Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Volcanic Repeating Arms Company

In our last post, we studied about rocket ball cartridges, the Volition repeating rifle and the Jennings rifle. As we saw previously, the Volition was the first lever action rifle and it used an innovative metallic cartridge, but its inventor, Walter Hunt, could not market the rifle successfully. The patent was improved by Lewis Jennings, who invented and marketed the Jennings rifle between 1849 and 1852. While the Jennings design was also not very successful commercially, it led to the formation of a couple of legendary American firearm manufacturers, who we will study about in today's post, as we study the further developments of the Volition and Jennings rifles.

Both Jennings and Hunt were employed by Mr. George A. Arrowsmith, who could not fund the development of both rifles, so he transferred the patent rights of both inventors to Mr. Courtlandt C. Palmer for $10,000. Courtlandt Palmer was a wealthy businessman from New York City, who was a former railroad president and a leading hardware merchant, but he had no manufacturing experience in firearms himself. Therefore, he subcontracted the manufacture of 5000 Jennings rifles to the Robbins & Lawrence Firearms Company in Vermont, which was the largest non-government firearm manufacturer in the US at that time. The shop foreman of Robbins & Lawrence was a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Tyler Henry, who we will hear about again soon. In order to help work out the production problems of the Jennings rifle, Mr. Palmer hired an experienced inventor named Horace Smith, as head of development for the Jennings Rifle at Robbins & Lawrence. Horace Smith and Benjamin Tyler Henry worked together to improve the design. Some of the innovations made by Horace Smith went into a design called the Smith-Jennings rifle.

As it turns out, another inventor named George Leonard from Massachusetts, had invented an innovative pepperbox pistol in 1849 and had hired another experienced gunsmith named Daniel B. Wesson to help him work out production issues. The Leonard pepperbox pistol was not a commercial success either and George Leonard sold his company and all the patent rights to the Robbins & Lawrence company in 1850 and Daniel Wesson was hired as the superintendent of the Leonard Pistol Works, a division of Robbins & Lawrence, to manufacture the pepperbox pistols. Due to these coincidences, Horace Smith, Daniel Wesson and Benjamin Tyler Henry were all working in the same building at the Robbins & Lawrence factory in 1850.

Despite these superstars all working in the building, there were problems with both products. Even though the Walter Hunt patent claimed that that the rocket ball was self cleaning (as noted in our last post), it didn't work nearly as well in real world situations. While the Jennings rifle could fire up to twenty times a minute, Mr. Lawrence himself noted that the result of firing twenty shots from the gun was that the rocket balls leaded the barrel to such an extent that a 50 caliber bore would be reduced to a hole of 25 caliber! Apart from this, the rocket ball only held a small amount of propellant and was significantly underpowered compared to other firearms. On top of that, the Jennings rifle was heavy, expensive to manufacture and determined to be "too complicated" by the Ordnance department and several of them were converted from repeating rifles to single shot models. At this point, the Jennings rifle was also still dependent on an external primer cap being loaded by the user separately and it wasn't self-cocking yet either. The improvements made by Smith in the Smith-Jennings rifle also shared the issues of underpowered rocket ball ammunition and separate priming. By 1852, all development of Jennings and Smith-Jennings rifles had ceased.

A Jennings rifle. Click on the image to enlarge.

A Smith-Jennings rifle

The Leonard pepperbox pistol was a fairly good product, however it failed for a very different reason. This pistol used cap and ball ammunition technology, which was fairly common for that era. It was comfortable to hold and shoot, was faster to load than other pistols, didn't use a very complicated mechanism and was a breechloading firearm. In short, it was a pretty decent practical firearm. The only problem was that Samuel Colt had recently invented his revolvers a little earlier and Colt's products were lighter, faster, more powerful, more accurate and therefore, many more people bought them. Hence, by 1854, the production of the Leonard pepperbox pistol was abandoned as well.

Leonard Patent Pepperbox pistol. Click on the images to enlarge.

It is commonly accepted that Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson had conversed with each other about the failures of both designs, while working at the Robbins & Lawrence factory. In 1851, Horace Smith was sent to Europe by Courtlandt Palmer, to attend the London Great Exhibition and meet European gunsmiths to investigate their new innovations in firearms technology. There, he met the French inventor, Louis Flobert, and learned about his developments in self-contained brass cartridges and rimfire ammunition. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson determined that the Flobert cartridge was also underpowered, but they could make an improved self-contained rimfire cartridge based on Flobert's ideas. Therefore, they began working on the new cartridge and a new pistol, shortly after Smith's return from Europe.

In 1853, they filed patent applications for a new cartridge and pistol model and the patents were granted in 1854. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson formed a new company to manufacture these products and named their company after themselves as "Smith & Wesson". They also persuaded Courtlandt Palmer to finance their new company as well and he gave them around $10,000 to purchase tools and machinery. The manufacturing took place at Horace Smith's shop in Norwich, Connecticut. Soon after, they hired away Benjamin Tyler Henry from the Robbins & Lawrence factory, to be the shop superintendant of their new company.

The new cartridge that they invented initially had a metallic case, tapering outward near its base. Priming material was spread on the inside of the cartridge head and then a metal disc was placed on it to hold the primer in place and act as an anvil. Hitting the metal disc anywhere on the head would cause it to detonate the primer, therefore this new cartridge could act as both a rimfire and a centerfire cartridge. However, the latest machinery available of this time could not produce this cartridge economically. Therefore, they reworked the Walter Hunt rocket ball design and used a mercury fulminate primer cap in a glass cup in the bullet cavity. The glass cup rested on an iron anvil and the back was sealed  with a cork wad. Later experiments showed that this cork caused malfunctions, so it was replaced by a copper base cap, which was later changed to brass. The iron anvil was also replaced by a brass one. Unlike the Hunt rocket ball, the innovation of Smith & Wesson was to include the primer in the cartridge.

Like the earlier Volition repeating rifle and the Jennings rifle, the pistols they made to fire this new cartridge, used the ideas of the lever action principle and a tubular magazine located under the barrel. Unlike the Volition and Jennings rifles, these pistols didn't need separate priming caps, as they were already included inside the new cartridges.

Early Smith & Wesson Lever Action pistols. Public domain image.

However, this version of the Smith & Wesson company only lasted around 17 months before the funding as exhausted. The performance of the pistols wasn't all that good and they didn't sell that well initially. The ammunition suffered from misfires, poor extraction, corrosion and fouling and was still relatively underpowered as well, even though it was a more advanced version of the rocket ball ammunition.

Courtlandt Palmer began looking for ways to recover his investment and reorganized the company as the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855 and persuaded a group of investors to pool their funds in this new company. One of the investors was a wealthy shirt manufacturer named Oliver F. Winchester, who became the new Vice President of the company. Courtlandt Palmer sold all his shares in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company and got out of the firearms business entirely. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson were also paid $65,000 in cash and 2,800 shares of stock for their ownership of the company. Horace Smith left the company and went back to his home in Springfield, Massachusetts, while Daniel Wesson stayed on as a factory manager for another 8 months. Benjamin Tyler Henry also went back to his old job at Robbins & Lawrence.

Lever action carbine and pistols made by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company

In 1856, Oliver Winchester moved the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company to New Haven, Connecticut, since he already had his men's clothing business there as well. By this time, both Smith and Wesson were no longer working for this company.

The rifles and pistols didn't have good sales because of the poor performance of the Volcanic cartridges and this company nearly went out of business in February 1857. However, Oliver Winchester still believed in the lever action principle and he purchased all the assets of this company from the remaining stockholders for $40,242.51 on March 15th 1857. By April 1857, he reorganized and renamed the company as the New Haven Arms company.

The interesting thing about his buyout was that the amount he bought it for was barely enough to pay off all the creditors that Volcanic owed money to, so the other stockholders got practically nothing for their shares. In addition, the debt courts awarded all the assets of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company to Oliver Winchester, which included the patents of Walter Hunt, Lewis Jennings, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. The way he organized the new firearms company was by selling all the assets of Volcanic to the New Haven Arms company, with the exception of the patents, which he still kept under his control. Therefore, he only sold to New Haven, the rights to produce the firearms and ammunition described in his patents, but kept the rights for the patents with himself. In effect, the New Haven Arms Company would be manufacturing the Volcanic Repeating Arms products, but paying him for the rights to do it!

Shortly after this is when Oliver Winchester finally got a lucky break. The Robbins & Lawrence Arms company was facing financial difficulties in their business and Benjamin Tyler Henry was looking for a new job. Oliver Winchester jumped at the chance and re-hired him immediately. He put Henry in full control of developing a new cartridge for the New Haven Arms company. Henry had seen all the cartridge experiments being done by Smith and Wesson and had excellent knowledge of all the production issues of the earlier rifles. He began to tinker with the .22 caliber rimfire cartridge that Daniel Wesson had originally produced for a pistol and made it larger and more appropriate to be used by a rifle. We will study what happened as a result of his experiments in the next post.

Meanwhile, Daniel Wesson and Horace Smith had also not been idle and they had plans of their own as well.

In the next post, we will study the birth of a couple of American giants, the Winchester Arms company and the new Smith & Wesson.

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