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Walter Hunt and his Rocket Balls
Walter Hunt and his Rocket Balls
Meet the Father of the Lever Action Rifle.
The lever action design is often associated Benjamin Henry and Oliver Winchester. While these two names are rightly associated with the first truly successful lever action rifles, the real history of lever actions is one of evolution. The Henry, and Winchester rifles that followed, were based on designs refined by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, two pioneers who found lasting fame as makers of revolvers. The true father of lever action rifles was a little known but prolific inventor from New York named Walter Hunt. His invention, “Rocket Balls” and the complex rifle he created to fire them, provided the prototype for tubular magazines, lever actions and eventually a primed, caseless cartridge that gave rise to the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company
Walter Hunt’s most famous, and common, invention can probably be found in your home. Hunt invented and patented the safety pin in 1849. Some of his other notable patents include a lock-stitch sewing machine and the fountain pen.
With Rocket Balls, Hunt was attempting to solve a problem that had stalled firearm evolution throughout the first half of the 19th century, the lack of durable cartridges that could be breech loaded. Cartridges wrapped in paper that contained both powder and bullet were the military standard of the day and would continue to be until after the American Civil War. The paper was torn open, the powder poured down the barrel and then the bullet was rammed home along with the paper cartridge wrapper. Even the most advanced rifle and cartridge design of the day, the Model 1841 Dreyse needle-gun, which used an internally primer set against the base of the bullet, still used a paper cartridge wrapper to contain the components.
“It will be readily perceived that this plan of a combined ball and cartridge is well adapted to firearms made to be charged at the breech….” Patent Number 5,701 1848. Walter Hunt. Rocketball patent
The cartridge that Hunt patented on August 10th, 1848, was based on a bullet clearly following Claude-Etienne Minie’s design ideas that has been patented two years before. Hardly the first to use this design which had been in use for some years before his patent, The Minie Ball was a conical, soft lead projectile with a broad open skirt at the base. Smaller than the bore diameter, it was easy to load into rifled muzzleloaders, even those that had become heavily fouled. When fired, the skirt expanded allowing the bullet to etch the rifling and spin stabilize. Minie balls offered an order of magnitude increase in rifle range and a significant increase in an individual soldier’s rate of accurate fire.
Hunt’s patent, Number 5,701, used a deeply hollowed lead bullet as both the projectile and cartridge case. Hunt’s use of the Minie’ bullet’s hollow skirt, albeit in a much smaller projectile, was the marriage of cutting edge military technology with an engineer’s mind for elegant solutions using necessary but empty space.
The Rocket Ball’s hollow base was filled with black powder and then closed with a wood and cork seal that made it somewhat waterproof while still allowing the primers spark to reach the charge. When ignited by a cap, manually placed on the rifle’s nipple, the base was ejected from the base of the bullet and used to help to seal the chamber. The base of the bullet, which was left in the chamber, was then pushed in front of the next chambered cartridge and expelled with the bullet, forming, according to Hunt’s patent, a wiper to clean the barrel with each shot.
There were two glaring deficiencies with Rocket Balls as proposed by Hunt. First, they still required external priming, which slowed the loading process. Secondly, owing to their small internal capacity, they lacked velocity. Sources on the actual ballistics are hard to find, except that they were offered in .31 and .41 caliber. Sources note the muzzle energy as 56 ft/lbs but none I could find offered velocity, charge mass or even the average projectile weight.
A shooter identifying himself as Neoconshooter on the Gunboards forum did offer information gleaned from a Volcanic pistol that had belonged to his grandfather. He wrote:
The 31 caliber bullets Massed about 53 grains, or 3.4 Grams. It had a MV of about 700 FPS, but I do not know which gun that relates to.
The 41 caliber bullet Massed about 106 grains, or 6.9 Grams. It had a MV of about 600 FPS out of the 8″ bbl pistol. This last with ammunition made by drilling out hand made from a mold, lead bullets that resembled the originals outside and were then drilled out while held in a lathe chuck and turned while a series of drill bits run in from the tail stock until they were the correct weight! Filled with black powder and fired in Grandad’s pistol over a Chrony.
Supporting his statement, his 53 grain projectile at 700 fps does produce muzzle energy around 57 ft/lbs at the muzzle. The .41 caliber projectile was more of a titan producing about 85 ft/lbs at the muzzle. For the sake of comparison, I tested a three inch barreled High Standard Sentinel in 22 Long Rifle. It developed 77 ft/lbs with an average of 935 fps using some generic Winchester-stamped 40 grain bullets I had in a glass jar in my reloading room. By any standard, Rocket Balls were anemic. They were also a fascinating idea for a new type of cartridge. The revolutionary design would lure a number of notable firearms designers to invest time and fortune into realizing their potential.
Along with this new type of ammunition, Hunt also offered a prototype firearm he called the Volition Rifle. Interesting and attractive as his new ammunition was, the real impact of Hunt’s invention lay with this overly complex rifle design. He incorporated an early type of lever action loading and the now familiar tube feed system located under the barrel, a system still common today. One of Hunt’s prototypes, maybe the only one, can be seen in the Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming.
With Hunt’s cooperation, Lewis Jennings patented a more functional version of the Volition Rifle in 1849. This variant was built from 1849 until 1852 by Robbins & Lawrence Co, a then well-known firearms manufacturer. Their shop foreman was Benjamin T. Henry. In 1851, Horace Smith was asked to further refine the Jennings patent design, creating a short run of about 2,000 Smith-Jennings Rifles. When production ceased in 1852, the patents for both the Jennings and Smith-Jennings rifles were held by an entrepreneur named Courtland Palmer.
By 1854, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson and gone into business with Palmer to produce a much more refined firearm utilizing the lever action and tube feed system from the Smith-Jennings Rifle. Calling it the Smith and Wesson Lever Pistol, this new firearm used an improved version of the Rocket Ball which utilized internal priming. A carbine quickly followed. Finding some success with the design, a new corporation, the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, was formed around the Jennings and Smith patents. One of the prominent investors in the new corporation was a successful clothing manufacturer named Oliver Winchester.
An astute business man, Winchester was able to gain ownership of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company when it became insolvent in 1856. In 1857, the plant was moved from Norwich, CT, Horace Smith’s shop location, to the city of New Haven. Adopting the name of the new city, Oliver Winchester’s new production headquarters was re-incorporated as the New Haven Arms Company. Benjamin T. Henry was enticed away from Robbins & Lawrence and made the plant superintendent.
Continually plagued by ammunition that was unreliable and underpowered, Volcanic’s products were not a large commercial success. It fell to Henry to make a radical improvement on Volcanic’s weakest point, the Rocket Ball ammunition itself. Using Smith and Wesson’s 22 Short as a starting point, Henry designed a 44 caliber rimfire cartridge that was much more durable and powerful than the Rocket Ball. Using this cartridge, the 44 Henry Flat in a rifle he would patent in October of 1860, Henry was able to finally offer functional and reasonably powerful lever action repeater. It came into production in time to see service in the American Civil War.
Production of the Henry, using the core ideas designed by Hunt, ended production in 1866 after approximately 14,000 rifles were built. Concurrent with the end of the Henry rifle production, the newly minted Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut offered a modified variant called the Winchester Model 1866 that also used Henry’s .44 rimfire cartridge.
An obvious descendant of the Henry rifle, the 1866 “Yellowboy” added two new features. Cartridges were now loaded on the side of the receiver through a loading gate named after its inventor, Nelson King. Winchester also added a wooden forearm. This rifle became the first of Winchester’s long line of lever actions firearms and set the foundation of Oliver Winchester’s firearms dynasty.
As for Hunt, he died in 1859 of pneumonia. He did not die a penniless inventor. In 1858, Isaac Singer had agreed to end a patent conflict originating from Hunt’s sewing machine design by paying him $50,000. His family was well supported by this and other design patents. He was eulogized by the New York Tribune in this way:
“For more than forty years, he has been known as an experimenter in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home, and probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor.”
He was also the true father of lever action rifles.