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July 9, 2021

Assault Weapons Before The Second Amendment

By Joe Engesser

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One common gun control argument is that America's Founding Fathers could not have imagined the repeating “assault weapons” of today. But when the Second Amendment was written in 1791, numerous guns already existed that were capable of far faster firing rates than the typical muzzle-loading flintlocks of the era.

Single shot muskets were far from the only guns in 1791 available to the public. 

America’s Founding Fathers saw natural rights as timeless and viewed the rights of a free people as existing regardless of the medium in which they were exercised. This included the right to bear arms as a means to prevent a government monopoly of force, so advancements in firearms technology do not change the intention of the Second Amendment.

Rare Lorenzoni Type lever action repeating flintlock rifle, another well-known repeating gun in 1791. Available this August.

Still, the question of which assault weapons the Founding Fathers knew about is a fascinating and often misrepresented topic, so let’s take a look at some of the repeating rifles, volley guns, and fast loading firearms that were available during their lifetimes.

Matchlock and wheelock revolvers date to the 16th century, and flintlock revolvers were well-known repeating gun designs when the 2nd Amendment was written.

The Chelembrom Repeating Flintlock

While it’s true that the average flintlock in 1776 had to be reloaded after every shot, the concept of repeating guns predates both the Second Amendment and the American Revolution by several centuries. A variety of multi-shot firearms were available well before the United States declared independence. Among the most notable assault weapon designs that the Founding Fathers may have known about were the Kalthoff breech-loading mechanisms and the Lorenzoni family of repeating flintlocks.

A Chelembrom magazine repeating flintlock from 1781, a decade before the 2nd amendment was written.

Variants of the Lorenzoni repeating system, an invention from 1688, were one of several types of rapid-fire guns being produced in 1791. One of the finest and rarest examples is the Chelembrom magazine repeating flintlock. Thought to be the creation of a French gunmaker working in India, few of these innovative and complex Chelembrom guns survive to the present day. Though employed primarily as hunting weapons, some of these repeaters appear to have been used on the battlefield in 1785. As noted by the Royal Collection Trust in the United Kingdom, at least one of these flintlock magazine guns was acquired by the nemesis of Colonial America, King George III himself.

The Chelembrom magazine repeating flintlock, the 18th Century’s AR-15.

Carrying 20 rounds, the Chelembron magazine-fed repeaters are flintlock predecessors to the famous Henry repeating rifle but predates the Henry by nearly 200 years. In Royal Sporting Guns at Windsor, the complicated operation of this system is described.

With the muzzle pointing upwards the barrel and its magazines are turned in a clockwise direction. This movement leads to the following chain of events. A charge of powder is measured into the dropping tube and a small portion is deposited in the priming pan which is then closed and the lock cocked. The rest of the powder falls into a chamber in the brass receiver. At the same time a bullet is released and drops into a covered trough. The barrel is moved further round until it is opposite the bullet, which is thrust upwards into the barrel by a plunger or spring. The gun is then reversed and the barrel assembly turned back to its original position. The mouth of the barrel with its seated bullet then lies opposite a chamber full of powder.

Because the powder magazine is away from the point of ignition, the system is fairly safe compared to other repeating flintlock designs. Though far more complicated to manufacture than the typical guns of the 18th century, Chelembron repeating flintlocks offered a significantly higher firing rate when they were properly maintained and operated.

The Lorenzoni Repeating Flintlock

Designed in 1688 by Michele Lorenzoni, an Italian gunmaker in Florence, the Lorenzoni repeating flintlock was leagues ahead of its time. Among the most well-known multi-shot guns that existed when the 2nd Amendment was written, the Lorenzoni system, like the Chelembrom style featured above, was offered in both pistol and long gun variants that could be cocked and primed in a single operation.

A pair of Lorenzoni flintlocks, another rapid-fire “assault weapon” of the era.

The first Lorenzoni-style repeater that appeared in the American Colonies was manufactured by London gunsmith John Cookston. A later smith, John Shaw, relocated to Boston in 1750 and began producing and selling several repeating flintlock variations for the American market that ranged from seven to twelve shot magazines. Billed as John Shaw’s Cookson Volitional Repeaters, Shaw advertised his guns in the Boston Gazette, the most widely read newspaper in 18th Century America, making many early Americans very much aware of high capacity repeating firearms.

When it came to producing more firepower in the 16th - 19th centuries, all ideas were on the table. Two notions that appeared in numerous forms were superposed loads and the use of multiple barrels.

The Girandoni Repeating Air Rifle

Also predating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the 1779 Girandoni repeating air rifle used air reservoirs instead of gunpowder to fire up to 22 rounds per minute. A smokeless, breech-loaded, magazine-fed, comparatively quiet gun that was lethal up to 150 yards, it’s no wonder that Thomas Jefferson later had one sent along with Lewis and Clark on their historic 1803 expedition to explore the American West.

The Girandoni air rifle, the “scary black rifle” of its day. Numerous styles of airguns existed when the 2nd amendment was written.

The Girandoni repeating air rifle had already been in service with the Austrian army for over a decade when the Second Amendment was written. Sporting variations were also manufactured, including this lightweight example that was almost certainly intended for civilian use. If the iron air reservoirs weren’t so difficult to produce with the technology of the period, and Bartolomeo Girandoni and his competitors hadn’t kept the details of their inventions so guarded, the air rifle may have had a more dramatic impact on the evolution of firearms.

Airguns are but a single example of repeating guns that existed when the 2nd amendment was written.

The Belton Fusil and Superposed Flintlocks

The Belton "Roman candle" fusil is the first known repeating firearm invented in American. Produced since at least 1758, Joseph Belton's repeating fusil design employed superimposed loads that fired in succession after a single pull of the trigger using a chained charge much like a Roman candle. Joseph Belton, an inventor and gunsmith from Benjamin Franklin’s hometown of Philadelphia, not only produced his innovative firearm for the public, he petitioned the Continental Congress during the American Revolution in hopes of a largescale military contract.

The Belton repeater, a high capacity assault flintlock studied by the Continental Army.

In 1776, Belton wrote to Congress claiming he’d designed a way to make a musket discharge up to eight rounds in three seconds. Benjamin Franklin wrote to George Washington in support of the idea, and Washington initially commissioned 100 of Belton’s rapid-fire muskets for the Continental Army. A disagreement over money ultimately canceled the proposal, as Belton was convinced his invention was worth a far higher sum than the fledging American government could afford. Belton continued to sell his guns to the public, and his inquires with the Continental Congress have left a detailed written account of how America's founders not only knew about repeating weapon technology, but debated financing its mass production.

The Ellis-Jennings repeating rifle, a successor to the Belton style “Roman candle” repeater.

Belton's design was promising, and three decades after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, during the administration of Founding Father James Monroe, a wealthier United States government gave the technology a second look. The Ellis-Jennings repeating rifle was created in variations that could fire up to ten shots before reloading. Over 500 Ellis-Jennings four-shot sliding lock repeaters were manufactured under contract with the U.S. government at the cost of $13,090, a substantial purchase for the period that demonstrated confidence in the technology.

The Puckle Gun

Yes, there was such a thing as a flintlock assault weapon, and it was constructed over 70 years prior to the Second Amendment. Invented by James Puckle in 1718 as an anti-boarding weapon for the British navy, the Puckle Gun used a pre-loaded revolving cylinder that could fire nine shots per minute, more than three times faster than the average period musket.

A giant brass revolver of death, just as the Founding Father’s intended.

Though in truth it was more of a repeating swivel gun than the early machine gun sometimes portrayed, the Puckle Gun, or “Defense Gun” was designed with both round and square-shaped bullets in mind. The later rounds were intended for Ottoman Turks and their relentless raids along the Mediterranean coastline. Though rejected by the British Navy and never widely produced, the Puckle Gun was a clever piece of engineering for the time, and later attempts at tripod mounted repeating guns employed some of the same concepts.

Nock Volley Guns and the Duckfoot Pistol

Designed by James Wilson in 1779 and mass-produced by British gunsmith Henry Nock, over 650 Nock seven-shot volley guns were shipped to the British Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War. These distinctive multi-barrel firearms were designed to deliver a tight cluster of shots on a target at greater range and velocity than a shotgun or blunderbuss. Even at a distance, such as firing at the deck of a passing enemy ship, Nock guns could still hit a small area and do more damage than a single musket shot.

The Nock Volley gun. More range than a blunderbuss, more lethal than a musket.

Nock Volley guns were used against the French fleet during the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, a major British victory. They went on to enjoy a brief period of popularity as sporting guns in the early 19th Century as well, including goose rifles that employed Joseph Manton’s patented tubelock firing mechanism. The Nock gun’s menacing look and ability to deliver a more accurate cluster shot has earned them roles in movie and television history including The Alamo, Sharpe, Turn: Washington's Spies, Master & Commander, and more.

"Talley ho, lads!" The Nock gun was the ultimate in 18th century home (and naval) defense.

Based on multi-barrel volley cannons that have existed since the renaissance, the Duckfoot pistol was about riot control and close-quarters combat. The multiple barrels radiated from the single lock resembled a duck’s foot, giving this early "assault weapon" its popular name. Why fire one shot when you can unload four, five, or six simultaneously?

Raith box lock “Duck Foot” pistol. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every ruffian in the room, accept no substitutes.

The Ferguson Rifle and Early Breechloaders

British Captain Patrick Ferguson loved guns and military strategy, and the breech loading rifle he invented in 1774 was produced just in time to unleash his new weapon on the rebellious American colonists. Breech-loading guns were faster than muzzle-loaders, offered the ability to reload from the prone position without breaking cover, and could be reloaded on the move. Ferguson’s rifle was also more effective in damp conditions compared to other flintlocks of the era, and the bold Scottsman was eager to test his new weapon on the battlefield in an effort to “counteract the superiority as marksmen of the American backwoodsmen.”

Innovative for its time, the Ferguson rifle is considered by many to be the king of early breechloaders.

Ferguson was granted a patent in 1776, and the following year the captain was placed in command of a rifle corps equipped with his secret weapons. 200 Ferguson rifles saw action in the Revolutionary War, including at the Battle of Brandywine and later at the Battle of Kings Mountain, where Ferguson was surrounded and killed. Though four times more costly to produce than a muzzle-loader, Ferguson’s rifle demonstrated the clear advantages of the breech-loading design.

The Ferguson went head-to-head with the American Long Rifle during the Revolution.

In the following decades, other gunmakers experimented with the breech-loading flintlock, but it wasn’t until 1816 that the United States government purchased them in large numbers. President James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, saw the importance of equipping the American military with the latest innovations. Maine gunmaker John H. Hall furnished 100 of his patented breechloaders, and two years later the  Hall Model 1819 became the first breech loader to be regularly adopted by a military, as well as the world’s first military rifle designed with completely interchangeable parts. The industrial revolution had arrived, and firearms technology would never look back.

Highly rare, documented Hall Model 1817 breech-loading flintlock rifle with bayonet, one of the original 100.

Matchlock and Flintlock Revolvers

Firearms employing revolving cylinder systems were known since at least the seventieth century and likely well before, as indicated by multiple surviving examples. Matchlock and Flintlock revolvers were an established technology when the 2nd Amendment was written, though metallurgy hadn’t caught up with the ambitious design enough to allow wide scale production.

Incredibly scarce 18th century Bohemian engraved and gilded flintlock revolving three-shot pistol by Johann Adam Knod.

English inventor Elisha Collier developed one of the most famous designs for a flintlock revolver in 1814, and thousands were produced for the British Empire in the following years. His business partner, Artemas Wheeler of Concord, Massachusetts, patented the design in America, and Collier began marketing rifle and shotgun versions of his cylinder system to sportsmen and pitching the revolving pistols variants as an option for self-defense. Though Collier’s improved design came to market after the Second Amendment, the revolver concept had been produced for centuries prior.

Rare E.H. Collier five-chamber flintlock revolver from 1820.

Own a Musket for Home Defense: The Second Amendment Meme

Four ruffians break into my house. "What the devil?" As I grab my powdered wig and Kentucky rifle. Blow a golf ball-sized hole through the first man, he's dead on the spot. Draw my pistol on the second man, miss him entirely because it's smoothbore and nail the neighbor’s dog. I have to resort to the cannon mounted at the top of the stairs loaded with grapeshot. "Talley ho lads!”
Fix bayonet and charge the last terrified rapscallion. Should’ve used a Nock Volley gun!

We’ve all heard a variant of the 2nd Amendment musket meme. It’s a fun bit of humor, and certainly a clever way to illustrate how different guns were in 1776 compared to today, but one need only study examples of repeating firearms available when the American Constitution was written, such as the Girandoni air rifle, the Cookston repeater, and the Belton flintlock to understand the reality was far more complex.

Rare E.H. Collier Second Model revolving flintlock pistol.

America's Founding Fathers knew of repeating guns, hoped to produce them for Washington’s Army, and saw them improve and evolve during their lifetimes. And yet the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not written with any exclusion, or mention of single-shot muskets, repeaters, cannons, war ships, or “assault weapons."

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

No asterisks, no limitations. Seems pretty clear.

A gold-plated AR-15, just as the Founding Fathers intended.

Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Auctions are packed with a wealth of scarce historical firearms, rarely seen prototypes, and unusual gun variants that demonstrate just how innovative our forefathers were when it came to new weapon designs. So while the guns of 1776 vs today are clearly not comparable, and America’s Founders probably couldn’t envision a Colt AR-15/XM16E1 machine gun, they also wouldn’t have been surprised at the continuing evolution of firearms technology that they witnessed numerous times firsthand.

The Miller Patent revolving rifle was just one of numerous predecessors to the first Colt revolvers.

The history of the modern world is tightly tied to the history of the gun, and you can subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter for weekly gun blogs and gun videos that dive deeper into the story behind the most famous firearms. From articles on the development of the Colt Gatling gun, the Henry rifle and other Civil War era repeating longarms, and the Winchester Model 1873, we take a deeper look at the evolution of firearms and the gun inventors who broke new boundaries.

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