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The Puckle Gun-unknown artist – source: Wikipedia in the public domain. Image originally taken from Recreation magazine, by George O. Shields, American Canoe Association, League of American Sportsmen, volume 4, published 1896.

 In 1718, British inventor, lawyer and author James Puckle invented the “Puckle Gun”, or “Defence Gun”, the world’s first patented multi-shot weapon. Since the weapon did not fire repetitively, it was not a “machine-gun” despite sharing similar traits and concept. A revolutionary design, the gun featured a tri-pod mounted, single-bored cannon with a multi-chambered revolving cylinder and matchlock-type firing mechanism. The operator discharged the weapon using a crank shaft similar to those used on Richard Gatling’s Model 1862 “Gatling Gun” later in the mid-nineteenth century, but only one chamber at a time. More cannon than small arm, the weapon had a 25.4 mm calibre barrel and fired an astounding 9 rounds a minute. While multi-shot guns with revolving chambers had existed since the late 16th century, none previously had the size and destructive potential as the Puckle Gun.

Far ahead of the technology of the period, the gun was somewhat unreliable, and difficult and expensive to manufacture, a poor combination that doomed its wide-scale production and use. Originally designed for use on warships as an anti-personnel weapon, the gun soon attracted the attention of the British Army, Royal Navy or private investors. However, almost immediately after the weapon’s reveal, critics pointed out numerous drawbacks. Problems included size, special transport and handling requirements and most of all, the gun’s tactical limitations. In an era when linear tactics dominated the battlefield (requiring rapid movements and turns), the Puckle Gun (albeit small to medium in size) was largely a stationary weapon much the same as field artillery. To deploy, discharge, break down, move and re-deploy the weapon required considerable time and resources ill-afforded to front line units. Loading time was manageable, but required a crew of two or three men and could re-load only one chamber at a time. However, perhaps most damaging, gunsmiths could not simply make the weapon. Its many complex and custom built components ultimately prevented mass production.

Still, despite all the criticisms, James Puckle’s Gun was an engineering marvel that dazzled onlookers when field tested in 1722 at a public exhibition in England. The gun fired off an amazing 63 rounds of ammunition, all in seven minutes time and during inclement weather. To put this into perspective, the common early 18th-century soldier in most European armies could fire two or perhaps three shots in a minute depending on weather and other conditions. Thus, with its advanced rate of fire, a single Puckle Gun could deliver the firepower of roughly 3 men in the same unit of time. The gun had the same effective range of 50-75 yards as most other standard single-shot flintlock muskets or rifles, such as the popular French Model 1718 Charleville, and a maximum range of 200 yards.

One unique feature of the Puckle Gun was that it could fire two types of ammunition: round and square shaped bullets. Firing the square bullets required changing out the rotating chamber to the square variant. The awkward shape of the square bullets would cause more pain, and do more harm to the victim than round ones. To that end, James Puckle designed these shots specifically for use against the Ottoman Turks, Christian Europe’s principal (and common) enemy, while reserving the more “merciful” round bullets for Christians.

Although John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749) purchased several pro-type models of the gun in 1722, the British army and Royal Navy never placed a major production order. Consequently, no historical record of the Puckle Gun fired in combat exists. But what if? With a few improvements or tweaks made here and there, it is indeed possible that the Puckle Gun could have altered the course of history. Imagine the impact of these weapons dispersed throughout an entire eighteenth century army with its packed formations? At the least, it would have likely led to the development of trench warfare, massively introduced much later during the Great War (World War I). For the time being at least, armies would still rely on single shot weapons.

By: Edmund John Carter III

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