The Royal Navy Was Scared the Volley Gun Might Accidentally Burn Down Its Own Ships
The seven-barrel weapon was supposed to help Royal Marines to defend their vessels
by MATTHEW MOSS
In 1779, James Wilson present a design for a seven-barrel volley gun to the British government’s Board of Ordnance. The board decided that the gun, while of no use to the British Army, would be useful aboard the Royal Navy’s warships.
The volley gun’s impressive firepower could be devastating at the relatively short ranges aboard ships. The navy had historically used blunderbusses or musketoons — and the Board of Ordnance probably viewed Wilson’s gun, which came to be known as the “Nock Gun” for reasons I explain below, as an advancement of the same concept.
The Admiralty envisioned equipping first-rate ships of the line — vessels with 75 guns or more — with 20 volley guns, while second and third rates would have 16 and 12 volley guns, respectively. Frigates would carry 10 Nock Guns.
This represented a sizeable order. The Admiralty eventually purchased 500 guns, paying £13 per gun, to equip Royal Marines and sailors manning the fighting tops at the top of ships’ masts.
The navy imagined that the volley guns’ firepower could help Marines defend their ships from boarding parties — and also lend them the firepower to themselves successfully board and seize heavily-defended enemy vessels.
London gun-maker Henry Nock, better known for producing high-quality dueling pistols and sporting guns, became the sole supplier of Wilson’s volley guns. The weapon’s .46-inch-caliber barrels were arranged around the seventh center barrel. The barrels, each with a vent, were brazed together and screwed to an iron plate set into the walnut stock.
Once the flintlock ignited the central barrel, the surrounding barrels ignited through the vents. All seven barrels fired almost at once, producing significant recoil — reputedly sufficient to dislocate shoulders.
The weapon was heavy at around 12 pounds, but this clearly did little to mitigate its recoil. The two early prototypes volley guns featured rifled barrels but these proved slow to load in action, and subsequent guns came with smoothbore barrels.
The Board of Ordnance and the Admiralty awarded Wilson £400 — equivalent to £48,000 today — in May 1780. He played no further role in the testing and development of the volley gun. In 1787, the Navy ordered a further 100 guns from Nock.
They saw combat for the first time at the hands of Adm. Richard Howe’s fleet at the siege of Gibraltar in 1782. Historian Howard Blackmore suggests that naval officers — including Adm. Horatio Nelson, who famously disliked placing marksmen in his tops — disliked the guns.
Some officers and Marines feared that the volley guns’ wads could set ships’ sails and rigging on fire. It was apparently also not uncommon for some of the volley guns’ barrels to fail to ignite.
As a result, the guns were seldom-used aboard ships and the Royal Navy ultimately removed them from service in 1804. In 1805, Wilson — then a captain of the Marines — suggested that the Navy reissue the guns to the Sea Fencibles, a naval militia that helped to defend the British coast.
Nothing came of his recommendation.
Later in 1818, Nock’s workshop manufactured a design by Artemus Wheeler. Wheeler’s carbine resembled the earlier volley gun, but was in fact a manually-rotated, self-priming flintlock pepperbox gun with six barrels arranged around a central axis.
Unlike the earlier volley gun, the pepperbox carbine never attracted any serious interest from the Admiralty.
Nock’s workshops produced approximately 655 volley guns between 1780 and 1788. Today museums including the American NRA Museum, Britain’s Royal Armouries and the National Maritime Museum possess copies.
Originally published at www.historicalfirearms.info.