In Search of Repeating Firearms in Eighteenth-Century America
[This is a guest post that is part of a mini-series on the history of firearms and gun regulation in early America.]
Over the past ten years, opponents of regulating assault rifles have argued that repeating firearms -- some capable of firing 10 shots or more -- were well-known and possibly common in eighteenth-century America. Using period sources, it is possible to assess this claim critically and quantitatively. To this end, a systematic search was made of America’s Historical Newspapers, a database with 450 newspapers dating from before 1800, and of a database of colonial newspapers from South Carolina available from Accessible Archives. These searches discovered a total of 1410 different advertisements and news stories that collectively contained 2018 discrete references to firearms.
Just how common were references to repeating firearms in eighteenth-century American newspapers? The short answer is that they were extraordinarily rare. The search turned up 10 references (0.5% of the 2018 references to firearms) to what appear to have been repeating guns. In addition to these 10 examples, there is one more well-known instance of an unpublicized demonstration of a repeating firearm that took place in Philadelphia in April of 1777.  This makes a total of 11 documentable references to eighteenth-century repeaters for the period from 1720 to 1800.
What do these references to repeating guns tell us about how they were used, their capabilities, and why they remained relatively uncommon in eighteenth-century America? The earliest reference was from the Boston News-Letter of September 12, 1723, which reported “Delegates from several Nations of Indians were Entertained with the sight of a Gun which has but one Barrel and one Lock,” but fired “Eleven Bullets successively in about Two Minutes” after being loaded only once. On March 2, 1730, the New-England Weekly Journal advertised that Boston residents could pay 9 pence each to see a gun that could fire a succession of twenty projectiles “at once Loading.” A June 19, 1736 advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette announcing the sale of gunsmith James Massey’s estate listed “a six times repeating Gun.” In the Boston Gazette for April 12, 1756, gunsmith John Cookson advertised “a Gun will fire 9 Times distinctly, as quick, or slow as you please” without reloading.
John Cookson’s repeater -- and quite possibly the other three firearms -- employed what is today often called the Lorenzoni breech-loading system–named for the Italian gunsmith Michele Lorenzoni, who made firearms in the mid-1600s. This system placed at the breech-end of the barrel a complex and delicate gunlock operated by a handle or lever attached to the left side of the lock. As the 1756 advertisement recounted, with “one turn with Handle of the Said Gun, it doth charge the Gun with Powder and Bullet, and doth prime and shut the Pan, and cock the Gun.” Unfortunately, if the parts of a Lorenzoni gun lock did not fit tightly or if the shooter failed to lock it in the proper position when firing, flame might leak back and explode the black powder stored in the gun’s butt.
Another type of eighteenth-century repeating firearm employed what is known as the superimposed system, which dates back to the 1300s. In 1777, Joseph Belton probably had a firearm employing this system when he informed the Continental Congress that “a common small arm, may be maid [sic.] to discharge eight balls one after another, in eight, five or three seconds of time.” Later, the July 20, 1793 issue of Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States described a pistol created by “the ingenious and philosophic Mr. [Joseph Gaston] Chambers” that “discharged six balls in succession, with only one loading and once drawing the trigger, exclusive of the reserve shot, which went off with the drawing of another trigger.” The Continental Army never carried Belton’s firearm, and in 1793, the United States War Department rejected Chambers’ gun.
Black powder weapons employing the superimposed system could be very dangerous. Both Belton and Chambers initially demonstrated a firearm employing the simplest version of a superimposed system. Like a Roman Candle, the gun’s discharge employed a chain reaction of explosions. A series of alternating powder charges and projectiles were loaded directly into a gun’s barrel. All of the powder charges were -- ideally -- set off in order from front to back by first igniting the powder charge located behind the ball closest to the muzzle of the gun’s barrel. If something went wrong and produced a simultaneous discharge of all of the gunpowder, the barrel exploded like a giant pipe bomb.
A safer alternative to the systems employed by Cookson and Chambers was an air gun that used compressed air instead of black powder as a propellant. The February 10, 1792, issue of New York City’s Daily Advertiser announced “To the Curious” daily exhibitions of an air gun that could be discharged twenty times without reloading. An announcement for a public auction in the Boston Columbian Centinel for March 7, 1795 listed among the items to be sold “a Magazine Air-Gun, equipped for hunting, and will carry ball or shot.” On their 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back, Lewis and Clark carried with them a Girardoni air rifle that they used to impress Natives they encountered along the way. However, European contemporaries learned that, “[d]ue to their construction, these guns were much more difficult to use effectively than normal, as one had to handle them much more cautiously and carefully.”
In eighteenth-century America, repeating firearms were not in common use. The fact that some types of repeating firearms had been produced in Europe for four centuries by 1800 does not necessarily support the conclusion that Americans in the late 1700s would have assumed that such weapons would become reliable, safe, and widely available. At the time, it was still not possible to manufacture with precision and in any quantity firearms with closely fitting parts that could contain the destructive potential associated with the use of black powder as a propellant. The improvements needed to fabricate dependable repeaters in large numbers only resulted from a series of revolutionary technological changes during the 1800s. Calling these early repeating weapons “eighteenth-century assault rifles” is an example of twenty-first-century rhetoric, not evidence of inevitable developments in firearms technology and production.
 Quoted in Frederick J. Chiaventone, “The Girardoni Air Rifle: The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Secret Weapon” Military Heritage Vol. 14 No. 5 (January 2015), 19.