“Can you get the bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham? Those which have an indentation behind fire much further, the dotted line marking the indentation. Sechele is very anxious to get the seven-barrelled gun. You seem to have forgotten it.’”
The above passage is an extract from a letter, written at Kolobeng on the 1st August 1850 by the Rev. Dr. David Livingstone to his father-in-law the Rev. Robert Moffat at Kudumane. Included in the missionary’s correspondence was a simple hand drawn sketch of a sharp pointed conical bullet.
The letter is revealing on a number of levels. In the face of residual deniers, it provides strong evidence that Moffat, as well as Livingstone, had more than a casual connection with the spread of firearms and armament’s technology in the region. The 8 bore bullet mould, as well as the seven barrel gun, was meant for the growing armoury of the Bakwena Kgosi Sechele, who was by then being threatened with attack by the Transvaal Boers.
Despite the public existence of such evidence, the above letter was published by Professor Isaac Schapera all the way back in 1959, Livingstone’s participation in the firearms trade during his residence in Botswana, which is clearly relevant to our understanding his historic identity, role and legacy, has continued to be underplayed or ignored by most of his biographers, while Moffat’s role has been virtually unnoticed.
The passage also gives us additional insight into Sechele’s by then already sophisticated appreciation of munitions and the latest trends weapons technology. In this respect, one’s attention may be drawn to Livingstone’s reference to the Kgosi’s reported desire for a seven-barrelled gun, which is a reference to his wish at the time to acquire a sample of the Nock Company’s latest seven barrelled carbine volley gun.
It is not clear whether or not Sechele ever obtained the Nock Gun, which was a specialized weapon originally designed for the British navy. From a single charge the gun was capable of firing from all seven of its barrels in close sequence. Volley guns, among which the Nock gun was the most prominent British manufactured example, were precursors to the machine gun. As firing platforms they reached their technological apex with the 1866 model French Mitrailleuse, which was transitional to the first true machine gun, the rotating Gatling gun.
Even if it was delivered, the Nock Gun would probably have been of limited military advantage to Sechele. As a muzzle loader, its seven barrels had to be individually loaded, a cumbersome process. When handheld it was also difficult to operate given its heavy recoil. Although somewhat more effective when mounted, it was still no more lethal at the time than the far more versatile, durable and easier to arm swivel guns or small cannon, which were by then also cheaper and more readily available in the region due to the general availability of naval surplus in the Cape Colony.
As an example of cutting edge weapons technology the more intriguing element of Livingstone’s prose is rather his reference to conical bullet of extraordinarily high calibre, an 8 bore being capable on impact of knocking down a substantial tree.
While Livingstone’s bullet sketch may otherwise appear unremarkable today, in 1850 it illustrated an advanced design that would not have been found in any European arsenal.
Prior to the 1850’s militaries in Europe, as well as most civilian marksmen, used spherical or ball shot, usually fired from smooth bore muskets, rather than conical bullets. Initial breakthrough efforts had been carried out by a British officer in India, Captain John Norton, who was initially inspired by his study of local blowpipes, led to a 1832 prototype, which was perfected in 1836 by the British gunsmith William Greener.
In tests the Greener bullet and rifle fired further and were more accurate than anything on the market. But they were, nonetheless, rejected by the conservatives then running the British Military’s Ordinance Department who saw no reason to shift from the reliable “Brown Bess” muskets that had been used against Napoleon three decades earlier.
As a result military development of what we would today recognize as the modern bullet instead shifted to France in 1840s, being identified with the efforts of a remarkable group of innovative officers associated with the Vincennes Military School and Chasseur D’Afrique rifle corps, most notably the trio of Henri-Gustave Delvigne, Francious Tamisier and Claude-Etienne Minie.
The efforts of the French, which in the end largely reproduced the earlier rejected efforts of Norton and Greener, resulted in the 1849 patent of the “Minie” ball or bullet (being popularly associated with Captain Minie), which was the first mass produced conical bullet to be adopted for military use. Ironically it began service with British rifle corps from 1851.
On the battlefield the Minie conical bullet quickly proved itself to be a game changer. Fired from a new generation of rifles they had up to 10 times the range of round shot fired from still standard issue smoothbore muskets. Even when fired from smoothbores the new bullets had 3 to 4 times the range of ball shot (to be continued).