Most people believe that the first rapid-fire gun was the Gatling gun, which was invented in 1862 by Richard Gatling and used in the Civil War to deliver devastating losses, the likes of which no other weapon could inflict at the time. However, a rotating, hand-cranked gun was invented almost 150 years prior – luckily for people at the time, though, it was absolutely rubbish and made zero sense. Meet the Puckle gun, a fast-firing gun that was supposed to deliver the iron fist of the Christian God.
Born in 1667, James Puckle was a writer, inventor, and lawyer from London with a keen interest in religion and the defense of such ideologies, much like the rest of the world at the time. The Christian west was embroiled in a large conflict with the Ottoman Empire, a powerful civilization that encompassed southeast Europe, North Africa, and western Asia and was turning its sights on the rest of Europe. The Ottoman Empire was staunchly Muslim and looked to convert any settlements they captured to Islam, presenting an existential threat to the Christian faith.
Much like Vikings and even modern-day pirates, the Ottomans would use small boats filled with raiding parties to attack merchant vessels along the Mediterranean coastline, which was an important trade route for much of the world. Aboard small boats that could evade the heavy cannon weaponry characteristic of English and Spanish ships, the raiders would climb aboard and take control of the ship, seizing the valuables inside.
Guns were rudimentary and took a long time to load, so fending the raiders off with long-range firearms was almost impossible – England needed a new weapon.
James Puckle had just the idea. Much like a modern revolver, his new invention – called the Defense gun or the Puckle gun – would use a drum attached to a lever to insert cartridges into the barrel, which could be cranked at speed to fire nine shots per minute. Such rapid-fire weaponry appeared vastly superior to early muskets, which under the use of a skilled gunman could fire a measly three shots per minute.
Such a gun was to be mounted on the boats and would be significantly more useful against the threats they faced. The Puckle gun was considered the world’s first machine gun (though it doesn’t quite qualify under today’s terminology).
It sounds great, but Puckle added some questionable features to his design. The gun fired standard round bullets toward Christians, but when faced with a Muslim, the bullets were to be switched out for square-shaped projectiles. According to the patent, these would inflict more damage on their religious rivals and convince them of the "benefits of Christian civilisation", somehow.
The design was presented for trials in Woolwich in 1717, but the flintlock mechanism that ignited the cartridges were unreliable, which is highly important when trying to fire shots in rapid succession. Puckle went on to patent and market the gun in 1721, but the flintlock continued to hold the design back and his venture was a commercial failure. Little did Puckle know, almost 150 years later the same design would be reinvented with newer firing mechanisms and change war technology forever – minus the square bullets, of course.