Shoulder Guns

Brand Gun Advertisement

Advertisement in the Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript, Aug. 14, 1888.

Problems in capturing whales included difficulty in penetrating tough blubber, getting close enough to the whale to dart an iron effectively, and killing with a hand lance while alongside a fighting whale, especially in rough weather. These problems were compounded when whaling in ice fields; getting close to a whale through the ice to harpoon and lance it was a hazardous operation. Once the whale was harpooned it would often dive below the ice and pull the whaleboat into the ice and destroy it. Many whalelines had to be cut to prevent loss of a whaleboat; this resulted in lost whalecraft and a lost whale.

To minimize these risks several approaches were taken. Early attempts employed poison to eliminate the need for lancing, and to kill the whale quickly before it would be lost. Explosive harpoons were also tried without much success. In 1731 swivel guns mounted in the bow of the whaleboat were introduced to fire a harpoon into the whale at a greater distance. (A discussion of these guns is presented on the Swivel Guns page of this web site). However, swivel guns imparted excess stresses to the whaleboat due to the recoil of these large guns.

A solution to the excessive recoil imparted to the whaleboat was to discharge the harpoons and bomb lances from shoulder guns. The harpoons had to be much smaller than swivel-gun harpoons, however.

Early attempts in the development of shoulder-fired whale guns were fraught with failure. One early account in the Connecticut Current, Hartford, Conn., Feb. 28, 1810, describing a Mr. Fulton's experiments, stated:

Torpedoes and Harpoons - Mr. Fulton, not being permitted to enter the Capitol with his eloquence and machinery, exhibited them last Saturday, at Washington, to the populace in the street. In firing off his harpoon gun, the said harpoon flew the wrong way, and passed within three inches of the head of one of his assistants, a corporal of the troops, whom it would inevitably have killed had it struck him. In plain truth, Mr. F. failed completely in his experiment, and Congress were very fortunately saved from the disgrace of setting apart their SPLENDID HALL and a SOLEMN day for the exhibition of the most ridiculous "quiz" and the most miserable mess of "fudge," that ever a philosophical projector displayed.

Capt. Henry Clay Murdock, Master of Ship Nassau, sailing from New Bedord on a whaling voyage to the North Pacific, wrote in 1856 explaining the reluctance to using whaling guns (The Murdock Whaling Voyages, ca.1930):

The whale gun is making its appearance as part of the whaling equipment, but it is a crude affair. A whaler does not like to shoot a whale anymore than a sportsman would shoot a trout. It is not honorable. Harpoon the whale and play it with boat and line until you or the whale wins. Never shoot it. The gun will only be used on the sperm whale as a last resort. A whale might sink if shot before harpooning. The whale gun will never be a success until science has developed a power boat with ample speed and with some means of inflating the whale to prevent its sinking. When that time comes the present value of the whale will have disappeared and it will be hunted for other reasons.

The guns shared many common features, so more than one could be used to fire a harpoon or bomb lance. However the one most commonly used to fire harpoons was the Brand gun. Harpoons fired from these earlier guns are presented on a separate page of this web site. Some harpoons and bomb lances were intended specifically for use in only one gun and they are presented here with that gun to complete the picture of the gun and its untended use.

In 1846 the first successful muzzle-loaded shoulder gun was introduced for whaling. Lighter than swivel guns, and not mounted to the whaleboat, these heavy shoulder guns fired a harpoon over a slightly larger distance than a hand-darted iron could be effectively darted. In addition to the shoulder gun harpoons, bomb lances were developed to replace hand lancing. These had an internal time fuse usually ignited by the flash of the powder in the gun. The projectile could be fired over a distance rather than lancing beside the whale. After the bomb lance was buried in the whale, the time fuse burned down and exploded the bomb. Typical time for the fuse was approximately seven to ten seconds. The maximum weight of a projectile that could be effectively fired from a shoulder gun, with bearable recoil, was approximately three lbs. The recoil was nevertheless excessive for a shoulder gun. In 1887 James Templeman Brown, in "The Whale Fishery," said of this recoil:

...the gunner was kicked as far aft as 'midships, and it was found necessary then, even as it is now [1887], to tie the gun to the boat with a lanyard in order that it could be regained when it was "hoisted overboard." The recoil of the old shoulder-guns was immense. I have heard of two men who had their collar bones broken by a heavy gun.

In 1846 Oliver Allen of New London, Connecticut received a U.S. Patent for a gun-fired bomb lance (U.S. Patent No. 4,764, Sept. 19, 1846). In 1848 he received another patent for a harpoon fired from the same gun (U.S. Patent No. 5,949, Dec. 5, 1848). The gun itself was not patented because its features were common to many muzzle-loaded percussion shoulder guns at that time. However, it was introduced at the time of his gun harpoon and bomb lance, 1846. The gun was cast iron and weighed 23 lbs. The weight was necessary to absorb some of the recoil experienced when discharging a large projectile. The powder charge was limited to approximately three drams, and the projectile was limited to approximately three lbs., otherwise recoil would be excessive.

Early Brand Gun

Early Allen shoulder gun with hollow brass stock. No. 1 gun, length is 35-1/2", bore is 7/8". Note the ring for attaching a lanyard.

Early examples of Allen's gun were made with a hollow brass stock; later and more common examples exhibit the cast iron skeleton stock. The gun was muzzle-loaded and employed a percussion cap to ignite the black powder charge. The gun itself was successful, and became an industry standard. In the first half of 1852 advertisements for this gun in the Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript, a weekly newspaper for the whaling industry in New Bedford, were headed:

Allen's Whaling Gun and Patent Bomb Lance, With the improvements recently made by C.C. Brand.

Oliver Allen sold his gun business to Christopher C. Brand of Ledyard, Connecticut about 1849 and went to California for the gold rush. (Allen did not become wealthy finding gold, but he became very successful in cattle farming in California).

Brand Gun

Brand shoulder gun with open cast iron skeleton stock. Length is 38". (Author's collection).

Christopher C. Brand changed the stock from hollow brass to the iron skeleton. From then on the gun has been known as the Brand gun. It was made in three sizes:

#1 had a bore of 7/8" and weighed approximately 23 lbs.
#2 had a bore of 1-1/8" and weighed approximately 19-1/2 lbs.
#3 had a bore of 1-1/4" and weighed 19 lbs. or less.

The various sizes were to accommodate various bomb lances. The #1 gun, with a 7/8" bore, is the one most used for shoulder gun harpoons. For a description of several of these harpoons, see the page on this web site for Shoulder Gun Irons.

Robert Brown Gun

Robert Brown shoulder gun. Stamped on top rear of the barrel is "ROBERT BROWN NEW LONDON CT / MADE BY AD & CO." Length is 45-3/4", bore is 1-3/8"

Robert Brown of New London, Connecticut designed a shoulder gun in 1850 to fire a gun harpoon, gun lance and a bomb lance, all patented and designed specifically for his gun. The gun itself was not patented. Made entirely of gun metal, this was the heaviest of all the shoulder guns, weighing approximately 34 to 36 lbs. It was a muzzle-loaded gun discharged by a percussion cap. Examples of this gun have one hammer striking two separate caps on two nipples at the same time. This was necessary to ensure firing in a wet environment.

The initial reaction to Brown's gun and harpoon was enthusiastic. An article in Scientific American in April 1850 stated:

NEW WHALE HARPOON - Capt. Robert Brown, of New London, Conn., has invented a most important improvement for shooting and capturing whales. It is well known that some whales of the Pacific cannot be approached with the harpoon in a boat, and at best the harpooning and lancing of whales is a very dangerous and difficult business. The idea of firing the harpoon out of a gun has been often advanced, but Capt. Brown's harpoon, with the line attached, can be fired as accurately as a musket ball. The invention may be termed, "Whaling made successful and easy by a Yankee Captain."

Robert Brown Gun IronsDetail of Brown Iron

Robert Brown gun harpoons. Top, first head style. Middle two, second head style. Bottom, third and final style. To the left is detail of the third style with pivot barbs open.

Length of top harpoon is 38"; stamped one side of the shank is PATENTED, other side is JUNE 4TH 1850. Length of middle two is 36-7/8"; stamped on one side PATENTED, other side is JUNE 4TH 1850. Length of bottom iron is 35-1/4"; cast in raised letters on cast iron shank is R BROWN PATD 1850. (Detail to right is from Author's collection).

Brown's gun harpoon was patented in 1850 (U.S. Patent No. 7,410, June 4, 1850). It was made with a wide flat shank joined directly to the head. The shank was cast iron, cast with two holes through it just behind the head, and another hole near the butt end. The two holes at the head were for attaching the whale line. The line passed through one hole then back through the other and was then spliced in an eye splice. The line then passed back along the flat shank and passed through the hole at the butt end; this would cause the line to trail from the butt end when the iron was discharged. When loaded into the muzzle of the gun, the line passed from the hole at the butt forward to the head end where it exited from the muzzle. The end was spliced in an eye splice and secured to the main warp by means of a bowline through the eye splice.

The head of Brown's harpoon was not a patented feature, and it went through a number of changes, as can be seen above. The original design was a two-flue head with a lance blade fixed to it, perpendicular to the plane of the two-flue head. The lance blade projected betyond the two-flue tip. The second form of Brown's harpoon head incorporated two swivel barbs with the two-flue head. These pivot barbs folded inward for penetration, then spread outward for additional holding power when withdrawal forces were applied to the line. The third version was similar, except pivot barbs opened out farther and were a somewhat different shape, the lance blade was smaller and cast with the head, and the head was slightly smaller in general.

Brown Non-explosive Gun Lance

Robert Brown's non-explosive gun lance. Length is 36-1/2".

Brown received another patent for a non-explosive gun lance to be fired from the same gun (U.S. Patent No. 7,572, August 20, 1850). The patented feature was for the attachment of rope tails to stabilize the lance in flight (see quoted description below with the bomb lance).

An advertisement for Brown's gun and harpoon appeared in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchant's Transcript on June 25, 1850:

Brown's Whaling Gun, Patent Harpoon and lance, Were invented and very successfully used by the Patentee (his officers and boatsteerers,) during his late voyage as master of ship Electra, of New London. Capt Brown took on this voyage, (including what he shipped home and brought home) rising 4300 barrels of oil, and 53,000 lbs of bone. The practical utility of this invention for taking whales, has been demonstrated.

This would have been a voyage that started in 1847, and therefore would have been with the first harpoon head configuration. Another advertisement in the same newspaper in 1852 said that the guns and harpoons were taken by many other captains on their voyages; this would have included the second head configuration. Finally, on January 2, 1855 another advetisement in that paper said:

Brown's whale guns, harpoons and bombs are now warrented, if used as directed. I run no risk in warranting them as those who have latterly used them can affirm. Formerly the most of my harpoons were too heavy and not made in a proper shape, this defect I was only able to remedy in part at Honolulu S. I.

I am now able to furnish Guns, Harpoons, and Bombs which will be of most effectual service in taking whales. My harpoons are much improved in shape and workmanship, the heads being of a different pattern, and as they are made half a pound lighter there is no recoil now to the Gun in firing them, if the Gun is clean and used in conformity with the directions.

Brown Bomb LanceBrown Bomb Lance Rope Tails

Above: Brown's bomb lance. Length is 33-1/4" (author's collection).

Below: Brown's bomb lance with rope tails attached. Note the decreasing thickness of the braided tails.

Robert Brown's bomb lance was made in two parts; the forward bomb shell made of iron, with four cutting edges, and a rear section made of cast iron and fluted on three sides. The center of the rear section was hollow to contain a fuse which was ignited by the flash of the gun's discharge. A hole through each of the three fluted sides of the rear part, near the butt end, was provided for attaching rope tails. As Brown explained in his patent:

The friction between the tail and the air operates as a drag on the butt of the lance and keeps it back. The cords should be of uniform size and arranged symmetrically round the axis of the shank, so that they may drag behind it with equal force, and thus tend to keep the lance during its flight in the direct line in which it was projected from the gun.

When the bomb was loaded into the muzzle of Brown's gun, the rope tails were laid along the three flutes of the cast iron shank to the head. A cork screwed around a hollow threaded stud at the end of the butt ensured a snug fit in the barrel. Brown did not patent this bomb lance, but the features of the rope tails were claimed in his patent for the non-explosive gun lance.

As time went on a few problems became apparent. The weight of the gun was extremely heavy to minimize the recoil of Brown's very heavy harpoons and bomb lances, but the gun's recoil was still excessive. William G. Kirschbaum wrote of this gun in the New Bedford Evening Standard on Feb. 20, 1904:

It was the first shoulder gun in use, and several whalemen in New bedford have used it, but not to any extent. It was made of gun metal, the barrel had an inch and a half bore, and the person who handled it had to be stronger than an ox. The recoil was so great that often-times he was prostrated.

Grudchos & Eggers Gun

Grudchos and Eggers shoulder gun. Length is 38".

A shoulder gun with a rifled barrel was made in New Bedford by gun makers Julius Grudchos and Selmar Eggers in 1857. This gun was not patented, but was made to fire a bomb lance Grudchos & Eggers Bomb Lancedesigned specifically for this gun (U.S. Patent No. 17,370, May 26, 1857). The bomb lance incorporated a section of lead to engage the six rifling grooves in the barrel. These spiral grooves would then impart a spin to the bomb lance in flight to stabilize it for improved accuracy. A distinct disadvantage to this gun is the fact that no other type of bomb lance could be used with it. There are some Grudchos and Eggers guns known with the rifling grooves bored out resulting in a bore of about 1-1/16" which did not match any of the Brand guns.

The Grudchos and Eggers shoulder gun was made with a cast-steel barrel and it had a wood stock. A large ring was fixed to the bottom of the stock for attaching a lanyard to retrieve the gun should it fall overboard. It was a muzzle-loaded percussion gun of standard design, weighing approximately 18 lbs, the lightest of all shoulder guns (and therefore prone to more recoil). Provided with the gun was a flask charger for measuring the gunpowder.


Patent drwaing for Grudchos and Eggers bomb lance.

Cunningham & Cogan Gun

Cunningham & Cogan shoulder gun. Length is 33-1/2", bore is 1".

Herbert W. Chapman of Newark, New Jersey patented a shoulder gun in 1877 (U.S. Patent No. 190,820, May 15, 1877). This very sturdy gun, weighing 27 lbs., was manufactured by Patrick Cunningham of New Bedford. Cunningham was originally from Newark and undoubtedly knew Chapman from there. The gun became known as the Cunningham & Cogan gun, although Chapman was the patentee. This gun was used mainly on steam barks in the Arctic.

ChapmanThe Cunningham & Cogan shoulder gun was designed to fire a combined bomb lance and cartridge patented by Patrick Cunningham in 1875 (U.S. Patent No. 171,553, Dec. 28, 1875). The gun had a one-inch bore and was cast in one piece of cast iron, except the barrel and breechblock. In his patent Chapman stated:

Owing to the conditions under which weapons of this class are used, it is particularly desirable that they be of simple construction, of great strength and durability, and at the same time so arranged as to be readily handled. To effect these resultsis the object of the invention, which is accomplished by casting the breech, a breech-frame, trigger-guard, and other parts of the stock in a single piece.


Patent drawings for Chapman's shoulder gun.

The barrel was steel (cast iron barrels would fracture from the explosive pressure of discharge) and screwed into the casting. The iron breech block contained the firing pin and swung up and to the left to expose the breech. The hammer was manually cocked so that it lay down flat to admit the combined bomb lance and cartridge into the breech from the rear. The breech block was then closed and locked in place by a heavy iron latch.

Cunningham & Cogan AdvertisementAn advertisement for the Cunningham & Cogan gun first appeared in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and merchants' Transcript on April 4, 1876:

These Guns and Lances are pronounced by all who have seen and examined them, to be SUPERIOR to all other brands, and are recommended in the STRONGEST terms.

The Superiority of these Guns over all others, is that they can be Loaded and Discharged


You do not have to carry any Powder, Caps, &c., in the boats. Can be fired as wel[l] underwater as above, as water has no effect upon either Gun or Lance.

Wm. Lewis Gun

William Lewis shoulder gun. Length is 33-1/2", bore is 7/8".

William Lewis of New Bedford made a version of the Cunningham & Cogan gun with some variations. It was not patented. Lewis made the gun with a cast bronze breech and a drawn brass barrel. It also had a smaller bore, 7/8". The change of materials was because the brass and bronze would not become as brittle in the Arctic, and would be more resistant to corrosion. Lewis published his own Illustrated Catalog of Whaling Utensils (ca 1896). In it he described the gun in great detail:

It is 36 inches long and weighs 20 pounds. Bore 7/8 of an inch, standard size. The entire gun is made of the best non-corrosive materials. The breech is cast bronze of the finest quality, and the barrel is drawn especially for us and is used by no other makers. It is a much more expensive way of making a barrel, as experience has demonstrated that cast metal, which is cheaper for barrels, is liable to burst at any time. We warrant our barrels not to burst, and will replace any barrel found defective.

The locks are made very carefully and thoroughly tested. Particular attention has been paid to the hammers, making them of a material which will stand cold weather and not break. A very important point. All parts of the locks are interchangeable, thereby making repairs very cheap if needed.

The weight of stock and barrel is distributed so as to balance properly when firing. We believe it to be as near right as possible and suit the majority.

For simplicity, quickness in handling and ease in loading this gun is second to none, and if held firmly to the shoulder no trouble is experienced from the recoil.

To load the gun with the bomb and cartridge combined, throw back the breech block after putting the gun full cock. Then insert the bomb and push in until it stops. Next place the gun at half cock to prevent accident. Then see that the breech block goes down and is latched into place. When ready to fire put the gun at full cock and hold firmly against the shoulder.

Never snap the gun when it is empty, as the lock is powerful and snapping it does no good, but is liable to injure it. Keep the firing pin which passes through the breech block well oiled and clean. Also oil the other parts occasionally.

No pains or expense has been spared to make this gun the best there is, and it is generally acknowledged to be the standard gun for the purpose. Every gun is warranted perfect and packed in a suitable case.

Pierce & Eggers Gun

Pierce & Eggers shoulder gun, 1878. Length is 36-1/4", bore is 15/16".

In 1878 Ebenezer Pierce and Selmar Eggers, New Bedford gun manufacturers, obtained a patent that focused on a means of locking the breech block in place for discharge on a breech-loaded shoulder gun (U.S. patent No. 200,338, Feb. 12, 1878). The breech block, with firing mechanism, trigger and trigger guard was hinged at the bottom of the gun so that it would open by pivoting down and forward. When opened, a center-fire cartridge (Winchester No. 8) was placed into the breech. The bomb lance was loaded into the muzzle. After loading the cartridge, the breech block was closed and locked in place. The means of locking the breech block was the patented feature. A hook-shaped stud at the rear of the trigger guard extended through a slot in the bottom of the skeleton stock when the breech block was closed. A lever mounted in the skeleton stock pivoted to engage the Pierce & Eggers Patent Drawinghook-shaped stud and thereby lock the breech block closed. The firing mechanism was cocked by pulling back the hammer that extended out the top of the gun. This gun was made entirely of gun metal.

James Templeman Brown thought highly of the Pierce and Eggers gun, and in 1887 he wrote that it was ...

... one of the latest improved shoulder-guns, and the most popular and effective that has ever been introduced in the whale fishery. It may be used with either the Pierce or Brand explosive lance. It is also one of the most attractive whaling guns in appearance. It is made entirely of gun metal, with a skeleton stock and reinforced barrel. Charge, 2-1/2 drams of powder. Its length is 36-1/2 inches and its weight 24 pounds. It is manufactured by S. Eggers, New Bedford, Mass.


Patent drawings for Pierce and Eggers gun.

Pierce Gun

Pierce Shoulder Gun, 1882 - two versions. Length is 36-1/2", bore is 7/8".

A breech-loaded shoulder gun was patented by Ebenezer Pierce of New Bedford in 1882 (U.S. Patent No. 255,330, March 21, 1882). This gun was of all brass construction. The barrel opened by tilting forward (see Frank E. Brown advertisement below) to load a bomb lance and cartridge into the breech. A spring-loaded locking plate engaged a recess at the top rear of the barrel to secure it in the closed position for firing.

Frank Brown Advertisement for Pierce Gun

Positioned at each side of the gun barrel, near the breech, was a large lug cast as part of the barrel. When the barrel was locked closed the lugs engaged corresponding recesses in the brass stock. Pierce explained the function of this feature in his patent specifications:Patent Drawings for Pierce gun

During the act of firing the shock and strain will be transmitted from the barrel to its lugs, and hence the walls of the recesses within which the lugs are fitted will receive the impact of recoil. In this class of guns the recoil is very heavy, and hence great strength of parts is essential. These lugs being arranged on the sides of the barrel directly opposite each other, and about in line with the axis of the barrel or its longitudinal center, and being received into the said recesses, will entirely relieve the pivot by which the barrel is connected with the stock from all strain during firing, and will also relieve the locking plate or latch from pressure and strain; also, they will so hold the barrel that but a slight locking device will be required for maintaining the rear end of the barrel in position against the breech-piece.

Patent drawings for Pierce shoulder gun.

The hammer was concealed within the gun and was cocked by means of a lever on the right side of the gun. A large cover plate screwed on top of the gun behind the barrel concealed the firing mechanism and protected it from water and ice.

There were two versions of the Pierce shoulder gun, as shown above. In the later version (bottom) the pistol grip was solid and had a large hole at the bottom of the grip which could fit onto a support for aiming and firing.

Pierce Bomb Lance

Pierce 1879 bomb lance. Length is 17-1/2", diameter is 7/8" (Author's collection).

The Pierce gun was intended to fire a bomb lance patented by Pierce in 1879 (U.S. Patent No. 211,778, Jan. 28, 1879) and others with a 7/8" diameter fired by means of a cartridge. This bomb lance had metal flip-out fins for stabilization in flight. The fins were held in place for storage and loading by an iron ring that slid over them temporarily.

Shoulder guns were used for firing bomb lances throughout the whale fisheries into the 20th century. The use of shoulder guns for firing harpoons, however, was short lived. This was because accuracy of such harpoons was not acceptable. The light weight harpoon was deflected from its intended path by the weight of the trailing whale line. An article in The Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript, New Bedford, on November 13, 1855, said:

Guns for driving the harpoon have, we believe, been pretty generally abandoned, but we are assured by a manufacturer of fuse, who has lately contracted for making a quality especially adapted to this sub-marine and blubbery location, that the bomb-lance is now being quite extensively employed by many vessels, and that some have sent home from the Sandwich Islands for further supplies.


©: 2000 - 2008Thomas G. Lytle . All rights reserved

Back to the top of this page.

Back to Main Menu

Bibliography  Harpoons  History  Knives  Lances  Links  Markings  Non-Whaling

Patents  Poison  Processing  Shoulder-Guns  Shoulder-gun Irons  Spades  Swivel Guns and Irons