The Billinghurst-Requa battery gun is an unusual piece of armament that resulted from an equally unusual partnership between two men from New York: William Billinghurst, a gunsmith, and Josephus Requa, a dentist.
Before Josephus Requa settled on a profession, he spent three years as an apprentice to William Billinghurst learning how to make and repair firearms. After his apprenticeship ended, Requa decided on a different professional direction. He began his study of dentistry in 1853 and was in practice for himself by 1855.
Despite their different vocations, Requa and Billinghurst remained friends through the years. When Requa answered the military’s call for a rapid-fire gun in June 1861, he came up with a design and then consulted with Billinghurst on its feasibility. They built a scale model within the next two weeks and then proceeded to create a fully-functioning prototype soon thereafter.
The design for the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun included 25 barrels mounted horizontally to a wheeled carriage. A clip of 25, .52-caliber metallic cartridges were loaded in front of a bar at the breech of the barrels. When the attached lever was manipulated, the cartridges were pushed forward into the barrels and the hammer on the single percussion cone was cocked.
Once the breech was closed, a line of blackpowder was placed in a trough behind the cartridges, which had small holes in their bases through which to channel the powder ignition. A percussion cap was placed on the cone, a lanyard was attached to a trigger, and then one person could pull the lanyard and fire all 25 barrels at once.
Because the cartridges were held together by a clip, all 25 could be removed at once, allowing for faster reloading. A crew of three men could fire the gun up to seven times per minute, creating a rate of fire of 175 rounds per minute.
In April 1862, Requa met with Brigadier General James Ripley, head of the Ordnance Department for the United States Army. Ripley, believe it or not, is best known to history for his refusal to implement shoulder-fired repeating firearms in combat, citing their faster rate of fire to be a waste of ammunition. Unfortunately, he had the same view of the Requa-Billinghurst battery gun as he did of the Henry repeating rifle.
Despite being rebuffed by Ripley, Requa met with President Abraham Lincoln in May 1862. During their meeting, Requa explained the gun’s function and Ripley’s dismissal of it. Lincoln gave Requa a note to give back to Ripley, basically telling him to listen to Requa. Even so, Ripley was unmoved by Lincoln’s note, so Requa went back to the President and finally arranged for Lincoln to see the gun in action.
Two demonstrations in May proved successful and a patent followed on September 16, 1862. Still, Brigadier General Ripley dug in his heels; no government contract would ever materialize as long as Ripley had anything to say about it.
Despite not having the official blessing of the United States Army, Billinghurst-Requa battery guns did see service during the Civil War, albeit on a small scale. Fifty guns were produced with money raised from private backers. The 18th New York Independent Battery purchased a couple of those examples and used them in combat down in Louisiana. The battery guns were seen by Major General Quincy Gillmore, who ordered enough guns to outfit five batteries to aid in the capture of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina in 1863.
The government’s final test of the gun came in August 1864. Even though the gun proved to be reliable and useful, military procurement being what it is, it took two years for the final report to give that official determination. At that time, Billinghurst and Requa finally received their one and only government contract…for five guns, a year after the Civil War had ended. It would prove to be too little, too late.
The two men never designed another weapon together and faded into relative obscurity. The final public display of their battery gun, now simply a novelty, was done at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.