War is the driver of technological development. If it were not, we’d still be knocking each other over the head with stone axes. QED.
However, not every new military idea gets adopted into the mainstream, no matter how much of a wizard wheeze it may seem at first blush. Sometimes the reasons for this are abundantly clear, sometimes less so. Herewith, therefore, is a selection of technological also-rans: ideas which never quite found their niche in the history of weapons and tactics.
The Puckle Gun
In the 1600’s the depredations of Muslim pirates operating out of bases in Algiers, Tunis and other ports on the western coast of North Africa were at their height. Not satisfied with terrorizing shipping and villages around the Mediterranean, the raiders operated along the Atlantic coast of Europe seizing slaves and goods from Spain, Portugal and France, and merchant ships from coastal waters. Nor were British waters immune: Cornwall and Devon were regularly raided as was Ireland, and in 1645 pirates under Murat Reis occupied Lundy Island and set up a base from where they could operate seemingly at will. Scotland was raided, so was Iceland; and such was the impotence of the British Navy to deal with this threat that Sir John Eliot, Vice Admiral of Devon, declared that the seas around England “seem’d to be theirs.”
By the first decade of the eighteenth century the problem, at least in British waters, had abated somewhat. Cromwell had sent a fleet to drive the pests from Lundy, and it was said that over 20,000 captives otherwise destined for the slave pens of the Ottoman Empire were released. After the Restoration the RN went through a spasm of modernisation, and by 1675 was in a condition to launch a naval expedition which was capable of intimidating the Bey of Tunis into signing a peace treaty, and shelling the crap out of the Sultan of Algiers who declined to respond to diplomatic overtures.
Even so Islamic piracy in the Med continued to be a menace, to both merchant and naval vessels alike. Part of the problem was the difference in naval technology and tactics between the two sides. The European navies were by now almost entirely equipped with large two and three decked sailing ships, mounting a formidable array of cannon on each side of the vessel. These ships were capable of crossing oceans, but in the relative confines of the Mediterranean, were cumbersome to maneuver and were, of course, at the mercy of the wind. The Muslim ships were small and their primary system of propulsion were oars, of which which they might have thirty on each side. They also had a sail, and perhaps one or two cannon in bow and aft. But the Islamic galleys did not rely on firepower. Rather they carried a large complement of crew on deck, and used their maneuverability to close as quickly as possible with the enemy ship and, operating in packs, to board the vessel with an overwhelming weight of manpower thus rendering the European ship’s advantage in weight of cannon shot null and void.
Edward Puckle, a lawyer by profession, thought he had a solution to this problem. In 1718 Puckle registered a patent, the 418th of that year. His design was for a smooth bore cannon with a barrel of three feet in length and 1 1/4″ in bore, firing a 1lb cannon ball or a cluster of 16 musket balls, mounted either on a swivel or on a tripod. So far nothing about this weapon was particularly unusual although the fact that it came in two ‘flavours’, one firing round shot for use against Christians and the other firing a cube shot for use against the Turk, may have raised a not altogether disapproving eyebrow at the Royal Patent Office.
What set Puckle’s gun apart from anything else that existed in the arsenals of the world at that time was how the weapon was loaded. This was the era of the muzzle loaded weapon. The barrel of every gun in the world, from the largest cannon to the smallest pistol was a simple tube, closed at one end and (sensibly, when you think about it) open at the other. You inserted a charge of gunpowder, the projectile and a piece of wadding at the open end, then rammed them firmly down to the closed end, the wadding serving to keep them all in place. A small hole was drilled at the back of the weapon, through which a spark could be induced to ignite the gunpowder and discharge the ball. It was a slow process, and the rate of fire of even the handiest weapon was unlikely to top three or four rounds a minute.
Puckle’s system was unique in that the weapon used a replaceable cylinder, pre-loaded with 11 charges, sited at the breech end of the gun and mounted on a central threaded shaft, which was held in place by a hand crank. The crank was tightened to hold the chamber firmly against the breech while the shot was discharged by a conventional firelock method, then could be partially loosened to allow the cylinder to be rotated and the next next chamber to be aligned, or removed from the shaft entirely to allow the replacement of the empty cylinder with a fresh one. In tests, and under adverse weather conditions, the Puckle Gun demonstrated a sustained rate of fire of nine rounds per minute over a period of seven minutes: an incredible feat for the period and one which would have proved very effective against a packed mass of men.
Sadly the Royal Board of Ordnance, to whom Puckle offered the design in 1717, was not at all interested; although John, 2nd Duke of Montague and later Master-General of Ordnance, did buy two models for use in an expedition to capture the island of St. Vincent in 1722. The expedition was a resounding failure and there is no evidence that either of the guns was ever fired in anger, although they were listed in the shipping manifests as ‘the machine guns of Puckle’, the first time the phrase was ever recorded in English.
In fact, Puckle was drawing on technology that had been in existence for some while. Breech loading cannon had been deployed by Burgundian artillerymen in the fourteenth century, and the revolving cylindrical magazine had been around since but a little while later: an example of a musket thus equipped was owned by Henry VIII and may be seen in the Royal Armouries today.
The Gun That Could Shoot Around Corners
The AK47, possibly the most recognizable weapon in the world, is a knock-off an earlier rifle: the German StG43. To be sure, there are differences in dimensions, performance, mechanical operation and so on. But in appearance the two weapons are identical: the gas returning rod is shorter than the barrel but placed above it, giving the weapon a rakish, under-slung appearance; both have a curved magazine and a pistol grip; and the combination of stamped metal parts and the wooden butt, stock and grip is identical to both guns. It is perfectly clear that some point Mikhail Kalshnikov stumbled upon an example of the earlier weapon, thought ‘Corski! That’s a goodski ideaski!’, and set about tweaking the concept so that he could put his initial at the front of it without the other weapons designers calling him a copycat.
The armed forces of all nations entered into World War 2 with the infantry weapons with which they had ended World War 1. A typical platoon of fifteen men would have ten men armed with bolt action rifles of pre-WW1 vintage, and the NCO’s might have a submachine gun or two, if they were lucky. The rifles had their sights calibrated out to 1000yds distance, and the SMG’s were ineffective at ranges greater than 250yds or so. The need for a weapon effective in the crucial intermediate zone of 250-750yds had become clear by the middle years of WW2.
The Germans had begun work on a design for this new type of weapon, but Hitler was strongly opposed to the concept. For no very good reason, let it be said. Consequently the work progressed under the misleading designation of MP43 (Machinenpistole = Submachine gun) until the prototype was unveiled to Adolf, who was so smitten with the weapon that he gave it the new and more accurate name of Sturmgewehr, which literally means ‘assault rifle’, and became known as the StG44. The weapon was a great success: robust, easy to maintain, and in essence made every infantryman his own light machine-gunner.
Hitler, having nearly put the kibosh on the rifle subsequently took an intense in interest in the StG44 and in August 1944 ordered the development of an adaptation to the weapon that would allow soldiers to fire from behind cover without exposing themselves to enemy fire.
This project was known as ‘Vorsatz’, and went through a number of versions. Vorsatz J had a thirty degree curve, while Vorsatz P went the full ninety degrees and was designed with tank crews particularly in mind.The design of the barrel does not seem to have been problematical, the curve was gentle rather than angular, but this had the effect of lengthening the barrel in a direct ratio to the degree of curvature: Vorsatz P seems to have added 18-24″ to the barrel length to achieve the ninety degree deflection. Furthermore, internal stresses meant that bullets fired from Vorsatz P tended to fragment, which limited barrel life. Sighting was also a problem, until Zeiss & Co. came up with a prismatic sight which was fitted at the apex of the curve. Tests were still ongoing when the war ended and it is unclear if any of the Vorsatz were ever issued, although some sources say limited numbers may have seen combat.
This has always struck me as quite a good idea, particularly in urban combat where the ability to fire ‘blind’ from behind cover would confer an immense tactical advantage, and I am surprised that no other army has ever taken up the concept. It may be that the advantage of being able to shoot around corners can rapidly transmute into a fatal inability to shoot in a straight line.
Does pretty much what it says on the tin, this one. You take your pigs, coat them with a flammable substance such as bitumen, point them in the direction of the enemy, light the blue touch paper and hope that they don’t turn round and charge at you.
The use of combustible porkers was a countermeasure against the most formidable weapon of the Classical Era: the war elephant. Elephants are, apparently, unnerved by pigs; and all animals are afraid of fire, so combining the two was a bit of a master stroke. The first recorded use of pigs against elephants seems to have been in 266BC when Antigonus II’s siege of Megara was broken when the Megarans sent flaming swine against the massed ranks of the Antigonid elephants. Elephants are also afraid of mice, I believe, but mice are not herd animals and would have to be ignited perilously close to the tuskers, being themselves somewhat diminutive animals and not likely to burn for long. So pigs are probably the way to go in this situation.
The use of animals on the battlefield is as old as war itself. Horses and carrier pigeons have a long association in an auxiliary role, but animals as offensive weapons are somewhat rarer. Certainly war horses were trained to kick and bite, and elephants ditto. Shakespeare’s dogs of war were not a figure of speech, as mastiffs may have been originally bred for the battlefield.
Within living memory our four-legged friends still crop up in combat. The Russians strapped anti-tank mines onto the backs of dogs, and trained them to run towards tanks by placing their feeding bowls under T-34’s with idling engines. A good idea in theory, but sadly the dogs associated Russian tank engines with dinner but not German ones, and hence enthusiastically headed towards their own tanks much to the consternation of the crews. Even as late as the 1970’s, the CIA was training dolphins to smoke Cuban cigars in order to annoy Castro. It may be that animals’ role in warfare is far from over.
© Bobo 2018