A History of Ergonomics in Firearm Design

posted on December 2, 2019

Coined from the Greek words “ergon” (work) and “nomos” (natural laws) by Polish professor Wojciech Jastrzebowski in 1857, it took a British Admiralty meeting that officially accepted the term “ergonomics” almost 100 years later before it became marketing mantra. Some industries blur the definition, but it’s always been a critical component in firearm design—and the tradition thrives to this day.

Roughly translated from the original English, Newton defined recoil about 300 years after the initial development of firearms,” Phil Schreier, senior curator for NRA Museums explained. “The original mathematical formula reads: Bang + Boom = Ouch.”

Joking aside, the pain was serious in early guns. “The first firearms were designed to be held tight against the sternum of one’s chest when fired,” Schreier said. “Not surprisingly, firearm designs quickly evolved to find areas of the body to absorb the recoil that were less susceptible to heart failure.

“The shoulder or outstretched arm were found to be suitable substitutes,” he added, “and for the last 650 years, designers have tried to find ways to lessen felt recoil.”

Recoil is only a fraction of an equation, though. “From the dropcomb stocks of the American Longrifle to the perfectly balanced Luger P-08, ergonomics has been as high a concern on the minds of designers as has been accuracy and range,” Schreier added.

FN America has a storied history of fine firearm design. The company’s success includes unfailing emphasis on reliability and performance, yet attention to the smallest details.

“The FN 509 was originally developed for the Modular Handgun System competition, where the Army wanted the gun to fit various hand sizes, from smallest to largest,” explained Tom Victa, FN America pistol product manager. “So, obviously ergonomics was a big concern, but it was not the sole focus in development.”

Despite the modesty, the list of improvements is long. “We placed a lot of emphasis on the grip textures in the FN 509,” he said. “We’ve made improvements to the frontstrap, included grip texture where your support hand rests, reduced material in and around the beavertail for a better reach and more.

“We’ve also made additional updates to the slide stop and the magazine release in the FN 509 Tactical to make them easier to engage,” Victa said. “And we’ve implemented a flatter-faced trigger in the FN 509 Midsize.” The improvements can be retroactively applied to first-generation models. 

How did FN determine what to change on a contender for the Army’s MHS contract? “We believe the key to delivering ergonomic improvements is understanding your customer and what they want,” he explained. “Therefore, we seek feedback from users to influence future updates.”

It’s no accident LWRCI’s Diadem is a huge hit with female shooters. “We worked closely with The Well Armed Woman organization,” explained  David Golladay, director of marketing for LWRCI. “More than 150 Well Armed Women participated in a range and product development session. Fit, features, feel, weight and rail length were all areas covered—with 90 percent of the answers pointing to ergonomics.

“They did not want a special color when coming up with a ladies’ model,” he explained. “These Well Armed Women wanted all of the features, functions, look and feel of the MSR sold to men, but essentially sized to their female specifications. Lighter weight, slimmer rails, comfortable stock and easy access to controls…in other words, design ergonomics of the rifle were critical.”


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