That Time an English Dude Invented a Gun that Fired Square Bullets, and the Waterfowl’s Nightmare
Considered to be little more than a historical curio today, the early 18th century Puckle Gun was nonetheless one of the most advanced firearms of its age, capable of firing one shot every 6 seconds in an era when even the most highly skilled soldier equipped with a musket typically topped out at a rate of only about one shot every 20 seconds.
Invented by one James Puckle Esq, an English lawyer and essayist, the Puckle Gun was a flintlock weapon capable of turning a man’s insides into a cloud of viscera. Its most unique feature was a rotating cylinder that allowed it to overcome the inherent issue that plagued all flintlock weapons of the era- a glacial rate of fire.
More akin to a modern revolver, the gun is nonetheless often described (inaccurately) as the first machine gun. In fact, it was amongst the first, if not the first gun, to ever be called that when, in a 1722 shipping manifest, it was noted that the ship had on board “2 Machine Guns of Puckles.”
Curiously modern looking in its design, the Puckle Gun boasted a 3 foot long barrel and was designed to sit atop a tripod. It could also swivel and be aimed in any direction extremely rapidly with little effort by the operator due to how well balanced it was.
Once the prototype was completed in 1717, Puckle approached the British Navy who, at the time, were having a lot of trouble with Ottoman pirates. You see, the large, broadside cannons their ships were equipped with were a poor weapon of choice to use against tiny, fast moving vessels that could quite literally run circles around the bigger craft.
Puckle felt his gun was perfect for this use-case. Ships could quite easily have several of the Puckle guns mounted all around the perimeter of the deck and fire at approaching pirates with incredible speed for the age.
Intrigued, officials from the English Board of Ordnance were sent to observe a demonstration of the gun in 1717 in Woolwich. Unfortunately for Puckle, while they were reportedly impressed with the speed at which it could launch projectiles of death, and how quickly it could be reloaded, they decided to pass.
Their objections to it were primarily that it featured an unreliable flintlock system and it was too complex to be easily manufactured, including requiring many custom made components that gunsmiths at that point didn’t have, all combined making it difficult to mass produce. On top of that, it didn’t exactly lend itself to a variety of tactical situations due to its size.
Unperturbed at the initial rejection, Puckle continued to refine the design, patenting a better version of the gun a year later in 1718. Said patent, No. 418, describes the gun as being primarily for defensive purposes and notes that it is ideal for defending “bridges, breaches, lines and passes, ships, boats, houses and other places” from pesky foreigners.
A natural salesman, Puckle went as far as putting advertising of sorts right in his patent, with the second line of said patent reading: “Defending KING GEORGE your COUNTRY and LAWES – Is Defending YOUR SELVES and PROTESTANT CAUSE”
This is an idea Puckle would double down on by including engravings on the gun itself featuring things like King George, imagery of Britain and random bible verses.
To doubly sell potential investors on the value of the gun as a stalwart defender of Christian ideology, Puckle’s patent also describes how the gun could, in a pinch, fire square bullets.
What does this have to do with religion?
Puckle thought that square bullets would cause significantly more damage to the human body and believed that if they were shot at Muslim Turks (who the British were fighting at the time), it would, to quote the patent, “convince [them] of the benefits of Christian civilisation”.
The gun could also fire regular, round projectiles too (which Puckle earmarked as being for use against Christians only). On top of that, it also fired “grenados”, shot, essentially comprising of many tiny bullets- you know, for when you really wanted to ruin someone’s day.
Puckle began selling shares of his company to the public in 1720 for about 8 pounds a piece (about £1,100 pounds or $1,600 today) to finance construction of more advanced Puckle Guns, one of which was demonstrated to the public on March 31, 1722.
During said demonstration, as described in the London Journal: “[O]ne man discharged it 63 times in seven Minutes, though all while Raining, and it throws off either one large or sixteen Musquet Balls at every discharge with great force…”
Despite the impressive and reliable display, the British military on the whole was still uninterested in the newfangled technology.
That said, there was at least one order, placed by then Master-General of Ordnance for Britain, Duke John Montagu, for two of the guns to bring along in an attempt to capture St. Vincent and St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Whether these ever ended up being used or not isn’t clear.
Whatever the case, the two Puckle guns in question are still around today and can presently be seen at the Boughton House and Beaulieu Palace, homes once owned by Montagu.
As for Puckle, he died in 1724, never seeing his gun leveled against the enemies of King George- much to the relief of 18th century Turks everywhere we’re sure.
Summing up his failed invention and company, one sarcastic reporter for the London Journal quipped that the gun had “only wounded [those] who have shares therein.”
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If you happen to think killing two birds with one stone is a bit inefficient, you might want to look into the “punt gun,” capable of killing upwards of 50-100 birds in a single shot.
First put in use in the 1800s, the punt guns were never manufactured on a large scale, with each being custom made by a gunsmith to fit a buyer’s specifications. But, in general, the barrels had openings upwards of 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter and weighed over 100-pounds (45 kg). They generally could fire more than a pound of shot at a time and usually measured over 10 feet (3 m) long.
As you might imagine from this, they were too heavy and the recoil too strong for a hunter to fire them by hand. Instead, they were (usually) mounted to small, often flat bottomed, boats known as “punts.” Hunters aimed the gun by maneuvering the boat into position one or two dozen meters from their targets, and then fired.
As an example of how effective this was, a market hunter in the eastern United States, Ray Todd, claimed he and three other hunters with punt guns managed to kill 419 ducks one night in a single volley after encountering a huge flock “over a half-mile long and nearly as wide.”
After the first volley, he stated, “The birds flew off a short distance and began to feed again. We made three more shots that night. By morning we had killed over 1,000 ducks. They brought $3.50 a pair in Baltimore, and it was the best night’s work we had ever done.”
Not surprisingly, in the years after market hunters began using punt guns, the population of wild waterfowl began to decline in the United States dramatically. Sportsmen who hunted for personal use of the killed waterfowl, rather than for profit like the market hunters, began advocating for hunting regulations and limits. In response, many states in the U.S. outlawed the use of punt guns by the 1860s, while the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 effectively ended their use in the country. That said, punt guns are still legal in the United Kingdom, though their barrels are restricted to a diameter less than 1.75-inches. Hunters must also have a permit from the government for the gun and black powder, and they must adhere to strict hunting seasons. All this hasn’t proved much of a problem as there are only a few dozen currently used punt guns left in the U.K. today.Expand for References
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