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History and Evolution of Gun Magazines

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Nowadays, magazines are perceived as integral components of every firearm. Some people have a hard time imagining how guns could work without them, but they could. Magazines are by no means a recent invention and have been around for more than two centuries, but firearms are older than that. Though single-shot firearms didn’t vanish into oblivion, their multi-cartridge relatives have won the hearts of countless firearm users. But what’s the story behind gun magazines? When were they first introduced? Have they undergone any significant changes in design? Those are only some of the questions we’re going to answer today.

Table of Contents

Life Before Gun Magazines
The Origins of Gun Magazines
The Diversity of Gun Magazines

       Rotary Mags
       Box Mags
       Drum Mags
Magazine Evolution and Laws
      Gradual Changes
      High-Capacity Magazines Legislation

FIrearm without Mags

Life Before Gun Magazines

Before we proceed to discuss the history of gun magazines, we want to give a general outline of how firearms functioned before their introduction. After all, guns had been in use long before the concept of a magazine appeared. Yet, even without magazines, people invented ways to fire more than one round. 

The first firearms were muzzleloaders, meaning ammunition trapped into the firearm via the muzzle. It may seem surprising, but even this configuration allowed for loading more than one round. There were several ways of doing so. The first and most obvious one was to introduce additional barrels. Numerous double-barreled shotguns and rifles, as well as pepper-box guns of that period, illustrate this principle quite vividly. 

The other option was to make a firearm with a single barrel but multiple chambers. Revolvers are the primary example of this approach. They allow for loading several cartridges, but all ammo is loaded directly into chambers, not magazines.

Revolving Cylinder

Even though these configurations allow for shooting multiple rounds without reloading, they do so while adding significant bulk. The desire to shoot numerous cartridges from a single barrel with a single load led to the creation of superposed loads. Those were loads in which balls were placed in the barrel on top of each other, separated by powder. Each charge had a corresponding touch hole for ignition. Each ball served as a seal that prevented the ignition of the next charge.

All the firearms mentioned allowed users to shoot multiple projectiles one way or another, yet nothing but revolvers were considered repeating firearms. They lacked ammo-feeding mechanisms and separate pieces used for cartridge storage. The era of true repeating firearms began with the introduction and proliferation of magazines.

Girandoni air rifle

The Origins of Gun Magazines

A gun magazine is a piece of equipment designed for storing and feeding ammunition. As we’ve mentioned before, first guns lacked this part since all the ammunition was loaded through the muzzle directly into the chamber. But the progress was unrelenting, and repeating firearms were bound to appear sooner or later. For that to happen, ammunition-storage pieces were obligatory.

The Starting Point

Even though many prototypes were developed and discarded throughout the years, the first mass-produced magazine was introduced in 1779. It wasn’t a conventional detachable box magazine but a fixed tubular one. A standard tubular magazine consists of a tube for holding cartridges and a spring on one of the ends for pushing rounds into the chamber. They are always internal and are placed either under the barrel or in the buttstock of the firearm.

The first tubular magazine was implemented in the Girandoni air rifle and could hold as many as 20 balls. It also introduced a new way of reloading. No longer did shooters need to stand up to reload a weapon: the user could reload a gun by pulling a transverse chamber bar out of the breech and supplying a ball into it. That operation could be done in any position, which was a novelty for riflemen accustomed to muzzle-loading muskets.

Volcanic Rifle

Guns and Mags

The Girandoni air gun was the first weapon to feature a tubular magazine, but it wasn’t a firearm. It took another 75 years before a repeating firearm came into being, and the Volcanic Rifle was its name. This firearm too featured a tubular magazine, but instead of metal balls, it used an early prototype of modern cartridges. A similar build with hollow bullets – that’s what it looked like. The creators of the Volcanic rifle, Daniel Wesson (the Wesson) and Oliver Winchester, also developed a mechanism suitable for cycling this configuration: the lever action. 

The Volcanic Rifle, introduced in 1855, brought the firearm industry two game-changing innovations: a functioning tubular magazine and the lever action. Though it never became popular due to its subpar power, its influence on the industry is undeniable. The lever action accelerated the speed of operation, allowing users to extract spent cartridges and load new rounds into the chamber in a matter of seconds.

Winchester Rifle

The First Success

The Volcanic rifle was only the beginning. Polished and improved, it evolved into the Henry repeating rifle that proved to be more successful than its ancestor. It was refined by Benjamin Tyler Henry and released five years after the Volcanic rifle. The Henry repeating rifle featured a breech-loading design and used copper rimfire cartridges. It was adopted in small quantities by the North in the Civil War, but that’s not the only thing the rifle is known for. It served as a basis for the legendary gun That Won the West.

The Winchester rifle, released in 1866, was an astounding success. Being the first gun produced under the Winchester name, it greatly expanded the market of repeating firearms. The Model 1873 was particularly popular in the American West, hence the nickname. The following iterations were different from each other, but all had common features: tubular magazines and lever action. The Winchester rifle is considered an icon in the firearm world. It is also a vital milestone in gun magazine development.

Types of Gun Magazines

The Diversity of Gun Magazines

Though a tubular magazine was one of the most notable designs of the time, it didn’t have the market all to itself. New designs were introduced, and older designs were perfected. Some were popular in certain types of firearms, while others became widely-used pieces of equipment. Here’re the most popular types of gun magazines, developed in the 19th-20th centuries. 

Rotary Magazine

Rotary Magazine

The idea of a rotary magazine seems to have enlightened numerous minds, and pinpointing the exact date of its introduction is a daunting task. The early designs go back to the 1850s and 60s while the first mention of the patented rotary magazine dates back to 1885 and is attributed to Otto Schonauer. 

The feeding mechanism of a rotary magazine consists of a cylindrical sprocket rotated by a torsion spring. Cartridges are stored between the tooth bars and are fed into the chamber as the sprocket rotates. Such a mag mounts on a spindle parallel to the bore axis and feeds rounds one after another. Modern rotary magazines are usually restricted in their round capacity (10 rounds max), though the first versions could hold three times as much. 

Schonauer implemented his design in the turnbolt Mannlicher .43 caliber rifle, released in 1887. The magazine design wasn’t polished yet, so the firearm didn’t become particularly popular. The engineer corrected his shortcomings in the Model 1903, which received universal acclaim. Meanwhile, American firearm engineer Arthur Savage was working on his own design of a rotary magazine, which he patented in 1893 and used in the Savage M1894. This model had an indicator that showed the number of cartridges left in the magazine. 

As a rule, rotary magazines are installed directly into the firearm, unlike protruding box mags and drum mags. Rotary magazines were introduced as one of the solutions for replacing tubular ones. The latter were not particularly safe to use with centerfire cartridges featuring spitzer bullets (the pointed ones) that became popular in the second part of the 19th century.

Box Magazines         

Box Magazine

Box magazines won the popularity contest and became the most frequently used magazine throughout the firearm kingdom. A box mag too was designed to solve the problem of unsafe ammo storage typical for tubular magazines. The nose-to-tail storage configuration was replaced by a parallel configuration, where cartridges lay on top of each other.

There are two types of box magazines: internal (or fixed) and detachable. Both are used to this day, but detachable mags are by far the most popular type, at least for pistols and tactical rifles. 

Internal magazines are built into firearms, meaning you cannot easily detach them. They are commonly seen in bolt-action rifles and can house 5 to 10 cartridges. Internal box magazines can be reloaded manually or by using stripper clips. As a rule, they don’t have an opening for reloading, so cartridges are inserted through the action one round at a time.  

Detachable box magazines were a novelty of the time. They were the first magazines that could be removed from the firearm and loaded separately. Thus shooters could carry several preloaded mags and swiftly switch between them when needed. The majority of detachable box magazines are attached to the magazine well at the bottom of the firearm, but exceptions to this rule are quite numerous. 

The invention of a box magazine is credited with the Lee brothers, who implemented their prototype in the Lee-Metford rifle in 1878. In 1895, they released a reimagined version bearing the name Lee-Enfield. This rifle served as the primary weapon for the military forces of the British Empire throughout the first half of the 20th century. 

As for the modern-looking detachable box magazine, numerous patents appeared in the latter half of the 19th century. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that the modern completely removable box mag was introduced. It was patented for the Savage Model 99 but wasn’t used there until 1965. Once the patent expired in 1942, other firearm manufacturers adopted the features of Savage’s design.

Drum Magazine

Drum Magazines

The drum mag is the youngest of the magazine family, at the least of those types we’ve mentioned. The most prominent association of this mag is with the Thompson submachine gun known as Tommy Gun. The main benefit of a drum magazine is its increased capacity, achieved through its peculiar construction. The drum mag features a coil spring that wounds up with a key. The unwinding of a coil spring powers a spider gear assembly that pushes cartridges along a spiral path toward the feed opening. 

Drum magazines take more time to reload both because of their higher capacity and a more intricate reloading process. To replenish ammo, one needs to remove the top cover and fill every compartment proceeding from the outer ring to the inner one. The next step is to place the magazine cover back into position and wind up the key up to a certain number of clicks, depending on the magazine’s capacity. 

Though the very first revolving drum magazine was patented in 1853, its modern-looking variety didn’t appear until 1915. The latter was designed for submachine guns known for their high fire rate. Today, drum mags are widely used by military and civilian shooters who value increased capacity.

Evolution of Gun Magazines

Magazine Evolution and Laws

Gradual Changes

The development of magazines went hand in hand with that of firearms. The advancement of manufacturing equipment and techniques allowed engineers to experiment with forms and configurations. Casket, horizontal, pan and helical magazines – the family of ammunition-holders expanded greatly.

The pull of materials has also changed. The dominance of metal alloys was challenged by the advancement of polymers. Metal magazines didn’t disappear, but their unconditioned superiority became a thing of the past. Polymer gun magazines brought much-needed lightness and resistance to corrosion. 

High-Capacity Magazines Legislation

High-capacity magazines are by no means a novelty – the very idea behind the creation of magazines was to shoot as many rounds without recharging as possible. Many iconic American rifles, including AR-15 and Ruger 10/22, feature magazines with a capacity exceeding ten cartridges. But there are two sides to each coin. When in the wrong hands, high-capacity firearms can inflict irreparable damage and claim many lives. Laws are introduced to prevent this, but they also inevitably affect regular law-abiding citizens.

As of January 2023, fourteen states and the District of Columbia have laws restricting the sale and possession of high-capacity magazines. The threshold is ten rounds – everything above is considered high-capacity. The prohibited acts vary across the states, but the majority of them ban the manufacture, sale, transfer, and possession of high-capacity mags. Act like transportation, importation, bartering, and gifting are prohibited in some of those states. These bans are often accompanied by bans on assault weapons – military-style firearms designed for firing numerous rounds in rapid succession. The two measures are aimed at decreasing the number and lethality of mass shootings and violent crimes. But the efficiency of these policies remains a debatable question.

High-Capacity Magazines


Gun magazines have been a vital part of the firearm industry for almost 250 years, though invention attempts go even further than that. Within this time, the sapling grew into a sturdy tree with a plenitude of branches. The concept of a gun magazine was reimagined many times, and all those designs proved to be a reliable base for today’s magazine market, plentiful and varied. Detachable magazines are one of the most produced firearm parts, and their number keeps growing year after year. Despite the restriction imposed in several states, high-capacity magazines remain a significant part of the magazine family. The future of gun magazines is closely intertwined with that of firearms. It is within our power to make it bright for everyone.

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