RealLife Steampunk: A Martini-Henry Grenade Launcher

DI 2014-0835

There’s an article title I never thought I’d write! A Victorian grenade launcher? Not quite. It is indeed a Martini-Henry grenade launcher, or to be precise, a Blanch-Chevallier Grenade Discharger. Rather than being designed to combat Zulus on the South African plains, it was actually conceived later, at a time when both sides in the First World War were becoming bogged down in trench warfare. The same imperative that drove the invention of overhead fire rifles, mortars, medieval-style melee weapons, revolver bayonets, and yes, rifle grenades, also gave rise to this (so far as we know) unique prototype. It’s a crazy combination of forward thinking and retro technology; almost the definition of ‘Steampunk’!

Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Blanch-Chevallier grenade discharger, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

I have to confess that when I first re-discovered this piece in a back room at the UK National Firearms Centre, I suspected that it was the firearms equivalent of a stuffed Jackalope or  mermaid; different species stitched together to create an amazing and bemusing hybrid creature. After all, it had come to us from a movie prop house and could easily have been ‘bodged’ together in recent decades. But, just as it turned out that the platypus was a real animal, so this piece is a genuine, if experimental, weapon. We X-Rayed our gun, and as you can see, it’s a close match to the original patent drawing further down.

X-Ray of Martini and Blanch-Chevallier mechanisms, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

X-Ray of Martini and Blanch-Chevallier mechanisms, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Despite being described in its only published reference as (Brown, 2004) as a ‘Muzzle attached grenade discharger’, this improbable-looking beast is actually a complete weapon, not a mere accessory. It’s built on an 1880s-vintage commercial Braendlin Armoury Company stocked action in the original .450 Martini (.450/577) calibre. The marks on the left hand side of the receiver are the crossed pennants and ‘B’ of the company, and the script ‘M’ of patent-holder Friedrich Von Martini. Replacing the usual rifle barrel assembly is an enormous, heavy barrel of 2.5” bore, equipped with a sprung piston platform. Unlike As in the PIAT launcher of the Second World War, this big spring does not actually launch the projectile (see comments below). The grenade would actually be fired by a .450 blank cartridge, the spring serving to dampen the (significant!) resulting recoil. Whereas the rifle grenades designed for the SMLE rifle were to be fired braced into the ground, this spring, the thick rubber buttplate, and the tall tangent backsight are all there to permit firing from the shoulder. This is an M79, circa 1916!

Braendlin Martini action, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Braendlin Martini action, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

The relevant British patent can be found online, and details the method of operation. The grenade illustrated is not the standard British Mk.36 ‘Mills bomb’, as it is the wrong shape and  physically too wide to fit the launch tube. This gun would have fired a proprietary round around the same weight as the Mills bomb, but with a ‘tapered base’ and, presumably, a locating rib along the top to engage in the channel cut into the bore of the launcher.

Drawing for British patent GB101108 (A) of August 17 1916.

Drawing for British patent GB101108 (A) of August 17 1916.

The tube is also equipped with two sprung pivoting levers to retain the grenade when the weapon is carried loaded. This is a worrying prospect, as the Martini action lacks an applied safety, meaning the the gun cannot be carried loaded with both grenade and propellant cartridge without risk of accidental discharge. Had the design been developed further, no doubt this would have been addressed. Intriguing reference is made in the patent document to the possibility of firing canister shot from this weapon!

The mouth of the beast! PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

The mouth of the beast! PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

The ‘Blanch’ in ‘Blanch-Chevallier’ is Herbert John Blanch of the London gunmaking firm of J. Blanch & Son. Blanch had published a standard work on sporting guns, entitled ‘A Century of Guns’, in 1909, and had been chair of the Gunmaker’s Association. As Blanch was part of a long line of skilled gunmakers, but Chevallier is listed in the patent as a ‘firearms technician’ and was the more prolific patent holder, it seems likely that this prototype was built by the Blanch but designed largely by Chevallier.

Markings on launcher tube, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Markings on launcher tube, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Arnold Louis Chevallier was born in 1868 in Switzerland, but by 1911 was listed in the British census as a mechanical engineer and expert in small arms and explosives. He lodged a range of other patents including a followup to his grenade launcher; a mortar on the same principle, submitted the following year. Chevallier also worked on sporting shotguns, and a series of semi-automatic rifles dating back to at least 1912 and based upon Sjogren’s inertia recoil principle. As Ian of Forgotten Weapons notes, we have the British Sjogren trials rifle from 1908 in the NFC collection. Chevallier’s design was no attempt at patent avoidance, as he co-authored an article and a book with Sjogren himself. References exist to several other publications of his on the subject of firearms, ammunition, and artillery technology, none of which are available online, unfortunately.

There is a bizarre twist to the story, however, when we consider the inscription on the left side of the weapon:

Markings on other side of grenade launcher tube, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

Markings on other side of grenade launcher tube, PR.9711 © Royal Armouries

This is marked ‘Enever – Chevallier Patent Automatic Small Arms Company Limited’. Another contributor to the design? Probably not. Edwin Alexander Enever was also an immigrant to Britain, from another part of the Empire, having been born in India in 1872. He came to Britain around the same time (c1910) as Chevallier, and began an extraordinary career as an engineer and financier. His life is detailed on a genealogy website, but here’s the short version. Enever first came to the attention of the authorities for a minor offence in 1913, and filed for his first bankruptcy in February 1914 (this doesn’t appear on the afore-linked site). It was at this point that he founded the above firearms company with Chevallier, presumably seeing weapons as a fruitful opportunity given the storm clouds gathering over Europe. He was accused and acquitted of several investment frauds during and after the war years, and filed for bankruptcy again in 1922. Eventually, the following year, he was found guilty along with two others of another charge of fraud relating to investment opportunities in the Chinese mining industry. For this he was convicted and sentenced to prison for three years, leading to a description in a contemporary newspaper report as:

“…a monocled rogue…who juggled with money as easily as does the flirt with the hearts of men”.

Which makes it sound like he liked to tie women to train tracks and creep away whilst twirling his moustache: in cash-strapped post-war Britain, his crimes were probably regarded as about as bad. He also seems to have avoided serving his country during the war itself, and if there’s one thing people dislike more than a con-man, it’s a draft-dodger! He even combined the two offences by involving military officers in his scams, stranding them overseas without the money to get back.

There’s nothing to suggest that Chevallier was himself defrauded by Enever, but the partnership was clearly not a fruitful one either. The two lodged just two patents together, a 1915 incarnation of Chevallier’s rifle, and a 1916 tweak to its magazine. Strangely, although the inscription on our grenade launcher references Enever, the actual patent does not. Perhaps having had Blanch build his prototype, Chevallier was already becoming disillusioned with his business partner?

In any case, Chevallier continued work on his automatic rifle until 1947, apparently to no avail. His and Blanch’s contributions to the history of technology in general and to awesome grenade launchers in particular, were largely forgotten. I hope this article changes that, though we will never know what tactical contribution this weapon might have made to the war.

References:

Brown, 2004: ‘British Gunmakers’, Vol.1, p.256

‘A Brief History of J Blanch & Son’ – http://www.jblanchdatabase.co.uk/history.htm

European Patent Office – http://worldwide.espacenet.com

Google Patents – https://www.google.com/?tbm=pts

Ennever family history – http://www.ennever.com

Related

Jonathan Ferguson

Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK. He is based at the National Firearms Centre, one of the most comprehensive firearms collections in the world and successor to the MoD Pattern Room. His research interests include the use and effect of weapons, and their depiction in folklore and popular culture.


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  • bbmg

    Fantastic article but I must object to the title, this device predates the “Steampunk” movement by several decades. It would be unfair to equate dubious fiction with real history.

    • Julio

      I read the “Steampunk” references as being no more than a contemporary tag to give a wider readership something to relate to. I agree, though, that Steampunk is no more than a rather silly style fad and bears no relation to genuine firearms history.

      • RocketScientist

        Not to be pedantic, but steampunk is a literary genre, usually placed somewhere in the sci-fi spectrum. It’s defining feature is the prevalence of industrial/victorian technologies, often taken to a more advanced degree than they were ever realized in the ‘real world’. It is only more recently as TV shows and movies in this genre were made that steampunk as a design/fashion aesthetic emerged, largely as a result of people dressing in costumes patterned after their favorite characters from steampunk fiction while attending ComiCon-type events.

        • Mouldy Squid

          Partially correct. The fashion and the DIY attitude has almost always been associated with the literary genre since it originated the early 1980s. It is only recently that the popularity, and thus the public consciousness, has made it more visible. It was less gears glued to top hats and more modernized Victorian fashion, hand crafted jewellery, hand made keyboards. That sort of thing. It’s been around a long time.

          • Julio

            You’ll be telling me it’s not silly next! ; )

          • lolinski

            Now I want to build a keyboard using the raer end of casings as buttons. Maybe 7.62x54R casings?

          • Midwinter

            45-70 for the larger keys perhaps?
            Nifty idea Sir.

          • Mr Silly

            I believe the gent below means “capital idea, old boy”. No pun intended.
            It goes without saying as it so damned obvious- but for rounded corners and safety-scissors patrol,- please make sure to deactivate/remove the primes and wash in biologically friendly detergent.
            I would recommend retaining the original plastic and using a hand file to size the base (and top) of the pyramid-shaped key as to create an interference fit with the casing- and perhaps using wooden dowel to epoxy to the key base to account for differences in length.
            Good luck with it- please let us know of the finished product.
            I know for the rat-rod and bopper scene back in the day surplus 50 cal or 20mm shells were shone them to perfection as ornaments. They also make neat-o taillights and indicator lights.

        • Mr Silly

          May I add an animation genre as well- particularly of the Japanese manga style?

  • Julio

    “the Martini action lacks an applied safety”. What then is the lever on the r/h side of the action for? Nice article, by the way.

    • Dave

      That is a cocking indicator.

      • Julio

        Aha! Thankyou.

        • James In Australia

          They did initially have a safety – “Resultant evaluation tests found that the safety catch was not required
          and was officially dispensed with (11.11.1873), rifles in stores with
          that feature were converted, the catch removed, the leaf spring snipped
          off and the retaining screw holes in the action body filled, with all
          new production having no facility for that feature.” (lifted from http://www.martinihenry.org/index.php?route=common/home)

          So production versions could have had one added.

  • Clint Notestine

    looks like something out of Hellboy

  • Anonymoose

    Didn’t they convert some Martini-Henries to police shotguns around the turn of the last century too?

    • rampant

      You are thinking of the Greener Police Shotgun, utilising the falling block action and using proprietory cartridges to ensured that if stolen it could not be used using commericial ammo, they later adapted the firing pin in order to do the same. Interestingly Greener also made a Harpoon Gun based on the Martini falling block action too, using a .38 Special Blank, it has a star role in Jaws, as used by Quint.

  • Leigh Rich

    I like this

  • Zius Patagus

    Very interesting article. Thanks for posting it.

  • jamezb

    Elmer Fudd would LOVE hunting wabbits with this.

  • ned

    As far as I know, PIAT does not throw its projectile away with its enormous spring. The spring simply cocks a firing pin and dampen the heavy recoil just like that gun.

    • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Phil W “Senior Writer TFB”

      The Piat does use the spring to launch the round. That’s why the range was so pathetic.

      • Micki Mahoney

        No so, Phil. According to the usually reliable Major Frederick Myatt, M.C., the PIAT had a propellant charge in a brass case in the end of the hollow tail assembly. When the “bomb” exploded on impact, the tail assembly had a reputation of firing the brass case straight back at the shooter, with a worrying degree of accuracy. As Ned says, the massive, 200-pound spring soaked up some of the vicious recoil and recocked the weapon.

      • John Nelson

        I own a PIAT and have studied them in depth. Micki is correct; the spring is to drive the spigot to detonate the propelling charge (the ‘firing pin’ is just a nub on the end), absorb recoil and to recock the weapon if you hold on tight enough!

        The spring in my PIAT is 100% intact. It throws a 3/4 pound wooden dummy round 2 feet.

        • Jonathan Ferguson

          Guys, sorry for the late response, but you’re totally correct; I have previously wavered between believing that the PIAT was spring or charge powered, when as ever the best thing to do is go back to primary sources (examining the actual launchers just reinforces the myth that the huge spring propelled the charge). The manual makes clear that it’s actually just a spigot mortar, and the spring is only that heavy in order to tame the otherwise substantial recoil of the mortar round and permit it to be shoulder fired (and to recock the weapon). So actually the Blanch-Chevallier is a fascinating precursor to the PIAT, making it even more interesting! I should make a correction above.

  • Bob

    British WW1 era firearms development is truly fascinating. I recently found a list in the national archives at Kew of potential alternatives to the Farquhar Hill rifle that included a number of British designs I had not heard of before.

  • steveday72

    I could totally see Boba Fett rocking one of these instead of the Webley & Scott flare launcher.

  • CHASE

    CAN ANYONE TELL ME WHAT ONE IS WORTH ??? A ROUND ABOUT ANSWER WILL DO…