Victorian Firearms

Victorian attitudes to guns

Gun ownership is widespread in Victorian England. There are no restrictions on the type of guns which may be purchased, and it is generally considered desirable to purchase a gun where it can be afforded to protect oneself from footpads and burglars. Guns may be carried anywhere. Many wealthier homes keep blunderbusses loaded next to doors, with warning labels regarding their preparedness. The well-off usually own pistols. For much of the century there has been no street lighting and no police presence so a gentleman abroad requires a degree of personal protection. There are many instances of constabulary borrowing the firearms of passersby to aid in the apprehension of a criminal, and instructing bystanders to shoot at some besieged miscreant.

in 1870 the Gun License Act was passed into law which requires a person carrying a gun outside his home to pay an annual license fee of ten shillings. This was a measure designed largely to raise revenue, and has many exceptions, including armed forces and police, anyone licensed to kill game, anyone carrying a gun only for the purpose of scaring birds or killing vermin, gunsmiths, and anyone else carrying a gun in ‘the ordinary course of his trade or business’. Violations of the law are punishable by a fine of between two and ten pounds, with hard labour in the appropriate house of correction for between seven days and one month for those unable or unwilling to pay.

Firearm technology in 1880:

Muzzle-loading guns (including smooth-bore muskets, rifles, and revolvers) are well behind the times but are still the most widespread type of firearm. These require the firer to pour black powder into the muzzle and ram home a lead ball with a ramrod (sometimes having first wrapped the ball in linen). All are slow to load and long muzzle-loaded arms are very difficult to load while prone. There are two main ways in which the powder is ignited. The antique method is the flintlock, where a small amount of powder is poured into a priming pan and a lever is cocked which strikes a spark into the pan when the trigger is pulled. More modern muzzle-loaders such as the Colt Navy 1851 pistol and the British Army Enfield 1853 rifle use a small disposable ‘percussion’ cap to ignite the powder. The percussion cap has the distinct advantage of not requiring an open pan which is likely to misfire in wet or windy weather.

The breech-loading rifle with cartridges which contain percussion cap, powder and bullet in one was the next development. For many years the British officers responsible for provisioning new firearms (mostly mature artillery officers) resisted it, however. What was good enough for the Duke of Wellington to defeat Napoleon was good enough for them, not to mention that excited infantry with such rapid-firing guns might expend their ammunition too quickly. The impressive performance of the Prussian army after their adoption of the breech-loading ‘needle gun’ in 1848 convinced the British of the need for change, to say nothing of the strides American inventors were making.

Muzzle-loading rifles are still used by the British Empire’s Native contingents due to reluctance by the British to update them after the Indian Mutiny in the 1850s, but for the past 15 years the British Army have used modern single-shot breech-loaders; the most recent being the Martini-Henry issued in 1871. This is the rifle in the film Zulu.

The new repeating rifles such as the American Winchester 1873 contain multiple cartridges in a tubular magazine, with a lever action ejecting each spent cartridge and drawing the next into the chamber. This gives them the advantage of a much higher initial rate of fire, however the smaller ammunition required gives them somewhat less range and the lengthy reloading times mean they are considered in military circles to be of inferior use to the Martini-Henry and U.S. Springfield rifles. With good tactics they are clearly a dangerous weapon however, as evidenced by Custer’s defeat at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 where some 200 of the 2,000 Sioux warriors were armed with repeating rifles and able to lay down a coordinated torrent of fire.

The blunderbuss, a muzzle-loaded shotgun, is still a common weapon to find in rural England. However, the double-barreled breech-loaded cartridge shotgun has been around for some decades and is the aristocratic bird hunter’s weapon of choice.

An alternative to revolvers is the ‘pepperpot’, which has multiple barrels (typically 2 or 4). These are prized for their reliability and rate of fire compared to revolvers of the time, but suffer reduced capacity and accuracy. Derringers are very small, simple and concealable pistols which can also be pepperpots, but larger pepperpots also exist, notably the four-barreled Lancaster pistol, popular among British officers overseas for defence against charging animals and natives.

All firearms (bar a few experimental pieces in the hands of chemists) still use black powder as the propellant, so shooting is always accompanied by a significant amount of smoke and weapons must be cleaned regularly. Smokeless powder will not come into use for some years yet.

Note that officers in the British armed forces have to purchase their own equipment privately, so there is a considerable variety in use. The ‘standard issue’ rifles and pistols below refer to those issued to other ranks.

Reloading house rules:

The base rules specify a single rate of fire for each weapon, not properly taking into account the different speeds of firing and reloading. This is simple but it results in some imbalance and lack of historical accuracy. I have researched each firearm and determined its rate of fire and reload speed as separate statistics. Reload is the number of shots which can be loaded per action spent on reloading. e.g. 3/1 means 3 bullets can be loaded in 1 action, 1/0 means a bullet can be loaded in the same round as firing without spending an action, and 1/3 means loading a single bullet takes a total time of three actions. Typically, reloading a muzzle loader takes between 2 and 4 actions for a single bullet, reloading a modern single-shot breechloader rifle can be done for free in the same round, and revolvers / pepperpots / repeating rifles can be reloaded at between two and three cartridges per action. Reloading can be rushed with a successful Agility roll: if firing and reloading in the same round then the -2 multi-action penalty is incurred to both Shooting and Agility rolls (unless the weapon is 1/0). If two actions are spent on reloading in the same round (e.g. attempting to reload a blunderbuss (1/2) in a single round) then a single Agility roll must be made at -2. A failed reloading Agility roll means that no reloading progress is made; a critical failure (snake eyes) might break the weapon or accidentally discharge it into your foot at the GM’s discretion.

Firearms list

Below I have compiled a representative list of the firearms of the period. I have removed all the anachronistic firearms and added a few more for flavour and increased choice. In addition I have specified rate of fire and reload times which match historical records; fortunately this seems to result in a decent game balance between the different types of weapons, representing their real-world pros and cons. Every firearm has its year of introduction listed to give an idea of its relative modernity.

Type Range Damage Capacity RoF Reload Notes Cost ($equiv) Weight
Muzzle-loaded long guns
Smoothbore flintlock musket c.1700-1820 15/30/60 2d8 1 1 1/3 Tends to misfire in wet/windy weather. 100 15
Baker flintlock rifle 1800-1830 24/48/96 2d8 AP1 1 1 1/4 Used by British army sharpshooters in the Napoleonic wars. Also tends to misfire in wet, but rifling improves accuracy greatly compared to the musket. Note long reload time. 150 10
Enfield 1853 ‘caplock’ rifle 24/48/96 2d8 AP1 1 1 1/2 Percussion caps replace flintlocks. British Army standard issue until 1866. 200 10
Breech-loaded rifles
Prussian Needle Gun 1848 20/40/80 2d8 AP1 1 1 1/0 The Prussian army using this eventually convinced the British to equip their army with breech-loading rifles. 250 10
Snider-Enfield 1866 24/48/96 2d8 AP2 1 1 1/0 Old Enfield 1853 muzzle-loaders converted to breech-loaders. British Army standard issue until 1871, current Indian Army issue 250 9
Martini-Henry 1871 30/60/120 2d8 AP2 1 1 1/0 British Army standard issue 300 9
Springfield 1873 30/60/120 2d8 AP2 1 1 1/0 U.S. Army standard issue 300 9
Mauser 1871 30/60/120 2d8 AP2 1 1 1/0 German Empire standard issue 300 9
Berdan rifle 1870 30/60/120 2d8+1 AP2 1 1 1/1 Russian Empire standard issue 300 10
Purdey & Sons ‘Express Train’ .500 double rifle 30/60/120 2d10 AP2 2 1-2 2/1 Anti-tiger gun, can fire both barrels at -2, min. strength d8 (-1 to hit per d below this) 750 14
Repeating rifles
Spencer Repeating Rifle 1860 20/40/80 2d8 AP1 7 1-2 3/1 Can be fired twice per round at -2. 250 10
Winchester 1873 24/48/96 2d8 AP1 15 1-2 3/1 Can be fired twice per round at -2. ‘The gun that won the west’ 300 10
Cap and ball (muzzle-loaded) pistols
Colt Navy 1851 12/24/48 2d6+1 6 1 1/2 20,000 were manufactured in Colt’s London factory, mainly for the Royal Navy 150 3
Beaumont-Adams Revolver 1856 12/24/48 2d6+1 6 1 1/2 Standard British Army issue until 1880 150 3
Philadelphia Derringer 1852 5/10/20 2d6 1 1 1/2 Highly concealable, used to assassinate Lincoln in 1865 150 1
LeMat Revolver 1860 9/18/36 2d6 9+1 1 1/2 Selectable between inaccurate 9-shot revolver and a 20-gauge shotgun barrel (2d6 close range, 1d6 medium range, +2 to hit). French-made, but thousands were used in the American civil war. 200 4
Cartridge pistols
Colt Single Action Army (.45 ‘Peacemaker’) 1876 12/24/48 2d6+1 AP1 6 1 3/1 Popular American revolver 200 3
Webley ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ revolver 1868 12/24/48 2d6+1 AP1 6 1 3/1 Solid all-round British revolver, adopted by RIC and favoured by General Custer 200 3
Webley British Bull Dog 1872 10/20/40 2d6+1 5 1 3/1 Short barrelled pocket revolver 200 2
Remington Model 95 Derringer 1866 5/10/20 2d6+1 2 1-2 2/1 Highly concealable lady’s ‘pepperpot’. Can be fired twice per round at -2. 200 1
Lancaster ‘Howdah’ pistol c.1860 10/20/40 2d6+1 AP1 4 1-2 2/1 Quad-barreled pepperpot, can be fired twice per round at -2. 250 4
Blunderbuss 10/20/40 1-3d6 1 1 1/2 100 12
Double-barreled 12/24/48 1-3d6 2 1-2 2/1 Can be fired twice per round at -2. 250 11
Sawn-off D-B 5/10/20 1-3d6 2 1-2 2/1 Can be fired twice per round at -2. 250 6
Gatling gun 1862 24/48/96 2d8 100 3 100/4 Large wheeled-carriage machine gun X 500
Mitrailleuse 1870 24/48/96 2d8 25 3 25/3 French wheeled carriage machine gun X 500
British RML (Rifled Muzzle Loader) 9 pounder 1871 Large wheeled-carriage cannon, current issue for both Army and Navy X 500
Common/Shrapnel shell 50/100/200 3d6 1 1 1/3 shrapnel, see book
Case shot special special 1 1 1/3 canister, see book

Victorian Firearms

Red Earth SteveR