The Billinghurst-Requa Battery Gun is an oddity in a siege operation that included examples of cutting edge technology, circa 1863 that is. And if you look closely at the map showing the approach siege lines to Battery Wagner, the annotation “Requa” appears at intervals:
(Yea.. that’s hard to read. Try this for the “embiggened” map.)
Dr. Josephus Requa, a dentist from New York, and William Billinghurst, a gunsmith, invented this weapon at the start of the war. This “machine gun” featured several barrels mounted on a frame, figures 1 and 2 below, and arranged to allow the gunners to set the dispersion of shot as required. Using holders, or clamps (what modern writers call clips), see figure 3 below, with the rounds mounted in a row, the crew loaded the ammunition between a breech bar and the barrels.
Working levers, the rounds were pushed into the chambers. Working the levers also pulled the hammer back, allowing the crew to place the percussion cone. At that point, the crew just pulled a lanyard. The crew could fire seven times a minute. The illustrations show a seven barrel arrangement. But the 25-barrel version was built with the U.S. Army in mind.
The weapon included a rudimentary safety. By removing a sliding bolt, the breech bar slipped off the gun, rendering the weapon “spiked” in the face of enemy capture. According to the patent documentation, the major innovation that made this gun unique was the combination of barrels, cartridges, clamp, and breech bar. The ability to adjust the barrels to allow a pattern of projectiles made the weapon useful for point defense, leading to the name “bridge gun” seen in some contemporary accounts.
Inventing a weapon is one thing. Selling it to the Army is another. As with many new weapons, the Billinghurst-Requa Battery Gun ran afoul of Brigadier-General James Ripley of the Ordnance Department. Although demonstrated successfully, even once in front of President Abraham Lincoln, the gun failed to receive orders. Ripley complained the special cartridges would cost a fortune.
Failure to secure a government order, Requa and Billinghurst turned to private investors. The firm of Smith and Bradley fronted the effort and following a successful demonstration funding secured a small production batch of around fifty. The gunmaker Remington made the barrels. Billinghurst made twenty guns at his shop. The firm of Parmenter & Bramwell made another thirty.
A few sales outside the official channels the came in. Backers of the 18th Independent New York Battery purchased a few of the guns and used them in Louisiana. There they caught the attention of Quincy Gillmore. While en route to the Department of the South, he made this request:
I ask authority to purchase 2 scows, 5 or 6 telescopic rifles, and 4 of David Smith’s batteries of small rifles, comprising 25 rifle barrels, arranged to be fired simultaneously. I am acquainted with this piece, and it is now in service in the Department of the Gulf. It is strongly recommended by Colonel Delafield and other good judges. Orders to the proper departments to pay for these articles should be given.
The description of the gun matches the Billinghurst-Requa and perhaps Gillmore was confused by the name of the investors. At any rate, eventually five of these arrived on Morris Island. Major Thomas Brooks, one of the engineers at work during the siege, provided a detailed review of the weapon at work as Note 16 to his official report. He noted the Billinghurst-Requas were the only defensive “artillery” used in the advanced trenches, and received favorable reviews from army and navy officers. Brooks considered it a proper replacement for 6-pdr guns “whenever grape and canister are needed, and, to the extent of its range, case shot, over each of which it posses greater precision and much less liability to fail in producing desirable results.” The gun and equipment weighed 1,382 pounds.
When served by 3 men, the battery is readily fired 7 volleys, or 175 shots, per minute. It did not foul. Nine degrees elevation gave a range of 1,200 yards, at which distance, the barrels being diverged, the shot scattered into an effective line. Thirteen hundred yards is probably its effective range, although 2,000 yards is claimed for it. The axis of the barrels is 30 inches above the plane on which the piece stands.
In regards to tactical employment, Brooks indicated the guns were placed on the flanks and salient angles of the parallels as they advanced. Nineteen positions were built for the Billinghurst-Requas during the siege.
On several occasions these batteries were used against the enemy’s sharpshooters and working parties, apparently with good effect. On the evening of August 25, the two batteries in the fourth parallel took an active part in a brisk skirmish. Three infantrymen, who were not thoroughly drilled, served each piece. They were fired rapidly, and apparently with good effect.
The guns stood up well to field use on the sandy Morris Island. Brooks did not mention any issues with ammunition, but other sources indicate the weakness to the system was an open powder train in the clip. With exposure to moisture the guns misfired.
So alongside some of the heaviest ordnance employed during the war, five “machine guns” saw service in the trenches of Morris Island. While the Billinghurst-Requa was at best a “volley” gun, the implementation showed the way for Gatling Guns and later the Maxim machine guns.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, page 465; OR Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 324-5; Also see the epitaph for Dr. Josephus Requa.)