Puckle gun?! You’ve never heard of it? What if I told you it was a strong contender for the claim to being the first machine gun?
Most people think the first machine un was the famous Gatling gun, with a number of rotating barrels operated by a hand crank. It was introduced in 1862.
Still others would suggest it was Maxim gun, the first fully automatic firearm, in that it was capable of reloading itself each time it was fired. It was developed in 1884 and immediately changed the face of warfare.
The Puckle gun was patented on 15 May, 1718 by a London-based lawyer, writer and inventor named James Puckle.
Puckle’s “Defence Gun”, as he called it, was effectively a tripod mounted flintlock revolver with a metre-long barrel, equipped with a detachable revolving cylinder containing nine pre-loaded chambers.
The Puckle gun’s calibre was about 1.2 inches — a contemporary Brown Bess musket fired a .75 calibre musket ball — and in March 1722 was demonstrated as capable of firing 63 shots in seven minutes, “though all the while it was raining,” which was about triple the rate of fire of a trained infantryman using a musket.
This was made possible by having a number of pre-loaded cylinders available. Once the cylinder in the gun was empty, it was removed and replaced with a loaded one, allowing it to maintain a respectable rate of fire with only minimal delays for reloading.
Puckle described his Defence Gun as “Defending King George, your country and lawes” and intended it to be mounted on ships for use in ship-to-ship combat and to repel boarders.
As such it had one unusual design feature. It was designed to fire two different types of projectiles: normal round projectiles for use against “Christian” or “Civilised” enemies, and square projectiles (supposedly more damaging) for use against “Turkish” or “Uncivilised” enemies.
According to the Patent on the Defence Gun, it was made from steel, iron and brass and was also capable of firing grenade shells, although this last element is not known to ever have actually been tried and may be referring to something closer to grapeshot canisters anyway.
Despite the comparatively advanced design and high rate of fire for the time, the Puckle gun was never adopted by the military, and only a handful were produced. A contemporary newspaper quipped that the only people wounded by the Puckle gun were its investors.
There are understood to be fewer than five original Puckle guns still in existence and one of them is on display at Boughton House in the UK. It was purchased by John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, for an expedition to the Caribbean islands of St Lucia and St Vincent in 1722, although there is no record of whether or not the gun was fired during the expedition.
James Puckle’s patent (No. 418) on the Defence Gun was also one of the first patents required under English law to show “by an instrument in writing, describe and ascertain the nature of the invention and the manner in which it is to be performed” before the patent could be granted.
The patent, interestingly enough, prophetically describes the firearm as a “portable Gun or Machine, called a Defence” and lists a number of potential places in which the gun might be employed, including “Bridges, breaches, lines and passes, ships, boats, houses, and other places”.
The Puckle Defence Gun was operated by hand, with the firer turning a crank to rotate the chambers and fire the gun, and had a limited ammunition capacity, so while not a machine-gun in the truest sense of the word (the development of a “modern” machine-gun would have to wait until the development of metallic cartridges in the 1850s which made effective repeating firearms a practical proposition), it was the first breech-loading, rapid-fire multi-shot firearm capable of something approximating sustained fire.
Earlier attempts at multi-shot firearms were typically in the form of a volley gun, the first designs for which date back to the 15th Century.
Volley guns had a number of parallel barrels which could be fired individually or as a volley, but had long reload times and were not capable of continuous fire. It took several minutes to reload all the barrels after each volley.
Puckle’s Defence Gun therefore represents the earliest known breech-loading, sustained-fire multi-shot firearm intended for use as a support weapon or deck-sweeper, and as such is arguably a direct ancestor to the Gatling gun and, ultimately, the Maxim and its descendants.
The Puckle gun’s design can also be seen as a very early form of the revolver, albeit in a somewhat larger and more ungainly form than the handgun developed by Samuel Colt in 1835, making it a surprisingly influential firearm.
James Puckle died in 1724, no doubt unaware that the descendants of his Defence Gun were to revolutionise both warfare and firearms technology alike.