The Hotchkiss 37mm Revolving Cannon

The Hotchkiss 37mm Revolving Cannon

Old British Guns
Sunday, 17 January 2010​

The Hotchkiss revolving cannon was a 37mm hand operated machine gun that was considered light enough to travel with cavalry, although not for the British Army. A light (well sort of, around 1000 pounds) , mobile and fast firing artillery piece, it could fire up to 40 explosive or steel shot rounds per minute. With a range of 2000 yards (practical range, max was 4000 yards but wind and other things could upset accuracy), it could easily outrange rifle fire. The British Navy also adopted it around 1875 for use against the ever present torpedo boat threat, but the caliber was considered too small to be effective. It was felt to be comparable to the Nordenfelt and as in that gun larger calibers were later adopted.


It was developed by an American, Benjamin Berkeley Hotchkiss, living in France. He was approached by French officers looking for a fast firing gun, and it was soon adopted by all the major Powers, including the U.S., which went for it in a big way.


The mechanism differed from the Gatling Gun in that there were multiple barrels but only one striker, bolt and extractor. A center cam wheel is turned by the hand crank, which both rotates the barrels and holds them in place during different phases. Each rotation of the crank loads one shell, fires one shell and extracts one shell. The cam gear is cleverly shaped to turn another gear in the left side of the breech block which is pinned to 2 toothed shafts. The upper toothed shaft strips off a shell from the magazine and loads it in the chamber, while the bottom toothed shaft extracts a shell and dumps it out the bottom. The firing pin strikes the shell when the barrel is at the bottom of it's rotation.


The ammunition for the gun is a self contained cartridge, made up of brass wrapped into a cylinder with a solid center primed head, as in early British rifle bullets. An explosive shell and a canister shell were available, Canister consisted of steel shot, not unlike a giant shotgun shell, and was murderous against groups of the enemy. The shells weighed around a pound, were 5 inches long, and the tin or zinc magazine held 10. To unload the gun after firing consisted of removing the firing pin, rotating the barrels backwards with the handcrank and prying out the shells with a screwdriver, or pushing them out with a ramrod. Standing downstream from the gun had to give the gunner a moment of pause, as with unloading the Gatlings.

Some Hotchkiss guns were mounted on British ships, although they really preferred the Nordenfelt gun. Some guns were used in the Boer War, and at least one was present at the seige of Mafeking.

By WWI, the Hotchkiss was considered to lack the range and rate of fire, as well as being far too heavy to be a good infantry support weapon or naval gun. So the Germans instead used it as an anti-aircraft gun, which Allied pilots referred to as 'the Flaming Onion'. Here is a Wikipedia article that wrongly states that the gun was designed to 'fire flares':

Flaming onion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As the article states, the gun was pretty effective. I can see how a revolving cannon firing big HE shells would be against low- and slow-flying biplane fighters and bombers.

The Hotchkiss Gun was also purchased and issued by the U.S. Army. It was used in the later period of the Indian Wars in America, and was present at the Wounded Knee massacre. It was part of the equipment of the American expeditionary force deployed to Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and it was used in the assault on San Juan Hill.

Hotchkiss gun - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I can only imagine how people would feel in the days when muzzle-loading cannons were the norm when suddenly the area around them was hit by a rain of one-pound HE shells. And if they charged the gun's position, they would be treated to a full strip of ten grapeshot rounds in just a few seconds. The Hotchkiss Gun was the first rapid-fire cannon ever fielded, and must have delivered amazing 'shock and awe' to its unsuspecting targets.


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