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November 15, 2023

The Volley Gun Through the Ages

By Joe Engesser

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One of the easiest ways for early arms makers to increase the rate of firepower for a single gun was to add multiple barrels that could be fired simultaneously or in sequence. Enter the volley gun, a design that was developed in numerous styles, sizes, and configurations through the centuries, including the duck foot pistol, the Nock volley gun, the Montigny Mitrailleuse, and the crank handle Nordenfelt "machine gun", a multibarreled volley gun that competed with the Gatling gun in the 1870s.

An exceptionally rare Nordenfelt 10-barrel volley gun with carriage. Available this December.

A number of rare 18th and 19th century volley guns are for sale during Rock Island Auction Company's December 8 - 10 Premier Firearms Auction, and each standout example of the platform illustrates the lengths gun designers went to offer a force multiplier on the battlefield or in the sporting pursuit. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each firearm model.

From left to right: A British Royal Navy Second Model H. Nock flintlock volley gun, a Henry Harrington Patent percussion 19 shot volley gun, and an H. Pieper rolling block 17 shot volley rifle. Available this December.

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When Was the Volley Gun Invented?

The concept of the volley gun dates to at least 1339 with the Organ Gun, or “Ribauldequin.” One of the world's first multibarreled firearms, the Organ gun and its numerous variations were large anti-personal platforms that offered more mobility compared to conventional artillery of the era, but they were expensive weapons to produce.

A sketch of the Organ gun (left) and a duck foot pistol (right), a miniaturized flintlock version of the same concept with similarly splayed barrels. The Duck Foot pistol is available this December.

Four centuries later, a Frenchman named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi constructed one of the most famous volley guns in history. Dubbed "the infernal machine", Fieschi and his co-conspirators constructed the 25-barrel volley gun in a failed effort to assassinate King Louis Philippe I. Fieschi's weapon was a crude custom design, but it relied on the same concepts seen in several later 19th century battlefield platforms, employing a row of horizontally aligned barrels to concentrate firepower on a target downrange.

Fieschi's infernal machine at the Musée des Archives Nationales (left) and the Nordenfelt volley gun design produced more than three decades later (right). This rare Nordenfelt example is available this December.

The Chambers, the Mitrailleuse, and the Nordenfelt Volley Gun

Commissioned by the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812, the Chambers swivel gun was a large volley gun that fired sequentially using a circled cluster of seven barrels, each loaded with 25 special superposed rounds. Belgian Captain Toussaint Henry Joseph Fafchamps revisited the concept 40 years later with his 50-barrelled Mitrailleuse volley gun design.

One lesser-known step in the journey toward today's modern machine guns is that of Joseph Montigny and his Montigny Mitrailleuse. These multibarreled arms sought to increase battlefield firepower, but militaries were uncertain of how to best implement them.

The Mitrailleuse volley gun employed a cluster of barrels mounted in a hexagonal shape. The French variant was fired with a side crank similar to a Gatling gun, while the Austrian Montigny Mitrailleuse utilized a rear-mounted lever. Swedish inventor Helge Palmcrantz opted for a design similar to the latter mechanism when he developed the Nordenfelt volley gun in the late 1860s.

A 10-barrel Model 1873 Nordenfelt crank handle volley gun. Nordenfelt's concept used a horizontal, back-and-forth, lever action that fired all barrels at nearly the same time. Available this December.

The Nordenfelt Volley Gun

The 1860s was a time of rapid industrial advancement and innovation in arms technology. While new ideas were plentiful, finding financial backing for the production stage was often difficult for gun inventors to secure. In the early 1870s, Helge Palmcrantz partnered with fellow Swede Thorsten Nordenfelt, a steel producer and banker operating out of London.

Thorsten Nordenfelt patented the volley gun and set up "Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company" in England to produce and market the platform. The Nordenfelt volley guns included between 2 and 10 side-by-side barrels depending on the model and were produced in numerous calibers. An early variant of the weapon was demonstrated to the Swedish Defense Minister, and it was subsequently adopted by the Swedish Army. The Nordenfelt found even more success with the British Navy.

A rare Nordenfelt volley gun chambered in a necked .43 centerfire caliber. Available this December.

During a demonstration at Portsmouth naval base in England, a 10-barrel Nordenfelt volley gun, like the example for sale with Rock Island Auction Company this December, reportedly fired 3,000 rounds in 3 minutes and 3 seconds without any stoppages, an impressive feat for the era.

The Nordenfelt volley gun is operated by moving its side-mounted crank handle backward and forward. The backward pulling movement retracts the breech bolts rearward, which in turn allows ammunition to drop from the gravity feed hopper magazine located atop the weapon through the cutouts above the receiver/top cover. A push of the crank handle then advances the breech bolts forward, while simultaneously positioning the ammunition in line with the chambers in which the rounds fire at the end of travel. The speed or cyclic rate of firing is determined by how fast the operator can move the crank handle in this manner.

The Nordenfelt volley gun available in RIAC's December auction is composed of all machined steel with a "U" shaped frame in which the ten barrels are mounted in parallel, with a brass breechblock, dual blade and notch sights on the left and right with elevation adjustable rear sights. Available this December.

The Nordenfelt volley gun was available in both naval mount and carriage configuration and was especially valued as an anti-ship deterrent. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Nordenfelt served in the British Royal Navy alongside the Gardner and Gatling gun. All three platforms were eventually overshadowed by Sir Hiram Maxim's machine gun design.

Thorsten Nordenfelt eventually merged operations with the Maxim Gun Company to officially become Maxim-Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company Limited in 1888. The merger became a takeover, and four years later, the two men would engage in one of the most famous court cases in history, Nordenfelt v Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co Ltd. Though Nordenfelt would achieve a partial victory, Maxim and his machine gun would go on to dominate the market.

The Gatling gun, one of the Nordenfelt volley gun’s contemporaries. This U.S. inspected Colt Model 1883 Gatling gun is available this December.

The Nock Volley Gun

In the 18th century, advances in metallurgy allowed several styles of volley gun 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.

This second type Nock Volley gun, one of the finest examples of the model in circulation, was previously part of the famous Clay P. Bedford Collection and was displayed in the “Early Firearms of Great Britain and Ireland” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available this December.

The Nock Gun, or Nock volley gun, was designed by James Wilson in 1779 and produced by British gunsmith Henry Nock. Approximately 549 first type Nock seven-shot volley guns were delivered to the British Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War era between 1779 and 1780. The Nock volley gun example pictured above is an even rarer second type Nock volley gun, one of only 106.

After the American Revolution, the Nock volley gun went on to serve in the French Revolutionary Wars and the early Napoleonic Wars. According to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the firearm’s severe recoil could cripple its users. The massive fireball the weapon produced also risked igniting nearby sails and rigging. Both factors contributed to the gun being pulled from service between 1804 and 1805.

A rare British Royal Navy Second Model H. Nock flintlock volley gun. Available this December.

Despite its downsides, the Nock volley gun's distinctive barrel cluster, six outer barrels around a central barrel, produced a tighter shot group and had greater range and velocity than a shotgun or blunderbuss. The Nock volley gun went on to enjoy a brief period of popularity as a sporting arm as well, and in more recent times the weapons have appeared in film and television properties like 'The Alamo,' 'Sharpe, Turn: Washington's Spies,' and 'Master & Commander.'

This late 18th century blunderbuss features a folding under barrel snap bayonet. Available this December.

The Duck Foot Pistol

A handheld version of the Organ gun, the duck foot pistol employed multiple barrels radiating out from a single lock, giving rise to its popular nickname due to the weapon's resemblance to the webbed feet of everyone's favorite waterfowl. These unique volley guns specialized in crowd control situations that might be encountered by bankers, jailers, riot police, or sailors engaging a boarding party or a group of mutineers.

A four barreled duck foot pistol, one of the most unusual handheld volley gun designs. Available this December.

The duck foot volley gun was produced in a host of configurations, with a varying number of barrels splayed outward at different angles. The widest duck foot pistol barrels were spread out as much as 60 degrees, and often none of the barrels pointed straight.

Although each barrel of the duck foot pistol needed to be individually loaded, a single trigger pull discharged every shot nearly simultaneously using a shared priming pan. When the priming powder was ignited by the sparks from the flint and frizzen, the resulting flash traveled through touch holes leading to each barrel to ignite the main charges propelling the balls.

This boxlock duck foot pistol is engraved with "FORTH/YORK" on the frame in an oval surrounded by martial engraving. Available this December.

While the duck foot volley gun excelled against multiple targets in confined spaces, it offered little in the way of accuracy. Weight was another detriment. The platform's most popular configuration included four barrels, with each barrel increasing the weapon's heft. By the height of the duck foot pistol's popularity in the late 18th century, multi-barreled flintlock pistols like the John Manton over/under pair below were becoming increasingly available, and the pepperboxes and early revolvers of the 1830s finally would finally spell the end for these unusual volley guns.

A scarce documented engraved and gold inlaid cased pair of "hair rifled" John Manton single trigger over/under flintlock pistols, from The Norman R. Blank Collection. Available this December.

The Henry Harrington Nineteen-Shot Volley Gun

While Henry Harrington is more widely remembered as America's first major cutlery manufacturer, the Massachusetts craftsman tried his hand at gunmaking as well. Harrington patented a percussion ignition volley gun design in 1837 and produced a limited number of long guns and handguns of various patterns based on this concept, with the intention of also manufacturing or licensing volley cannons.

Like its Nock volley gun flintlock predecessor, the Harrington volley gun example pictured below would have offered an accurate option for taking fowl down range. The weapon's barrel group is comprised of a central rifled bore surrounded by smoothbore outer barrels. A lever on the left of the frame pivots to allow the breechblock to lift out, offering a user with a spare block the option to quickly reload the volley gun.

This Henry Harrington Patent 19-shot volley gun is marked "HENRY/HARRINGTON/PATENT/1837/SOUTHBRIDGE/MASS" on the breechblock, with "PATENT/1837" in larger text. Available this December.

Surviving Harrington patent volley gun examples demonstrate how the design was produced in a range of configurations, including different calibers, barrel lengths, and single and double hammer variations. Firearms author Norm Flayderman indicated that a three-shot Harrington was the most common model produced, making this 19 shot Harrington volley gun a particularly desirable example of the rarely encountered design.

An incredibly scarce Henry Harrington Patent percussion 19-shot volley gun. Available this December.

The H. Pieper Rolling Block Seven-Shot Volley Rifle

Henri Pieper, a German-born inventor and entrepreneur who settled in Belgium in 1859, had a prolific career. His accomplishments included producing shotgun barrels for some of Remington's finest double guns, designing trial rifles for Belgiam's army, developing the Pieper M1893 revolver, and patenting a gas-electric hybrid automobile 100 years before the Toyota Prius. He also found time early in his career to develop a unique rolling block volley gun rifle.

A scarce H. Pieper rolling block 7 shot volley rifle. Available this December.

Henri Pieper's .22 RF rolling block volley gun employed a seven round barrel cluster housed in a single iron sleeve that measures one inch across. Pieper's experience with sporting arms production can be seen in the volley gun's finely figured checkered walnut and embossed shotgun-style buttplate.

The Volley Gun Today

Several volley gun concepts have been introduced in recent times that utilize multiple barrels designed to be fired sequentially or simultaneously. An electronic ignition volley gun system was developed by Australian manufacturer Metal Storm Limited capable of firing 180 rounds of caseless 9mm ammo from 36 barrels in less than one-hundredth of a second. The Spanish Navy employs the Meroka Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), a 12-barreled volley gun intended for close-range defense against missiles, aircraft, and small boats.

One modern example of a handheld volley gun is Connecticut gunmaker Standard Manufacturing's recently introduced S333 Thunderstruck, an aluminum-frame double-barreled pocket revolver. Each pull of the trigger simultaneously fires a .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridge from both of the revolver's barrels.

A modern day volley gun, the S333 Thunderstruck pocket revolver fires a .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire cartridge from both barrels.

Volley Guns for Sale

The volley guns for sale during Rock Island Auction Company's December 8 - 10 Premier Firearms Auction represent some of the rarest antique production arms available and would make fantastic additions to any advanced firearms collection. Anyone who enjoys engineering, craftsmanship, history, and the evolution of technology through the centuries will find something to enjoy in this fascinating firearms genre.

Surviving examples of the Nordenfelt volley gun are extremely rare in any form, with almost all remaining instances of the platform residing in museums. Available this December.

Rock Island Auction Company preview days 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 featured in the company's December event, the first-ever Premier Auction in RIAC's new Bedford, Texas facility.

The Norman R. Blank Collection is the last of the great European arms collections in private hands. Largely forgotten and unseen until now, this assortment of museum-quality firearms offers unmatched examples of European craftsmanship. 

Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction weekly newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that delve into every chapter of arms development. From articles on the LeMat revolver, the harmonica gun, revolving rifle, the Volcanic pistol, repeating airguns, early breechloaders, the combination gun, and more, we explore the evolution of the gun in all its facets.

The 1882 Gardner gun is a key firearm in the evolutionary development of the machine gun and is missing from even the most advanced public or private collections. Available this December.

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