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.


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.

enfield and colt

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


1865 Gatling Gun



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