by Matthew Sharpe - Monday, November 19, 2012
In late 18th-century naval warfare—after the initial broadsides and ship-to-ship cannon fire—ships were expected to close with the enemy. Sailors would then rely on their muskets and pistols to suppress the enemy or conduct boarding actions. That often resulted in extremely short-range encounters, including close combat with pikes and cutlasses. To increase firepower, the British Royal Navy began supplying its sailors with experimental “multi-shot” firearms. The guns were fitted with multiple barrels that would increase both the area of impact and the sheer volume of fire, literally, delivering a volley from a single gun.
Multi-barrel guns provided a new challenge to inventors, with one of the major difficulties being the flintlock ignition system itself, which was hardly ideal for multiple, simultaneous discharges, especially when grounded on a swaying, chaotic ship’s deck. Such volley guns were initially designed to be fixed to the ship’s railing via a swivel mount. That could theoretically provide one successful, devastating volley, but reloading the chambers during an engagement would be both cumbersome and time-consuming. Perhaps the greater issue was one of maneuverability, as a mounted gun could be aimed and discharged from only a single, static location.
In an attempt to circumvent the limitations of swivel-mounted volley guns, English inventor James Wilson drew up plans for a multi-barreled, shoulder-stocked flintlock musket. His prototype featured seven steel barrels (six barrels surrounding a central barrel of equal diameter) designed to fire simultaneously from a single spark-ignited powder charge. In 1779, Wilson took his brainchild to the Royal Board of Ordnance for review. Wilson initially considered his design to be a land service arm, but after witnessing a demonstration of the prototype, the board declared it impractical for infantry use. It was then suggested that the gun would make a perfect deck-sweeping arm from aloft on a ship, and the idea met with approval from the Royal Navy.
In 1780, the Crown commissioned London and Birmingham gunmaker Henry Nock to produce two prototypes based on Wilson’s design. Impressed with the gun’s potential, the Admiralty subsequently requested 500 additional guns from Nock’s firm. That contract ultimately linked the design with Henry Nock’s eponym, for in any mention of the gun thereafter it would be referred to as the “Nock Volley Gun.”
The Royal Navy acquired Nock’s volley guns at a time when belligerent encounters at sea were both expected and frequent. With the American Revolution raging across the Atlantic as well as the threat from the French and Spanish, British ships saw constant exposure to hostile forces. In September 1782, the Admiralty sent Admiral Richard Howe to escort a supply convoy to relieve the besieged British territory of Gibraltar. Anticipating a scuffle with the French and Spanish navies, Howe took great measure in ensuring his warships were properly equipped. Among the armaments for his warships was a quantity of Nock’s seven-barreled volley guns—20 issued to each of his line-of-battle ships in the convoy and a dozen for each frigate.
While few service records of the Nock’s battle performance are available to researchers today, their unfavorable execution, design flaws and eventual discontinuation by the Royal Navy are apparent. Like so many firearms of the curiosa designation, the Nock volley gun was excellent in theory, but not in practice. The original intent was to provide a mobile shoulder-mounted, multi-shot gun, but reloading the seven barrels was far too burdensome during battle. Adding to the difficulties was the gun’s tendency to fire only a few barrels on ignition, leaving some chambers clear and others still packed with powder and ball. This resulted in the double loading of barrels assumed to be empty by the shooter. The Nock received further criticism when ship crews noticed an imminent fire hazard from usage of the gun. When fired from the fighting tops or “round top” as envisioned by the inventor, the seven muzzles emitted a wide plume of flame and burning powder that could easily ignite the rigging and sailcloth in close proximity.
Perhaps the most serious flaw was the devastating recoil of seven simultaneous powder charges. Even when the Royal Board of Ordnance reduced the recommended 2½ drams of powder per barrel to 1½ drams, the recoil could potentially harm the unfortunate bearer with a dislocated shoulder or worse yet, a fractured clavicle. Even burly and stalwart sailors shied away from the Nock’s punishing discharge.
The Nock’s recurrent issues rendered a poor assessment with naval crews, and the volley gun was eventually declared to be more problematic (and dangerous) to the user than to his adversary. In due course, the Nock volley gun was phased out of naval service and, by 1805, considered obsolete by the Board of Ordnance. Nock continued producing his seven-barreled guns for only a short time afterward as civilian model sporting arms, and then discontinued manufacture entirely. The sporting variants included such aesthetic details as wrist checkering, wooden ramrods and elongated trigger guards. Few rare examples are rifled (as were James Wilson’s prototypes in their earliest form). Those civilian versions were introduced in four known variants and, because of their limited production, are considered a rarity by collectors.
In his 1967 Gun Report article “Admiral Nelson’s Guns—The Seven Barrel Volley Guns—Fact or Fancy?” author Clay Bedford details the six variants of volley guns by Nock’s firm. The first two are the only models constructed for Ordnance Board approval and were intended for military use. The first model was the most common, with production numbers capped at around 500. Examples are on public display at The Charleston Museum, Charleston, S.C., the National Firearms Museum, Fairfax, Va., and Great Britain’s The Royal Armouries Museum and The York Castle Museum. There are also guns in the private collections of Clay Bedford and Peter Wainwright, and, thankfully, their written work includes detailed information on the volley guns they have amassed and examined.
Arms Chest To Prop House
After its brief career in the Royal Navy, the Nock volley gun might have simply vanished from public memory, nonetheless, nearly two centuries after its conception, the anomalous gun would finally gain notoriety—this time not as an implement of war, but as an icon of the silver screen. In 1960, Hollywood legend John Wayne stormed on screen in his self-directed Western classic, “The Alamo.” Portraying the real-life frontiersman Davy Crockett, Wayne led his cast in an epic retelling of the ill-fated Texas outpost. Starring alongside Wayne’s Crockett was veteran actor Richard Widmark—no stranger to Westerns—cast in the role of Jim Bowie.
While most moviegoers were familiar with Bowie’s prowess with knives, the producers placed in Widmark’s hands an arm thought to be so powerful and intimidating that only a man of Bowie’s stature could wield it: the Nock volley gun. With Widmark’s commanding screen presence, the Nock’s prestige was elevated to a whole new level, and rarely is Widmark seen without his trusty seven-barreled co-star by his side. Even as Bowie meets his climactic demise, he is able to discharge one final Nock volley before being overrun by bayonet-wielding Mexicans.
The gun’s poor track record and historical provenance as an experimental naval gun was instantly bypassed as the mesmerized audience witnessed Widmark’s seemingly flawless operation with this unusual gun. Most every mention of the Nock in the history books emphasizes the gun’s “fearful discharge,” but on camera Widmark is able to pull the trigger with barely a flinch. An easy feat when one fires only blanks for the camera. There are no historical references to any such guns at the actual 1836 battle, let alone in Bowie’s hands. It takes a powerful suspension of disbelief to accept that the British sea service failure somehow found its way some 2,500 miles inland to San Antonio.
A more accurately depicted use of the Nock can be found in the historical “Sharpe” series by author Bernard Cornwell. Beginning with Sharpe’s Eagle in 1981, the fictional series spans titular character Richard Sharpe’s rise from the ranks to become a British officer in the Napoleonic Wars. Fans of the Sharpe series can testify to Cornwell’s firearm knowledge with his numerous (and accurate) descriptions of Brown Bess muskets, Baker rifles, blunderbusses and other period arms. It is clear that Cornwell has done his homework. He, too, was evidently inspired by the Nock’s strange legacy because sure enough, he wrote one into the story. The worthy recipient was Richard Sharpe’s sidekick throughout the novels, a burly Irish soldier by the name of Patrick Harper. Harper is given the Nock in the 1983 novel Sharpe’s Gold and the author describes it as a “squat menace” before correctly citing its manufacturer, barrel length and the Nock’s short time spent in the Royal Navy. In 1993, the BBC adapted Cornwell’s Sharpe novels into a miniseries (starring Sean Bean as Sharpe) that ran until 1997. The production crew evidently wished to remain loyal to Cornwell’s vision as a Nock was chosen to accouter actor Daragh O’Malley as he portrayed Harper throughout the series.
Field Testing The “Squat Menace”
On permanent display in the National Firearms Museum is a Nock volley gun donated to NRA by the late Robert Petersen. As a museum staffer, I was fortunate enough to have this example on-hand during my research. A Nock first model, it bears the Queen Anne-period frizzen spring not found on the subsequent second model (of which only three are known today). The barrel grouping measures 20 inches in length, bringing the overall length to 37 inches. Unloaded, the Nock weighs approximately 13 pounds, most of which comes from the steel barrel cluster. The stock is lacquered walnut with brass furniture and buttplate. Each smoothbore measures 0.46 inches, and the barrels are brazed together in a six-round-one formation. The ignition is communicated from the pan, to the outer touch hole into the central chamber where it then distributed to the six outer chambers.
The lockplate bears an Ordnance proofmark and next to the “Tower” stamp with crown, cipher and broad arrow. Stamped in the stock is the “O B” cartouche indicating approval from the Ordnance Board inspection.
The gun is the very piece carried on screen by Richard Widmark in the “Alamo.” Along with the 18th-century British proofmarks and cartouches is a stamped serial number “S595” from the Stembridge prop house, where it was kept in accession before being sold at auction to the winning bidder, Robert Petersen. Those with a keen eye can still see abrasions on the steel from the brass barrel band that was fitted to the muzzle by the movie’s prop crew.
As is the burden of investigative journalism, it was decided that I could not publish any written material on the Nock volley gun having never fired one myself. This notion was met with reluctance, for I by this point was well aware of the Nock’s tendency to dislodge shoulders and potentially fracture bone. Yet with credibility at stake, I accepted my fate. The first shot was loaded with only powder and wad so that I could anticipate the trigger pull and flash delay. The gun performed without malfunction and emitted a wide orange blossom of flame and sparks.
On the second attempt, I rammed all seven barrels (meticulously noting which had been loaded to prevent double charging) and primed the pan. Taking aim at a target some 15 feet away, my wavering hand pulled the trigger. In an instant I was able to fully comprehend the plight of those unfortunate crewmen armed with the Nock. The butt of the gun drove itself hard into my right shoulder as the barrel cluster smacked into my chin. Worst of all, only two of the seven round balls struck the target. At that moment I was just happy I made it through the ordeal relatively unscathed (save for a slight powder burn and a rapidly forming bruise.) Subsequent firing with half-charges was not nearly as unpleasant, provided one leaned in and held on tight.
The legacy of the Nock would have perhaps remained only a brief footnote in firearm history had it not been for the later inspiration of a few creative minds. The magic of cinema provided Jim Bowie and Patrick Harper with a formidable battle implement capable of slaying their foes in a storm of lead and flame. That is, of course, in stark contrast to the reality of a bruised and singed sailor more likely pitching the thing overboard rather than shouldering it in battle.
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