Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century #3 – Firearms

Just about any writer of historical adventure set in the nineteenth century needs to know what’s what with guns. Even if guns are not central to the plot, chances are they will crop up at some point and the writer should at least know the difference between percussion caps and metallic cartridges, muzzle-loading and breech-loading mechanisms and bullets and cartridges as well as having a passing knowledge of some of the makes and models of firearms in use at that time. I’m no gun enthusiast, but in the writing of Golden Heart and On Rails of Gold I realised just how little I knew and panicked at the amount of research I had to do just to reach a passable level of authenticity in my gunfights. So in this post I’ll take a look at the evolution of firearms through the nineteenth century as well as picking out a few examples of weapons I placed in the hands of my characters.

Evolution of the Firing Mechanism

Guns have been around since the fourteenth century but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that great leaps forward were made in the firing mechanisms that revolutionised the industry. Guns and Ammo lists three huge developments responsible for this dramatic shift. The first is the replacement of the spherical ‘musket ball’ with the ‘Minié ball’ which tapered at the front and had a concave bottom. Much more aerodynamic, the Minié ball was the first ‘bullet-shaped’ projectile. Then came the replacement of the flint and steel mechanism with percussion caps. After around 1830 it became more common for armies in particular to use these tiny metal cylinders which were filled with friction sensitive explosives. These would be fitted to a little peg or ‘nipple’ and the ‘hammer’ of the gun would slam down on them creating a spark. The third development was the introduction of cartridges. When I first began writing gunfights I made the mistake of referring to the things my fighters slid into their guns as ‘bullets’. In the nineteenth century the bullet was only the tip of the cartridge – a paper tube filled with a charge of powder – which replaced the laborious process of measuring out powder, pouring it down the barrel of the gun and following it with wadding and a bullet. In 1847 M. Houiller invented the first fully contained all-metal cartridge. These are the ‘bullets’ you see Clint Eastwood sliding into his revolver. It was a huge advantage over the paper cartridges which could be ruined by water. Also, the metal bullet cartridge contained a primer in its bottom which skirted the need for percussion caps. Its use in America began after the Civil War and its design remains more or less unchanged to this day.

Revolvers

Ideas for a quick loading firearm had been around as long as the firearm itself. In 1818 Bostonian Elisha Collier patented a design for a flintlock revolver in Britain but it wasn’t until 1835/6 that Samuel Colt introduced his revolver which led to its widespread use. With most revolvers, cartridges are inserted manually into the chambers of the cylindrical block, which on some revolvers are replaceable, cutting down on loading time even more. Most revolvers have swing out cylinders for reloading while some are ‘top-break’ revolvers requiring the user to ‘break’ them open like a shotgun. There are also ‘tip-up’ revolvers like Smith and Wesson’s first model (S&W Model 1). Most revolvers have six chambers hence the slang term ‘six-shooter’. Single-action revolvers require the shooter to cock the hammer manually between each shot. In the self-cocking or ‘double-action’ revolver the hammer is cocked automatically by the squeezing of the trigger. Revolvers are still popular today and are preferred over auto-loading pistols by hunters and those interested in self defense due to their durability outdoors and their more powerful rounds.

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A British Enfield Mk II and an American Colt ‘Peacemaker’

Lazarus Longman’s original gun of choice is the Enfield Mark II; the official British military sidearm from 1880 to 1887. It was a top-break single or double action pistol that fired .476 rounds. I tried to match the weapons of my characters to their personalities; in Longman’s case I needed something thoroughly British, reliable and sturdy if a little old fashioned. The Enfield eventually received complaints of loosening barrels resulting in inaccuracy. Early on in Golden Heart Lazarus looses his Enfield in the Colorado River and replaces it with the Colt Starblazer. This is steampunk after all, and an alternate history, therefore fictional weapons are occasionally required. As Lazarus is in the American Southwest I felt that a Colt was a good choice for him (known as the ‘gun of the Wild West’), showing his adaptability to situations. Samuel Colt received phenomenal success in manufacturing and marketing revolvers in America, thriving during the Civil War in which the Colt Army Model 1860 attained great popularity. Sam Colt died during the war and the company found themselves in trouble as metallic cartridges were gaining popularity and the patent for the guns that fired them was owned by rival company Smith and Wesson. When the patent expired, Colt began making metallic cartridge firing guns in the 1870s eventually resulting in their masterpiece; the Colt Single Action Army known as the ‘Peacemaker’ or the Colt .45. I see the fictional ‘Starblazer’ as a more powerful follow up to the ‘Peacemaker’, invented during the elongated conflict from the need for better and more brutal firepower. Although Colt sold exclusively to the Union after the firing on Fort Sumter, they did sell to England which is how Lazarus got hold of one.

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Smith and Wesson Model 3 Russian

For Katarina, I wanted something a bit special. Most women of this era, if they packed any heat at all, it would be a little snub pistol concealed in their handbags. I didn’t want Katarina to have to put up with that indignity (she’s already in a long dress and corset) so I went for the Smith and Wesson Model 3 which was ordered in large quantities by the Russian army. Before the Civil War Smith and Wesson were the sole manufactures of the new metallic-cartridge firing revolvers making them serious competition to Colt. Although Colt began making their own versions of the new technology after the war, S&W found success in selling to foreign markets such as Russia. But the Russian government began copying the revolver at their own factories at Tula on the cheap, either cancelling orders with Smith and Wesson or delaying payment resulting in huge losses for the American gunsmith. Wyatt Earp also favored the S&W Model 3. I like its smoother curves and imagined a few modifications for the alternate history version wielded by Katarina such as a longer barrel and intricate engravings on the barrel and cylinder. Like its owner it is exotic, pleasing to the eye and extremely deadly.

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LeMat Revolver

Gerrard Vasquez, being a half-Mexican bandit, an ex-Confederate dirigible captain and steampunk’s answer to Han Solo, needed something a little special in his holster. As he was in the Confederate Army and hails from the South, a Colt would never do. During the Civil War an interesting sidearm for the Confederates was the LeMat Revolver. Developed by New Orleans-born Jean Alexandre LeMat, the gun has a surprising nine chamber cylinder and a secondary barrel that functioned as a 20 gauge shotgun. This led to it being dubbed the ‘Grape Shot Revolver’. Originally manufactured in Philadelphia, production moved to France and the guns had to be shipped through the Union Blockade to the Confederate States via England. Like most Civil War era pistols it was a percussion cap pistol aside from a few rare pinfire versions that appeared late in the war. Production was more or less halted by the Confederate defeat in 1865. In the alternate history of Golden Heart, the Confederacy holds the upper hand in the twenty-four year-long Civil War and so by 1885 the LeMat company has grown vastly succesful and rivals Colt in its production of firearms. The fictional LeMat in Golden Heart is an upgraded metallic cartridge firing pistol retaining its shotgun barrel which is now a larger 18 gauge. The LeMat is a lot like Vasquez; a wild card; unpredictable but deadly at close range.

Rifles

The word ‘rifle’ comes from the process of ‘rifling’ which is the carving of the inside of the barrel in a spiral pattern which gives a spin to the bullet it fires. This was an advancement on the ‘smoothbore’ design of the earlier musket which fired balls. Flintlock muzzle-loading rifles were adopted by the British during the Napoleonic wars. Muzzle-loading refers to the pouring of powder down the muzzle of a long gun and following it with wadding and a shot. This was replaced by breech-loading where shot and powder (and later cartridges) were pushed into a chamber at the rear of the barrel. This in turn was replaced by the repeating rifle which refers to any rifle that contains several rounds of ammunition where the next cartridge is loaded by a manual action.

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Springfield Model 1861 Rifle-Musket

The Springfield Rifle – the most widely used weapon by the Unionists during the Civil War – fired .58 caliber Minié balls and was muzzle-loaded. A later Springfield used in the earl part of the twentieth century was the M1903 which was a bolt-action rifle that used clips of five rounds. My Unionist partisans in Golden Heart still use Springfields, although updated bolt-action versions that fire metallic cartridges, smuggled south of the Confederate line by airship drops.

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Pattern 1853 Enfield

Despite being nearly ten years old, the British Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle-Musket was the second most used rifle during the Civil War. The Confederates were the main buyers, purchasing them from gunrunners who slipped them through the blockade. Used by the British Empire during the Crimean War and in India, the Enfield fired .577 Minié balls and was muzzle-loaded. After about 1867 most Enfields were converted or replaced by the Snider-Enfield which was a breech-loading rifle that fired metallic cartridges. I retained the Enfield (albeit an updated one like the Snider-Enfield) for my Confederate troops in Golden Heart.

Machine Guns

The definition of a machine gun is any mounted or portable gun that is fully automatic i.e. rounds will continue to fire so long as the trigger is depressed. An early machine gun that saw action in the Civil War was the Agar Gun, also known as the ‘coffee-mill gun’ due to its hand crank and ammo hopper. The Agar fired standard paper cartridges which were placed within reusable metal containers fitted with percussion caps. The hand crank would feed the rounds into the weapon which would fire them from its single barrel and drop the empty metal tubes into a tray beneath. The gun crew would struggle to refill and reload these cartridges before the hopper ran empty. President Lincoln was so impressed by a demonstration of the Agar Gun that he purchased ten on the spot with the Union ordering fifty more later in the war.

More famous is the Gatling Gun, invented by American Dr. Richard J. Gatling which also saw limited use in the Civil War on the side of the Unionists. Like the Agar Gun, it relied on a hand crank but was less prone to overheating due to rotating six barrels instead of one. Strictly speaking, neither the Agar or Gatling Gun were fully automatic as they required somebody to crank them. The first true machine gun was the Maxim Gun, invented in 1883 by Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim. It used the gun’s recoil to eject spent cartridges and allow new ones to be inserted from the ammunition hopper. In Golden Heart, I went with the Gatling concept, but introduced a newer model known as the ‘Jericho’. Fitted on rotating carriages or on the arms of ‘mechanicals’, the Jericho Gatling Gun is fully automatic and extremely deadly.

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1865 Gatling Gun

 

Vintage Reads #6 – The Lost World

Lost_worldI’m rounding up my ‘lost world’ series with the novel that gave the genre its name. Written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World was published in the Strand Magazine (which had previously published his Sherlock Holmes stories) in 1912 and stands as the archetypal entry in the genre.

Trading the Africa of H. Rider Haggard’s novels for the jungles of South America, The Lost World tells of journalist Edward Malone who is sent to interview curmudgeonly oddball Professor George Challenger who has been ridiculed in the press for claiming the existence of dinosaurs on a secluded South American plateau.

Convinced to accompany the professor on an other expedition to the plateau, Malone and some other intrepid explorers set out for South America. Betrayed by their native guides who cut the rope bridge, stranding them, the company delve into the plateau and encounter pterodactyls, an allosaurus and primitive ape-men who are at war with a tribe of humans.

The lost world genre was continued in the 20th century, most notably by Edgar Rice Burroughs who had experimented with lost cities in his Tarzan novels and went full genre in 1918’s The Land That Time Forgot. But Burroughs’s other novels had a far deeper effect on fantastic fiction. The world had been changed by its first great war. The days of imperialism were numbered and blank spaces on maps were getting smaller and smaller. Suddenly the world didn’t seem so big anymore. Writers of adventure fiction turned to the stars for inspiration and Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912) became the blueprint for a new breed of fantastic fiction. The lost world genre evolved into the ‘planetary romance’ adventure where the crumbling ruins of lost civilizations appeared against the backdrop of alien planets.

Steampunk Wednesdays #6 – Lindsay Buroker’s Flash Gold Chronicles

flash goldIf you’re looking for a breezy Steampunk series to read, you could do a lot worse than Lindsay Buroker’s Flash Gold Chronicles. I’ve followed her blog for a long time now and it’s a fantastic resource for anybody looking to get into the ebook market. Her own contribution to Steampunk is this fantastic little series (each volume is a novella) centered around eighteen-year-old Kali McAlister; an orphaned and ostracized tinkerer trying to scratch a living in the frigid Yukon. He late father was the scientist who discovered the eponymous ‘flash gold’ – a powerful energy source – which makes her a target for hustlers and hoodlums in this snowy western Steampunk yarn.

Aimed at young adults, this series moves at a cracking pace and is filled with airship battles, steam-powered dogsled races and colorful characters out for revenge or profit in the style of many a Spaghetti Western. Definitely worth checking out, especially as the first book is free!

Vintage Reads #5 – The Man Who Would be King

ThePhantomRickshawFirst published in Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 collection The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales, this novella concerns a couple of British wide boys who intend to use blackmail, gunrunning and mummery to become kings of Kafiristan (an area of Afghanistan). It’s perhaps not an obvious example of the lost world genre but an important entry nonetheless as it tells of a fictional group of white people descended from the armies of Alexander the Great who established garrisons in Hindu Kush around 330 BC. This plays on a long held theory that the lighter skinned Kalash and Nuristani peoples who live in the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan are indeed such descendants. Threatened and occasionally forced to convert to Islam, the Kalash and Nuristanis practice a polytheistic religion and, much like the fictional tribes in the novella, erect idols in outdoor temples. kipling-man-kingThe story begins with an encounter on a train in India between a British journalist and the two adventurers; Dravot and Carnehan who tell him of their plan. Amused by the idea, although thinking it foolhardy, the narrator provides the men with maps and books on the area. They depart and two years go by in which the journalist nearly forgets all about them until Carnehan sneaks into the journalist’s office in Lahore, a broken man, but one willing to tell of his adventures. Sir_James_Brooke_(1847)_by_Francis_Grant The Man Who Would be King has a startling basis in fact. The British adventurer James Brooke was born in India (like Kipling) and saw some action in the army of the British East India Company before being wounded in 1825. After inheriting a considerable sum of money, he bought a large schooner and, arming it, set sail for Borneo with the idea of challenging Dutch control. There he found the province of Sarwak in upheaval, rife with piracy and insurgencies against the Sultan of Brunei. In 1841, Brooke helped the Sultan fight the troublemakers which he did with swift effectiveness. The Sultan was so impressed that the title ‘Rajah’ was bestowed on Brooke who became the ‘White Rajah’ of Sarwak, founding a dynasty famed for its eccentricities that lasted until the Second World War when it was ceded to the United Kingdom. Brooke’s achievements were met with fascination back in England and his adventures became the inspiration for many swashbuckling novels. Errol Flynn even penned a script based on his life with himself set to play Brooke but it never came to fruition.

Steampunk Wednesdays #5 – Airlords of Airia (2013)

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A very impressive German independent short, Airlords of Airia blends Steampunk with traditional fantasy and 1930s art deco stylings. Set in a post-apocalyptic world (Earth?) extensive flooding has forced man to take command of the skies. Hinting at a world of airlords, rebels, smugglers and empires, this reminds me of a 1930s serial episode like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. It also works as a sort of trailer for what could become a feature film.

The project is ongoing with the hope of releasing more shorts or even a feature film. It is crowdfunded and you can visit their website here.

Free Steampunk Short Story: ‘On Rails of Gold’

on rails of goldOn Rails of Gold – A Prequel to Golden Heart (Short Story)

While Unionist partisans dig an underground railroad beneath the mountains of Arizona, an adventure is set in motion that will change the fate of the world. From the bar room brawls of seedy Tombstone to the crumbling pueblos of the arid wilderness, the race is on to discover America’s Golden Heart.

This short freebie leads directly into the first Lazarus Longman novel which will be available soon. I’ve tried to make it free in most online stores but Amazon won’t let you give stuff away so it stands at $1.49 there. They will however, try to match prices in other stores, so hopefully it will be free on Amazon in the near future. Right now, you can pick On Rails of Gold up for free at: Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Google Play.