Volcanic Firearms: Predecessor to the Winchester Rifle
By Edmund E. Lewis and Stephen W. Rutter
(January 2012 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photos, notes, bibliography, index, 160 pp., 2011, Mowbray, www.gunandswordcollector.com, $49.99.
Volcanic pistols and carbines are primarily known as the predecessors of the Henry rifle of Civil War fame and the Winchesters that followed, and seldom considered significant firearms in their own right. In Volcanic Firearms, Edmund Lewis and Stephen Rutter pay homage to what comes later but expend most of their time and effort in detailing the Volcanic story, and an interesting tale it is.
The Volcanic system has its origins in the invention of one Walter Hunt, a quintessential early 19th-century American jack-of-all-trades mechanic and inventor.
Hunt developed milling and rope-making machines, a stagecoach gong, an ice boat and a host of other inventions. He is probably best known, at least among the arms-collecting fraternity, for his 1849 “Volition Repeater” rifle and its semi-fixed “rocket ball” ammunition, which features a powder charge as an integral part of the projectile.
Although Hunt’s gun made no significant mark on the firearms market — there is actually no evidence any were actually sold — its design influenced the 1850s Jennings repeating rifle, which was produced in limited numbers by Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vt.
The Jennings, in its turn, provided an entrée to the repeating weapons field for iconic firearms figures Horace Smith, Daniel Baird Wesson and Benjamin Tyler Henry. Smith and Wesson subsequently developed a steel-framed, lever-action pistol that fired an improved rocket ball, upgraded to include priming compound as well as projectile and powder.
Henry, the former shop foreman at Robbins and Lawrence, had input into Smith and Wesson’s design. The simple toggle system that easily advanced projectiles into the action of a series of guns called Volcanic Repeating Arms is often attributed to him.
In 1855 Smith and Wesson’s firm morphed into the Volcanic Arms Company, making brass-framed, lever-action pistols and carbines chambered for the rocket ball. In 1857, Volcanic Arms was absorbed by Oliver Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company. It continued to sell the line and expanded it to include a carbine that became the direct ancestor of the Henry rifle, developed by Benjamin Tyler Henry, who went to work for Winchester.
Lewis and Rutter provide considerable technical detail on the history of the Volcanic and its predecessors, so even the advanced collector will benefit from their research. Volcanic Firearms includes 340 color photographs, many of them of guns owned by famous people from Oliver Winchester to King Farouk I of Egypt.
The illustrations, whether detailed patent drawings, renderings of the evolution of the rocket ball or splendid photographs of the arms discussed, are well worth the price for even the casual student of 19th-century small arms.
The only disappointment for me, and it was certainly not the fault of the authors, was the minimal available information on the use of the Volcanic in military or civilian service. Several original images in the book show Union soldiers with Volcanic pistols casually stuck in their belts. These guns may be photographers’ props rather than weapons carried to the front.
One engraved Volcanic handgun featured was presented to Lt. Thomas Gardner in 1857. Gardner served as a captain in the 90th Ohio during the Civil War, but there is no evidence he carried this gun during the conflict.
There is also a photo of a Volcanic pistol presented to Theodore H. Rockwood, who was killed in action while serving as major of the 19th USCT at the Battle of the Crater. Again there is no evidence, and it is unlikely, that he was carrying the gun at the time.
New York policemen were apparently armed with at least some Volcanic carbines during riots that resulted from a yellow fever epidemic in 1858, and Gen. Benjamin Butler, well-known for his interest in innovative firearms, reportedly armed a few men with Volcanic carbines for his May 1862 expedition to New Orleans. (These may have actually been early Henrys.)
By the summer of 1862, however, the far superior Henry rifle, firing a self-contained, metallic, rim-fire cartridge rather than an anemic rocket ball, was in production, and the Volcanic passed from the scene.
The history of the Volcanic gun is indeed a brief one. Although ammunition technology advances quickly made it obsolete, its basic mechanical system has endured in lever-action rifles produced to this day. So the Volcanic deserves its due, and in this work it gets it. Volcanic Firearms will stand as the definitive word on the subject for the foreseeable future.
Reviewer: Joseph Bilby
Joseph Bilby is a member of the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and an award-winning author and editor of books on the Civil War, firearms and New Jersey history, most recently New Jersey's Civil War Odyssey.