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The Volcanic Pistol: Progenitor of Automatic Weapons

By Louis A. Garavaglia

A U.S. patent issued to a German firearms designer in November of 1902 finally gave credit where credit was due: “In different constructions of automatic firearms, the toggle-link breech mechanism of the American repeating pistol of 1854 has been employed.” So it had and employed in some of the best-known firearms of the period. The 1902 patent (#712,972), issued to Andreas Schwarzlose, covered a delayed-blowback system incorporating a clever folded-toggle arrangement. As a machine gun, the system would see widespread use through two World Wars. And in that role, it would sometimes be on the same battlefield as an even more famous arm, the Maxim Gun—another descendant of the “American repeating pistol of 1854.”

This pistol, a lever-action repeater named the “Volcanic,” was patented in February of 1854 (#10,535) by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson. It was actually the outgrowth of two earlier designs, patented in 1849 and 1851.

Both of the earlier guns were repeating rifles and shared important features, such as an under-barrel tubular magazine and a longitudinally sliding breechbolt, backed by a pivoting locking block. Smith and Wesson’s big contribution was to replace the locking block with a toggle link, controlled by an underlever; and in so doing, they now had in hand a basic design that was genuinely “good.” Good as the gun was, however, its “Rocket Ball” ammunition was inherently faulty, and the company failed in 1857. At this point one of its stockholders, a successful shirt manufacturer named Oliver Winchester, took over the operation. Guided by Winchester’s faith and perseverance, the Volcanic became the Henry rifle of 1860, basically a Volcanic redesigned to take self-contained rimfire ammunition. Another redesign involving the magazine system resulted in the world-famous Winchester Model 1866 (literally world-famous—a total of 50,000 went to Turkey in 1870-1871). Further improvements brought about the long-lived “Winchester ‘73,” with its centerfire .44-40 cartridge.

The ‘73 had been in production for less than 10 years when it attracted the attention of a prominent inventor named Hiram Maxim. At the time, Maxim’s prominence had nothing to do with firearms—he...

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N3 (March 2018)
and was posted online on February 9, 2018

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