Chapter 1
Weapon History Prior to Gunpowder

Primitive Beginnings

The club was so universally employed by primitive man that, although originally intended as a tool for providing food and collecting wives, it can be considered the ancestor of all weapons of war. It has been a companion arm of man, in one form or another, since the beginning of time. Today, as a reminder of its once devastating force, it is used as a symbol representing the highest authority, i.e., the field marshal's baton and the emperor's scepter—a tribute to the man who best wields the club.

It was indeed an eventful day when prehistoric man stepped from the path of his upward climb for the purpose of starting the world's second oldest profession—that of making war upon is fellow man. In fact, those who have made a study of the causes of conflict insinuate that the second profession probably arose from a disagreement over an incident involving the first.

Waiting in ambush with a club, the first aggressor little dreamed he was setting the tragic pattern of later generations which, marveling at their own cleverness, underestimate their opponent's ability to devise a defense in an emergency. He felt secure in his ability to annihilate his enemy with one blow. His own hunting skill was unexcelled, his club combined many improvements of which his fathers had never dreamed, and the object of his wrath was approaching unaware of danger. It is easy to picture the utter surprise of this early tactician when his intended victim survived the initial assault. Driven more by self-preservation than forethought, the latter made a successful escape by evasive action and the use of entirely new principle of attack—throwing rocks.

Having to retreat before the rain of missiles, the aggressor realized that new dangers now lay his every movement if the enemy was not promptly destroyed. He gathered his relatives to witness that he had been unfairly attacked and to convince them that the security of all rested on their ability to help him eliminate the menace.

The adversary likewise had friends and relatives, who banded together on hearing of their clansman's attempted annihilation and his successful counter-attack. Sensing danger, and realizing that a new weapon was at their disposal, they moved to high ground, where they could observe the approaching foe and throw down rocks or roll boulders on him.

These simple acts cover all the basic arts known and practiced in warfare today. The most important was the employment of missiles for the first time as a weapon. Man has traveled far along the path of progress. He has found occasion to pause more times than civilization would care to admit, in order to seize, save, or sanctify those things of his neighbor which he deemed worthy of the effort. However, he has yet to achieve the mental capacity to replace, either in conquest or defense, the earliest of his discoveries—the missile weapon.

True, throughout the centuries countless man hours and sums of money have been expended to break away from this mode of lethal delivery. However, the result has been only a refinement-evolutionary, but in no sense revolutionary.

Even the club did not remain unchanged. Man, in his unholy desire to conquer, made early refinements. In the stone age, for instance, a rock with a sharp edge was fastened to his club to form an ax. When iron or copper was first smelted, a metal spear blade added much to the cutting and puncturing ability of the club. It soon evolved into a very versatile instrument that could kill a man by three methods—cutting, concussion, or perforation. These techniques have remained basic throughout the years. The double-edged Battleaxe with a pike on the blade end and a spiked ball secured by a short chain to


the rear of the handle represents the last word in the development of the club from a single-purpose bone-crushing affair to a tri-method instrument of death.

The discovery that under the influence of heat metals could be cast and worked into different forms not only brought about an improvement in club design but opened the avenue for other types of weapons, already thought of, but heretofore found impracticable because of lack of appropriate materials. The best example of this type is the knife.

When the possibilities of metal-working were realized, knives and daggers appeared in thousands of shapes—short and long, blunt and sharp, heavy cleavers, and long slim rapier blades. All continued to be produced in endless procession. The finest art known to metalwork can be found in the early elaborate designs and scrollwork on the knife and sword. In an attempt to beautify the finished product, inlays of precious stones and pictorial scenes carved on the handles and blades were common.

The origin of our present metallurgy begins with man's efforts to temper the cutting edge of his weapons. Nothing was left undone in his constant experimentation—including quenching the red-hot blade in a living human body, in the belief that the blood gave the blade a superior cutting power.

Each of the many designs was for a specific purpose. The dagger originated as a weapon to be inserted through the vulnerable joints and openings in armor. The broad sword was short, wide, and sharp on both edges, and was used like a cleaver to split an enemy down the middle. Later swords were again narrowed and straightened for use in thrusting, to take the place of the powerful slicing stroke.

The Far East contributed the scimitar with its crescent-shaped blade sharpened on one side only. The curve added much to the slicing power. And in due time its influence reached Europe to be incorporated in the cavalry saber with its long single-edged blade slightly curved.

The First Projectile Throwers

Projectile-throwing devices were developed also and used in conjunction with the club and knife. From the first rock throwing and rolling came the sling, bow, and catapult.

The bow is one of the earliest projectile throwers devised by man. Some insist it preceded the sling, and attempt to substantiate their claim by the pictures of bows drawn by the prehistoric hunter-artists in the caves of southern France and Cantabria in the tenth millenium B.C. However, there are others who contend the cavemen-cartoonists were merely depicting better weapons than the slings of their forefathers.

The sling in its simplest form is thought to have come from the observation that when a stone was attached to a club or bludgeon and came loose as the club was swung, it traveled a much greater distance than if thrown by hand.

The Phoenicians were credited by ancient writers with invention of the sling. These inhabitants of the Balearic Isles used leaden projectiles with a purported range of over 600 yards. Ancient Egyptian and Assyrian soldiers also used slings.

In 1062 B.C. David of Israel used one to defeat Goliath of Gath. However, David's accomplishment in overcoming the giant, with the resulting destruction of the Philistine army by King Saul's men, was only secondary to the military lesson pointed out by his actions preceding the battle. His handling of the problem was perfect. Seeing that he was outclassed by his opponent in the application of orthodox warfare, he chose the weapon that best utilized his skill, and calmly decided on the number of missiles he could carry without impairing his mobility and the correct caliber to destroy completely his opponent with one direct hit. He then confidently carried the fighting to the enemy.

Nor was David's act an isolated case of marksmanship, in which luck played more part than skill. The Bible also credits to the tribe of Benjamin phenomenal accuracy with this weapon: "Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men left-handed; every one could sling a stone at an hair and not miss."

The Roman Legions called the slingman the "funditor," and considered him an integral part of the army. The slingman continued long after his legendary acts had been outmoded in distance and accuracy by the innovation of me-


mechanical means of propulsion. It was finally recognized that human muscle had reached its limit. The sling's last major military appearance was during the Huguenot Wars.

Among the hand projectile-launchers, however, the bow served man more efficiently than anything of a similar nature. The earliest ones were generally made from any tough straight-grained wood that would bend and snap smartly forward, without having a tendency to break. A cord of sinew, gut, or hemp kept the bow in graceful arc, and served as the agent for transmitting the stored energy of the bow. Arrows were originally long thin tubular pieces of wood tipped with chipped stone. A small group of feathers on the aft end tended to keep the arrow on its true course to the target. Some of the achievements credited to bows and arrows are almost unbelievable.

The constant search to better his existing weapons led the prehistoric warrior to experiment with the construction of bows. The horns of animals were steamed and cut into strips. They were then dried, glued, and scraped into the desired shape. In addition to laminated horn, combinations of woods and the ribs of animals were used. They were wrapped with strips of inner tree bark, or animal gut, in the belief that greater throwing power was given.

The most popular and efficient was a plain solid wood affair, sometimes tipped with horn to prevent splitting, and to facilitate removing or replacing the bowstring. The choice of wood depended on geographical location, as every section had varieties that adequately met the needs of the early bow maker.

The idea of a more powerful weapon to outrange the bow and sling, received serious constructive study in the East during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. According to the Bible, Uzziah, who reigned from 808 to 756 B.C., "made in Jerusalem engines invented by cunning men, to be in the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal." Ezekiel records that Nebuchadnezzar in besieging Tyre set engines of war against the walls. This siege took place at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.

The Greeks were slower to adopt such improvements. Diodorus records an expedition of Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, against the Carthaginians in 397 B.C.: "The Syracusians . . . killed great numbers of the enemy by their sharp arrows, shot out of their engines of battery." From Syracuse the war engine was introduced into Greece.

Dionysius also attempted to improve upon the single bow by inventing a weapon called the Polybolus, or repeater thrower, which projected a succession of arrows supplied from a kind of magazine. This is the first recorded example of a mechanical means of sustained fire, giving the soldier who operated it the firepower of several men. There was an interval of thirteen centuries before another advance in fire power warrants mention. At the Battle of Hastings a few archers were equipped with a mechanical bow arrangement designed to discharge several arrows at a time.

"Engines of War," mentioned by Biblical and classical writers, usually were variations of the catapult and the ballista. The first was for high, and the second for low, angle fire. In either case the propelling force was transmitted by tightly twisted skeins of hemp, hair, or sinews. (Replicas of these instruments have been made, but the method of maintaining the elasticity of the sinew remains unsolved.)

The origin of the catapult seems to have been a bent-over, forked sapling for hurling rocks. However, this idea was improved till it became a bulwark in offensive and defensive warfare.

A heavy wooden framework carried strong rope strands across the base. Into these twisted ropes went the tossing beam, with a cuplike holder at the top. Winches pulled back the thrower, twisting the rope so that a great force was stored as in an elastic cord or spring. When released, the throwing beam whirled up and forward, struck against the brake timber, and tossed its rock from the cup a few hundred yards. Catapults were not very accurate, but a battery of them could pound a wall or fort to dust in a few days.

The scorpion type catapult is described by the historian Amianus Marcellinus (A. D. 400): "In the middle of the ropes (twisted skein) rises a wooden arm like a chariot pole. . . . To the top of the arm hangs a sling. . . . When battle


A Spring Engine.

is commenced a round stone is placed in the sling . . . four soldiers on each side of the engine wind the arm down till it is almost level with the ground. . . . When the arm is set free it springs up and hurls forth from its sling the stone, which is certain to crush whatever it strikes." This engine was called a scorpion because of its shape.

The sling on the scorpion added greatly to the range of the catapult. The maximum distance for a round stone weighing one talent (approximately 58 pounds) was recorded at 400 yards. Ranges varied up to 800 yards depending on the weight of the missile used. The projectiles were not always stones that had been rounded. Sometimes they were pebbles molded with clay into balls and baked to a pottery finish. These shattered upon impact, throwing fragments which the enemy could not reuse in his own machines.

Medieval Instruments of War

The trebuchet was a medieval contribution to the rock-throwing devices. It got its power, not from a taut cord or twisted rope, but from a heavy counterweight. The throwing beam was swiveled on a strong axle near the top of the framework. The bottom carried heavy weights and the top a throwing cup. Winches pulled back the top so that the bottom weight moved up and forward. Upon release, the weighted beam swung down like a huge pendulum. The top struck the brake beam, and the rock was hurled in the general direction of the enemy's fortifications.

These siege engines threw other missiles besides stones and javelins. They threw millstones, flaming projectiles, putrid corpses, and live men. A dead horse in the last stage of decomposition bundled up and shot by a trebuchet into a town


A Catapult for Slinging Stones
A Catapult for Slinging Stones.

The Trebuchet
The Trebuchet.


The Ballista
The Ballista.

of which the defenders were half dead with starvation, started a pestilence.

The ballista usually consisted of a sturdy framework which held a horizontal bow of strong laminated wood. From its ends extended a heavy cord of hemp or gut which was pulled back by winches until a very heavy tension was obtained. The gut string worked in a grooved frame into which a javelin 10 or 12 feet long was placed. When the release allowed the arms to snap forward, the javelin was driven 450 to 500 yards with a tremendous force and unusual accuracy for this type of weapon.

Another form of ballista used twisted rope made from hair and sinew for elasticity. Even small engines of this type with 2-foot arms and 4-inch ropes could throw a 1-pound round stone 300 to 350 yards.

An improved arrangement of the ballista had an upright frame carrying two pairs of vertical ropes which, when twisted, furnished the necessary energy. A wooden piece was thrust between each pair of ropes forming the two arms of the bow. These were connected at their other ends by a bowstring. A slotted stock in the frame served as a guide along which the bowstring propelled the missile (either bolt or ball). Tension was applied by a winch.

One type of ballista employed an oversized bow laid horizontally and cocked mechanically. This heavy device was much older than the


A Heavy German Crossbow and a Cranequin for Cocking
A Heavy German Crossbow and a Cranequin for Cocking.

individual soldier's crossbow, that it so closely resembled. The latter was an eleventh century adaptation of the larger weapon, combining the basic working principles of the bow and catapult and reducing the size and weight until it could be operated by a single soldier.

Norman artisans are credited with invention of the crossbow. Its use was general throughout the armies of Europe after its introduction, but it was by no means looked upon with favor by all the rulers of the time. Pope Innocent II in 1139, after the Second Lateran Council, called it "a most barbarous and cruel weapon" and forbade its use among warring Christian nations under penalty of anathema as "a weapon hateful to God and unfit for Christians." The hiring of foreign crossbowmen was also prohibited by the Magna Charta. However, its use in war against the infidels had the blessings of the Church. As a weapon it was much admired by Richard Cœur de Lion. On his crusade gainst the unbelievers he took a thousand crossbowmen with him. After he popularized it, the crossbow came into general use in all European armies in spite of anathema. Therefore, Richard's death from a crossbow quarrel was considered a judgment from heaven, for he had championed a weapon that could "proletarianize war."

Although England gave the crossbow the needed stimulus to overcome the objections of the Church, it was the first country to realize its military shortcomings. As a weapon it was secondary to the simpler and more powerful longbow. Therefore, the crossbow was replaced quickly in England by the latter.

A Crossbow with Magazine Feed
A Crossbow with Magazine Feed.

The English longbow, which gained prevalence in the fourteenth century, is considered the highest degree of refinement of the bow. It was used effectively, and with fair accuracy, at ranges of 600 to 800 yards. The phenomenal success of the English archer was no matter of chance but the result of deliberate planning.

From the reign of Edward I (1271-1307) to the sixteenth century, there were placed in the English code statutes which later became known as the Archery Laws. These compelled every male citizen from 12 to 60 years of age, except nobility, to practice with a longbow on Sundays and holidays. Archery ranges were erected in every town at community expense; and the village officials were charged with providing equipment, and with the planning of community meets.

During this period the design of the longbow was standardized. Specifications stated that it must be constructed of elm, 6 feet 4 inches in length, and capable of driving "an arrow at a hundred yards through a 4-inch oak door until the arrow and shaft protruded from the other side the width of a hand's breadth." A fair price was also set to encourage ownership. A plain bow could be purchased for one shilling. A painted bow cost 1 shilling and 6 pence. Standard arrows three feet long were furnished at a rate of two dozen for 1 shilling and 2 pence.

One has only to read early English history to realize the important part these laws played


in building the English archer into the most respected soldier of his day. The outline of the longbow can be seen clearly in the colorful chapters of continuous conflict with the best armies central Europe could muster.

The Battle of Crecy, fought on 26 August 1346, represents the peak efficiency of the longbow as a military weapon. The English army, commanded by Edward III (1327-77), was outnumbered 4 to 1. Yet, it routed and practically annihilated the powerful army of Philip VI of Valois. The perfect marksmanship of the English longbowmen maintained throughout the battle a superiority of fire of ten arrows against one from the crossbows of Philip's Genoese. It was common for the expert English archers to have three arrows in the air at one time from the same bow. Not only did they have a higher rate of fire, but they greatly outranged Philip's soldiers. The English arrows easily pierced the light armor of the French horsemen, upon whose charges Philip had relied to bring him ultimate victory. Although the cavalry made 16 attempts to break the English lines, not one attack was even partially successful. The battle lasted only a few hours, but the English bowmen pumped volley after volley of arrows into the hapless French forces, until they were a struggling mass of wounded horse and foot soldiers trying to escape.

This state of affairs allowed the English to massacre them. A fair picture of the deadliness of the bow in the hands of these skilled longbowmen can be drawn from the fact that of the 40,000 men in King Philip's original army, over 20,000 were casualties in one form or another. The English losses were listed as negligible, in the amount of 50 men.

With the overwhelming victory at Crecy, the English longbow was firmly established as the paramount military weapon of the day. The English army, as a result, enjoyed its greatest reputation throughout Europe. The French, in justifiable alarm, sought the services of Italian metalsmiths to design coats-of-mail capable of resisting the penetrating powers of the high-velocity longbow arrows.

At the Battle of Auray, in 1365, the French and English again met under conditions somewhat similar to Crecy. However, this time the French felt secure in their new armor. It took but a short time for the English to discover that their formerly lethal arrows were being deflected harmlessly to the ground. They also observed, in an equally short time, that while the French soldier had protected himself against the arrow's, he had done so at the expense of mobility. Each individual was so loaded with his own armor that movement was very difficult. The English promptly threw down their longbows, not in disgust, but because they sensed an easier solution to the work at hand. They advanced boldly on their stiffly encased foes, and seizing the Frenchmen's own axes and pikes, they beheaded and bludgeoned thousands, inflicting losses that were even greater in comparison than those at Crecy. Oddly enough, the reputation of the longbow was even more enhanced by this fact. For, it was quickly realized throughout the military world that to protect oneself adequately against longbow arrows required wearing such cumbersome armor that the wearer would be exposed to almost certain death from other means.

It can safely be said that the bow was the first-line instrument of war for several thousand years. But never in all history has the skill of the English archer of the fourteenth century been closely approached.


Chapter 2
Firearm Development to Percussion Ignition

Origins of Gunpowder

Strange as it may seem, the Battle of Crecy, which showed the longbow at its best, was also the scene of an incident that sounded the death knell, not only of the bow, but of all merely mechanical means of missile propulsion. This battle saw the first recorded use of artillery in an engagement between major armies and heralded explosives as a means of missile propulsion. However, the justified praise of the longbow was so great at this time that were it not for the meticulous writings of a few historians of the day, it would have gone unnoticed that Edward III employed stampede cannon on his flanks. These devices represented artillery in its crudest form, and were mainly used, as the name implies, to scare the enemy's horses and strike terror into the untrained foot soldier. Missile throwing ability was secondary. Earliest cannon design appeals to have been that of an iron tube incased in wood to give it further support, and still keep it light. The explosive was a crude black powder to which generally was added various kinds of wax. the mixture being made into balls. The balls, when discharged, produced an effect somewhat like an oversized Roman candle. The cannon's front end was supported by a metal fork and, to take care of recoil, the butt simply was placed against a convenient knoll. Firearm development stems from this modest beginning.

Just as human muscle had its limitation, so did the awkward and bulky mechanical missile throwers, which in turn gave way to a newer more efficient means for waging war; namely, the chemically stored energy called gunpowder.

That the Chinese knew of gunpowder centuries before, there is no doubt. Their Gentoo Code of Laws, credited with having been written about the time of Moses, contains a thought-provoking section which has been translated as follows:

"The Magistrate will not make war with any deceitful machine, or poisonous weapons, or with cannon or guns, or any kind of firearms."

With the first application of gunpowder to propel a missile, the technological phase of warfare begins and human elements, both physical and moral, are minimized, intellect alone remaining supreme. This has done more to democratize fighting than any other event in history.

While a natural interest is attached to the antiquity of any material which so revolutionized warfare, yet the actual date of the discovery is of little military significance compared to that of its first use as a fuel for the engines of war.

Both Roger Bacon and Barthold Schwartz, a German monk, are erroneously credited with the discovery of gunpowder. Their contribution was the preparation of explosive mixtures. Gunpowder, as such, did not exist till the mixtures were applied to the propelling of missiles.

Roger Bacon describes black powder in his Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and Nature, and Concerning the Nullity of Magic (1252). This document was addressed by the author to a high official of the church and was written to defend himself against the charge that he had been devoting too much time to magic and the practice of black arts.

He pointed out that many phenomena commonly attributed to magic are due only to the operations of nature. He further fortified his position by referring to many natural things which are understood by a chosen few, but considered marvelous by others: "For, regardless of the power of Nature, Art using Nature for an instrument is more powerful by virtue of this fact."

Bacon spoke of the simple deceits which are practiced by jugglers and ventriloquists, and commented that "popular opinion does anything that men wish it to do, so long as men are agreed about it.


"In addition to these marvels, there are certain others which do not involve particular constructions. We can prepare from saltpeter and other materials an artificial fire which will burn at whatever distance we please . . . Beyond these are still other stupendous things in Nature. For the sound of thunder may be artificially produced in the air with greater resulting horror than if it had been produced by natural causes. A moderate amount of the proper material, of the size of a thumb, will make a horrible sound and violent coruscation."

Bacon speaks also of the purification of saltpeter by dissolving the salt into water, and boiling until the scum has risen to the top. The scum is then removed and the solution is allowed to crystallize. The mother liquid is evaporated for another crop of crystals, which are then piled up in a warm place to dry. Such was the method of refining the basic ingredient of black powder by Roger Bacon (1219-92) in his half magical laboratory.

Without saltpeter there could have been no refined gunpowder. As there is no mention of it before the thirteenth century, it is quite possible that Bacon discovered its absolute importance in the chemical mixture of "seven parts of saltpeter, five of young hazelwood (charcoal), and five of sulphur." This was the standard military formula for many years following the Epistolae de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae et de Nullitate Magiae.

Although Bacon suggests several military uses for his explosive (for instance, "an enemy might be either blown up bodily or put to flight by the terror caused by the explosion"), there was nothing to be found in any of his writings to show he ever once contemplated its use as a missile-throwing agent. The identity of the individual who first thought of propelling a projectile through a tube from the force generated by gunpowder still remains a mystery.

An Arabic document dated 1304 mentions a mortar type cannon. Two records at Ghent dated 1313 and 1314 also refer to such weapons. Christ Church of Oxford, England, owns an illuminated manuscript which pictures the early "dart-throwing vase," or "pot-de-fer." This weapon was used in the siege of Metz (1324) and by Edward III in Scotland in 1327. (But stampede cannon were recognized by Edward III to be of more tactical value.)

The German monk, Barthold Schwartz, of Cologne (1310-84), has often been credited with originating gunpowder. He undoubtedly invented a system for casting bronze cannon, and established a workshop in Venice in 1377. He was ordered put to death by the Venetian Senate for insisting he be paid for his work on cannon design.

Schwartz's experiments with cannon and the art of casting naturally brought him into constant contact with the unrefined mixtures that were used to load the weapons. He even made attempts to better the concoctions. On one occasion these efforts resulted in an explosion that almost completely demolished his crude laboratory. From this and other stories arose the belief that he discovered gunpowder.

The Uffizi Museum in Florence is credited with having formerly possessed a picture by Giacomo Crespi (late fifteenth century artist) which showed Schwartz in his laboratory with many workmen making powder. The existence of this painting has been questioned, although it has been used as evidence by many gunpowder historians. However, any artist depicting a historical character, predating him by a century, must necessarily use imagination. Such a work cannot be considered as documentary evidence. Schwartz never claimed to have originated gunpowder or firearms, but he did attempt to improve both.

Between 1345 and 1349 the Wardrobe Account of Edward III of England carries an entry crediting one Thomas of Roldeston for work on the king's guns and for 912 pounds of saltpeter and 886 pounds of live sulphur. This tends to show that other craftsmen were working on gunpowder as a propelling charge in guns before Schwartz opened his workshop in Venice.

Early Multibarrel Firearms

In 1339 mention is first made of a new type of firearm called the "ribauld" or "ribauldequin." This was a primitive multibarrel affair that consisted of several iron tubes, so arranged as to be fired simultaneously. Its purpose was to blast an opening in the solid rank of heavily armored


Early Chinese Organ Gun
An Early Chinese Organ Gun.

pikemen who were supposed to keep the cavalry from the bowmen.

In one of England's wars with France, Edward III used this weapon to good advantage in conjunction with his battle-tested stampede cannon. For, even at this early date, the theory of volume fire was being considered by the military.

The desire for a multifiring weapon predated the first use of gunpowder in battle. The various experiments to accomplish this end have led, over the years, to an epidemic of designs, all of which were to serve but one purpose—to fire a volley of balls in the direction of the enemy, and to do so repeatedly with the employment of a minimum number of soldiers.

One of the most progressive types of firearms in the fourteenth century was a wrought iron single-shot breech-loading gun, the breech of which was wedged after being dropped into position. The principle was somewhat the same as the present-day system of locking. It is a curious fact that gunmakers should have developed so advanced a method of charging and then abandoned it in favor of the inferior muzzle loading.

Considering the crude work of the fourteenth century mechanic, the religious restrictions of the times, and the total ignorance of metallurgy in relation to powder pressure, the progress in firearms was comparatively rapid.

In those days of muzzle-loading battery guns, the universal method of placing the barrels in stacks side by side in a frame led these assemblies to be called "organ guns" or "orgues des bombardes."

The iron ball missile that came into use in 1381 to replace the pebbles and rounded stones, was considered the answer to the armored foot soldier. The attempts to deliver these missiles in a concentrated area led to the many types of early battery guns.

In 1382 the army at Ghent had 200 "chars de cannon" in the field. These weapons consisted of a number of barrels fastened horizontally on two-wheeled carts with pikes and heavy sharp blades attached to the hubs as a further lethal garnishment. In 1411 the Burgundian army had 2,000 of these weapons.


Volley-Firing Guns Designed by Leonardo da Vinci
Volley-Firing Guns Designed by Leonardo da Vinci.


A more elaborate design having 144 barrels was constructed in 1387. These were grouped in batteries, allowing 12 salvos of 12 balls each to be fired against the enemy.

Regardless of the clumsy mounting and great transportation difficulties of the organ gun, the demand for fire power, even then, led to their use in many theaters of operation. The Venetian general, Colleoni, employed the "orgues des bombardes" as a mobile auxiliary in connection with his armored cavalry at the battle of Piccardini (Picardy) in 1457. Pedro Navarro also used this weapon against the French, by placing 30 carts of multibarrel guns in front of his foot soldiers.

Yet, the development of powder-propelled missiles was not exclusively a Christian project. An infidel is known as the first great gunner of history. Mohammed II (1451-81) in his conquest of Constantinople (1453) recognized the advantages of a new weapon. Fabulous accounts state the largest of his cannon threw 1,200-pound stones having a diameter of 30 inches. This weapon was called a bombard and needed between 50 and 70 oxen to transport it while 400 men were required to attend it. The rate of fire was seven rounds a day, two hours being required for reloading. Some authorities credit as many as 13 of these monstrosities to Mohammed II's artillery, which included 14 batteries and 50-odd cannon of assorted sizes and shapes. But, whatever the statistics, it is claimed that this was the first use of cannon as the principal weapon in an engagement between major armies.

On good authority, Louis XII (1498-1515) is said to have employed a gun having 50 barrels, so arranged that all of them could be fired in one volley.

As a whole, early multifiring weapons could be termed only a moderate success. They were extremely heavy and clumsy to handle. While all the barrels could either be fired at once or in rapid succession, the advantage of momentary Volume of fire thus attained was soon canceled out by the long periods of inaction caused by the need to muzzle-load each individual barrel. This inability to deliver sustained fire restricted its use to supporting or auxiliary employment. But at a critical point in battle, one could be maneuvered into a position where a concentrated blast would have a serious effect. In order that all barrels be fired simultaneously, or as nearly so as possible, the train of ignition from one barrel to another was shortened. This was about the only refinement attempted on these weapons.

The most notable accomplishment along this line was done by the great Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who designed a fan-shaped affair that more than cut in half the distance between touch holes. Study of other multibarrel weapons contemplated by da Vinci, shows he had in mind a way to drop the breech on the weapon for rear-end loading with some crude sort of fixed ammunition. No doubt the problem of ignition was his main stumbling block.

Improvements in Ignition

From an historical point of view the development of powder has closely followed the improvements of ignition. The first practical system of ignition was a manually applied slow-match, or fuse. A touch hole was first primed with a finely granulated powder and, when ready, the gunner made contact with the primer, by using a live ember or the burning end of an impregnated piece of twisted jute.

The period from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth century may be called the slow-match era. Some improvements were made to this haphazard form of ignition, such as putting the slow match in a crooked arm that could be made to dip into the priming pan when the trigger was actuated. The touch hole also was moved from the top to the side of the barrel, to take it out of the line of sight. None of the so-called

Three-Barrel Match Lock. Barrels are Revolved by Hand
Three-Barrel Match Lock. Barrels are Revolved by Hand.


refinements, however, altered the fact that actual fire had to be constantly present to discharge the weapon.

From the sixteenth century to 1807 there was an era of mechanical methods for producing fire by friction. In most instances, ignition was brought about by sharp contact of flint on steel, causing a shower of sparks to fall into a pan in which was nested the primer.

Odd as it may seem, the most perfect and elaborate of these systems came first. It was made in the form of a spring-loaded wheel with a knurled edge that rested against a portion of flint or pyrite. Upon releasing the wheel held under tension, the knurled edge rotated rapidly against the flint, and a shower of sparks was directed into the powder train. This mode of ignition is known as the wheel-lock system.

While this method was very reliable, only the very wealthy could afford such a contrivance; and necessity again proved to be the mother of invention. Thieves, working under cover of darkness, realized their presence would be made known by the glowing slow-match. Since they could not afford the costly wheel-lock, they improvised a cheaper substitute arrangement.

A chunk of flint was held in a jaw. Upon being pulled to the rear, a horizontally placed U-shaped spring was compressed and held under tension by a notch engaging a searing device. It was released by a rearward pull on the trigger. This allowed the flint to snap smartly forward striking an inclined and pivoted piece of roughened steel. This sudden blow resulted in sparks being directed into the priming pan that was located beneath.

This system of ignition was for 200 years known as the "Snap-hance." Translated from the original Dutch, this means "chicken thieves." It should be self explanatory what profession was followed by the inventors of this most reliable and practical method of ignition.

The flintlock proved reliable enough to be used at one time or another by every nation on earth. Nor was its application confined to single shot weapons, although the very nature of the mechanism had a tendency to restrict this particular use.

Beginnings of Revolving and Volley-Fire Guns

During the slow match and flintlock eras, there were many peculiar designs in weapons, including many proposed multifiring devices, all in an attempt to solve the three major problems that confronted the inventor planning a gun. They were: First, an adequate chamber and tube to house the powder charge and direct the missile; second, some method of igniting the propellant at the instant the gunner brought the piece to bear on the target; and third, provision of ways and means of firing successive shots with a minimum of effort and a maximum of speed.

There was also a serious effort to apply the multifire idea to shoulder arms. The bulk, weight, and various accessories necessary for the individual soldier to support and fire the piece, made its practical use as a weapon out of the question. However fanciful pictures of the time often depict wishful thinking rather than an efficient firing device.

During the sixteenth century there appeared for the first time an attempt to take the multi-barrels out of the flat method of mounting by placing them in a circle. In doing this, the idea of the revolving type of firearm came into being.

For a hundred years or more there was little or no actual development in volley-fire weapons, other than a few isolated cases, such as the 1626 patent granted in Scotland to William Drummond by Charles I. This patent was to apply in Scotland only, and was to be void if one or more guns were not produced within 3 years. It is described by the inventor as "being a machine in which a number of musket barrels are fastened together in such a manner as to allow one man to take the place of a hundred musketeers in battle."

The arrangement consisted of 50 barrels put. together organ-gun fashion for the purpose of sustained fire. The method of firing volley after volley from the same muzzle-loading barrel was novel, but by no means practical. Each barrel was loaded with one charge upon the other, the powder of each charge being aligned with a touch hole all the way up the barrel. Drummond's idea was to discharge each barrel by


moving adjustable fuse holding devices until they lined up with the touch holes. This was supposed to fire alternately each charge somewhat on the order of the Roman candle principle.

Drummond's description further leads one to believe that the barrels were mounted in a circular manner and could be rotated by hand. Thus, when the outside barrels, or tubes, were discharged, they could easily be removed for loading. If any attempt was made to use this manual system, it no doubt resulted in more casualties to the king's gunners than to the enemy.

These very early experiments reveal that fire power was the paramount theme in each and every weapon offered for governmental consideration. The ruling heads also thought in this fashion and encouraged the design and construction of practically anything that might produce results.

Theories for such instruments of war were devised by men of letters as far back as 1663. Transactions of the Royal Society 1663-64 contained a paper by a man named Palmer. In it he explored the possibilities, not only of using the forces of recoil, but also of trapping the gases along the barrel and using this heretofore wasted energy to load, discharge, and reload the weapon. He aptly described it as "the piece to shoot as fast as it could be and yet to be stopped at pleasure, and wherein the motion of the fire and bullet within was made to charge the piece with powder and bullet, to prime it, and to pull back the cock."

Needless to say Palmer was a couple of centuries ahead of his time. But it is one thing to theorize, and quite another to construct. There is no record of Palmer making any attempt to produce a working model utilizing either gas or recoil forces. It is very possible that the idea was greeted by so much skepticism that he never dared mention it again.

Most of the records of this particular era are more or less vague references to certain developments that cannot be fully authenticated. Such is the story of "the repeating gun of 1688," the records of which were uncovered by a French researcher, Abbé J. Rouquette. In the archives of the province of Languedoc at Montpellier he found a curious and interesting document. This stated that on 21 August 1688, a man who called himself Abraham Soyer was picked up on some minor charge, and brought before Abbé du Chayla, archpriest and inspector of the mission of the Cevennes.

In the prisoner's luggage was found a small weapon that he was carrying to St. Etienne to turn over to the gunsmiths there as a working model. Evidently this was Soyer's idea of the way to get the gun into production. If the additional information given is correct, the weapon was indeed a clever firing device for that day. It is alleged to have had a breech that allowed it to be loaded through the butt end of the stock (using, perhaps, some crude cartridge to accomplish this). A clear description was not given in the records. The reason can well be imagined when the nature of the device and the troubled times are taken into consideration.

In London, England, on 15 May 1718, there was issued patent number 418 to James Puckle on a revolver type of firearm that has proved one of the most controversial in all weapon history.

This odd-looking weapon, which according to the inventor was "a portable gun or machine that discharges so often and so many bullets, and be so quickly loaded as renders it next to impossible to carry any ship by boarding," has perhaps caused more discussion than any other weapon of its kind. The drawings are unusually clear, considering the time; and many new and clever features are shown, especially in mounting. However, Puckle's specification that round bullets be used on Christians, and square ones on Turks makes one wonder if it were really a serious attempt to produce a repeating weapon. Puckle seems to have been more interested in using the King's patent office as an expedient to advertise his patriotism and church affiliations.

An authority on multifiring weapons in the nineteenth century had the following comment on Puckle's invention:

"As the science of gunnery progressed, the gun maker sought not only to increase the range of the arm but also the rapidity of fire, and it would appear that a large number of the early inventors first thought of the revolver principle as the means which would best lend itself most readily to this end. Nothing would seem simpler than to make the rear of the arm in such a man-


James Puckle's Revolving Gun
James Puckle's Revolving Gun.


ner that a loaded cylinder carrying several charges could be inserted, and these charges Brought successively in line with the barrel and fired. The revolver was, in fact, among the first systems thought of by a considerable number of inventors. But it would appear that very little was actually accomplished, the inventors, for the most part, contenting themselves with making a single example of their arm, and these were looked upon more as curiosities than as useful weapons. The inventor at that time, not having the percussion cap, was obliged to employ a Somewhat cumbersome means of igniting his charge, and this was the probable reason why revolvers were so long in coming to the front.

"It will be observed that the inventor proposes to use round bullets against Christians, presumably Catholics, and square ones against Turks. Had his Majesty King George been at war with any heathen nation at the time, it may be presumed that he would have recommended a bullet to be used against them still more angular than that recommended for Turks, while he might have recommended the employment of soft bullets made of cork or wood against his own erring co-religionists, the Protestants. However, the illustrations forming part of the patents are certainly interesting in their way. It will be seen that the arm is mounted upon a tripod which very closely resembles the tripods employed with guns of today, that a too great spreading of the legs is prevented by a chain, that stiff rods are used for holding the legs in position, and that for holding the guns at any degree of elevation a device is employed almost identical with that used on some recent forms of machine guns. This arm, I think, may be considered as the first mitrailleuse ever patented in England."

This authority ignored the earlier Scottish patent issued to William Drummond by Charles I.

Whether Puckle's "Defense" represents the first patented manually operated revolving-type machine gun, or not, is immaterial. Its importance lies in the fact that it certainly represents the most refined design to be found in the whole slow-match era. It also shows that the mechanisms involved in getting a weapon to fire repeatedly had far outstripped the method of igniting successively the charges as they came into alignment.

A prominent American gun inventor, during an early visit to London, was shown in the tower of London an actual weapon that had nearly all the basic principles of the modern revolver, with the exception of the ignition system. This consisted of a split hammer clasping a slow-match which moved forward under trigger pressure to touch the primer. Each chamber was provided with a priming pan covered by a swinging lid. Before firing, the protecting lid was pushed aside by the finger, exposing the powder to the lighted end of the slow-match.

He was also shown another revolver weapon of a more recent date that was a considerable improvement over the preceding one. It had six chambers and a rotating breech, and was provided with flint lock and one priming pan, arranged to fire the chambers one at a time, or all together. The pan was fitted with a sliding cover. A vertical wheel with a serrated edge projected into it, not quite touching the powder in the pan. To this wheel a rapid whirling motion was given by action of a trigger spring on a lever attached to the axis of the wheel, which caused the teeth on the wheel to strike against the pyrite. A cam brought the action down until a shower of sparks was certain to reach the primer. If the gunner cared to fire it single shot, the breech was rotated by hand until it alined with each individual barrel. To fire all barrels in one volley, all pans were connected by a tubelike affair which, when fired, would simultaneously discharge all the barrels.

This type of revolver flintlock gun was made in various designs, both in England and France. The French went so far as to build a similar weapon that employed eight barrels revolving around a common axis. Each barrel was fired as it revolved into alignment with a fixed flintlock firing system.

Seven-Barrel Revolving Flintlock Rifle
Seven-Barrel Revolving Flintlock Rifle.


At about the same time a Bostonian named Elisha H. Collier, after first trying to interest various people in this country in his revolving flintlock firing system, went to England with the design. His gun was very popular and was used by the English army in India. It was considered the finest weapon of its kind and did not suffer in comparison with any known foreign gun.

After his success in England and France, Collier closed his gun shop in London and returned to the United States. He set up a similar gun business in Boston for the purpose of making his revolving flintlock guns. These had such improved features as a self-priming pan and gas-tight joints between cylinder and barrel, formed by camming forward the cylinder counter-bored at the forward end to mate with the breech end of the barrel. A novel way of rotating the cylinder was used; upon releasing the trigger after firing, it was indexed by tension of a spring that had previously been hand wound.

There was little or no actual development in the flintlock period of ignition other than refinement of existing weapons and the substitution of the flint and steel spark-throwing arrangements in lieu of the slow match. True, there was a tendency to reduce the excessive weight of shoulder arms that the earliest weapon designers had simply ignored. Also a better knowledge of, and experience in, working steel produced a more serviceable but streamlined gun.

The art of gunsmithing was considered, during this era, one of the highest skilled trades. This view is justified by comparing the finely designed, reliable weapons of that day with the clumsy freaks of earlier times, and the slipshod gadgets which followed them.

For at least a hundred years, every military power used the flintlock system. This did more to standardize weapons than any other thing. The very nature of this system did not easily lend itself to multifiring, other than to serve as the source of the initial ignition. If other barrels were to be discharged, either one at a time or simultaneously, a chain of priming had to be ignited from the first flash; or the cumbersome mechanism had to be rotated around the primed pans.

Although the reliable flintlock system had long outlived its usefulness and had become a definite bottleneck to future progress in gun design, only a few people realized this. Opinion at the time was agreed that no improvement was needed, it being a foregone conclusion that nothing could serve more adequately the purpose than the flint- and steel-ignited weapons men's fathers had used.

Application of the Detonating Principle to Firing

It is very understandable that when Berthollet discovered in 1786 that chlorate could be exploded by a sudden blow with a metallic hammer, the public was not even mildly interested in the fact. Likewise when Howard in 1799 found that mercury fulminate could be rolled into pellets and ignited by percussion, the event was barely recorded for posterity. Regardless of the attitude of scientists and gunsmiths of the day, the latter discovery was the greatest single achievement to be made in the long and interesting history of firearms development. For the discovery of detonating powder introduced the percussion system of ignition and, while it has gone through many radical improvements, it is still with us today.

Whether Berthollet's work may have led Howard to seek something more stable in detonating mixtures is not known. It is universally accepted, however, that this discovery might have lain dormant for years had not an enterprising Scottish minister of Presbyterian faith, the Rev. John Alexander Forsyth (1768-1843), immediately recognized the great advance made in this field. He patented on 11 April 1807, the "Application of the detonating principle to exploding gunpowder firearms."

There are reasons to believe that in both France and Germany the idea of substituting a detonating mixture in place of flint and steel was being worked out simultaneously and independently. Pauly, the famous Parisian gunsmith, was making paper percussion caps as early as 1812. These were made by sealing a small portion of mercury fulminate between two thin layers of paper, producing a cap.

Reverend Forsyth designed and built several guns employing what he called "pill locks." He


placed on the side of the barrel a nipple that led to the powder charge. The upper end of the nipple had a slightly enlarged opening in which was placed a small pellet, or "pill," of the fulminate of mercury mixture. He later improved on this by making a mechanical device to place the pill on the nipple by actuating the hammer. The ease and certainty of fire of this system first became popular with the civilian population and its earliest use is to be found in sporting guns.

Napoleon was the first to become interested in this departure from the time-honored flintlock system, and offered Forsyth £20,000 for his invention. Forsyth, evidently being a very patriotic man, refused the offer and gave the rights to his government. To the memory of this Aberdeenshire minister, a plaque has been erected in the Tower of London. This was a joint gift from arms guilds, whole British regiments, and a host of Scotch and English sportsmen, and is the only memorial in honor of an individual ever erected within the precincts of the 800-year-old Tower, often called the "heart of the British Empire."

An improvement in Forsyth's invention followed immediately. An American sea captain, Joshua E. Shaw, of Philadelphia, evidently in one of his ports of call, had been brought into contact with the fulminate of mercury ignition system. He immediately set about to correct the worse features of the loose pill placed on the nipple of the gun; and conceived the idea of housing the mixture in a pewter cap that could he placed over the nipple. This not only protected the primer from weather conditions, but also rendered it practically impossible to lose as the cap was designed to grip firmly the sides of the nipple.

Shaw, however, did not reckon with American patent laws that refused him a patent (in 1814) on the grounds that his many travels had kept him away from home for more than 2 years. One had to be a bona fide resident for at least 2 years before a patent could be granted.

In the long run this delay proved advantageous. During the period of establishing residence, Shaw found that pewter, the material he originally planned using for his fulminate cap, crushed too easily. Also the crown of the cap had a tendency to melt when subjected to the intense heat generated by the rapid burning of the powder. A portion of molten pewter would plug the priming hole, and thus render the weapon useless until the obstruction had been removed. When his patent was finally approved, in 1816, he had changed the material from pewter to copper.

It may be said that the combined intellect of three men from the most contrasting professions imaginable (an apothecary, a minister, and a sea captain) prepared the way for the wholesale experiments in the development of weapons. Many of the principles involved in these new designs had been but useless theories to former inventors and armorers.

In 1817 the government had 100 Hall rifles modified to take the percussion cap. Later Congress granted Shaw a $20,000 bonus for his invention.

The Hall rifle was the first breech-loading arm used by American military forces. Its inventor, Capt. John H. Hall, United States Army, also originated gage application to dimension with tolerances that resulted in our modern conception of interchangeability.

Pioneer American Gunsmiths

Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, had already given the armed services a very simple lesson in mass production. He delivered to the army many kegs full of triggers, hammers, barrels, ramrods, stocks, etc. Upon arrival before a group of astonished officials, he used a dozen common mechanics to assemble the component parts. Then he took the finished pieces to the range and personally proofed each weapon. He showed, once and for all, if each part was made to specification, assembly could be done with mediocre skill, thereby doing away with the old theory that a gunsmith had to produce each weapon in its entirety.

By making each component fit a master template, every part was capable of being interchanged with a similar piece. This principle was instantly added to the many other mechanical tricks in the art of gunsmithing, of which the New England States were beginning to be the center.


Any individual who felt he had a high degree of skill in mechanics generally wound up in the production of firearms. Regardless of the cleverness of his ideas on methods for sowing rice, ginning cotton, or planting corn, he eventually was forced to center on gun production as a means of livelihood. It was the one and only mechanical trade where, should a product be first quality, the sale was certain and profitable.

For once, a restless civilian population was creating a demand for weapons far greater than any war had ever done. The pioneer settler could plant his grain in the manner of his forefathers; he could gin his cotton by hand; and the luxury of a buggy was unthinkable. But he demanded, and would pay for in cash to his last cent, the best that could be created in weapons. His specifications were simple: the arm must be reliable, accurate, rugged, simple in design, as light as practical, and with all the firepower the ingenuousness of the inventor could build into it.

Every inventor knew that, on building honestly a superior weapon, his name would be praised, his fortune made, and nothing on earth could change this situation except a competitor producing a better gun. Then he knew his public, governed by self preservation, would leave him over night, since a second best gun was considered worse than no gun at all.

The three-quarters of a century following the percussion cap patent saw more accomplished in development, design, and performance of weapons than in all previous history.

True, repeating cannon had been used to good effect by our Navy in the War of 1812. A few of these weapons are now to be found in various museums. Their ignition was of the fire-to-primer type, but they used the revolving chamber system in reverse. The axis of the cylinder was horizontal to the gun, and perpendicular to the center line of the bore. This allowed the cannoneers to load the rear of the cylinder while the forward side was in position for firing.

It was not until 1829 that such a weapon was patented. To Samuel L. Farries of Middletown, Ohio, goes the honor of receiving the first "machine gun" patent issued by the United States Patent Office. This grant seems to imply that the name "machine gun" was to be assigned to any mechanically operated weapon of rifle caliber and above—regardless of whether the energy necessary for sustained fire is derived manually or from some other power source.

Because of the slowness of muzzle loading, there was no incentive to use improved methods of ignition. Even up to the Civil War, it was standard practice to set off artillery by flaming brand, linstock, slow match, red hot iron, or other fire-to-powder methods.

It is particularly interesting that the third machine gun patent issued in the United States was for a type that has been patented with regularity for over a hundred years. Innumerable hours of labor and millions of dollars have gone into its development. Unsuccessful tests have been run on this kind of weapon by the government from 1838 to the beginning of World War II. It is to the machine gun field what perpetual motion is to the mechanical world: an idea that has been approached so close, but still remains so far—the centrifugal machine gun.

The military class, as a whole, both here and abroad, was very slow to accept the percussion system, even in small arms. It remained for a civilian, Samuel Colt, to give the multifiring idea the impetus needed to start an unparalleled wave of gun design and development in the United States. In 1830, at the age of 16, on the brig "Corlo" bound for India, Colt conceived an idea for a revolving type of firearm. In watching the steering wheel of the ship, he noted that no matter which way the wheel was turned, each spoke passed directly in line with a fixed clutch and could be held fast at any chosen spoke, if desired. From this he visualized his future revolver.

Although the idea of a revolving firearm had been attempted centuries before, the importance of Colt's invention is that it was the first practical revolving weapon employing the percussion cap in conjunction with the automatic revolution and locking of the cylinder by the act of cocking the hammer.

On 5 March 1836, Colt founded the Patent Fire Arms Co., of Paterson, New Jersey, with a capitalization of $230,000. The company established the first Colt factory in an abandoned silk mill. After producing several models, the venture at Paterson came to an end. Colt, seeking better manufacturing facilities, contracted with


Eli Whitney (son of the cotton gin inventor), who was one of the largest producers of firearms in the United States, to manufacture some revolvers of improved design at Whitneyville, Conn.

As a result of this brief association, mass production combined with the assembly line was introduced into American weapon manufacture. Whitney, Sr., had contributed the first; and Colt, the latter. The innovations in production methods were copied by other gun producers throughout New England. This gave to a limited eastern seaboard area a manufacturing supremacy in firearms production that was unchallenged by the rest of the world for more than a century. Though the business association of Colt and Whitney was of short duration, the ideas of manufacturing interchangeable parts, and of combining the components by the assembly line method have remained the principal cornerstone of American manufacturing supremacy.

Colt, in 1848, established his own plant at Hartford, Conn. Some of the finest rapid-firing weapons known from that day to this were produced in this factory.

The popularity of Colt's early multifiring revolvers assured recognition of the application of the percussion cap in relation to other kinds of weapons for military use.

The conventional gunpowder weapons, operating by various means, had reached such a state of development in the United States by 1855, that John A. Reynolds of Elmira, N. Y., patented a device for the cooling of gun barrels. The wording of the patent claim admits the idea of a water jacket, even then, was not original.

"This improvement is peculiarly adapted to and applicable to the manifold firearm of which I am the inventor, rendering that improvement more valuable and efficient by this simple means of cooling the barrels or tubes, necessarily heated by the rapid and repeated discharges through them from the revolving chambers . . .

"I am aware that the application of a jacket to the breech of a gun, in which the gun itself forms a part of the jacket, is not new. . . . The application of a refrigerator construction as described, to the barrels or tubes of firearms for the purpose of keeping said barrels or tubes from undue heating is substantially in the manner set forth in the foregoing specification."


Chapter 3
Background of Machine Gun Development

First Models of Percussion Multifiring Weapons

The first serious effort abroad to adapt percussion ignition to a multi-firing weapon of war was done by a former officer of the Belgian Army. He completed a model in 1857, which was composed of 50 barrels of rifle caliber, assembled parallel to each other in a prismic group. It had the appearance and weight of a cannon. Records show this unusual weapon's rate of fire to have been a hundred shots a minute; its range, 2,000 meters (1 1/4 miles), was unusually long for that period.

At the same time, Sir James S. Lille attempted to build a similar weapon in London. It is now in the Woolwich Museum labeled as a "freak" device. Lille attempted to combine the revolving chamber with the multibarrel system. Twelve barrels were arranged in two rows, fastened several inches apart. To the rear of the breech end was a revolving cylinder, chambered for 20 charges. Each chamber was fitted with a nipple and percussion cap which could be exploded when a charge was manually alined with a barrel. The firing was carried out by turning a crank that manipulated a series of rods, serving as hammers, striking the percussion caps in turn. The problem of servicing and loading must have been appalling. It is understandable why this weapon was termed a freak even at a time when radical design was usually heralded as an improvement.

In 1854 Sir Henry Bessemer patented in England a self-acting breech-loading gun that used steam to perform the functions of feeding, locking, and firing of the piece. The weapon's recoil opened the valve after the projectile had safely cleared the bore. This is the first time any outside agent other than manual operation was employed in an attempt to produce sustained fire.

There is no record of the existence of even a working model of this unusual weapon. Bessemer also patented what is known as the "Bessemer process" for making steel. This was so successful and so revolutionary to the steel business that Bessemer lost all interest in his earlier patents.

An earlier British steam gun, however, was witnessed by the Duke of Wellington. When asked by the proud inventor, a Mr. Perkins, what he thought of the idea of steam propulsion of missiles, the Iron Duke replied, "It would be a very good thing if gunpowder had not been invented."

Thomas E. Linden, also of London, filed a specification in May 1856 for a gas-operated piston beneath the barrel of a weapon. This piston actuated a device that was used to fire and raise a hinged chamber to receive a paper cartridge. The weapon, however, had to be cocked manually and to have a percussion cap placed on the nipple after each shot. The principle, nevertheless, was a clear application of mechanical breech opening.

The United States Patent Office on 8 July 1856 issued patent number 15,315 to C. E. Barnes of Lowell, Mass., for a crank-operated machine cannon. This weapon had many original improvements, and was the forerunner of a series of crank-operated weapons. The gun's locking system employed a toggle joint arrangement that rammed a fixed charge home. The stiff linen cartridge was fed from a tray located on the left side of the breech end of the gun. A very clever method was used to place a percussion cap on the nipple mechanically after the weapon was safely locked. The cap was fired by a continued forward movement of the crank action which tripped a sear. The hammer, similar to a piston, was confined in a cylinder. A part of the force of the explosion in the chamber came back through the nipple and imparted enough energy against the head of the hammer to compress the firing pin spring allowing a sear to engage this


Barnes Machine Gun. Patented 1856
Barnes Machine Gun. Patented 1856.

part. This was a novel employment of gas pressure from the chamber for the purpose of cocking the piece.

The rate of fire depended solely upon the speed with which the crank could be turned. This weapon was far ahead of its time, and its development would have placed a reliable machine gun in the armed forces several years prior to the Civil War.

The design of the flintlock system limited its application in weapon construction, but the percussion method of firing seemed to invite attention to its unlimited application. The ignition, now a small separate unit, could be used in many reliable ways, some of which were more ingenious than others.

Development of Cartridges

As mechanical improvements continued, the idea of incorporating the detonating cap as an integral part of the fixed charge was inevitable. This 20-year period (1856-76) saw more varied and distinct types of breech-loading arms developed than any other equal period in the history of arms. Many of these required their own peculiar type of cartridge.

Christian Sharps' self-consuming cartridge made of linen was introduced in 1852. It was made at his Fairmount, Pennsylvania, gun factory. This was a definite improvement over the fragile paper-filled envelopes previously used. The linen could be held in shape and would stand more abuse than the paper cartridge. That cartridges, in one form or another, were beginning to be used throughout the service is verified by a record showing the purchase of 393,304 paper cartridges by the United States Army in 1851.

Col. Samuel Colt collaborated with the Ely brothers of England in making further improvements on his patented self-consuming cartridge. This cartridge was made of a stiffer and more durable paper, and could be held to close manufacturing tolerances. The paper cartridge case was impregnated with a mixture of potassium nitrate. The explosion of the powder charge completely consumed the cartridge case. The


percussion cap had sufficient force to rupture the paper and drive fire through to the powder charge.

Smith and Wesson of Springfield, Mass., in 1857 manufactured the first really successful rim-fire version of a metallic cartridge, self-contained and reasonably waterproof. This ammunition, with added improvements, to the present day is still produced by various American companies.

On 22 January 1856, the unusual method of housing both detonator and propelling charge in the base of a bullet was introduced and patented. The Winchester Arms Co. made a repeating weapon called the "Volcanic" using this odd principle. As the propelling ingredients were all contained in the bullet itself, there was naturally no problem of case ejection. This radical design was to compete with the impregnated self-consuming paper cartridge cases.

The volcanic bullet had a small charge of finely granulated powder, and a larger portion of fulminate of mercury mixture housed in a thin metal cup, all of which was protected from the elements by a thin cork insert. When the ball was fed into the arm, a spring-loaded firing pin was cammed forward and forced through the cork until it was brought to bear on the primer cup. A smart blow from the hammer ignited the detonating mixture, forcing the flame through the openings provided, and exploded the powder in the upper conical cavity of the bullet.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, the introduction of various methods of producing cartridge cases, the development of the conical bullet, and the idea of integrating the detonating cap in the cartridge were undoubtedly responsible for the rapid and radical designs of the innumerable weapons constructed to fire them.

Even skin cartridge cases were used successfully. They not only furnished a waterproof container, but also were easily made into the self-consuming case that seemed to be a military "must" of the day. To produce this cartridge case, pig's intestines were used. After cleaning and while still wet, they were stretched over forms of the required cartridge dimensions. When dried, the powder and bullet were put in place. The skin case was then treated with a compound consisting of "eighteen parts by weight of nitrate of potassium, pure, and seventeen parts of sulphuric acid—pure, after which it was washed to free it from the soluble salts and excess of acids, and then dried by blotting . . . in order to render it perfectly waterproof, a light coat of shellac varnish was applied."

It is easy to see how multifiring weapon development went hand in hand with cartridge design. As each different type of cartridge was introduced, inventors followed closely with a mechanical firing system, designed to use the new idea. No matter how radical a departure any new cartridge may have been from the heretofore accepted methods, there was a gun with an equally original design to shoot it.

The greatest problem in ammunition development was finally solved by George W. Morse's invention in 1858—the first true attempt at a metallic cartridge with a center fire primer and an inside anvil. It marked the most important step in the whole history of cartridge design. All other methods, experiments, and alleged improvements were but attempts to do what Morse successfully accomplished.

But experimentation and development had gone too far to be stopped suddenly by the issuing of this patent. In fact, it was many years before the idea was universally used, and the gun people and cartridge makers continued on in an orgy of original development.

As soon as a patent was filed on an obvious improvement, it seemed to be a challenge to the rest of the profession to see in how many ways the original idea could be circumvented. To compete against the expensive, hard-to-manufacture brass cartridge case, a steel tube with a percussion nipple on the end was often used. This could be easily loaded by shoving a self-consuming paper cartridge into the forward end, and quickly securing a copper detonating cap on the nipple. With this progressive step, the inventor had at his disposal the nucleus of a practical, reliable weapon with increased firepower.

Ripley Gun

Ezra Ripley of Troy, N. Y., took advantage of the paper cartridge to patent a machine gun. Sustained volley fire was obtained by a compact firing assembly that allowed the gunner to fire


Ripley Machine Gun. Patented 1861
Ripley Machine Gun. Patented 1861.

one shot, or the whole volley, by a quick turn of the handle.

The weapon consists of a series of barrels, grouped around a common axis, that are open at both ends for breech loading. The barrels remain stationary during firing.

The breechblock made in the shape of a resolving cylinder is loaded with the conventional paper cartridge from the forward end of the chamber. On a nipple that protrudes from the center rear of the chamber is placed the percussion cap. The cylinder is then placed on the breech end of the weapon—the holes in the cylinder alining with the rear end of the barrels.

The breech is locked in place by securing the operating handle. This feature makes accidental living of the weapon impossible before the breech is locked. With a clockwise turn of the handle, the firing pin is forced rearward by the action of a ratchet-type cam which compresses the firing pin spring. Upon alignment with the nipple, it sears off the high point of the cam, allowing it to snap forward and fire the piece.

The weapon can be prepared for firing by releasing a spring-loaded catch that locks the handle in place. The gunner then pulls the firing assembly rearward and removes the empty chambered cylinder for inserting the paper cartridges. By reversing the procedure, the gun is ready for action. The firing arrangement gives the operator a choice of firing rates, from single shot to slow and rapid fire.

As a number of preloaded cylinders were made available, the individual soldier was able to produce more sustained fire than could a company of men using the standard muzzle loading musket. The Ripley weapon also showed for the first time a consideration for weight saving in field pieces that had been previously ignored. If the weapon is closely studied, it will show many basic features that greatly influenced machine gun design for years to come.


The Ripley gun was no exception to the rule that success depends as much on the personality of the inventor as it does on careful details of design. To introduce a complete innovation of ordnance to the conservative authorities of the day was, in itself, a feat requiring abilities superior to those necessary for actually inventing the weapon.

This gun was light enough in weight to be very mobile, with a desirable method of loading rapidly from the breech end, and it had a simple, foolproof way to control rates of fire. Why it was passed over in favor of the many crude types of organ guns can only be answered by presuming that Ripley let the matter drop after his idea was greeted with skepticism and objections to everything from overheating of barrels to problems of ammunition supply.

The weapon may never have fired a shot, and it is doubtful if a working model was ever made. Yet Ezra Ripley certainly did originate many new and basic principles, which he coupled with the most progressive ideas of others, and patented these features in a weapon that had very definite possibilities.

Refinements in American Gunsmithing

The Colt revolver and similar weapons enjoyed the confidence of the public as it began to push westward and demanded the best in weapons that money could buy. All the New England gun makers were operating at peak capacity. The war with Mexico had come to a conclusion, Texas was being settled, and gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill. Colt's name was a household byword, but fine weapons were also being produced by many others. Among them were the Wesson brothers, Oliver Winchester, Elihu Remington, Henry Deringer, James Cooper, Edmund Savage and Christian Sharps. Their factories began to attract the finest mechanical skill. They invited competition, feeling it presented a means of showing their ability, and prided themselves on being able to present a mechanical solution to any firearms problem brought to their attention.

The industry was built on strict competition to meet public demand. There was practically no encouragement from the government by military orders for improved weapons.

After 36 years of civilian use had proved the reliability of the percussion cap, the army finally gave up the time-honored flintlock, but seemed content to advance no further. Many predicted that even this modern step was too extreme and the army would rue the day it had discarded the flintlock. General Winfield Scott is credited with outfitting a regiment of his own with flintlocks, after the adoption of the percussion system was approved over his strenuous objection.

Fortunately, civilian demand made up for the lack of military orders for the various firearms improvements. The market was practically equal to the adult population; for each male citizen, physically able to do so, usually owned and often carried some form of firearm.

During this period, the military ordered little more than the conventional small arms. For this reason guns like the Ripley were of little or no interest to firearm factories. The military would not consider such guns, and the civilians had no use for them.

Had there been an incentive, and a ready market, no doubt the head engineers of the big companies would have produced a reliable manually operated machine gun at this time. For in no other era have there been more gifted men in actual competition in gun production than during this period: Fordyce Beals and John Rider of Remington; Warner and Leavitt of Wesson Brothers; Tyler Henry of Winchester; Eben Starr; Christopher Spencer; John H. Hall; Simon North; Christian Sharps—to name all the outstanding gunsmiths would easily fill a directory. Any of these, no doubt, could have produced some mechanical means of sustained fire, as advanced as the many reliable hand and shoulder weapons they perfected.

There were many experiments, conducted by individuals, that resulted in reliable repeating shoulder weapons. The most successful variation was that of combining a shoulder stock with the cumbersome revolver. Thus six shots could be fired with great rapidity, and with remarkable accuracy. To increase the range, the revolvers were made with abnormally long barrels, and deeper recessed chambers. The increased powder charge caused the large caliber bullet to jump


the lands and resulted in an unstable trajectory and damage to the rifling of the barrel.

To overcome this, the Colt Co. resorted to "progressive" rifling, whereby the lands and grooves gained in twist as they progressed through the barrel.

This system of rifling became quite popular— especially with large bore weapons designed for high velocities. Progressive rifling, with lands and grooves machined to a parabolic curve, was the only way to overcome the error of having a soft lead bullet propelled by an abnormally large powder charge. The experiments, if of no other value, proved the need for a metal jacket bullet; as the various methods of rifling used were but an expensive mechanical attempt to obtain results that could be gotten with a properly balanced metal-covered projectile.

Of all the designs suggested along this line, perhaps the most unusual was that patented by A. Schneider. He proposed to give the lands a progressive clockwise twist half the length of the bore. At this point the rifling abruptly became counterclockwise. This latter twist would continue increasing to the muzzle end. Just how this sudden reverse torque on the bullet, when it was halfway through the bore, was expected to stabilize the projectile better in flight or increase range and muzzle velocity must ever remain a mystery. It is an example of the extremes resorted to by inventors, when a new idea became popular. The gain twist adequately served its purpose, and gradually disappeared when the problem of bullet design became more fully understood.

Industrial By-Products of the Gun Trade

The United States was going through an industrial revolution. Lack of transportation and British repressive legislation had thwarted the national aptitude for inventions in the colonial period. Now, for the first time, Yankee ingenuity was beginning to make itself felt. In the isolation of the farms during the long winters, many clever devices were conceived. Since weapon development was a great problem of the day, it naturally received a large share of attention, and an amazing number of new methods of approach were devised to solve current difficulties. But regardless of how obvious an improvement might be, it was worthless unless put into production. As the earliest gun producing plants were in Connecticut, and the Government's manufacturing arsenal was close by in Massachusetts, gun inventors trekked toward this area. If an idea were accepted by the public, its originator stayed on to practice his professional skill in production or in further improvements.

In order to protect himself from his enemy, man has been forced from prehistoric time to the present to produce more effective weapons. While his sole idea might be to create and produce a superior weapon, sometimes the means devised to accomplish this could be used even more successfully in the production of other things that had no relation to guns. For instance, the conception and perfection of machine tools first came into being in this area as an attempt to speed up and to economize on weapon production. The methods spread rapidly to other fields.

In the history of weapon progress, the advent of the machine age rivals the discovery of gunpowder. Power tools accomplished the impossible with the guns of the day, and opened means for the progressive inventor to write an unequaled chapter of development.

The influence of machine tools in modern life is little appreciated by the average person. The New York Museum of Science and Industry has on its wall a panel stating that the origin of machine tools has made possible all generated light, heat, and power; all modern transportation by rail, water, and air; all forms of electric communication; and has likewise caused to be produced all the machinery used in agriculture, textiles, printing, paper making, and all the instruments used in every science. "Everything we use at work, at home, at play, is either a child or a grandchild of a machine tool." But the Adam and Eve of the machine tool, and its application to mass production, were the early Connecticut and Massachusetts gunsmiths.

Good mechanics have been found in every nation, yet for some reason, most of the important machine tools used throughout the world originated in only two places: Great Britain and New England. The English craftsmen, traditionally lovers of the hand-finished product,


benefited little from this fact. They have furnished no serious competition in this field since the 1850's when undisputed leadership shifted to New England. This section of the United States became, practically, a manufacturing arsenal. Its mechanics were recognized as the world's best. In fact, some of their contributions to the power tool industry have affected the course of history more through industrial progress than their fine weapons did on the battlefield.

Among the little-known inventions of these men can be found the first milling machine with a power feed which was devised by the original Eli Whitney; it was the direct predecessor of what is known today as the power miller. Christopher M. Spencer, who was noted for his repeating rifles, patented a great improvement on the drop hammer, and perfected a cam control, or "brain wheel," whereby the operation of lathes was made automatic. This invention was one of the few for which the original drawing was so perfectly devised that it is still used today. Another gunsmith, Henry Stone, developed the turret principle for lathes. The high speed automatic lathe of today is a combination of the work of Spencer and Stone. The two men originated many improvements which extend from farm machinery to silk winding machines, but their first success was in weapon design.

Francis A. Pratt was one of the best designers of machine tools. After founding the Pratt & Whitney Co. for manufacturing guns, he found other products so profitable that, today, few people know of the influence of firearms on this outstanding manufacturing concern.

Asa Cook, a brother-in-law of Pratt, and a former Colt mechanic, was the inventor and manufacturer of machines to make screws and bolts automatically. Eli J. Manville, a former Pratt & Whitney engineer, established with his five sons at Waterbury, Conn., a plant which has been conspicuous in the design of presses, bolt headers, and thread rollers for the brass industry.

The arms plants proved training schools for inventors. Guns were made as long as profitable, but with changing times these versatile men began to make things entirely unrelated to firearms. Many became so successful in other manufacturing ventures that today it is often hard to associate a large telescope company or a successful sewing machine plant with its original founder, a master craftsman, working patiently on the development of a new firearm. Yet the fact still remains that American domination of manufacturing "know how" came largely from the honest effort of gun producers just before the Civil War to compete with each other in providing the world's finest weapons.

It did not take long for American gun makers to carry the gospel of machine tool performance across the seven seas. As early as 1851, a Vermont firm showed at a London fair guns with interchangeable components manufactured by mass production methods. The British government was so impressed that it ordered the making of 20,000 Enfield rifles in American factories by this method. Three years later Great Britain ordered from the company that made these weapons 157 gun milling machines, which were the first automatic tools to be used in Europe. Among them was the eccentric lathe invented by Thomas Blanchard of the Springfield Armory. This device allowed wooden gun stocks to be machine carved with great rapidity in lieu of the laborious hand method formerly employed. The machine turned out irregular (eccentric) forms, from patterns, with automatic speed and precision; and has undergone practically no change in design since it was invented by Blanchard. Like innumerable other weapon-inspired tools, it contributed not only to American domination of the armament business but also helped to reshape the entire structure of the manufacturing world.

Colt Revolving Rifle, Model 1855

The early civilian method of fastening a shoulder stock on the heavy barrel revolvers and making a serviceable repeating shoulder arm led the Colt Co. to apply the same idea to a full fledged rifle. Consequently the 1855 model revolving rifle was produced. It became the first repeating rifle adopted by the armed service of the United States. This caliber .58 weapon had a full length rifle barrel. The cylinder was long enough to hold the large powder charge and conical bullet. The Colt method of ramming the charge in the cylinder by a hinged lever was employed, a device which had proved popular on revolvers.


The Colt Revolving Rifle
The Colt Revolving Rifle.

One of the features of the weapon failed to work properly under field conditions. The nipples that held the percussion cap were set in a recessed opening in an attempt to protect the cap and primer from weather conditions, which they did successfully. But in field use, as the soldier loaded the cylinders, he placed too much pressure on the loading lever. This force would rupture the paper cartridge where it bottomed at the aft end of the cylinder, causing loose powder to spill through the hole in the nipple. Since it was too dangerous to cover the nipple with a percussion cap while loading, the grains of powder would lodge in the recess connected to other nipples.

During firing the heavy rifle barrel had to be supported by hand. This had not been necessary in the revolver equipped with the shoulder stock. Sometimes loose powder from a faulty cap or gas leak would cause other chambers to be ignited. When this happened, the soldier using the piece lost his hand or the portion of his arm that happened to be in front of the exploding cylinder.

One such accident in a regiment destroyed not only confidence in the weapon, but the morale of soldiers and officers alike. Before the Civil War many a regular was on the pension roll for having lost his hand in line of duty—the duty being, in most cases, nothing more than target practice with the new repeating rifle.

These accidents had become so common that some company commanders ordered the men to lower the loading lever and to hold it in the left hand. This placed the hand out of range of the gas leak where the cylinder chamber alined with the bore of the barrel. Thus, should the chamber explode, the shooter was safe from the hail of lead and steel. Other officers protected their men in a different manner, having the soldiers load just one of the chambers. By this simple method of converting to a single shot weapon, they eliminated the hazard of blowing up the piece.

The total failure of the Army's first official attempt to introduce a repeating shoulder weapon into the service gave the conservative element a chance to point out the inevitable disaster that always follows any such departure from what has proved successful over the years.

Finally a board of officers met. After hearing all the evidence, they ordered that the Colt's use be discontinued and the pieces sold for whatever price could be obtained. The highest bid was 42 cents a rifle.

While the weapon's danger to personnel using it had undoubtedly been bad, the effect of its reputation on the trend toward repeating-action guns was almost fatal, so far as our military forces were concerned. For, after the discreditable showing of the Colt revolving rifle, no officer cared to stake his career on any such contrivance, especially since the Colt revolver, which the weapon so closely copied, had been such a huge success. They simply could not understand why a trivial change in design could result in such disaster. It was accepted as proving that one could not go beyond a hand gun in this type of weapon.


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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation