History

The barely successful inventor who pioneered repeating rifles

Quick! Name the inventor who has had the most impact on the military. Are you thinking of John M. Browning who invented all sorts of weapons including the M2 .50-caliber machine gun? Maybe Oliver Winchester, Benjamin Tyler Henry, or Horace Smith, the creators of Smith & Wesson?

Well, all of those guys owe their weapon success, in part, to the inventiveness of one man that's largely forgotten by history.


Walter Hunt and his impressive forehead created a lot of important inventions, including an early repeating rifle that would help propel the arms industry forward.

Walter Hunt created all sorts of life-changing things, but was constantly selling his inventions for a fraction of their worth in order to pay off debts.

One of these inventions was an early repeating rifle that would lead to the Henry Repeating Rifle, a weapon that was decisive in some Civil War battles. He was also the man behind the safety pin, an attachment for icebreaker ships, and an improved fountain pen, in addition to lots of other things that our audience doesn't care about.

Hunt's design for repeating rifles was patented in 1849 as the "Volitional Repeater." His design incorporated earlier patents he filed, like a specific ammunition cartridge, and breakthroughs made by others to create a rifle capable of firing approximately 12 rounds in quick succession without reloading.

Walter Hunt's 1849 repeating rifle patent calls for ball ammunition to be stored in a tubular magazine. A spring feeds the ammunition into the proper position so it can be breech-loaded by the operator quickly.

(Patent filed 1849 by Walter Hunt)

So, basically, it was a rifle with cartridge ammunition that fed from a magazine into the breech for firing. Make the magazine removable and add a gas-operated piston and pistol grip and you have the basic idea of the M16.

But, like the early M16s, Hunt's design had reliability issues, and he didn't have the money or the inclination to go through a series of prototypes and redesigns. So, he sold the patent and design to investor George Arrowsmith who got the weapon into production and asked three men to improve the design. Benjamin Tyler Henry, Horace Smith, and Daniel B. Wesson made improvements on the design to create the Henry Repeating Rifle.

The Henry Repeating Rifle carried up to 16 rounds and was a direct descendant of Hunt's Volitional Repeating Rifle.

(Hmaag, CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was one of these Henry Repeating Rifles, direct descendants of Hunt's design, that President Abraham Lincoln fired on the White House grounds at the request of the manufacturer. The company hoped to get Lincoln to intervene on their behalf with the Ordnance Department in order to get the Union Army to buy much more of them.

The Henry Repeating Rifle and similar designs were unpopular with many generals but mid-level officers who embraced them saw the potential early. One of the first wide-spread deployments of repeating rifles came in 1863 when Union Col. John T. Wilder got a loan from his own bank to outfit his entire mounted infantry brigade with the Spencer Repeating Rifle, similar in design to the Henry.

General Burnside marches his men through the Cumberland Gap. In mountainous areas, the terrain limits the numbers of troops who can fight each other, making repeating rifles even more advantageous.

(Harper's Weekly)

The plan was to ride to the battle on horses, then dismount and put the new repeating rifles into effect. Wilder's brigade was sent to secure Hoover's Gap in Tennessee ahead of a Union attack on Manchester. The Confederates anticipated the maneuver and were working to reinforce the gap before the Union could arrive in force on June 24, 1863.

The Northerners were able to scatter the Confederates deep into the gap and made it six miles ahead of their planned limit of advance. The infantrymen were so far forward, that the corps commander repeatedly ordered them to withdraw because he was sure they would be overwhelmed.

But with their repeating rifles, the single Union infantry brigade and its one artillery battery held its ground against a counterattack by four Confederate infantry brigades and four artillery batteries.

​At the Battle of Franklin, some of the Union soldiers had repeating rifles, mostly Spencer and Henry models, that allowed them to overwhelm Confederate troops.

(Library of Congress, originally by Kurz and Allison)

When the corps finally arrived, its commander credited the repeating rifles with saving a thousand lives and three days of fighting.

Later battles, like the 1864 Battle of Franklin, saw similar results as Union soldiers carrying repeating rifles were able to vastly out fire their Southern opponents. At Franklin, the defending Union troops carrying 16-shot Henry Repeating Rifles could average 10 rounds per minute against the two or three of Confederate attackers. The Union suffered less than 200 soldiers killed while it inflicted over 1,700 losses on the enemy.

And the man who helped lead the repeating rifle revolution, Walter Hunt? Well, he had died four years earlier. He had achieved economic security, at least, before he died, but he never achieved the fame or fortune of the other men who contributed to the changing face of warfare.

But hey, at least he also didn't have to see the Civil War.