Three Vintage Assaulters of our Forefathers: Kalthoff, Belton, Girandoni

kalthoff repeater
| November 5, 2021
| 4 Comments
Categories: Learnin'
Today’s article is not about “assault rifles” as you might think of them. You’ll hear nothing of Stoner’s first black rifles designs, the STG-44, or the M1 Carbine. No, today we discuss firearms that will take the angst and ire of gun-hating hoplophobes and safe-space needing liberals to an entirely new level.  Yes, today we’ll be talking about the high-capacity weapons in use in the days before Jamestown was settled in Virginia and Shakespeare was still alive. We’re talking about the so-called “Lewis and Clark Air Rifle” (Girandoni Air Rifle), Kalthoff Repeater, and the Belton Flintlock. And for the record, “superposed load” is not a category or tag on naughty movie sites. 

These are guns that do not quite fit the idea of a Second Amendment written “just for single-shot firearms”. 

This article originally ran in April of 2017. 

Kalthoff Repeater, Belton Flintlock, and “Lewis and Clark Air Rifle”

3 Vintage Assault Rifles of our Forefathers

This is the Metal Storm, first widely discussed as a modern weapon platform some twenty years ago. It uses electronic ignition and multiple barrels with superposed projectile loads to achieve a rate of fire equal to tens, even hundreds, of thousands of rounds per minute. Its concept of operation goes back to at least the late 16th century — and was utilized in a weapon offered to the Continental Congress the same year British Generals Burgoyne and Howe were fighting American General George Washington in New York and Pennsylvania. 

It uses a method called the superposed load to increase Rate of Fire (RoF). 

The Metal Storm weapon system uses a stacked, or "superposed load" method of fire.

The Metal Storm weapon system uses a stacked, or “superposed load” method of fire. This method, though futuristic-looking, would have been familiar to people as far back as Billy Shakespeare…not to mention the folks who used the so-called “Lewis and Clark Air Rifle”.

Gun control advocates often decry modern weaponry as counter to the Second Amendment. They say it was written during a time when firearms technology was so primitive as to make the Amendment irrelevant in the modern age.

The Second Amendment wasn’t written to apply to assault weapons, they say, or The Founding Fathers could never have imagined today’s high capacity rifles, etc. etc., ad nauseum.

Setting aside the “assault weapon” misnomer, I admit it makes a tempting argument, but only if you have no knowledge of — or regard for — the history of our Constitution, the men who wrote it, or the war they fought. I’ll leave that on the shelf for now, though. For now let’s examine the logical fallacy that our forefathers could not possibly have known about, or anticipated, the capability of firearms we now take for granted. To do that we’ll look at some of the firearms technology that was available before and during the period the Bill of Rights was envisioned and written.

That was in the Fall of 1789, if you’re rusty.


[Kalthoff Repeater, Wikipedia]

1. Kalthoff Repeater

The Kalthoff Repeater dates back to the 1600s. Its original designer remains unknown, so it is named for the gunsmiths that produced it. The Kalthoff worked with a system of two separate magazines, one for powder, one for balls (*snicker*). A back-and-forth sliding motion of the trigger guard actuated dumbwaiter-style carriers that seated both powder and ball into the chamber. It was reported that with this system a rifleman could fire a shot every one to two seconds.

They were originally produced as wheel lock rifles, and then later as flintlock rifles. Most Kalthoffs had a capacity of six rounds, but barrel inscriptions from several recovered samples advertise a thirty-round capacity.

Sound familiar?

The Kalthoff was not an obscure, one-off design either. While it was far too complex to ever be successful as a mass-produced, standardized arm, these guns were issued to the Royal Foot Guards of Denmark and were used in both the Siege of Copenhagen (the city, not the snuff) and the Scanian War. For reference, the Siege of Copenhagen was in 1658. That means a repeating firearm with a magazine capacity of thirty rounds was documented in military use nearly 150 years before the Second Amendment.

 

[Kalthoff Repeater, unknown photo credit]


 

[Belton Flintlock. Unknown photo credit]

2. Superposed Load Firearms

Superposed loading is a concept that can be found in historical writings going back to 1588. It’s the idea of filling your barrel with an alternating sequence of powder/ball, powder/ball, stacked almost to the muzzle.

This technology was present in America, being in a patented firearm design developed by inventor Joseph Belton. He designed the so-called Belton Flintlock, which used a single flint mechanism and multiple touch holes mounted on a brass slider. This allowed the flint to be positioned anywhere along the length of the barrel. This enabled the shooter to fire multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger, and multiple “bursts” to be fired by resetting and recocking the flint at different positions along the slider.

Mr. Belton attempted to license his design to the Continental Congress in 1777. Take note. A rifle that could fire multiple round bursts was marketed directly to the Found Fathers twelve years before the Second Amendment was ever written.

This brings us back around to the electromagnetic Metal Storm, marketed by an Australian weapon manufacturer as a revival in the superposed loading concept. Thus far it has been a commercial non-starter fraught with delays in development but has been pursued by the military of multiple countries (including the US and China).


3. Girandoni Air Rifle

The Girandoni Air Rifle is often referred to as the “Lewis and Clark Air RIfle” due to its use during that eponymous expedition. It is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least in that it is, technically speaking, not really a firearm at all. It’s an air rifle, but its capabilities and employment sound eerily familiar to anyone who’s taken a government-sponsored vacation to the Middle East.

The Giarndoni rifle was designed in 1779 and was in service with the Austrian army from 1780-1815. It fired from a compressed air tank housed in the buttstock. This air tank was capable of firing thirty rounds before it needed refilling.

Sound familiar…again?

Balls were fed from a twenty-round gravity hopper. In order to activate the hopper, the rifle had to be tipped upwards so that a ball would fall into the chamber. It was then leveled back on target. This was a great advantage over (and far speedier than) muskets, which had to be stood on their butt and loaded at the muzzle. The Giarndoni rifle could be fired repeatedly from the prone, which as you can imagine was a boon to the those troops carrying it (or at least those who were on the embarrassing end of people shooting back).

The rifle measured 48″ long and weigh approximately ten pounds. The average AR-15 is 36″ long and weighs eight pounds. Both are capable of firing twenty to thirty rounds before reloading. The Giarndoni had a lethal range of approximately 125 yards, which aligns well with the average employment of an AR in hunting, 3-Gun, and battlefield/tactical applications.

A Giarndoni was also used by the Lewis & Clark expedition in 1795 (hence the moniker), proving that its capabilities were not unknown in the Colonies.

The Girandoni Air Rifle, also referred to as the "Lewis and Clark Air Rifle".

The Girandoni Air Rifle, also referred to as the “Lewis and Clark Air Rifle” was to be carried by soldiers with a combat load that would be familiar to the grunts of today.

[Girandoni Air Rifle, National Firearms Museum]

Girandoni Air Rifle Combat Load

Interestingly, some of the Austrian Army regulations mandated the carry of three fully charged air reservoirs — one in the rifle and two spares — along with 100 balls. The balls were to be loaded as follows: one in the chamber, nineteen in the magazine attached to the rifle, and the other eighty in four metal tubes of twenty rounds each. Ammunition and reservoirs not attached to the rifle were carried in a special leather knapsack designed specifically for that purpose. Soldiers were required to carry a cleaning rod at all times.

Does any of that sound familiar to you 11Bs, 0311s, and 811x0s?

Opinions in the gun control debate run strong, which is fine. Any debate conducted with false or misleading information, however, is disingenuous. Many popular gun control arguments are specious and proffered with an utter lack of technical knowledge or historical context. Rapid-fire rifles with thirty-round magazines were available during the time the Second Amendment was written. The technology was readily available and used accordingly. So, for that matter, were sound-suppressed rifles, as in the case of the Girandoni Air Rifle. The lack of a muzzle report was specifically touted by the Austrian army specifically as a battlefield advantage.

Grunts: specious.

The Second Amendment was not written just for muskets, any more than it was written just for the Americans of 1789. It was a well-thought-out, carefully considered mandate deliberately included (and agreed upon by a majority of parties involved) in the governing laws of our country. Not just for hunting, or competition, but for the preservation of freedom, and justice for all.

-Tom Marshall 

4 Comments

  1. Kris

    Nice. I was researching historical tech for a novel and discussed a version of the air rifle but hadn’t known about the others. There was also supposedly a patent application from the 1790s or so for a rotating gun similar to the later Gatling (with optional square bullets “not for use on Christians”). Between these historical examples and the fact that rifles (vs. muskets) were important in the Revolution, we know the Founders were well aware of the concept that gun technology might improve over time. That, and the simple fact that they established a patent office at all!

    Reply
  2. Tired

    Fascinating! Thanks for the read.

    Reply
  3. Rick

    Great history lesson. I do believe the second amendment was written about firearms in general and not one type. I do wonder however if the writers and signers were aware of any of these weapons even though they existed.

    Reply
  4. Chuck

    I’ve long know about the Girandoni but didn’t know about the other two. Thanks for the history lesson.

    Reply

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