Back to the Drawing Board: the Nock Volley Gun

David Porter on Military History's doomed inventions.

In 1779, James Wilson submitted a design for a seven-barrel volley gun to the Board of Ordnance. Although he had intended the gun as an army weapon, the Board decided that it was impractical for land service, but would be useful for the Royal Navy’s warships.An initial batch, made by the London gunsmith Henry Nock, was tested at Woolwich before undergoing sea trials on HMS Phoenix off Portsmouth. They were simple 12mm (0.46in) calibre muzzle-loading flintlock weapons with six barrels mounted around a seventh central barrel. The barrel assembly was screwed to an iron plate set into the walnut stock and (in theory) all barrels were fired simultaneously.

The Nock volley gun. It was rapidly discovered that the weapon’s fierce recoil made it inherently inaccurate. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A few early examples were rifled, but loading was slow enough without the extra time involved in forcing rounds down rifled barrels, and the vast majority of volley guns produced were completed as smoothbores. It was quickly realised that rifling was largely a wasted effort as the weapon’s fierce recoil made it inherently inaccurate.

The Admiralty ordered a total of 500 at £13 each (roughly £1,200 today) from Henry Nock’s London workshops, which were issued on a scale of 20 for each first-rate ship of the line. Second and third rates received 16 and 12 respectively, whilst each frigate got 10.

Flash, recoil, and misfire

They were first used by Admiral Howe’s fleet at the Relief of Gibraltar in 1782, and problems rapidly became apparent, especially the tremendous flash and recoil. The flash posed a significant fire hazard to the sails and rigging whenever the guns were used aloft.

The recoil was something special – even men used to the hefty ‘kick’ of contemporary muskets found that that volley gun was almost uncontrollable and liable to badly bruise firers’ shoulders.

Strengths: seven-shot weapon
Drawbacks: fire risk from flash; bruising from recoil; clogged vents and misfires; risk of barrels blowing up

Misfires posed another severe hazard. In theory, the flintlock fired the central barrel which was bored with vents so that the flash fired the surrounding barrels. In practice, the vents tended to become clogged with powder residue after a few shots, causing misfires.

The fierce recoil could easily mask the fact that one or two barrels had misfired, and the firer would then reload as usual with a high risk of the double-loaded barrels blowing up the next time he pulled the trigger. Unsurprisingly, the guns were rarely used and were officially withdrawn from service in 1804.

Perhaps the final word on the Nock should go to a modern test-firing report:

I rammed all seven barrels (meticulously noting which had been loaded to prevent double charging) and primed the pan. Taking aim at a target some 15 feet away, my wavering hand pulled the trigger. In an instant I was able to fully comprehend the plight of those unfortunate crewmen armed with the Nock.

The butt of the gun drove itself hard into my right shoulder as the barrel cluster smacked into my chin. Worst of all, only two of the seven round balls struck the target. At that moment I was just happy I made it through the ordeal relatively unscathed (save for a slight powder burn and a rapidly forming bruise).