Monday, September 27, 2010

Elisha Collier's Flintlock Revolver

The revolver concept is often attributed to Samuel Colt, whose famous revolvers were the ones that the U.S. Army used during the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War period. According to an apocryphal story about the invention of the Colt Paterson, Samuel Colt's first revolver, the invention was inspired by viewing the rotation of a ship's steering wheel on a voyage from the United States to England. Colt made a wooden model of the revolver based upon his observations, and would eventually produce the Patterson pistol upon his arrival home.

Elisha Haydon Collier's flintlock revolver,
patented in 1818 in Great Britain
Although Samuel Colt's revolvers took the world by storm, it was actually another American inventor by the name of Elisha Haydon Collier who invented an early form of the revolver. Elisha Collier's revolver differed from Colt's in several key respects, but the primary one was that Collier's revolver was a flintlock and Colt's used percussion caps.

Prior to Collier's 1818 patent in England, the only multi-shot pistols were the pepperbox guns, which were distinct in that each bullet had its own barrel. Collier's flintlock revolver was one of the earliest weapons that used a single barrel through which all the bullets would successively fire. The flintlock revolver also lightened the weapon and made it easier to load; not having to place one bullet per barrel cut down on the time to load the weapon significantly.

Though Collier's flintlock revolver was an improvement over the earlier pepperboxes, the design of the gun still presented several problems. As in the pepperbox guns, there was a possibility for a multiple spark from the flint to cause all the bullets in the chamber to ignite. With the pepperbox this wasn't so much of an issue -- each bullet had its own barrel and thus all could exit the gun at the same time -- but Collier's flintlock revolver didn't have that benefit, and thus explosions could still happen.

The other primary issue with Collier's flintlock revolver is the issue that all flintlock weapons had. The flint itself would wear down quickly, and thus needed to be replaced quite often. Also, the flintlock revolver could misfire if inferior gunpowder was used in its operation. The standard operation of the flintlock revolver wasn't much different from the flintlock muskets of an earlier time, except for the multiple bullets and the revolving barrel.

Collier's flintlock revolver fell out of favor by the 1840s and '50s, when Samuel Colt and Smith & Wesson developed their pure revolver concepts that used percussion caps instead of flintlocks as an ignition source. When Elisha Collier returned to his native Boston in 1850, Samuel Colt had taken an additional step of difference by mass-producing the Colt Paterson and other hand guns in factories rather than hand-making the weapons as Collier had done with his flintlock revolver.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has one of Collier's flintlock revolvers in its collection, as a bequest of Major Victor Alexander Farquharson, and their page devoted to the gun has a detailed description of its materials and dimensions. Perhaps the most interesting thing for the Steampunk writer is that the weapon is made of forged steel, brass, and wood. These materials are as standard to Steampunk as the day is long.

One can almost imagine an underdeveloped nation armed with flintlock revolvers and muskets against an invading force using steam-powered automatic weapons and pure revolvers. It kind of sounds like the way much of Eastern Europe fell to the Germans during the run-up to World War II.

Any ideas for how a flintlock revolver could fit into Steampunk? I'd love to hear them!


Clare K. R. Miller said...

Oh, this is great! In a novel I'm working on, the society is controlled by the mages and one of the main characters is a steampunk inventor. Now I know what the problems with his guns should be.

Gary Corby said...

A very interesting question!

You might want to have a look at the Viagens Interplanetarias stories by L. Sprague de Camp.

A veteran unit of longbowmen from Agincourt would stand a chance of doing serious damage to the same number of conscripts of musketmen from Napoleon's army.

For a theoretical look at the influence of weapon technology on strategy: "Armament and History. The Influence of Armament on History from the Dawn of Classical Warfare to the End of the Second World War" by General J.F.C. Fuller.

Author Lindsay Mead said...

The funny thing is that I'm researching guns for my steampunk novel and I found this post, but it wasn't till I reached the end that I realized that this is a steampunk blog lol.

If you could answer me these question, I would be very grateful. How many shot would this gun fire before one needed to reload, about 6? Also is it likely that a person could fire all 6 before replacing the flint?

Thanks for your help and thanks for this post!