The Blunderbuss - Frederick Wilkinson traces the history of an iconic weapon ...
When taking a shot every shooter has one prime purpose and that is to hit the target be it paper, human or beast. Anything that might improve the chance of doing this is to be welcomed. A good aim is an obvious requisite and the early handgun and harquebus were very much hit-or-miss weapons as aiming them was difficult, if not, impossible. Then came the musket and pistol, both of which could be fitted with sights on the barrels. The shooter now had an opportunity to line up his gun and the target and aim his shot.
Although the sighted firearms were an improvement most were still only single-shot, meaning that the shooter normally had only one chance to get it right. Once fired the gun was useless until reloaded. Any means of increasing the chances of that single shot scoring a hit was seen as a bonus.
One obvious improvement was to replace the single bullet with several and the scattergun was invented. This idea was good but even when there were more balls in the load if they simply left the barrel in one tight group the increased expectation of a hit was not greatly improved. The next step was to find some way to spread out the cluster of shot over a larger area. How to do this? One answer was to use a barrel with a wider bore or internal diameter and pack in more balls.
This step was limited as a big bore firearm, which is usually heavier and cumbersome, requires more propellant and takes longer to load. A simpler idea was use a normal sized barrel but with the internal diameter or bore gradually widening as it neared the muzzle. When fired the bunch of shot was less confined and gradually expanded outwards as it moved along the barrel and would leave the muzzle covering a larger area. The concept of the blunderbuss was born.
It is generally agreed that the name comes from two German words donder and busche combined to describe a thunder gun. The name is appropriate as the wider muzzle would also act like a megaphone and magnify the sound of the shot.
The earlier blunderbusses achieved this spread by physically belling the barrel like a trumpet – the traditional idea of the weapon and one particularly favoured by Americans when illustrating the early colonists. It was not easy to construct the flared barrel and it was later realised that the same effect could be obtained by making the barrel of more or less uniform, external diameter but gradually widening the internal bore.
The basic idea was a good one but it had limitations since it might have been surmised that the wider the muzzle, the greater would be the spread of shot, but in reality this is not the case. The increased bore did lead to a spread but beyond a certain width of the bore size it was found to have little or no further effect on to the amount of spread. This fact was not apparent to the earlier gunmakers and some of the older blunderbusses do have very flaring muzzles but experience showed that the same spread could be obtained by keeping the external diameter of the barrel more or less constant but gradually increasing the internal bore from breech to muzzle.
From the early 18th century some blunderbuss barrels often have only a slight flare at the muzzle whereas earlier versions have a bell shaped barrel. One feature common on 18th and 19th century blunderbusses is a single or double raised band at the muzzle.
Outside Europe the fact that the muzzle does not need to flare too much was not appreciated quite so quickly and some Indian and Turkish weapons retained their wide, often exaggerated, flare long after it was abandoned in Europe. Another misconception of some makers was that the spread could be affected by the shape of the muzzle and some blunderbusses were made with oval shaped muzzles in the belief that the shot would be spread more laterally. Unfortunately the effect was soon found to be not worth the effort.