August 14, 2023
By Joe Engesser
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Revolving rifles and shotguns offered users a repeating long gun option before the age of lever and pump action firearms. Recent examples at Rock Island Auction Company illustrate the progression and innovation of this fascinating chapter in firearms history.
An expansive range of 18th and 19th century revolving rifle and shotgun models are for sale, including a Collier revolving flintlock carbine, a Thomas W.G. Treeby patent percussion chain rifle, a Colt Paterson Model 1839 revolving shotgun, and a LeMat centerfire revolving carbine. Some examples, like the U.S. Navy Trials Artemus Wheeler flintlock revolving rifle, are truly one-of-a-kind opportunities in gun collecting.
Most of the historic assortment of revolving rifles and revolving shotguns offered below originate from a single collection. The decades of dedication, research, and scholarship are evident throughout this supremely well-curated grouping and is a testament to fine arms collecting at the highest level of the pursuit. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each fascinating firearm.
Revolving rifles and shotguns date back to the 16th century in the form of matchlocks with manually revolving chambers. Matchlock revolving rifles were costly to produce and suffered from reliability issues, but gunmakers continued to experiment with the design as metallurgy improved and new ignition systems became available.
A four-shot revolving matchlock musket sold by Rock Island Auction back in 2013.
Another solution to achieving multiple shots with a single firearm was adding entire barrels. The swivel breeches or “wenders” (meaning “turner” in German) offered their users two, three, and sometimes even four barrels. The extra barrels and locks added considerable expense and weight to these manually rotated firearms.
London gunmaker Henry Nock produced several innovative weapons during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including a revolving flintlock carbine. Unlike Henry Nock’s famous volley gun design which fired all its barrels at once, Nock’s revolving carbine features a six-shot, hand-turned smooth bore barrel cluster and an automatic primer system. This model is strikingly similar to the American revolving carbine design by Artemus Wheeler of Concord, Massachusetts.
Only four U.S. Navy trials Wheeler flintlock revolving rifles are known today, and the example below is the only known Wheeler flintlock that hasn’t been institutionalized. Manufactured for the U.S. Navy in 1821, Wheeler offered these guns at $100 each, a hefty price for the era. Wheeler's revolving rifle design was subsequently improved and patented in Europe by Elisha Haydon Collier, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts.
Elisha Haydon Collier operated “Collier & Co., Gunmakers” in London from 1818 to 1827 and sold revolving pistols, rifles, carbines, and shotguns. Fewer than 250 Collier revolving firearms were produced. The Collier revolving flintlock carbine below is one of the rarest and earliest of the Collier line and is believed to have been manufactured between 1819 and 1820 in London.
Samuel Colt is widely believed to have been influenced by the Collier design, an inspiration that might have occurred upon witnessing one of Collier’s flintlock revolvers during a sea voyage in 1831. Two years before Colt’s epiphany, another American developed his own innovative revolving firearm system.
James Miller of Rochester, New York, was granted a patent on June 11, 1829. Five years later, James and his brother had started manufacturing their revolving rifle in limited quantities and also licensed the design to 15 other gunsmiths. An exceptionally scarce firearm, the Miller system is manually revolved and is generally configured to be fired using priming pills rather than percussion caps.
Of the 15 gun makers who produced Miller patent revolving rifles, William Billinghurst was by far the most prolific. Billinghurst, a former employee of James Miller, purchased the Miller patent in 1841. Billinghurst’s name has become synonymous with the Miller revolving rifle design and is marked on the octagon barrel of the example below.
Surviving examples of revolving rifles and shotguns using the Miller patent were produced in numerous barrel lengths, barrel styles, capacities, and chamberings. Perhaps the most unique Miller patent configuration is the nine-shot William Billinghurst combination percussion revolving rifle and underhammer shotgun pictured below. The upper rifle barrel is chambered in .38 caliber and the lower barrel fires a .72 caliber smoothbore load of shot, approximately 12 gauge.
Colt received his first American firearm patent on Feb. 25, 1836, for a revolver with a synchronized cocking and locking system. Colt's earliest guns were produced at the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company based in Paterson, New Jersey, including 225 Colt Model 1839 revolving shotguns built between 1839 and 1841. The Colt Paterson Model 1839 revolving shotgun can be identified from the Model 1839 revolving rifle by the shotgun’s larger cylinder and round barrel.
Reportedly only 950 Colt Model 1839 Paterson percussion carbines were manufactured, with the Republic of Texas and the U.S. Navy purchasing a substantial number of the carbines. The model saw service during the Mexican-American War, with author R.L. Wilson dubbing the carbine, “the most practical and popular of all Colt's long arms from the Paterson period.”
Though the Paterson revolving rifles and shotguns weren’t the success Colt had envisioned, the design still inspired numerous competitors, including Otis W. Whittier of Enfield, New Hampshire. Patented in May of 1837, only around 100 Whittier “Zig-Zag” percussion revolving rifles and revolving shotguns were produced. Whittier was a single gunsmith and his guns exhibit a handmade character, with a range of capacities and calibers found in the few surviving examples like the nine-shot Whittier revolving rifle pictured below.
Some revolving rifle models were developed to circumvent Samuel Colt’s patent, including the Cochran and Porter designs. Unlike the Colt configuration, turret revolvers used chambers arranged around a horizontally rotating disk, like spokes on a wheel. August’s auction includes a Third Type of Cochran turret rifle manufactured by Cyrus B. Allen of Springfield, Massachusetts in the mid-to-late 1830s.
Another fascinating example of the genre, the 12-shot turret revolving rifle pictured below has exposed cylinders that help illustrate this unique 19th century design. Dating to the 1830s or 1840s, this unmarked turret rifle is fired using a double action bar hammer style action that rotates the turret as the trigger is pulled allowing for rapid fire.
In 1851, Parry W. Porter patented his own turrent revolving rifle. Porter's design employed vertically oriented turrets, a mule ear side hammer to keep the hammer out of the line of sight, and a lever that cocked the hammer and rotated the turret. The example below is a Second Type Porter revolving rifle manufactured by G.P. Foster of Taunton, Massachusetts, and is equipped with a unique automatic percussion primer built into the lock plate.
Only 550 Third Model Porter revolving rifles were manufactured. The Porter revolving shotgun/musket for sale at Rock Island Auction includes a larger caliber smoothbore barrel than its revolving rifle counterpart and is numbered “6” on the bottom of the barrel and “5” inside the lock and frame. This falls well outside the model’s typical 680 to 1225 serial numbering range and suggests that these larger caliber smoothbore Porter turret shotguns might have been assigned their own numerical identification range and were perhaps manufactured as prototypes or trials guns.
The 1840s and 1850s continued to see revolving rifle and shotgun innovation from aspiring Colt competitors. This James Warner design is one of only 50 to 100 manually rotated Warner revolving rifles manufactured in 1849. Production of the Warner patent design was limited thanks to Samuel Colt receiving an extension of his revolver patent in 1854.
Another revolving rifle based on the Warner patent, fewer than 25 Springfield Armory percussion revolving rifles are estimated to have been produced. The example below, an automatically revolving version with a brass top strap and breech frame, is one of the finest known.
The North & Skinner percussion revolving shotgun made up a small fraction of the only 600 North & Skinner revolving long arms manufactured between 1856 and 1859. The North & Skinner revolving shotgun is operated by a lever beneath the cylinder which rotates the cylinder and cocks the hammer. Few of these scarce firearms would have received fancy engraving like the example below exhibits.
'Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms' by Norm Flayderman estimates the total number of Massachusetts Arms Co. Wesson & Leavitt patent percussion revolving rifles to be “less than 50 and very probably less than 20.” Fewer still survive, with the high pedigree condition Massachusetts Arms revolving rifle below distinguishing itself as quite possibly the finest of its kind.
The quality continues with a unique and scarce British revolving carbine. Manufactured between 1855 and 1856, this Third Model William Harvey patent six-shot “hammerless” percussion sporting carbine incorporates two British revolving firearms patents.
The Thomas W.G. Treeby patent percussion chain rifle is one of the most unusual and impressive firearms ever created. Quite possibly the first belt-fed firearm design, the Treeby rifle utilizes a series of individual chambers linked together like a chain for a total of 14 shots. As few as four of these fascinating Thomas W.G. Treeby chain rifles may have been manufactured, with the Royal Armouries noting only three are thought to survive today.
Alexander Hall manufactured revolving rifles in New York City in the mid-1850s. The Hall 15-shot revolving rifle example below is engraved with the script ‘Hall's / Repeating Rifle / patented June 10 / 1856.’ Hall’s revolving rifle exhibits several unusual features, including a concealed hammer and a manually rotated cylinder positioned beneath most of the receiver. The brass frame rifle offered its user 15 rounds in .38 caliber, with a front trigger that cocked the striker, a rear trigger used to fire the rifle, and a lever in front of the trigger guard that released the rifle's iron cylinder for manual rotation.
Originally designed as an enlarged version of the Colt Root revolver, the Colt Model 1855 revolving rifle was manufactured from 1856 through 1864. Samuel Colt produced the rifle for both the military and civilian markets, manufacturing the model in a variety of configurations that makes the platform a rich field for gun collectors today.
The Colt Model 1855 six-shot half-stock sporting rifle in .40 caliber featured below, serial number 34, was included in R.L. Wilson's ‘The Book of Colt Firearms’ due to its high condition, scarce chambering, and its shipping case marked for Lieutenant Benjamin E. Newhall of the historic 8th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia during the Civil War.
Colt’s revolving rifle was the first widely fielded American military-issued repeater, and the offering below is a representative example of a U.S. martially marked Colt Model 1855 revolving carbine produced before the Civil War. According to the production figures on page 183 of ‘The Book of Colt Firearms’ by Wilson, approximately 2,300 Colt Model 1855 revolving carbines were produced in .56 caliber with a 21 inch barrel, and ‘few only with saber bayonets,’ as seen on this exceptional piece.
The 10 gauge Colt Model 1855 revolving shotgun was produced using the largest frame size developed for the Model 1855 sidehammer revolving long arm series, with only 600 such examples manufactured. Due to their hard use during the Civil War and in the American West, surviving Model 1855 revolving shotguns are rare, especially specimens like this example that retain more than 85 percent of its original polish blue finish. By some estimates, only 50 to 100 large-frame Model 1855 revolving shotguns are known today, making them among the scarcest of all antique Colts.
Gunmakers continued to innovate revolving rifle and revolving shotgun designs in the years following the Civil War. Developed using post-war surplus components from the Remington New Model Army Revolver along with an added rifle stock and longer barrel length, the E. Remington & Sons revolving rifle was initially offered in .36 and .44 caliber percussion variants. By March of 1872, Remington was advertising an “Improved” New Model cartridge conversion revolving rifle in .38 and .46 long rimfire.
In 1866, Sylvester Howard Roper briefly partnered with fellow gun inventor Christopher Spencer on a repeating shotgun concept in Amherst, New Hampshire. The Roper Sporting Arms Company was later moved to Hartford, where several revolving shotgun models were produced from 1869 to 1876. ‘Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms’ estimates that only 25 Roper four-shot “Cloverleaf” revolving shotguns were manufactured, with the example below remaining in impressive condition.
Roper Sporting Arms Company also produced rifles based on their shotgun design, though these firearms are even scarcer than their revolving shotgun counterparts. The example below is a .41 caliber rifle with a six-shot revolving carrier enclosed within the frame and is one of the most unique revolving rifles around.
If unsure whether to add a revolving rifle or a revolving shotgun to your collection, the LeMat offers the best of both worlds. Invented by Dr. Alexandre LeMat of New Orleans, the LeMat revolver earned fame as a Confederate cavalry weapon. After the war, Dr. LeMat received patents for a centerfire version of his two-barrel grapeshot revolver design. Centerfire LeMat variants included a “Baby LeMat” revolver, a holster pistol-sized model, and the LeMat revolving carbine variant.
Revolving rifles, carbines, and shotguns offered some of the first affordable repeating long arms. This changed with the invention of metallic cartridges and the lever action repeater. Higher capacity options like the Henry rifle and its Winchester successors provided equivalent firing rates without the negatives inherent to most revolving rifle designs.
Revolving rifles and revolving shotguns tended to be uncomfortable to operate. When a revolving rifle is fired, hot gases, unburnt powder, and lead shavings are blown back into the underside of the shooter’s wrist and forearm.
Models like the previously mentioned LeMat carbine added a spur in front of its trigger guard as a way for a user to hold and aim the weapon without the need to place their non-dominant hand in front of the cylinder. This solution only traded one problem for another and required the user to learn a less intuitive and arguably less effective firing position. By contrast, lever action rifles like the Spencer and Winchester Model 1866 could be fired naturally from the shoulder like any other long arm.
In the following decade, Winchester centerfire lever action rifles like the Model 1873 and Model 1876 would further improve the design and go on to dominate the repeating long arms market, with Marlin Firearms offering a lever gun option for big bore cartridges in 1881. The revolving rifle was unable to compete with these reliable lever actions, with models like the well-made Smith & Wesson Model 320 revolving rifle failing to turn the tide of public perception.
As the lever action rifle rode a wave of success, repeating shotguns also experienced a renaissance in innovation. The Spencer Repeating Shotgun was patented by Christopher Spencer in 1882 and became America's first successful pump shotgun. Five years later John Browning's Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun hit the market, offering five rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. Like its revolving rifle sibling, the revolving shotgun had finally met its match.
The revolving rifles and revolving shotguns featured here represent some of the rarest antique production guns available and would make fantastic additions to any antique arms collection. Any of these scarce examples of the genre would be an auction highlight on their own, but to find an exquisite assemblage offered from a single arms collection speaks to an eye for quality, authenticity, and a commitment to preserving the history of these forgotten firearms.
Anyone who enjoys art, engineering, craftsmanship, history, and the evolution of technology through the centuries will find something to enjoy in this exceptional assortment of revolving rifles and shotguns for sale at Rock Island Auction. Preview Days at Rock Island Auction are often advertised as a museum you can touch, and nowhere is that more evident than in the profound variety of styles, mechanisms, eras, and innovations covered in this elite firearms grouping.
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