Sunday, May 31, 2015

Carrying Magazines "Jungle Style"

In today's post, we will study a method of configuring weapon magazines, which is popularly called "Jungle Style". We will see what this is all about.

Polish Soldier armed with an AKMS rifle. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

In the above image, we see a Polish soldier carrying an AKMS assault rifle. Notice that at the bottom of the rifle, there appears to be multiple magazines, which are held together by using some green tape. This is what carrying magazines "jungle style" is all about.

The reason for the name is that the practice of taping multiple magazines together originated with US forces in the Pacific campaign and fighting in the jungles. US soldiers who were armed with the M3 Grease gun and the Thompson Submachine gun (a.k.a Tommy gun) in the jungles of Asia, needed a way to quickly change magazines, especially since early Thompson submachine guns only came with 20-round magazines.

Some genius figured out that if multiple magazines were attached together with some sticky tape or rubber bands or clamps, the result is much easier and faster to change, as the new magazine is already attached to the old one. Since this technique was extensively used when fighting in thick jungles, this idea of taping magazines together began to be called "jungle-style" and the name stuck.

In the beginning, many soldiers improvised by tying two or more magazines together with rope, duct tape, rubber bands etc. So many American soldiers attached magazines together for their M1 carbines that the US military took notice and introduced the "T3-A1 Magazine Holder", which was a metal clamp that could hold two 30-round M1 magazines together, without any tape.

Later on, some companies (e.g. SIG, Heckler & Koch etc.) began to manufacture magazines with built in studs, so that multiple magazines could be stacked without using rubber bands or tape.

A SIG 550 magazine. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license by Rama

In the above image, we see a box magazine designed for the SIG 550 rifle. Note that the magazine has two protruding studs on the outside of the magazine. The other size of the magazine has two U-shaped slots to accept the studs. This design allows multiple magazines to be stacked side-by-side, without using any tape, twine, rubber bands or clamps.

Carrying magazines "jungle style" certainly helps speed up the reloading process, as the loaded magazines are attached to each other and can be easily swapped out.

On the other hand, they have a few disadvantages as well. For one, they alter the balance of a weapon. There is also an increased risk of weapon stoppages because while one magazine is inserted into the weapon, the other magazine lips are open and exposed to dirt and dust.

Friday, May 29, 2015

What is the difference between Single Action, Double Action Only and Double Action/Single Action

In our last post, we studied the differences between hammer fired and striker fired weapons. In today's post, we will study a related topic, the difference between Single Action (otherwise called SA), Double Action Only (otherwise called DAO) and Double Action/Single action (otherwise called DA/SA or SA/DA). 

The differences between these three has to do with what happens when you pull the trigger of the weapon.

In a single action weapon, only one thing happens when you pull the trigger: it releases the hammer or striker to fire the weapon. This mechanism was used by early revolvers, such as the Colt Paterson, Walker Colt, Colt Single Action Army (a.k.a. the Peacemaker) revolver etc. and is still used by many modern rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic pistols.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

To fire a weapon like the example above, the user first cocks the hammer by pulling on the spur at the back of the hammer with the thumb, until it locks into position. Then, when the user pulls the trigger, it releases the hammer, which then falls back down towards the cylinder with considerable force, due to a spring connected to the hammer, and thereby fires the weapon. If the hammer is already down, then pulling the trigger does nothing. To fire another round with this revolver, the user needs to re-cock the hammer back again before pulling the trigger. The key thing to note with single actions is that if the hammer (or striker) is down, then pulling the trigger does nothing.

The above video from hickok45 shows a Colt single action revolver being used. Notice how he pulls back the hammer before every shot, to cock it. Also note that the act of pulling back the hammer also rotates the cylinder to bring the next cartridge under the hammer. The user cannot fire this weapon by only pulling on the trigger.

Some semi-automatic pistols like the Colt M1911 and Springfield XD are also single action weapons. The Colt M1911 is hammer fired and the Springfield XD is striker fired, but they are both single action.
In such weapons, the user first inserts the magazine and then either pulls back the hammer manually with the thumb, or racks the slide, which chambers the first round and also cocks the hammer or striker. When the trigger is pulled, it releases the hammer or striker, which fires the weapon. Then, the weapon uses some of the recoil energy to move the bolt and slide backwards, which ejects the old cartridge, loads a new cartridge from the magazine and most importantly, it also cocks the hammer or striker automatically, so the user doesn't need to do that again manually. Then, all the user has to do to fire another shot is to pull the trigger again, as the weapon is already cocked and so on, until the weapon is empty. However, if the user decides to lower the cocked hammer (or striker) manually (some weapons have a special decocking lever to do this), then pulling on the trigger after this will do nothing, because a single action weapon only does something if the hammer or striker is cocked first. Therefore, to resume firing again, the user has to pull back the hammer manually once, before pulling the trigger.

Most modern rifles and shotguns are also single action.

Since the weapon is already cocked, the trigger pull force required to discharge it is typically small and a force of around 3 to 4.5 lbs. (about 1.3 - 2 kg.) is enough to release the hammer or striker.

With a Double Action Only (DAO) weapon, pulling the trigger does two things: it first pulls the hammer (or striker) back to cock it and then pulling the trigger further releases the hammer or striker. Therefore, two actions happen on the same trigger pull, which is why it is called double action. The force required to operate the trigger is much higher than single action weapons, typically about 10 to 12 lbs. (about 4.5 to 5.5 kg.). This is because the trigger has to cock the hammer or striker against spring pressure and more force is required to do this.

The first example of a double action only weapon was the Adams revolver invented in 1851.

An Adams revolver. Click on the image to enlarge.

Note that the Adams revolver has no spur on the hammer, therefore the user cannot pull it back with the thumb. The good news is that the missing spur means that it cannot get snagged by accident on anything and it is also possible to fire this revolver much faster than the Colt single action revolver, since there is no need to cock it each time before pulling the trigger. The bad news is that the trigger is harder to pull and due to the larger force needed, there is a tendency to shake the revolver when pulling the trigger, which makes it less accurate.

Some modern day semi-automatic weapons and revolvers still use a DAO action, Examples include the SIG P250 pistol, the Ruger SP101 revolver, the Taurus 24/7 pistol, Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver etc.

Notice how there is no spur at the back of this revolver, so the only way to cock this weapon is to pull the trigger. At around 1:00 of the video, you can clearly see the hammer being moved backwards initially as the trigger is being pulled and then released as the trigger is pulled further along.

From all the above, we see that double action weapons only need one trigger pull to both cock and fire the weapon, thereby being faster to fire, but they need more pull force on the trigger than single action weapons, which leads to the weapon shaking more when the trigger is pulled. Therefore, there is another alternative, which combines the best of both: the double action/single action also known as DA/SA, single action/double action or SA/DA.

With a double action/single action firearm, it can be fired in both modes. One of the first examples of this was the Beaumont-Adams revolver, which was invented in 1865 by Lieutenant Fredrick Beaumont of the British Army. He was a veteran of the Crimean war and had used the Double Action Only Adams revolver there. After the war, he decided he was going to improve the Adams design and invented his revolver.

A Beaumont-Adams reovlver Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

With this design, the user has two options. When the hammer is down, the user can pull the trigger, which cocks the hammer and then releases it, just like a double action only revolver. Doing this takes more trigger pull force, as expected. The user also has the option to cock the hammer by pulling the spur at the back of the hammer, just like a single action weapon. In this case, there is less force required to pull the trigger, as the hammer is already cocked,

A DA/SA weapon combines the best features of both the single action and the double action weapons and gives the user a choice of which mode to fire the weapon with. Some modern weapons that use this system include the Beretta M9 pistol, which is the standard sidearm of the US military, the Colt Python revolver, SIG Sauer P-220 pistol, the Heckler & Koch USP pistol, the Czech CZ 75 pistol etc.

Heckler & Koch USP pistol. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license by Miroslav Pragl

When the trigger is pulled with the hammer down, it requires a force of something like 10.5 lbs (4.5 kg.) to discharge the firearm, but if the hammer is already cocked, it requires a force of only about 4.5 lbs (2 kg.) to do it.

With a semi-automatic weapon like the pistol above, if the weapon is not cocked after the magazine is loaded, the first trigger pull will be heavier, since it has to cock the weapon first. But after the first cartridge is fired, the weapon uses some of the recoil force to cock itself automatically, which means the subsequent trigger pulls do not require as much force. The user can also cock the hammer manually using the thumb to pull it back, or cock it by pulling back on the slide, in which case the first trigger pull will be lighter since the weapon is already cocked. Many pistols also have a de-cocking lever to safely lower the hammer back down to double-action mode.

Some people like to carry the weapon de-cocked, because the first trigger pull needs much more force and therefore, it is less likely to be pulled accidentally when the user is carrying the weapon in a holster. Other people find the fact that the first pull needs more force than the others a little confusing, so they carry the weapon cocked and enable the weapon safety devices instead.

Finally, we have some weapons that cannot be exactly classified as either double-action or single-action. Examples of this would be Glock and Kahr pistols. As we saw in our previous post, which showed an animated image of a Glock pistol in action, when the slide is pulled back, it pulls the striker back and locks it at an intermediate position where the spring is only at partial tension. Pulling on the trigger pulls the striker back first (so the spring reaches full tension) before releasing the striker, much like a double action weapon does. However, unlike a double action weapon, if the striker is not cocked at the intermediate position first, pulling on the trigger does nothing (behaving exactly like a single action weapon).

A Glock 17 pistol. Click on the image to enlarge.

As you have probably already guessed, the trigger pull force for a weapon like this is between that needed for a single action and a double action weapon. For instance, a standard Glock trigger requires about 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg.) to operate it and a Smith & Wesson M&P needs about 6.5 lbs (2.95 kg.).

The video below contains some good examples that show the differences between the various mechanisms:

Happy viewing!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Hammer Fired vs. Striker Fired

In the world of modern firearms which use centerfire cartridges, there are two major types of mechanisms used to trigger the cartridge primer. One uses a hammer and another uses a striker. Therefore, mechanisms that use a hammer are called hammer-fired and the ones that use a striker are called striker fired. As you can guess, each mechanism has its own group of supporters. In today's post, we will study what this all means.

In a hammer fired mechanism, the hammer is a heavy piece that is allowed to rotate about a pivot point. When the hammer is cocked, it compresses a spring. When the trigger is released, the spring pushes the hammer and forces it to rotate forward. The end of the hammer strikes the back end of a firing pin, which is a thin steel pin with a hardened tip. The front end of the firing pin strikes the primer of the cartridge, thereby detonating it. The image below shows how this works.

In some revolvers, the firing pin is attached to the hammer directly.

Firing pin attached to the hammer of a Smith & Wesson Model 13 revolver.
Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In either case, the key part of the mechanism is a rotating hammer mechanism. Here's another animation showing the same concept.

The main thing that we conclude after looking at all the images above is that a hammer-fired weapon is a rotating type mechanism.

In contrast to this, striker fired systems operate in linear fashion. The striker is a part that is a bit heavier than a firing pin and it is directly connected to a spring. When the firearm is cocked, the striker is moved against a linear spring and held in position. When the trigger is released, the spring forces the striker forward with enough energy to detonate the primer upon impact. The animated image below shows how this works.

The striker is the long part in the back of the gun that looks like this:

It should be noted that the animation example for a striker fired weapon shows the firing mechanism of a Glock pistol. When a Glock is cocked, the striker is moved back and held under partial spring compression by the trigger mechanism and safety devices. As the trigger is pulled, the striker is initially pulled back till the spring reaches full compression and then the striker is released. In other pistol models, such as Springfield XD or Smith & Wesson M&P models, the striker is already held at full spring pressure when it is cocked. Pulling the trigger in such firearms merely releases the striker and allows it to fly forward

From the above images, we see that hammer fired mechanisms use a rotational force to detonate the primer, whereas striker fired mechanisms use a linear force to do it.

Striker fired mechanisms tend to have fewer parts than hammer fired mechanisms and are therefore simpler. However, they take up a bit more room. This is why firearms that don't have bolts, such as revolvers, use a hammer-fired action. Revolver and many types of single-shot action firearms generally don't have the room to accommodate a striker mechanism.

Strikers are commonly found in many modern semi-automatic pistols, bolt action weapons and shotguns. In fact, the first striker fired weapon invented was a shotgun invented by Daniel LeFever in 1878. Another example of a striker fired weapon is the Czech vz.58, which we studied earlier (contrast this with the similar looking AKM rifle, which uses a hammer fired mechanism). Striker fired pistols started becoming popular in the 1980s, when Glock started using them on their pistols. However, it must be noted that Glock weren't the first to use it on pistols either: John Browing used it in the .25 caliber Model N pistol and the H&K P7 is striker fired as well. Nevertheless, once Glock started becoming popular, other manufacturers also started using the same idea on a larger scale and now you have several pistol models, such as Smith & Wesson M&P, Springfield XD, Ruger SR9 etc. However, there are some famous pistol models that use a hammer fired mechanism instead. Examples include the Colt M1911, Browning Hi-Power, Beretta M9 etc.

A striker fired mechanism doesn't have an exposed hammer, so it cannot get caught in clothing, shrubs etc. The fact that it has fewer parts means easier maintenance as well. Another positive is that it has a consistent trigger pull for every shot (in contrast to double action/single action hammer fired mechanisms, where the trigger pull force is different depending on whether the firearm is working in single action mode or double action mode). Striker fired mechanisms generally have a consistent trigger reset as well.

On the other hand, if there is a malfunction on a striker fired weapon because the primer didn't detonate, the only option is to eject the cartridge and try the next one. With a hammer fired firearm, it may be possible to try again on the same cartridge (on models that provide this second-strike capability). Hammer fired guns also generally impact primers harder than strikers do, thereby giving a better chance to detonate them. It is for these reasons that many military forces prefer hammer fired weapons. For example, the US military's choices of weapons: Colt M1911 pistol, Beretta M9 pistol, M1 Garand, M14 rifle, M16 rifle, M4 carbine etc. are all hammer-fired.

The video below shows some of the advantages and disadvantages of each system:

As you can see, each mechanism has its own group of fans that argue about which is better. Happy viewing.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Weapons of Pirates

In our last post about Queen Anne pistols, we mentioned that they were carried by some pirates, notably the famous pirate captain, Edward Teach, better known to the world as "Blackbeard". In today's post, we will study the world of the pirates and the weapons they carried.

First, pirates have been around practically since man learned to build boats. Pirates have been mentioned in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian texts dating back to 1400 BC. The Greeks and Romans battled pirates in the Mediterranean sea. In fact, the word "pirate" is from the Greek word, pieraomai which means "attempt" (i.e. "attempt to rob for personal gain"), which morphed to the Greek word pierates which means "bandit" or "brigand", from which we get the Latin word pirata, from which we get the English word "pirate".  In the middle ages, the Vikings roamed the northern seas, but also sailed as far south as North Africa and Italy and sailed up rivers all the way up to the Black sea. The South China sea and the area between Malaysia and the Indonesian islands have had incidents of piracy since about 900 AD. In modern times, we have pirates off the coast of Somalia and in the strait of Malacca.

However, we will concentrate mainly on the weapons used by pirates during the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy", which happened around 1650-1730 AD. This was around the time that various European powers were competing with each other to build colonies and trade routes around the world. During this time, several notorious pirates were based off the Caribbean islands, but there were others who sailed around the coast of Africa and even as far as India. In fact, the biggest robbery ever made during the Golden Age of Piracy was by English pirate Henry Every (also called Henry Avery or Long Ben Every), who captured a couple of the Indian Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's ships in the Arabian sea, sailing back from Mecca to India loaded with jewels. With this single act of piracy, Henry Every became the richest pirate captain in the world, but he is not as well known as other pirates such as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts (a.k.a Black Bart), Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd etc. We will study the weapons used by pirates living in this era. By the way, not all pirates were English. Many were Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, American, Italian, Moors, Algerians, Africans, Turks, Arabs, Native Americans, Chinese, Malays etc.

It may come as a surprise to readers to find out that during the Golden Age of Piracy, many pirate ships actually operated more democratically than most countries. Every man on board a pirate ship had an equal vote and the pirate captain was elected by the members of the ship. If the pirate captain didn't perform his duties well, he could be voted out of his position as well. The quartermaster was also voted into power by the crew. One more interesting thing was that the pirate captain only commanded the ship when they were in combat. If they were not in combat, it was the quartermaster and not the captain, that decided where the ship would sail next. Pirate crews were generally promoted based on merit (unlike European navies, where most officers bought their positions). Pirates also came from different countries, races and religions, but they all had an equal right to vote and an equal share of the treasure. At a time where most people worked as slaves or as indentured servants, pirates actually signed work contracts when they joined a pirate ship. The contracts specified how much share of the plunder each man would receive (skilled sailors received more than unskilled men, as did specialized jobs such as captain, quartermaster, carpenter, surgeon, navigator, boatswain, gunner etc.), compensation to be paid in case a man was injured  or killed while performing his duties (workman's injury compensation in the 17th century!), how prizes were to be divided, awarding of bonuses for good work, the rules of conduct expected of each man and the penalties that would occur, if a man was to break the rules.

In many Hollywood movies, we see pirates fighting each other with sabers and showing some real fancy sword fighting skills. And while pirate ships are approaching merchant ships, they engage in heavy gun battles with cannons until the pirates can swing over to the other ship on ropes. So, is what we see in Hollywood movies really how pirates fought? The answers are very different.

Some of the laws and rules followed by pirates have been recorded by historians. From the contract signed by pirates who sailed under Bartholomew Roberts, we have the following section:

Article V - Every man shall keep his piece, pistols and cutlass at all times, clean and ready for action.

So what does the above sentence mean, particularly the three words in bold font? It gives us a clue as to what weapons pirates actually used. Notice that the cutlass (a short sword) comes third in the list, while "piece" is listed first. We will see what this means in the next few paragraphs.

First, let's deal with the question of swords. Pirate ships and merchant ships were very crowded at all times, with boxes and ropes all over the deck. Therefore a long sword was usually not very useful in combat aboard a ship, because there was usually no room to swing a long sword properly. Secondly, it takes a long time to train a person to use a sword well and only members of the aristocracy could afford to take sword fighting lessons (i.e. fencing lessons). Only a rich person could afford to buy a high quality long sword anyway. Third, long swords are heavy and can make a man tired much more quickly. Therefore, real pirates usually carried a short sword, such as a cutlass, which was much more suitable for fighting in close quarters. Alternatively, they carried axes or knives, since both were cheaper than swords and could also be used well in crowded spaces. However, none of these bladed weapons were usually their first choice of weapon either.

Now let's talk about cannon on ships. Most pirate ships were relatively small and could therefore carry small cannon only. Pirates would usually try to capture ships with as little damage as possible, so that they could take the captured ship and its supplies for themselves. So when they fired cannon at merchant ships, they usually fired small caliber shot to try and disable the crew, or fired chain shot to try and destroy some of the sails, to slow the ship down. They would also shoot warning shots away from the target, to try to get the merchant ships to surrender quietly. They usually never shot large solid cannon balls directly at ships, because this could cause the ship to sink before they captured it. If possible, pirates preferred to capture ships as undamaged as possible, so that they could use them in their own fleets.

Now let's talk about the word "piece" that we saw earlier. The word "piece" refers to a "fowling piece" or a "hunting piece", i.e. a musket used for hunting birds and animals. In general, a "piece" in pirate language, could refer to any long arm, whether musket, rifle, arquebus or blunderbuss. These were usually the first weapon of choice for pirates.

The musket was generally available to the common man during the Golden Age of Piracy era, so it was pretty easy for pirates to get their hands on them. A well trained pirate crew could injure or kill several defenders from longer ranges, so that there would be less resistance by the time they boarded the ship. They would target officers, sailors operating the sails and those near the gun ports. Well aimed musket fire in volleys could inflict maximum damage to their opposition, without sinking their ship, which is why pirates preferred using muskets to cannon.

A typical flintlock musket. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

These muskets were originally designed to hunt bird and animals and were pretty sturdy, with long heavy barrels. While many of them were originally smoothbore, they were still capable of relatively accurate fire. Pirates would sometimes load them with one larger ball about the size of the barrel bore and two smaller balls about half the bore size. This was done to increase the probability of hitting the target. Successful pirate crews carried multiple muskets for each pirate, up to four or five per pirate, and they would all be loaded and ready to go, as they approached their prey. This allowed the pirates to keep shooting rapidly at their prey as they approached it. They would also work in teams, where one pirate would fire muskets, while the other pirates would reload them.

The musketoon is a shorter barreled version of the musket and were more preferred, because they were easier to handle in confined spaces, such as those found on ships. Some musketoons had flared barrels like the next weapon, the blunderbuss, although the blunderbuss was generally even shorter.

A Blunderbuss. Note the flared muzzle.

The original term for this weapon was donderbuss and this name appears to be Dutch. The word "donder" means "thunder" and "buss" means "pipe" in Dutch and German languages. They were generally made with brass or bronze barrels, since these resisted corrosion from seawater better than iron barrels. The flared muzzle allowed the user to quickly pour powder and shot down the barrel and load the weapon easier on a moving platform. Pirates would load blunderbusses with multiple shot pellets, scrap nails, rocks etc., and use them at closer ranges. On a crowded deck, a single shot could disable a group of enemies, so they were used to clear a path so that the pirates could board.

As they boarded their enemy's ship, pirates often carried multiple pistols with them. Many of these were single shot flintlock models and quite a few of them were built with flared barrels like a blunderbuss. to enable quicker reloading.

These pistols often had decorations around the muzzle that looked like a dragon's mouth and hence, these pistols were called "dragons". Military troops that carried such pistols were called "dragoons" and the pistols were then referred to as "dragoon pistols".

There were also general purpose flintlock pistols that many pirates carried, as these were also easily available.

A typical British flintlock pistol designed for naval service. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

In addition to these, some pirates also carried Queen Anne pistols, which we saw in the previous post. This is because Queen Anne pistols were designed to hold the ball inside the barrel without any wadding and there was much less risk of the ball or powder falling out of the pistol.

These pistols were used practically at point-blank range. Since they were all single shot models, pirates usually carried several of them, either tied around their necks with short pieces of rope, or tucked into a belt. The butt of the pistol handle was often a heavy brass plate (as the two examples above show), so after the pistol was fired, the user could turn it around and use it as a club.

In some cases, they would carry multi-barrel pistols. Some of these were just pistols with multiple barrels and separate triggers to fire each barrel separately. Other models featured a single trigger and multiple barrels that could be turned into position as needed.

A pistol with two separate barrels, two flintlocks and two triggers. Click on the image to enlarge.

An over under pistol with two barrels, two pans, but a single flintlock and single trigger. Each barrel was rotated into position by hand and then fired.

There were also volley fire weapons that could fire multiple pellets in different directions simultaneously, so as to spread the damage with a single shot. An example of such a pistol is shown below.

A duckfoot pistol. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The example shown above is a duckfoot pistol using a flintlock firing mechanism. It is called a "duckfoot" because it resembles the foot of a duck. In general, multi-barrel pistols were less reliable than single barrel pistols and therefore, they were not frequently used.

Finally, there was the pirate short sword, the cutlass. This was usually the third weapon of choice and pirates usually didn't use them unless they really needed to. Forget the long drawn out sword battles shown in Hollywood movies, real pirates kept the fighting time down to a minimum. Real pirates would carry a cutlass with one hand and a pistol with the other. The cutlass would be used to block the opponents sword, while the pirate's other hand would fire the pistol at point-blank range. Sometimes, the pirate would use a combination weapon that combined a cutlass and pistol together.

A combination of cutlass and pistol. Click on the image to enlarge.

This allowed the pirate to both shoot and cut with a single arm, while the other arm could carry another pistol or a grenade or some such object.

Besides these three weapons, pirates often carried axes, knives, grenades, stink pots etc. However, most pirates preferred using (in order of preference): long guns (such as muskets, rifles and arquebuses), close range powerful shotgun type weapons (musketoons, blunderbusses), pistols and finally swords, axes and knives. Therefore, the Hollywood myth of pirates preferring to use swords and fighting long duels on decks with swords is completely false. They preferred using firearms to bladed weapons.

Now, let us look at a curious paragraph in the contracts signed by pirates that sailed with the pirate captains Edward Low and George Lowther around 1720 AD.

Article VIII - He that sees a sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.

As you can see, the contract clearly states that the first pirate to see the sail of a merchant ship, would be rewarded with the best firearm found on the captured ship, not the best sword. Therefore, they clearly valued firearms more than swords.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Queen Anne Pistols

In today's post, we will look at a type of pistol that was around in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the Queen Anne pistols (otherwise called turn-off pistols). These were generally in use from around 1650 to 1780 AD.

First, we will investigate the origin of the name. The first models of this type of pistol date back to around 1650 or 1660 AD in England, but they really started becoming popular during the reign of Queen Anne of England (she was born in 1665 AD and ruled England from 1702 to 1714 AD). This is why they are popularly called as Queen Anne pistols.

So what makes these pistols different from other pistols of the era? There were several features unique to these pistols which we will study:

  1. The breech and lock of a Queen Anne pistol were forged together as a single piece, a feature that did not become common in firearms until the middle of the nineteenth century.
  2. Unlike most weapons of this era which were loaded from the muzzle, most Queen Anne pistols were loaded from the breech.
  3. The barrel of a Queen Anne pistol was screwed on to the chamber. This was one of the key distinguishing features of a Queen Anne pistol.
  4. The barrel was tapered from the breech to the muzzle.
  5. The caliber of the bullet ball was made larger than the bore of the barrel. Since these pistols were loaded from the breech, there was no need to use a ramrod or wadding, unlike most other firearms of the era.
  6. Though early model barrels were smoothbores, later models featured rifled barrels for better accuracy.
Like most firearms of that era, these pistols used flintlock firing mechanisms. The barrels of most models of Queen Anne pistols were shaped like miniature cannon barrels. 

A Queen Anne Pistol. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image is  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Trulock at Wikipedia

Queen Anne type pistol made by Galliard in Lausanne, Switzerland around 1760. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image is  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license.

To load this type of pistol, the user would first unscrew the barrel from the chamber (this is why they are also called turn-off pistols). The chamber is designed to be long and narrow, with a cup on top. After unscrewing the barrel, the user would load some black powder into the chamber and then place a bullet ball on to the cup. Then the user would screw the barrel back in place and tighten it with a key. Notice that the barrel is tapered from the breech to the muzzle. This is a deliberate feature. The diameter of the bullet is larger than the diameter of the barrel at the breech, therefore it cannot roll out through the barrel. The bullet stays in place on the cup and holds the black powder in the chamber, without using any wadding.

When the user pulls the trigger, the flintlock mechanism ignites the black powder in the chamber, which burns and produces high-pressure gas in the chamber. The hot gases push the bullet out of the cup and through the barrel. Since the barrel is tapered from the breech to the muzzle, the bullet is deformed as it is pushed out of the barrel. The bullet forms such a tight seal within the barrel that the high pressure gas gives the bullet much more velocity than muzzle loaders of that era.

In some early models, the barrels were smoothbore, but later models began to feature rifling in the barrel, in order to improve accuracy. This meant that they had higher velocity and better accuracy than most other pistols of that era. Although some infantry officers carried them for close range fighting, these were not used much as military weapons, because they took longer to load than muzzle loaders and could not be easily re-loaded in the middle of combat. Therefore, the majority of purchases were by civilians. 

These pistols originated in England, but also spread to France, Switzerland etc. Several of them were used by Americans during the American Revolution. It is thought that most of these came into American hands after the Siege of Boston. 

The nice thing about such pistols was that most of them were made in sizes that could be easily stowed in a coat pocket, or tucked into a belt, thereby allowing them to be easily concealed. This is why they became popular among civilians as a self-defense weapon. Many were owned by rich people and therefore, quite a few examples are highly decorated with silver and gold engravings.

These pistols were also popular with pirates, The infamous pirate, Edward Teach, better known to the world as "Blackbeard", has been depicted in several portraits, carrying a number of these pistols around his body.

The pirate captain Edward Teach, alias "Blackbeard". Notice the pistols tucked into his belt.

The character, Jack Sparrow, in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, also carries a Queen Anne type pistol and hands it to Angelica in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Now, we present a small movie showing the features of this pistol:

Happy viewing!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

More Developments in Lever Actions - The Birth of Two American Legends

Where we left off in our last post, the company formed by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson was off to a bad start, as the lever action firearms that they made did not sell very well. Their chief financier, Courtlandt Palmer, had reorganized Smith & Wesson into the new Volcanic Army Company and managed to convince another group of investors (including Oliver Winchester) to buy their company. After this, Courtlandt Palmer got out of the firearms business completely, Horace Smith went back to his home in Springfield, Massachusetts, after selling his remaining shares in the company. Daniel Wesson stayed on as a factory manager at Volcanic Arms for 8 more months, before leaving as well. Benjamin Tyler Henry also left and went back to his old job at Robbins & Lawrence.

After this, Oliver Winchester moved the Volcanic factory to New Haven, Connecticut, where he already had a successful shirt manufacturing business. The Volcanic company nearly went bankrupt in 1857, due to poor sales. Oliver Winchester managed to acquire the remaining shares of the company and reorganized its assets under a new company called the New Haven Arms company. Meanwhile, he kept the patent rights of the Volcanic Arms company under his own name and licensed the rights to manufacture them to the New Haven Arms company. He also managed to convince 11 other investors to invest in this new company (7 of these investors owned shares in Volcanic as well), while retaining a controlling majority of shares.

In the beginning, sales were rather slow and the company was mainly kept running, due to personal funding by Oliver Winchester and his partner in the New Haven Shirt Manufacturing company, John M. Davies. Around April or May 1858, he managed to convince Benjamin Tyler Henry, who had gone back to Robbins & Lawrence, to rejoin and become the new factory superintendent. Henry had worked with Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson at various stages of development of the previous Jennings and Smith-Jennings rifles, so he was fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of their products. He was convinced that while the lever-action principle was a good idea, the ammunition could be improved. Therefore, with the backing of Oliver Winchester, Henry set upon improving the metallic cartridge and initially produced a better cartridge in .38 caliber in 1859 and produced a few sample carbines and pistols using this cartridge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

However, Oliver Winchester decided that .38 caliber firearms would probably not sell very well and wanted a bigger cartridge. He also recognized that the future of lever-action firearms lay with rifles rather than pistols and therefore directed the company to concentrate on rifle development. With Winchester's backing, Henry came up with a .44 caliber rimfire cartridge and a rifle to fire it, in 1860.

Due to Oliver Winchester and John Davies expanding their shirt manufacturing factory in the beginning of 1860, they could not fund the re-tooling of the New Haven Arms factory to immediately manufacture the Henry design. Instead, they settled on making 3000 Walch pocket revolvers in .31 caliber for the Walch Arms company owned by Cyrus Manville of New York. By April 1861, Winchester's finances had improved so that he could fund the re-tooling process and the company started to deliver the new Henry rifles by 1862.

A Henry Rifle. Click on the image to enlarge.
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported by Hmaag

Sales were initially slow, but then the Civil War started and demand for the Henry rifle increased. It is interesting to note that the US Government only purchased about 3140 Henry rifles before the war and 1731 Henry rifles during the war, but more of them were purchased by the soldiers privately, using their own money. The official repeating rifle of the US military was the Spencer rifle, which was also a repeating lever-action weapon and much more sturdy than the Henry rifle. However, despite the relative fragility of the Henry rifle and its lesser power than the Spencer rifle, it had two big advantages over the Spencer rifle:
  1. It had a larger magazine capacity (16 cartridges, compared to the Spencer's 7 cartridge capacity)
  2. It had a faster rate of fire. Manipulating the lever on the Henry ejected the old cartridge, loaded the new cartridge and also cocked the rifle, all in one motion. The Spencer rifle, by contrast, required the user to cock the rifle separately.
Therefore, individual soldiers in the Union Army saved up to buy Henry rifles, using their own money and they purchased more rifles than the US Government did. To the Confederate soldiers who were armed with slow single shot muzzleloading rifles, a Union soldier armed with a fast firing 16-shot repeating rifle was a deadly opponent. In fact, confederate soldiers called the Henry rifle as "the damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!"

While the Henry rifle sold well, it had some flaws that made it somewhat unsuitable as a military weapon (such as mud and dust entering the open magazine slot and causing it to not feed cartridges properly), so the New Haven Arms company worked to improve the design. Meanwhile, the shirt manufacturing business owned by Oliver Winchester and John M. Davies started doing so well that they retired from that company on January 1st, 1865 and left it to their respective sons to run, so that they could concentrate their efforts on managing the New Haven Arms company. Shortly afterwards, Oliver Winchester went on a trip to Europe, to try and market the Henry rifle to European countries. While he was travelling in Europe, Benjamin Tyler Henry was angered by what he thought was inadequate payment for developing the rifle, and attempted to acquire the rights of the New Haven Arms company (which he still owned shares in), in collaboration with the company secretary, Charles Nott. They petitioned the Connecticut state legislature to change the name of the company to the Henry Arms company. When Oliver Winchester heard about this in May 1865, he immediately sent a telegram to John M. Davies to present the Henry Arms company with all the debts that the New Haven Arms company owed him. Meanwhile, he hurried back to the US and tried to prevent the New Haven Arms company from operating under its new name. Since he could not prevent this, he decided to form his own Winchester Firearms company

The formation of this new company was not that hard, since it turned out one of New Haven Arms factories in Bridgeport was actually leased under Oliver Winchester's name and not the company. He had also paid to equip this factory personally, and not the New Haven Arms company. Therefore, he had a factory already equipped to manufacture firearms and could reduce the New Haven Arms company's production by over 50% immediately. On top of that, he owned many of the machinery used for production, therefore many of the other shareholders voted to keep him as president of the New Haven Arms company. Nevertheless, he formed Winchester and set about producing an improved version of the Henry rifle, which became the Winchester Model 1866. This used the same .44 caliber cartridge, but improved the magazine to prevent the jamming issues, by making a closed magazine that could be loaded via a hinged gate at the bottom of the receiver. The design was modified sufficiently to prevent Benjamin Henry and the Henry Arms company from suing Winchester. From this came the birth of one of American's leading firearm companies.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of this article, we had mentioned that Horace Smith had gone back to his home in Springfield, after the sale of the Volcanic Arms company to Oliver Winchester, and 8 months later, Daniel Wesson had left the company as well. Neither of them had been idle after they left the Volcanic Arms company. While Samuel Colt had a patent on revolvers, his revolver patent was due to expire in 1856. Anticipating this, Daniel Wesson began working on a new revolver design. At that time, most revolvers were percussion cap fired and the user would have to pour black powder into each of the six chambers of the cylinder, then push a bullet into each chamber, and then load the percussion caps on the rear of the cylinder, making the whole reloading process cumbersome. Daniel Wesson began working on a design that would use metallic cartridges to load the revolver, thereby speeding up the whole loading process. To do this, he needed to develop a revolver design where the cylinder was bored through and could be loaded from the breech. While he was doing this research, he realized that this concept had already been developed by a former Colt employee named Rollin White, who held the patent for the design. Immediately, Daniel Wesson went to Springfield, Massachusetts and contacted his old friend, Horace Smith. Together, they formed a new Smith & Wesson company to manufacture revolvers and approached Rollin Smith for his patent. Rather than make him a partner in their new company, they offered him a royalty of $0.25 for every revolver manufactured by them. This meant that they were free to manufacture revolvers, while the job of defending the patent from other infringers was White's responsibility. Due to this arrangement, Rollin White lost a lot of money battling court cases, while Smith & Wesson prospered.

Smith & Wesson Revolver Model 1. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The new revolvers were an immediate success and sold very well that by 1860, Smith & Wesson had to expand into a new factory. The US Civil war only increased the demand as Smith & Wesson revolvers were purchased privately by many soldiers on both sides. Rollin White even started a separate factory to supply revolvers to Smith & Wesson, to keep up with the demand. Other manufacturers also started to manufacture similar revolvers and therefore, Rollin White sued them in court. He won many of these cases and therefore, the offending companies were forced to stamp "Manufactured for Smith & Wesson" on the revolvers that they made. Despite winning many of these cases, Rollin White did not make much money himself, as he spent most of his earnings on paying lawyers.

After the end of the Civil War, Smith & Wesson started manufacturing revolvers suitable for the American west and also started selling to the US Army, Russia, Australia etc.

So there you have it, from the Walter Hunt rocket ball patent to the birth of two US firearms giants, Winchester and Smith & Wesson.