The Life-Saving Lyle Gun

By Stephen C. Small, PhD


In the spring of 1877, Summer Increase Kimball of The U.S. Revenue Marine petitioned Brigadier General Stephen Vincent Benet, Chief of the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, requesting assistance in selecting a new line-throwing gun. The tasking was not well received – a scant fifty Ordnance officers struggled to arm and equip a U.S. Army of 25,000 enlisted men and officers – most scattered across the Western Frontier. No matter, Kimball was resolved, and he made his case. Soon thereafter, Ordnance Lieutenant David Lyle was ordered to “go down to the Treasury Department and see [what] that little ‘black eyed’ man [Kimball] of destiny wants.” Lyle’s selection was a fortunate one. It led to the development of what turned out to be one of the best line-throwing guns of the 19th century.


From 1878 until 1915, the U.S. Life Saving Service “surf-men” routinely rescued shipwrecked mariners and passengers – in the severest of weather conditions. In an era when many ships still relied upon wind and sail for motive power – such harbor-bound vessels were frequently driven up upon rocks or grounded on sandbars when gales struck. Sometimes this fate befell even the steamship. Hard aground, ships were sometimes broken up by the surf within a few hours. Without rescue teams of surf-men, doomed seafarers often died almost touching the safety they sought.

Deadly Lessons

In post Civil War America, the bulk of coastal rescue teams were on-call volunteers. Public mindedness proved a poor substitute for good training and quality equipment. This was mostly the case up until several killer storms devastated the Eastern seaboard in 1870-71. Lack of preparedness took its toll in lives: some shipwrecked mariners died while the lights of lifesaving stations glimmered in the distance. The magnitude of the disaster prompted Congress to act. $200,000 in public funding went to “employ crews of experienced surfmen at such stations and for such periods as he [the Secretary of the Treasury] might deem necessary and proper.”

Gifted Leadership

Congressional funds helped, but real change arrived in February 1871. Secretary of the Treasury George S. Boutwell appointed the thirty-six-year -old Maine lawyer, Summer Increase Kimball, to the position of Chief of the Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Division. Kimball’s dynamic leadership prompted a revolution in lifesaving. Professionalism took hold. Training programs were rigorous and equipment standardized. Not surprisingly, when the U.S. Life-Saving Service was made a separate agency on June 18, 1878, Kimball was named its first (and as it turned out, only) General Superintendent: lifesaving’s indispensable man.

Line-Throwing Guns

Kimball knew the utility of line-throwing guns. Long before the advent of the helicopter, the line-throwing gun was the tool to which lifesavers turned when wind, wave, and surf reached nightmarish proportions. Under the gravest of weather conditions, even the venerable surfboat (the workhorse of lifesaving) by necessity remained ashore.

Practicable line-throwing guns date back to the late 18th century – one significant innovator being John Bell of the British Royal Artillery. He attached a light (messenger) line to the shell of small artillery mortar. Firing the mortar, the shell and line flew up and over the offshore shipwreck. Those onboard the wreck secured the light line and used it to haul out a heavier (hawser) line. With this stronger line in place, the shore-based rescue crew began to recover the people by transporting them shoreward in an arrangement reminiscent of a clothesline – feeding out on one side and pulling in on the other. Bell had converted a weapon of war into a lifesaving tool.

Shoreward Danger

The line-throwing gun system had its shortcomings. For example, a miscalculation in tying off the lifeline could mean disaster. Captain Robertson, of the Royal Navy, wrote in an 1877: “I have been informed of a whole crew being drowned by making fast [the lifeline] to the Knightheads [the timbers supporting the bowsprit] on the deck [of the shipwreck], instead of up on the mast… there is a limit to the distance that a person can be drawn through the surf without drowning.”

Perilous ship-to-shore transport methods evolved. First there was the “clove hitch” knot and looped around the person’s torso. It occasionally collapsed lungs as the hapless person was dragged though the surf. Next, there was the canvas cot. Bordered with mesh webbing, it often inverted and spilled its human contents into the sea. Then there was the “life-car.” It resembled a miniature submarine, with four tightly packed travelers lying within. With its hatch bolted shut, the life-car’s air supply might last long enough to get its passengers ashore. Oddly enough, the prosaic little “breeches buoy” (a cork life preserver ring with canvas pants) ultimately proved overall best. Its passengers were kept upright, snugly attached, and above water. Ease-of-use made it a favorite of surf-men, especially as they struggled about in mud, soft sand, or upon craggy rocks.

Army Support

In June 1877, army testing of line-throwing guns began. Lasting fourteen months, the Ordnance Department officials labeled the effort as “experiments for the purpose of improving life-saving apparatus [as] used by the Revenue Marine.” Lieutenant Lyle was designated project officer. His persistence and energetic efforts kept the project on schedule. The first testing took place at the West Point Foundry in New York. Robert Parrott was Foundry Superintendent. And he knew arms making. After graduating from the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point (Class of 1824), he served as an Ordnance officer for several years, before leaving the army and going into business. His Smooth-Bore Line-throwing gun was then the standard lifesaving gun for the Revenue Marine – a distinction soon eclipsed by the Lyle gun.

The Parrott gun was compact and weighed 200 pounds. Its cast iron barrel had a 3-inch bore; projectiles were heavy (24 pounds) and long (14-inches). This gun-ammunition combination made for good range and accuracy. A test shot went a remarkable 432 yards. However, it had its negatives. The gun’s recoil was fearsome, and sometimes the messenger snapped while feeding out. However, Kimball liked the gun and ordered twenty-five additional guns for the Service.

After finishing the Parrott gun testing, Lyle took his team to Springfield, Massachusetts. This iteration ran until late November of 1877. Lyle had selected a large rectangular shaped (civilian owned) field for the firing lane. It proved a troublesome site. The field was crossed by a well-traveled road and soon became crowed with curious watchers. Clustering about, they sought a glimpse of the strange gun’s firing. Mischievous boys raced about on bicycles. Weary soldiers cleared the road of the trespassers, thereby allowing the gun to be safely fired. With visitor control in place, the test team finished its work.

The test guns were Civil War muzzle-loading bronze cannons – all had been made at Springfield Armory. Snub nosed, the barrels had been cut down to within 5-inches of the trunnions. Half the guns were “smooth-bores,” the remainder were “rifled.” Bore sizes came in 2-inches, 2.5-inches, and 3-inches. Lyle soon eliminated the “rifled” guns from competition as the spinning projectile kept fouling the messenger line. The clear winner in this group, as well as overall, was the smooth 3-inch bore gun – the prototype “Lyle gun.”

Lyle’s Report

In addition to the tests mentioned above, other testing of various line-throwing guns occurred at Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. By late summer 1878 all testing was over. On August 16, 1878, Lieutenant Lyle issued his final report. He concluded that best line-throwing gun (for ranges upward to 400 yards) was the Springfield Arsenal’s bronze-barreled smooth-bored 2.5-inch gun with a “service braided” (light) line. Lyle added that this gun was reasonably portable and easy to use. Moreover, it was a safe gun, as the bronze barrel was structurally less prone to sudden bursting. Lyle qualified his recommendations with: “The best and most perfect apparatus in the world will prove a miserable failure in the hands of ignorance and carelessness.” With the report in hand, Kimball and his deputies selected the “Experimental Bronze Gun C.” as the service’s new standardized line-throwing gun for lifesaving. This gun was to be later known as the “Lyle gun.”


The history of lifesaving in American is replete with heroics and self-sacrifice. The Lyle line-throwing gun development is a quietly important chapter in that story. When David Alexander Lyle died at the age of 92 in 1937, his accomplishments were many and ranged from coastal artillery design to authorship on geological subjects. However, when asked to recount his most noteworthy contribution to humanity, he would invariably refer to having invented a gun that helped to preserve life – a function the Lyle gun performed well into the mid 20th century.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (December 2012)
and was posted online on November 16, 2012


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