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Large-Mouth Brass: Barbar Blunderbuss Review

by Garry James   |  November 1st, 2013   |   6

With its gaping maw, the blunderbuss is an absurd-looking arm that has — to English speakers, at least — an equally ridiculous name. Favorite of slapstick movie-makers and cartoonists, this unique scattergun may be one of history’s most misunderstood firearms.

First off, let’s get rid of some of the myth. Despite the illustration in your third-grade “Spirit of America” workbook, Pilgrims did not carry blunderbusses. It was simply not an arm of the wilderness, either for defense or hunting. The folks off the Mayflower had mostly matchlock muskets with probably a smattering of wheellocks and early flinters.

Second, tempting though it may be to believe, one did not use broken glass, rusty nails or old door hinges for projectiles in a blunderbuss. Such things would be ballistically questionable, and it would be physically impossible to stuff enough such detritus down the bore to be effective. Plus, there is the very real possibility of such irregularly shaped and variously constituted items plugging up the barrel upon discharge and causing it to burst.

The blunderbuss probably had its origins in Holland during the last half of the 16th century. It is more than likely that the gun’s name came from a British corruption of the Dutch word donderbusche, essentially meaning “thunder gun.”

Blunderbusses were really never intended to be anything but short-range arms. Consequently, the myth that the shot followed the contours of the inside of the barrel, spreading out at the end to provide a wide pattern and wreak havoc with all in its path, is just that, a myth. As blunderbusses were basically nothing more than attenuated shotguns, the load followed the main portion of the bore, continuing on in a tight cluster even past where the bell flared in the manner of any other shotgun. The pattern dispersion increased the farther away it was from the muzzle, just like any other shotgun. As most blunderbusses had very short barrels, this meant the spread would begin sooner than it would with a standard sporting arm, but that’s about all.

Still, it must be remembered that the main purpose of the blunderbuss was for close-in self-defense, a role that can be even more emphatically demonstrated by the large number of the guns that are found with attached flip-open bayonets. If your shot charge didn’t do the beggar in, then, while he was still dazed, you could skewer him.

Easy-Loading Innovation
So what was the purpose of the flared bell? It was simply to allow for easier loading of buckshot or bullets. Trying to drop a dozen or so .33-caliber lead pellets down a standard-diameter 12-bore barrel can be tedious and time-consuming. Dumping them all in at once, especially for military usage, was much more efficient. Too, the gun’s huge mouth did have something of a psychological effect upon the person at whom it was directed.

As blunderbusses were highly popular as coach guns — defensive arms to ward off the unwanted attentions of 18th and early 19th century highwaymen — it is not unusual, especially in English guns, to see a coach’s name stamped or engraved on the circular flat at the end of the muzzle. Of course, this practice of using a scattergun for coach protection continued well into the cartridge era. In the American West, sawed-off shotguns were commonly carried by the express messenger who sat alongside the stagecoach driver.

Though the round bell was the most usual, blunderbusses with elliptical barrels were not uncommon, especially in France. Ignition was usually via flintlock, but some snaphances and miquelets were also seen.

The blunderbuss concept had a wide following. Some of the finest examples were made in Britain and Europe, but they were also very popular in the Near East, where Turkish, Indian and Arabian variants abounded. One of the more interesting is the Turkish dag, which, though having a stubby stock that looks like that of a shoulder arm, is actually a pistol.

Speaking of pistols, even in Europe, blunderbusses were not limited to shoulder arms. Brass- and iron-barrel single- or multiple-barrel handguns, many with bayonets, were not uncommon. Some could be quite diminutive — almost derringer-size.

As mentioned above, military blunderbusses were seen occasionally, especially for sea service, where they enjoyed moderate use as deck sweepers during close-in work. Generally, they were larger and of heavier construction than their landlubber relatives. For instance, the British Pattern 1715 Blunderbuss had a 26-inch barrel and an almost two-inch-diameter barrel with a muzzle flare of some three inches. The Pattern 1715 was produced by a number of makers, including the fellow who put together the civilian version we’ll be shooting later on. But the shipboard blunderbuss fell out of favor early on and was probably made redundant, at least in Britain’s Royal Navy, by the first decade of the 19th century.

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