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For many years prior to the War of 1812, soldiers, sailors and marines wished for reliable weapons that could fire repeatedly without reloading. In the United States many such weapons were proposed, a few were actually built, but none saw wartime service. None, that is, until Joseph Chambers convinced the Navy Department to fund production of his repeating pistols, muskets and swivels.
In the spring of 1813, Chambers, a Philadelphia inventor, presented his plans to both the War and Navy Departments. War Secretary John Armstrong was not interested, but Navy Secretary William Jones saw some merit in Chambers’ proposals and directed the Marine Corps to examine the weapons and report on their potential. The report was favorable and the navy ordered 50 of his swivels and 200 of his repeating muskets. A quality of Chambers’ pistols was ordered later.
In January 1814, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, commanding on Lake Ontario, visited Philadelphia, saw Chambers’ repeaters in action and liked what he saw. He later wrote to Secretary Jones asking that “twenty swivels and one hundred muskets of that invention” be sent to him at Sackets Harbor. Chauncey felt they would be “uncommonly useful.” The Navy Department modified the order to 15 swivels, 50 muskets and 50 pistols and they arrived at Sackets Harbor in the summer of 1814.
Chauncey had the 15 swivels mounted in the fighting tops (square platforms on the fore and main masts between the main and top sails) of the frigates Superior, Mohawk and General Pike. Those weapons were manned and ready when the squadron sailed from Sackets Harbor in August 1814 to fight the British.
Each swivel had seven barrels, looking not unlike a Civil War Gatling gun. Each barrel was loaded with 25 bullets and powder charges. The bullets were cylindrical, allowing each bullet’s powder to be ignited by the firing of the round ahead of it in the barrel, much like a roman candle. When the first round in each barrel was fired by the usual flintlock mechanism, the remainder would be discharged in succession over about 30 seconds, allowing time for the swivel to be “swept” over the enemy ship’s deck. With a rate of fire of about 350 rounds per minute, at the short ranges usual in ship-to-ship combat the effect would be devastating.
There were some disadvantages. Loading the weapon took time and required great care to avoid a misfire. Then the barrels would each need to be cleaned after firing. This meant that each swivel could be fired only once during a fight.
Unfortunately for history, the British squadron on Lake Ontario under Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo declined the American challenge to fight. They remained in port at Kingston, Upper Canada, until their 102-gun St. Lawrence was ready in October. With that addition, Chauncey’s squadron was outgunned and it returned to Sackets Harbor with Joseph Chambers’ swivels still untested in combat.
After the war Chambers’ repeaters were returned to the New York Navy yard and only a couple of samples remain in existence today.