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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

A hunter's dream: A story about fishing reels, bows and arrows, and guns

By Paul Niemann

"Give a man a fish and he has food for a day; teach him how to fish and you can get rid of him for the entire weekend." -- Zenna Schaffer

[AUG. 17, 2006]  Since hunting season is only a couple of months away, we look at the origin of the hunter's toys: the bow and arrow and the rifle. Since I've never known a hunter who didn't also fish, we explore the origins of fishing, too.

The origins of fishing

Fishing began in the Stone Age (and a caveman called in sick the following Monday to go fishing). Before there were fishhooks and fishing string, prehistoric fishermen used spears to catch fish. Later, the more "modern" prehistoric fishermen used a gorge to catch fish. A gorge was a baited piece of bone or flint with two sharp ends and a leather line attached at the middle.

Angling, which is fishing for sport rather than for food, dates all the way back to the Old Testament. It's not known when the first basic fishing pole (without a reel) was used, but one source indicates that the Egyptians fished with rods, lines and hooks as early as 2000 B.C. The first drawing of a fishing pole was from the Orient in 1195.

In the 1650s, England's Charles Kirby developed the bent hook that we use today.

In 1820, George Snyder of Paris, Ky., became the first American to produce fishing poles with reels. Originally, the reel was used mainly for storing excess string. It's possible that the British, on "the other side of the Pond," made fishing poles with reels around the same time as Snyder, although there are no records to verify or dispute this.

Hunting with bows and arrows

Prehistoric hunters used bows and arrows thousands of years ago, possibly as far back as the first boomerang. Contrary to popular opinion, the boomerang was not effective for hunting.

The bow and arrow wasn't the first hunting tool, though, as stone axes and spears preceded it. The crossbow was invented in the Middle Ages, around the late 1500s, and its silent nature benefited hunters then as it does today. Even now there are primitive tribes of people who use bows and arrows to hunt down their meals.

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From muzzleloaders and muskets to the 21st century

Gunpowder was invented in China around 1040 for use in fireworks and rockets; it wasn't until after it arrived in Europe a couple of centuries later that it was first used in guns.

The first known reference to a gun was in 1326, although it was called a vaso because it resembled a vase. It bore no resemblance to any modern guns; in fact, it was fired like a gun but it shot an arrow rather than a bullet. Since it was called a vaso, it probably came from Italy. Early guns were fired with burning sticks or hot coals.

Shotguns were used to hunt small game as early as 1549. Single-barrel shotguns were followed by double-barrel shotguns in the late 1700s. Early muskets were muzzleloading guns that were set off with a lighted match. Muskets first appeared in the 1600s and were replaced by rifles around 1850.

Whether you hunt with a shotgun or a .22 -- a Remington, a Ruger or a Winchester -- chances are that your gun is similar to those made a hundred years ago.

My time's up. It's time to take my nephew snipe hunting.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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