Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get That Pieper?

Henri Pieper, a giant in the Belgian arms industry. From an old engraving. Henri Pieper, a giant in the Belgian arms industry. From an old engraving.

If you ever get the chance to see the 1960 movie The Alamo starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett and Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, take a good look at what Richard Widmark is dragging around. It’s a volley gun. To be specific, it’s a Hollywood replica of the Nock Volley Gun, a seven-barrel .52-caliber flintlock boomer that fired all seven barrels simultaneously when the trigger was pulled.

The original Nock Volley Gun was built in 1779 for the Royal Navy. It was used to shred the sails of enemy ships at close range and to clear their decks by firing it, more or less indiscriminately, into the ranks of enemy sailors. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to shoulder-fire seven 52-caliber barrels all at the same time, but it couldn’t be an experience I’d care to repeat. Wow.

Actually, most of us have probably already seen a volley gun of sorts in person. Remember the old three-barreled percussion “Duck’s Foot” pistol that was offered in magazine ads in the ’70s and ’80s? The Duck’s Foot was a volley gun. It fired three .36-caliber balls all at once from three separate barrels arranged more or less in the shape of a duck’s foot.. The pistol was usually offered in kit form and still shows up in the Dixie Gun Works catalog from time to time. The original eighteenth-century Duck’s Foot pistol was intended for use aboard ships, where a captain might need to keep a murderous mob of mutineers at bay.

Naval warfare wasn’t what Henri Pieper had in mind when he built his volley gun. More likely he intended it as a market gun. Back before 1918, there were no bag limits on waterfowl, and many hunters made their living by shooting as many ducks as they could in a single day and taking them down to the local meat market to sell. Most market hunters used plain old everyday shotguns, but hardcore market hunters used punt guns or volley guns.

A punt gun, of course, was an enormous smoothbore with a caliber frequently larger, sometimes much larger, than one inch. It was loaded with as much as a half-pound of shot and lashed to the gunwale of a punt, a small skiff-like boat. You’d paddle or pole the punt gun toward the birds, point the front of the boat at them, then — Ka-blooey! Afterward, you’d pick up the dead birds with a long-handled net and bundle them off to market. (The LaPorte County Museum also has two punt guns in its collection.)

The Pieper Volley Gun must have served the same purpose. It has seven rifled .32-caliber barrels, all of which fire at once. There’s a single pair of sights on top of its barrel cluster, which meant you couldn’t do much precision shooting with it. When you saw a bunch of geese or ducks on the water, you simply aimed at the unlucky one in the middle and squeezed ‘er off. You were bound to bag two or three birds at the least.

All of this sounds terribly shabby to us today, but the market hunter of the past never claimed to be a sportsman. He was a meat hunter, pure and simple, and if a punt gun or volley gun helped him put a roof over his head and bread on the table, he’d use one if he could afford it. But market hunters nearly wiped out several species of waterfowl, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 put an end to the practice forever.

A cut from the 188-89 Great Western Gun Works Catalog showing the .22 version of the Pieper "Mitrailleuse" or Volley Gun.
A cut from the 188-89 Great Western Gun Works Catalog showing the .22 version of the Pieper “Mitrailleuse” or Volley Gun.

In a rare print reference, the Pieper Volley Gun was advertised in the 1888 – 1889 Great Western Gun Works Catalog as “Pieper’s 7-Shot Mitrailleuse,” “mitrailleuse” being an old French word for a multi-barreled firearm. It was said to be “an accurate gun for 125 to 150 yard shooting” and “an excellent gun for wild geese and other wild game.” The catalog boasted that the Pieper gun, which was available in .22 or .32 rimfire, “will throw bullets farther than any other shot gun will throw buck shot, and persons who only want a gun for geese, crane, turkey, etc., cannot get anything that will do the work as well.”

Further, the Pieper Mitrailleuse was said to have a spread of three feet at 125 yards, so it was admirably comprehensive. The gun retailed for an astounding $70, whereas you could order a Winchester Model 1886 Express Rifle in .50-95 for “only” $20.25. That makes the Pieper Volley Gun one of the most expensive guns of its day.

I didn’t have an opportunity to shoot the LaPorte Museum’s Pieper Volley Gun, of course, as museums tend to frown on that sort of thing. But I was permitted to handle it and examine it rather closely. As near as I can tell, to fire the Pieper Volley Gun you opened the action by thumbing back the hammer and operating the action lever, which also serves as a trigger guard. (This is different from the action of the Remington Rolling Block rifle, on which the breechblock is retracted by a thumbpiece.) You’d then remove the disc-like cartridge carrier, insert seven cartridges into its chambers, put the whole thing back into the chamber and close the action lever to bring the breech into battery. You could then put the gun on half-cock or just squeeze the trigger.

Then — blammo! Seven at a single blow, just like the Brave Little Tailor.

To extract the fired shells, you had to open the action and remove the entire carrier, which is a separate piece fitted tightly to the barrel group. I guess you then had to poke out the empties with a stick or something.

I had supposed the Pieper Volley Gun in the LaPorte collection was a very rare piece, but it turns out that a similar Pieper Volley gun was recently offered by C. W. Slagle Antiques of Phoenix, Arizona. The Slage gun was chambered in .22 rimfire (known in Europe as the 6mm Flobert) and shows sign of use. The one in the LaPorte museum, however, looks as though it just left the factory. It’s in virtually new condition and doesn’t appear ever to have been fired.

As so often happens when I get to researching a particular firearm, now I want a volley gun. I wouldn’t ever use it on waterfowl, of course, but for those 150-yard shots on turkey it’d be just the thing.

This is a web-exclusive feature by Dan Shideler, Editor of the “World’s Greatest Gun Book,” — Gun Digest. To learn more about the 2010 edition of Gun Digest, Click Here

Recommended books and DVDs for gun owners:

Gun Digest 2011. Click hereGun Digest 2011, The World’s Greatest Gun Book, 65th Edition

Gun Digest 1944-2009 3-DVD Set

Massad Ayoob’s Greatest Handguns of the World

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