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.
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.
I must admit, blunderbusses have held a fascination for me ever since I was a kid. Early on, I swallowed most of the nonsense about them, but after reading a few books on the subject I learned the error of my ways and gained new respect for the concept.
Awhile back I chanced across a very nice-condition (c. 1790) brass-barrel flintlock blunderbuss made by Barbar of London, one of the most highly respected gunmaking firms in England at the time. It was founded in 1717 by Louis Barbar, a Huguenot who emigrated from France. Upon Louis’ death in 1741, his son, James, took over his position as Gentleman Armourer to King George II. James died in 1773, and the business was carried on for a number of years by other family members. No matter the period or type of firearm, quality was always the watchword of the Barbar clan.
Our blunderbuss is no exception. Plain, though of undoubted workmanship, the gun has a 14-inch, 12-bore brass barrel, expanding to a bell opening of 13/8 inches. Overall length is 29 inches. Although the brass furniture is devoid of embellishment, the high-grade lock features a graceful, swan-necked cock; semi-waterproof pan; and slide-on safety. This latter device could be pushed forward into a notch on the cock to further block it from falling after it had been put on half-cock. This allowed the piece to be carried loaded with relative certainty that it would not go off accidentally. Weight of the piece is a well-distributed 5¾ pounds.
I thought it might be informative to compare the Barbar with a modern ancestor, in the guise of a 12-gauge Mossberg Model 500 Trench Gun with a Cylinder bore, 20-inch barrel and a weight of 7¼ pounds. The M500 is one of the world’s great pump shotguns, though for our shootout, one round per was all that was necessary.
We loaded the Barbar with a charge of 50 grains of Goex FFFg black powder, topped with a 12-gauge fiber wad. As our Mossberg ammo consisted of Winchester Supreme loaded with nine pellets of 00 buckshot, I figured, to be fair, we should keep the flinter’s 00 pellets to nine as well. These were duly dumped into the bore and topped by a large, greased patch to keep them securely in position.
The chosen range was 10 yards, as I figured that would be about the distance from the top of an English 18th century coach box to the chest of a mounted highwayman at about the time he had stopped the conveyance and ordered the occupants to “stand and deliver.”
The Barbar functioned flawlessly, with recoil on the very light side. As an aside, it is nigh-on impossible to aim with that flared muzzle in the way, though we were close enough to our IPSC target to judge the center of the target by the “head” that appeared just above the top of the bell.
After about a half-dozen shots, I got a pretty good feel for the thing. In every case all nine pellets hit the target, running from the neck area to just about six inches from the base of the board. Spreads averaged about 16 inches. I’m not sure whether this would have stopped Captain Macheath in his tracks, but still, he might have thought it wise to curtail his activities and spur his horse back to London, where perhaps Polly Peachum could tend to his puncture wounds and wounded pride.
Later on, I tried a couple of shots at about four yards, and the spreads were much tighter — about 71/2 inches. Receiving this in the sternum could have been devastating.
On the other hand, at 10 yards the Mossberg, with its fancy smokeless loads and longer barrel, gave us predictable, regular spreads of six inches. The backstop indicated that the pellets were also hitting with much more force than those fired from the Barbar. Target acquisition was also easier.
Now, I know this isn’t a fair comparison — sort of like pitting a World War I Handley-Page Type O bomber against a B1 — but it still gives some indication as to how things have progressed over the years and shows that, despite a development gap of about 200 years, the oldster, under the right circumstances, can still hold its own. “Thunder Gun,” indeed.