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A flintlock blunderbuss, built for Tipu Sultan Flintlock Blunderbuss Tipoo Sahib Seringapatam 1793 1794.jpg
A flintlock blunderbuss, built for Tipu Sultan

The blunderbuss is a firearm with a short, large caliber barrel which is flared at the muzzle and frequently throughout the entire bore, and used with shot and other projectiles of relevant quantity or caliber. The blunderbuss is commonly considered to be an early predecessor of the modern shotgun, with similar military and defensive use. [2] It was effective only at short range, lacking accuracy at long distances. A blunderbuss in handgun form was called a dragon , and it is from this that the term dragoon evolved. [3] [4]



An English flintlock blunderbuss. English flintlock blunderbuss.jpeg
An English flintlock blunderbuss.

The term "blunderbuss" is of Dutch origin, from the Dutch word donderbuis, which is a combination of donder, meaning "thunder", and buis, meaning "pipe" (Middle Dutch: busse, box, tube, from Late Latin, buxis, box, [2] from Ancient Greek pyxίs (πυξίς).[ citation needed ]

The transition from donder to blunder is thought by some to be deliberate; the term blunder was originally used in a transitive sense, synonymous with to confuse, and this is thought to describe the stunningly loud report of the large-bore, short-barreled blunderbuss. [3] [ failed verification ] The term dragon is taken from the fact that early versions were decorated with a carving in the form of a mythic dragon's head around the muzzle; the muzzle blast would then give the impression of a fire-breathing dragon. [4]

Design and use

A French blunderbuss, called an espingole, 1760, France. Espingole 1760 France.jpg
A French blunderbuss, called an espingole, 1760, France.
Musketoon, blunderbuss and coach gun from the American Civil War era. Fusils poudre noire.JPG
Musketoon, blunderbuss and coach gun from the American Civil War era.

The flared muzzle is the defining feature of the blunderbuss, differentiating it from large caliber carbines; the distinction between the blunderbuss and the musketoon is less distinct, as musketoons were also used to fire shot, and some had flared barrels. [5] [6] [7] The muzzle (and often the bore) was flared with the intent not only to increase the spread of the shot, but also to funnel powder and shot into the weapon, making it easier to reload on horseback or on a moving carriage; modern experiments corroborated the dramatic improvement in shot spread, going from a 530-millimetre-spread (21-inch) diameter from a straight barrel to an average of 970 mm (38 in) spread at 9 metres (10 yards). [8]

Blunderbusses were typically short, with barrels under 60 centimetres (2 ft) in length, at a time when a typical musket barrel was over 90 cm (3 ft) long. [9] [10] One source, describing arms from the early to middle 17th century, lists the barrel length of a wheel lock dragon at around 28 cm (11 in), compared to a 41 cm (16 in) length for a blunderbuss. [3]

The blunderbuss could be considered an early shotgun, and served in similar roles. While various old accounts often list the blunderbuss as being loaded with various scrap iron, rocks, or wood, resulting in damage to the bore of the gun, it was typically loaded with a number of lead balls smaller than the bore diameter. Barrels were made of steel or brass.

A blunderbuss pistol, or dragon, found at a battlefield in Cerro Gordo, Veracruz, Mexico Dragon pistol.jpg
A blunderbuss pistol, or dragon, found at a battlefield in Cerro Gordo, Veracruz, Mexico
An 1808 Harper's Ferry blunderbuss, of the type carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition Harpers ferry blunderbuss 1808.jpg
An 1808 Harper's Ferry blunderbuss, of the type carried on the Lewis and Clark Expedition
A pair of early blunderbuss pistols from Poland fitted with the miquelet lock Muzeum Diecezjalne - 06.JPG
A pair of early blunderbuss pistols from Poland fitted with the miquelet lock
A recreation of one of Lewis and Clark's pirogues with a blunderbuss mounted to the bow with a pintle. Pintle mounted gun on the "White" pirogue.JPG
A recreation of one of Lewis and Clark's pirogues with a blunderbuss mounted to the bow with a pintle.

The blunderbuss, and especially the dragon, was typically issued to troops such as cavalry, who needed a lightweight, easily handled firearm. [10] The dragon became so associated with cavalry and mounted infantry that the term dragoon became synonymous with mounted infantry. In addition to the cavalry, the blunderbuss found a use for other duties in which the shotgun-like qualities were desirable, such as for guarding prisoners or defending a mail coach, and its use for urban combat was also recognized. [4] [11] Blunderbusses were also commonly carried by officers on naval warships, privateers and by pirates for use in close-quarters boarding actions. [12] The Portuguese Marines used it widely in the 17th century. Many types of ammunition, including gravel and sand, could be shot in a pinch, but most of the time they were shot using traditional lead balls.

The blunderbuss used by the British Royal Mail during the period of 1788–1816 was a flintlock with a 36 cm (14 in) long flared brass barrel, brass trigger guard, and an iron trigger and lock. A typical British mail coach would have a single postal employee on board, armed with a blunderbuss and a pair of pistols, to guard the mail from highwaymen. [13] One 18th century coaching blunderbuss in another British collection had a brass barrel 43 cm (17 in) long, flaring to 51 mm (2 in) at the muzzle; it was also provided with a spring-loaded bayonet, which was held along the barrel by a catch and would spring forward into place when released. [7] Spring-loaded bayonet blunderbusses were also used by the Nottingham City Police after its formation around 1840. [14]

While the blunderbuss is often associated with the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims of 1620, [15] evidence suggests that the blunderbuss was relatively scarce in the American colonies. After the Battle of Lexington in 1775, British General Thomas Gage occupied Boston, Massachusetts, and upon negotiating with the town committee, Gage agreed to let the inhabitants of Boston leave town with their families and effects if they surrendered all arms. While most of the residents of Boston stayed, those who left under the agreement surrendered 1,778 long arms, 634 pistols, 273 bayonets, and only 38 blunderbusses. [16] The blunderbuss did still have its civilian applications, however; the Lewis and Clark Expedition carried a number of blunderbusses, some of which were mounted and used as small swivel guns on the pirogues. [6]

Crude tripwire activated blunderbusses, known as alarm guns, spring guns and cemetery guns, [17] were set up in graveyards and country estates to scare away poachers and resurrection men, and alert the gamekeeper or sexton to their presence. [18] [19]

By the middle of the 19th century, the blunderbuss was replaced for military use by the carbine, but still found use by civilians as a defensive firearm. [20] [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

A rifle is a long-barreled firearm designed for accurate shooting, with a barrel that has a helical pattern of grooves (rifling) cut into the bore wall. In keeping with their focus on accuracy, rifles are typically designed to be held with both hands and braced firmly against the shooter's shoulder via a buttstock for stability during shooting. Rifles are used extensively in warfare, law enforcement, hunting, shooting sports, and crime.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shotgun</span> Firearm intended for firing a junta of small to medium sized pellets

A shotgun is a long-barreled firearm designed to shoot a straight-walled cartridge known as a shotshell, which usually discharges numerous small pellet-like spherical sub-projectiles called shot, or sometimes a single solid projectile called a slug. Shotguns are most commonly smoothbore firearms, meaning that their gun barrels have no rifling on the inner wall, but rifled barrels for shooting slugs are also available.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Single-shot</span> Firearm that holds one round of ammunition

In firearm designs, the term single-shot refers to guns that can hold only a single round of ammunition inside and thus must be reloaded manually after every shot. Compared to multi-shot repeating firearms ("repeaters"), single-shot designs have no moving parts other than the trigger, hammer/firing pin or frizzen, and therefore do not need a sizable receiver behind the barrel to accommodate a moving action, making them far less complex and more robust than revolvers or magazine/belt-fed firearms, but also with much slower rates of fire.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cartridge (firearms)</span> Ammunition consisting of a casing, projectile, propellant, and primer

A cartridge or a round is a type of pre-assembled firearm ammunition packaging a projectile, a propellant substance and an ignition device (primer) within a metallic, paper, or plastic case that is precisely made to fit within the barrel chamber of a breechloading gun, for the practical purpose of convenient transportation and handling during shooting. Although in popular usage the term "bullet" is often informally used to refer to a complete cartridge, it is correctly used only to refer to the projectile.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caliber</span> Internal diameter of the barrel of a gun

In guns, particularly firearms, caliber is the specified nominal internal diameter of the gun barrel bore – regardless of how or where the bore is measured and whether the finished bore matches that specification. It is measured in inches or in millimeters. In the United States it is expressed in hundredths of an inch; in the United Kingdom in thousandths; and elsewhere in millimeters. For example, a US "45 caliber" firearm has a barrel diameter of roughly 0.45 inches (11 mm). Barrel diameters can also be expressed using metric dimensions. For example, a "9 mm pistol" has a barrel diameter of about 9 millimeters. Since metric and US customary units do not convert evenly at this scale, metric conversions of caliber measured in decimal inches are typically approximations of the precise specifications in non-metric units, and vice versa.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Riot shotgun</span> Type of shotgun

A riot shotgun is a shotgun designed or modified for use as a primarily defensive weapon, by the use of a short barrel and sometimes a larger magazine capacity than shotguns marketed for hunting. The riot shotgun is used by military personnel for guard duty and was at one time used for riot control, and is commonly used as a door breaching and patrol weapon by law enforcement personnel, as well as a home defense weapon by civilians. Guns of this type are often labeled as breaching shotguns, tactical shotguns or special-purpose shotguns to denote the larger scope of their use; however, these are largely marketing terms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shotgun slug</span> Type of ammunition used mainly in hunting medium and large game

A shotgun slug is a heavy projectile made of lead, copper, or other material and fired from a shotgun. Slugs are designed for hunting large game, and other uses, particularly in areas near human population where their short range and slow speed helps increase safety margin. The first effective modern shotgun slug was introduced by Wilhelm Brenneke in 1898, and his design remains in use today. Most shotgun slugs are designed to be fired through a cylinder bore, improved cylinder choke, rifled choke tubes, or fully rifled bores. Slugs differ from round ball lead projectiles in that they are stabilized in some manner.

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The M1819 Hall rifle was a single-shot breech-loading rifle designed by John Hancock Hall, patented on May 21, 1811, and adopted by the U.S. Army in 1819. It was preceded by the Harpers Ferry M1803. It used a pivoting chamber breech design and was made with either flintlock or percussion cap ignition systems. The years of production were from the 1820s to the 1840s at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal. This was the first breech-loading rifle to be adopted in large numbers by any nation's army, but not the first breech-loading military rifle – the Ferguson rifle was used briefly by the British Army in the American Revolutionary War. The Hall rifle remained overshadowed by common muskets and muzzleloading rifles which were still prevalent until the Civil War. The early flintlocks were mostly converted to percussion ignition.

The following are terms related to firearms and ammunition topics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dragon (firearm)</span>

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Lela or lila is a type of Malay cannon, used widely in the Nusantara archipelago. They are similar to a lantaka but longer and had larger bore. Lela can be configured as swivel gun, fixed gun, or mounted in a gun carriage. It is the equivalent of European falcon and falconet.


  1. Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, your New York.
  2. 1 2 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Blunderbuss"  . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  3. 1 2 3 Sibbald Mike Lier (1868). The British Army: Its Origin, Progress, and Equipment. Cassell, Petter, Galpin. pp. 33, 302–304.
  4. 1 2 3 George Elliot Voyle, G. de Saint-Clair-Stevenson (1876). A Military Dictionary. W. Clowes & Sons. pp.  43, 114.
  5. "Musketoon (AAA2517)". National Maritime Museum. Archived from the original on 2009-02-01.
  6. 1 2 Carrick, Michael (2005). "Thunder Gun". Discovering Lewis & Clark (published May 2005). Retrieved 2017-04-28.
  7. 1 2 Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (1905). Proceedings. Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. p. 251.
  8. "Myths of the Blunderbuss" (PDF).
  9. See Brown Bess.
  10. 1 2 Charles Francis Hoban (1853). Pennsylvania Archives., page 324, from a letter dated March 7, 1778
  11. George Otto Trevelyan (1905). The American Revolution. Longmans, Green and co.
  12. "Pirate Blunderbuss; A Blunt and Intimidating Weapon". Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  13. The British Postal Museum and Archive. "Weapons". Archived from the original on 2008-08-07. Retrieved 2008-07-07., see items OB1995.338 and OB1995.344
  14. Mike Waldren. "Arming the police"., see section "1836 – Protection of Royal Palaces"
  15. Archie Frederick Collins (1917). Shooting: For Boys. Moffat, Yard and company. pp.  33–34.
  16. Abiel Holmes (1829). The Annals of America, Volume II. Hillard and Brown. p. 242.
  17. Market Lavington museum
  18. Royal armories
  19. Craven museum
  20. Edward Henry Knight (1876). Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary. Hurd and Houghton.
  21. Henry Mayhew (1855). "Punch". XXVIII.{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)Number 704, page 2