How Not to Design a Machine Gun
The 1915 Huot-Prefontaine is a total mess
In May 1915, Canadian designers Alphonse Huot and Joseph Prefontaine applied for a patent for their new machine gun design. The aim of the Huot-Prefontaine Machine Gun, the designers claimed, was to “provide a compact, durable and efficient machine gun which can be operated either mechanically or manually and can be quickly produced in large numbers at small cost.”
The patent drawings depict a relatively small firearm with a large pan-magazine on a tripod very similar to those you might use with contemporary cameras. The patent also covers the design of the gun’s mount, which features a series of complex plates and ratchets for adjusting the gun’s sighting.
Curiously, the gun’s design was already hopelessly obsolete when the Canadian government granted the patent.
The patent and patent drawings attempt to explain an extremely complex-looking weapon. The shooter cycles the gun manually using a crank on the right side of the weapon. This acts on a series of levers and pinions that index a rotating plate, which has two chambers and firing pins. The crank turns two gears that actuate a shaft, which trips the hammer which strikes a firing pin, finally firing the gun.
The weapon has no bolt. Instead, the magazine includes a series of individual chambers and firing pins that align with the breech. The patent doesn’t clearly explain how the breech gas-seals during firing.
The magazine also has multiple layers of ammunition held in tubes on what the patent describes as a “cartridge carrying plate.” The layers hold approximately 40 rounds, with the cartridge plate rotating above the firing plate that holds the chambers and firing pins. Each chamber acts as a hopper. But how the tubes feed rounds into the chambers holding the firing pins is unclear from the drawings.
The magazine ratchets anti-clockwise to index a new cartridge from the right while, to the left, there’s a “discharge spout.” The patent drawings show no visible extractor or ejector. Instead, spent casings are supposed to fall from the chamber — assisted by gravity — and leave the gun through what the patent describes as a “discharge spout.”
The patent recommends that as the shooter fires the gun, he should swing it “from side to side in an arc.” This is achieved by cranking the gun, with the force from the transfer rod rotating the gun within a limited arc set by the height of another connecting crank. The weapon’s barrel is water-cooled, as was common with World War I-vintage automatic machine guns.
Let’s take a quick break from this mess.
Okay, back to it. The patent describes how the gun should be sighted through a “space left in the cartridge tube in alignment with the front sight.” There’s a similar space at the front of the magazine pan for the shooter to sight through. As with many aspects of the patent and its accompanying drawings, this design element raises more questions than it answers.
The design is wholly impractical. It’s most interesting for its link to a later weapon. Co-designer Huot later developed an automatic rifle that he adapted from the Canadian Ross Rifle. The leap from Huot’s overly-complex, instantly-obsolete machine gun to his ingenious Huot Automatic Rifle is fascinating — and almost unbelievable.
It’s possible that Prefontaine was actually the lead designer of the machine gun and that Huot merely assisted him while developing his own, far more successful weapon. In any event, the Huot-Prefontaine Machine Gun remains an unusual — and still somewhat mysterious — footnote in the history of the much better-known Huot Automatic Rifle.