One of the most often repeated “gun control” talking points is that the founding fathers could not have conceived the notion of fully-automatic and semi-automatic rifles; or repeating rifles, when they drafted the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that was passed in 1789. And yet, all one has to do is open up a history book (or even government public records) and they will quickly see that this is nothing more than a constructed falsehood meant to prey on the ignorant. In fact, quite a bit of research has been done that proves that not only were the founding fathers aware of advancements in firearms technology but were also advocating it themselves.
Puckle Gun (1718)
To help celebrate “Gun Appreciation Month”, I thought what better way than looking at some physical evidence that not only helps disprove this argument but also helped usher in the advancements needed for the firearm platforms that we enjoy today. The first one on our list was developed even before the Revolutionary War had begun, in 1718. James Puckle (1667-1724), a British lawyer and writer, developed a very early crew operated big bored flintlock revolver( UK Patent Number 418 of 1718). The “Defence Gun”, or Puckle Gun as would become, is also one of the first firearms to be referenced as a “machine gun”, according to a 1722 shipping manifest. One of the reasons that many have not heard of this platform is because it never any use in war or combat, and production was very limited; to the point that there may have only been two of them.
The gun was designed as a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock that was fitted with a manually operated revolving cylinder. Its main purpose was to be utilized as an anti-boarding system on ships. The barrel was approximately 3 feet long with a bore of 1.25 inches. The rotating cylinder could hold between 6 and 11 shots, depending on the configuration. Puckle developed two configurations for his original patent. One that fired conventional round bullets and another that fired ‘square ’bullets that were thought to offer more promising terminal ballistics. It has also been reported that the Puckle Gun was capable of firing shot, which consisted of 16 musket balls per discharge.
To operate the weapon was very similar to that of a conventional flintlock musket; however, after each shot, a crank on the threaded shaft at the rear would need to be unscrewed to release the cylinder and allow it to turn freely. The cylinder would then be advanced by another crew member to the next chamber, and the crank would be turned back again to lock the cylinder into the breech of the barrel. After the cylinder was put into place then the flintlock mechanism could be primed for the next shot; which was triggered using a lever that was separate from the crank assembly. To reload the weapon, you would remove the crank handle entirely so that the cylinder could be taken off and replaced with a fresh one. This is similar to earlier breech-loading swivel guns with a detachable chamber, which could be loaded prior to use. This technique is also similar to what many would do with Remington revolvers at would come later.
The English Board of Ordnance first tested the Puckle Gun in 1717, where opinion was not in very high regard. It is recorded that later, in 1722, that the weapon was capable of firing 63 shots in 7 minutes (9 rounds per minute) during an English storm. This was considered an improvement by some, as the average soldier could be expected to fire 2-3 shots per minute in fair conditions but the Puckle Gun was still inferior in firing rate to other repeating weapons of the time; most notably the Kalthoff Repeater (which we will get to). The weapon drew few investors and never achieved mass production or use by the British Armed Forces. There is evidence that a John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu/ Master General of the Ordnance, commissioned two Puckle Guns for a failed expedition to acquire St. Lucia and St. Vincent in 1722. They were logged on his ships’ manifests but there is no evidence that they were ever used in combat.
Kalthoff Repeater (The 1600s)
Another innovative and historical firearm that pre-dates the American Constitution is the Kalthoff Repeater. This rifle began appearing in the 17th Century, but the original inventor is unknown. Kalthoff is actually the family who would begin mass production of the rifle.
The Kalthoff Repeater is a muzzleloading rifle that utilized two magazines: one that held the lead balls and the other held the gun powder. The user would pull the trigger guard to put a powder charge and a ball into the breech of the gun, as well as prime it. To reload, you would simply pull the lever guard and the internal mechanisms would do the rest.
It is documented that the early versions of the rifle could hold seven balls and that later models could hold up to twelve. There are even some claims that there is a rifle that was developed that could hold a maximum of thirty rounds.
Belton Flintlock (1777)
Then there is the Belton Flintlock, which is possibly the best rebuttal because this rifle was actually presented to the Founding Fathers; and almost commissioned. The Belton Flintlock rifle utilized a repeating flintlock mechanism and shot superposed loads. This rifle was designed Philadelphia, Pennsylvania resident, John Belton (sometime prior to 1777). Belton than presented his design to the newly established Continental Congress in April of 1777. In a letter, Belton claimed that his musket was capable of firing eight rounds with one loading. This would essentially double the Continental Army’s “man-power”
After some enticement, Congress commissioned Belton to build 100 muskets for the Continental Army on May 3, 1777. However, the order was rescinded on May 15th due to Belton’s bid being considered an “extraordinary allowance”. Belton believed that he was entitled to £1000 per 100 muskets. He justified this by stating that a state could not raise, equip, and cloth 100 men for £1000, making the fact that he made 100 men into 200 men a steal. Now to put that into today’s terms £1000 in 1777 is about $171,884 in 2019; so if all 13 states had bought 100 muskets that would have meant a £13,000 or $2,234,491 payout to Belton in today’s economy. So…yeah…a bit of an “extraordinary allowance”.
Belton was unable to sell his design to Congress, and also failed to sell it to the British Army (after the American Revolution had been won and settled).
There are no surviving examples of Belton’s rifle. In fact, the only physical evidence that remains is the correspondence between Belton and Congress. After Belton’s attempts with Congress failed he began making superposed load flintlocks that utilized a sliding lock mechanism with an English gunsmith, William Jover. They tried to sell this improved version to the East India Trading Company. Later this design was further improved on and used in slightly more successful designs like Isaiah Jenning’s repeating flintlock for example. There are two Belton and Jover flintlock pistols that can be seen at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the Oxford University.
So to recap, John Belton invented a repeating flintlock musket in 1777. The Bill Of Rights, which includes the 2nd Amendment, was ratified in 1791. Now I am not an expert in math by any stretch of the imagination, just ask my wife, but it seems to me that the Founding Fathers not only knew about “assault weapon technology” a full fourteen years before the creation of the 2nd Amendment but were actively commissioning for the technology to be developed and implemented.
Girandoni Air Rifle (1779)
The last firearm that we will discuss is all a great example, as it deals directly with a founding father and our nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson tapped the famous westward explorers Lewis and Clark to explore with the Girandoni Air Rifle in the early 1800s (which could not have existed). The Girandoni Air Rifle was designed by Tyrolian inventor Bartholomaus Girandoni in 1779. Meriwether Lewis’s rifle was a .46 caliber, magazine fed repeater that was capable of firing 22 rounds in under a minute. A feat that was routinely demonstrated to nearly every Native American tribe that they encountered.
The Girandoni Air Rifle was in service of the Austrian Army from 1780-1815 and had many documented kills between 125 and 150 yards. The high rate of fire, low muzzle report and no smoke made the rifle a force to be reckoned with; but it was eventually removed from service for several reasons. The detachable air reservoir was capable of 30 shots, but it was extremely fragile, difficult to manufacture and repair, and it took nearly 1,500 strokes of a hand pump to fill up. The rifle was also very difficult to use and required an extensive amount of training time.
The Girandoni Air Rifle is about 4 feet long and weighs about 10 pounds, which is relatively close to other muskets of that time period. Various resources claim that they were chambered between .51 and .46 caliber ball with a tubular, 20 round gravity-fed magazine. This was important because it allowed the shooter to reload while lying on their back, unlike the contemporary musket that could only be reloaded while standing. It was also critical to keep the leather gaskets of the air reservoir adequately moistened so that they would retain a good seal and prevent a pressure leakage.
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Girandoni Air Rifle
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