The Sixteenth Century 16-Shooter might be considered to be the world's first machine gun.
It is a remarkable wheel-lock dated at around 1580 to 1590 that fires sixteen rounds without reloading - and can fire them all with a single pull of the trigger!
This ornately decorated muzzleloader marks a pinnacle of technical design and craftsmanship for that era. The multiple shots are achieved by superposed loads in a single barrel. The shooter loads the gunpowder and lead ball for the last round first... and then loads another charge of powder and another ball on top of that one. This procedure is repeated 16 times to load the gun.
The secret of the multiple shots from a single barrel is that each oval lead bullet has a hole through it lengthwise, and that hole is filled with gunpowder-like fusing material. The first round to be fired (the last one to be loaded, the one at the muzzle end of the barrel) is ignited by a wheel lock mechanism mounted well forward on the barrel. The charge of powder fires the first round out of the barrel, and ignites the fusing material through the second ball to ignite the powder charge underneath it, and this process repeats for each successive round.
This superposed charge design is sometimes referred to as a "roman candle" gun, since it works on a similar principle. Do NOT try this at home - attempting to fire a superposed-load muzzle-loader is somewhat akin to holding a pipe bomb next to your face.
This particular gun has two wheel locks and a matchlock mounted on the gun. By interspersing solid balls with hollow fused balls and careful loading, it could be loaded for various firing sequences including:
16 shots automatically.
9 shots automatic sequence followed by a 7 shot sequence when the second, rear mounted, wheel lock was ignited.
9 shots followed by 6 shots followed by a single shot ignited by the matchlock.
These types of early repeating firearms are of special interest when an argument is made that the drafters of the Second Amendment could not imagine multiple shot firearms when they affirmed American citizens' right to keep and bear arms, ratified in 1791.
Single shot muzzle-loaders were not the only guns available. In fact, the Continental Congress had placed an order for 100 multiple-shot flintlock muskets based on a design similar to this gun in 1777.
Check out this segment from Curator's Corner featuring the late sixteenth century wheel lock:
Check out this remarkable specimen is on loan from Wanenmacher's Tulsa Arms Show and is on exhibit at the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri. You can also tune into Curator's Corner on NRATV airing Thursdays at 3:35pm ET for more segments on historical firearms!