Predicting the Future

Journal #27 of the Royal United Service InstitutionWhile doing some research on the experimental Spencer-Lee rifle design, I came across an article on shoulder rifle technology written by Col. George Fosbery in 1884 for the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution. Fosbery, of course, is an arms designer of some note (being responsible for the Webley-Fosbery automatic revolver as well as the Paradox gun and more) as well as a decorated (with nothing short of the Victoria Cross) fighting soldier. This would suggest that he would be a pretty astute judge of small arms developments. However, even the best and brightest can’t always predict the future. Take, for example, Fosbery’s commentary on box magazines and electrically-primer cartridges…

You cannot expect that any Government will consent to pack its rifle cartridges by fives in steel boxes of inconvenient shape which, in the addition contain moveable plates, and steel springs, studs, and catches, and would neither stand sea air nor Indian magazines for a year, and remain serviceable, to say nothing of their first cost. Nor, I think, should we call on our soldiers or sailors to carry less cartridges and more useless metal than necessary, besides which we should not give them in addition to other things a lot of little boxes, which, in heat of action, they must carefully put back in their pockets when empty.

Fosbery’s objections here are largely reasonable – magazines take more space than loose cartridges, they are expensive, fragile, and require specialized storage on a soldier’s person. What Fosbery did not envision were the solutions and workarounds to these problems – making magazines either more study or disposable, making them with cheap stamping technology, and issuing ammunition in clips with which soldiers would fill their own magazines (among other solutions).

A few pages later, he brings up a novel and promising new technology…

Before concluding, I will, if you permit me, show you what is as yet but an infant but still a well-grown and capable infant, and one that may well develop into a powerful and formidable man; and this is the electric gun of M. Pieper of Liege. The details by which the current is produced or conveyed to the cartridge may be modified, and the source of the electricity carried in the gun itself instead of on the person of the firer. But the cartridge is would, I think, be impossible to simplify or improve; and, once we admit such a thing as possible, see the advantages which we obtain.

First, we do away with special appliances for delivering a central blow on the cartridge, and have all the space which they now occupy for our magazine or other means of loading. Then, having no fulminate in the cartridges, we can carry and arrange them how we please; and, igniting the powder in front, we are enabled to get higher velocities with lower charges – a great decideratum. In machine-guns such as the new Gatling of Mr. George Accles, which fires 104 rounds in 2.4 seconds, and now necessitates the compression and release of 14lb springs so many times in that period, imagine the saving of labour which would result form the adoption of a system which required only the making and breaking of electrical contacts instead, and the saving of wear and tear which would result. But, as I said before, the thing is still in its infancy, and for these and other purposes is yet awaiting development. M. Pieper is already manufacturing these arms in the form which you see, and so far they are perfectly satisfactory – one great advantage being their immunity from danger of accidental explosion when out of the shooter’s hands.

Many people have opined on the promise of electrically-primed cartridges, and the advantages Fosbery lists are again all legitimate. The firing mechanisms for electric cartridges are mechanically much simpler, and would free up space and weight in a firearm. They would be an ideal solution to the problem of pointed bullets in tubular magazines, which was relatively common in this period. Such cartridges have seen limited use (E-tronx, Voere, some 20mm Vulcan guns, among others), but never become accepted in the mainstream.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Fosbery was anything but brilliant. In fact, I hope to make the opposite point – even the most brilliant cannot be counted upon to accurately predict what trends will or will not become common and popular. When we see new innovations today like TrackingPoint computerized optics or 3D-printed components, we should carefully judge the arguments for and against their practicality, and always remember that sometimes great ideas die on the vine and sometimes objectionable ones are adopted over those objections.

Anyone interested can download the complete Journal through Google Books: Journal #27 of the Royal United Service Institution