by Jim Wolford
(The following was originally printed in the newsletter of the Oregon Arms Collector. Reprinted here by permission.)
I have been curious about the blunderbuss since early grade school. Remember the pictures of the first thanksgiving with those grim looking pilgrims marching off to church with a guard toting a blunderbuss and keeping an eye out for hostiles? That scene is familiar to many but totally fictional. As far as is known at this time, the participants in the first thanksgiving did not have a blunderbuss with them. The weapons were costly to get and very wasteful of powder and lead. The first pilgrims simply couldn't afford to take something of marginal usefulness to the new world.
The exact beginnings of the blunderbuss is unknown. A paper published in Frankfurt Germany in 1566 by L. Fronsperger describes a special short barreled gun with a "thick barrel" that was loaded with 12 to 15 pistol bullets and while "it was not useful at long ranges, did great damage at close range". Sometime prior to 1640 the concept of a belled muzzle was incorporated into carbines and wall guns in England. By 1670 they were well established in the English military. In his writings of that year Sir James Turner had this to say: "The Carabineers carry their Carabines on Bandileers of leather about their neck, a far easier way than long ago, when they hung them at their saddles. Some instead of Carbines carry Blunderbusses, which are short Hand-guns of great bore, wherein they may put several Pistol or Carabine balls, or small slugs of iron. I do believe the word is corrupted, for I guess it is a German term, and should be Donnerbuchs, and that is Thundering Guns." (By Hand-gun, he is referring to an individual weapon, not a crew-served piece such as a cannon.)
Before we leave 17th century England, one illustration of the effectiveness of the blunderbuss. The following incident was taken from a book published in London in 1736. Thomas Thynn, a favorite of King Charles II, had an attractive wife who was persuaded by a Count Konigsmark to elope with him. In order to expedite matters, the Count arranged to make the lady a widow by hiring three assassins to murder Thynn. On the Sunday evening of 12 February 1681, two horsemen led by Captain Christopher Vratz stopped Thynn's carriage at the intersection of Pall Mall and St. James street. While Vratz and one of the horsemen covered the driver and the postillion with their pistols, the third fired at Thynn through the open window of the coach "with a Blunderbuss which mortify'd him after such a barbarous manner that Mr. Hobbs, an eminent surgeon, found in his body four bullets which had torn into his Guts, wounded his Liver, and Stomach, and Gall, broke one Rib, and wounded his (pelvis); of which wounds he dyed." Merrie Olde England indeed!
I have never owned an original blunderbuss. To get one in good enough condition to fire would cost about as much as a good used Buick. And as I have much more time than money, I made as good a copy as I could and fired that one. My first blunderbuss is a copy of one used by the English Navy about 1750. I found a picture of one that looked like I could copy without too much trouble. The barrel was iron, the lock looked like a military carbine lock, the whole gun was quite plain but well proportioned. The description that accompanied the picture gave the length of the barrel, so I was able to scale everything from that. The barrel is steel, 18 inches long. It is a 4 gauge, the bore is about 1.030" diameter. the whole gun weighs a bit over 12 pounds. I proof fired the barrel before making the stock, the charge was taken from a table of the official proof loads used in 1887 by the Birmingham Proof House. For a four gauge it is 928 grains of powder and 1649 grains of shot. I fired the thing using cannon fuse while I got behind a barrier, great fun! After a certain amount of fiddling around with different wads and powder charges, I finally got a reasonable pattern and then fired a charge of buckshot at a sheet of plywood, to make a display board for the gun. I used the standard load for four gauge shotguns which is 4 ounces of shot but I did cut back the powder charge some as it wasn't all burning in that short barrel. The resulting pattern is 27 double-O buckshot in a 14 inch circle at a distance of 16 feet! That's feet, not yards! Your modern shotgun will make a single hole about an inch across at that range.
When reading about the blunderbuss in various books, you will find a great deal of disagreement about the purpose of the flared end of the barrel. Some say it was purely decorative to impress the purchaser and intimidate the intended victim, much as the pistol-grip stocks, flash hiders, and high capacity magazines that generate so much panic among the anti-gun types today. Well the blunderbuss was made from late 1500s until the mid 1800s and as the flared barrel is not as easy to produce as a cylinder bore, if it didn't have some practical advantage it would have passed out of fashion much earlier. Remember tail fins on cars?
Some writers claim the flared barrel was for a quick reload while bouncing around on top of a stagecoach. I don't think so, as passenger carrying stagecoaches came about 20 years after the blunderbuss in England was well established in the military. Also it is only in the past one hundred years or so that we have been so obsessed with fast reloads. In the early days of firearms one had to make the first shot count or be prepared to deal with the consequences of your poor shooting. In addition, multi-shot blunderbusses are known. They were made as side-by-side doubles, just like good bird guns. There are a few over-under two shooters on the swivel breech system that were made in the Germanic countries. There is even a six barrel revolving monster that works just like a very large pepperbox carbine. There is a third view that maintains the flare spread the shot charge and allowed the shooter to either make very sure his opponent was taken care of (remember poor Thomas Thynn?) or to deal with multiple opponents providing he could persuade them to stand close together.
As I intend to make myself another blunderbuss when time permits (a double 12 bore this time) I have been gathering the tools necessary to make a short 12 bore hole in a piece of metal. I took this opportunity to test the spreads-the-shot theory. I went to a steel supplier and found a suitable piece in the remnant pile, it is 3 inches in diameter and 12 inches long. This piece was drilled and reamed, then honed to get a smooth hole of .729 inch, standard 12 gauge. It was then threaded for a breech plug. A rest was fashioned from two pieces of angle iron fastened to a plank to make a long "V" block, known to historians as the Mann Rest. The whole thing was taken to the gun club and fired with the standard 12 bore powder and shot charge to establish the performance of a short cylinder bore. The initial testing was with slugs as I wanted to chronograph them to get an idea of how much powder was effective. The slugs were hollow base 580 grain, sized and lubricated, and loaded unpatched like a Mine ball. 50 grains of FFg gave 510 feet per second, an increase to 70 grains got me 576 fps. A second increase to 90 grains brought no gain in velocity so I guessed the additional was simply being blown out the muzzle. Having established 70 grains as the most we could burn effectively, I then proceeded to load with that charge topped by 1 1/4 oz of #2 shot. I fired three shots, each one on a separate piece of paper, and took them home to evaluate. By disregarding the obvious fliers in each shot pattern, I found that 90% of the shot charge will be contained in a circle of 10 3/4" average diameter. Remember this was at 16 feet distance. It would be too risky to attempt to chronograph the shot charge but as the slug weighs a bit over 1 1/4 oz. we could accept that the shot charge was also traveling at 576 fps. A percussion 12 gauge shotgun with 30" barrels will get 1050 fps with 1 1/4 oz shot over 70 grains of powder. It would also put all its shot into about a one inch circle at 16 feet. By shortening the barrel to 12" we have given away nearly half the velocity but have opened the shot spread to increase the chance of hitting the target. We haven't sacrificed any accuracy, those slugs went into one ragged hole at that range. The calculated energy of the slug load is 427 ft. lbs. which puts it into the same class as a heavy load in the 357 Magnum. So, back to the shop with the barrel. I mounted it in the lathe and proceeded to put the flare in the bore, the muzzle is now 1 1/8" bore diameter and the flare occupies the front 3" this leaves 9" of the bore a 12 gauge cylinder. After getting the inside of the flare as smooth and polished as the rest of the bore, it was back to the range for the second test. The second test was done under the same conditions as the first. Same powder charge, same shot charge, everything. Except this time I didn't chronograph any slug loads, I was afraid that the flare in the barrel would make the slugs erratic enough that I might hit my chronograph. Again, three shots were fired, each on a separate piece of paper, and the patterns were measured using the same criteria as the first test. 90% of the shot pellets made a pattern that averaged 24" in diameter!
So there you have it, an intimidating weapon? Yes. Easy to load? a fringe benefit. Those old boys knew exactly what they were doing when they built a blunderbuss. When I flared the last 25% of the barrel, it more than doubled the pattern size. One would have a much greater chance to get a damaging hit on an opponent when you had just one shot for score.
copyright 2003 by the author, all rights reserved.
Editor's note: Jim Wolford passed away in the summer of 2005. He will be missed.