Archive for the Centrifugal Guns Category

What Didn’t “Centrifugal Guns” Work?

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Civil War Guns with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by secondmdus

Centrifugal Guns are class of weapons that flowered in 19th Century America.  The idea was that by using man-power or steam engines one could rotate projectiles and fling them out upon an enemy with sufficient force to be deadly.  Though they are called centrifugal guns, the should more properly be called centripedal guns.

The idea probably stemmed from that of the sling shot – a projectile is placed in a leather pocket and swung rapidly over the users head and released in the direction of the enemy.

Various guns used different means to move their projectiles – the Dickinson Gun fed shot into a barrel that rotated, the Joslin Gun (not yet profiled on this page) had a firing assembly that rotated on gear, other guns like the McCarty Gun used what is probably best described as a rotating arm.  Another gun, not yet profiled, used an s shaped arm that pushed shells around the inside of a circular barrel.
While their inventors made wild claims for their guns, the laws of physics and other considerations would doom them.  While the Winans Gun was in the press in 1861, the gentleman of the American Institute’s Polytechnic Association gathered on May 9, 1861 to discuss scientific matters, including centrifugal guns.

Though the discussion probably focused on the McCarty gun, then being demonstrated in New York several points touched on the problems that would impact all “centrifugal guns.”

A Mr. Dibben suggested that “ … the great difficulty in the use of the centrifugal guns is to give the balls the desired direction without impairing their momentum. The balls will all have the same direction, if the barrel is moved, horizontally; that is, they will all strike in a horizontal line; but the lateral deviation will be very great and uncertain, depending upon the velocity of the ball at the moment of discharge. It, therefore, becomes incapable of efficient service.”

He noted that he had witnessed a test of a disk- based centrifugal gun in which the first of series of shots …” went through an inch plank, at the distance of one hundred yards, but the last ones only indented it.” Dibben noted that “Every precaution is now taken in fire-arms to secure accuracy of aim. It is not now a question of one hundred yards, but of three or four hundred yards.

Vulnerable to Enemy Fire

“The steam gun is objectionable,” said Dibben, “not only on account of its inaccuracy of aim, but for its want of portability, and for its vulnerability. The boiler is a large mark, and a single shot from a fair distance would entirely destroy its operation.” A Mr. Nash concurred, saying that a “…steam gun could not be effective unless sheltered, for the moment a cannon ball touches it, there is an end to it. He described the execution which could be done with cannon, or even with rifles, by having a telescopic sight …”

Insufficient Force
Dibben noted that disk based centrifiugal guns imparted a rotating motion to shot, lowering its velocity.“Military authorities say that the bullet should have an initial velocity of 12 to 1,500 feet. With light rifles the speed probably reaches 2,000 feet. With such speed as that, the centrifugal gun falls into the background.

The discussion then turned to gunpowder. A Mr. Stetson noted that improvements in weapons allowed for throwing shot further with less initial force. Thirteen to fourteen ounces of powder would send a 12 lb Hotchkiss shell from half a mile to a mile. “The expansive force of gunpowder is very great, having been shown sometimes to amount to 100,000 lbs. [an editor’s note corrected this figure to 500,000] to the square inch,” Stetson said. “No such force as that of gunpowder can be produced by steam. Nor can we produce the centrifugal force due to such pressure without destroying the machine.”

Stetson explained in detail why velocity was a key limitation of centrifugal guns: “In order to throw a projectile with a given velocity, a force is required equivalent to lifting it a certain height, independent of friction, for that velocity will be expended in raising it that height; or, inversely, if it is allowed to fall from that height, in a vacuum, that velocity will be produced. To produce a double speed in any mass requires a quadruple power, the power required being in the ratio of the square of the velocity. It is thought by some that we may be able, with centrifugal guns, to throw bullets at the initial velocity of six hundred feet, which will kill at short ranges. But we cannot throw a stream of bullets like water through a hose pipe, with that velocity; for merely to overcome the inerta of the balls, a horse-power will only throw 1 J-ounce balls at the rate of one per second ; and we must have several horse-powers to overcome the friction. If the machine is small and convenient, the number of bullets thrown must be necessarily very small.”

Water Use
Though not mentioned in the discussion at the Polytechnic Association, using a steam powered weapon in combat would require the provision of considerable amounts of fuel and water. While combustible material of all sorts may be easily found, having sufficient water available would also be a challenge. Finding water for the troops often proved a challenge, let alone keeping enough water at hand to keep a steam gun running. While artillery pieces of the day were by no means light, they were portable and packed a devastating punch. They were efficient and used comparatively small amounts of powder to throw shells over long distance. In the hands of trained gunners they could have precision accuracy. They had no boilers to leak, pipes to break, gearing to jam, or complicated moving parts. They were brutally efficient at the work of killing.

Though many inventors explored the idea of a Centrifugal Gun in the days prior to the Civil War, their work would come to nought, as gunpowder based rapid fire weapons saw limited service during the war. These guns – the Coffee Mill Gun, and the ultimately more successful Gatling Gun marked the beginning of era in warfare – the birth of the modern machine gun.

[Key Source: Annual Report of the American Institute, 1861]

Lombard Centrifugal Gun (WW1)

Posted in 20th Century Guns 1900-1999, Centrifugal Guns on September 21, 2008 by secondmdus

This link points to a photo and some period news stories regarding a WW1 period Centrifugal Gun —

Rude’s Steam Gun (1861)

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Civil War Guns on September 17, 2008 by secondmdus

Readers of the August 10, 1861 Portland (Maine) Daily Advertiser learned of yet another steam gun – “Mr. David Rude of Skowhegan, has invented a new kind of arm, which promises to be as destructive as anything yet brought out.”  It was yet another “Centifugal Gun” to be used with steam. Few details were provided, other than at a recent trial the device had thrown a one ounce ball through a 1.5 inch thick plank!

Albert Pott’s Centrifugal Battery (1857)

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Early Guns 1800-1860 on September 3, 2008 by secondmdus

Albert Pott’s Centrifugal Battery

Albert Potts of Philadelphia received a patent for his Centrifugal Battery on May 19, 1857. His design featured a vertically mounted wheel on an axle. This assembly rotated between two a-shaped supports. Force was to be applied to the assembly by a pulley mounted on the right side of the axle while projectiles were fed through the center of the axle on the left side of the device. They passed into a channel inside the wheel, and their exit from the device was controlled by an eccentric that drove a racheted wheel. The angle at which projectiles left the device was also adjustable.[i]


for a full description and additional drawings.

[i] United States Patent # 17,339, May 19, 1857, Centrifugal Battery.

The McCarty Centrifugal Gun

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Civil War Guns, Early Guns 1800-1860 with tags , , , , , , on August 4, 2008 by secondmdus

A side view, top down view, and image of the propelling arm of the McCarty gun.

August 1828 found Robert McCarty of New York filing for a patent on a “Machine for Throwing Balls, Shot, Etc.” McCarty’s “gun” featured a round vertically mounted housing that was in two pieces. On the inside of these pieces, “scrolls” on each formed a “barrel” that ran in an arc from the center to the “muzzle” of the weapon. As projectiles were fed into the gun, the “propelling arm” of the gun, pushed shells into the groove and then pushed them out as it rotated. McCarty’s patent application noted that the gun could be used in a horizontal position, but that he preferred to use it vertically, as shown in the drawings in the patent.[i]

McCarty showed considerable determination – his gun, patented in 1838, was still being talked of in 1861.

May 15, 1861, found it being tested “at the foot of 39th Street, North River” in New York. “It is one of the most singular implements of war that has ever been exhibited to the American people,” said the New York Herald, adding that it placed “Winans’ gun entirely in the shade, sending balls at the rate of 480 per minute without any powder or apparent effort.”

Manned by a team of six men “at the cranks,” one feeding shot to the gun, and the inventor, “balls poured out of the gun in a perfect stream, and in appeared that one continuous stream was being hurled against the target.” The target mentioned was three boards of wood, about 50 yards from the gun. The gun was then aimed across the North River – balls dropped into the water just short of the other bank of the river –about one mile away.

The machine tested in New York used 1 inch shot, but McCarty was also working on a steam powered gun to throw 32 pound shot. The smaller gun had been built by J. Cowell of No. 340 West Twenty-Forth Street who was ready to turn out several a week. The account noted that an attempt was being made to interest the war department in it, and that an army office who had witnessed the test was thinking of securing a gun for his regiment.[ii]

Whether the gun was ever put to use in combat is not known at this point, but it is an interesting possibility.

[i] United States Patent # 1049 Machine for Throwing Balls, Shot & Etc., December 31/1838

[ii] Scientific American 5/25/1861

Benjamin Reynold’s Centrifugal Gun (1830s)

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Early Guns 1800-1860 with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2008 by secondmdus

Benjamin Reynolds of Kinderhook, NY invented a Centrifugal gun in the late 1830s. His device was operated by two men – one of each side operating a crank. A hopper dropped shot into a revolving drum which threw them. Reynolds demonstrated his gun at West Point in 1837 where it sent 1,000 2 ounce shot through 3 ¾ inches of solid pine at distance of 110 yards. Reynolds later took it to Washington, where further demonstrations were made before a Congressional committee and military officers. The Washington tests used a target of three 1 inch pieces of pine at 150 yards. The shot from the gun went through the target, and fell into the Potomac River 300-400 yards beyond! The gun fired so quickly that the committee could not determine what fraction of a second was required to fire 60 shot! Source: 5/25/1861 Scientific American

The Winans Steam Gun (1861) 0n Mythbusters in 2007

Posted in Centrifugal Guns, Civil War Guns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2008 by secondmdus

By John Lamb

The “Winans” Steam gun aka the Baltimore Steam Battery, the Baltimore Steam Gun, and Dickinson’s Patent Centrifugal Gun, rocketed to national prominence after the April 19, 1861 clash between secessionists and Federal troops in Baltimore, Maryland. Readers of newspapers across the United States learned of a strange, and allegedly powerful steam powered weapon brought forth to fend off more Union troops seeking to pass through the town by rail to Washington.

Though it was invented and built elsewhere, the gun quickly became associated with Ross Winans, a pioneering locomotive builder, and inventor of an unorthodox class of steamships – the Winans Cigar ships. Since then the gun has become a familiar part of the story of the riot’s aftermath. It has been counted as his invention ever since, though his connection to it has been greatly exaggerated thanks to hundreds of secondary sources that incorporate incorrect information.

The account that follows is based on more than 10 years research on the gun in period publications and other sources for a book that is being developed on it.

Rather than being the invention of a rich Marylander, the gun in fact grew out of work by Ohio inventors William Joslin and Charles S. Dickinson on a hand-powered centrifugal gun. After the two had a falling out, Dickinson promoted the device under his name, and found funding to build a new steam powered gun in Boston in 1860. He brought the device to Baltimore where it was publicly exhibited.

After April 19, 1861, the gun was taken from Dickinson and/ or his associates by city police to be put in readiness for use if needed. Available evidence suggests that the gun was take to foundry/machine shop of Ross Winans and his son Thomas who had been engaged by city’s Board of Police to make pikes, shot and other munitions items. Shortly after, the gun was taken from the Winans’ facility and publicly displayed with other weapons being gathered by city authorities.

In the excitement of the times, Ross Winans’ public involvement in state’s right politics in Maryland, his great fortune, word of the munitions work being done at his factory for the city, and city defense appropriations became mixed in the press, and were carried in papers across the country.

After calm returned, the gun was taken again to Winans shop for repair at city expense, then returned to Dickinson, who then attempted to take it to Harper’s Ferry to sell to Confederate forces. Union forces captured the gun, intact, in mid journey and took it to their camp at Relay, Maryland.

His association with the gun, his politics and rumors of his munitions making led to Ross Winan’s arrest and a brief detention by Federal forces. He was released after 48 hours, after agreeing that he would not take up arms against the government.

The gun was eventually sent to Annapolis, then to Fortress Monroe, and eventually to Massachusetts. It would be exhibited at various events long after the war but would eventually be scrapped at the end of the 19th century.

It is perhaps the best known, yet most widely misunderstood steam gun of the Civil War period.

About John Lamb

John Lamb

The author of this account was featured in Mythbuster’s episode #93 – Confederate Steam Gun that premiered in December 2007.  Thanks to Mythbusters, his research was noted in an extensive story in the Baltimore Sun.

Lamb has published several articles on Maryland Civil War topics, is the creator of, has produced six field recordings of shapenote singing, and is currently at work on several historical book projects. He is the author of A Strange Engine of War: The “Winans” Steam Gun and Maryland in the Civil War, published in 2011.

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