The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

With weird western Cowboys & Aliens coming out next week, we couldn't help but wonder: were there any real 19th century weapons that could compare to Daniel Craig's alien energy weapon? As always, never underestimate the awesome craziness of the 19th century.

Of course, none of the weapons we're about to talk about can compare with alien technology. But they represent a number of instances where inventors tried to push the weapons technology of the period into a bold new era...and, more often than not, failed miserably. As you might expect, a whole lot of these came out of the American Civil War...

The Double-Barreled Cannon

By itself, a cannon is pretty devastating. So what if you took two cannons and - get this - put them together? That was the idea of John Gilleland, a Georgia dentist and mechanic - one can only hope he drew more upon his mechanical experience than his dental in building the thing - who designed the double-barreled cannon in 1862.

The cannon combined two six-pound guns, which had been cast in a single piece at the Athens Steam Company. The cannon was designed so that either gun could be fired separately or simultaneously. It was this latter possibility that, if it had worked, would have made Gilleland a genius. His notion was to connect two cannon balls together with a chain and then fire them out of the cannon all at once, which would then cut through the enemy "mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat."

In April 1862, the cannon was brought out to the Newton Road Bridge in Athens, Georgia for test firing. Richard E. Irby, Jr. describes what happened next:

The test was, to say the least, spectacular if unsuccessful. According to reports one ball left the muzzle before the other and the two balls pursued an erratic circular course plowing up an acre of ground, destroying a corn field and mowing down some saplings before the chain broke. The balls then adopted separate courses, one killing a cow and the other demolishing the chimney on a log cabin. The observers scattered in fear of their lives. Some reports claimed two or three spectators were killed by the firing. The reports of the deaths have not been substantiated. The Watchman promptly reported the test an unqualified success.

As unqualified successes go, Gilleland's double-barreled cannon was a miserable failure. He insisted the Augusta Arsenal take possession of the gun so that they could do further tests, and the arsental commandant Colonel Rains quickly declared the cannon a failure. Gilleland spent the rest of the war trying to convince various Confederate officials that the cannon really did work, but political pressure and, well, reality were too much stacked against him. Today, his cannon can still be found on display in Athens, although it's well worth reading the rest of Irby's account for the longer version of what happened to it after the war ended.

Winans Steam Gun

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Still, John Gilleland's efforts seem downright sensible compared to that of the Winans Steam Gun. While the gun is named after Ross Winans, a locomotive builder and inventor from Baltimore who was never known to be constrained by conventional thinking, his involvement in the project didn't go much beyond repairing it in his shop. The credit really belongs to a pair of Ohio inventors, William Joslin and Charles S. Dickinson.

What is today known as the Winans Steam Gun was a giant automatic gun that ran on steam and was attached to an armored carriage. On some level, this was just another machine gun prototype, and there were a lot of those being built at the time, most famously Richard Jordan Gatling's gun, otherwise known as, well, the Gatling gun.

But what set the Steam Gun apart was that it was designed for use on railroad tracks, not to mention its tremendous theoretical power. Harnessing steam, the gun was supposedly capable of firing 200 balls a minute up to two miles. It could also fire a hundred-pound cannonball or fire conventional bullets...at least, those were the claims that Charles Dickinson made when he brought the gun to Baltimore in 1861.

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Ross Winans was a vehement state's right advocate, probable Confederate sympathizer, and vociferous critic of what he saw as the federal government's invasion of its own country. His stated motivation in buying and repairing Dickinson's gun, it seems, was to ensure that his beloved Baltimore would be protected from any and all attackers. At a time of national hysteria, the newspapers turned all this into Winans inventing a potential war-ending super-weapon, which explains not only why it now erroneously bears his name today but also why he was soon thereafter arrested for anti-Union activities.

In reality, the Steam Gun never actually had to be put to the test, and it remained for the rest of the war quietly perched above the Baltimore & Ohio Patuxent River Viaduct. In fact, when the Union took active control of Baltimore, Dickinson reportedly removed some key pieces of equipment so that the soldiers would not be able to operate it. It's hard to say how well the Steam Gun worked, if at all, but its curious history at the crossroads of the war means that its actual impact was just about zero.

Bringing Back the Flamethrower

The idea of using fire as a weapon doesn't seem like it requires all that much invention - and yes, flame-based weaponry is generally considered the oldest offensive device known to humanity. Fire was used in various forms from about 1,000 BCE onwards, as early armies figured out how to harness incendiary chemicals that could burn their enemies into submission.

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Perhaps the most famous of these was Greek Fire, the legendary secret weapon of the Byzantine Empire that, not unlike modern napalm, ignited upon contact and could not be doused with water alone. The formula for Greek fire was a closely guarded state secret, supposedly passed down only from emperor to emperor until, for reasons unknown, the knowledge was lost. To this day, we still don't know the precise composition, although modern scholars think petroleum was an active ingredient.

As effective as Greek Fire and its counterparts elsewhere were, the emergence of gunpowder in the 15th century made them obsolete, and flamethrowers all but disappeared from the battlefield until the Germans brought them back in World War I. So what does this have to do with the 19th century?

Well, there was a lot of talk about using Greek Fire again in the Civil War, although it's unclear how much it was ever actually used. A Philadelphia inventor named Levi Short is credited with coming up with the new Greek Fire, which is thought to have been a solution of phosphorus in carbon bisulfide, a recipe that likely bore little resemblance to the original Byzantine weapon.

This new Greek Fire had the irritating tendency to explode in storage before it could actually be used against the enemy, so the Union scrapped the idea of using it in the war effort. Still, it left a bit of an impression, as it made its way into the Confederate War poetry of William Gilmore Simms, who contrasted the "Greek faith" of the Union's original stated democratic ideals with the "Greek fire" they were now preparing to unleash in battle.

The Balloons of War

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Aerial warfare dates back as much as 2,000 years ago, when very basic balloons were used by the Chinese as a way to relay messages during wartime. And when Montgolfier brothers invented the modern hot air balloon in the late 1700s, its military potential was immediately recognized and, as much as it could be, exploited. The French Aerostatic Corps of 1794 found they could not fly in even slightly bad weather and that they were a constant sitting target, but over the next few decades the technology would improve.

The Civil War saw the first really significant use of balloons in warfare. The Union Army Balloon Corps was the brainchild of Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a self-educated inventor who was able to convince President Abraham Lincoln of the balloon's possibilities with a personal demonstration. Appointed as Chief Aeronaut in 1861, Lowe spent a tumultuous two years in the position before resigning his post.

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

During that time, he and his fellow aeronauts used tethered balloons - free balloons would risk moving into enemy territory and being captured as spies - to get aerial views of the battlefield, which he could then use to advise his generals on the best strategy. At one point, a bunch of balloons were kept on and launched from the USS George Washington Parke Custis, making this coal barge the first ever aircraft carrier.

While the idea of spy balloons is pretty cool, the idea of full-fledged war balloons is beyond awesome. Unfortunately, balloons have pretty much been used exclusively for reconnaissance purposes, but that's not necessarily for lack of trying. American ballooning pioneer John Wise proposed dropping gas bombs from balloons during the Mexican-American War, but this never came to fruition.

And, while Thaddeus Lowe's Balloon Corps was formed for strictly surveillance purposes, at least one Civil War era inventor had other ideas. In 1863, Charles Perley of New York City received a patent for an unmanned aerial balloon that could drop bombs on the enemy. The balloon would have used a timer to activate the bomb, but it had serious problems - not least of which the tiny detail that it only worked if the wind was blowing toward the enemy. For that and many, many other reasons, Perley's idea was never really taken seriously, and so the world missed out on the awesome terror that is bomber balloons.

The Turret Rifle

We've generally looked at weapons specifically designed for wartime, which generally meant they were large, one-off devices that were more or less abandoned once the wars in question were over. But that isn't the case for smaller firearms, and one particularly firearm that can be seen throughout the 19th century is the repeating rifle. Since the alternative was to use rifles that could only hold a single round of ammunition, inventors scrambled to come up with ways to cram in multiple rounds. The results were...well, you can see for yourself.

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Let's start with turret guns, which took their name from the rotating platforms created for the Civil War ship USS Monitor. However, they predated the ironclad ship by a number of years - their designers gave them far clunkier names like "many-chambered-cylinder fire-arms." The idea was simple enough - the ammunition would be placed facing outward on a wheel, which would then rotate to move each round into position so that it could be fire.

That may not seem so crazy an idea - after all, it's more or less the same principle as a revolver, except the alignment of the ammunition wheel has changed. But take a look at this T.P. Porter turret rifle, which was built in the 1850s, and you might see why these never caught on. Since all the rounds of ammunition were always pointing outward, this meant that at least one round was always pointing toward the person handling the rifle. As you might imagine, this made people just a tiny bit uncomfortable, and so they looked for other options that didn't seem so immediately dangerous.

Amazingly, these rifles that T.P. Porter did end up making were probably quite a bit safer than his original designs, which he described in an 1851 patent. Firearms Curiosa writes:

Mr. Porter's patent was for a highly impractical gun potentially even more dangerous than the manufactured article. The original idea was to have a magazine, containing powder, balls, and caps, fastened over the turret so that movement of a lever would not only cock the hammer and rotate the turret-it would also load the chambers. The lever movement would also place a cap on a nipple in the turret, as well as strip off a previously detonated cap. The magazine was intended to contain enough powder for thirty shots. A spark might reach and explode that powder at the first shot.

The Harmonica Pistol and the Chain Rifle

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

While the turret gun at least vaguely resembled more popular firearms like the revolver or the repeating rifle, the harmonica pistol was really something else. It's pretty much exactly what its name suggests it is - minus the ability to play music with it, that is - and it represents one of the most unusual ways to cram additional ammunition into an otherwise small firearm.

Not much is known of its history, but we do know a French inventor named J. Jarre filed patents for it between 1859 and 1862. The user simply had to push the magazine from right to left after a round was fired. There's no precise word on why the gun never caught on, but the fact that it must have been nearly impossible to holster the damn thing was probably a factor.

The craziest experimental weapons of the 19th century

Another awesome but hopelessly obscure weapon was the French Guycot chain rifle. It featured a so-called "endless chain" that could hold 80 rounds of cartridges. For sake of comparison, the first practical repeating rifle, the Henry Rifle, only had a capacity of 16 rounds, a fifth that of the chain rifle. Supposedly, once the chain rifle was fully loaded, it was possible to fire off the rounds as fast as the trigger could be pulled.

Unfortunately, much like the harmonica pistol, all we really know about the chain rifle's origins is that it was French. It was probably built around 1878, as a pair of French people secured a patent in Britain for the gun the following year. Again, we can't be totally sure why these didn't catch on. At a guess, cramming in eighty rounds worth of ammunition was probably just a bit too much for the technology of the time period, though the precise reasons are now lost to history.