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The Zalinski Dynamite Gun

by Mark Clark

The Zalinski dynamite gun was an offbeat yet innovative weapon developed and used by the American military around the turn of the century. Designed by Edmund Zalinski, an American artillery officer, the gun used compressed air to hurl a large dynamite charge several miles. Although a technical success, the gun was never popular with the American military establishment and only a few were ever built. This article discusses Zalinski, his work with the dynamite gun, and its operational employment. It then goes on to discuss how the gun could be used in a roleplaying environment.

Edmund Zalinski

Edmund Louis Grey Zalinski was born in Poland, but served in the American military as an artillery officer during the Civil War. He remained in the army after the war, and in 1883 was serving as a lieutenant at Fort Hamilton, one of the installations that guarded the port of New York. An Ohio schoolteacher by the name of Mefford had invented a pneumatic gun, and brought it to Fort Hamilton for trials. Mefford's device was little more than a toy, and he returned to Ohio without a government contract. However, Mefford's demonstration aroused Zalinski's interest, and over the next two years Zalinski built a series of increasingly larger models, improving on Mefford's design. In 1885, he demonstrated an operational prototype with an 8-inch bore that could fire a 100 pound charge of dynamite two miles. The gun was more accurate than contemporary cannon and carried a larger explosive charge, though the range was inferior.

Zalinski demonstrated this prototype to a large number of visitors, and by 1886 he had interested a number of naval officers in the possibilities of the weapon. The Department of the Navy decided to fund the construction of a "dynamite cruiser", and investors set up the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company in New York to manufacture guns to Zalinski's design. In 1887, the navy arranged a test in which the dynamite gun fired a shell that completely destroyed a target ship. The subsequent publicity led to the completion of the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius. In 1889, recently promoted to captain, Zalinski was assigned as the military attache in St. Petersburg, Russia. He returned the following year, and was assigned to supervise the construction of several dynamite guns then being built by the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company for coastal defense purposes. Zalinski was forced to resign due to ill health in 1894. After a lingering illness, he died in 1909.

The Dynamite Gun

The final version of the dynamite gun, a 15-inch bore monster, was produced in two versions, one for use aboard the Vesuvius and the other for four coastal defense installations in the United States. The naval version was thoroughly tested, and though capable of firing a quarter-ton dynamite charge over four miles, the gun was difficult to aim and experienced constant mechanical problems. The Vesuvius never reached active service, and the navy deferred further experiments until the army could perfect the weapon.

The Army began to experiment with Zalinski's gun later than the Navy due to the opposition of the Board of Ordnance and Fortification, the army department in charge of developing new weapons. Officers on the board favored continued experiments with conventional cannon rather than funding Zalinski's work. Publicity from Zalinski's tests and the work being done on the Vesuvius eventually forced the Board to approve construction of a test battery of dynamite guns. The battery was installed at Fort Hancock in New Jersey in 1894. It contained two 15-inch guns, as well as the 8-inch prototype. Tests proved very satisfactory, and the Army ordered a second battery of three 15-inch guns, which were installed at San Francisco to guard the Golden Gate in 1898. Two more batteries of one gun each were built at Hilton Head, South Carolina and Fishers Island, New York in 1901. In 1904, all four batteries were sold for scrap, and the company that built them went out of business.

Why was Zalinski's gun not more successful? The initial enthusiasm for the weapon was due to its ability to throw a very large explosive charge a great distance. Dynamite, which is much more destructive than gunpowder, cannot be fired by conventional cannon, as the heat and shock of the launch would make the dynamite explode in the gun's barrel. Thus, Zalinski's gun was very attractive to naval and coastal defense officers who wanted a weapon to deal with the new steel-armored warships of the period. Zalinski's gun could sink such ships by throwing large dynamite charges next to the ships. The resulting shock waves transmitted by the water would buckle the ship's sides and sink it.

Unfortunately for Zalinski and his gun, this task could be achieved more easily by fixed mines, or torpedoes as they were called in the 19th century. Mines could be tethered to the bottom of a harbor's channel and exploded by wire from shore. Dating from the American Civil War, mines were a well developed technology by the 1880's. Zalinski was only able to sell his gun as suitable for unusual harbors, where strong currents or deep channels made mines unsuitable. The Golden Gate in San Francisco is an obvious example of such a shipping channel.

What finally made the dynamite gun obsolete was the development of new high explosives, such as ammonium picrate, in the late 1890's. These new explosives could be fired from conventional cannon, and in combination with armor-piercing shells were an effective weapon versus armored warships. A dynamite gun was as expensive to construct as a 10 or 12-inch shore defense battery, but had a shorter range and was more expensive and complex to maintain. Moreover, the increasing range of ship-mounted weapons meant that an invading navy's guns would out range the dynamite gun and so could destroy it from a distance with impunity. As a result, dynamite guns were no longer useful and so were scrapped.

The Dynamite Gun and Roleplaying

Although Zalinski's weapon was never fired in anger, there is no reason why it could not be used as the focus of an adventure. Several scenarios are possible for a Wild West campaign. First, some foreign agent might attempt to steal the plans of the gun or kidnap Zalinski. This would make the most sense if set in the late 1880's. Second, the players might encounter the Vesuvius or some other vessel armed with a dynamite gun. For example, in the late 1880s the Brazilians bought a dynamite gun that was hastily mounted on the deck of a freighter for an attack on a group of rebels. Although no other foreign government actually bought a dynamite gun, Italy and Britain ordered coastal defense versions of the weapon (they later canceled the orders) and Austria, Denmark, France and Spain all indicated interest in a purchase. Finally, the players might get wind of a plot to sabotage the San Francisco dynamite gun battery to allow the entrance of a hostile fleet (Chinese, Japanese or Russian) for an invasion of California.

The dynamite gun would also fit in a Space: 1889 campaign very easily. In addition to the ideas given above, a player character inventor might want to develop an improved dynamite gun for use on a cloudship, or a villain might be using for his own nefarious purposes. The American military might also install a dynamite gun on one of its aerial flyers on Mars. In Sky Galleons of Mars terms, a 15-inch dynamite gun would have a range of about 8, damage value of 8, a penetration of 1 (the shell casing is very light), a crew of 4 (including one engineer), and a rate of fire of (1). Note that a dynamite gun requires a steam power plant to provide the compressed air it uses.

Note: Thomas Gray contributed ideas about using the dynamite gun in Space: 1889 to this article. For more information on Zalinski and his gun, see David M. Hansen, "Zalinski's Dynamite Gun," Technology & Culture, Volume 25, number 2, April 1984, pp. 264-279.

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:48:58 EDT

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