Archive for Civil War Guns

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

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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 http://www.2ndmdinfantryus.org, 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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