Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon: The Machine Gun Approaches

Published: 24 April 2024

By Kurt Allemeier
via the Rock Island Auction Company website


37mm five-barrel Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon

Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss was born in 1826 to a family of inventors in Connecticut, the hotbed of gun creation in the 19th century. The family had a business that manufactured many of their inventions, including an early variation of a monkey wrench.

Early in his career Hotchkiss worked as a gun maker for Colt and Winchester. He patented a cannon shell for rifled cannons. More of his shells were used for rifled cannons during the American Civil War than from any other munitions maker.

The main heavy machine gun used by the French Army in World War I bore his name, but before the machine gun was the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon. A 37mm “1-pounder” Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon with five barrels will be available in Rock Island Auction Company’s May 17-19 Premier Auction.

Machine Guns Predecessors

A rapid-fire gun was long a dream of military leaders.

The Puckle gun, designed and patented in 1718 by London attorney James Puckle, is considered one of the earliest predecessors of the machine gun. Designed for naval defense against smaller, faster ships, the Puckle gun was a single barrel flintlock with a revolving cylinder that could fire off a whopping nine shots per minute before swapping out the cylinder for a freshly loaded one. In military tests it was found to be unreliable.

Other guns, like the Chambers Flintlock, came and went until the Gatling gun of 1862 arrived, firing from 200 rounds per minute to as many as 1,200 rounds per minute as improvements were made.

U.S. Army Colt Model 1874 Gatling gun

Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon

After the Civil War, the U.S. Government wasn’t interested in new munitions, so Hotchkiss went to Europe where it seemed in a perpetual state of war. He established a factory in France on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 where he made metallic cartridges for small arms. It was here that the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon was born.

Hotchkiss saw shortcomings in the Reffye Mitrailleuse, the French volley gun that fired ammunition from a 25-cartridge magazine in separate barrels within a cannon sleeve. He saw the French weapon had a fragile firing mechanism and a narrow cone of fire.

Since it also has a crank handle, the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon is often compared to the Gatling gun but has a number of differences. The most starkly obvious difference was the size of the rounds. The Gatling gun fired small firearm rounds but the Hotchkiss fired a 37 mm round. The St. Petersburg agreement of 1868 forbid exploding ammunition that weighed less than 14 oz., but the Hotchkiss projectile weighed 16 oz.

The Gatling gun had a bolt for each barrel, but the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon had an immovable breech block with a bolt. One rotation of the crank handle was a firing cycle for the revolving cannon that stops the barrel in place for firing accuracy. The Gatling, shooting small arms caliber rounds, was the rapid-fire gun of choice for the U.S. Army. It was adopted by the Army in 1866 and served on the slopes of San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War. The Gatling gun was used in multiple African conflicts.

Read the entire article on the RIA website.
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