Friday, December 31, 2010

Concealed Weapons

In our last post about combined firearms, two of the examples (the whip pistol and King Henry VIII's mace) are also examples of a concealed firearm. Well, technically, Henry VIII's mace is a weapon anyway, even though it conceals pistols within it. We also looked at derringer pistols earlier, which were designed to be concealed. In this post, we will look at some firearm designs that were designed to be hidden and give the illusion that the user had no means of self defense.

The first class of weapons we will look at is the firearm-cane class. Canes or walking sticks are often used by elderly people as a walking aid for hundreds of years. In the 19th and early 20th century, they were also seen as a fashion accessory that was popular with the gentlemanly class, whether young or old. For many centuries, people have concealed objects in canes. For example, there are stories of spies hiding messages in hollow walking sticks and an enterprising missionary to China smuggled silkworms to the west inside his hollow walking stick. Prince Edward, son of Queen Victoria, even commissioned a cane which had a hidden flask of whiskey within it, as well as a built-in hidden compass on the top of the cane knob, so that he could find his way home after a night of drinking!

The Japanese had the Shikomizue and the Romans had the Dolon, both of which concealed swords within a hollow walking stick. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sword canes also became popular with the wealthy classes of Europe. In the 19th century, people soon began to conceal firearms within canes as well. Such weapons were made by many English and European manufacturers:

The above example fires .410 caliber shotgun shells. The trigger is a foldable one and may be kept hidden, when not in use.

The above image is a cane made by Briggs of London in the 19th century. It conceals not only a sharp dagger, but also a 4-cylinder pepperbox revolver that fires .22 caliber ammunition.

These days, canes that contain concealed weapons are illegal in many countries, but some countries have a clause that they can be legally sold if they are over 100 years old. Therefore, older weapons are often seen in auctions.

The next weapon we will look at was invented by a Frenchman named Jacques Turbiaux in 1882. It was called a Palm Pistol:

This is a weapon designed to be concealed within one's fist and can be fired by squeezing the spring loaded lever in the back of the gun. The cartridges are loaded in a rotating turret with the bullets facing outwards. There were two version, a 7 shot version using 8 mm. cartridges, like the image shown above, and a 10 shot version using 6 mm. cartridges. The lever has a double action operation, in that it rotates the turret to the next shot, before firing it. Turbiaux obtained an US patent in 1883 and the Minneapolis Firearms Company produced a licensed version that fired 7 shots in .32 caliber. These weapons are typically rare today and sell for about $1500-2000 dollars in auctions.

In modern days, people have sought to conceal firearms in various guises. The following three pictures are some examples that were developed by spy agencies of various countries:

The first weapon is designed to look like a tire-gauge, but also fires a .22 caliber cartridge. It was supposedly used by CIA agents in the 1950s and 1960s. The next is a weapon designed to look like a camera, but carries a pistol within the lens. The third looks like a typical briefcase carried by a businessman, but hides a Hecker & Koch MP-5 submachine gun within it. It is fired by a hidden trigger concealed in the carrying handle of the briefcase.

Concealed weapons like these are illegal in most countries around the world, so the only concealed weapons these days are manufactured by intelligence agencies or custom built for criminals and are not available to the public. In fact, most of these designs are kept secret. Some countries allow certain concealed weapon items to be legally bought or sold if they can be classified as "antiques", so some historical items, such as pistol canes and palm pistols, are seen in auctions.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Combined Firearms: Other Weapons

In the last few posts, we have seen firearms combined with axes, with swords and knives and with daggers. In this post, we will look at some examples of firearms combined with other weapons.

The first ones we will look at are available for display in the Historisches Museum in Dresden, Germany.

What we have here are a pair of German-made spear heads dating from around 1560. Each spear-head has two pistols, one on each side of the head. The pistols are powered by wheel-lock mechanisms, which the Germans were very good at producing, due to their expertise with clocks and clockwork mechanisms. Note that the first spear head is also very heavily decorated indicating that it was built for a rich customer. The first spear head also has a note that says it was built by one Peter Peck of Munich.

The next set of weapons may be seen in the armory display at the Tower of London, England.

Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, Second Edition. Click on image to enlarge.

The above image shows a round shield with a built in matchlock firearm. These shields date from the 16th century and were ordered by King Henry VIII for use by his bodyguards. About twenty specimens still remain in the present day. The pistol uses a breech-loading mechanism. Also note the grill on the shield. This allows the user to hide behind the shield, but still aim the firearm at the enemy.

The image above is also due to King Henry VIII of England. It is currently on display in the Tower of London as well. This is a combination of a spiked mace with three hidden matchlock pistols in it and is called Henry VIII's Walking Stick. He was known to wield this weapon personally and often took it with him when he would wander about town at night, to check to see if his constables were doing their duty. Unfortunately for him, one of his constables at the parish of St. Magnus (near the London bridge) did his duty very well. He confronted the disguised King at the bridge-foot and demanded to know what this suspicious character was doing with a mace so late in the night. When the King tried to escape, the constable called a watchman to assist him and together, they arrested the King and tossed him into a unlit, cold, tiny prison cell for the night (Such prisons for vagrants, debtors and beggars were called Poultry Compters). In the morning, when his identity became known, the King personally summoned the constable and the watchman who'd arrested him. The two came in trembling, fully expecting to be tortured and beheaded. Instead, they were commended for their honesty and integrity and rewarded with large gifts. The King also immediately passed a law that granted an annual stipend of 23 pounds as well as a large quantity of bread and coal annually for ever to the prison where he spent the night, for the benefit of his fellow prisoners and any other future prisoners! In an article in The London Magazine Vol. III from 1833, it was mentioned that the parish was still receiving its annual grants.

The above image shows a whip which conceals a flintlock pistol within it. The barrel is about 12 inches long and the firing mechanism is concealed by the tassels on the whip. This particular specimen was once the property of a notorious Neapolitan bandit. However, it must be noted that such whip-pistols were not exclusively used by bandits alone. In the 17th and 18th centuries, similar weapons were presented to drivers of French mail coaches travelling south of the town of Lyons.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Combined Firearms: Daggers

In our last post, we studied the combination of a firearm with a sword. In this post, we will look into a relative of the sword, the dagger, which was also combined with firearms throughout history.

The combination of a firearm with a dagger was more common than combining a firearm with a sword. For one thing, they were cheaper. Also, unlike a sword, a dagger wouldn't be unbalanced as much and the firearm is also easier to manipulate and aim than if it was attached to a sword. As with swords, many of the early combined dagger pistols were made in Germany.

Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, Second Edition. Click image to enlarge.

In the above image, we have a fine 16th century pistol dagger. This specimen uses a wheel lock mechanism. Note that unlike the pistol swords we saw in the previous post, this one has the barrel pass through the middle of the blade, thereby giving it better balance. The removable muzzle stopper piece is seen at the right bottom of the image. The muzzle stopper is removed to load the weapon and when replaced, forms the point of the dagger blade. The weapon is fired by depressing a small stud in the handle. The weapon is also beautifully ornamented, indicating that it was made for a rich customer.

In 1838, the United States Navy commissioned the Elgin Cutlass pistol, which is the only combination firearm ever to be officially accepted as a standard weapon by a military anywhere in the world. This combined a percussion lock pistol with a 11.5 inch long bowie knife.

This weapon was not only the first combination firearm officially accepted in military service, it was also the first percussion lock weapon adopted by the US navy. They were originally designed for use with the Navy South Sea Expedition. This is a .54 caliber weapon with a 11.5 inch blade. It had some success, especially in a battle in the Fijian islands in 1840. However, only 150 of these specimens were ever made. A few were used in the Civil war, but were unpopular with the troops. Some of them made it to civilian hands and were used in the Wild West.

Click on images to enlarge.

The above two weapons are Katar knives from India, circa the 18th or 19th centuries. Both weapons feature two firearms attached to them. In the first picture, we have two flintlock pistols, one on each side of the blade. The heavy blade has an engraving of the Hindu Dieties Shiva on one side and Kali on the other. The blade is made of the best pattern welded steel and the handles and sides have floral patterns that are inlaid with gold. The second Katar has two percussion lock pistols, one on each side of the blade. Like the first one, this is also heavily engraved. One side of the blade has a scene with two cranes and the other side has two elephants charging at each other. The blades are designed to be used as thrusting as well as slashing weapons and could easily go through mail or even plate armor.

In all the above weapons, they all feature single-shot pistols. After the advent of revolvers in the mid 1800s, some weapons began to incorporate revolver technology along with daggers.

The above images feature two examples of a type of weapon called the "Apache Revolver". This is a weapon that was produced in the late 19th to early 20th centuries (about 1870 to 1918). Most of these weapons were produced by French or Belgian (especially around the town of Liege) manufacturers, such as N. Dolne and J. Deleaxhe. The reason for its name is because it became famous as the sidearm of a notorious Paris based gang of criminals called Les Apaches. This distinctive weapon consists of a pepperbox revolver using pinfire cartridge technology, coupled with a knuckle duster (a.k.a. brass knuckles) and a wavy blade. The blade, the knuckle duster and the trigger are all foldable. Folded up, it measures only 11 cm. in length and can easily be carried in a pocket. When it is unfolded, it expands upto 20 cm. in length. The whole weapon weighs about 380-400 grams. It was generally carried with the first chamber unloaded, so that it could not be accidentally fired while it was still in the user's pocket. The user could put his fingers into the finger holes of the brass knuckles and punch someone with it, without unfolding it. Alternatively, the user could unfold it and use the brass knuckles as the handle and either shoot the revolver or stab the enemy with the blade. The firearm part was definitely underpowered and inaccurate and the blade was only a couple of inches long, nevertheless it was used quite a bit in the Paris underworld. Note that the sample on the left is heavily engraved. Quite a few gangsters had this done to show off their weapons and such weapons may actually be the first examples of "gangsta bling"! These weapons continued to be used in the 20th century. One example of a combination brass knuckles and pistol, called the Le Poilu, was manufactured by the French during World War I.

The next two examples are the sort of weapons that were designed along the principle of Swiss army knives. Both are dated to the 1860s and are both made by different firms in Sheffield, England. The first one is made by the firm of Unwin and Rogers and combines a pistol with two folding blades. The pistol is in .28 caliber and uses a rimfire cartridge. Unwin and Rogers received their patent in 1861 and made these weapons in many other calibers as well, such as .32, .34 etc.

The second one is made by another Sheffield firm called R. Turner & Co. This one uses a percussion cap and is in 0.22 caliber. It also contains a knife, corkscrew, hole punch, hook and tweezers. The cylindrical knob at the left side of the body is the cocking lever and is pulled out to cock the weapon. The picture below shows the other side of this weapon

The user would remove the barrel and breech and load the weapon and put the percussion cap in the end of the breech nipple. The user would then pull the cocking knob at the back of the weapon. On firing the weapon, the breech and barrel would also leave the weapon as a secondary projectile.

In the next post, we will cover some other combinations of firearms with other weapons.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Combined Firearms: Swords

In our last discussion, we explored how axes and pistols could be combined together into a single weapon. In this post, we will explore pistols combined with swords.

Early pistol swords and knives were mostly used in Germany and France by hunters, as a secondary backup weapon to their hunting rifles. The image below shows a combination of a hunting knife with a wheel lock pistol dated to 1546.

Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License from user Unforth at
Click on image to enlarge.

This weapon was made in Germany and is now to be seen in the NY Metropolitan Museum collection. Note that the pistol barrel is located entirely on the back of the blade.

Combination of a wheel-lock mechanism with a sword has been in use since at least the 16th century. Since swords were traditionally much more expensive to manufacture than axes, knives, spears etc. and wheel-lock mechanism was also more expensive than other firing mechanisms, such weapons were usually used by aristocrats. Since they could afford it, these weapons were usually heavily engraved and decorated as well.

German-made Riding Sword from circa 1575. This combines a rapier with wheel-lock pistol. Click image to enlarge.

Hungarian/Polish Saber with wheel-lock pistol from circa 1565. Click image to enlarge.

In the golden age of piracy, a weapon that combined a flintlock pistol with a cutlass was used by pirates as well as navy officers, for boarding purposes.

Click on images to enlarge

The illustrations above show two such designs. The first is actually a replica of a French made cutlass-pistol. Both these examples feature a single-shot flintlock pistol attached to the side of the cutlass. Pirates would swing over to the victim ship and discharge their pistol first and then close in for hand-to-hand sword fighting. Since the same hand could discharge the pistol and hold the sword at the same time, this left the pirate's other hand free.

All the above weapons depicted here are single shot weapons. Somewhere during the 19th century, when revolvers started to become popular, several French, Belgian and German manufacturers such as Lefaucheux, Lepage, Dumonthier, T.A. Rauh & Co. etc. began to combine pinfire revolvers with swords. This allowed the user the option of firing multiple shots without reloading. Such weapons were never officially adopted by any military, but were very popular among officers in many European countries. In fact, in the Paris Exhibition of 1867, there were over 30 models of swords-revolvers on display.

The above is a Belgian made weapon from 1877. The revolver uses pinfire cartridges and the trigger is behind the hilt, as is the loading gate for this weapon. Unusually, the scabbard has a depression on the outside so that the revolver barrel stays outside the weapon even with the scabbard on. This allows the user to fire the pistol even if the scabbard is still on the sword.

The picture above is a weapon made by T.A. Rauh and Co. of Solingen, Germany. The revolver barrel is located parallel to the right side of the blade. As before, the revolver uses pinfire cartridges. This weapon was granted US Patent #52504 in 1866.

The picture above is a 30 inch long short sword made by E. Lefaucheux Co. of France, to the order of a Peruvian importer. As before, this uses a pinfire cartridge revolver. Incidentally, it was Eugene Lefaucheux's father, Casimir Lefaucheux, who invented the pinfire cartridge. Eugene Lefaucheux inherited his father's business as well as his mechanical talents. With a view to improving the business, he went to study in Liege, Belgium for a period of time. There, he learned the latest practical manufacturing techniques, as well as negotiation tactics with local suppliers. It was also in Liege (which was a hotbed for making cheap, unlicensed firearm copies at that time) where he saw clones of the Colt Pocket 1849 and Navy 1851 revolvers and was impressed enough to make his own revolver versions. His first patent drawing of 1854 looked very similar to a Colt Navy 1851 model externally, but his 1854 model used pinfire cartridges inspired by his father, instead of the old fashioned cap-and-ball muzzle loading mechanism of the Colt model. This meant that his revolvers were much more reliable, easier and faster to load and more immune to weather conditions than the Colt model. In fact, the Lefaucheux 1854 revolver was considered the most advanced handgun of that era. It was only a matter of time before he adapted his revolver mechanisms to be attached to swords.

Pistol swords were not as widely used mainly because of the expense. One more major issue was that the pistol mechanism would cause the sword to unbalance towards the hilt, making it harder to wield the sword. Furthermore, since the pistol was permanently attached to the sword, it became much heavier and therefore harder to point and aim as a pistol. So instead of gaining a 2 for 1 weapon, the user ended up with an off-balanced sword and a heavy pistol! This is why pistol-swords never really gained much popularity throughout the ages.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Combined Firearms: Axes

In the early days of firearms history, there was no automatic reloading mechanism for firearms, so once the firearm was discharged, the time taken to reload a firearm was pretty high. During this time, the user of the firearm was at great risk of a counter-attack unless he had some other weapon to defend himself. With this view, there were several weapons developed that would combine a firearm with some other weapon. Unlike a rifle with a bayonet attached, these weapons were primarily designed as axes, swords, daggers etc., but had a pistol attached.

The first class of weapons that we will study are the pistol-battle axes. These first appeared in Europe in the late 1400s and still continued to be used into the 1800s in some parts of the world.

Public Domain Image taken from W.W. Greener's The Gun and its Development, Second Edition

The weapon in the illustration above is a pistol-axe made in Germany in the beginning of the 17th century. The reader may note that this weapon has a wheel-lock firing mechanism near the head of the axe. The barrel is six inches long and fires out of the top of the axe. The handle behind the wheel-lock is about 2.5 feet long and has the trigger mechanism at the end of the handle. This weapon was designed to be used by a horseback rider.

Click on image to enlarge

The above illustrations show two more fine German made pistol-axes, from the Dresden museum. As before, these use a wheel-lock firing mechanism as well. The triggers for these two axes are located just below the wheel-locks. The axe heads have a blade edge on one side for cutting and a ice-pick like spiked point on the other side to pierce through tough plate armor. The top spikes of the axes are removable to reveal the hollow barrels inside. Note that these two axes are much more expensive and have better workmanship than the previous one and also have intricate engravings on the body of the axes.

Click on images to enlarge

The next two illustrations are an axe using matchlock firing mechanism and another one using the flintlock firing mechanism. This particular flintlock axe was made in Germany in the late 17th century. Flintlock axes were also heavily used by the Polish Cavalry between the 16th and 18th centuries and was one of their trademark weapons.

Indian made battle axe. Click images to enlarge

The above illustrations are an Indian made Tabar axe from the 17th century. This one uses a matchlock firing mechanism as well. There is no real trigger, as the matchlock is mounted on a long thin lever around a pivot point, as can be seen in the first illustration. The fire is applied by simply pulling the other end of the long thin lever. This axe is an all-steel construction and originally had gold inlay, most of which is worn off. Judging by the carvings on the axe head, this was probably owned by a Hindu, since at least four human figures are depicted.

Indian made battle axe. Click to enlarge

The next illustration is a weapon dating from the 19th century. This is a pistol axe taken from the Santal tribe of India. The Santals are a tribe that traditionally occupied areas of the modern day Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Assam. This particular weapon is 16.5 inches (approx. 42 cm.) long, of which 8.5 inches (21.6 cm.) is the pistol barrel. It is a very light weapon and the thickness of the barrel at the muzzle is only 0.2 inches (approx. 0.5 cm.).

Axes were the most common weapons to be combined with pistols, since these two were the easiest to combine together. These designs were very widespread indeed. In the next few posts, we will see other weapons that were combined with pistols.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Punt Guns

In the realm of large bore firearms, there exists one exceptionally large bore class of weapons known as "punt guns". We will study about this class of weapons in this post.

In our study of firearm bores, we noted that a weapon of bore N originally meant that it fired a solid spherical lead ball of such diameter that it weighed 1/N pounds. Therefore a 4 bore firearm fires lead balls that weigh 1/4 pounds each, an 8 bore firearm fires balls that weigh 1/8th pounds each and so on. Therefore, the larger the bore number, the smaller the ball it fires. We also talked about "elephant guns" which were generally 4 bore weapons and even the 2 bore weapon, which was infrequently used, because it was hard for a man to shoot from the shoulder. But what about larger weapons, such as the 1 bore. Well, they do exist and they're called punt guns.

The history of such guns starts in the 19th century, when the rise in demand for meat in the marketplace led to mass-hunting of waterfowl. Also, the best women's fashions at that time featured feathered hats and feather trimmed dresses and therefore there was a large demand for feathers as well. To meet these demands, professional hunters began to custom-build larger caliber weapons for the task. The punt gun emerged during this period as a commercial way to hunt waterfowl. A punt gun is essentially a large caliber shotgun. Since they have huge barrel diameters (around 2 inches or 50 mm.), they are capable of firing over 1 pound (approx. 0.5 kg.) of shotgun pellets at a time. Since such a weapon cannot be really held at the shoulder by normal human beings because of the huge weight and immense recoil, they were often fixed to the boats used for hunting. These boats were called punts (a flat-bottomed boat with a square bow designed for shallow water usage) and designed to maneuver around shallow swamps and marshes where water birds would generally feed. This practice of attaching the gun to the punt is what gave the punt gun its name. The hunter would simply mount the punt gun facing forward and maneuver the boat to point to the whole flock of birds without startling them. If multiple hunters were present, they would all move their boats in a parallel line facing the flock of birds. Then, at a given signal, the punt guns would all open fire simultaneously. The recoil of a punt gun was so much that it would often push the punt backwards by several inches.

Since the punt guns generally fired a large amount of shotgun pellets, one of these could easily account for something like 50 birds with just one trigger pull. To increase their hunting efficiency, groups of professional hunters would often maneuver 8-10 punts into position and fire at a flock simultaneously, accounting for the entire flock at one time. In fact, punt guns were so successful in hunting that they depleted wild bird populations and were eventually banned in many US states by the 1860s. Later on, the US federal government passed a law in 1918 banning the practice of market hunting completely, as well as the fashion feather trade by 1920. Hence, the use of punt guns in the US plummeted soon after. There are still a few hunters in the UK using punt guns in the 21st century, but they are limited by law to a barrel diameter of 44 mm. and max. shot weight of 1.125 pounds.

To observe a punt gun in action, here's world famous shooter Tom Knapp demonstrating one:

Note the effects of just one shot from a punt gun. The reader can only imagine its effect on a flock of birds.

Due to the fact that there was no support from the US firearms industry for the manufacture of punt guns, they were custom-built by professional hunters. This meant that many of these were crudely designed, but they were usually very sturdily built. Many of them were muzzle-loaders with a percussion cap or flintlock firing mechanism. Since these weapons were custom built, weight, height and length could vary widely. The weight could be anything from 20-45 kg. and length could be around 2-3 meters. There was better support for punt guns in the UK, where the punt guns were designed by sporting manufacturers and were of better quality than the home made designs available in the US.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bore & Gauge - II

In our last post, we studied how the bore/gauge of a firearm was specified. For larger weapons, such as cannons and field artillery, the diameter of the barrel would be specified in a related way.

In the case of a cannon, the diameter of the barrel is much more than that of a firearm. Hence, the bore would be specified in pounds (e.g.) 2 pounder, 3 pounder, 4 pounder, 6 pounder, 18 pounder, 24 pounder etc. This would often be appreviated as 2 pdr, 3 pdr, 4 pdr, 6 pdr etc. As with firearms, what this means is that if you took a solid spherical cannon ball that fit into (say) a 3 pounder barrel and weighed it, it would weigh 3 pounds. Similarly, a 6 pounder would use a cannon ball of such diameter that if you weighed it, it would weigh 6 pounds and so on. This establishes a relationship between the weight of the cannon ball and the bore diameter.

The difference between cannon bores and firearm bores is that in firearm bores, the material of the ball is considered to be lead, whereas with cannon bores, the cannon ball was considered to be made of iron. Since these materials have different densities, a 1 pound lead ball has smaller diameter than a 1 pound iron ball. Also, for firearm bores, when a firearm is said to be of N bore, that means the ball it takes weighs 1/N pounds. For instance, a 10 bore musket uses lead balls weighing 1/10 of a pound and a 12 bore musket uses balls weighing 1/12th of a pound. As a consequence of this, the smaller the bore number, the larger the diameter of the firearm's barrel (i.e. diameter of 2 bore > 4 bore > 10 bore etc.). In contrast to this, a cannon bore is specified by the weight of the iron cannon ball, so the larger number indicates a larger diameter barrel (16 pdr > 8 pdr > 3 pdr).

Even though two cannon might be both (say) 32 pounders, in practice though, the barrel diameters of cannon pieces varied between regions and countries, because there wasn't a world-standard for exactly how much a pound was. For example, during the time when Napoleon was leading the French around Europe, the French standard pound weighed around 489.5 grams (by modern SI standards), whereas the English standard pound weight was approximately 454 grams. Therefore, during this period, a French 32 pounder cannon would have a greater diameter than an English 32 pounder cannon, because the French 32 pounder cannon ball actually weighed about 1.14 kg more than an English 32 pound cannon ball!

This relationship between cannon ball weight and bore of the cannon began to become less connected once metallurgical techniques improved and it became practical and widespread to add rifling to cannon bores. By the 20th century, some forces, particularly British, still continued to class their weapons by the weight of the shot they fired. However, the projectile itself was no longer a solid spherical iron ball, but was more of a conical shaped hollow artillery shell with some explosive material inside. Hence, the weight of the shell had no real relationship with its diameter any more.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What is the Bore/Gauge of a Weapon?

In the medieval period, the inner diameter of a barrel was frequently referred to as the bore (or gauge) of the weapon, and different weapons were classified by their bore size. This designation still exists in the present day, when referring to shotguns (e.g. 8 bore, 10 bore, 12 gauge etc.) while most other weapons are classed in mm. or inches (for instance, 9 mm., .45 caliber etc.). So what is a bore/gauge and how is it measured.

To study that topic, we must go back to a time when bullets were cast round lead balls. The bore or gauge was determined from the weight of a solid ball of lead that could fit into the barrel. For instance, if a spherical ball weighing 1/10th of a pound could fit into the barrel, then the gun was considered to be 10 bore (or 10 gauge). If a ball weighing 1/12th of a pound could fit into the barrel, then it was 12 bore (or 12 gauge) and so on. Conversely, if you had 1 pound of lead available, you could cast 12 bullets for a 12 bore (or 12 gauge) gun and 10 bullets for a 10 bore (or 10 gauge) gun and so on. Even though bullets were no longer spherical shaped, this unit continued to be used into the 19th century to denote the barrel diameter, assuming that a spherical ball of lead was used.

As you might have gathered from the paragraph above, the smaller the bore number, the larger the diameter of the barrel. Therefore, a 4 bore gun would have a large diameter, since 1 pound of lead would only make 4 solid spherical bullets for this gun. As you might have guessed, 4 bore guns were called "Elephant Guns" and used to shoot large animals like elephants, buffaloes and rhinos.

In the picture above, we have 3 cartridges, left to right: a .30-06, an eight bore and a four bore cartridge. Note that the .30-06 is the cartridge used by the M1 Garand rifle and measures 7.62 x 63 mm. This gives the reader an idea of the size of one of these large bore bullets.

By the way, the four bore wasn't the largest elephant gun around. There was also the two bore. The two bore was only used by very few men because of its immense recoil and weight.

The above picture shows a .700 Nitro express bullet and cartridge case versus a 2 bore bullet and cartridge case. The diameter of a 2 bore is 33.68 mm and the bullet weighs over 225 grams! The famous British explorer, Sir Samuel White Baker, owned one such weapon and he was afraid to fire it. In his own words:

Among other weapons, I had an extraordinary rifle that carried a half-pound percussion shell; this instrument of torture to the hunter was not sufficiently heavy for the weight of the projectile: it only weighted twenty pounds, thus with a charge of ten drachms [270 grains] of powder and a HALF-POUND shell, the recoil was so terrific, that I spun around like a weathercock in a hurricane. I really dreaded my own rifle, although I have been accustomed to heavy charges of powder and severe recoils for some years. None of my men could fire it, and it was looked upon as a species of awe, and it was name "Jenna-El-Mootfah" (Child of a Cannon) by the Arabs, which being a far too long of a name for practice, I christened it the "Baby", and the scream of this "Baby" loaded with a half-pound shell was always fatal. It was too severe, and I seldom fired it, but it is a curious fact that I never shot a fire with that rifle without bagging. The entire practice, during several years, was confined to about twenty shots. I was afraid to use it, but now and then as it was absolutely necessary, it was cleaned after months of staying loaded. On such occasions my men had the gratification of firing it, and the explosion was always accompanied by two men falling on their backs (one having propped up the shooter) and the "Baby" flying some yards behind them. This rifle was made by Holland & Holland, of Bond Street, and I could highly recommend it for the Goliath of Gath, but not for the men of A.D. 1866.

The two bore was the largest rifle that could be fired from the shoulder. There are still larger calibers though. One of these examples is the 1 bore or punt gun, which was designed to be fired from a boat. We will discuss punt guns in a future post.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pistols: Machine Pistols

In our previous post about semi-automatic pistols, we noted that while such a pistol is capable of shooting several times before reloading, the user needs to pull the trigger every time to take a shot. Now, we will study another class of pistols, where the weapon fires multiple times when the trigger is pulled and held down: the machine pistol. These weapons are capable of fully automatic or burst fire, unlike the semi-automatic pistols in our previous post. Some of these weapons are also capable of switching firing modes between single shot, three round burst mode and fully automatic modes.

In an earlier discussion about the differences between a rifle, SLR, submachine gun, carbine etc. we noted that submachine guns have similar features to assault rifles (i.e. capable of fully automatic fire, selectable firing modes, detachable magazine etc.), but use pistol ammunition. So then, what is the difference between a machine pistol and a submachine gun? The difference is indeed very hard to define, but it is now commonly accepted that if the automatic design was scaled down from an assault rifle to a weapon that fires pistol ammunition, then it is a submachine gun. If the original design was a semi-automatic pistol that was redesigned for full-automatic mode, then it is a machine pistol.

Some of the early semi-automatic pistols, such as the Luger P-08 and the Mauser C-96 were modified to produce automatic versions, so the concept isn't exactly new. After World War II, the Russians introduced an automatic pistol called the Stechkin VPS, intended to be used by artillery and tank crews. Due to its weight, it was gradually phased out of regular service. Another two examples of a machine pistol would be the Ingram MAC-10 and MAC-11, which we studied when researching straight blowback actions.

One of the main issues with any weapons firing multiple shots (not just machine pistols alone) is the tendency of the muzzle of the weapon to rise when shooting. We already studied the cause of this phenomenon earlier and some ways to counteract this. Most of the early automatic pistols like the Luger, Mauser and Stechkin came with a detachable wooden stock, which could help steady the weapon better to counteract the muzzle rise.

In the 1970s, Heckler and Koch produced the VP 70, which had a very interesting feature:

This weapon had an optional plastic stock that could be attached to the back of the pistol. The selective fire control was located on the optional stock and could select between single shot and 3-round burst modes, as can be seen in the top picture above. With the stock attached, the user could switch between the modes as desired, but if the stock was not attached, the pistol would only fire in single shot mode. The stock provided a higher degree of stability and accuracy and therefore made it easier to keep it pointed on target when firing multiple shots.

Yet another model is the Glock 18, which came out in the 1980s. The Glock 18 is a variant of the Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol, which is capable of selective fire in either single shot or fully automatic mode.

Note that this model has an extended magazine, capable of holding 33 cartridges. It also has a lightweight folding stock. It works around the problem of muzzle rise by having vents in the front of the barrel, which act as compensators and push the muzzle downwards. Glock 18 models are only intended for military use and are not normally available on the civilian market.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Stechkin VPS pistols made a comeback, mostly used by personal bodyguards and special forces units.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pistols: Semi-automatic Pistols

During the early and mid 1800s, single-shot pistols began to lose popularity as revolvers became more common. It was only close to the end of the 1890s, when they began to regain popularity, due to the invention of semi-automatic pistols. We've already covered the actions that these weapons use, such as toggle lock recoil action, blowback action, short recoil action, gas operated action etc.

Semi-automatic pistols use some of the energy generated by a fired cartridge to automatically extract the fired cartridge case, cock the pistol and insert a new cartridge into the firing chamber. The user needs to pull the trigger each time to fire a new bullet.

Most semi-automatic pistols use either blowback action or recoil action, as these are more suited for smaller weapons. However, there are a few larger pistol models, such as the Desert Eagle, that use the gas operated action.

All semi-automatic pistols come with a magazine to hold multiple cartridges. In semi-automatic pistols, the magazine is located inside the handgrip. The magazine has a spring inside it and cartridges are loaded by pushing against this spring pressure.

Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license by user Scoo on

After the magazine is loaded, it is slid into the handgrip of the magazine and then the slide is manipulated to chamber the first cartridge into the firing chamber.

There are different types of pistol actions (similar to what we already studied about revolver basics). In the single action type, the hammer needs to be initially cocked manually. This is usually done on most pistols by pulling the slide backwards, which also pulls the hammer back and cocks it. On some pistols with external hammers, such as the M1911, the pistol can not only be cocked by pulling back the slide, but it can also be cocked by pulling the hammer back separately.

Pulling on the trigger then releases the hammer, which strikes the firing pin and detonates the cartridge. The bullet is fired out of the front of the barrel. Meanwhile, the action of the pistol extracts the old cartridge and pushes the slide backwards, which cocks the hammer again. The old cartridge is ejected via a port on the side of the slide and the new cartridge is pulled from the magazine and shoved into the firing chamber and the pistol is now ready to fire again.

In a double action pistol, pulling back on the trigger cocks and releases the hammer in the same motion. In some double actions, the pistol is double-action only (DAO) and there are some where the pistol can either work in single action or double action mode (DA/SA type). In this type, the hammer can be cocked manually and then released by the trigger, or pulling the trigger cocks and releases in the same action.

The first semi-automatic pistol adopted into service was the Hugo Borchardt designed C-93, which was shortly followed by the Mauser C-96. The US military adopted the John Browning designed .45 caliber Colt M1911 (which was adopted into service in 1911, hence the name). The M1911 remained in mainstream US military service for over 70 years and is still used by some Special Forces and Marine Corps units. Most of the world's other military forces started to switch back from revolvers to pistols after World War II, followed by police and civilians as well.

These days, modern semi-automatic pistols come in a variety of calibers and sizes, with a wide variety of options.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pistols: Howdah Pistols

During the age of British colonial rule of India, English sportsmen would often hunt in the same manner of Indian kings before them (i.e.) riding on top of an elephant. The large saddle mounted to the back of an elephant is called a Howdah, and this is where the sportsman would sit in. Often though, when hunting dangerous game like lions, tigers or leopards, there was a chance that the animal could charge the elephant and climb up to the howdah and attack the hunter. In this situation, a rifle could not be effectively used. Therefore, there was a need for a shorter length, large caliber, multi-firing weapon designed to work at close ranges for defensive purposes. To fill this need, the Howdah Pistol was developed. In this post, we will study this unique weapon.

The first Howdah pistols were simply rifles with the barrels sawn down to a shorter length. The shorter length made the weapon easier to point and manipulate at close ranges and confined spaces. Since these pistols were really rifles originally, they used rifle cartridges of that era, such as .577 Snider or .577/450 Martini Henry cartridges. Sawing down the barrels was a quick solution, but not always a good one. One of the major issues was that shortening the barrels of a rifle would alter the center of gravity and affect the balance of the weapon. Therefore, some manufacturers began to design their own Howdah pistols.

The above images are of a Howdah pistol manufactured by a well known London-based manufacturer named Purdey. It was made during the the first half of the 19th century. This is a very high-quality weapon, judging by the fact that the barrels are of the type known as "damascus barrels", which were more expensive to make. The barrels have been browned to protect them from rusting. The wooden stock is of high quality walnut wood and features checkering (i.e. a fine grid of squares) on the grip. The lock is a double lock of the percussion cap type. Typical of Howdah pistols of that era, the caliber of the barrels is pretty large, with each one accepting a ball of 0.661 inches in diameter. The 7.5 inch long barrels are smoothbore (i.e. there is no rifling on the inside). It has two triggers, one to operate each barrel. The sights are rudimentary: it has only a small bead mounted as a front sight and no rear sights. However, for the ranges it was meant to be used at, sights aren't exactly needed. The weapon is extremely well balanced and relatively light. Since it fires such a huge caliber, recoil from this weapon is pretty high. However, recoil was not much of a concern for hunters of that era, because this was designed as a last ditch defensive weapon; and as far as the hunter was concerned, it was better to end up with a bruised wrist than be eaten up by a tiger or leopard.

Howdah pistols were made by several well-known firms of that era: Manton, Purdey, Rigby etc. They came in double barrel, four barrel or even three-barrel configurations. They were used in both India and Africa and carried by many British officers as well. At that time, revolvers were not very mechanically reliable and the .36 caliber Colt Navy revolver was considered too weak. The howdah pistol was considered to be the perfect solution to a charging tiger (or a charging native tribesman). As revolver technology improved though, the howdah pistol gradually became outdated and these days, the only howdah pistols one can buy are antiques or replicas of antiques.

Pistols: Derringers

The name "derringer" is often associated with a class of pistols that are small and designed to be carried in a coat pocket, woman's purse or stocking. They are also called "pocket pistols" or "stocking pistols" for this reason. Derringers are small-sized weapons with (usually) large calibers, that are neither semi-automatic pistols or revolvers. We will study this particular class of pistols in this post.

The primary goal of such pistols is to be of small size. This is why derringers are short-range weapons. Despite their small size though, derringers can be deadly weapons in close range. Also because of size and weight reasons, derringers are not repeating weapons, i.e. they have no mechanism to automatically eject a fired round and chamber a new one, like semi-automatic pistols do. Adding such a mechanism would increase the weight and size of the pistol. There are some double barreled derringer pistols, but they have a cam mechanism that alternates the pistol's hammer to strike either one barrel or the other.

The name "derringer" derives its name from Henry Deringer, a Philadelphia manufacturer, who became famous for his pocket pistol designs. The original pistol he made in 1825 was a single-shot muzzleloading weapon with a flintlock firing mechanism, which was the predominantly common firing mechanism of that time. The caliber of his pistols was pretty large.

Later Deringer models used the newly developed percussion cap technology. The user would usually carry them loaded with the hammer at half-cock. To use the pistol, the user would pull the hammer back to the full-cock position and pull the trigger. If the gun misfired, the user could pull back the hammer and try again, or switch to a second pistol. Most Deringers had front sight alone, some came with front and rear sights and some came with no sights at all. Since these models were designed with small size in mind, accuracy was not so good and neither was the reliability of the firing mechanism. Deringer models (and those of his competitors) were usually sold in matching pairs, but these days, it is very hard to find a pair of original Deringers. Typical Deringer models cost between $15-$25 for the pair of pistols. Some models were sold with elaborate engravings silver inlays and therefore cost more. Deringer models were originally very popular among military officers, but also quickly became popular among civilians and were wide spread in the Wild West saloons among professional gamblers and prostitutes.

Public Domain Image of a percussion lock Deringer pistol.

Because of their low cost, small size and easy availability, Deringer models (and their clones) had the dubious reputation of being weapons of assassins. The image of the percussion lock Deringer pistol shown above is of one of the most infamous ones around -- it belonged to John Wilkes Booth and was used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

Due to the success of Henry Deringer's designs, he began to attract many imitators, some of who not only copied his patented designs, but also his logo as well! In fact, one of the lawsuits he won became a landmark ruling in trademark laws. Nevertheless, many unauthorized copies of his models flourished. Some of these copies misspelled the logo name with an extra 'r' as "Derringer" to avoid trademark restrictions and eventually, the misspelled version "derringer" became synonymous with this class of weapon.

Later derringer models made by other companies, switched to using more modern pinfire, rimfire and centerfire cartridges. In 1866, William Elliot, an employee of Remington, invented the first double-barreled derringer class pistol. This weapon was of .41 caliber and used rimfire cartridges. In keeping with the small size philosophy, the barrels were arranged one on top of the other. A cam mechanism was used to alternate which barrel would be struck by the hammer with each trigger pull.

Remington Derringer Pistol

To load this weapon, the barrels would pivot about an hinge located at the top of the weapon and two .41 rimfire cartridges could be inserted, one into each barrel. The firing mechanism was single-action, i.e. the user would have to cock the hammer manually before pulling the trigger for each shot. This model was manufactured between 1866 and 1935 and was extremely popular. In fact, when the word "derringer" is mentioned, most people think of the Remington Derringer model rather than the ones made by Henry Deringer.

Later models used centerfire cartridges and some also used a double-action mechanism (i.e. pulling the trigger cocked and released the hammer in the same trigger pull) instead. One particular model invented by Robert Hillberg and manufactured by COP Inc. was a four barrel version instead of two barrel.

Derringer class weapons continued to be manufactured well into the 20th and 21st centuries. For instance, the FP-45 Liberator we studied in the previous post is a derringer class weapon. These days, the Remington Derringer design continues to be manufactured by companies like Bond Arms, American Derringer, Cobra arms etc. in many calibers from .22 LR to .45 Long Colt. The three pictures below show models made by Bond Arms and American Derringer

Bond Arms derringer pistol (model "Texas Defender")

American Derringer made double action derringer pistol (model DA 38, which uses .38 special cartridges)

American Derringer made pistol that uses .45 Colt revolver cartridges

In the last picture, the reader can gauge the size of a typical derringer class pistol by comparing it with the human hand. Overall length of this weapon is 4.82 inches (or about 122.5 mm. long) Bear in mind that despite its small size, this pistol can use both .45 colt revolver and .410 bore shotgun cartridges.