Predicting the Future

Journal #27 of the Royal United Service InstitutionWhile doing some research on the experimental Spencer-Lee rifle design, I came across an article on shoulder rifle technology written by Col. George Fosbery in 1884 for the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution. Fosbery, of course, is an arms designer of some note (being responsible for the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver as well as the Paradox gun and more) as well as a decorated (with nothing short of the Victoria Cross) fighting soldier. This would suggest that he would be a pretty astute judge of small arms developments. However, even the best and brightest can’t always predict the future. Take, for example, Fosbery’s commentary on box magazines and electrically-primer cartridges…

You cannot expect that any Government will consent to pack its rifle cartridges by fives in steel boxes of inconvenient shape which, in the addition contain moveable plates, and steel springs, studs, and catches, and would neither stand sea air nor Indian magazines for a year, and remain serviceable, to say nothing of their first cost. Nor, I think, should we call on our soldiers or sailors to carry less cartridges and more useless metal than necessary, besides which we should not give them in addition to other things a lot of little boxes, which, in heat of action, they must carefully put back in their pockets when empty.

Fosbery’s objections here are largely reasonable – magazines take more space than loose cartridges, they are expensive, fragile, and require specialized storage on a soldier’s person. What Fosbery did not envision were the solutions and workarounds to these problems – making magazines either more study or disposable, making them with cheap stamping technology, and issuing ammunition in clips with which soldiers would fill their own magazines (among other solutions).

A few pages later, he brings up a novel and promising new technology…

Before concluding, I will, if you permit me, show you what is as yet but an infant but still a well-grown and capable infant, and one that may well develop into a powerful and formidable man; and this is the electric gun of M. Pieper of Liege. The details by which the current is produced or conveyed to the cartridge may be modified, and the source of the electricity carried in the gun itself instead of on the person of the firer. But the cartridge is would, I think, be impossible to simplify or improve; and, once we admit such a thing as possible, see the advantages which we obtain.

First, we do away with special appliances for delivering a central blow on the cartridge, and have all the space which they now occupy for our magazine or other means of loading. Then, having no fulminate in the cartridges, we can carry and arrange them how we please; and, igniting the powder in front, we are enabled to get higher velocities with lower charges – a great decideratum. In machine-guns such as the new Gatling of Mr. George Accles, which fires 104 rounds in 2.4 seconds, and now necessitates the compression and release of 14lb springs so many times in that period, imagine the saving of labour which would result form the adoption of a system which required only the making and breaking of electrical contacts instead, and the saving of wear and tear which would result. But, as I said before, the thing is still in its infancy, and for these and other purposes is yet awaiting development. M. Pieper is already manufacturing these arms in the form which you see, and so far they are perfectly satisfactory – one great advantage being their immunity from danger of accidental explosion when out of the shooter’s hands.

Many people have opined on the promise of electrically-primed cartridges, and the advantages Fosbery lists are again all legitimate. The firing mechanisms for electric cartridges are mechanically much simpler, and would free up space and weight in a firearm. They would be an ideal solution to the problem of pointed bullets in tubular magazines, which was relatively common in this period. Such cartridges have seen limited use (E-tronx, Voere, some 20mm Vulcan guns, among others), but never become accepted in the mainstream.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Fosbery was anything but brilliant. In fact, I hope to make the opposite point – even the most brilliant cannot be counted upon to accurately predict what trends will or will not become common and popular. When we see new innovations today like TrackingPoint computerized optics or 3D-printed components, we should carefully judge the arguments for and against their practicality, and always remember that sometimes great ideas die on the vine and sometimes objectionable ones are adopted over those objections.

Anyone interested can download the complete Journal through Google Books: Journal #27 of the Royal United Service Institution


  1. He he, hindsight… Hmmm, have you ever seen the film Zulu Dawn. The “military” seemed to be very concerned about equipment “costs” all those screwed down ammunition boxes which blew up in the end, at the cost of all the Soldiers being killed by Impis who did do a good job to be fair.

    • “We should not give them in addition to other things a lot of little boxes, which, in heat of action, they must carefully put back in their pockets when empty”

      Suppose you have to consider at the time, losing “expensive” magazines would have been a court martial offence or something, and therefore caused disquiet amongst the ranks particularly as the punishments could be somewhat harsh.

  2. “They would be an ideal solution to the problem of pointed bullets in tubular magazines, which was relatively common in this period” In away that’s the metal storm system… I had the notion of a similar system, but sort of V3 cannon i.e. You put the propellant around the projectile in a barrel sleeve, more to do with storage than increasing muzzle velocity etc. Thought more, rocket artillery “spit” the Nebelwerfer rockets out like, anyway I digress.

    • I have heard of that cocking mechanism, and it’s use in clearing stoppages makes sense in a plane he he.

      A revolver cannon “which I have heard of, including a Russian one which loaded from the front of the cylinder using a sort of rebated rim Nagant revolver round’ish” does it fire from the cylinder or is the cylinder a feed chamber to a breech in the barrel out of interest?

      • These computer generated video actions are good aren’t they,

        that is what I meant by a feed system I think, or do the fire like a revolver handgun.

        I saw a Colt Bulldog replica Gatling gun $50,000 which was nice but expensive, thought about the Hotchkiss revolving cannon but in 45/70 using a feed mechanism similar to the above for the U.S market with the thought it might be cheaper… Ahem cough, it also had a counter rotating cylinder in relation to the barrel cluster. The cycle was if I remember “did draw it” it was confusing, but it fired three chambers through three aligned barrels in a staggered sequence, then the chambers slipped a gear in order to align with the next cycle of the barrels which otherwise wouldn’t have aligned upon the next cycle of the chamber.

        • The barrels went clockwise the “revolver” cylinder anti clockwise, and in the load, fire, empty, cycle of each chamber which happened three times with six chambers in relation to the thee barrels, one barrel was shot through three times but via different chambers I think, then the gears would slip for the next barrel to align.

          Half way through I thought what’s the point, why don’t just have a crank handle on the Maxim mechanism which you could wind like, then I thought cooling.

      • @Pdb:
        “which I have heard of, including a Russian one which loaded from the front of the cylinder using a sort of rebated rim Nagant revolver round’ish”
        You’re probably thinking about Rikhter R-23, it is front-loading firearm using 23×260 ammo, but it is rimless and groove-less (see photo in link), empty cases are extracted by the powder pressure from next round. What is interesting R-23 has also barrel with polygonal rifling (like Whitworth rifle) and uses electric primer. The Rikhter R-23 guns were mounted to Tu-22 bombers.
        More about 23×260:

    • Anyone know if there’s software, you can use on a normal PC to make similar “moving picture” I’ve used paint, and movie maker but it takes all year and doesn’t seem as seamless…

      By the time you’ve drawn it in a few positions, one has the notion for a new Cartoon.

      Tee hee! Effort…

  3. The rationale behind Remington’s entry into electric primers was to do away with the sear and thereby have the ultimate trigger for accurate shooting. It was a victim of poor timing, of coming out when Clinton was in office–the Internet buzz was that it was an effort for the government to be able to disable rifles by remote-control, that the circuit board in the stock would fizzle out eventually. The first concern was Internet silliness, the second one was real–at least to someone like me who still shoots a 97 year old rifle. The handful of people who actually tried them liked them.

    Regarding detachable magazines, it probably was not foreseen that cartridges would get smaller. That and the advent of stampings as Ian pointed out. Early box magazines for large cartridges (think of the after-market 15 round mags for police Remintion model 8’s) would have been impractical if a soldier had to carry 100 rounds worth.

    Regarding box magazines, there is a story about some sailors who had to requalify on the M1 (back when the Navy still issued it after the Marines went to the M14), they docked at Gitmo and went the range. Some new Marines were there and one of them said “look at that Gunny, he just took the clip out of his belt and stuck it right in the rifle! Why don’t we have guns like that?”

  4. Electrically primed cartridges were used in German WW2 aircraft guns which had to shoot through the propeller, since synchronization was much easier and more accurate than with a mechanical linkage. Mechanical synchronization also reduced rate of fire up to 30% from nominal, but electrical hardly any. For example the German MG 131 and MG 151 used electrical priming in aircrafts, although the MG151 was also available with percussion priming for land use. Most post-WW2 aircraft and naval guns use electrical priming as well. Many modern autocannons and their ammunition are available with both priming options depending on the intended use: air and naval mostly electric, but land vehicles can use either one.

    Since always available electricity is becoming increasingly a required item even for land vehicles, and many have redundant power systems, one could expect that electrical priming will become more common even on land applications. It’s actually more reliable than percussion priming, provided you have the required current available.

    • I was looking at pictures of our Prince William today in New “Hobbit” land, he was sitting in a WW1 Sopwith Pup plane. After declining to get into the replica Red Barons Fokker tri-plane, for the fear of tabloid newspapers headlines such as Schweinhund! Over his picture, being slightly more German presumably than most people. Anyway, I thought synchronization… In WW2 the engines were “faster” perhaps they couldn’t do it anymore, because the guns were slower once in relation to the new faster engines. Lost my train of thought, suppose I am saying hence wing mounted weapons with the propellers still being forward.

      Ze German API cannon, possibly one you mentioned Euro/W was electrically primed… What is the primer, a piezoelectric device or?

      • I confess I don’t know exactly how the electrical primers work… The guns I mentioned were not API but conventional short recoil-operated. The API blowback cannon you are thinking about was the 20mm MG FF, which derived from the Oerlikon FF. API blowback autocannons usually had a fairly slow rate of fire, so the MG FF was later partially replaced by the faster-firing 20mm MG 151/20 (the original MG 151 had, as the name suggests, 15mm caliber).

    • Some of the machines guns which are designed to be vehicle mounted are electrically driven. The bolt reciprocates back and forth as normal, but it’s driven by an electric motor via a chain, gear or cam drive instead of by recoil or gas. If you have electric drive anyway, then there’s obviously no problem getting power for electric priming.

      The main problem with electric primers for infantry small arms is that they won’t work with the weapons you already have. Even if electric primers are indeed better than percussion primers, they’re not enough better to make it worth while either switching everything all at once or putting up with two separate types of ammunition in your supply chain.

      • With Metal storm the problem for small arms in my opinion was reloading, vertically stacked tubes are long and somewhat unwieldy… Probably ways round that though, er… Three rounds in a tube, which fit into a Barret sized mag etc.

  5. General technological history is a hobby of mine and there does seem to be a big breakdown between blue-sky visionaries and the grumpy “that won’t work” types.

    The general pattern seems to be that blue-skies tend to be those who, “know enough to be dangerous” who can see potential without an awareness of the tradeoffs. Conversely, the grumpy “that won’t work” tend to be elite experts with a key understanding of all the minutia of tradeoffs because they work with them everyday. The blue-skies blithely assert that some tradeoff will be overcome without being aware that the grumpy expert as spent years defeating the last generations tradeoffs.

    Also, blue-skies tend to think in terms of 5-10 years or longer, while experts usually concentrate on the near term. If you ask a blue-ski if something will eventually work he thinks, “in 20 years no problem.” If you ask and expert, he thinks, “in a couple of years, no problem.”

    Unfortunately, history seems to venerate the “visionary” who first made public an idea, no matter how sketched out, and forget the individuals who put years and sometimes decades into creating real workable technologies. In the end a great idea without execution is useless. The basic linkage of the bicycle chain was sketched out by a French monk in the late 1400s and later by Leonardo Di Vinci but it took nearly 500 years to actually execute the idea. Breach loading firearms and rifling are as old as firearms themselves and each century produced a spate of them but again it took 500 years to execute versions that would work in the real world.

  6. On the other hand, in a later edition of “The Gun and its Development” WW Greener wrote -in the 1880’s (don’t have the book in front of me so I can’t quote)that:
    within one hundred years one could expect to see soldiers equipped with magazine rifles of large capacity, firing fully automatically and of 6mm or even smaller calibre.
    Almost a prediction of the AR-15/M-16

  7. I must admit that I didn’t know that the benefits of forward ignition were so well known in 1884.

    He does seem to be predicting some of the strange cartridge configurations that I have only seen pictures of, and don’t know a whole lot about.

    • Hmmm… A needle gun, had a form of forward ignition didn’t it. It wasn’t electronic but, he says “First, we do away with special appliances for delivering a central blow on the cartridge, and have all the space which they now occupy for our magazine or other means of loading. Then, having no fulminate in the cartridges, we can carry and arrange them how we please; and, igniting the powder in front, we are enabled to get higher velocities with lower charges” I saw some Hornady Speed sabots for muzzle loaders on the Cabelas website which I thought a modified version “with a hollow central tube, ending with a primer above venting holes in said tube” might be ok as a modern needle type fire idea. Which in relation to the electronically operated system, could be utilized perhaps. Looking at some WW2 electronic primers they appear to be “contacted” from the base however and function as some sort of spark plug.

  8. I hadn’t realised that people were proposing issuing using soldiers with multiple box magazines for rifles in 1884. I don’t think it would have been practical at the time given the manufacturing technology available, but I find it interesting that people were thinking about doing it. When it finally did happen many decades later, it became universal very rapidly.

    I have an unrelated thought about a new sort of topic that Ian may wish to investigate. Instead of just looking at individual small arms one at a time, perhaps he could pick out something like magazines or other components from several different representative weapons of different ages or origins and do a compare and contrast to show how designs evolved over time. I think it would give people a new perspective on things.

  9. Very interesting article, it just goes to show that innovations seem very simple with the benefit of hindsight. To be fair to Fosbery I think that his assessment of the validity of magazines is the right one for the time it was written. Like you said it’s not so much a case of him reaching the wrong conclusion instead advances in technology eventually answered his complaints about magazines to a satisfactory enough degree that militaries saw fit to adopt them.

    I think Fosbery’s career really shows the breakneck speed at which firearm technology was evolving during this period, over the course of his career he would have seen the introduction of four different service rifles all chambering different ammunition and each one a marked improvement over its predecessor. It’s funny to think that a man who created an automatic pistol and wrote a paper theorising on the advantages of electrically primed ammunition was awarded a Victoria Cross at a time when the British army was using Enfield Rifle-Muskets. Won it on the Afghan border while fighting the local tribes though,I guess some things don’t change all that much.

  10. Whilst small arms and cannon artillery have remained dominated by mechanically fired weapons, rockets and missles use electrical systems. Fosberry and others have perhaps been blinded by the potential advantages of electrically primed cartrideges whilst ignoring the millions of hours of investment that have gone into perfecting brass cartridges, primers, and the engineering of firing mechanisms.

    To draw a parallel with another industry look how long it has taken the world’s auto makers to develop, introduce, and gain acceptance for electric throttles and power steering toa point where they are as good as traditional mechanical systems produced at the same price.

  11. Kind of topical, in relation to “future weapons” look at this:

    A double barreled 152mm Howitzer.

    I’ve been looking into the Gast gun and given the Russians used it’s principle I wondered if perhaps this wasn’t a “large” version, which it sounds as if it is in away but not. Not sure, but I thought the An94 is a sort of single barreled Gast gun for one shot firing two. So then I thought is this two An94’s “enlarged” combined into a sort of Gast gun i.e. Instead of two cartridges there’s a shell then it’s case, one barrel is loaded then upon firing this moves the other rearward to load the shell then the case then fire, something like that.

    I did draw a circle and put one quarter of it as separate section “sticking out” with two lugs holding swivel joints attached to bolts which in relation to the barrels would result in the forward barrel being engaged by the bolt when the other has fired if you follow me. Anyway the point is, what’s the point… I was thinking, uses more ammo etc heavier “as a ground weapon” were I came across this: Nikonov machine gun, which was in my understanding a sort of blow forward Gast gun. I then thought about the Minewerfer, given the machine gun version hadn’t been adopted what other uses are there between 152mm and 5.45mm I thought automatic breech loading mortar, two helical drum mags feeding a Nikonov based system.

    Thought I’d share for the purposes of pondering, if you look at forgotten weapons as weapons it’s good to try and use them to think of new ones.

      • Out of interest, U.S laws permit you to own Gatling guns “new, or old ones” were as you can only own automatic weapons which were made prior to 86 as is my understanding.

        So you could own a replica Gardener gun in theory, which is hand crank operated like a Gatling.

        Now, if the Gardener was a sort of Gast gun i.e. you started it off via a hand crank but then it fired itself would that be generally legal?

        Or would you need to “cheat” like the Slide fire stock, and have a weapon not designed for automatic fire… In the sense a Gast version of the Gardener would be, therefore you could use two Winchester rifles which would fit into a gardener type “mount” even if then they operated like a Gast gun, in essence without the lever actions it wouldn’t be a gun.

        Just trying to help you shoot fruit.

        Bulldog replica Gatling gun $50k, Older machine guns – not exactly cheap.

        Lever action rifle platform, $1000’ish “with your own lever actions”

        • Melons are a menace blighting the lives of U.S citizens nationwide, I read a blog somewhere by a chap dressed as General Patton holding two .45’s, surely there’s a solution for the common man involving “automatic” fire.

          • I know you suffer from flying Squirrel attacks, Lenny mentioned it on the Simpsons hence the need for AR’s.

            Modern super animals, such as the electric eel.

        • The reason why anyone can own a Gatling gun is that it is not a automatic, or machine gun. You must load every single round by hand and pull the “Trigger” for every shot, even if it is done through a crank mechanism that can be done very rapidly.
          As to defending yourself from melons and other vicious fruit, Small caliber thin jacket varmint bullets fired at very high velocity are far and away the most effective and visually satisfying.

          • But a Gatling gun doesn’t have a trigger Stewart I thought about the trigger, until I thought “it hasn’t got a trigger” and it was my understanding you can’t modify the action to facilitate automatic fire but you can cheat such as the Slide fire stock in which your finger is hit by the trigger… Don’t know anyway, I quite like the Lever action Gast lark though.

          • The crank is the trigger on a Gatling. A partial revolution is considered a single pull, and since it requires continuous motion to continue firing, it is not a machine gun.

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