Today, we’re going to take a look at a little known type of weapon which rose to prominence in around the time of the First World War with a number of examples being developed and some even tested. As you can see from this footage it’s something pretty unconventional, seen here mounted on the back of a truck – is a centrifugal machine gun.
I found this short footage while doing some digging through the online catalogue of the US National Archives. The centrifugal machine gun was not a new concept by the time this footage was filmed in the early 1920s, sadly the footage notes done give an exact date.
While the technology had risen to a new prominence what was the allure of centrifugal machine guns? The principle of centrifugal force – an inertial force which appears to act on objects moving in a circular path, directs them away from the axis of rotation. As a result a centrifugal machine gun required no propellant powder to propel the projectile, or a case to contain it, nor a conventional rifled barrel to stabilise the projectile. Once released from the axis of rotation the projectile travels on a linear trajectory until it expends its energy. It works along the same principle as a primitive sling. The primary issue is providing power to exert the centrifugal force and a means of accurately firing the projectiles.
Some of the earliest work on centrifugal guns was done in the late 1850s in the US. The hand-crank or steam powered guns patented by William Joslin (US #24,031) and Charles S. Dickinson (US# 24,997) in 1859. Dickinson went on to secure financial backing from a wealthy Maryland industrialist Ross Winans and developed a steam powered version of his gun. Despite gaining much press attention Dickinson’s centrifugal gun saw no action during the US Civil War.
It wasn’t until World War One that the concept began to be considered again. In June 1918, Major Edward T. Moore and Saul Singer filed a patent for a centrifugal machine gun powered by an electrical motor (US #1,332,992). The motor spooled up the centrifugal barrel assembly to rotate extremely quickly and impart centrifugal force on projectiles. According to Julian Hatcher the gun could fire steel ball bearing projectiles at approximately 1,200 feet per second. Fire was controlled by a stop pin in the ammunition feed tube. Moore claimed the weapon could fire a projectile 1.5 miles with enough force to kill a man. He also suggested the weapon’s rate of fire approached 2,000 rounds per minute. It appears that Moore’s gun may have been tested in 1918 but Hatcher described its accuracy as ‘extremely poor’.
Another centrifugal design developed during World War One was E.L. Rice’s half-inch centrifugal gun, sadly I’ve been unable to find any photographs or drawings of Rice’s design but the weapon was submitted to the US National Research Council in 1917. The NRC’s 1919 report states that the gun had been further developed by the NRC’s Physics Division in Pittsburgh but work had been slowed by “a common defect which has been difficult to eliminate”. Despite what the report described as ‘considerable headway’ the weapon was subsequently abandoned amid some controversy about credit for the design.
There seems to have been something of a centrifugal machine gun craze with several more patents filed between 1917 and 1926. A Scientific American article from March 1918, even noted that “every so often the daily press becomes enthused over a new centrifugal gun.”
One of the earliest patents granted appear to have been for a design by E.E. Porter, granted in January 1917. This was followed in July 1919 by inventor, Herbert A. Bullard being granted a patent (US #1,311,492) on a design which fired a disc rather than a ball. At the same time T.A. Gannoe was granted a patent (US #1,309,129) for a large, complex looking gun shown mounted on a pedestal.
In 1920, F.R. Barnes (US #1,327,518) and W.W. Case (US #1,357,028) were also granted patents which had been filed in 1917. In late 1921, Levi Lombard was granted a patent he had filed in March 1918, his gun even appeared in Scientific American. It appears to be notably smaller than Moore’s gun and has a spade grip for aiming. This was followed in 1923, by an interesting patent from Joseph T. McNaier for a centrifugal gun that could be powered by an electric or petrol engine, some of the patent diagrams show how the gun might be placed in an armoured car or aeroplane (US #1,472,080). Intriguingly, McNaier and Moore appear to have known each other quite well and were partners in a law firm together.
Here’s a gallery of some of the various patents mentioned above, not all are as detailed or as advanced as others:
The question is which of these guns is featured in the footage. The most likely bets are the Moore or the Czegka. Sadly, with only a side view and just 18 seconds of footage we don’t have much to go on. The accompanying reel notes, describing what is seen in each section of the film, describes the gun as being in the “experimental stages only” and that the prototype seen here “is intended for use as aircraft armament, for tanks and for landing parties of the Front line trenches.”
Sadly, we don’t get to see how the gun works but we can see the operator feeding the ball bearing projectiles into the hopper which has a powered feed system – he empties two cylindrical containers of balls into it one after another. It is unclear how many rounds might be in the containers, perhaps 50 each. The gun and its motor are mounted on a truck bed with a soldier in uniform, possibly aiming the weapon via a tiller.
Another of the later designs dating from the period came from Victor Czegka, a US Marine Corps Technical Sergeant, who is perhaps best known as the supply officer of Admiral Richard Byrd’s first two expeditions to the Antarctic. Czegka was granted a patent for a centrifugal machine gun in January 1922 (US #1,404,378).
With some further digging I managed to find several articles referring to the gun in the US Army Ordnance Journal. Interestingly, a photo from the same demonstration is printed in one article, from late October 1920, with the caption confirming the man loading the weapon is the inventor, however, he isn’t named. The footage was filmed during the Second Annual Meeting of the US Army Ordnance Association. Another article dating from May 1921, also notes that the tests took place at Aberdeen Proving Ground, with the gun firing at 16,000 revolutions per minute which required 98 horsepower from the engine powering it. The gun apparently needed a “very rapid increase in power required for operation” when the speed of its revolutions was increased incrementally from 12,000 to 16,000 rpm. The article concluded that “a horsepower above 100 would have no material effect in increasing the speed” suggesting that a much more powerful, and therefore larger, engine would be needed to increase the revolution rate.
Despite various designs seeing some US military testing none were ever adopted and relatively little information on them is available. It seems that they were relatively cumbersome weapons with extremely varying accuracy but this footage at least proves the concept. A short report in a may 1921 edition of Scientific American may shed some light, stating an unnamed gun was rejected “because of its great weight and its inability to obtain high initial velocity” concluding that “no centrifugal gun can have military value”. It appears that the range of the centrifugal guns was limited to the speed of their revolution, which in turn was limited by the power of the engine and motor that powered them. The larger the motor, the more cumbersome the weapon system was.
There are very few photos of centrifugal machine guns so stumbling across actual footage of one guns actually operating is very exciting. They are a fascinating tangent to the history of the machine gun – one that occasionally still garners interest.
Demonstration of Ordnance Materiel at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, 1920-26, US National Archives, (source)
Scientific American v.124, Jan-Jun 1921, (source)
Scientific American v.118, Jan-Jun 1918, (source)
Hatcher’s Notebook, J. Hatcher (1962)
Army Ordnance: The Journal of the Army Ordnance, v.1-2 (1920-1922) (source)
United States Congressional House Documents Vol.119, 1921 (source)