As Guns.com detailed in a piece about the LeMat revolver, the early and middle 1800s in America were a Renaissance when it came to the development of unconventional firearms, the impetus for which being the pursuit of easy to load, easier to fire multi-shot pistols and repeating rifles to replace the limited single shot muzzleloaders of the day.
During this period an untold number of inventor-gunsmiths made the effort to create repeating arms with firearm prototypes that, although imaginative, were in many cases impractical (and presented a fair chance of injury to the shooter). Today, many of these experimental efforts can be seen in weapons museums and one of most surreal of these has to be the Bennett & Havilland Revolving “Chain driven” rifle which can be seen on display at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum.
Safe as juggling chainsaws
Chain drive weapons like the Bennett and Havilland revolving rifle had been around in one form or another for some time before their own gun’s inception and although this style of action would eventually be sunk by Sam Colt and his Colt Single Action Army, it’s important to remember that for a time, chain guns were the future. The fatal flaw of these chain driven repeating systems though was that they were inherently unsafe.
Epenetus A. Bennett and Frederick P. Havilland were both from Waterville, Maine and both trained to some degree as gunsmiths (though the extent to which is unknown). Their device, dubbed the “underhammer” because of its under the gun cocking apparatus, used comprised of a series of rectangular blocks hinged together along a chain. These blocks were hollowed out to accept a powder and ball, the theory being the block would advance around the chain mechanism, lining up into the breech, and loading the weapon; the weapon fed incrementally left to right with a full stop in the breech position, fired and moved rearward toward the butt stock on the chain for the next shot.
The under hammer released the chain and was hand cocked with each shot until all 12 rounds were rotated into place, each fired courtesy of a side hammer for ignition and a conventional trigger.
The problem (and the problem really with all long rifles featuring revolving mechanisms) was the fore-end grip caught breech blowback from the cylinder meaning the shooter’s hand inevitably took abuse. Of more concern, if a chain fire did occur (which was not unheard of) the rifleman would end up, at the least, with a badly burnt wrist and fingers, at the worst, the loss of his or her life as the rifle could potentially fire backwards, forwards and to either side.
All of this was known to gunnies in 1838, and Bennett & Havilland attempted to address the chain fire safety issue by designing a protector plate that covered the percussion cap of the round in the chamber, making chain fire improbable. This was just about all that was in the gun’s favor and even this didn’t assuage people’s concerns about the practicality of the weapon. Shooter’s saw that the gun had way too many working parts for the era, and it appears you needed to be a juggler from Cirque du Soleil to operate the weapon.
It was in 1838, during heart of the single shot, percussion era of firearms, that Bennett & Havilland patented their chain drive rifle and even in this clerical act reveals the fervency the public possessed for innovative gun designs in this era.
When the two applied to the U.S. Patent office, they only presented a miniaturized, non scale, inexact model of their repeating rifle and in spite of the clear requirement for a ‘working model’ (though their patent drawings were to scale). Regardless of failing to fulfill this requirement, they were granted Patent # 603, though it must have been an interesting conversation with officials to get a patent on a miniature non-working version of their gun and one that would likely not occur in 2012.
The inventors proposed a .20 caliber 20” barrel gun (though actual prototypes would be chambered in .40 caliber) while the model had an 8” barrel. The ammunition blocks on the miniature were brass while they designated steel as the intention (they would end up using brass anyway). The production target was 12 firing blocks but only three on the patent application model.
Today experts believe that Bennett & Havilland made fewer than 10 full-scale chain guns and these examples are priced well beyond the reach of the average collector on today’s market.
Link in the chain
Though examples are incredibly rare and the device is better suited to be a complicated wall decoration rather than a working firearm, the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia has on display one example of the Bennett & Havilland .40-cal., 12-shot repeater. The gun was donated by E.J. and Edith Owens as part of their endowment to the NRA funded museum. The revolving rifle is featured among other examples of the gun genre in an exhibit illustrating firearm innovation, illustrating with other arms the ingenuity of many American gun makers.