Saturday, October 22, 2016

Please Sell Me 200 Guns That Will Blow up in My Face



The early modern period brought few laurels to the American firearms industry. The best guns available in the seventeenth century were Dutch, in the eighteenth century French. Americans fought the Battle of Saratoga with French muskets and won the Battle of Yorktown with French artillery. The most innovative small arm of the Revolutionary War, the Ferguson breech-loading rifle, was a British invention. This of course did not stop Americans from building and experimenting with new kinds of weapons. As Andrew Fagal observes in a recent post on Age of Revolutions, the Atlantic Revolutionary era (ca. 1770-1830) was an age of organized violence, and one in which small or financially stressed nations struggled to maintain effective armed forces. Innovations in firepower could give revolutionary states an inexpensive "force multiplier" that would let them defend their homeland or conquer new territories for less money.

In 1792, Fagal writes, the American Joseph Chambers demonstrated to the U.S. War Department a musket that could fire eight bullets in a row without reloading. Essentially, a gun lock at the front of the barrel ignited the first powder charge, while perforations in the bullets allowed the blowback from each shot to ignite the next. This made Chambers's weapon resemble a shotgun more than a rifle; it is hard to see how one could have aimed it at multiple targets. The gun also had a tendency to burst when fired. Indeed, if one fired the repeater improperly its massive powder charge exploded and (probably) killed the gunman. 

The War Department expressed little interest in the unreliable and potentially suicidal weapon. The newer and more innovative Navy Department, however, during the War of 1812 ordered several hundred of Chambers's repeating muskets and 50 seven-barreled swivel guns. Fagal isn’t sure if the Navy ever used any of Chambers’s weapons, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. More noteworthy is the great interest that other nations showed in the new repeaters: French and Spanish diplomats and British and Dutch officers all either inquired about Chambers’ design, studied captured models, or bought a war-surplus Chambers gun or three for testing. None could effectively copy or debug the weapon, and Euro-Americans all lost interest in it by 1820. But no-one dismissed it as a useless toy developed by a backwoods dreamer, either, even if that's all it proved to be. 

Perhaps this episode helps explain why radical technological change often begins in the military sphere: the stakes are so high, and the benefits of even marginal improvement in efficiency so potentially great, that officials and inventors are much more willing to risk financial loss, humiliation or injury than civilians. 

Image of British Brown Bess musket (ca. 1720-1840) courtesy of Antique Military Rifles and Wikimedia Commons.

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