It’s called a Chambers swivel gun and it’s a nasty piece of work, capable of firing 175 rounds in two minutes using a series of charges that work like a Roman candle and can’t be extinguished once ignited.
The primitive seven-barrel machine gun dates to the War of 1812 and was prized by U.S. naval commanders, who hoped to position such weapons in ships’ rigging to strafe opponents’ decks and repel boarding parties.
The only surviving intact specimen is a centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Washington Navy Yard that commemorates the bicentennial of the conflict with rare battle artifacts and stories of soldiers who were drafted to fight.
The muskets, pistols, swords and boarding pikes assembled for the show, “1813: Don’t Give Up the Ship,” will look familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie “Master and Commander” or the “Hornblower” television series.
They’re arrayed alongside seldom-seen congressional medals and ornate swords presented to battle heroes, furnishings from captains’ quarters and unusual documents, such as a court petition from a New Hampshire ship’s crew seeking to recover its share of booty from a seized British vessel.
“Coming to this exhibit gives you a really good idea of what the forces were using against each other,” said Edward Furgol, deputy director of the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and curator of the exhibit. Many items are on loan from private collections, including the Chambers gun, which belongs to the state of New Jersey.
The war was born out of a British blockade of Napoleonic France that kept U.S. exports from reaching European markets and violated its right to remain neutral. It is primarily remembered today for iconic moments such as the burning of Washington, D.C., the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Battle of New Orleans.
Though it helped launch the political careers of four future presidents — James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison — and settled the question of who would dominate the heartland of North America, the military conflict didn’t have a clear-cut outcome, petering out after England’s victory over France. The most decisive victory, at New Orleans, was actually fought after a formal peace treaty was signed. The costs of the war drained the U.S. Treasury and bankrupted hundreds of businesses.
The exhibit is part of a series the museum is mounting that traces each year of the conflict. The current installment opens by focusing on the exploits of Navy Capt. James Lawrence, who captured the HMS Peacock in February 1813 and was subsequently given command of the frigate USS Chesapeake. Mortally wounded during a fierce fight with the HMS Shannon off Boston in June, he uttered the dying command, “Don’t give up the ship,” which was immortalized in a battle flag that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry created for his flagship, which was named after Lawrence.
Displays go on to chronicle Perry’s dramatic victory on Lake Erie against a British squadron and subsequent action through the Battle of the Thames in October 1813, a decisive moment that shattered a British-Canadian-Indian alliance and re-established American control over the northwest frontier.
Next year, the exhibit will be modified to track with events during the pivotal year of 1814, including the sacking of Washington, during which most of the Navy Yard was burned to prevent its capture by the British.
Though the war has been well-documented, assembling mementos is no small feat. The presentation swords, medals and other personal items were often kept for generations by recipients’ descendants. There are only about 30 surviving artillery pieces in the United States and Canada because many others were retrofitted in the 1830s and 1840s.
The armaments document the brutal nature of naval warfare during the period. Though broadsides of cannon fire and sharpshooting from Marines created a lethal environment, it was often necessary for sailors to capture an enemy ship by hand, by boarding and clearing the decks in hand-to-hand fighting with swords, axes and pistols. With no time to reload, brass-mounted firearms were used as billy clubs after the initial shot.
The Chambers gun, designed by Pennsylvania gunsmith Joseph Chambers, had the potential to dramatically alter the calculus but was cumbersome to use and also dangerous. It took hours to load the special cylindrical bullets, which were designed so each one’s powder was ignited by the firing of the round ahead of it. Mistakes loading and priming the weapon could easily turn it into a pipe bomb.
The lack of documentation surrounding the weapon’s performance in battle suggests the military treated it as a secret weapon, though anecdotal evidence indicates the guns were used on ships including the USS Constitution and, possibly, during engagements in Oswego, N.Y., on Lake Champlain and in New Orleans.
Furgol secured one recovered bullet for the display and has asked curators at 1812 battle sites to look for more.
“I’m guessing some may have shown up and were logged as unidentified pieces of metal,” he said.
“1813: Don’t Give Up the Ship” runs through mid-October at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy at the Washington Navy Yard, 736 Sicard St. SE (Metro: Navy Yard, green line). Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays. For tours, call 202-433-6826.