On this day in 1718, London lawyer James Puckle patented the “Defence Gun.” The first well-documented rapid-fire gun in the world, the Defence Gun is considered a precursor of the machine gun.
Since the 14th century, inventors had been attempting to create small caliber, rapid-fire artillery. In the scientific formula of arms warfare, small caliber (which meant controllable recoil) + rapid projection of projectiles = maximum casualties to the enemy. Though many devices were devised, created, and tested—including one from Leonardo da Vinci, which never left the drawing board—few amounted to much on the battlefield.
Until 1718, when Puckle, a noted British lawyer, inventor, and writer, invented and patented the first well-documented rapid-fire gun and what many call the precursor to the modern machine gun. The Defence, or Puckle, gun was a tripod-mounted single-barreled flintlock weapon. Its barrel was about a metre long with a bore of about three centimetres. The preloaded revolving cylinder held 11 charges and could fire 63 shots in seven minutes, or 9 shots per minute—three times faster than the fastest loading time of any infantryman at the time. Puckle’s patent describes it as “A portable gun or machine called a Defence, that discharges so often and so many bullets, and can be so quickly loaded as renders it next to impossible to carry any ship by boarding.” In other words, the weapon was initially designed for shipboard use, to discourage enemies from boarding British vessels.
In fact, Puckle even demonstrated two versions of his basic Defence Gun design. The first, designed to be used against Christian enemies, fired conventional round bullets. The second, intended for use against Muslim Turks, fired square bullets. The square bullets were supposed to inflict more damage and according to Puckle’s patent, would convince the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilisation.”
Unfortunately for Puckle and his efforts, the square bullets convinced no one: their odd shape resulted in such unpredictable flight patterns that the square bullets were eventually discontinued. What’s more, the Puckle gun failed to attract investors, mass production, or introduction to the British armed forces—partly because British gunsmiths could not produce the gun’s complicated components. As such, a British newspaper once reportedly observed that the Defence Gun “only wounded those who hold shares therein.”
Nonetheless, the Puckle’s rapid-fire weapon laid the groundwork for the machine gun, a weapon that changed the way war is waged.