Curtis 1866: The First Bullpup – with Jonathan Ferguson

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Sorry for the poor audio quality – today I am back at the Cody Firearms Museum talking to Jonathan Ferguson, Keeper of Firearms & Artillery at the Royal Armouries in the UK. Jonathan has written a new book on the history of British bullpup firearms, which Headstamp is very proud to be publishing!

We are discussing the Curtis bullpup – a rifle designed and patented by William Joseph Curtis of the UK in 1866, but not put into production. It is a quite interesting design, with a slide action mechanism and drum magazine. The gun is designed to sit atop the shooter’s shoulder, with a trigger right out at the muzzle and the drum and firing mechanism actually behind the user’s back. Lawyers from the Winchester company discovered Curtis’ patent in the 1890s while looking for slide action mechanisms as part of their defense of the Winchester 1893 again patent infringement claims by Francis Bannerman. This example of Curtis’ gun was actually built in the Winchester tool shop as an example for the lawsuit, giving it a quite remarkable history intersecting several different areas of arms development.

Video on the Curtis from The Armourer’s Bench:


  1. Dumb questions: Just how is the user supposed to rapidly reload when under enemy fire (if someone sold this rifle to the army)? Or, if this is intended for the hunting market, does it offer any realistic advantage over a conventional layout for a given scenario (like a mountain lion in your face)?

      • Generally, you kneel with it in trail position and hope there are no good shots on the other side.

        One reason Pickett’s advance failed so badly at Gettysburg was that it’s pretty much impossible to reload a muzzle-loader while running. By comparison, doing it standing still behind an abatis in a ditch is about as easy as reloading such a weapon gets.

        The Confederates in the advance had the devil’s choice of walking slowly with the rifle reverse-shouldered, gripped near the muzzle, and reloading while in motion, or stopping to reload while standing or kneeling. Either one trapped them in the Union rifle line and artillery’s kill zone.

        Even single-shot breechloaders like the Sharps or Starr (or best of all the metallic-cartridge Joslyn or Sharps & Hankins) would have made a major difference on the Confederate side.

        If they’d been on the Union side, the destruction of Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s divisions would have been even more complete.



    • Same way you reload a Pancor Jackhammer under enemy fire. You use whatever mechanism has been installed after the firearm has eventually been developed beyond proof-of-concept pre-prototype.

      • Pancor J. needs a complete redesign for removable drum and mag. Revolver types also like Striker are obsolete

  2. Curtis must have consulted with Dr Suess for the concentric drum magazine with BOTH a trigger string and operating rod running through it.

  3. Regarding an automatic revolver in the 1830s, there’s one mentioned in the “steampunk” SF novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Supposedly a product of the Ballester & Molina works, it’s gas-operated via a hollow cylinder base pin.

    I was reminded of Owen Jones’ original patent for what became the Enfield Mk 1 .476 revolver;

    The tube under the barrel was a tool carrier (!) with a threaded cap, containing screwdriver, bore brush, and etc.

    It could have been made an “automatic” revolver if there were a gas port in the barrel near the lower tubes front. Inside the tube would be a springloaded rod which could be pushed back through a hollow cylinder base pin to knock the hammer back to full cock when gas from the port hit the front end of the rod.

    Naturally, without some sort of disconnector, it would empty the cylinder in about two-fifths of a second. So the knurled cap would probably best be retained to act as a gas cutoff. A hole in one side acts as the gas tube directing the gas to the head of the “operating” rod; turn it 180 degrees and it cuts off the gas, allowing the weapon to be used “normally”.

    That way the shooter wouldn’t have to put up with automatic action unless he wanted to. As Jeff Cooper once said of the Star Model M selective-fire 1911 clone, he could always leave it on “single-shot” until he wanted to attract a lot of attention.

    As for the Curtis, its action almost qualifies it as a straight-pull (or rather “push”) bolt-action. Its apparent lack of a locking mechanism could qualify it as a proto-blowback self-loader, as well. Yes, recoil operation was being experimented with at that time; look up “Regulus Pilon”.



  4. Perhaps that stock was designed for the reclined/supine shooting stance favoured by some long-range hunters and target shooters circa 1900.

    We have often wondered why nobody considered a similar configuration long-long-long recoil anti-tank rifle during World War 2. With the barrel above the shoulder, it could recoil a metre/yard or more, reducing the recoil impulse on the shooter’s shoulder. Recoil injured a few Boys ATR shooters. Perhaps even toss the spent brass cartridge out the back end to further counter recoil.

  5. Dear Dawson,
    Thanks for pointing out the Russel Robinson .50 machine gun. Robinson’s major invention was an early form of constant recoil. His firing mechanism started with the barrel held near the rear limit of travel. When the trigger was pressed, the barrel started sliding forward, chambering a cartridge, etc. Upon firing, the barrel was still sliding forward and absorbed much of the recoil. A few artillery pieces use similar mechanisms to reduce recoil. Robinson’s other innovation was springs stronger enough to prevent the operating mechanism from slamming against the rear stops.

    Since one of Robinson’s prototype is held in the British National collection, we should encourage Gun Jesus to video review it. Please! Please!

  6. Item number 1746 in the Royal Armouries Collection is a Russell Robinson .50 caliber machinegun prototype.

  7. Fascinating to find from The Armourer’s Bench video that the original Curtis patent document clearly mentions the possibly of a gas-operated mechanism: “The breech may be opened automatically by the powder gases, which pass by an opening in the barrel to a cylinder which works a breech-operating plunger.” Gas operated, piston driven. That is in 1866 folks.

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