Tang dynasty Chinese alchemists began heating and mixing minerals and metals in order to find, just like their Western counterparts, a method of synthesizing gold; they were looking not for wealth, but a method of extending life, and the secret to immortality, adhered to a belief that gold created from myriad elements had life-giving powers, enough to stop Death in its tracks. What they found in 850AD, among a lot of very toxic concoctions, was an explosive mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter; the discovery shortly destroyed the alchemists’ workshop, burning the discoverer; a Promethean warning. By 904AD, Song dynasty armies began stuffing reinforced gourds with gunpowder and lead balls, strapping them to long lances, and blasting each other…the gun was invented.
By 1127, the perfection of the gunpowder recipe (exactly as used today) meant reinforced wooden blast-tubes shattered; soon cast bronze mini-cannons aided warlords in dis-assembling peasants. The oldest extant ‘hand-cannon’ dates from 1288, the Yuan dynasty, and the ‘secret unto death’ recipe for gunpowder leaked to Europe at the same time, likely by conquering Mongol Khans bent on subduing Europe. Genghis found it ‘easy to conquer on horseback, but difficult to Rule’, and harder still to keep guns out of European hands.
Those earliest guns are crude, ugly, and plain. No skill was required, none was rewarded, there was no sport at all in the practice, while the gunner’s trademarks - sulfur, smoke, crackling flashes, and misery - tattooed them as the Devil’s companions. It took refinement of the killing device before it deserved embellishment, and by 1375, the matchlock gun made accurate two-handed shooting possible, and with the joy of noisily launching projectiles at strangers (or cousins), affection for the lethal instrument grew, the love accompanied by increasingly lavish décor by wealthy owners. The firestick became glittering and beautiful, much like Eve’s snake, and as easily mistaken for a giver of good advice. ‘Et in Arcadia ego’, quoth the rifle in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridien’, mingling lamentation and threat: Satan once lived in paradise, and will gladly embrace you too, via arms. The magical power of life, sought by the alchemists, is inverted by their dark accident, and, dusting away layers of argument, the use of a gun has always been to kill something, or someone.
The gun-as-machine was hand-crafted until the 1800s, its fit and finish dependent on the maker’s skill, with the very best craftsmen inevitably arming the rich. Such gents worked in concert with metal artisans capable of transforming a plain steel tool into a work of fine art; hammer-locks bore dragon heads, gods frolicked on stocks, gilt stars on blackened barrels swore eternal night, and delivered. The Golden Age of gun décor peaked mid-19th century, before mass-produced Colts with steel-rolled patterning wet the picnic, and the grand tradition of pretty guns became increasingly rare.
A cadre of craftsmen brought hand-building out of extinction in the 20th century, but decorated weapons passed out of royal hands, to the new Lords, as in drug- and war-, whose vulgar embrace of the gilded gun reveals a potent mix of old ingredients; the promise of death to maintain power over the living, the urge for talismans against a nasty, brutish, and short existence, plus an egoists love for flash and sparkle as blinding cover for the ugliness of their endeavor. In Mexico, fantastically lurid pistols and automatics, captured and presented by Federales in their usual failed warning, sit gleaming, fascinating, on confiscation tables: pistol butts graced with diamond Cholos or Virgins, Aztec jaguar stocks, old-school floral engraved and no-school gold-plated. These vulgar gems were clutched in life for protection against the very Devil’s instrument they held, and when diamond pavé failed to stop supersonic lead, it was not the Virgin whose hand they held, not even their mother’s, but the gun itself remained, their only comfort as they lay bleeding in a perforated and smoldering Chevy Suburban… the Faustian bargain fulfilled. A pretty gun gives poor advice, but a wise man understands its beauty, and the alchemical mistake which gave it power.
This article appears in Men's File #6 .
Copyright 2012 Paul d'Orléans