Share this post:
Developed a decade prior to the Gatling gun, the Mitrailleuse volley gun is an extraordinary piece of 19th-century arms technology that saw action on the battlefields of Europe. Surviving Mitrailleuse volley guns are few and far between, and high-condition examples like the lever-operated 37-shot Austro-Hungarian Montigny Mitrailleuse Szorloveg Model 1851/65 rapid repeating 37-shot volley gun for sale this May at Rock Island Auction Company provides a rare look into one of the machine gun's most innovative predecessors.
The term Mitrailleuse was derived from the word “mitraille,” which translates to grapeshot in French. The concept of the Mitrailleuse volley gun originated from an invention by Belgian Captain Toussaint Henry Joseph Fafchamps. According to ‘Machine Guns: Their History and Tactical Employment’ by Graham Seton Hutchison, Captain Fafchamps displayed a rough prototype and design schematics of his 50-barrelled volley gun concept to engineer Joseph Montigny in 1851.
Dubbed the “Carabine Multiple,” Fafchamps’s early volley gun concept was a needle fire system that used paper cartridges. The multibarreled gun was intended to be a defensive artillery piece that could spread shot across a large area. Over the next decade, Joseph Montigny refined the idea into a more mobile design that could be loaded faster and use metallic cartridges.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse volley gun, a successor to Joseph Fafchamps's "Carbine Multiple" design. "No. 84/G. SIGL/WIEN PATENT" is embossed on an oval bronze plate affixed to the top of the housing of this example.
Captain Joseph Fafchamps’s volley gun was derived from a long line of similar concepts dating back to at least 1339 with the Organ Gun, or “Ribauldequin.” The Organ gun and its numerous variations offered a multibarreled, anti-personal platform that was more mobile than conventional artillery, but they were expensive weapons to produce.
Volley guns came in numerous forms, but they were all designed around the concept of firing multiple barrels simultaneously. In the 18th century, advances in metallurgy allowed several styles of volley guns to be miniaturized. The Duck Foot pistol used splayed barrels like certain styles of the Organ gun, while the Nock volley gun employed circled clusters of barrels that were welded together.
One of the most famous examples of an organ gun-style firearm using a row of barrels was the “infernal machine,” a custom-crafted 25-barrel volley gun constructed by Giuseppe Marco Fieschi of France in a failed bid to assassinate King Louis Philippe I in 1835.
Two decades earlier, the Chambers swivel gun demonstrated a more standardized design, a large volley gun that used a circled cluster of seven barrels, each that could be loaded with 25 special superposed rounds. The Chambers gun, commissioned by the United States during the War of 1812, caught the attention of numerous European governments. Though the Chambers design ultimately faded into obscurity, the French and Austrian militaries would revisit the concept of a volley gun that could be mass-produced some 50 years later with the Mitrailleuse.
Belgian engineer Joseph Montigny, along with his business partner and fellow gunsmith Christophe Louis, developed the Mitrailleuse volley gun in 1863, a time of rapid industrial advancement and innovation in arms technology. In December of 1867, the two engineers registered a Belgian patent for an early version of their weapon, calling it a “battery gun for blast discharging.” Montigny approached the French military with his design, and Emperor Napoleon III saw immediate potential.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley gun for sale at Rock Island Auction Company this May includes various period tools inside a compartment of the carriage.
French ordnance officer Jean-Baptiste Verchère de Reffye went on to develop a 25-barrel variant of the Mitrailleuse volley gun chambered in 13mm. This version of the weapon became known as “Le canon à balles de Reffye” or “Reffye's Bullet Cannon.” After successful trials in 1868, 200 examples of the Reffye Mitrailleuse were produced. Many went on to serve in the Franco-Prussian War.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley gun was a licensed variant of the weapon and the second most common version of the Mitrailleuse design. Not counting prototypes and trial models, only around 80 pieces were produced between two manufacturers: OEWG Steyr handling a contract for the Austrian Army in 1870, and Georg Sigl producing Mitrailleuse guns for the Hungarian Army in 1871.
A close-up look at one of 14 surviving loading plates on the Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley gun example offered by Rock Island Auction Company this May.
The Austrian Montigny Mitrailleuse volley gun differs from its Hungarian and French Mitrailleuse siblings in that it is chambered in centerfire 11.15x42mm caliber, the same ammunition used in the Austrian Werndl-Holub Model 1867 rifle then in service. All Montigny Mitrailleuse volley gun designs relied on individual barrels that were manufactured separately and assembled together in a cluster inside the gun’s casing.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley gun uses a cluster of 37 barrels mounted in a hexagonal shape and surrounded by a cover with a post front sight and ladder rear sight. The gun is fed from loading plates that are each able to hold 37 cartridges, and a slot is located in the face of the breech block for the loading plate to slide in from the top by hand through the use of gravity. A trained team of operators was able to load eight to 10 loading plates per minute.
While the French De Reffye Mitrailleuse was fired with a side crank similar to a Gatling gun, the Montigny's firing mechanism is a rear-mounted lever that is pressed down by the operator to push the rounds into their respective chambers. Once the rounds enter their chambers, all 37 cartridges are detonated at the same time through the use of 37 firing pins. The spent shells are removed while still attached to the loading plate and a new plate is able to be inserted.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley gun for sale at Rock Island Auction Company this May includes 14 of its original 37-round loading plates housed in the two crates attached to the axle of the carriage.
The carriage of these Austrian Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley guns included two large fixed wooden crates that could carry 10 loading plates each, providing a total capacity of 740 rounds of ammunition on the gun carriage alone. Standard practice was to include an attached ammunition cart that carried an additional 13,200 rounds. These weapons typically required 3 operators and 4 ammunition suppliers to maintain a firing rate of 296 to 370 rounds per minute, a blistering amount of firepower for the era.
The Mitrailleuse volley gun was a wildcard on the battlefield when the French deployed the guns during the Franco-Prussian War. Instead of serving as infantry support weapons, the Mitrailleuse guns were initially treated more like artillery and fired at the outer edge of their effective range. Primitive open sights made judging accuracy difficult, and the French officers had little understanding of how to incorporate the Mitrailleuse gun into the conventional tactics of the day.
Two notable exceptions include the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and the Battle of Gravelotte in August of 1870, where in both cases the French commanders used their Mitrailleuse volley guns on closely grouped advancing infantry, inflicting heavy casualties on their Prussian attackers. The outcome of the Franco-Prussian War was all but decided by this point, however, and France’s defeat left some European powers with a lingering skepticism toward any type of “machine gun” for years to come.
The United States and Britain, by contrast, continued to employ new technologies like the Gatling gun and the Hotchkiss revolving cannon in infantry support and naval defense roles. It wasn’t until the introduction of Hiram Maxim’s machine gun in 1884 that the rest of Europe gave the concept of high-volume anti-infantry weapons another look.
Where the Mitrailleuse and Gatling guns of the era required a hand crank or a lever to fire, machine guns like the Maxim gun were designed to use the energy of recoil to mechanically cycle themselves. Although the Volley gun design was declared obsolete before the outbreak of WW1, its story was far from finished.
In recent decades, a number of volley gun concepts employing multiple barrels designed to be fired sequentially or simultaneously have been introduced. Australian manufacturer Metal Storm Limited developed a prototype system for an electronic ignition volley gun capable of firing 180 rounds of caseless 9mm ammo from 36 barrels in less than one-hundredth of a second. The Spanish Navy uses the Meroka Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), a 12-barreled volley gun that offers close-range defense against missiles, aircraft, and small boats.
The S333 Thunderstruck, a double-barreled pocket revolver and a modern-day volley gun example, as each pull of the trigger simultaneously fires a .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridge from both the revolver's barrels.
The word “mitrailleuse” endures today in the military designations of numerous French, Yugoslavian, Serbian, Swedish, and other European machine guns. From the French “Mitrailleuse Vickers” of WW1 to the more recent Belgian FN MAG 58, or “Mitrailleuse d'Appui General,” the legacy of Captain Toussaint Henry Joseph Fafchamps’s invention lives on.
Despite dated tactics limiting the impact of the Mitrailleuse volley gun on the battlefield, Joseph Montigny’s design introduced central Europe to one of the most intriguing machine gun predecessors. Only around 80 Montigny Mitrailleuse Model 1851/65 volley guns were manufactured. Some saw limited service in defensive roles in the early stages of WW1, while others were melted down for scrap, making surviving examples exceedingly scarce today. In terms of rarity, history, and engineering, the Mitrailleuse volley gun is a gun collection standout.
Unique and unusual weapon platforms like the Montigny Mitrailleuse volley gun carry a fascinating history, and you can subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos each week that dive deeper into the stories behind some of the most curious examples in firearms evolution. From looks at rare transitionary firearms like the Gardner gun to pieces on the invention of the Volcanic pistol, the Spencer rifle, and the conception of flying battery artillery, we thoroughly explore the history of the gun and the inventors who pushed the boundaries of arms technology and shaped our world today.
An engraved, early 19th century swivel breech or “wender” double rifle, a rare example of a multishot flintlock firearm.
Following his stinging defeat in the 1912 election, President Theodore Roosevelt planned a trip to South America with a lecture tour and river
Please login to post a comment.