Incorporating firearms into your historical novel

Cased pair of percussion pistols made by John Manton and Son, ca. 1830. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



Even if you are not writing a Western or military fiction, you may still need to research types of firearms for your historical novel.  If your prairie romance character goes out hunting to feed their family, you will want them to pick up a rifle that was available in that time period.  Or if your historical mystery involves someone getting shot, you’ll need to make sure that the firearm you choose for the deed existed at that time, and that you get the caliber correct.

Here are some print and internet resources on historical firearms to get you started in your research.  I include ISBN numbers for the books if available, to make ordering easier if you choose to purchase or request from your local library via interlibrary loan.


AGE OF FIREARMS: A PICTORIAL HISTORY, by Robert Held.  Bonanza Books, 1978 (reprint of 1957 edition).  051724666X

A history of firearms in the West from medieval times to the late 1800s.  Has black and white photos and drawings.

ANTIQUE FIREARMS, by Frederick Wilkinson.  Doubleday, 1969.  0851121640

A compilation of monographs published in one volume, with copious color and black and white illustrations.  It includes chapters on Asian, Continental, and American weapons.

BRITISH MILITARY FIREARMS, by Howard Blackmore.  Arco Publishing, 1962.

The author researched the Board of Ordinance records to write this history of British military firearms, from 1650.  Appendices give statistics like price, dimensions, etc.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RIFLES & HANDGUNS, edited by Sean Connolly.  Chartwell Books, 1995.  0785803289

“Traces the evolution of rifles and handguns, from the first clumsy weapons through all the major steps that led to their modern counterparts”–introduction.  Color photographs.

Powder horn, owned by Amos Barrett, Concord area, c. 1775, cow horn, maple – Concord Museum – Concord, MA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

FIREARMS CURIOSA, by Lewis Winant.  Bonanza Books, 1955.

If your character is a spy in a past era, this is the book to give you story ideas.  Examples of odd firearms include a pistol disguised as an umbrella, and others resembling a pipe, a belt buckle, a fork, and a bicycle handlebar.  Also included are knuckledusters, cane guns, and myriad oddities.  Black and white photos.

GUN-FOUNDERS OF ENGLAND, by Charles Ffoulkes.  George Shumway, 1996.   (original edition 1937 by Cambridge University Press).  087387031x

From late Medieval times through Wellington’s era.  Some black and white illustrations; appendix contains a timeline of important dates in British gun-founding history.


The book begins with the invention of gunpowder, so it covers firearms from the earliest times, include wheel locks, flintlocks, breech loaders, etc.   Many color photos are included.  A useful appendix contains control mark examples.  Also has an extensive bibliography.

REPEATING AND MULTI-FIRE WEAPONS: A HISTORY FROM THE ZHUGE CROSSBOW THROUGH THE AK-47, by Gerald Prederghast.  McFarland & Co., 2018.  9781476666662

Covers ancient weapons through the machine guns of World War II.  Black and white photos.

RENAISSANCE AT WAR, by Thomas F. Arnold.  Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2006.  9780060891954

This covers multiple aspects of war in Renaissance times; the section on firearms starts around page 92.  Mostly color illustrations.

RIFLES: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THEIR IMPACT, by David Westwood.  ABC Clio, 2005.  1851094016

Has black and white photos and technical drawings, and covers “how the infantry rifle first appeared and why.”—preface.  Appendix B has a lengthy list of originating countries for various types of rifles.

Flintlock blunderbuss, 1760s-1780s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

STORY OF THE GUN, by Ian V. Hogg.  A&E Books/St. Martin’s, 1996.  031214895x

“Like it or not, the gun has made the world what it is today”—p.8.  A place to start if you know little about firearms, it’s a good survey of firearms history, though a lot of the material is on military weapons.

WEAPONS: AN INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA FROM 5000 BC TO 2000 AD, by the Diagram Group.  St. Martin’s Press, 1990.  0312039514

This book covers all types of weapons; the 65 pages of chapter 3 is relevant to our topic.  Illustrations are drawings rather than photographs, but they have a lot of detail.

North America

Unidentified soldier of 1st Mississippi Cavalry Battalion in uniform and Confederate wishbone frame buckle, with 1st model Maynard carbine, LOC 9160343646, 1861-65. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO WEAPONS, by Michael Newton.  Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.  089879370x

The scope of the book is mainly the U.S.  “Intended as a manual for fiction writers who may not be ‘gun buffs’ but who care enough about their readers and their craft to strive for accuracy”—p.6.

CARBINES OF THE CIVIL WAR, 1861-1865, by John D. McAulay.  Pioneer Press, 1981.  0913159452

The title is pretty self-explanatory, intended as a guide for historians and collectors on carbines used by the Federal cavalry.

COLT GUNS, by Martin Rywell.  Pioneer Press, 1953.

Begins with a biography of Samuel Colt, and has chapters on the gun’s use in the military, types manufactured before and during the Civil War, etc. The black and white photographs are on the fuzzy side.

EARLY AMERICAN FIREARMS, by Robert Abels.  World Publishing, 1950.

A short book that covers the most important makers and better-known examples of early firearms.  Includes both color and black and white photographs.

HISTORY OF WINCHESTER FIREARMS, 1866-1966, 3rd edition, by George Watrous.  Winchester Western Press, 1966.

“Provides a continuing and comprehensive record of each model and the part it played in the establishment of Winchester’s reputation…”—preface.

THOUGHTS ON THE KENTUCKY RIFLE IN ITS GOLDEN AGE, ed. by Mary Ann Creswell et. al.  Bonanza Books, 1960.  0873870336

It contains many black and white photos.  Chapters cover the different schools of makers, such as Lancaster, Bethlehem, and Lebanon.   Page one says that the Kentucky rifle evolved from the rifle that arrived with the earliest German settlers, becoming a longer-barreled weapon, in use during the 18th and 19th centuries.

UNDERHAMMER GUNS, by Herschel C. Logan.  Stackpole Co., 1960.

Gives black and white photos of different models of firearms which had the hammer on the underside of the barrel.  Has many black and white photos.

WINCHESTER: THE GUN THAT WON THE WEST, by Harold F. Williamson.  A.S. Barnes, 1952.  0498083152

The story of the products of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in general use between the 1860s and 1940s.  An appendix has black and white photos of various models and the year they were introduced in catalogs.


Osceola in art detail from- Asseola, a Seminole leader (cropped), between 1836-1844. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are many military history/arms museum websites on the internet, but only some offer a substantial number of images.  I selected those that do, and avoided .com sites.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West (U.S.)

This page directs you to the Center’s digital collections on firearms.


This page will let you enter a search on “firearms,” “rifles,” “blunderbuss,” etc.  Some images were not available to me from outside the UK, however.


This page will take you to where you can enter a search term.  I used “firearms” and retrieved over 14,000 hits. “Flintlock” got over 1200 images.  Clicking on a thumbnail image will bring up more info about the object.


This museum in Oklahoma offers a selection of its firearms collection that can be viewed online.


This South Carolina museum offers not only historical firearm images, but also accoutrements, such as shot pouches and powder flasks.


After landing on this Australian museum’s page, click on “search.” It will then let you enter “firearms,” where I got over 300 hits on that search, and another 300+ with “rifles.”  Clicking on a thumbnail image will bring up more about the object.


Hosted by the Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council.  The site offers 16 pages of thumbnail images of various firearms, some modern and some historical.


From University of Oxford; the link takes you to a page where a search on “firearms” will bring up over 200 hits, although not all images are available.  Clicking on a thumbnail will bring up more information about the weapon, and some have a handy ruler in the image to give you a sense of scale.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

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