As Joe Engesser of Rock Island Auction Company has put it, “One common gun control argument is that America’s Founding Fathers could not have imagined the repeating “assault weapons” of today when the Second Amendment was written in 1791, numerous guns already existed that were capable of far faster firing rates than the typical muzzle-loading flintlocks of the era” (Engesser, 2021). I already knew this to be true, but had also seen some overstatements of the capability of period arms, especially the infamous Puckle gun and the celebrated Belton system. Without wading into the U.S. gun control debate, I decided to try to help put everyone (including myself) on the same page by assessing the capabilities of the systems that those seeking increased firepower could have (and in rare cases did) leverage prior to the end of the century.

A quick word on definitions – although ‘assault weapon’ is a politically charged and largely unhelpful term, we are on safer ground with the term ‘repeater’, which I will define (after Ferguson & Jenzen-Jones, 2022) as “A firearm in which the number of shots held in the weapon is greater than the number of barrels, one or more shots are held elsewhere than the firing chamber, and more than one shot can be fired before the weapon needs to be reloaded.” This rules out volley guns, organ guns and muzzle-loaded roman candle guns (and the word ‘firearm’ rules out air weapons like the celebrated Girardoni) but says nothing of rate of fire. In this sense it represents a ‘low bar’. Most hearing the term ‘repeater’ will think of the Winchester or Henry rifles (one action required to load and cock), or the Spencer (two actions) whereas some antique repeating arms require more time and effort to get back into action and would be far less effective. The infamous Puckle gun, for example, requires four separate actions to reload and recock including 1.5 turns of its crank handle back and forth. It is also strictly speaking a light artillery piece, not a small arm (or ‘handgun’ in period terms). Early ‘self-rotating’ revolvers (revolving the cylinder as they are cocked) precede Samuel Colt by some 185 years, but seem to have attracted little attention until the arrival of Artemis Wheeler and Elisha Collier in the early 19th century.

However, four systems stand out as not only ‘repeating’ by almost any definition, but also produced in quantity. Two even saw military adoption. The ‘Kalthoff’ (ca.1645 – 1710?), ‘Lorenzoni’ (1660s – ca.1820), and ‘Chelembron’ (spellings vary, ca.1685-1800) all operate as per modern repeaters, with one manual action required to make them ready for firing after the first shot, the first two utilising a lever and the latter a more cumbersome combined barrel and magazine group. The original inventor of each of these systems is debated, whereas the fourth system was definitively the work of American, Joseph Belton. Belton developed his original (ca.1758) Roman candle (superposed load) rapid-fire arm into first a pseudo-repeater requiring separate retraction, repriming and recocking of its lock and then, in 1786, a truly astonishing arm that many today would describe as ‘semi-automatic’ (albeit with a capacity of only seven shots). In fact, as David Harding has shown, it utilised a slow-burning artillery ‘portfire’ ignition tube in a retracting holder. The first shot was fired using the conventional flintlock, and also set the portfire burning. The user then had around a minute to retract this ignition source to the next position using an action bar precisely regulated by a series of small triggers, each pulled in turn to bring the portfire backward to the next touchhole. Once empty, the lock could be manually retracted to the rear and the weapon loaded like an ordinary musket. The East India Company purchased 560 muskets, carbines, and pistols to this design in 1786. The Royal Armouries is fortunate to possess one of the muskets, two pistols are at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and a carbine is on display at a museum in Madurai, India. Sadly, records of their issue or use do not exist. By contrast, the older underlever Kalthoff with its powder magazine under the breech or in the butt, forward tube bullet magazine, and either a laterally sliding or vertically rotating breechblock, did see military service. Although dismissed by Prince Frederik Hendrik of the Netherlands as ‘interesting but unfit for military use’, around 100 were provided to the Danish Foot Guards and saw service in the Siege of Copenhagen (1658-9) and Scandinavian War (1675-9). More than 50 survive today, even more than the strictly civilian Lorenzoni. Clearly, repeating firearms were more varied, more numerous and better known in the 18th century than most believe. Some were even ‘high capacity’ – Peter Kalthoff patent a variant of his family’s design that held 29 shots! Nonetheless, all of these weapons were expensive, cumbersome, and unreliable even by the standards of the day. The single shot gun and rifle (first muzzle and then breech-loading) would have to soldier on until the end of the 19th century before finally being supplanted by the affordable, capable and reliable repeater epitomised by the Winchester rifle.

This post is based upon a paper presented at Arsenals of History.


-Blackmore, H.L. Guns and Rifles of the World (London, 1965).

Engesser, Joe. Assault Weapons Before The Second Amendment. RIA blog, July 9, 2021. <>

-Ferguson, J.S. ‘An English brass snaphaunce self-rotating revolver by Annely, ca.1730’ Arms & Armour (Royal Armouries, forthcoming).

-Harding, D.F. Smallarms of the East India Company 1600-1856 (Foresight, 1999) (4 volumes).

-Held, Robert. ‘Michele Lorenzoni’s Masterpiece’ in R. Held (ed.) Art, Arms and Armour: An International Anthology, Chiasso, 1979, pp.366-379.

-Held, Robert. The Belton Systems. (Mowbray, 1998).

-Hoff, Arne. Dutch Firearms (Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1978).
-Jenzen-Jones, N.R. (ed.). 2022. The ARES Glossary, Version 1.1 (July 2022).

Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES).


-Wilson, Guy. The Vauxhall Operatory – A Century of Inventions before the Scientific Revolution (Basiliscoe, 2010).