ORDNANCE ODDITIES The Early Days

In the course of decades of research in various military and museum archives, Robert Bruce has acquired a treasure trove of photos of what might be considered “odd and unusual weapons.” We’ve conspired to select a few of these for presentation here, representing early developments that may or may not have spurred further innovation.

 

Credit: U.S. War Department/National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

First Flying Cannon

Since mounting a heavy and hard-kicking cannon would destroy the typically flimsy wood and fabric aircraft of WWI, this novel gun was developed by U.S. Navy Commander Cleland Davis for use in anti-submarine and anti-Zeppelin engagements. Seen here mounted at the nose gunner’s station of an F5L seaplane, this Davis Non-Recoiling Gun is fitted with a Lewis machine gun for both aiming the cannon and as a defense weapon. Its secret is cleverly designed ammunition that simultaneously fires its explosive projectiles out the front while blasting a counterweight of lead balls packed in grease out the back. Thus circumventing Newton’s Third Law of Motion, a technique quite successfully applied to subsequent developments in a variety of recoilless cannons including the U.S. military’s spectacular 105mm M40 and the now-ubiquitous Carl Gustaf.

 

Our introductory photo for this feature doesn’t show the earliest of these oddities, but it certainly represents an excellent engineering solution to a previously unknown challenge in the evolution of warfare and weaponry. But now having set the stage, we’ll move out smartly in somewhat chronological order, starting with a peek at a place way back on the developmental trail of the multipurpose hand grenade.

 

Credit: Richard Knotel in Glogau 1857/Wikimedia Commons

Hand Bombs!

What we now think of as hand grenades originated centuries before as fuzed, gunpowder-packed clay pots, evolving into somewhat efficient and deadly miniature cannon balls. In this illustration, a pair of handsomely uniformed and equipped Prussian (German) Grenadiers is plying their trade, circa 1715. Note the length of slow burning match cords in their left hands, used to light the shorter time fuze on the grenade itself. The Grenadiers of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia were elite soldiers, chosen for exceptional throwing strength as well as being at least 6 feet tall due to the short and rotund King’s odd fetish for his personal regiment of what became known as “Potsdam Giants.” Their quite necessary secondary armament consisted of a sword and a matchlock musket with detachable bayonet. A small supply of the heavy cast iron bombs was immediately available from that large leather bag slung over the left shoulder.

 

Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons

Shoot and Stab!

Yes, muzzle loading pistols with flintlock ignition were much more handy and efficient than matchlock hand cannons for close-quarters fighting by the likes of ship-to-ship boarding parties in the age of sail. Alas, they still offered the user only one shot before the decidedly inconvenient need for a reload in the midst of a melee, so most sailors preferred stab, slash or smash weapons. Of course, it made sense to add a handy mini-bayonet to the pistol for use as the situation required. The matched pair seen here is finely crafted in silver-inlaid walnut and intricately carved brass with a steel barrel and lock mechanism; most likely a custom-made armament for a wealthy Naval officer. Their wicked triangular bayonets are immediately deployed when the trigger finger pulls back on the sliding latch seen just below the lock.

 

Credit: Photograph by Andreas Franzkowiak at Germanisches Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia Commons

Matchlock Revolver

Finding the slow rate of fire of single-shot matchlock weapons to be intolerable, this clever Luntenschloss-Drehling mechanical repeater was crafted in Germany circa 1580. Its revolving cylinder has multiple chambers with sliding touch hole covers, each loaded with powder and a ball. The glowing tip of a slow-match cord would fire each in turn as it ratcheted up to align with the barrel. This revolver arrangement was adopted for any number of muskets, rifles and pistols, enduring today in such notable weapons as Milkor USA’s 40mm M32A1 Multi-Shot Grenade Launcher.

 

Credit: U.S. Army Ordnance Museum

Fast Firing Flintlock

This photo, fortuitously found in the somewhat haphazard research holdings at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum when it was still at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is noted only as a “repeating flintlock rifle made by Kirkland & Company.” Subsequent research suggests that it may have been influenced by a similar weapon from previous makers in Europe and the U.S. including the .54 caliber, four-shot Ellis-Jennings Military Repeating Flintlock Rifle. We speculate that the Kirkland version works with superposed loads in a manner similar to the Ellis-Jennings as noted in the Springfield Armory’s collection record: “The gun was loaded by ramming down four charges, one on top of the other. The lock was then pushed opposite the foremost vent and held there by a little apron closing the vent nearest to the rear. It was supposed that the flame was kept from reaching the next charge by tight ramming of the intervening ball. The apron having then been lifted, the lock was slid back to the next hole, and the process continued. A small reservoir for the priming powder was seen attached to the pan. By raising this up before each shot and [w]rapping the piece, the pan was filled. This rendered the piece self-contained, as the powder horn or cartridge box was not required for its service.” In some ways, its modern equivalent is found in the remarkable Metal Storm system.

 

Credit: Booklet “Maxim Automatic Gun in Action” in the collection of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Backpacked Maxim

Weighing “only” 44.5 pounds with tripod mount, this 1895 Extra Light machine gun from the Maxim-Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company of London can be carried handily by an infantryman in a serviceable, but no-doubt uncomfortable, box with shoulder straps. Forced by competition from the much lighter Colt-Browning M1895 “Potato Digger,” Hiram Maxim radically reduced his anvil-like standard gun by eliminating the prominent water jacket, along with several other simplifications. Overheating of its brass-shrouded, air-cooled barrel was a major flaw, and, while few were sold, several of these light and handy guns served the British South Africa Company quite well in the Chitral and Matabele Campaigns.

 

Credit: Booklet “Maxim Automatic Gun in Action” in the collection of the U.S. Army Center of Military History

Cavalry Maxim

Standard Maxim Automatic Machine Guns of the 1890s with their formidable tripods, tools and spares made for a heavy, bulky and ungainly load on even the sturdiest of pack animals, limiting tactical effectiveness in fast-moving cavalry engagements. Hiram Maxim sought to remedy this with the Extra Light machine gun of 1895, an air-cooled gun weighing 27.5 pounds and quite handily carried by a single cavalryman in a sturdy leather scabbard. Interestingly, a dozen or more of these (sold to the British South Africa Company) were used to devastating effect by rebellious Boers against the British Army.

 

Credit: Archives of the Northwestern Military Academy and Wikimedia Commons

Heck on Wheels

In 1899, these four stalwart soldiers were aboard a specially modified, gas engine automobile from the Duryea Motor Wagon Company mounting a .30 caliber Colt-Browning M1895 “Potato Digger” machine gun behind a rather small steel shield. This was one of a series of experimental machine gun carriers and other developments from Major R.P. Davidson of the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy, recognized as a key figure in armored warfare evolution. While we are tempted to make fun of this early scout vehicle, it offered some advantages over horse-drawn versions at the time.

 

Credit: U.S. National Archives

Fight Club!

With a pedigree dating back to the dawn of caveman conflicts, clubs are ultra-simple to make and use and are nearly foolproof in close-quarters battle. What’s remarkable about this selection of seemingly medieval examples is that they were made for and used with deadly efficiency in trench raiding in WWI. This is not surprising given the obvious limitations of long and heavy bolt-action rifles, particularly when equipped with absurdly long bayonets of the time. As such, the trench club, in all its particularly nasty forms with spikes, barbed wire wrapping and such, did yeoman duty along with knuckled knives, sharpened spades, handy hatchets, revolvers and grenades.

 

Credit: U.S. National Archives

British Biker Gang

Motorcycles reached a high degree of utility by the time the world was at war in 1914-1918. All of the major combatants were using both solo and sidecar-equipped versions for a variety of tasks like liaison and message running. As scouting was prominent among these, mounting a machine gun was inevitable. Here we see a battery from the British Machine Gun Corps–Motor Machine Gun Service, heading out on heavy “combination” (with sidecar) bikes made by Clyno Engineering Company. The formidable belt-fed, water-cooled Vickers machine gun, Mark I, .303-inch, mounted in a firing position on the sidecars could be quickly detached and used on ground tripods.

 

Credit: U.S. National Archives

Last of the Lance

The tragic absurdity of horse-mounted cavalrymen in modern conflict reached its pinnacle on the Western Front in WWI with trench warfare dominated by massed artillery, machine guns and endless thickets of barbed wire. This photo is said to depict a German Uhlan, armed with a steel tube lance and bolt-action Gewehr 98 rifle, patrolling behind the front lines. Noting his Lederschutzmaske 17 (leather protective gas mask model of 1917), it isn’t polite to ask what might happen to his noble steed if there actually were poison gas in the area. But the Germans did have a muzzle mask for the horse that looked like a canvas feed bag (apparently not available for this photo-op).

 

Credit: U.S. National Archives

Ridiculous Rifle Grenade?

Technically the Granatenwerfer 16 (grenade thrower model of 1916) is a trench mortar, but the on-target effect of this 79-pound piece of Teutonic over-engineering was little more than that of the simple cup or rod type grenade launchers for most any infantryman’s rifle. But to its credit, the device’s sturdy base is topped with a well-marked elevation mechanism and traversing plate to facilitate rather precise accuracy out to around 300m. Its finned fragmentation grenades contain a blank cartridge that—when its hollow base is slid down on the “spigot” rod—it is trigger-fired and quickly reloaded for multiple hits in the intended target area.

 

Credit: U.S. Army Ordnance Museum

Feel the Burn!

In WWI, the “diabolical Hun” (Germans) were the first with both poison gas and flamethrowers in desperate attempts to break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front. Seen here in a photo probably taken in 1917 at the Stosstrupp (Shock Troop) training center in Sedan, France, a four man Flammenwerfer (flame thrower) team advances down a trench behind a horrifying wall of “liquid fire.” The forward man in the stack is the gunner, directing the flame and regulating it with a valve mounted on the igniter-tipped wand. The second man stumbles along behind carrying the 70-pound pressurized steel cylinder looking like a giant Thermos bottle and holding four gallons of a volatile oil and chemical mixture. The two riflemen right behind are there for both protection of the crew and ready to take over as almost inevitably needed.

 

Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps/National Archives

Birth of the Bazooka

While the handwritten notation, “1 inch recoilless gun” is the only caption information that accompanied a vintage cyanotype print the author discovered and copied in the National Archives, subsequent research has revealed that it almost certainly shows Dr. Robert H. Goddard, widely considered to be “the father of modern rocketry,” demonstrating his rocket launcher for Ordnance Department representatives at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, on November 20, 1918. One report from this obscure but seminal event predicted that such weapons “could be developed to operate successfully against tanks.” Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat and the American disarmament that followed, further development by U.S. Ordnance lay dormant for more than two decades until the birth of the iconic U.S. “Bazooka” of WWII.

 

 

Spinning Slug Slinger 

Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps/National Archives

Using an electric motor to spin its mechanism at around 20,000 RPM, this remarkable contraption needs no gunpowder-packed cartridges and reportedly fires a continuous stream of 330 steel balls each second to punch through ¾-inch steel plates at several hundred feet! The hopper-fed, centrifugal force brainstorm of Earl Ovington and Levi Lombard is seen here in a demonstration for Ordnance Department officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground in October 1920. While exciting in its possibilities for defense against massed attackers, it destroyed itself in the demonstration and disappeared from official consideration.

 

Conclusion

Experimentation in armaments languished in the aftermath of the “War to End All Wars” but exploded once again in 1940, forced by naked aggression by a resurgent Germany and its allies. Developments in weaponry that followed over the next 5 years and beyond ranged from sublime to ridiculous. We’ll mine more from Robert Bruce’s archive collection to unearth and present additional Ordnance Oddities for the amusement, and perhaps amazement, of Small Arms Defense Journal’s discerning readers.

 

 

[Copyright 2019 Robert Bruce Military Photo Features.]