Mythbuster's Episode 93 - "Confederate Steam Gun"
Features Winans Steam Gun

by John Lamb

An episode of the popular Discovery Channel show Mythbusters [Episode 93 - Confederate Steam Gun] that first aired December 5, 2007 put the principles behind the legendary Winans Steam Gun to a practical test.

The gun rocketed to national prominence after the April 19, 1861 clash between secessionists and Federal troops in Baltimore, Maryland. Readers of newspapers across the United States learned of a strange, and allegedly powerful steam powered weapon brought forth to fend off more Union troops seeking to pass through the town by rail to Washington.

Though it was invented and built elsewhere, the gun quickly became associated with Ross Winans, a pioneering locomotive builder, and inventor of an unorthodox class of steamships - the Winans Cigar ships. Since then the gun has become a familiar part of the story of the riotís aftermath. It has been counted as his invention ever since, though his connection to it has been greatly exaggerated.

The gun in fact grew out of work by Ohio inventors William Joslin and Charles S. Dickinson. After the two had a falling out, Dickinson promoted the device under his name, and found funding to build a steam powered gun in Boston in 1860. He brought the device to Baltimore where it was publicly exhibited.

After April 19, 1861, the gun was taken from Dickinson and/ or his associates by city police to be put in readiness for use if needed. Available evidence suggests that the gun was take to foundry/machine shop of Ross Winans and his son Thomas who had been engaged by cityís Board of Police to make pikes, shot and other munitions items. Shortly after, the gun was taken from the Winansí facility and publicly displayed with other weapons being gathered by city authorities.

In the excitement of the times, Ross Winans' public involvement in stateís right politics in Maryland, his great fortune, word of the munitions work being done at his factory for the city, and city defense appropriations became mixed in the press, and were carried in papers across the country.

After calm returned, the gun was taken again to Winans shop for repair at city expense, then returned to Dickinson, who then attempted to take it to Harperís Ferry to sell to Confederate forces. Union forces captured the gun, intact, in mid journey and took it to their camp at Relay, Maryland.

His association with the gun, his politics and rumors of his munitions making led to Ross Winanís arrest and a brief detention by Federal forces. He was released after 48 hours, after agreeing that he would not take up arms against the government.

The gun was eventually sent to Annapolis, then to Fortress Monroe, and eventually to Massachusettís. It would be exhibited at various events long after the war but would eventually be scrapped at the end of the 19th century.

Even though the original steam gun fell to scrappers long ago, the question has always been, what could it really do? Was it a deadly death dealing machine, or a useless curiosity?

Ever on the lookout for myths to put to the test, the Mythbusters team took on the challenge of the Winans Steam Gun. Find Mythbusters episode 93- Confederate Steam Gun on You Tube or Video to see what happened when the team put's the gun's design to the test.

The Gun's Key Part

The image above is a period engraving of the barrel assembly of the Steam Gun. Steel shot, approximately the sixe of a 2 ounce ball bearing were fed into a chute that dropped them into the vertical tube (B) in the illustration above. They rolled down into the barrel and were stopped by the spring loaded gate lettered I above. As the barrel assembly rotated horizontally, the gate would remain closed until the barrel had revolved to the firing position. At that point the rod lettered D would rise momentarily, pushing up on the gate assembly allowing a shot to pass out. This barrel assembly was located in the tub shaped struture in the image at the top of this page. An operator {in the image at the top of the page }dropping shot into the chute leading to the barrel. The tub shaped assembly was a shield to protect the operator from the machinery of the gun. A slit in the shield lined up with the slit in armored, snow-plow shaped cover that gave the gun its fearsome appearance. Unfortunately, the details of the drive train of the gun were not detailed in period sources because they were not considered to be unique!

Coming Soon -A History of the Winans Steam Gun by John Lamb

This book will feature the most complete account of the weapon often known as the Winans Steam Gun. Includes never before reported information about the gun's origin, its story prior to the Spring of 1861, its eventual fate, and the existance of a second gun. Will also include information about other Centrifugal guns.

Author John Lamb has a background in community journalism and non-profit administration, He has published two articles on the 2nd Maryland Infantry, US in America's Civil War magazine, has a book in progress on the 2nd Maryland Infantry, US., and has produced six field recordings of shapenote singing.

Strange Engines - A Steam Gun Blog

Interested in steam and hand powered weapons for the Civil War? Check out John Lamb's blog - Strange Engines for more about a variety of weapons, ships, and other bits of 19th Century Tech.

Have Information?

Know of images or information about the steam gun? Of particular interest are stereo views of Relay, Maryland in 1861 that may show the gun in the camp of Massachusett's troops, and a photograph of the gun in the streets of Baltimore, used as the basis of several engravings, including the one above. Please contact John Lamb