This Day In Gun History: Titanic Fires White Flares

The Titanic wasn’t completely unprepared for the disaster which sank her. Just woefully. As we all know, the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats, and loaded them inefficiently (40 percent of capacity remaining unused). Less well known: the Titanic’s flare guns fired white flares. Red was (and is) the emergency standard. Other colors were used for identification (white = White Star Line). When the Titanic was sinking, her crew fired her flare guns. The Californian and other ships saw the white flares, but didn’t consider them a distress call. At one point, the Californian, commanded by Captain Lord, may have been as close as six miles to the stricken vessel. An account of the missed signals via ssqq.com after the jump.

At 1:15 am, the second officer, now on duty, notified Lord that the mystery ship had fired a rocket, followed by four more. Lord wanted to know if they were “company signals,” that is, colored flares used for identification. The second officer said that he “didn’t know,” that the rockets were all white.

Captain Lord instructed the crew to continue to signal the other vessel with the Morse lamp, and went back to sleep. Three more rockets were observed at 1:50 and the second officer noted that the ship looked strange in the water, as if she were listing. At 2:15 am, Lord was notified that the ship could no longer be seen. Lord asked again if the lights had had any colors in them, and he was informed that they were all white.

Talk about using the wrong ammunition . . . Anyway, more Titanic flare gun trivia courtesy gunstar.co.uk.


This gun, along with the other Derringer revolver issued to Mr R McPherson, were to be used for their own protection when they were supervising the collection of black leg coal from Wales to the White Star coaling yards in Wallasey, Birkenhead, Liverpool and then via train on the way to Southampton to enable RMS Titanic to meet its sailing date of 10th April 1912 at 12 noon.

Mr McPherson was the manager of the White Star coaling yards. Mr Bull was the Chief Clark responsible for supervising valuables, up to date passenger lists and of course the arrivals of the coal trains. Mr Bull was the last White Star Line employee to leave RMS Titanic before she sailed at noon.

On that date, after 47 years, with the company Sir Percy E Bates Bart. GBE presented them with the guns and gun boxes, it still retains the original key and brass fob.

Both Mr Bull and Mr R McPherson were employed by the American Line transferring to the White Star Line in 1907, then to Cunard when it purchased the White Star Line in 1933. They were then employed by the White Star Cunard Line until their retirement in 1947.

The fob states “Presented to Mr G. F. Bull after 47 years service with the White Star Cunard Line Co. Ltd. Sir Percy E. Bates, GBE Chairman of the Cunard Steam Ship Co. Ltd. Provenance by descent.

Here’s the kicker. According to other websites, the box containing this gun was the box taken off the Titanic by one of the ship’s crew on that fateful April night. The box contained . . . an unused flare gun.

Clearly, the Five Shot, 33 Pinfire Derringer Revolver here does NOT fit this case. What happened to the Titanic’s flare gun contained therein? It was most probably destroyed as part of White Star Line’s cover-up of the failures leading to the disaster. Someone kept the box for decades. Did they keep the flare gun?

Find out the astounding answer as we test fire a Titanic flare gun on “The Truth About Guns” on the Discovery channel next Wednesday. Brad, Don, Bill and I will also put the Afghan M4 up against the Taliban Kalashnikov and show you just how long it takes to wake up from a sound sleep and kill a burglar fire a gun accurately.

Just kidding. (If only.) For students of firearms history, here’s the rest of the description for Mr. Bull’s unfortunately named suicide gun.

A cased Hopkins & Allen Manufacturing Company Revolver XL No 3, Pat March 1871, issued 27th August 1875 Pat 27th May 1879, Five Shot, 33 Pinfire Derringer Revolver.

The Revolver

Hopkins & Allen were major American arms makers from 1868 to 1915 in Norwich Connecticut, USA. The produced a large line of ‘Suicide Specials’ spur -trigger revolvers. They were the largest manufacturers of high grade, popular priced firearms in the world. The majority of their products were sold to special order for large companies such as the White Star Line.

The revolver – marked XL No 3 Pat March 1871 – was issued to George Fredrick Bull in March 1912 by the White Star Line for his own protection, bearing the White Star Bargee and forged on the hexagonal barrel the following inscription “From MCP to GFB Titanic Coal Strike”. Inscribed on the butt, the Southampton telephone number “Southampton Office 5111″. The revolver is fitted with its original lanyard in merchant marine blue and white. There is a brass disc bearing the White Star Flag, the engraved lines painted in red and white. On this is inscribed in brass RMS Titanic George Fredrick Bull, on the reverse is printed “If found contact Purchasing Dept. 14 Leadenhall St. London, EO3 Tel. Royal 9150″.

The gun has its own presentation box in wood and brass, in the centre of the box, inbetween two brass straps, is inscribed in brass the White Star Flag and logo, under that is RMS Titanic.

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

One Response to This Day In Gun History: Titanic Fires White Flares

  1. avatarReiss says:

    Wow! The information in this article clearly shows the Titanic’s passengers and crew stood a much greater chance of being saved if red flares were used. Pity but I understand why the choice for white flares was decided. A glorious ship she’ll always be. May the Titanic rest in peace.

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