Curiosities from 150 years of The Engineer archive

Those of you that thought last issue’s Ice Locomotive stretched the boundaries of credibility, think again, and behold Perkins’ steam gun.

This Heath-Robinsonesque weapon, produced by Angier and Loftus Perkins of Gray’s Inn Road, London, used steam at a pressure of 206 bar (3,000lb per sq in) to fire bullets at potentially devastating speeds.

As The Engineer explained: ‘The gun is an ordinary gun barrel to which steam is admitted by a stop valve, a two-way cock in the breech is worked by hand, and by its motion also moves a contrivance for delivering one bullet at each discharge.’

Demonstrating that the Engineer of the Victorian era too was keen to keep one eye on the past, the featured gun is actually an updated version of a device originally developed by Loftus Perkins’ forebear, eminent US engineer Jacob Perkins.

Back in 1824, Perkins exhibited his gun at the Adelaide gallery in London’s Strand, where he discharged bullets under a pressure of 1,500lb per sq in into planks of wood. He even developed a mechanism whereby a series of balls could be fed into the gun barrel turning it into a machine gun with a firing rate of 1,000 shots a minute. The Engineer recalls that Perkins demonstrated his device to the Duke of Wellington, who reportedly observed that ‘had it been invented before gunpowder, the latter must have been a great improvement on it’.

The Engineer wasn’t particularly impressed with the updated version of the weapon. ‘The contingencies of numerous joints, the liability to injury, if not to constant derangement, of so many delicate appendages, such as the pump and gauges, and the necessity for supplies of fuel and water, as well as bullets, would operate against the success of the steam gun, brought into the field against an enemy. There can, at the same time, be no doubt that it can be made to project bullets with great rapidity and force.’