How early did the first high-capacity firearms make an appearance? Ever since the invention of firearms, people yearned for guns that would fire more quickly and that held more than just one shot. Whether for warfare, hunting dangerous game, or just convenience, we desired a faster rate of fire.
We’re going to take a look at some of the early examples of man’s quest for firepower.
Chelembrom Magazine Repeating Flintlock
As early as 1781, there were high-capacity firearms. Flintlocks, to be exact! I know, right? I was just as surprised to learn of this as you are. Believe it or not, just because a guy writes about guns does not make him all-knowing. There’s a fair bit of research involved in some articles. And as strange as it may sound, I don’t have any trigger time on the Chelembrom flintlock!
What the hell is it? That’s a good question! Let’s learn together!
The repeating flintlock was mostly used for hunting. However, they also appear to have been used on the battlefield in 1785. At least one is reported to have been captured by King George III.
Most flintlocks had to be loaded one round at a time from that era. However, the Chelembrom Magazine Repeating Flintlock could hold 20 rounds!
It operates thusly: The muzzle with its barrel and magazines are pointed skyward, with the magazines being rotated in a clockwise direction. A charge of powder is measured and placed into the dropping tube, with a small portion being deposited into the priming pan, which is then closed and the lock is cocked. At that point, the rest of the powder drops into a chamber in the brass receiver. Simultaneously, a bullet is released and dropped into a covered trough. The barrel is moved around until it aligns with the bullet, which is shoved up into the barrel via a spring. At that point, the barrel is then reversed and returned to its original position. The barrel, with the bullet in place, is now aligned with a chamber full of powder.
This system is relatively safe because the powder magazine is away from the source of ignition.
Overall, this system had a higher firing rate than standard flintlocks of the day.
When opponents of the Second Amendment tell us that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined weapons holding lots of rounds when they wrote the document, we can now refute that, as these guns were around well before it was written.
James Puckle was a British Lawyer and writer (I knew I’d like him—we writers stick together, you know). He was also an inventor.
In 1718, he received a patent for his firearm. For the time period, it was an interesting and unique firearm, in that it was one of the first guns to be referred to as a “machinegun.” Although by today’s definition, it wasn’t technically a machine gun. And the Puckle Gun was never used in combat in any war.
Puckle’s Gun was mounted on a tripod. It featured a single barrel and was a flintlock. The gun had a manually operated, rotating cylinder. The barrel was just under three feet long and had a bore diameter of 32mm (1.25 inches), making it more of a canon.
The cylinder was hand loaded while detached from the weapon with the powder and shot. It could hold six to 11 shots, depending upon the configuration of the cylinder.
Puckle thought the gun would be especially useful as an anti-boarding gun for ships.
The projectiles intended to be fired from the Puckle Gun were interesting. Not only could round bullets be fired, but also square projectiles could be used, depending on the gun’s configuration. Shot could also be used, which fired 16 musket balls, functioning like a large shotgun.
Operating The Puckle Gun
After each shot, the operator turned a crank, rotating the cylinder to the next chamber. As the cylinder was rotated, the firing pan on the previous chamber was closed and the next one was ready to be primed. Next, the crank would be screwed tight again, which locked the chamber and formed a gas-tight seal. The flintlock was then primed and the weapon could be fired. As mentioned, this is a far cry from today’s machine guns, but for the period, it was pretty revolutionary.
Changing the cylinder involved completely unscrewing the crank handle, removing the old cylinder, and replacing it with a fresh one.
In 1722, a public trial demonstrated that the Puckle Gun fired 63 rounds in seven minutes. To make it even more impressive, this took place during a heavy rainstorm.
Examples of this gun are nearly non-existent, with a precious few being on display, because it is believed that only a few were made.
Richard Gatling, born in North Carolina in 1818, was an inventor. He started out inventing farm machinery and tools for sowing and harvesting cotton (his father was a rich planter). Gatling also studied medicine, though he never became a practicing physician.
Gatling was living in Indiana when the Civil War erupted. Despite being born in the south, he was a staunch union supporter. Gatling, upon seeing the terrible wounds and disease produced by the war, began thinking about inventing a more efficient weapon than the slow-firing muskets that were being used.
A letter to a friend explains his motives for inventing such a weapon: “It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.” He had decided to sow death in addition to seeds.
His sentiments were admirable, and it’s unfortunate that it did not work out the way he had hoped.
Gatling received the first patent for his gun on November 4, 1862.
How It Operates
The Gatling gun was mounted on a cart and utilized six barrels. When the gun operator turned a crank, the magazine fed a bullet into a barrel, which then rotated into firing position. After each barrel was fired, it continued moving around until it was loaded with another bullet and fired again.
Early versions used paper cartridges loaded with powder and .58 caliber bullets, which could fire around 200 shots per minute. Later versions used brass cartridges, allowing up to 400 rounds per minute to be fired.
Amazingly, the US Army Ordnance Department did not adopt the Gatling Gun during the Civil War. General Benjamin Butler bought a dozen Gatling Guns and at least one saw action during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia in 1865.
Finally, in 1866 (after the Civil War ended), they officially adopted the Gatling Gun. From there, its popularity steadily grew.
They were used by US troops in battles against Native Americans. General Custer neglected to take his Gatling guns with him to Little Bighorn, deeming them to be too cumbersome to haul along. Had he brought them along for the ride, that engagement might have turned out a bit differently. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
The British used them against the Zulus in Africa in 1879.
At the outset of WWI, the Gatling Gun faded and was replaced by more modern machine guns. However, it made its resurgence during the Vietnam War as the Vulcan, an electrically driven gun capable of massive firepower (6,000 rounds per minute). The design lives on today in various calibers, up to 37mm. It’s capable of obscene amounts of carnage.
The Volition Repeating Rifle was the first lever action rifle to receive a patent in 1848. It never made it into production, being a complicated design. Oliver Winchester bought the New Haven Arms Company and hired Benjamin Henry to improve the design. The famous Henry Rifle was born.
Introduced in 1860, it was used by some US Army units during the Civil War. Confederates took notice of the lever action, deeming it, “That damn Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week!” The rifle had a 15-round magazine that held metallic .44 caliber rimfire cartridges. Especially for the time period, that certainly qualifies as high-capacity!
Later on, these same rifles were used by the Sioux and Cheyenne to defeat Custer’s Calvary at Little Big Horn in 1876.
The Spencer was another lever action carbine that was tube fed. However, unlike the Henry, the Spencer’s tube magazine was contained inside the stock. The shooter had to manually cock the hammer after ejecting a spent cartridge and loading a new one. Like the Henry, it was also used during the Civil War.
There were definitely more lever actions, these were just a couple. This is another design that, even today, is wildly popular in a number of calibers. These days, they can be found in .30-30, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45-70, among others.
We’ve listed just a few high-capacity firearms here. Without a doubt, there are more, but space limitations being what they are, we tried to cover some of the more interesting ones here.
Now you know that high-capacity firearms are not a new invention, that they’ve been around for centuries. Hopefully, we’ve included some unique information that is refreshing for readers.
Amazingly, some of the designs from so long ago are still alive and kicking (no pun intended) in current times.