18 July 2009

Wade's at it again! Ingrham's Underhammer Harmonica Rifle

When we consider underhammer firearms we generally think in terms of them being single-shot arms. But there were some enterprising individuals who were thinking way out of the box for their time at the onset of the underhammer period. Those Enlightened Ones wanted a repeating underhammer rifle. Probably the best known of those few underhammer repeating designs is the slide action or “harmonica” gun.

The slide or harmonica of the design consists of a flat bar having several holes drilled into it to act as chambers, hence the reference to the harmonica. At the back and on the bottom, the harmonica is fitted with percussion nipples for ignition. It also has an additional set of holes that accommodate a spring loaded brass plunger that acts to lock the harmonica’s chambers in correct alignment with the barrel for firing.

The photo here shows the loaded and lubed chambers on the front of the harmonica bar. Just a reminder that clicking on any of the photos will enlarge them for viewing the details of the design. Clicking the Back arrow on your webpage will take you back to the text.

The harmonica slides through a steel frame into which the barrel is fitted. So arranged, the harmonica is advanced for each shot by cocking the hammer, releasing the locking mechanism, then simply pushing the slide to the next chamber. By releasing the locking plunger it will snap back into the appropriate hole thereby locking the harmonica in position.

This view to the left shows the bottom of the action with the harmonica in place and locked by the spring-loaded brass locking plunger.

Ironically, as advanced as the concept was for the day, it never really caught on in its own time and very few rifles have actually survived for us to study. Those few that have survived command such high prices that few of us will ever enjoy the privilege of handling and studying one up close.

Another interesting fact about harmonicas that is unknown but to a few moderns is that Jonathan Browning's earliest commercial products were underhammer harmonica rifles which he built in Quincy, Illinois in the 1830s before later moving on to Ogden, Utah.

Now, about 175 years later, the underhammer harmonica is being revived by our friend, Wade Ingrham. You may recall an earlier post on this blog regarding his underhammer rifles and his underhammer flintlock pistol. To say he’s mechanically adventurous is an understatement. And while he may technically be retired at 87 years young, you just can’t keep a mechanical kind of guy sitting idle very long before his mind runs wild with new ideas that seek expression in the tangible world.

So, check this out cause it is waaaaay cool!

Wade decided that his single shot underhammer design needed rapid-fire capability. To his basic take-down underhammer design he’s added an addition that converts his singleshot into a .36 calibre 5-shot repeater! The Ingrham Underhammer Harmonica Rifle is the result.

Wade’s takedown design allows him to switch from the singleshot mode to the repeater mode with just a few turns of the take down screw which is positioned just forward of the hammer. You can take a look at our previous post about Wade to view that take-down process.

Loading of the rifle is pretty simple and straightforward and requires that the harmonica be removed from the rifle. Wade designed a simple lever loading tool to load the harmonica in much the same manner as one would load a percussion revolver cylinder. First the chamber is loaded with 15 grains of fffg blackpowder, after which the round ball is placed into the chamber mouth and then seated on top of the powder with the loading press. When all five chambers are loaded, the empty space above each bullet is filled with grease to act as bullet lube and to prevent a crossfire.

A crossfire is more known to occur in percussion revolvers and is the result of the flame from the combustion blowing through the cylinder gap and igniting the powder in the adjoining chamber. As you can imagine, that makes for an exciting, albeit a dangerous day at the range.

Although a crossfire is definitely a very real possibility in a percussion revolver where each chamber is extremely close to the next, in Wade’s harmonica the distance between chambers is so great that the chance of a crossfire is very remote. When the chamber is then topped with grease the chance of a crossfire is virtually nil.

Flipping the harmonica on its front side allows the nipples to be easily capped by hand or by a capper. Then the harmonica is simply slid into place to bring the first chamber into alignment with the barrel at which point the spring-loaded slide lock pops into place and you’re ready to fire.

It should be noted that the harmonica can be started from either side of the receiver making the whole arrangement ambidextrous. And, of course, there is no ramrod needed for loading.

Here's a top view of the Ingrham Harmonica Rifle loaded and ready to rock and roll.

I’m sure that Wade’s rifle will probably inspire some of you other underhammer makers to venture out and try something new and for that I believe he deserves a round of applause and our appreciation for his efforts and inspiration to the rest of us.

While Wade's pics are pretty self explanatory, if you have any questions about Wade’s underhammers I’m sure he would welcome your e-mail. His e-mail address is listed on an earlier post down below so go back and take a look at his earlier work and you can then better appreciate the ingenuity of his single shot/repeater conversion.

Just in from Wade is the video below of him demonstrating the rapid fire capability of his Underhammer Harmonica Rifle. This is really a rare opportunity as there are probably only a handful of people in the whole world who have ever seen a harmonica rifle being fired.

Turn up the sound, click the arrow on the bottom of the video frame below, and Wade will show you how it's done!

You're going to love this!


Here's a view of those 5 quick, barely-aimed shots at 25 yards.
Click the pic for a closer look at the target.

To really appreciate the underhammer harmonica one must consider that at the time of its introduction at the very outset of the percussion age, the harmonica rifle was the technological equivalent of today's Vulcan gun. It was futuristicly cutting edge!

Imagine that its the late '20s or early '30s - that's the 1820s or 30s - and you are armed with a flint rifle, or perhaps you're a man of means and had one of those really modern wizbang percussion guns, or maybe you had a conversion of a flinter to a cap buster. And let's imagine that you came upon an opponent with the capability of firing five aimed shots in about 10 seconds. But, who could also swap his empty harmonica for a loaded spare and deliver another five shots before having to reload. I don't know about you, but that would be fairly intimidating to me.

Truly, the harmonica rifle really was a wonder in its day and did inspire the development of several later repeating designs.

So there you have it boys and girls - Wade's Underhammer Harmonica Rifle.
I don't know about you, but I'm sure impressed!

Thanks Wade, for sharing your achievements and inspiring the rest of us.

Remember, kids, you saw it here first!



Anonymous said...

Dear RJ,

Wow, I can't believe this! I was just looking for information about harmonica rifles and then I found your story. What a great idea Mr. Ingram has. I just wish I knew how to make guns so I could make one for myself.

This is really a great website and I like the variety of topics that you write about too. Please keep up the good work.



John Taylor said...

I have started a harmonica rifle but have not finished to a point I can show pictures. The frame and slide are made from 4140. Caliber will be 45 just because I had a barrel in that caliber sitting around that was not being used. I was thinking of putting a flash shield on the right side just in case of a chain fire.

Windy Wilson said...

Didn't the character played by Yul Brynner in the spaghetti western, "Indio Black" carry some sort of rifle like this? I recall it was short barreled and carried in a holster, but it had the harmonica block, but the last chamber always had a cigar...

Anonymous said...

That movie with Yul Brenner was called "Adios Sabata". The gun was a modified Winchester and it was a movie prop. Never a real production gun in real life. If you look closely in the movie, you will see that he has to manually push on the block to advance it. Operating the lever only cocked the hammer but didn't advance the harmonica block. Still an interesting concept though.

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About Me

Roger Renner

Hi. I've been a student, admirer, and designer/builder of underhammer guns for over 30 years. In that span I've built over 200 semi-custom underhammers exploring the possibilities from the ordinary to the exotic. In 1996 I founded Pacific Rifle Company to explore the market's interest in a high-quality underhammer rifle. Thankfully, that interest was, and still is, there. I sold PRC in 2006 but continue to craft high-end underhammers as I am truly afflicted with underhammeritis - which can be contagious!