The Hotchkiss Mountain Gun

Historical context


In 1876, there was a need expressed in the US army for a light and effective replacement for the muzzle loading mountain artillery then in service.  The estimable Benjamin Hotchkiss was quick to offer up a Quick-firing (which was all the rage) highly portable little cannon in 1.65” caliber (2 pdr., 42mm).  It’s ammunition was, necessarily, self contained and was available as canister and High Explosive (HE) nose fused shell.  Interestingly, Hotchkiss’ patents for various elements of this artillery package were granted right around the time of his proposal (references).   One piece was procured (Ord, 1877), along with a quantity of ammunition, which was promptly put into service on the Great Plains.  The earliest specific reference to these events is contained in the 1878 Ordnance Reports where Brigadier-General Steven Vincent Benet included the following:


Early in 1876, Colonel Miles, Fifth Infantry, suggested that a light field-gun weighing less than 500 pounds be provided for service on the plains, to replace the obsolete mountain howitzer. The subject was submitted to the Ordnance Board for consideration, with the remark "that a rifled gun, probably a breech-loader, that can travel with cavalry, and has an effective shell range beyond that of rifled small arms, not less than 1,500 yards, would probably meet the requirements of the service". While under consideration, Mr. B. B. Hotchkiss presented for examination and trial a light breech-loading rifle that gave promise of efficient service on the frontier, and fulfill(ed) the conditions of mobility, range, and accuracy. One was procured and issued to the Department of Dakota in 1877, and used in the field that summer. It weighs 116 pounds, and its caliber is 1.65 inches. It uses a charge of 6 ounces of powder, and a percussion shell weighing 2 pounds. While many defects in its mechanism, and in the carriage and ammunition, have been pointed out after the experience of a campaign, showing that modifications are desirable to add to its effectiveness, it did excellent work. I am informed that Colonel Miles expressed himself as satisfied that it had rendered efficient service, and was a valuable weapon. With all its defects, others have been called for, and the five now in possession of the department will be issued to the troops. (Ord, 1878)


Thus begins the story of  an interesting weapon whose use extended from the Indian Wars to San Juan Hill and the Battle for Manila.  It was formally declared obsolete in 189x  and was relegated to use by militias (slightly) and by forces in South America.


The story of this weapon is a difficult one to recount inasmuch as certain key events are not well documented, if at all.  I have read all of the Ordnance reports for the period 1875 to 1918 and have referenced any relevant mentions of the Mountain Gun and it’s ammunition.  Official documents lack a certain amount of meat and the story they tell is terse to the point of neglect.  Sadly, the student of this fascinating piece will be largely disappointed by the shallowness of the official narrative.  That said, there is a story to be told and it is hoped that by the creation of this website, information gathered by other aficionados worldwide might be brought together rather than lost.


I have noted to a friend who shares my interest in medieval firearms that we are like a small breeding population of whales.  That finding each other and being able to share data and resources is akin to a whale singing into the abyss hoping for a mate.  Fortunately,  Al Gore has given us the Internet and through it the whale population has been increasing.   This site is a call of sorts and it is hoped that other people who share an interest in this weapon, and have gathered information, will look for lacuna and mistakes here and, having identified them, share their information.  This site will be, for the foreseeable future, a work in progress.  Honestly, at this point, I am a bit uncertain as to what I don’t know. 


At present, my intention is to break this site up into two broad areas:   the Gun (including sections on the tube, breech and it’s modifications over time, the carriage and wheels) and it’s ammunition (including projectiles, casings and fuses).   I have found that finding information and keeping track of where it came from is a challenge.  I will attempt to reference any definitive statement and be clear where an opinion is just that.  I will also, have a reference list and, eventually, uploaded documents that bear on this topic.  Another thing that I was thinking about was making various parts for the Hotchkiss and it’s ammunition.  Fuses, for example, are rather uncommon and it would not be terribly difficult to turn out a reasonable dummy.  Does this idea have merit?


The more the merrier: please please comment, contribute, fix, complain, request and otherwise participate. 



n.b.You will se some arcane references in the text, things like "Ord,1896".  These are shorthand descriptions that will point to a reference list.  The list has, alas, not been uploaded yet.  "Ord" refers to the reports of the Chief of Ordnance to Congress and the date is the actual publication date, not the fiscal year. 

The picture below is a detail from a high resolution photo inscribed:

Paul Wernert & gunners of Battery "E" 1st Artillery
... Copyright 1891 The Graball P. & V. Co., Deadwood, S.D.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 I have added an introduction. 
Monday, July 26, 2010  I have reorganized a bit and added a section on fuses.  If you have questions or comments, please contact me at Hotchkissmountaingun AT  (replace the "AT" with one of these @)

Keywords: Mountain rifle. 1.65 inch, 2 pounder, 42 mm, Wounded Knee, San Juan Hill, Mountain Artillery, Hotchkiss

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