The Wiley Dynamite Gun
If having a gun that shoots bullets were good, what would you call a gun that shoots explosives? Here at Firearms Talk we look at that seemingly impossible breed of weapon: the Dynamite Gun.
What is it?
All guns are projectile weapons. In other words, they use force to propel an object down a barrel out to a target. The only thing that changes is the type of propellant and the projectile. In a Remington 870, a load of shot is scattered out of the muzzle by an explosion of smokeless powder set off by a primer. Well the dynamite gun does the same thing, it's just that the projectile is made of TNT and it's pushed out by a charge of compressed air. Kinda like a spud gun, but instead of a potato, you fire a bomb. The father of this device was one Edmund Zalinski.
Enter Mr. Zalinski
Born in Krnik, Prussian Poland on December 13, 1849, Edmund Zalinski immigrated to the US with his parents at age four. Not quite 15 years old, he dropped out of high school and volunteered for the Union Army during the Civil War. Serving in the artillery, he finished the war as an officer and remained in the Army once peace broke out. A pretty smart guy, he taught military science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while inventing several mechanical doo dads. One of these was a dynamite gun. Showing his device to the military, (he was still on the Army rolls as a First Lieutenant); it was love at first sight.
By the next year, Zalinski had teamed up with a company calling itself the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of New York (presumably to tell itself apart from the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of other towns) and was off and running. The gun was huge, and looked like something Jules Verne would use to shoot a missile to the moon. It had a 15-inch (379.5mm) bore. Using compressed air, it could catapult 500-pounds of dynamite more than two miles with better accuracy than the blackpowder cannon of the era. The air was produced by a steam powered (think locomotive) compressor few by coal. The shells were fused electrically and could be set to explode with a delay.
These huge shells "made holes like the cellar of a country house" and, with no distant explosion to give it away, arrived almost silently on target.
Sales and success
Well the Navy liked the idea so much that they built the world's first 'Dynamite Cruiser.' Named appropriately the USS Vesuvius. Mounting three of Zalinski's 15-inch pneumatic guns, the guns were located below the deck of the ship and their 55-foot long barrels poked up through the top deck. To aim the weapons, since the guns could not be turned, the whole ship tacked left or right (we mean port or starboard) while the pressure of the air was adjusted to correct range. Charges of various sizes ranging from 50-500 pounds could be used to do anything from bombard shore positions to sink ships.
(You see the three tubes sticking up from the deck of the ship? They are 15-inch wide, 55-foot long dynamite guns on the cruiser USS Vesuvius)
One of the first submarines, built by John Holland bankrolled by Zalinski and the 'Nautilus Submarine Boat Company', used a dynamite gun. By 1894, Zalinski had retired from the Army and spent the next fifteen years of his life developing his inventions.
The Army bought seven dynamite guns from Zalinski between 1894-1901. Two were placed at Fort Hancock in New Jersey, three at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge at Battery Dynamite in San Francisco, and one each at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Fishers Island, New York.
A smaller and more portable design, produced by a rival company using a small charge of smokeless powder. This gun was the Sims-Dudley dynamite gun (small 'd' for trademark reasons.) Firing a four-inch shell through a towed field piece, the Army bought 16 of these guns and used them in the Spanish American War. The thing is, they just did not work very well.
By the 1900s, smokeless powder howitzers and coastal artillery pieces could fire much larger shells more accurately at distances several times further and the short, short, career of the dynamite gun was over.
By 1904, the Army scrapped both its small and large bomb throwers while the Navy rearmed the USS Vesuvius with torpedoes.
Still, today we enjoy the same technology to fire human cannonballs through the air at carnivals and circuses. Then of course, there are always potato guns too.