George Washingtonís Revolver Rifle

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    Anachronisms are objects, words, or customs that exist outside their proper times. The Baghdad Battery, often interpreted as a voltaic cell from about the Third Century BC to the Third Century AD, would give us a good example if it were not for the more conventional view that those jars contained small copper scrolls, which have since corroded away. If they were actually electrical batteries, then they would certainly be anachronisms.

    But some anachronisms are ghosts, things that might have been but did not actually exist. Why not? What went wrong and prevented those things from coming into existence? We think of ourselves as clever creatures, beings not reluctant to take full advantage of opportunities that we find in our environment. So how do some opportunities elude us? If we can answer that question, we may be able to avoid losing opportunities in the future.

    Benjamin Franklin told us that necessity is the mother of invention, so necessity can guide us on our quest. One of the primary necessities of warfare is better weapons. In the 1770's better weapons were available, at least in concept. Frontiersmen of the time used rifled muskets, which, people knew, were more accurate than the cheaper smoothbores that everyone else used. But the effectiveness of a gun depends on both accuracy and rate of fire. In the last half of the Eighteenth Century a well-skilled soldier could launch three to four rounds per minute from his muzzle-loading, flintlock musket. It took fifteen to twenty seconds for a soldier to pour a measure of gunpowder down the barrel of his gun, shove wad and ball after it and tamp it down, then prime the gun, take aim, and fire it. We want to think that there had to be something better and there was.

    As early as the 1580's hunters in Europe were using rifles built with revolving cylinders that carried extra rounds in chambers drilled into the cylinder. All a hunter had to do was to rotate the cylinder to put a loaded chamber against the barrelís breech, prime the gun, then cock, aim, and fire it. In 1718 James Puckle produced a gun with an 11-chambered cylinder, which was also replacable.

    Suppose that around 1775, when the shooting began in the American Revolutionary War, a gunsmith had taken those ideas and developed a revolving-cylinder musket. Its value as a military weapon would have been clear from the start. Other gunsmiths would have copied the design and the Continental Army would have been acquiring those guns as fast as craftsmen could produce them.

    On this alternative timeline the well-equipped American soldier carries a revolver musket and five loaded cylinders in a leather pouch. If each cylinder carries six rounds, then he goes into battle with thirty-six rounds at his disposal. In battle the soldier would prime his gun by putting the gun on half cock, lifting the frizzen, and putting a little powder in the pan. Then he would lower the frizzen, put the gun on full cock, aim, and fire. With his right thumb he would then press a lever to disengage a locking pin from the cylinder, rotate the cylinder to align the next round with the gunís barrel, then release the lever to allow the locking pin to re-engage the cylinder and hold it in place. Then he would repeat the prime, cock, aim and fire part of the cycle.

    When he has exhausted the cylinder, fired its six rounds, he can replace it with a fresh cylinder. He pulls back a locking pin and swings the arm holding the cylinder out of the gun. He slides the cylinder off its spindle and places it in the empty-cylinder pocket in his ammunition pouch. He takes a pre-loaded cylinder from the pouch, slides it onto the spindle, then swings the arm back into the gun and pushes the locking pin into place. Heís now ready to fire another six shots.

    If he has the opportunity, changing cylinders would be a good time to clear the fouling out of his musketís barrel. The gunpowder used at the time left a residue when it burned, much of it manifested as smoke, but enough clinging to the inside of the barrel that it would eventually make the gun unusable. While the cylinder arm is swung out of the gun he can simply shove a brush down the barrel, pull it back out, and put it into the holder that in older guns held the ramrod. If he doesnít have time to defoul his piece while changing cylinders (as in the middle of a battle), he might do it while on the march. That would also be a good time to clean the fouling out of the empty cylinders in his pouch.

    It would take a few seconds to rotate the cylinder and prime the gun, but itís reasonable to expect that a soldier armed with a revolver musket could fire at three to four times the rate at which a soldier with a muzzle-loader could. Imagine the effect that phenomenon would have inflicted on the British army. In the Eighteenth Century a typical battle involved two opposing units (platoon or company sized) facing each other across an open field and firing at each other in volleys. Each company was subdivided into three or four platoons and one of those would be firing while the others were reloading their muskets. In that way the soldiers could execute a more or less continuous rate of fire.

    Imagine such a battle taking its place at the beginning of the American Revolution on our alternate timeline. The soldiers on both sides are executing their battle drill. Suddenly the British soldiers notice that the Americans are not reloading their muskets; they just keep on firing. The effect would be as if the American force had abruptly tripled or quadrupled in size.

    Of course, the British would have soon figured out what was going on and, using captured weapons, they would have equipped their own soldiers with revolver muskets. But it would be too late. By the time the British could get their rearmed troops into the war the Americans would have won too many battles.

    We know that the fundamental objective of warfare is the demoralization of the enemy. We want to drive the enemy into such a state of distress and despair that he wants nothing more than to throw down his weapon and go home. Itís not just the soldiers whom we want to demoralize. On our timeline the Revolutionary War ended because the British public withdrew its support for the enterprise: they were losing too much in lives and treasure and they saw no end to that losing. George Washington didnít have to win the war; he merely had to not lose it.

    On our timeline it took over eight years (1775 Apr 19 Ė 1783 Sep 03) for the actions of the Continental Army to push the British to the quitting line. A Continental Army equipped with revolver muskets and the tactics that they enabled would have pushed the British to that line sooner. Given that a single platoon could fight like a company, the Continental Army would have terrified the British (a platoon was 30 - 50 men who fired and reloaded their muskets at the same time. On the battlefield three or four platoons would take turns firing and reloading). Outnumbered American forces could have prevailed in battles and sent the numerically superior British forces into retreat. Washingtonís boys might have won the Battle of Long Island and other early battles as well, trapping British forces in the cities and denying them access to the countryside.

    With American innovation winning battles, the French likely would have gotten involved sooner, rendering the Royal Navy effectively useless. We would have reached the equivalent of Yorktown sooner. With the Revolution won, the Americans could have got on with the task of building a country and a nation.

    That doesnít seem like a very big change in History, but thatís merely the opening act. The idea of the revolver rifle would have spread, initially to the British and the French. Those guns certainly would have been used in the Napoleonic Wars. Any army that didnít have them or was not well-practiced with them would have fallen easy prey to French forces. Russia would have fallen and been readily absorbed into the French Empire (most Russian nobles were Francophiles to begin with: few of them spoke Russian). The Grand Armeť would not have been effectively destroyed by a winter retreat from Russia and, thus, would have been available in full strength to chase Wellingtonís boys off the field at Waterloo. The French Empire would have spanned Europe and North Asia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and would have included all of North Africa as well. That fact would have had major consequences for the development of History.

    There would have been no Germany. The principalities that united in 1870 to form the modern German state would have been French provinces. The same would have been true of Italy. Thus, there would have been no World War I and the lunatic Bavarian corporal who instigated that warís sequel would have spent his life painting postcards.

    From such a simple change in weaponry in the 1770's would have emerged a world completely different from ours. Imagine a world in which the Spanish flu of 1918 had less impact than it had on our war-weakened world. Imagine a world in which Heinrich Himmler had been setting up chicken coops instead of death camps. A world in which Karl Schwarzschild, who first solved Einsteinís equation of General Relativity, had lived past 1916. A world that did not demoralize an entire generation of artists. What might we have had?

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