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GUNSMITH FASHIONED PERCUSSION VOLLEY GUN – A UNIQUE ONE OF A KIND FIREARM INTENDED FOR CLOSE RANGE DEFENSE IN DESPERATE FRONTIER ENCOUNTERS:   This striking example of frontier firepower was recently found in an old collection in South Dakota.  Obviously the product of a talented gunsmith who married components from at least two guns, this volley gun presents as the sort of firearm which would have been used aboard the river keel boats which plied the Mississippi, Missouri, and Yellowstone Rivers as they traversed the trade routes, or used to defend one of the fortified trading posts on the frontier.  Not the sort of thing an individual settler, or a plains or mountain man would carry as his primary long gun, but certainly an effective weapon for defense from a protected position against a hostile force.   

The British Navy began experimenting with multi-barrel arms in the 18TH Century and in 1779 English inventor James Wilson developed the first viable design – a central barrel surrounded by six barrels - and presented it to the Royal Board of Ordnance.  Wilson intended his design to be used by land forces; however the Royal Board rejected the design for the army while recommending it to the navy.  The Royal Navy agreed, and in 1780 ordered two prototypes from Henry Nock, a well established gun maker.  Eventually, the navy ordered 500, but once placed into service the volley gun proved to be “one of those great ideas that didn’t work”.   

As a shoulder mounted arm, it was punishing to the shooter with dislocated shoulders being a common result.  The service models, produced in .50-.60 caliber, utilized powder charges of 68 grains per barrel with each round ball weighing from 180 to 350 grains each.  When the sailor pulled the trigger, assuming all the chambers fired, he was subjected to the recoil created by 2450 grains of lead propelled by 476 grains of powder.  The obvious deficiencies included calibers which were too large, requiring powder charges that were too heavy, and in the wind of an exposed deck at sea, the flintlock ignition system proved unreliable in firing all the barrels.   In addition, one alarming unintended consequence resulted from the volley guns being employed from the ship’s fighting tops.  The seven barrels emitted a wide plume of flame and burning grains of powder which ignited the tar soaked rigging and sail cloth in close proximity, endangering the very ship the gun was supposed to protect.  Due to these problems, the Nock Volley guns were phased out of the Royal Navy in 1805.  Nock continued to make sporting (sporting?) models for a short time and then he discontinued them entirely.   

More to the specific history of this volley gun, Henry Harrington of Southbridge, Massachusetts obtained a patent on July 29, 1837 for a “breech loading volley gun”.   Harrington’s design featured a vertically sliding, multi-chambered removable breech block which slid into place behind a like-numbered barrel cluster.  The breech blocks were designed to be carried pre-loaded and could be quickly exchanged once fired.  Harrington produced rifles, carbines and pistols, all with seven barrels – a central barrel with six barrels surrounding it.  The barrels were smooth bored, and the patent description includes the notation that the barrels were enclosed in a “brass housing”.   

Most of Harrington’s volley guns were produced with percussion ignition systems and they were often found in smaller calibers, some as small as .22 caliber.  At least one of Harrington’s volley guns included a particularly innovative design element – two hammers and a breech block bored in such a way that dropping one hammer would fire three chambers and dropping the second hammer would fire the remaining four chambers.  A matching second breech block was bored so that all seven chambers fired with the drop of one hammer.   

Harrington’s design of interchangeable breech blocks may account for the barrel cluster on this volley gun being bored all the way through.  Apparently, the breech block was lost or damaged, and another arrangement had to be fashioned to return the gun to use. 

This specimen has an overall length of 32 ½”, and the barrel cluster is 16” long.  The barrel cluster is mounted in a walnut half stock which features brass furniture - trigger guard, butt plate, toe plate and patch box, - and a silver squirrel inlay on the cheek and a small silver rectangle on the top of the wrist.   In its original configuration, the stock carried a barrel mounted with a patent breech, and the tang and breech plate are still present.  The lock plate appears original to the stock as it is well inlet into the lock mortise with no indication of being a replacement.   

The exterior surfaces of the barrels retain traces of brass “facing” – a mid 19TH Century process which differs from brass plating.  Brass facing is an applied veneer of brass overlaid only on the exterior surfaces of iron or steel to protect it from the elements.  This may be the “brass housing” referred to in Harrington’s patent description.   

The smooth bore barrels range from .26 - .28 caliber, definitely the products of hand forging, but still close enough that they all certainly used the same caliber round ball.  Either patched or loaded loose in the under or over sized diameter barrels, it would have mattered very little in a gun obviously intended for short range use.   

The breech is an ingenious arrangement, and it may well be a "one of" creation of a single man gunsmith shop.  The barrels are bored all the way through similar to the design of the volley guns produced by Harrington.  This set of barrels, apparently salvaged from a more conventional volley gun, have an iron shroud forged around the breech end which was probably fashioned as part of the volley gun in its original configuration.  There is a recessed area on the face of the breech end of the barrels which would have accommodated the original breech block as was part of the original design. 

In order to make use of the set of barrels, the gunsmith who executed the modification attached a heavy iron strap to each side of the shroud which serve as a frame for securing a separate breech plug and wedge, and as anchors for mounting the barrel assembly on the stock.   

When the breech plug and wedge are in place, there is a thin gap between the face of the plug and the rear of the barrels, providing a space for the percussion cap flame to reach the powder charges.  The wedge has a hole in one end which is presumably for a thong to attach the wedge to the rest of the gun so it wasn't lost in the process of reloading. 

In the photographs below, you can see how these straps are arranged and how the separate breech block plug and the iron wedge which holds the plug in place fit together.  You can also see the vertical extensions on the straps through which a heavy lock screw is threaded between the straps to secure the breech under the stock.  There is a hand forged flat iron strap wrapped around the barrel cluster and the stock just forward of the barrel shroud to further secure the barrels to the stock.  Finally, the gunsmith fashioned an extended hammer with sufficient reach to span the distance from the lock tumbler, over space between the tang face and breech face, and strike the single percussion cone which in turn would ignite all seven barrels.  All in all, this is quite a piece of creative and very skilled gunsmithing.  The trigger and hammer function against each other properly and the hammer will hold at both the full and half cock positions; however it appears the main spring is broken as the hammer will not fall upon pulling the trigger.  The extent to which one would have to go to disassemble the gun in order to remove the lock and access the mainspring is such that it has been left as it is.  As firing this piece is a very unlikely prospect, I would recommend leaving it as is, and simply enjoy this volley gun as the unique piece of firearm history it presents.   

The stock was salvaged from another gun - from the style of the patch box and cheek piece inlay, most likely a Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifle.  In spite of the obvious signs of use and age, the stock is very solid without any cracks, splits or other damage.  The wood has a beautiful naturally aged patina and a rich color, and has an overall smooth surface.   

Note that while there is the existing ramrod entry hole in the stock’s pewter nose cap, there is no provision for a ramrod under the barrel assembly.  The barrel cluster was mounted in the stock with one of the barrels seated down into the stock's barrel channel, as opposed to how the volley gun barrel clusters are normally mounted with the spaces between the barrels being oriented at the 12 and 6 o'clock positions to provide a space to mount the ramrod on the bottom, and a sighting channel on top.   If used from a boat or from a trading post wall, or any other defensive position, it is likely that a ramrod mounted on the gun was considered superfluous as one could be kept close at hand.  And too, being able to reload the seven barrels in a situation which was desperate enough to warrant using this gun would have been a moot point once the gun was fired.  Either the situation was resolved, or the gunner was probably past the point of being able contribute further.     

This volley gun presents as one of the most evocative examples of a frontier manufactured firearm yet seen.  Fashioned from the components at hand and intended for use in desperate situations, one is left to imagine the personalities of the man who created it and those who depended on it far from more civilized environs.  The flash and roar that emanated from these muzzles may well have been the last image that many poor souls had of this world.  (0836)  $3200



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