The Promise of American Repeating Weapons, 1791-1821

By Andrew Fagal

In May 1792, Joseph Gaston Chambers almost revolutionized world history when he approached the U.S. War Department with a musket that could, he claimed, fire 20 rounds in a minute.[1] Although Chambers failed to gain patronage from interested parties in the early 1790s, his weapons (repeating muskets, pistols, and seven-barreled swivel guns) were adopted by the U.S. Navy and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania during the War of 1812, and were much sought after by European powers. By the early 1820s, however, the complexity, and inherent danger of the firing mechanism led to their wholesale abandonment. Chambers’ repeating guns stood at the nexus of diplomacy and technological advancement in the Age of Revolutions. Yet, the promise of rapid-fire arms was not taken for granted, nor did those who encountered it ascribe a quasi-mythical “American” quality to the nascent technology — often the case in today’s political culture.

The unreliability of Chambers’ technology was apparent from the time he approached the War Department in the spring of 1792 with the promise of repeating arms. The previous year, the U.S. Army had suffered a disastrous defeat as it marched on native villages, and Congress soon blamed the setback on the quality of the weapons issued to the troops.[2] Given the Congressional report, Henry Knox was presumably eager to entertain ordnance solutions to the problem of western expansion, so when Chambers informed Knox about his invention, the Secretary of War quickly ordered a subordinate to supply the inventor with a musket, and organized a demonstration at Alexander Hamilton’s “Seat” on the Schuylkill.[3] 

The demonstration for the War Department was apparently a failure. In a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Chambers explained that his project really deserved the “Attention of public men” despite the fact that by firing 20 bullets out of a common musket “some have bursted.” Now he hoped that Jefferson could help him communicate his plan to the “Friends of Liberty and the Rights of men in Europe.”[4] Chambers explained to Jefferson that through his loading design he could “charge a Gun barrel full from one end to the other and upon occasion to fire these off successively at any desired intervals.” The loading design (identified in a British intelligence report dating from the aftermath of the War of 1812, shown below) required a lock affixed to the front of the gun barrel. That lock, triggered by a cord, would ignite the first powder charge, thus firing the first projectile. A perforated protrusion in the cylindrical-shaped bullet would carry the charge down the barrel and fire the second bullet, and so on. The gun’s normal trigger would be reserved for a bullet remaining at the rear of the chamber. These repeating weapons were explicitly for “making havoc of the human species.”

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 12.19.37 PM.png
Image: Description of a machine invented by Colonel Chambers of Pennsylvania, circa 1815, War of 1812 mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Jefferson coolly responded that Chambers’ designs “will not want patronage any where,” because all nations desired the means to destroy the “greatest number possible of their enemies.”[5] However, seeing the value of the weapon for the United States, he suggested that Chambers instead address his plans to the U.S. patent office. Given the inventor’s apparent zeal for the French Revolution, he instead chose to approach their new minister to the United States, Edmond Genet.[6] As with his demonstration to the War Department, Genet must not have been overly impressed when he saw the weapon in May 1793. He merely suggested that Chambers forward on the plans of the design to the French government in Paris for them to decide upon.[7] Following Genet’s gentle rebuff, and the lack of interest from the War Department, Chambers retired to his farm in Western Pennsylvania and stopped his tinkering.[8]

Chambers’ repeating guns lay dormant for the next twenty years as the United States pursued a careful path of neutrality (excepting the Quasi-War) in the conflicts of the French Revolution and Napoleon. But when the United States declared war against Great Britain in June 1812, he saw an opportunity to have his weapons used in combat as the Jeffersonian Republicans increasingly supported technological solutions to military problems.[9] Just as in 1792, the War Department rejected Chambers’ designs. But seeing their potential, the Navy quickly adopted the technology and between September 1813 and April 1814 contracted with Philadelphia arms manufacturers to produce at least 53 seven-barreled swivels that could fire over 200 bullets apiece (alongside components to assemble 30 more), 200 repeating muskets, and 100 repeating pistols.[10] By the summer of 1814, Chambers’ repeating weapons had been delivered to the navy, deployed by Commodore Isaac Chauncey on Lake Ontario, and at least one was intercepted by British naval intelligence.[11]

Although it is unclear whether or not the United States ever actually used the Chambers guns in combat, what is clear is that the designs attracted the attention of a number of foreign governments. Chambers reported to his son in the summer of 1813 that “The French Minister had heard in the conversations of Mr. Jones report of the nature of my experiments – and had sent me an invitation to take a Dinner “sans ceremionie” at his residence &c. – I was made acquainted with the Object – and took my Musket & Pistols along. We went into a retired place & performed an experiment.”[12] The minister then warned him that if he wanted contracts with Napoleonic France, he should keep his project a secret from the Russian consul in Washington. Not to be outdone by the French, the British, who had captured several of the weapons in 1814, quickly had reproductions made in Britain the following year. Their test reports demonstrated that the guns worked, but British finances were too overextended to follow up on new technologies in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch navy found out about the repeating guns in 1816 and tasked at least one officer to surreptitiously obtain one from the Americans. The Dutch chargé d’affaires in America, Viscount de Goupy de Quabeck, had better luck than the navy in actually getting the guns. He was simply able to purchase several from one of the Philadelphia manufacturers. Upon testing the weapons at Liège, one of the seven-barreled swivels burst, and after a candid interview with Commodore William Bainbridge on the overall effectiveness of the guns, the Dutch soon substituted their interest in American repeating firearms with that of John Hall’s breech loading rifle.[13] The Spanish, too, had a great interest in the repeating guns, and Luís de Onis credited these weapons for American victories on the Great Lakes. But he lamented in 1820 that, “I sent one of them to the government of Havana…nothing has been done” to reverse engineer the weapon and get it into production.[14] From there, the Chambers firearms virtually disappear from the documentary record.

Although I can only make a tentative conclusion, it appears that the weapons failed to catch on, because the technology was too unreliable and the U.S. Navy never orchestrated a method of technology sharing between the various contractors to improve the design (as the Ordnance Department did with the manufacture of small arms). Certainly, Chambers’ firearms design could work as intended, but it seems that there was one key flaw: if the gunpowder improperly ignited, the gun was basically a giant pipe bomb. As the design above shows, the proper firing would begin when the front lock was fired by the use of a cord. If, however, the rear lock was fired first, the gun would simply blow up in its owners face. Unreliable weapons were then, as now, the bane of soldiers’ existence. 

In the 200+ years since Joseph Chambers first unveiled his repeating arms technology, self-loading firearms have become ubiquitous around the world. Although modern small arms technology is not based on Chambers’ designs, his prediction to Edmond Genet still rings true today: “I have not the smallest doubt of the Efficacy of my project insomuch that when this method shall become publicly known the common practice of arms will be but mere squibbling to it.” The Atlantic World in the Age of Revolutions was a violent place, and the widespread interest in Joseph G. Chambers’ repeating guns further demonstrates that reality.

Author Bio

Andrew J. B. Fagal is an assistant editor with the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University. His articles on armaments and national policy in the War of 1812 era have appeared in New York History and The New England Quarterly. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the political economy of war in the early republic. You can reach Andrew at afagal@princeton.edu or on Twitter by following @Andrew_Fagal.

Title image: Chambers Gun, circa 1814, Département des Armes du Grand Curtius, Liège, copyright “Ville de Liège – Grand Curtius.”

Endnotes:

[1] For biographical information on Chambers see, “Joseph Gaston Chambers,” in Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary, 1791-1794, J. Jefferson Looney and Ruth L. Woodward eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 481-8. The most significant study of Chambers’ designs, to date, is William Gilkerson, Boarders Away II: With Fire (Lincoln, R.I.: Andrew Mowbray, Inc., 1993), ch. 9.

[2] Causes of the Failure of the expedition Against the Indians, in 1791, Under the Command of Major General St. Clair, American State Papers, Military Affairs, 1:36.

[3] R. J. Vandenbrock to William Knox, May 2, 1792, The Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800; Joseph Chambers to Henry Knox, May 3, 1792, The Papers of Henry Knox, microfilm edition, reel 31; Chambers to Knox, May 4, 1792, ibid.

[4] Joseph G. Chambers to Thomas Jefferson, August 13, 1792, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd et. al. eds. (42 vols. to date, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 24:290-3.

[5] Jefferson to Chambers, November 5, 1792, PTJ, 24:580.

[6] Joseph G. Chambers to Edmond Genet, May 10, 1793, The Papers of Edmond Genet, microfilm edition, reel 5.

[7] Chambers to Genet, May 15, 1793, ibid.

[8] Chambers to Jefferson, May 20, 1801, PTJ, 34:147-8.

[9] Andrew J. B. Fagal, “Terror Weapons in the Naval War of 1812,” New York History 94 (Summer/Fall 2013): 221-40.

[10] Letter from the Secretary of the Navy, Transmitting a Statement of Contracts made by that department, during the years 1813 and 1814, Early American Imprints, Shaw-Shoemaker #33262 (Washington: A& G Way, 1814).

[11] Isaac Chauncey to  William Jones, June 24, 1814, with enclosure, and Charles Cunliffe Owen to James L. Yeo, July 17, 1814 in The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Michael J. Crawford ed. (3 vols., Naval Historical Center: Washington, 2002), 3:532-7.

[12] Joseph G. Chambers to Daniel Chambers, July 4, 1813, American Antiquarian Society, David Chambers Papers, Mss manuscript boxes C.

[13] For information on the British and Dutch attempts to reproduce the weaponry see Gilkerson, Boarders Away II, 122-3,133-9.

[14] Luis de Onis, Memoir upon the Negotiations Between Spain and the United States of America, Which Led to the Treaty of 1819 (Baltimore: Fielding Lucas, 1821), 60-1.

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