You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)

This blog has evolved into a review of historical and modern explosive devices, and responses to them. Links are drawn between historical activity and similar activity in the world today. Mostly I focus on what are now called IEDs but I have a loose personal definition of that and wilingly stray into discussions of more traditional munitions, the science and technology behind them, tactical employment and EOD responses. Sometimes it's just about interesting people in one form or another. Comment is welcome and encouraged but I do monitor it and reserve the right to delete inappropriate stuff. Guest posts are always welcome. Avoid any stuff that makes the enemy's job easier for them.


Entries in 1870-1880 (7)


Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs - 1870

Readers of this blog will know I have written on a number of occasions about the use of IEDs against railway lines.  In one of the “threads" I have followed, I worked backwards from the use of such devices by Lawrence of Arabia in WW1, established that they had been developed and used in Arabia , by “Bimbashi” Garland, Lawrence’s explosive mentor, a former Ordnance Corps Laboratory technician, and traced the design of these devices back to the Boer War where they were used by Boer guerrillas led by Jack Hindon against the British. Devices under railway lines were also used by Russian Narodnaya Volya terrorists in 1879 and in many attacks since then.    In digging around the provenance of the Boer devices I found a vague reference to the experience of a Boer who had fought in the Franco-Prussian War 30 years earlier, that the Boer's utlised.  Here’s a list of previous posts on the matter in the order I wrote them.
I have been digging around reports on the Franco-Prussian war for some time, hampered by my sadly limited language skills, looking for something that might indicate where the Boers had gained their experience of blowing up trains using a pressure switch activated by the weight of a train. At last I have found something that fits and it’s pretty interesting. In 1870 a young Royal Engineer officer, Lt Fraser, was observing the events of the Franco-Prussian war, a habit that many armies followed in the 19th century. Lt Fraser wrote a paper, published, in the Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol XX in 1872. The paper is entitled  "Account of a Torpedo used for the Destruction of a Railway Train on the 26th of October, 1870.”  As a reminder the word "torpedo" was used at the time to describe a much wider variety of explosive devices and munitions than is applied today.  
Here is a brief extract from a third party source, as I await a hard copy of the publication in the post which I hope will contain more detail:
Learning that a Prussian troop train was to pass through Lanois (on the line between Reims and Mons) on October 26, 1870, they resolved to effect its destruction. How they operated is told by Lieutenant Fraser, R. E., who arrived on the spot shortly afterwards, and heard the story from some of the men engaged on the work. 
Any obstruction placed on the line would have been seen. Hence a different course had to be adopted. Selecting a spot where the line ran along a 12-ft. high embankment, to which a well-wooded slope came down on one side, the franc tireurs took up a pair of rails, removed the sleepers, cut a deep trench across the line, laid some pieces of iron at the bottom of the trench, placed on the iron a box containing thirty kilos (2 qrs. 10 lbs.) of powder, and fixed into the lid of the box a French field shell in such a way that, when the rail was replaced over the box, the head of the fuse would be just below the lower flange of the rail. In restoring the line again in order that there should be nothing to attract attention, the franc tireurs omitted one sleeper so that the weight of the locomotive should in passing press the rail down on to the head of the fuse. The party—some seventy-five strong—then withdrew to the shelter of the woods to await developments.   

In due time the train of forty coaches approached at the ordinary speed, the driver not suspecting any danger. When the engine reached the spot where the "torpedo" had been placed, an explosion occurred which tore up a mass of earth, rails and sleepers, threw the engine and several carriages down the embankment, and wrecked the train. Those of the Prussian troops who got clear from the wreckage were shot down by the franc tireurs under the protection of their cover. The number of the enemy thus disposed of was said to be about 400.
I think there is a clear link to the device I report in the my previous blogs about the depressing rail activating a pressure sensitive switch albeit in this case an artillery fuse, and not the trigger of a rifle breech as seen in the Boer War and used by Garland and Lawrence in Arabia.  The device too has a link to the earlier pressure sensitive devices, using artillery shells with contact fuses adapted to initiate on pressure used by General Raines in the American civil war in 1862.



Mechanical Sabotage Devices

This is an interesting news report I found.  It discusses some clever mechanical devices used to sabotage ships. The devices are secreted inside the ship, against the hull, and utilise the movement of a ship through the waves to steadily and slowly bore or cut a hole in the hull. This report from about 1876 was repeated in some other newspapers at the time, in identical reports referring to the Bremerhaven attack  and provided as context for other types of attacks on ships.  However, I have dug away and not found any other details of such devices. Really this single report. Intruiging. The explanations are not entirely clear, I'm afraid.



18th Century TPU, 19th Century Grave Robbers

I've blogged before about the use of flintlocks and other gun-lock mechanisms used as initiators in IEDs between the end of the 16th century and the middle of the 19th century.   Some recent digging has made me think that the integration of a timing mechanism with a flintlock mechanism was a widely used system, perhaps not regularly within an IED but widely enough that it's use must have been well known, even if only as a potential initiation system.  Here's some images of a couple of peculiar alarm clocks which I think make the point well. The operator sets a time on the clock which when reached released a spring loaded trigger on a flintlock.  A small amount of powder is then initiated which also ignite the wick of a candle which then by a linked spiring stands up in the box. These are I think from the period 1715- 1740 or thereabouts. Nowadays we'd call these a Time and Power Unit (TPU)

 I have also found a "set gun" which attached a flintlock to a tripwire, used as a deterrent for both for both poachers and grave robbers. Here's an image of one of these.  

To be clear I'm not suggesting any of these are IEDs, just that such a mechanism could have been used at the tme to initiate explosive devices.  The set guns were outlawed eventually but in 1878 an inventor, Mr Clover of Columbus, Ohio then came up with a "coffin torpedo" to deter grave robbers who opened a coffin with something like a shotgun cartridge, initiated by the opening lid.  "Torpedo" was the name given to IEDs at that time.   

In 1881 a Mr Howell invented two "Grave Torpedos", much more like IEDs and images from the patent application is shown below. These were much more like an American Civil War land mine, placed on top of a coffin with a plate above it, designed to be initiated when the grave robbers dug down.

These were effective - a grave robber was killed by the device and an accomplice wounded: 



How gun locks were used in IEDs for over 250 years

When I started my research into historical IEDs a few years ago, I came across references to “gun locks” used as initiation mechanisms. The “gun locks” are from firearms such as wheel-locks or flintlocks repurposed to initiate a larger explosive charge.

However I have continued to encounter these mechanisms at every turn of my research. The deeper I dive into historical documents the more I think they were much more common than I had realised. In fact I think they were a usual way of initiating IEDs for about 250 and even for as long as 330 years. I think that’s surprising and worthy of explanation   The wheel-lock and its successors, the snap lock, the snap-haunce and the flintlock are essentially spring loaded levers operating around an axis which contrives to place a spark ignition system in direct proximity to gunpowder. In a firearm the “trigger” is pulled by the person aiming the firearm - the pull of the trigger releases the spring-loaded mechanism. In general terms in an IED the trigger is pulled or released by another mechanism such as a lever or a cord. But it is the same mechanism.

The developments of gun locks for firearms were paralleled and linked inextricably with the development of household locks for doors and chests, and the same people made both.  There is also a distinct parallel in technological development terms with clock making which saw some significant developments in about 1580 with the development of spring driven rather than pendulum driven mechanisms, and one sees this being a mechanism that enables mechanical timing mechanisms in IEDs for the first time at around this date.  But the clock is only a component to release a spring loaded lever, allowing the flint, for example, to strike and cause sparks.   One can still see the influence of clock making in fairly modern fuzes, and I think that’s an area for future research, to explore the early parallels of lock mechanics with fuze mechanics. Indeed the language of clocks and explosive fuzes is very similar in describing components - ”fuzes" and “trains".

I’ve discussed before some of this , in relation to the invention of detonating systems,  but here I want to concentrate on the locks and the derived implications to IED design. 

Here’s an outline of the technology:

Prior to 1500 firearms were fired with "match locks". Pulling a trigger caused a slow burning cord, (a "match")  held on an "s" shaped lever to be pushed into contact with the gunpowder charge. In about 1500 the wheel lock was developed as a sophisticated mechanism to initiate a firearm without a pre-lit match.  The wheel lock is a spring loaded steel wheel which acts with friction against a piece fo pyrite to produce sparks, pushed against it by a spring loaded lever or "dog".   The resultant sparks land upon the beginning of the gunpowder train. (think of a Bic cigarette lighter, yet the thumb which turns the steel is replaced by a spring).  A simple "detent” safety catch is easy to include which prevents the spring loaded mechanism being moved until the device is set up in place.  Thus the wheel lock is:

  1. Safer than using a matchlock where a slow burning fuse ("match”) is introduced to the gunpowder train (not a good idea with a large charge of gunpowder immediately adjacent)
  2. Able to be left in place for as long as the gunpowder doesn't deteriorate
  3. Able to facilitate its containment and concealment (partly due to its small size) within an enclosure, which again a matchlock is not suited to.
  4. Able to prevent the give-away smell of  a burning match and the sight of a glow.

So in IED terms the wheel lock and its sucessors enable ease of use, concelament and safety, all key asopects for someone wanting to use an IED.

Pyrite is used in wheel-locks rather than flint because flint is too hard and the wheel would wear away rapidly. The wheel-lock is quite a complex piece of engineering and therefore expensive, which would have been a discouragement for the “one time use” within an explosive device.  

The snap lock was introduced in the late 1540s. The key to its design is that it is simpler, with less moving parts - simply a spring loaded lever holding a flint that falls on a steel or “frizzen". There is no wheel to wear out, and much less complexity, meaning that it is cheaper and therefore more likely to be “thrown away” in an IED.

The snaphaunce LINK developed in the 1550s and the flintlock LINK developed in 1620, were basically improvements on the snaplock design , allowing the pan to be covered for safety and to keep out the weather - the essential difference between these latter two is the mechanism by which the pan of gunpowder was uncovered.

So, between 1500 there is a period of 120 years of technological development to get from the original matchlock to the safe, flexible, cheap, easy to operate flintlock. Here's a video showing in a bit more detail how a flintlock on a firearm works.

From about the 1540s it may have become an economic option to use a gun lock in a “one time use” IED - perhaps from a broken firearm.

The next issue to address is how the trigger is pulled or released to allow the gun lock to fire.  There are essentially three principle modes of initiation for IEDs, all based around the fundamental idea that the perpertrator does not want to be near when the device explodes -  and the firing lock can enable each one of these three:

  • By command from a distance.  Simply by tying a cord to the trigger of a gun lock a device can be initiated from a safe distance.
  • By a victim’s action.  By tying a cord to the trigger and attaching the end of the cord to an attractive object or some other thing likely to be moved, the perpetrator can cause the initiation by a victim.
  • By timer. if the firing lock trigger is attached in some appropriate way to a clockwork mechanism, then after a set time, the trigger will be pulled.   

The following examples detail use of these three technique from the period between 1585 to 1918 - a significant period of history

In the 1570s the somewhat exotic inventor Ralph Rabbards describes contrivances that require some sort of spring loaded mechanisms to initiate explosives, and at the same time Samuel Zimmerman of Augsberg described explosive devices set off with hidden springs and string.    Zimmermann discusses “booby trapping” a chair that will initiate a device when sat on, and booby trapping a “purse of gold” left lying in the street.    I’m pretty certain that these devices would have used a gun lock initiator - how else would they have been initiated?  The technology was there and there are no other apparent mechanisms available to the bomb designer of the time. 

In 1581, the Polish besiegers of the City of Pskov sent a jewelled casket to the occupants of the city of Pskov. The device exploded when it was opened by the Russian defenders.   This booby trap mechanisms must have been initiated by a gun lock , adapted and contained in the casket.

This link here, tentatively dated to the 1580s shows 4 command initiated devices, initiated by operators pulling a cord from a distance. One has to assume that the cord was attached to the trigger of a firing lock buried in the barrels on the route of the target convoys. Not much changes does it?

In 1585, Giambelli’s clockwork Hellburner was triggered by a clock provided by Antwerp clock maker Jean Bovy.  Now techncialy, that could have been a lever, activated by the clock, which moved a burning match.  But I think a gun lock is more likely.

In 1628 Cornelius Drebbell (the inventor of an early submarine) developed floating devices used (unsuccessfully) by the English Navy against the French in La Rochelle. I have found this description of Drebbels explosive devices, written by Carles Bernard in 1628 in the Mercure Francois:

`During the night between Sunday (Oct. 1st.) and Monday, the English shot ten or twelve floating petards for the purpose of setting fire to the royal French fleet. The body of these petards is of white iron filled with gun-powder and floats on a piece willow wood, through which a spring is made, which when it encountered the bows of one of the royal ships, took effect, which consisted simply in this, that it threw water into the ship with much power; all the others were captured as they floated on the water and did no harm.’

So, my assessment is this - the iron cased charge is mounted on the floating wood platform, some form of spring powered lever acts on the device when it comes into contact with the enemy ships.  I think the most likely technology of the time which could have utilised that spring action is to release the trigger of a gun lock. I’m happy to consider other solutions but to me I’m now fairly certain.  One historian has suggested that Drebbell, who was known to have dabbled in alchemy, may have used the first ever high explosive, the primary explosive Gold Fulminate (discovered in 1602) – but I remain unconvinced. Occams Razor suggests to me a gun lock.

This diagram below from about 1630, shows a clear representation of a booby trap with a basket of attractive objects , within which is a firing lock tied to one of the top objects - lift the attractive object, pull the cord and the firing lock will cause the device to explode. Look carefully and you'll see the lock at the bottom.

In 1645 we have this description of two IEDs, each clearly using a firearm lock attached to clocks.

In 1650 we have this device, using a pistol firearm lock, initiated by the pull of a string. 

In 1764 we have a postal device that utilised a booby trap using a firearm lock. 

In 1776 and 1777 The American revolutionaries used systems that instinct suggests to me were similar to Drebbel’s devices of 1628, but develped by David Bushnell. Buchnell also followed Drebbels lead in submarine vessel ideas.

Here's part of the timing mechanism that Bushnells famous "Turtle" submarine was meant to fasten to the bottom of HMS Eagle. The timing mechanism's gears ultimately tripped a flintlock mechanism to fire a gunpwder charge. (Photo John Wideman)

Bushnell also used floating explosive charges with levers on the outside designed to be pulled when they came into contact with ships, very much like Drebbels devices of 1628. 

This image is a replica of a Bushnell IED that was floated down a river towards the Britsh ships. The lever on the outside causes a flintlock on the inside lid of the barel to be activated when the external lever comes into contact with the side of a ship, or a cable is pulled in some manner.

This image below is of an original revolutionary IED, the inside of the lid of the barrel, showing the flint lock mechanism held in place, to be activated by the lever on the outside. The flinlock shown appears to be from a British made "Brown Bess".

 (My thanks to John Wideman for allowing me to reproduce these images from his book “Civil War Torpedoes” where these pictures provide context for his very detailed and excellent work of later devices.)  

In 1805 Robert Fulton, an American working for the British Navy, (after being rejected by the French) designed a range of explosive devices using gun lock initiators. This diagram, produced by French technical investigators who captured and defused at least one of the devices following an attack on St Malo, shows clearly the firing lock mechanism adapted by Fulton as the explosive initiator. This diagram is one of my best finds.  This is a very sophisticated device and a very sophisticated techncial exploitation of the device by the French. The red annotations are mine, part of a lecture I give on historical technical exploitation.

In 1812, during the war with the British, Robert Fulton (who switched sides again, back to his mother country) used gun locks in a number of attacks using explosive devices on the British.  This attack on HMS Ramillies which was blockading American ports, used a very simple device, and nbot one of Fulton's designs, but nonetheless used firing lock.  It is described by Benjamin Lossing (thanks again to John Wideman for finding this)

In the hold of the schooner Eagle, John Scudder, junior, the originator of the plot placed ten kegs of gunpowder , with a quantity of sulphur mixed with it, in a strong cask, and surrounded it with huge stones and other missiles, which in the event of an explosion might inflict great injury.  At the head of the casks, on the inside, were fixed two gun locks with cords fastened to their triggers at one end and two barrels of flour at the other end, s that when the flour should be removed the locks would be sprung, the powder ignited and the terrible mine exploded. Thus prepared, with a cargo of flour and naval stores over the concealed mine, the Eagle sailed … . she was captured as expected and desired by armed men sent out on boats from the Ramillies.  The crew of the Eagle escaped to the shore at Millstone Point, and anxiously awaited the result. The wind had fallen and for two hours unavailing efforts were made to get the Eagle alongside the Ramillies for the purposes of transferring the cargo to that vessel. Finally boats were sent out as lighters, the hatches of the Eagle were opened and when the first barrel of flour was removed the explosion took place.  A column of fire shot up into the air a full nine hundred feet  and a shower of pitch and tar fell upon the deck of the Ramillies . The schooner, and the first Lieutenant and ten men from the flag-ship on board of her , were blown into atoms and most of those in the boats outside were seriously and some fatally wounded.

Although not involving flintlocks I have details of Fenian IEDs using high explosive initiated by pistols connected to timers in the 1870s, and Lawrence of Arabia’s railway IEDs in WW1 were initiated by adapted martini rifles firing mechanisms - which themselves were an idea copied from the Boers in South Africa in the Boer war.  However all these latter devices were in one sense different – they each actually fired a bullet into high explosive rather than igniting low explosive gunpowder.

I am by no means saying that every IED between 1540 and WW1 used gun locks - but gun locks enabled a simple and reliable way of initiating explosive charges and were used frequently and quite widely during the period.  A gunlock could be used easily to initiate a device, by those three key ways - by command, by the victim or by timer. A gunlock enables concelament and surprise.  I think these facts are crucial to an understanding of how IEDs were used in history.


Alexander Keith and the Crime of the Century bomb

This is another oddity.  Alexander Keith was born a Scotsman in 1827. He worked in Canada for a while and then worked for the Confederate States in the American Civil war as a blockade runner. In one escapade he was involved in what would today be called a chem bio plot to send clothes infected with yellow fever into the Northern cities in the United States.

It appears that he attempted to swindle some colleagues and fled to St Louis and then settled on the prairie. However one of his alleged victims tracked him down and he fled again, this time to Europe, where he assumed the name of “William King Thomas”, and later the alias William Thompson.  As he began to run out of money, in 1875, he concocted a complex insurance fraud that involved blowing up a passenger ship.  But his plans went badly wrong.

Keith hid a large timed IED in a barrel and arranged for it to be shipped across the Atlantic to New York in the steamship Mosel.  As the barrel was being loaded onto to the Mosel, the barrel slipped, fell and exploded on the dockside in Bremerhaven.  There must have been a significant quantity of explosives, and in a massive explosion 80 people were killed.  A witness stated ” "A mushroom-shaped column of smoke rose approximately 200 meters above the harbor. Everywhere people were crying and whimpering beside ruins. The entire pier was covered in soot: it was like the gateway to hell."    Newspapers of the time dubbed the incident the “crime of the century”.

Interestingly Keith was on the Mosel and clearly understood that his plan had gone wrong. He had intended to sail on the ship, but leave it, and its explosive cargo, when he got to Southampton.  He went to his cabin immediately, and shot himself in the head twice (think about that…) . In the drama of the post blast no-one noticed the two shots from his cabin – only later did someone hear a groaning from his cabin. The door, locked from the inside, was broken down and Keith found lying on the floor, still alive. A revolver was by his side with 4 remaining bullets. His second shot paralyzed him.

Now, as I have written before, placing IEDs on ships was something that confederate agents had done before. (My next blog post will be about confederate “coal torpedo” IEDs used to damage ships) But by 1870 dynamite had become available significantly increasing the potential of an IED. As we know, Confederate IEDs had utilized clockwork mechanisms. Keith needed to obtain one for his plan, and had approached a German clock making company called JJ Fuchs of Bernberg, with a  request for a silent spring-loaded mechanism capable of functioning after a 10 day delay.  Keith refused to explain why he needed the mechanism but Fuchs designed it nonetheless. The mechanism was large and weighed about 30 pounds, and was so expensive that Keith initially refused to buy it. He approached two Viennese clockmakers for a cheaper alternative but they failed, so eventually he returned to Fuchs.

The Fuchs timing mehcanism

There remain suspicions that Keith may have been involved in the disappearance of at least two other ships, The SS City Of Boston in January 1875 and the schooner Marie Victoria in 1864.The suicide note