It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention. This holds true for many of the advances made in ammunition over the centuries. Conical bullets with hollow bases, such as the Minie ball, expanded to engage the barrel’s rifling, resulting in a more accurate projectile.
Metallic cartridges solved a lot of problems with ammo, but chief among them for soldiers and hunters alike, the problem of powder getting wet in paper cartridges, rendering them useless.
Box magazines created a safe way to fire more-powerful spitzer bullets without the risk of discharge in a tube magazine and for capacities more suited to semi-automatic rifles and handguns than older loading devices like stripper clips and the en-bloc, not to mention increased reload time and portability.
Despite this, the path to success is often paved with failure and innovations that are a bit too out there, or perhaps too ahead of their time. For every development that has withstood the test of time, there were countless others that failed to launch. Here are five examples, spanning more than 150 years, that actually made it out of the testing labs and into production, though they probably shouldn’t have.
Rocket Ball Ammo – 1848
New York inventor Walter Hunt created many items we are familiar with and still use today. The lockstitch sewing machine, fountain pen, and safety pin were all patented in his name. He also attempted to improve ammunition technology in the mid-19th century. His design, known as the Rocket Ball, would prove to be far less successful than his other inventions.
Patented in 1848, Hunt’s Rocket Ball design sought to eliminate the need for traditional paper cartridges that had been state-of-the-art for more than a century. Hunt’s creation created a caseless type of ammunition, something ammunition and firearm designers are still trying to make work in modern times. What’s more, his invention predates the self-contained metallic cartridge that is ubiquitous today would come later. It was simply a different way of solving the same problem of keeping a bullet, propellant, and primer all together.
The .31 and .41 caliber bullets had hollow bases in which a charge of gunpowder was packed. The powder-filled cavity was closed with a waterproof cap that had a small hole in it through which the ignition source could travel and reach the powder. When fired, the bullet’s hollow base expanded and engaged the barrel’s rifling, which also helped improve accuracy. The cap stayed behind and ended up in front of the next round that was chambered in the gun and was blown out of the bore when fired.
The design was more waterproof than paper cartridges, but it was also more robust and could be fed from tube magazines, allowing the earliest lever action repeaters to become practical.
While Hunt’s design was a step forward, it was not without its flaws. Chief among them was its lack of power. The round’s powder charge was necessarily small because it had to fit in the bullet cavity. This provided a round that lacked muzzle velocity and effectiveness.
Despite its limitations, the Rocket Ball was used in a number of attempts on the commercial market, culminating in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company which fired a proprietary cartridge based on the Rocket Ball from a lever action pistol and rifle. The Volcanic cartridge went a step further, adding a primer to the cap, making the ammunition completely self-contained and eliminating the need to carry separate caps, creating the first true repeater.
By the mid-1850s, the caseless ammo concept had been scrapped and the initial Rocket Ball design faded into obscurity.
Despite the Rocket Ball’s failure to catch on, it did have a profound influence on firearm development. Hunt’s design created a domino effect. Volcanic Repeating Arms didn’t last long, but it led directly to the original rimfire Henry rifle made by the New Haven Arms Company and also to Winchester’s first lever gun designs.
Dardick Tround – 1958
In August 1958, David Dardick received a patent for a magazine-fed revolver, meaning the cylinder of the revolver could be loaded automatically from a magazine in the pistol grip.
His design featured a cylinder with openings on each exterior edge, creating U-shaped chambers instead of traditional O-shaped chambers. This allowed rounds to be automatically fed into the chamber from a magazine loaded with a stripper clip, instead of being loaded manually like in a traditional revolver. Additionally, extraction was also done automatically.
Dardick soon realized that his U-shaped ammunition would require it to be fed in a very specific fashion in order for his revolver to function properly. By the end of 1958, he was issued a second patent that shows his ammunition now being three-sided like a triangle, or a triagular round—Tround…get it?
The uniform size of the round on each side enabled it to feed into the cylinder more easily, thereby increasing the gun’s reliability, and it could be fed in any orientation.
The new triangular ammunition needed a name, so Dardick called them “trounds,” a combination of the words “triangle” and ‘round.” The bullet, powder, and primer were all loaded into the triangular-shaped plastic case that created the outer wall of the revolver’s cylinder.
From the outside, the Trounds look like a regular cylindrical cartridge inside of a plastic triangular tube, though the actual brass case cylinder is missing. (Remember in grade school when they’d put those rubber triangle things on your pencil to make sure you held it correctly? Just like that.) The out there idea did achieve one of its goals, to create a semi-auto pistol without a reciprocating slide, though the demand for such a gun was…questionable.
Dardick’s first gun, the Model 1100, was only chambered for the proprietary .38 Dardick Tround. However, a cylinder adapter could be purchased, which allowed the shooter to fire traditional handgun ammunition. Next up was the Model 1500, which had interchangeable barrels and could fire .38, .30, and .22 caliber trounds. This model was also available with a carbine conversion kit to turn the revolver into a rifle.
The design is absolutely 50’s-tastic and looks more like a toy ray gun from the era than an actual firearm, ditto for the box in the video above.
Shortly after its introduction to the public, Mechanix Illustrated magazine featured an article on the new gun. Its author called it “as versatile as a six-armed monkey.” While the analogy may seem to be an unusual way to praise Dardick’s creation, it proved to be accurate in a way the author never intended: just like there’s no such thing as a six-armed monkey, there’s also no such thing as a commercially-successful, magazine-fed revolver that fires rounds from a plastic triangle.
Considering reliable, and far less complicated semi-auto handguns had been on the market for decades by the time Dardick’s invention was introduced in the late 1950s, it’s not surprising the public never embraced his concept and Trounds remain little more than a footnote in the advancement of ammunition.
Gyrojet Rocket – Early 1960s
In the early 1960s, Robert Mainhardt and Art Biehl teamed up to form MBAssociates, or MBA, for short. The goal was to develop a new small arms projectile that utilized solid rocket fuel instead of a traditional propellant and primer.
Such a unique projectile would require an equally unique firearm. Because the cartridge was such an unusual design, it had to be finalized first so that the firearm could be created around it. What resulted was a self-contained, non-reloadable brass cartridge, propelled by burning solid rocket fuel that was channeled through angled jet ports in the rear of the cartridge. The jets provided the spin necessary to stabilize the rocket in flight, much like traditional rifling or the spiral of a good football pass.
Shooting a rocket out of a gun sounds like an excellent idea…unfortunately, there’s a physics problem you have to deal with when firing unguided rockets, especially little lightweight ones.
Unlike a traditional bullet that gradually slows down once it is fired as it loses momentum and succumbs to gravity, a Gyrojet rocket picks up speed after it has been ignited, because the rocket fuel is still burning and creating energy and increasing the projectile’s velocity.
Unfortunately, this meant that the rockets had a very low muzzle velocity, making them susceptible to wind or other outside forces acting upon it early in flight instead of later, like a bullet—meaning even short range accuracy was pretty bad, and by the time the rocket had time to speed up, it was already way off course. It seems the best accuracy the Gyrojet achieved was about 17 MOA, or about 4.5 inches at 25 yards. The short barrel on the pistol variation of the gun put it most at risk for adverse outside effects. Unfortunately, the carbine’s longer barrel didn’t fare much better.
Slow initial velocity was a problem that MBA was well aware of from the beginning.
The owner’s manual included instructions for what to do when a cartridge misfired. If it simply failed to ignite at all after two hammer strikes, the rocket was to be manually extracted and discarded. If the rocket ignited but failed to exit the barrel, the user was instructed to push it out manually from the muzzle toward the rear and discard it. (If this sounds dangerous…it is. And proper disposal for a cartridge containing solid rocket fuel wasn’t even considered.)
The gun itself was roughly the same overall size as an M1911 and was a lot lighter at only 22 ounces. It was mostly made of Zamac, a zinc alloy. It was cocked by sliding a lever forward above the trigger to pull a round into the gun. The lever sprang back into place when the trigger was pulled.
The lever hit the bullet on the nose, driving it into the firing pin. As the round left the chamber, it pulled the lever forward again to recock it. There was no detachable magazine. Gyrojet rockets had to be pushed down from the open “bolt” and then held in place by quickly sliding a cover over them. Quick reloads were not an option.
By 1969, MBAssociates was in financial trouble. Their unconventional design, accuracy problems, poor performance, unreliable ignition, and high cost of ammo (around $3 each at the time) proved too much for the company to bear. They folded in 1969.
Two things have remained constant in the 49 years since production stopped. The rockets are still cost-prohibitive to own and shoot, and they’re still just as (if not more) prone to failed ignition.
Daisy VL Caseless Ammo – Late 1960s
Daisy has become a household name in the air gun and BB gun market. But in the late 1960s, the company dreamed of a gun that could be used as a child’s first real rifle, or an adult’s choice for their next rimfire rifle.
The rifle’s design was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It had no firing pin, extractor, or ejector, and it fired using a method that Daisy knew all about: compressed air—but it was still an actual firearm. When introduced, the rifle sold for $39.95, which is the equivalent of $295 today. Ammo cost $1.40 per 100 rounds, or $10.34 today.
The caseless, tiny .22-caliber lead projectile used a nitrocellulose-based propellant which was molded, hardened, and affixed to the rear of the bullet—it was activated by a burst of compressed air. Once the projectile and propellant were mated together, the final product was a type of caseless ammunition not much larger than two pencil erasers stacked on top of each other.
While innovative, this new caseless ammunition did have a setback: the propellant could easily flake off of the projectile. With traditional .22 ammo, you could simply dump a box of cartridges into your pocket – something that was not possible with the VL’s ammo. The jostling motion would separate the nitrocellulose from the lead, rendering the ammunition unusable.
To solve this problem, Daisy patented a specially-designed ammunition package and container in December 1968. The rounds were stacked on top of one another, 10 to a plastic tube. The tubes, in turn, were stored 10 to a package. One end of the tube was heat sealed and the other was closed with a removable plastic plug.
Unfortunately for Daisy, the delicate nature of the ammunition was only part of their problem. Since the VL rifle used a combustible propellant to fire the .22 caliber round, the ATF deemed it to be an actual firearm. Daisy was licensed to produce air guns, but not firearms in the legal sense of the word.
Likely due to cost concerns, Daisy did not seek out the proper licensing to become a full-blown firearms manufacturer. Because of this, production ceased in 1969, just a year after it began. It is believed that no more than 23,000 units were produced.
Remington EtronX Electric Ignition Primer – 2000
Failed ammo designs are not a thing of the past; they still happen now, in the 21st century. Remington introduced their new EtronX technology in 2000, calling it “the most significant advancement in rifle and ammunition performance since smokeless powder.”
Designed for a specialized Model 700 rifles, the rifle’s bolt made a circuit between the special firing pin and primer when it was closed. When the trigger was pulled, the circuit was completed and an electrical pulse was sent through the firing pin and into the primer, which was specially designed to ignite by electrical pulse instead of chemicals that explode when compressed.
The whole thing was powered by a 9V battery in the buttstock.
Since ignition happened electronically, there were no moving parts other than the trigger, which had no need to be mechanical and was more of a fire-by-wire design. It is said the trigger weight could be set to anything Remington wanted and it was reported to have 36% less travel than a traditional trigger. This all combined to create an almost instantaneous ignition: 0.0000027 seconds (the time between the instant a trigger is pulled and when the bullet actually fires is called “lock time”), to be exact. The lack of moving parts, Remington promised, would result in a more accurate shot.
A removable key in the butt cap must be used to turn the system on; the rifle cannot be fired if the key is not used to turn it on first. An LED display on the top of the grip indicated if the system was on or off, if a cartridge had been chambered, and if the battery was low and needed to be replaced.
When introduced, the EtronX-equipped Model 700 rifles, which were available in three calibers, had an MSRP of $1,999 – double the price of a traditional Model 700. The new technology and jump in price proved too much for the venerable Model 700, which had developed a solid reputation over its 32 years of production by 2000 and shooters weren’t keen on the idea of relying on a battery to make a bolt action rifle work. As a result, Remington’s EtronX technology was gone within just a handful of years.
It is hard to know what advances in technology will be embraced by the consumer. A new design must offer marked improvement over existing technology, maintain a familiarity that does not make the consumer uncomfortable, and be offered at a price point that makes it worthwhile to the consumer to invest in the product.
Most likely components of the EtronX system will likely become standard once batteries develop charge lives measured in years not hours, and the march toward caseless ammunition continues.
Hopefully, future ammunition designers will look to history and avoid the pitfalls of the designs mentioned here. If not, they may someday be added to a list like this one.