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The Winans Steam Gun was a unique artillery piece, developed by Charles Dickson and William Joslin prior to the American Civil War. The Winans (named for its capture and placement in Ross Winans' workshop in Maryland) was unusual in that it used centrifugal forces to launch a projectile, rather than the conventional use of gunpowder.


Although the Winans is named for Ross Winans, whom housed the Steam Gun for several years, it was, infact, designed by Charles S. Dickson of Ohio (for a time alongside another man, William Joslin, although a falling out led to Dickson continuing the project on his own) in 1858.[1] Dickson took his design around America, before eventually obtaining enough money to build the Steam Gun in Boston.[1] In 1860, Dickson took his finished concept to Baltimore, with the intention of selling it to the Local Council.[1]

Growing tensions between the Confederate States and the United States led to the Steam Gun being taken from Dickson after the 19th of April 1861. It was placed in the workshop of Ross and Thomas Winans, until it was put on display in the local town's defence display (designed to ease fears about the towns' defence).[1] It was during this time that Winans' name became forever linked with the Steam Gun, as rumours of the weapon's power and Winans' political influence in Maryland, spread across America.[1]

The Winans was later returned to Dickson after tensions around Baltimore died down. In an attempt to sell the Steam Gun to the Confederates, Dickson took his concept to Harpers Ferry. However, Dickson and his design were captured by Union forces during his trip and were both taken to Relay in Maryland (the center of Union power in the state).[1] After Winans' arrest and subsequent release (due to the large amount of public speculation linking him to the Steam Gun) the Steam Gun was passed across Union territory, a journey which would continue through until the eve of the twentieth century.[1]

Ultimately, the Steam Gun was scrapped late in the nineteenth century, having never launched a projectile in anger. In 1961 Jospeh H. Clark, Mark Handwerk and Jospeh Zoller III built a full scale replica of the Steam Gun to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. It currently stands in Elkridge, Maryland on the US Route 1.[2]

Design Details[]

As mentioned above, the Winans Steam Gun was not a conventional design for a firearm. Instead of using gunpowder to propel a projectile, the Winans used a centrifugal force to launch a projectile instead. This force was generated by a steam engine, which would spin the barrel assembly in a circle. The steam engine was also used to propel the entire gun as well when it was being manouvered.

The shot was loaded into the barrel from above, bearing in mind that the barrel was 'L' shaped. This meant that the operator would stand on the Winans itself, and next to the barrel assembly.[1] A spring latch held the shot in place (in the horizontal part of the 'L') until the barrel swung into its firing position. At this point a rod would move, releasing the shot from the latch and out from the gun.[1]

The Winans sat upon its own carriage (which the engine was used to propel when it wasn't firing) and was given armor plating to protect the operator. The snow plough shaped front, with a slit for the shot to go through, gave the Winans an imposing look which in turn gave the Winans its fearsome reputation.[1]


The Winans' barrel was bored to accept a 2oz ball, although it is not known what material this ball was made from.[1] As the Winans had an 'L' shaped barrel but no magazine, the shots were stacked in the barrel from above.


  • A replica of the Winans was built in 1961 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War.
  • The television show Mythbusters tested the principles of the Winans Steam Gun in episode 93 - Confederate Steam Gun.


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  2. Radinsky, Mike, "Huge Civil War-Era Gun A Curious Piece of Elkridge History", Elkridge Patch, 28 November 2010