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Belton Repeating Flintlock: A Semiautomatic Rifle in 1785

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In 1785, Joseph Belton (an American inventor) and William Jover (an English gunmaker) sold 560 repeating flintlock rifles to the British East India Company. The guns were a very remarkable design which used a detachable magazine tube of 7 rounds stacked in series with a seven sequential touch holes. When the first round was fired, the flintlock ignited a piece of “portfire” slow match that would burn for about one minute. Pulling the trigger would move the portfire rearward one touch hole at a time, firing each in sequence as long as it remained burning. In this way, Belton advertised the gun as being able to fire 21 rounds in a single minute (using three preloaded magazine tubes). If the portfire burned out, it could be replaced and the flintlock reprimed and recocked. This was a truly impressive technological feat in 1785!

Belton had been working on firearms designs since 1758, and he actually got an order for 100 roman-candle-type repeaters from the American Continental Congress in 1777 – but there were pricing disputes and the order was never fulfilled. The British military examined the guns, but declined to purchase any. The 560 guns made for the East India Company (200 muskets, 160 carbines, and 100 pairs of pistols) were shipped from England in 1786, half to Madras and half to Bengal. Unfortunately, no further record of their performance has been found and we don’t know how well they worked in practice. This example is one of the muskets, with a .665″ bore and a 39 inch barrel.

Many thanks to the Royal Armouries for allowing me to film and disassemble this amazing early repeater! The NFC collection there – perhaps the best military small arms collection in Western Europe – is available by appointment to researchers:

You can browse the various Armouries collections online here:

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