Sunday, July 3, 2011

Early multi-shot weapons

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the first multi-shot weapons, such as the English Puckle gun. They were not machine guns, but they pointed to future wars in which heavy volumes of fire could dominate the battlefield. The industrial base of the Union forces in the American Civil War gave inventors the facilities to develop these weapons, notably the multi-barrelled Organ gun and hopper magazine-fed Agar "Coffee Mill".


Puckle's gun
Born in 1667, James Puckle was an English lawyer, inventor and author. He is credited with two military inventions: a sword of which there is no record and his "portable gun or machine called a defence".
The Puckle gun was a futuristic concept in the early 18th century and, unfortunately for its inventor, James Puckle, as was the case with many innovations, conservative British soldiers and government failed to see its military potential.

The Puckle gun was a tripod-mounted, single-barrelled flintlock gun fitted with a multi-shot revolving cylinder. At a time when a well-trained soldier could fire three shots a minute from his musket, one man with a Puckle gun could fire nine rounds. In a macabre marketing ploy Puckle offered two versions of the basic design. One gun, intended for use against Christian enemies, fired conventional round balls, while the second weapon, to be used against the Muslim Turks, fired square bullets that were believed to cause more severe wounds.

In 1717, after trials at Woolwich in front of senior officers, the gun was rejected by the British Government. Despite this, Puckle obtained a patent on 15 May 1718, and three years later set up a company to market it. An issue of the Daily Courant published in March 1722 carried an advertisement for "Several sizes in Brass and Iron of Mr. Puckle's Machine or Gun, called a Defence ... at the Workshop thereof, in White-Cross-Alley, Middle Moorfields". At the end of the same month the London Journal reported that at a demonstration of one of the guns, "one Man discharged it 63 times in seven Minutes, though all the while Raining; and that it throws off either one large or sixteen Musquet Balls at every discharge with very great Force".

Despite the publicity, Puckle failed to attract backers, and when in 1718 his business went bust, a newspaper of the period ruefully noted that "those are only wounded who hold shares therein".

The 1860 Agar "Coffee Mill"
This is the earliest machine gun known to have been used by the United States Army. Designed by Wilson Agar, it was demonstrated to President Lincoln in 1861, and he was so impressed that he ordered ten at a price of $1,300 a gun; 51 were purchased a year later. They are known to have seen action in a limited number of arenas, and those include the batdes of Petersburg, Virginia (1864-5). The machine gun earned its nickname from the hopper magazine feed, which resembled the feed for a coffee grinder. The "Coffee Mill" was mounted on a conventional artillery carriage with a small armour plate to protect the gunner. He had to stand, feeding .58in Mini£ bullets into the magazine and cranking a handle to fire. The weapon had an effective range of 915m/1,000yd and fired at 120 rpm. The gunner could increase this rate by cranking the handle faster, but because the Agar had only one barrel he ran the risk of overheating it. To obviate this, two spare barrels were always carried with the gun.
The Agar "Coffee Mill" was so-named because the ammunition feed was a hopper that looked very like the one that fitted to a coffee mill. It was hand cranked and capable of 120 rounds a minute.

The Organ gun
Also known as a volley gun or ribaldequin, this was a multi-barrelled gun designed to fire a number of shots simultaneously. Some volley guns could also fire their barrels in sequence. They were not machine guns because they did not load and fire automatically and were restricted by the number of barrels bundled together. The weapon was known as an organ gun because the bank of barrels resembled the pipes in a church organ.

In practice, the large organ guns had litde more use than as a cannon firing canister or grapeshot. Mounted on a carriage, they were still as hard to aim and manoeuvre as a cannon, and the many barrels took as long or longer to reload. They also tended to be relatively expensive since they were more complex than a cannon; all the barrels had to be individually maintained, cleaned, loaded and primed. Despite this, the Requa battery, a 25-barrel organ gun, was used by Union forces in 1863 in the American Civil War. A three-man crew could fire seven volleys a minute.

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