Volcanic Repeating Pistol (Video)

The Volcanic was not the first repeating pistol, but it was an early one of the first in a line of firearms that would develop into the iconic lever action rifles of the American West. Patented in 1854, the Volcanic used a toggle-action lock operated by a finger lever – simply a smaller version of the hand lever used in the later rifles. The Volcanic had a tube magazine beneath its barrel to hold 7 rounds, and fired a conical bullet in which the powder and primer were both contained within the hollow base of the bullet.

The Volcanic never really caught on very well primarily because of its ammunition.  The limited powder capacity of the design meant that the cartridge was fairly weak (in the .41 caliber, it pushed a 106gr bullet at about 500-600 fps), and it was not particularly reliable either. The Volcanic Arms Company went bankrupt in 1857, and was bought up by Winchester. Winchester would continue to produce Volcanic pistols for several more years, and in 1860 put into the market the Henry rifle, which used the basic Volcanic mechanism but with the much more potent (although still relatively weak) .44 rimfire cartridge.

For everything you could want to know about the Volcanic rifles and pistols, check out Lewis & Rutter’s Volcanic Firearms!


  1. I’ve always wondered how you were supposed to continuoulsy fire one of these, as the grip angle and size doesn’t look like it’d work to fire and operate the lever action one handed, but I can’t see it being much better fired with both hands either, especially as use on horseback would surely have been considered back then.

    • I’ve wondered this too. Fancy spincocking might work well in videogames where the volcanic pistol has made the rounds lately (always as some kind of high-capacity wonder weapon called the “Volcano” pistol) but in real life it doesn’t seem to have been a very good choice for anything. Granted, the largest ones had a decently large magazine capacity and I assume it offered vastly faster reloading compared to a cap and ball revolver, but in either case I think you’d be better off with a second revolver!

  2. I saw an 1850s ad once where Volcanic (apparently in desperation) implied that their carbines would work on buffalo. LOL. Truth in advertising laws didn’t exist back then.

  3. Note that pistols developed from rifle were (and are) more popular than the rifles developed from pistols. I’m thinking about both: pistol based on rifles but produced from scratch as a pistols (for example: Remington XP-100) and sawn-off rifles (for example Mosin Obrez).

    The tubular magazine in handgun was never broadly adopted because the quantity of cartridges is limited by the length of barrel, but these magazines were popular in lever (and pump) action design in the longguns (both rifles and shotguns) in the end of 19 century, hence some inventors try to adopt tubular magazine to pistol design (see for example Andrew Burgess’ patent US 591525 A). Tubular magazine faded out when the cartridges with Spitzer were developed, but they are still used in shotguns, some .22 rimfire rifles and old lever-action which are still produced.

  4. The French military had an interesting take on centrefire cases with spitzer bullets in tubular mags:

    The ridiculous taper of the french rimmed case, almost ensured that loaded rounds would lie staggered in any mag they were put into, whether tube or box (witness the almost circular curved box mag on a French Chauchat).

    Including a pronounced back chamfer on the case head, pretty much ensured that rounds loaded into a tube mag ended up with their bullet’s noses held at the circumference of the case in front.

  5. Via the later Winchester line of toggle locked lever actions, the volcanics are the ancestors of the Maxim type machineguns and their intellectual progeny, the Borchardt and Luger pistols.

    I’ve read that the toggle action came from Italy, its inventor’s name having been lost, though I’ve never found more than unreferenced allusions to that claim.

    • The italian pistol you refer to is the Vendetti or Venditti , probably the last.
      I have seen 2 specimens , one in a museum , one in a friend’s collection .
      Some authors consider it a predecessor , others are not so sure .

      • The Venditti/Vendetti pistols are copies, or improved versions of the Volcanic pistols. It stated that much on the data plate at the museum back in the ’70s when I was first there.
        As a seperate issue, one of the reasons why they failed to sell well, is their well known lack of power. The most powerful Volcanic pistol, the .41 Caliber with a 8″ barrel had a MV of about 700 FPS. ( Not the 5-600 FPS stated above.) This placed it just a scooch less powerful than a .22 LR HV Load from a 6.5″ barreled pistol. Not that a .22 LR, even in a standaed velocity load is not lethal, it just does not have the kind of “Stopping power” we have come to expect here in America, even way back then.
        With practice, you can operate the action quite easily with one hand. Grip it very tight with the two smallest fingers of the shooting hand and use both the trigger and signal finger to open the action. Then use the signal finger to close the action. Incert the trigger finger between the guard and fire. The other method is to twerl it by the finger loop, but that takes much practice, is very hard on your signal finger and not very reliable as the rounds often pop out of the action, or it fails to cycle completely. In either case, not a very good choice for a deffencive weapon?
        Lastly, IF you are adventurous and eager to take responcability for your own actions, you can make your own shootable ammo from a Lyman mold of the right caliber and LOA of bullet and chuck them in a rubber, or plastic collet and run a drill bit modified by rounding the tip into the base to enlarge the cavity. Load with black, or smokeless rifle powder and leave a dent in the base to hold the match compound used as a primmer. Fill the dent with primer, glue in place, a thin card stock disk inside the base of the cavity so it is flush with the base of the bullet. If the card stock is too thin, the breach will not seal well. They are not very reliable, but are still fun to shoot and if they fail to fire, just rework them with a little more primming compound. ( The action is plenty strong to stand the gaff of so little smokeless rifle powder.)

        • 106 grains at 700 FPS is roughly equal in power to .32 (Long) Colt and .32 S&W Long, which were both reasonably successful cartridges in the late 19th century. The larger bullet diameter of the .41 bullet would also increase energy transfer over smaller calibers, so I wouldn’t be at all sure its low popularity was due to lack of (perceived or real) stopping power. A more probable theory is that people found it less convenient to operate than revolvers. Quite likely the caseless cartridge design was also less reliable than cap & ball revolvers or even early rimfire metallic cartridges.

  6. I don’t know why but volcanic pistols have always been one of my favorite firearms. I guess I just like the looks and ingenuity of it. Hope whoever gets it takes good care of it.

    • During World War 2 the Japanese Navy experimented with a 40mm automatic cannon with ammunition built on very much the same principle;


      Its low MV and short range made it more of a “grenade launcher” than a true “autocannon”. Today, the standard Russian Army underbarrel GL for the AK-74 rifle works on roughly the same principle;


      If all you want to do is lob a grenade about 200 meters without having to fiddle with empty cartridge cases while reloading, it makes a lot of sense.



    • AFAIK, all Volcanics (rifle and pistol) used the “Volitional Ball” rounds, in .30, .38, and (in some of the rifles) .54 (!) (There may have been other calibers, but those are the ones I have been able to verify.)

      That said, some late ones were made under the Smith & Wesson TM before the Winchester buyout, up to the time that S&W began making the No. 1 revolver in .22 Short based on Rollin White’;s bored-through cylinder patent.

      So, it’s certainly possible that at least a few “Volcanics”, rifle or pistol, were made in .22 Short, but they would most likely have been marked “Smith & Wesson”. And they would probably have been more in the nature of prototypes or toolroom examples than anything else.



      • Municion’s info about .41 Volcanic:
        contain the cross-section and info that it was produced in .31 and .36 version (if I understand correctly: Se fabricaron tambien en calibre .31 y .36). Note that due to big hollow-base of cartridge the bullets was very light for caliber (as stated in our article only 106gr – that is less than for example .312 bullet weighting 115gr used in .32-20 Winchester). The very light bullets loss velocity fast, so on bigger distances are almost useless.
        On the other side: what is easier/cheaper to produce – Volcanic “rocket” or normal cartridge (i.e. containing case)?

        • Thanks for the link. I suspected there were other calibers. .41? Hmm.

          The Volcanic round is definitely cheaper to make, as it’s basically a Minie’ “ball” that has a deep enough hollow skirt to contain the charge and priming- no metallic cartridge case to draw, form, etc.

          The problem is that it also;

          1. Does a poor job of protecting the charge and priming from the elements.

          2. Is less sturdy and resistant to damage in shipping, storage, etc.

          3. Does not seal the breech efficiently, requiring a separate breech seal to avoid flash blowback, which is especially dangerous in a magazine-loading repeater. A flashover in a tube magazine loaded with caseless rounds,each of which has its base full of propellant and priming pointed toward the flash source, could do an excellent impersonation of a fragmentation grenade. In the shooter’s hand.

          In fact, these three factors are still the main obstacles to practical caseless ammunition weapons today. The laws of physics apparently don’t like caseless ammunition.



          • BTW: How the Volcanic ammo headspaces? Rimmed rounds headspaces on rim, rimless round headspaces on case mouth and Volcanic ammo headspaces on…? What prevents the round from escaping from firing pin?
            So far I know the only popular case-less (or at least some art of caseless) military ammunition is ammo used in mortars (for example 60mm mortar M2) which are muzzle-loaders.

          • Daweo;

            I’ve often wondered about that myself. One possibility is that the bore is slightly smaller in diameter than the chamber, starting the leade’ at about the shoulder of the bullet’s ogive. This would act much like the headspacing shoulder on a modern autopistol barrel chamber intended for use with rimless cartridges that headspace on the case mouth(.45 ACP, 9x19mm). That would both ensure proper headspace and support the primer against the blow of the firing pin.

            It would also help ensure against excess windage in the bore. But this could backfire (literally), as it would also require a really good breechface seal to avoid flashback. (Excess pressure could only go one direction- backward.)

            Theoretically, such a “swaging” of the bullet would ensure better accuracy by giving the rifling a better “bite” on the bullet, as well. In practice, with a hollow-based bullet like the Volcanic’s, it would more likely distort the bullet enough to cause some very odd aerodynamic effects. Which would be consistent with the Volcanic’s reputation for poor accuracy.



          • IIRC some .22 rim-fire firearms were designed that the bullet engaged rifling during loading, before the cartridge will be primed. The profits in terms of accuracy were not observed.
            I suppose that reputation for poor accuracy is caused rather by the miserable ballistic, stated 106gr @ 500…600fps is similar to .41 Rimfire (.41 Short) used in Remington Model 95 derringer. Note that target shooter firing revolvers don’t use so light-for-caliber bullets. The Schouboe pistol was rejected due to low accuracy:

          • I’m guessing that as Eon suggests, the ngraving force may well have held the bullet against the striker’s impact

            However without a case to go stretching or separating, so long as the round was tight enough not to go rattling off down the bore sufficeintly to escape the reach of the striker, if the gun were handled roughly,

            the inertia of the bullet may have been enough to allow the primer to recieve sufficeint whack [technical term] from the striker.

            A toggle action does allow quite a lot of leaverage (like a compound linkage reloading press) when it is close to battery, so forcing an oversize, soft lead minnie style bullet into the rifling is not beyond its capabilities.

          • What a irony.
            The Pedersen’s designs were well-thinked and perfected. For example Remington Model 25 has device preventing from firing cartridge when the breech was not fully locked. The “improved” Pedersen design has fails that basic design has not. But I accuse tester not the designer for not finding so easily-observed issue (bulged cases).

          • BTW: If the Remington R51 issue is caused by case-taper the simplest way to go is to use straight-walled cartridges for example .38 Super

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