Fact Check: The Founding Fathers *DID* Know About Repeating Rifles

Philadelphia, PA – -(AmmoLand.com)- Many people try to claim that the Founding Fathers couldn’t have conceived of repeating rifles when they drafted the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights. However, the story of Joseph Belton and his correspondence with the Continental Congress proves otherwise.

If you'd prefer to watch and learn, the video I made below details the entire event. If you'd prefer to read about it, the story unfolds below.

Belton, an inventor and gunsmith from Philadelphia, claimed to have devised a new form of flintlock musket that was capable of firing as many as sixteen consecutive shots in as little as twenty seconds. After the gun had fired its consecutive loads, it could then be reloaded individually like all other traditional firearms of that era. He first wrote to Congress about his new invention on April 11, 1777, letting them know he was available to demonstrate his invention to them at any time.

Intrigued by Belton’s claim, Congress ordered 100 examples of his “new improved gun.” They authorized him to oversee the construction of new guns, or alteration of existing guns, so that they were capable of discharging eight rounds with one loading and that he “receive a reasonable compensation for his trouble, and be allowed all just and necessary expences [sic].”

On May 7, Belton replied to Congress with his terms regarding what he felt to be “reasonable compensation.” In order to determine his fee, Belton wanted to arm 100 soldiers with his invention and demonstrate the capabilities of such armed men to a panel of four military officers – two of Congress’ choosing and two of Belton’s choosing. The officers would then determine how many men they felt Belton’s 100 men were equivalent to when carrying a standard firearm. (For example, 100 specially-armed men were equivalent to 200 regularly-armed men, or more.)

For his ability to double the manpower, Belton felt that he was entitled to £1,000 for every 100 men he armed from a given state. Belton justified his price by claiming that a state could not raise, equip, and clothe 100 men for £1,000, making his 100 men armed as though they were 200 men a bargain. (For reference, £1,000 in 1777 is the equivalent of £150,000 today. If all 13 states outfitted 100 men, Belton would receive £13,000 – or £1,900,000 today.)

Joseph Belton
Belton felt his rate of compensation was “vastly reasonable.” Congress disagreed.

Belton argued that arming 3,000 men or more with his invention created enumerable advantages beyond description on the battlefield, making his compensation “vastly reasonable.” As such, his terms were nonnegotiable. If Congress refused or attempted to haggle in any way, he would withdraw his offer completely. (For those doing the math, 3,000 men armed with Belton’s repeater would mean that he’d collect more than £4,500,000 in today’s currency.)

Belton must have realized immediately that his demands were more than outlandish because the next day, on May 8, he wrote a letter to John Hancock lowering his fee to £500 for doubling, £1,500 for tripling, £2,000 for quadrupling, and so forth.

On May 15, Congress read Belton’s letter to the body. They quickly dismissed it because of his “extraordinary allowance.” (No one saw that coming, right?) Congress considered the matter dropped and didn’t reply to Belton, likely assuming he would take their lack of reply as a refusal.

They assumed wrong.

Having heard nothing from Congress for more than a month, Belton wrote them again on Saturday, June 14. This time, he claimed he could accurately hit targets with his rifle out to 100 yards, and possibly even out to 200 yards. He offered to demonstrate this feat to Congress on the following Monday at 10:00am in the State House Yard.

The same day that Belton wrote this letter, Congress was involved with something that would prove to be far more important. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress approved the design for a national flag.

With Congress engaged in more pressing matters, Belton’s letter went unanswered for almost a month when he decided to write again.

His letter from July 10 was not nearly as polite as his previous ones. This time, he tried to rile members of the body by claiming that Great Britain regularly pays £500 for lesser services. If, he mused, the “little Island” could afford such payments, surely this “extensive continent” could do the same.

Rittenhouse, Arnold, and Gates all signed a letter endorsing Belton.

He also enclosed a letter signed by General Horatio Gates, Major General Benedict Arnold (before he became a turncoat), well-known scientist David Rittenhouse, and others, all claiming that his invention would be of “great Service, in the Defense of lives, Redoubts, Ships &c, & even in the Field,” and that they felt Belton was entitled to “a hansome [sic] reward from the Publick [sic].”

Having received the letter immediately, Congress resolved that same day to refer Belton’s petition to the Board of War, made up of five delegates. Among these five delegates were future 2nd President of the United States, John Adams; and Benjamin Harrison V, father and great-grandfather of the 9th and 23rd Presidents of the United States, respectively.

Nine days later on July 19, Congress got word from the Board of War. Much to Belton’s dismay, they dismissed his petition altogether. At this point, he must have finally gotten the hint that Congress wasn’t going to authorize such exorbitant payment for his services. The historic record turns up no more correspondence between Belton and Congress.

Despite the fact that Joseph Belton failed to convince the Continental Congress to outfit colonial soldiers with his repeating rifle, it’s still a very important story. Belton invented his gun in 1777. The Bill of Rights wasn’t ratified until 1791. That means our Founding Fathers not only knew about repeating rifles 14 years before the creation of the Second Amendment, but that they thought highly enough of the idea to pursue further development and implementation of such technology. The fact that it proved to be cost-prohibitive is moot, as it certainly could have been done if Congress and Belton had agreed upon the definition of “reasonable compensation.”

So, the next time someone tells you the Second Amendment was never designed to protect the right to own a repeating rifle, or that it was only meant to apply to flintlock firearms, sit them down and tell them the story of Joseph Belton and his repeating flintlock musket.


About Logan MeteshLogan Metesh

Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.

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theKloisTheRevelatorfreewillWill FlattBigJim Recent comment authors
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theKlois
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theKlois

Good article. I just do not agree that the price of repeating rifles is moot. Saying that the Founding Fathers had that foresight based on limited interaction that made them to believe they were too costly for the new government is a bit reaching for me. I just disagree that they had the foresight to believe repeating rifles were a gun that average Americans could use. The whole argument that they did not have the foresight is moot though. In my understanding, arms refers to all guns. All guns should be allowed everywhere. To me, this is bad foresight by… Read more »

BigJim
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BigJim

If you want to see some crazy old looking guns check out the House on the Rock in Wisconsin.
The ” common use ” platform in the BATFE , has no legs under it.

Longscout
Member
Longscout

Good story! Thank you for your contribution to the arsenal of reason. perhaps you already know, yet I should recall for all that earlier yet there was the Puckle gun 1718!) — and there were others, too, of which the Belton invention was but one.

TheRevelator
Member
TheRevelator

Also predating the Constitution and Bill of Rights, The 1779 Girandoni air rifle.

A silenced, accurate, 20 shot repeater with a feasible 150 yard lethal effective range(lethal at longer distances, but 150 yards in was pretty much assured if you hit your target where you aimed)

And this was known to our founders. At least one of these air rifles was present among and for the duration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

ras52
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ras52

Good story Logan, thank you.

John Dunlap
Member
John Dunlap

There is evidence that Mr. Belton did not give up after being rebuffed here. It would appear that he set up shop in England, had some guns made and attempted to interest the East India Company. There are some surviving examples of these multi-shot guns around, marked JOVER & BELTON, LONDON. Besides, there were other designs, including multi-barrel guns, in existence years before our revolution. The Founding Fathers would undoubtedly have been aware of that.

https://www.bevfitchett.us/firearms-curiosa/info-dof.html

Laddyboy
Member
Laddyboy

When Lewis and Clark went on their Expedition in 1804, they had a 20 round repeating air rifle which they demonstrated to the Indians to avoid conflicts.

joefoam
Member
joefoam

If you are going to be a strict constitutionalist and historian, then you have to acknowledge the existence of weapons like blunderbusses as well. Lets also not forget the colonials had cannon in their arsenals as well a seagoing warships.

tomcat
Member
tomcat

Good article and part of our history. History is what the progressives would like to erase because they just want to repeat previous errors but they wouldn’t learn from any of them. How many times have they said the 2nd is for muzzleloaders.

Donttreadonme
Member

We can also tell them that the internet wasn’t invented so if we applied their logic to the First Amendment then only printed media could be protected.

Ryben Flynn
Member
Ryben Flynn

They also must have known about the Girandoni repeating air rifle (c. 1779) carried by Lewis and Clark.

Chase
Member
Chase

…”a well regulated militia” means rules applied or can be applied. So the argument that repeaters existed is irrelevant….isn’t it.

Tionico
Member
Tionico

”a well regulated militia” means rules applied or can be applied “well regulated” in that day and time meant simply that a thing functioned effecgively able to do that for which it was intended. THAT is why the local town militia met weekly, sometimes twice weekly to train THEMSLELVES, drill, go over their equipment and the use of it, practice their marksmanship skills (which, history shows were FAR superior to those of the Redcoats, which is one of the main reasons the Lobsterbacks were defeated.). Well regulated did NOT mean overwhelmed by a bunch of rules and requirements imposed upon… Read more »

freewill
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freewill

Rules cant be applied, see shall not be infringed!..you cant have government forcing the rules when it says not infringed..in my view, its as armed as necessary to repell any attack! if they meant for any government control, it would not be in the bill of rights..the word people is in 4 amendments!

Will Flatt
Member

There’s also the Puckle Gun. That’s more proof. Had the Gatling gun been developed prior to 1776 and fielded by our militia, that too would have been OK for private ownership & use by our nation’s founders. In fact, modern machine guns were for a few decades legal to own & use by private citizens without so much as a peep. No, it wasn’t until our nation’s first socialist (communist?) President, FDR, got into office that so many of our rights were put on the chopping block. Just because some men who don’t work for an honest living get together… Read more »

John Dunlap
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John Dunlap

Ironically, the BATF does not define Gatling guns as machine guns, as long as they aren’t motorized. You can have as many as you like, if you can find them. How did our legal system become so idiotic?

freewill
Member
freewill

Nobody wants a gatlin gun!..Way to heavy and the ammo is heavy, Custer refused it at little big horn!

Will
Member
Will

How did that Custer story end ?

freewill
Member
freewill

Very well for the Sioux and Cheyenne, Custer thought the Gatlin would slow him down, it was so heavy it had to be bolted to a wagon, every weapon that has ever come and gone, the Gatlin is still in use today, the A-10 warthog for example, the barrels spin so fast now you cant hear the individual shot

Will Flatt
Member

News flash – all ammo is heavy!

I imagine you could use ultra-lightweight alloys to build a strong frame for the gatling gun and possibly use carbon fiber barrels??

Nothing says you have to use 19th century metallurgy and materials science in what you build today.

freewill
Member
freewill

The black dude on the movie Predator had a bad ass light weight, problem was, he went through a thousand rds and didnt hit his target, one nicely placed shot is better than 5 missed

Will Flatt
Member

Well, one must first understand the purpose of volume fire, and that is for small-unit tactical movement against an enemy element. If you can lay down suppressive fires, that allows your unit to advance from cover to cover. A gatling can accomplish that. From aircraft (like the A-10), this is devastating when the rounds are high caliber like .50 or 20-30mm!

This is exactly why the citizen militia MUST be able to keep & bear advanced weaponry. We’re SUPPOSED to be AT LEAST as well armed as any standing army, EVEN OUR OWN.

freewill
Member
freewill

Rep.Eldridge Gerry, Massachusetts, during a floor debate over the second Amendment, [1789], What Sir, is the use of the militia?, it is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty…When ever governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.

Will Flatt
Member

I wonder what the ATF says about gear reduction. As far as I know, yes, only motors make gats into machine guns; but if you could use gear reduction on hand-cranked gatlings that would give them very good rates of fire.

JPM
Member
JPM

Nice article. Thanks for the contribution and some education.

hippybiker
Member
hippybiker

Then, there was the Puckle Gun a multi shot semi auto firearm that was patented in 1703. The antis scoff because They are ignorant and obtuse!

freewill
Member
freewill

If the Bill of Rights restricts government, Then why is the 2nd amendment there?.Our founders were well educated, they wouldnt give government any control and then tell us at the same time “shall not be infringed”. The 1792 militia act required every man to be armed, thats what well regulated means..Adjust to a particular standard, rate, amount ,degree etc..and further-more, they didnt have electronic media, so is news papers the only media that has freedom of the press?

Will Flatt
Member

Your sarcasm is duly noted. Yeah the WHOLE Bill of Rights is a restriction on the government, and not just the federal government either. We need to get back to the Spirit of ’76 and put an end to all this statist, collectivist BS!

Randy
Member
Randy

The Ferguson rifle was a breech loading rifle designed in 1770. It was put into service in 1776 by the British army. Although it was not a repeater, it could be loaded and fired 6-10 times per minute.

JoeUSooner
Member
JoeUSooner

The Girandoni Rifle is further proof that our Founding Fathers were well aware of repeating rifles. The Girandoni’s magazine held 22 rounds of 1/2″ spherical lead-ball ammunition. It was lever-action, and could fire at a rate of better than 30 rounds per minute. It could decimate a 4″ diameter tree trunk at 100 yards (yes, it was that powerful, and accurate). The Girandoni was created in 1777 by an Italian gunsmith who lived in London. He made gifts of his rifles to at least 4 Founders in the American Colonies in 1779 (12 years before the 2nd Amendment was written!).… Read more »

Deplorable Bill
Member
Deplorable Bill

Our unalienable rights were first written into SCRIPTURE some 3,500 years ago. Some 2,000 years ago the LORD HIMSELF said “If a man has no sword (the assault weapon of the day), he should sell his outer garments and buy one”. See LUKE 22:36 That is paraphrased of course but you get the idea. Be my guest and look it up for yourselves. In the declaration of independence you will find mentioned that among others, the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happyness. I don’t know about most other people but I enjoy a life that includes… Read more »