A mystery to try to get a handle on
An unusual breech-loading rifle concealed a secret that provoked Robert Morgan to dig deeper
Occasionally at Holts a gun turns up that has a feature or patent that is unidentified. More often than not, these features are found on prototype and experimental arms and the only recourse is to turn to the patent records, using any available clues as a starting point.
Recently, this unusual military style breechloading rifle came into my office. Dated 1867 and marked Selwyn Braendlin patent, it is a strange beast to say the least. The breechblock hinges up and flips open forwards over the barrel, exposing a tapered chamber reverse facing in the breechblock itself. The firing pin ignited a base fire system — a bit like a central firing rimfire — at the bottom of a conical shaped case and, when the block is shut, the cartridge is presented to the barrel face forwards in the traditional style. The large hammer is cranked right over the stock wrist to a central position and, when fired, everything is locked up tight.
A company called Mont Storm produced a similar hinged breech system at around the same time, but it utilised a more conventional earlier idea of a combustible cartridge with a separate percussion cap. There is every possibility that it produced this rifle on behalf of Selwyn Braendlin.
Now, if the action wasn’t strange enough, the plot thickens. The right-hand side of the butt is almost completely covered by a steel plate. The stock, to all intents and purposes identical to the proprietary Enfield Pattern 1853 three-band rifle-musket, has an additional screw centrally mounted through the brass heel-plate. Curiosity getting the better of me, I removed the screw, which releases the iron plate from the butt, revealing that the plate has an elongated socket cavity attached to its reverse.
The vendor believed this to be a storage compartment for the peculiar ammunition this rifle fires — but somehow this did not ring true.
Reading through the patent records turned up Selwyn Braendlin’s patent 2628 of 1865, which describes the peculiar breech and how the tapered conical case would facilitate easy extraction of the spent round, but no mention of the unusual iron plate nor its intended use is made.
Then bingo! Reading through some of Selwyn’s other patents, I came across patent 2970 of October 13, 1869. The first part of the patent dealt with odd ideas such as making the trigger-guard out of a spring metal so it could operate a firing pin — I love the Victorians — but at the bottom was another idea for a spade or shovel stored on the side of the butt with a tapering socket on the reverse. This would allow a separately carried brass-tipped wood handle to be inserted for use as an entrenching tool.
Selwyn suggests that the handle could also be utilised as a rudimentary pick or that the spade socket could be adapted to attach to the muzzle of the rifle, so the whole could be used as a more substantial digging tool. While this was not a new idea — the Americans had produced a trowel bayonet for some of their rifles during the Civil War
“Dated 1867 and marked Selwyn Braendlin patent, it is a strange beast to say the least”