1860s: Advanced Civil War weapons

Most of these weapons I have never seen before. And while I have known about the Gatling Machine Gun, some of the other ones appear to belong to a different time frame. They are not as advertised as our regular cannon balls. Yet the below killing machines do appear to pertain to the Civil War era. Somehow it reminded me of those Ironclad Warships which seemingly came from nowhere just in time for the North vs. South conflict.


Civil War Weapons
Ager Machine Gun, Cal. .58, without Carriage

Ager Machine Gun_1.jpg
The maximum effective range, using the caliber .58 Minié-type bullet and a 750-grain powder charge, was 1,000 yards.

The gun was mounted on a light, two-wheeled carriage, with ammunition boxes at either end of the axle, very similar to that used by the mountain guns of the period. It also came equipped with a "manlet" to protect the operator from the fire of small arms.

The Ager gun was a very advanced weapon for the Civil War era. But there was no military demand for a machine gun. Contemporary authorities condemned it as requiring too much ammunition ever to be practical. Also, from the fact that it had only one barrel, they reasoned it could never reach sustained fire to the extent of being considered as an effective arm. Quite a few guns were bought, but they were relegated to covered bridge duty with the Requa battery, there being only a few isolated instances where they were actually used in battle.

The fact that an adequate machine gun mechanism capable of sustained fire existed during the Civil War period can best be verified by a report by a British officer, Major Fosbery, who witnessed a demonstration of the Ager weapon. In his opinion, any weapon consuming such quantities of ammunition was prohibitive from the standpoint of cost and supply. He scoffed at the idea of a single barrel being able to stand the unheard-of feat of discharging from 100 to 120 bullets a minute.

Major Fosbery, an inventor in his own right, felt he had expressed adequately the consensus of all military reasoning when he appended the following to his report: "The only thing forgotten seems to be that, when firing at the rate of 100 discharges a minute, the flame of 7,500 grains of exploded powder and nearly 7 pounds of lead would pass through a single barrel in that time. The effect during the trial proved that the barrel first grew red and nearly white hot, and large drops of fused metal poured from the muzzle, and the firing had to be discontinued from fear of worse consequences."

Further proof of the existence of a serviceable machine gun during the Civil War is unnecessary. It would be considered a severe test even now to fire a weapon either continuously or in short bursts of sufficient duration to heat thebarrel until molten metal ran from the muzzle end.

As early as 1861, the Ager gun was being considered for service. The gun's reliability, during test, had been proved, and the armed forces were at last interested, but the official records show that no one would request unreservedly its purchase.

President Lincoln, himself, made a direct inquiry about the feelers that were being put out by the Army concerning the possible use of the coffee mill guns, and asked whether the Army actually wanted them or not.

The following exchange of correspondence and memoranda among the President, a representative of the makers of the gun, and General McClellan illustrates clearly the reluctance of the armed service to demand boldly something new—even if the time was desperate and the weapon in question had been proved to be reliable enough for consideration.

Claxton Machine Gun, Cal. .69
Claxton Firing Mechanism_1.jpg
Of the other firing mechanisms that appeared soon after the stimulus of war, the most notable was the Claxton. This weapon consisted of two rifle barrels placed side by side on a framework in such a manner that the pair of the barrels were always in alignment with the two sliding breech mechanisms. This temporarily formed a double-barrel breech-loading rifle that operated by the manipulation of a pump handle located between the two breech actions.

The handle was worked by one man, while another fed the cartridges by hand into a short magazine feeder. Rapidity of fire was governed by the physical ability of the soldier to work the handle to and fro.

The gun could be mounted on a carriage somewhat like the Ager, and with the same kind of shield arrangement to protect the operator. This device was of ingenious construction in that it gave full protection to the gunner and still allowed freedom of action in operating and servicing the weapon.

The various officers and military representatives who attended the tests and demonstrations, conducted by the producers of the Claxton weapon, were not impressed by its performance. According to the general opinion, it was of too frail a construction. The manual feeding was far from positive and had a tendency towards an erratic rate of fire. The whole procedure was slowed until 80 rounds a minute was considered maximum.

The weapon was invented by F. S. Claxton, son of Alexander Claxton, a well-known American naval officer. After the weapon failed to receive the interest expected, young Claxton took his invention to France and introduced it to the French service. The same weakness in construction was noted in France. It was later taken to England and manufactured by the Guthrie & Lee Explosive Arms Co., and is sometimes erroneously known as the Guthrie and Lee. Records of its actual use are very limited. However, its mechanism was revised by a Scandinavian engineer and after much refinement was popularized two decades later as an original European design.

Vandenberg Volley Gun, Cal. .50. 85-Barrel Model Used by the Confederates
Vandenberg Volley Gun_1.jpg

Vandenberg Volley Gun_2.jpg
  • This gun had from 85 to 451 barrels
Caliber .45 using a 530-grain lead bullet, many authorities of that day considered it superior to the continental model. Depending on the size of the projectile for which it was designed, the gun had from 85 to 451 barrels. The breech was removable, and was positioned fore and aft by a screw; it was guided into place by a key-way, which, when fitted, brought the holes in the breech end in alignment with those in the stationary barrels.

In order to overcome the escape of gas and smoke at the point where the breech end joined the barrels, the forward end of each chamber was counterbored, and a short copper sleeve, cone-shaped, was placed ahead of the bullet. Upon forcing the breech in place by the screw leverage, the copper piece was crushed into position to form a gas-tight seal or gasket.

The method of ignition was unique in that the center charge was fired by percussion and ignited the whole volley simultaneously. However, by plugging off the vents, or ignition galleries, in advance, the discharge of the piece could be regulated to fire by sections of one-sixth, one-third, or one-half of the group. The other sections remained charged, ready to be fired by inserting a new percussion cap, and opening the formerly plugged orifices.

General Vandenberg also made a loading machine for facilitating the charging of the many chambers in the breech. The device, when placed on dowels, was in proper position over the holes in the chambers. By manipulating a lever, measured charges of powder were dropped simultaneously into every chamber. This mechanism could be removed quickly, to be replaced by another containing lead balls. When properly positioned, the latter dropped the bullets into place. A ramming device was then put on, and all charges were compressed at once by the action of a lever on the loading plungers.

It can readily be seen how by three operations all chambers could be loaded in a relatively short time.

Gorgas Machine Gun, Cal. 1.25
Gorgas Machine Gun, Cal. 1.25.jpg
Another machine gun, under construction by the Southern forces, was the invention of their Chief of Ordnance, Maj. Gen. Josiah Gorgas, C.S.A., (1818-83). It was a single-barrel, cast-iron, smooth-bore affair, caliber 1.25 inches.
The barrel is fastened by an eye and wedge key to a heavy cast-iron horizontal plate. This plate extends under part of the barrel, is circular in rear of the barrel and has an extension to the rear; the rear part contains gearing which is operated by a hand lever. This gearing rotates a horizontal ring contained in the circular portion of the horizontal plate. There are 18 copper-lined muzzle loading chambers on the outside circumference of the ring, and 18 corresponding percussion cap nipples on the inner circumference. Under these nipples and on the ring are the same number of cams; these cams act successively on a lever which withdraws a hammer and compresses a firing spring when the ring is rotated from left to right. The hammer is released as it reaches the end of the cam. The trunnion piece is pivoted underneath the front of the horizontal plate. A lever and loading piston, on the right of the barrel and attached to the horizontal plate, rams home the charges in succession as the ring is rotated and the chambers are seated behind the barrel. The gun is mounted on a pivot that allows it to be moved in azimuth.

General Gorgas was born in Dauphin County, Pa., was a West Point graduate, class of 1841, and an outstanding artilleryman during the Mexican War; he resigned his commission in 1861 and was made Chief of Ordnance of the Confederacy. His own version of a machine gun was not perfected in time to be tested in battle. However, his tactical use of the light and mobile smooth bore cannon, using canister or grapeshot, somewhat in the form of an oversized shotgun, was employed with deadly effect against personnel. It showed the lethal results of concentrated fire and the need for controlling dispersion. This, no doubt, made foreign observers take an interest in any weapon that might come in this category.

Farwell Machine Gun, Cal. .45 (Experimental Model).
Farwell Machine Gun, Cal. .45.jpg
A machine gun of novel design was originated by Mr. W. B. Farwell of New York City in 1870. This weapon, while quite odd from an operational standpoint, was similar in appearance to the many multibarrel guns that were introduced shortly after the Civil War. It was of very heavy metal construction and had four octagon-shaped barrels chambered for the black powder caliber .45-70 standard infantry rifle cartridge.

The operating mechanism consists primarily of an assembly of gear racks and heavy screw threads. It is actuated by the clockwise rotation of a handle located on the right side of the gun. Each barrel has its own individual bolt, having an upper and a lower rack attached to its rear end, through which the bolts are given a reciprocating motion by segmental pinions. At each revolution of the gear wheel the clutch causes the pin to engage temporarily the drive wheel to which is imparted a partial stoppage in the rotation movement. This pause takes place immediately after firing, thereby providing a time lag in case of a hangfire. The cartridges are led by means of a box located over and to the rear of the chambers. The ammunition container has four double-feed slots, or a set of two for each barrel. A peculiar arrangement called the shutter by the inventor is also incorporated in the feed system. Actuated by the bolt's retracting action, this device permits the dropping of a cartridge in the feed slot only when the bolt is far enough back to allow the positioning of the round for chambering.

When the feeder is loaded and latched on top of the gun, a double row of ammunition sits above the loading recess of each barrel. However, the rounds will not drop until the feeder is moved slightly to the right or left enough to create an opening greater than the over-all width of the case. When the weapon is firing, the shutter merely moves the feed box right and left as the empty loading recesses are opened by the rearward action of the bolt.

The operating mechanism is unusual in design, especially the locking and retraction methods. These novel features employ telescoping tubing both as bolt and breech lock. The inner
tube carries the firing pin assembly and also serves as the final support behind the base of the cartridge when fired. The outer tube has a rotary rather than a longitudinal movement. It is provided internally with a screw thread which when revolved imparts the reciprocating action to the inner tube. The forward advance of the lower tube chambers the round and fires it while its withdrawal rearward extracts and ejects the empty cartridge case. The rate of fire is probably unusually low, since the actuation of the parts is dependent upon the screw thread method for reciprocating motion.

The weapon could be assembled and disassembled readily with all working parts easily removable for inspection or cleaning. The inventor claimed that, while firing, each barrel could be moved so as to give converging or scattered fire. The mounting of the large flat ammunition box made it necessary to incorporate an offset sight. It was the first appearance of a feature that was used extensively in later years. Only one of the guns was ever made. Since there were so many better weapons already in existence, no one could be interested in financing its production.

Mitrailleuse Type Weapons
Mitrailleuse Type Weapons_1.jpg

The Chassepot Rifle Cartridge that Was Used in the Mitrailleuse.
Chassepot Rifle Cartridge that Was Used in the Mitrailleuse..jpg

De Reffye Mitrailleuse, a 25-Barreled Version as Modified by the French Ordnance Officer.
De Reffye Mitrailleuse, a 25-Barreled Version as Modified by the French Ordnance Officer.jpg
The successful employment by the Confederates of light cannon firing grapeshot caused a wave of inventions to correct the greatest weakness in this method of using artillery. The cannon were smooth bore, and, like fowling pieces, had limited accuracy. The gunner had little or no control over the placement of the individual grapeshot.

The inventors reasoned that if there were 50 balls in a charge or canister, and 30 were wasted in the scatter effect, a concentrated accurate fire, using an equal number of projectiles, would be even more deadly than the already revolutionary tactics of Generals Gorgas and Bragg.

Developmental approach was along two lines, representing separate and distinct schools of thought. One was the volley system, strongly favored by European armies, whereby a number of barrels were grouped in a plane, parallel or in stacks; and could be fired simultaneously and reloaded rapidly. The other viewpoint, strictly American, employed one or more barrels that did not fire simultaneously, but instead developed a high rate of fire from simplicity of action. In lieu of the volley, it fired in rapid succession a veritable stream of bullets.

To impress military authorities and advertise an improved means of delivering the universally used grapeshot, European inventors called their firing mechanisms "mitrailleuse," meaning "grapeshooter," or more literally "grapeshot shooter." By this name they hoped to imply that theirs was a system for controlling the dispersion of grapeshot.

The general principle was not new. It appears to have been invented originally by Captain Fafschamps of the Belgian Army in 1851. His rough prototype and finished mechanical drawings were offered to Joseph Montigny. This noted Belgian engineer and armorer had his factory at Fontaine l'Eveque, and a branch of his gun business at Brussels.

Later, Montigny constructed some guns of this kind for the defense of the Belgian fortifications. In 1867 he persuaded Emperor Napoleon III of France to introduce the improved Fafschamps gun (now bearing Montigny's name) to the military authorities. Napoleon III was so impressed with the gun that he ordered its manufacture under great secrecy by Commandant de Reffye at the arsenal at Meudon. Montigny had been aided by Louis Christophe, another Belgian ordnance engineer, who added some unique features.

The Montigny gun consists of 37 rifled barrels contained in a wrought iron tube. It is loaded by an iron plate bored with 37 matching holes corresponding in position and number to the barrels. A cartridge is inserted in each hole of the loading plate. The firing mechanism is operated by a hand crank, one turn of which in a clockwise direction fires all 37 rounds in less than a second. If the gunner prefers, each barrel may be fired alternately at any speed desired. The average rate of fire by a competent crew has been recorded as 12 bursts, or 444 shots a minute.

When the loading plate is dropped into position, the encased cartridges are alined with their chambers. Grooves formed on the face of the breechblock receive the plate which, upon being dropped into it, is guided by the advance or withdrawal of that piece.

With the cartridges in place, the gunner rotates the loading crank with his left hand. The breechblock advances, pushing the plate forward until the projectiles enter their appropriate barrels. The plate serves as firing chamber. By this act of locking the weapon, the spring-loaded firing pins are brought back to the seared position, ready for firing. As it cannot be cocked until the weapon is securely locked, accidental discharge is impossible. The neck of the cartridge case
extends into the barrel just enough to form a tight seal preventing gas leakage.

The gunner now quits the loading crank and takes his position by the firing crank at the right side of the gun. He can fire all of the barrels by one swift turn, or slowly space each shot as he sees fit. When the last barrel has been discharged, the operator backs off the loading crank, opening the breech. He then reverses the firing crank, returning the sear, and withdraws the empty cases from the barrels by means of the plate, which now performs the function of an extractor--or rather 37 extractors in one. The plate is then lifted from the positioning grooves carrying with it the empty cases, and is replaced by one filled with loaded cartridges ready for repeating the operation.

A clever device on the gun trail enables the ordnance man in charge of loading to clear and reload the plate very rapidly. It consists of a series of pins matched to the holes in the loading plate. The plate is placed over these holes, and by shoving down on a hand or foot lever the empty cases are jacked sufficiently to free them. Fresh cartridges are then put in the empty chambers, and the plate is ready to be returned to the gun. Use of several plates was recommended for each gun to eliminate any loading lag.

The weapon weighs in the neighborhood of 2 tons, with limber and 2,100 rounds of an especially designed Chassepot ammunition. This cartridge, used in the French version, is composed of a heavy paper case with a brass base, a powder charge, conical bullet and center-fire cap filled with mercury fulminate. The case features a cone-shaped collar that holds the bullet more securely in place. A light coating of tallow over the entire cartridge helps preserve the round. The over-all length of this ammunition is 4 11/16 inches. It carries a bullet weighing 776 grains and 185 grains of propellant, topped by a felt wad. The powder is formed into cylindrical pellets.

Commandant de Reffye made some corrections on the working drawings. For this reason the weapon has often been called the de Reffye mitrailleuse. The barrels were reduced in number from 37 to 25, the Medford type rifling was adopted, and the ammunition changed from an ill-designed cartridge to the Chassepot, at the suggestion of Major Fosbery of the British Army.

From the arsenal, where the weapon was being produced with much security, came fantastic stories of France's terrible secret weapon. Only the officers and men who worked on its production were ever allowed to see or handle it. When one was completed, it was moved from the factory to storage under tarpaulins and accompanied by armed guards. This air of mystery gave the French press a field day. Stories appeared regularly, intimating the weapon was capable of doing just about anything desired by the military.

The fantastic: publicity was intended to intimidate their victorious Prussian neighbors, whose surprising military success over Austria, in 1866, had been due in great measure to a new infantry weapon, the bolt-action needle gun, a product of the German inventor, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse (1798-1868). All Europe suddenly became aware of this rifle, and muzzle-loaders were eliminated, either by substitution of new models or by conversion from muzzle- to breech-loading.

France had attempted to supply her infantry with the Chassepot rifle, her answer in the armament race, but had found it impossible to restock the army quickly enough to prepare for coming trouble. The political events of 1867 foreshadowed the Franco-Prussian conflict. Napoleon III sought desperately to overcome the
German arms supremacy. He felt the morale of the French army had been endangered by the achievements of the Prussians with their Zundnadelgewehr (needle gun), and required some strong stimulus to regain prestige. His attention had been called to the Gatling gun, but national pride rebelled at accepting a foreign weapon. However, when he saw the weapon on exhibit at the Paris World's Fair of 1867, he had it withdrawn to Versailles to be tested in his presence. Presumably this weapon embodied Gatling's 1865 improvements, but the French ammunition was of inferior design. The tests were unimpressive; and the Montigny mitrailleuse, already adopted, continued to be ordered as the standard French equipment, 190 being in service at the outbreak of hostilities 3 years later.

The Franco-Prussian War proved the downfall of the weapon. Too many separate operations needed to be done by hand, and in sequence, any one of which, if neglected, would prevent the gun from firing. The firing crank must be reversed after the loading crank has pulled back the breech, otherwise the gun would not sear. The loading crank must then close the breech after the replacement of the loading plate with discharged cases by one filled with complete rounds. Where the Gatling depended on steady rotation of a single crank, its French competitor required constantly changing operations: forward and reverse rotation of two separate cranks, and a pause while the loader removed and replaced the loading plate between each 25 shots. Contemporary foreign writers commented on this complexity and marveled that the French, who usually insisted on simplicity above all else in their guns, should have adopted such a weapon.

Source: Military Operated Machine Guns - link has more weapons including some later ones.

Related: Ironclad ships - another example of Tartarian technology?

KD: I pretty much have the same question as always. Where is the learning curve which lead to the creation of these weapons? Where is any evidence of research and development which produced the above?

This manual hand cranking is so not fitting the visual appearance of these weapons that my natural though was about some automatic rotating mechanism which for some reason was not available to the Civil War operators. Yep, I do entertain a possibility that they simply located a cache or two of someone else's weapons.

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