Set the mainsail and sharpen your cutlasses, this week we’re taking on a technicolour swashbuckler set during the Napoleonic Wars. Starring Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo, Raoul Walsh’s 1951 adaptation of some of C.S. Forester’s classic seafaring novels is stirring stuff! Join us as we unpack this early adaptation of three of Forester’s renowned Horatio Hornblower books.
This week’s film was selected by the Fighting On Film Supporting Cast, each month we offer a selection of choices for our Patreon supporters to choose from, if you’d like to support the show and help us pick films find out more here.
Commonly referred to as Nock Guns, the seven barrel volley guns were actually designed by James Wilson. Wilson presented his design to the Board of Ordnance for testing in July 1779. Following testing at Woolwich Arsenal the Board of Ordnance decided that the guns, while of no use to the Army, might be useful aboard the Royal Navy’s ships. The volley gun’s impressive firepower could be devastating at the relatively short ranges aboard ships. The Navy had historically used blunderbusses/musketoons and the Board of Ordnance probably viewed Wilson’s gun as an advancement of this concept. London gunmaker Henry Nock was given an order for two ‘seven barrelled rifle guns’ for Admiralty testing but these proved slow to load in action and subsequent guns had smoothbore barrels.
The Admiralty envisioned equipping first rate ships of the line (vessels with 75 guns or more) with 20 volley guns, while second and third rates would have 16 and 12 volley guns respectively, and frigates would carry 10 Nock guns. This represented a sizeable order. The Admiralty eventually purchased 500 guns, paying £13 per gun, to equip Royal Marines and sailors manning the fighting tops (at the top of ship’s masts). The Navy felt that the volley guns’ firepower would be useful when boarding enemy vessels or in repelling boarders by pouring down fire on enemy boarding parties.
Henry Nock, better known for producing high quality duelling pistols and sporting guns, became the sole supplier of Wilson’s volley guns to the Royal Navy. The weapon’s 0.46 inch calibre outer barrels were arranged around the seventh centre barrel. The 51cm or 20in barrels were brazed together and screwed to an iron plate set into a walnut stock. The outer barrels had vents drilled through them to the central barrel while the central barrel had a vent leading from the lock. Once the flintlock ignited the powder charge in the central barrel, the surrounding barrels were ignited through the vents. As the vents had to be drilled with the barrels already brazed into position, the outer barrels all have plugged drill holes on their outer surfaces.
All seven barrels fired almost at once producing significant recoil, reputedly able to dislocate shoulders. The service load was originally 2.5 drams of finer rifle powder (which I believe equals 68gr) for each barrel – totalling 476gr. Despite the gun weighing 12lbs, this did little to mitigate the weapon’s recoil and a reduced charge or 1.5 drams of standard musket powder was ordered.
The Board of Ordnance and the Admiralty granted Wilson an awarded of £400 (equal to £48,000 or $63,000 today) in May 1780. He played no further role in the testing and development of the volley gun. In 1787 the Navy ordered a further 100 guns from Nock.
Entering service just too late for service during the American War of Independence the first reported use of the guns came with Admiral Howe’s fleet at the siege of Gibraltar in 1782. They continued to be carried aboard other vessels during the 1790s, but few accounts refer to them and little is known about their service.
Howard Blackmore suggests that naval officers, including Admiral Nelson who disliked placing marksmen in his tops, disliked the guns. There were some fears that the volley guns’ wads could set the ships sails and rigging on fire. Reputedly it was also not uncommon for some of the volley gun’s barrels to fail to ignite. As a result the guns were seldom used on board ships and removed from Royal Navy service in 1804. In 1805, Wilson, then a captain of the Marines suggested the Navy reissue the guns to the Sea Fencibles, a naval militia which helped defend the British coast, however, his recommendation was not followed up.
This particular example has the second pattern of lock used on the Nock guns with a smaller lock positioned a little lower on the gun. The earlier pattern was a back action lock, fitted high on the gun with the front of the lock plate in line with the side of the barrel.
The gun has a maker’s mark of ‘H. NOCK’ on the second barrel on the left and various barrel proof marks. Unlike other examples the lock itself isn’t Tower and ‘GR’/Crown cypher marked but does have the Ordnance Broad Arrow just behind the pan. Interestingly, the steel ramrod appears to have an extension brazed onto the end of it, this might indicate that the shorter rod used with the initial charge had to be extended when less powder was used for the lighter 1.5 dram load.
Why did the Nock Volley Guns fall out of favour?
As I mentioned earlier the recoil of the initial service load was significant, Howard Blackmore hypothesised that there may have also been some weakness to the lock springs leading to misfires. One key factor is that close quarters fighting aboard ships often relied on edged weapons like cutlasses, boarding axes and pikes. These paintings give us some feel for what fighting aboard a Napoleonic Man-of-War might have been like – a close, chaotic, terrifying affair.
While pistols were commonly used they were disposable and may not have been reloaded during a fight – more likely they were dropped or used as a club. The Nock Gun would have offered a devastating first volley, and while its 20 inch barrels would have given it better accuracy and range than a musketoon, how much of an impact a single volley of seven .32 bore projectiles would have had especially once the fighting became hand to hand is a matter for debate. At close quarters the Nock Gun quickly becomes a short, ill-balanced, 12lb club.
The Nock Volley Gun is perhaps best known for appearing in the Sharpe series of books and films as Sergeant Harper’s weapon of choice but it first appears on screen in the 1960 classic The Alamo with Richard Widmark’s Jim Bowie carrying one and more recently a fleeting, anachronistic, appearance in Master & Commander: Far Side of the World.
Despite a relatively short and undistinguished service life the Nock Volley Guns also saw some civilian sales with a number of ornate hunting guns with wooden forends, engraving, rifling and rear leaf sights.
Later in 1818, Nock’s workshop manufactured a design by Artemus Wheeler, an American gun designer with a fondness for revolving guns.
Wheeler’s carbine resembles the earlier volley gun externally but is in fact a manually rotated, self-priming flintlock ‘pepperbox gun’ with six barrels arranged around a central axis. Unlike the earlier volley gun the pepperbox carbine was never trailed or purchased by the Admiralty. Henry Nock’s workshops produced approximately 655 volley guns between 1780 and 1788. The Nock Gun is a weapon that would greatly benefit from some in-depth contemporary research as the current best source is over 50 years old and relatively little is known about the gun’s service history.