Weapon technology is all about delivering the pain accurately and successfully while minimizing retaliation potential. From this basic concept comes many great inventions and advancements in technology.
To be fair, we sort of hit a snag around the First World War and that turned into a bloody mess, but hopefully we do not have to see that again. Alongside great inventions come wacky, janky ones that really did not quite work out. We are not talking about either of those today. Instead, I would like to shine the spotlight on some weapon designs that were actually good for their era but failed to get adoption. They did not become widespread for a number of reasons. Maybe they were too advanced, too expensive, or politics got in the way.
While some faded away into obscurity, many would become the foundation upon which modern weaponry is built upon. I have handpicked eight that have the most impact on weapon technology today and I hope that, at the end of the post, you would appreciate these artifacts.
1. Gatling Gun
Patented by Richard Jordan Gatling in 1862, the idea was to minimize casualties in war. How? A large army was only fielded because one man was able to carry only one musket. You would then need a lot of them to deliver volleys of fire. The Gatling Gun can help downsize the army by allowing you to deliver the same amount of firepower with fewer men. By this logic, there would be fewer men lost to disease and combat. It was a noble and laudable idea, but the gun never really received adoption during the Civil War because it was bulky and unwieldy.
Some people think that the Gatling Gun was a sort of machine gun, perhaps the first-ever machine gun, and I understand where they are coming from. The base of their argument relies on the rate of fire, but a machine gun is different type of firearm. You can differentiate this by looking at how the gun operates. A machine gun uses automatic fire to deliver as much lead down range as possible, but the concept behind the Gatling Gun is different.
You see, the technology back then did not evolve to the point where automatic fire was possible. So instead, they tried something different. The principle was simple: Switching to another weapon is faster than reloading. This concept really hits home when muskets take minutes to reload. So, you strap multiple muskets together and add in some mechanisms to allow rapid firing and a fast reload and you get the Gatling Gun.
The Gatling Gun uses a hand crank system that spins the barrels into place to fire bullets one at a time. The bullets are fed into the barrel by gravity. But because it is about as large as a cannon, it did not see much combat. That said, it was used by other nations.
However, the design was way too advanced for its time because it was only two decades later that we got any semblance of machinegun technology. The Model 1895 eventually replaced the Gatling Gun on the battlefield because it was easier to maneuver.
It was only after the Second World War that this technology made a comeback in the form of the Minigun. Perhaps the most prominent child of this technology was the 30mm GAU-8/A cannon around which the A10 Warthog was built around.
2. EM-2 Rifle
I will tell you this: Had the EM-2 been chambered in 7.62x51mm during the trials, it would have been well-known today. What trials? Well, you see, the EM-2 was a bullpup designed after the Second World War when NATO wanted to establish a standard for both firearms and ammo.
In this competition, many countries started working on their own firearm design. The EM-2 came from England and it went toe-to-toe with the likes of M14 and FN FAL. It was a tough matchup, but the EM-2 did well and sometimes better than the other two. So, what stopped it from adoption?
The EM-2 was chambered in .280 initially, and the United States was not going to sit on their hands and let this cartridge become the standard cartridge. So, NATO went with the 7.62x51mm cartridge instead. To be fair, the EM-2 also had a 7.62 variant, but it was already too late. It did see a short deployment by the British government, but Churchill put a stop to it. Why? Because he loved the FAL more.
What killed it? Politics. It’s sad, but life is just unfair at times.
3. Burton Light Machine Rifle
You might be familiar with the German STG-44, or the Sturmgewehr, which many people believe is the first assault rifle. Well, there is a firearm that shares the same characteristics a long time ago and that is the Burton Light Machine Rifle.
Now, some gun experts are probably writing in the comment section about how the Defense Intelligence Agency has defined assault rifles as having the selective-fire capability and chambering intermediate cartridges. But you should not be confused with the term “assault weapons” in legislation. It refers to semi-auto versions of those firearms that look the same only in appearance.
At a glance, you immediately notice that the Burton Light Machine Rifle has two magazines on the top. The gun was chambered in the .345 intermediate cartridge, and it was created toward the end of the First World War. Sadly, it never really saw combat because the war had already ended before the gun entered production.
4. David Marshall Williams’ M1 Carbine Prototype
Old Williams was running an illegal moonshining business before Deputy Alfred Jackson Pate raided his distillery, which resulted in a confrontation and the death of the good deputy. Williams was caught and sentenced to prison. To pass the time, Williams started to tinker with firearms and people started to notice the genius at work. He got a break and was released, with the consent of the victim’s family no less, because people believed that his talent could be used for the benefit of the country.
He started working in various companies and landed with Winchester in 1938. He was put to work on redesigning Jonathan “Ed” Browning’s semi-auto rifle and he was able to iron out the kink with the gas system, which created a better short-stroke gas pistol.
During the initial round of prototype for the M1 Carbine, Williams only played a part in designing the gas piston. When he asked to work on the second batch of prototypes, he proved to be uncooperative and was unwilling to work with others. He was subsequently kicked off the project but he was given the freedom to work on his version of the M1 Carbine.
Williams’ Carbine was not proven on the battlefield. While some people would argue that his Carbine was outright better, there was just not enough time for him to make it really work. That said, Williams still got around to making the M1 Carbine when he was eventually brought back into the project. The second prototype, with Williams’ contribution, was soon adopted by the U.S. government.
5. Belton Fusil
While this flintlock is often believed to be an early repeater, it came in pretty late to the scene in 1758. There were plenty of repeaters in the market, even those with magazines, that had existed about a century before that. But those repeaters were more for civilian uses.
The Belton Fusil concept was the one that the young American government explored. Similar to a Roman Candle, the Belton Fusil operated using superimposed loads. At the press of the trigger, multiple rounds would be fired at once. The designer, Joseph Belton, said that it could spit out eight rounds in three seconds.
Continental Congress placed an order for these firearms, but the deal did not fall through because there was a dispute on the price tag. Sadly, that marked the end of the Belton Fusil. It never got around to proving itself on the battlefield. The military returned to using the basic single-shot musket instead. As for the Belton Fusil, we never really know what happened after. Some suggest that Belton went back to the civilian market, but others said that surviving records are sketchy at best.
6. Hirst Screw Plug
Hirst Screw Plug was a breechloading technology that faded into obscurity thanks to the introduction of the Ferguson Rifle. Both of them were breechloading firearms, but they did things differently. John Hirst gave the British Board of Ordnance five breechloaders in 1762, which was about a decade before Patrick Ferguson showed the Board his work.
Let’s talk about the similarities first. Both used the trigger guard to unscrew the breech, which opened up a hole for loading. The difference was how far to unscrew. Hirst’s design required the user to hold the gun upside down and take out the trigger guard completely to load on the underside. Ferguson’s design did not have such requirements. You could just keep the gun upright and load from the top. You can clearly tell where Hirst went wrong here and why his design never really saw combat.
Back in the early 1500s, the ignition system in a firearm relied on burning ropes. The wheellock was invented around the time that did things differently. This system was also a bit complex, but still better than the matchlock system at the time.
What you do is load the gunpowder and projectile into the barrel. Once things are in place, you lower a cocking mechanism, which houses a piece of pyrite. The fire that makes the gun go boom comes from the serrated disc, which is attached to an external wrench. You wind it up nicely before you fire. Then, you pull the trigger, letting the disc spin and producing that spark as the pyrite comes down, causing the gun to fire. In simple terms, the system is very similar to that of a lighter.
This system involved a number of steps, but it was more reliable and there was no exposed flame to worry about. This helped a lot in concea ling your position. It was so effective that it scared Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire and he just outright banned it. Other than politics, the gun was also expensive to make and the parts were too complex to enable easy repair on the battlefield. The Wheellock system saw some use outside of the American Colonies, but matchlock was still favored domestically until the introduction of the flintlock.