblazer for assembly-line firearm production, and thus helped small arms companies become multi-national corporations.
Because of his marketing knowhow, Colt managed to bring his revolvers to unprecedented levels of commercial popularity. When he died in 1862, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. He was one of the first to use interchangeable parts, and exploit the assembly line during the Industrial Revolution.
Colt historian Herbert Houze wrote that Colt championed the concept of modernism before the word was coined, by using celebrity endorsements, commercial advertising, bribes and gifts, publicity, product sampling, and public relations.
2. John Moses Browning – Pistols, Rifles & Shotguns
American firearms designer John Moses Browning is responsible for many of the military and civilian firearms, gun mechanisms, and cartridges that are used around the world today. He is credited with 128 gun patents, made his first firearm at the age of 13, and is considered one of the most successful firearms designers of the 20th century.
Browning influenced every facet of firearms design, including inventing or improving single-shot, lever-action, and slide-action rifles and shotguns. He developed the first autoloading pistols, invented the telescoping bolt, and integrated the bolt and barrel into what is known as the pistol slide.
Browning’s telescoping design is found on nearly every modern semi-automatic pistol, and several fully-auto weapons. He developed the first gas-operated machine gun, the Colt-Browning 1895, which became the standard over mechanical recoil operation across the world. His most famous designs include the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun, the Winchester Model 1892, the Browning Hi-Power pistol, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the semi-automatic shotgun, the M1911 pistol, helping to create the Colt .45, and many more.
1. Goro Nyudo Masamune – Masamune Swords
Masamune is regarded as Japan’s greatest swordsmith, and possibly the greatest swordsmith of all time. His life and wares have gained him a legendary status around the world. He primarily created Japanese tachi and tanto – swords and daggers, respectively, in the Soshu tradition. His weapons have a reputation for superior beauty and unparalleled quality, which is remarkable because his weapons were made in a period when the steel used was often impure.
Masamune is believed to have trained a great number of swordsmiths – 15 are known, and 10 are considered the Juttetsu, or “Ten Famous Students.” A legend tells where Muramasa challenged his master, Masamune (which he never was the student of), to see who could make the better sword. They took their blades to a small creek, and Muramasa’s sword cut everything that passed: fish, leaves, the very air that blew by. Masamune lowered his sword, and waited patiently without cutting a leaf, a fish, or the air.
Muramasa scoffed at his master’s apparent lack of skill, and a passing monk came by to explain what he saw. “The first of swords was a fine sword, however it is a bloodthirsty, evil blade, and does not discriminate who or what it will cut. The second was by far the finer of the two, as it does not needlessly cut that which is innocent and undeserving.” As such, Muramasa and his swords have been called evil, while Masamune’s swords are deemed holy.
There are a few dated and signed Masamune swords owned by the Japanese government. They are all considered national treasures and priceless. The most famous of which, the Honjo Masamune, was owned by shoguns Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then Tokugawa Ieyasu, and more. Eventually, it was lost in 1945, and its whereabouts remain unknown.