James Puckle: The Inventor of the First Machine Gun
James Puckle was an English inventor, lawyer and writer who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He is best known for his invention of the Defence Gun, also known as the Puckle gun, which was one of the first multi-shot guns in history. In this blog post, we will explore his life, his invention and his legacy.
Early life and career
James Puckle was born in Norwich, Norfolk, in 1667. He was the son of a merchant and a clergyman’s daughter. He studied law at Gray’s Inn in London and became a barrister. He also wrote several books on various topics, such as religion, politics and morality. His most famous work was The Club, a moral dialogue between a father and son, which was published in 1709 and reprinted several times.
The Defence Gun
In 1718, Puckle patented his new invention, the Defence Gun — a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock weapon fitted with a multishot revolving cylinder, designed for shipboard use to prevent boarding. The barrel was 3 feet (0.91 m) long with a bore of 1.25 inches (32 mm) and a pre-loaded cylinder which held 6-11 charges and could fire 63 shots in seven minutes—this at a time when the standard soldier’s musket could at best be loaded and fired five times per minute.
Puckle demonstrated two versions of the basic design: one, intended for use against Christian enemies, fired conventional round bullets, while the second variant, designed to be used against the Muslim Turks, fired square bullets which were considered to be more damaging and would, according to its patent, convince the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization”.
The Puckle gun is one of the first weapons referred to as a machine gun (though its operation does not match the modern definition of the term) and resembles a large revolver.
Reception and legacy
The Puckle gun drew few investors and never achieved mass production or sales to the British armed forces. One leaflet of the period sarcastically observed, following the business venture’s failure, that the gun has “only wounded those who hold shares therein.”
According to the Patent Office of the United Kingdom, “In the reign of Queen Anne, the law officers of the Crown established as a condition of patent that the inventor must in writing describe the invention and the manner in which it works.” James Puckle’s 1718 patent, number 418, was one of the first to provide such a description.
John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, Master-General of the Ordnance (1740-9), purchased at least two for an ill-fated expedition in 1722 to capture St Lucia and St Vincent. One remains on display at Boughton House and another at Beaulieu Palace (both former Montagu homes). There is a replica of a Puckle Gun at Bucklers Hard Maritime Museum in Hampshire.
James Puckle died in London in 1724. He was buried at St James’s Church in Piccadilly. His invention was largely forgotten until the 19th century, when it was rediscovered by historians and collectors. Today, he is recognized as one of the pioneers of automatic firearms and a remarkable figure in British history.