First tests of Dynamite Gun

by Horatio S. Rubens.
(Contributed by Larry S. Daley)

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Introduction Horatio Rubens was lawyer of the Cuban Junta who, principally in the U.S. organized, and provided arms to the Cuban insurgents before and during the 1895-1898 Cuban War of Independence.  The Spanish (Cuban) American War was a war of novel technology.  The Spanish had the best repeating rifle - the 1893 Mauser. Both sides had machineguns, barbwire, and mines.  The U.S. and Cuban forces also had novel technology, perhaps the best known was the  “Dynamite Gun” which, using explosion driven compressed gases, propelled a four and half pound charge of nitrogelatin.  The use effects of the dynamite gun on Spanish trenches around Santiago de Cuba is often reported in Spanish American War histories.  Less well known, is the building of this gun by the inventors for the Cuban Junta and its use by Cuban insurgents before the U.S. entered the war. What follows is Horatio Rubens’ own story which describes first hand how the Dynamite gun was built and used for the first time

Horatio Rubens' account:

“It is a curious but not unusual fact that inventors of death-dealing weapons spring like mushrooms from the ground when hostilities are in progress.  The Cuban Revolutionary period was no exception. Officials of the Junta were constantly besought by strangers who had guns of various types, protective garments, time bombs and the like they wished to demonstrate.  Consideration was given some of these, but many proved as useless as their originators were eager.”

“One source of supply for cartridges was their purchase in towns from women of an ancient profession.  The penniless Spanish soldier eagerly paid for the favors of these women in cartridges which, pathetically enough, might later bring about his own death.”

“At one period a tremendous outcry was raised by Spanish authorities against use by the Cubans of what are called  “dum dum” bullets. These, in fact, were of the .43 calibre used in the Remingtons and were thinly brass-jacketed. Under tropical conditions the brass soon became coated with verdigris, causing wounds beyond endurance. Quite aside from their oxidization, the smashing spread of the bullets was terrific. The truth of the matter is that these cartridges were supplied her irregulars (Guerrilleros L.D.) by Spain, and were only used by the Cubans (Insurgents L.D.) after they had been captured.  Ammunition of this calibre purchased in the United States was not of the dum-dum type and no decent ammunition factory would produce it.”

“Chanler, who became so enthusiastically pro-Cuban, donated two machine guns of the Maxim-Nordenfeldt type. We tried them out at a proving ground and Estrada Palma was much pleased when I “ wrote” his initials on the target. Unfortunately the guns required ammunition in such profusion that they were not kept in service.”

“Col. Jose Ramon Villalon, a Cuban engineer, encountered the co-inventor of the Sims-Dudley dynamite gun.  He was much impressed with drawings of the weapon and their explanation.  He recommended that the Junta should commission some to be built.  I was supposed to know something about mechanics and chemistry and this together with all the other shower of inventions, was given, into my supervision.  Villalon convinced me that his judgment was sound and the guns were contracted for.  In the agreement it was stipulated that we were not obliged, to accept them until three rounds for each had been satisfactorily fired.  Villalon inspected the construction.”

“We tried the guns out on Long Island at an isolated spot, firing so that the shells dropped into the water. When the first shot was to be fired, the inventor attached a long lanyard, calling to us to climb behind a sand dune as he prepared to pull it.”

“We remonstrated, refusing to accept a weapon which, according to the behavior of the inventor at the moment, might prove more fatal to the Cubans than to the Spaniards. The inventor then agreed to fire from the proximity to the guns.”

“These somewhat inauspiciously begun tests proved satisfactory and three guns were shipped immediately to Cuba; one to Oriente, where it did splendid service under Juan M. Portuondo, likewise a Cuban civil engineer.  The second went to Santa Clara, where it was given the name, “Retribution.”  This gun had an accident and part of its length had to be sacrificed.”

“The third was used with great effect in Pinar del Rio by General Antonio Maceo; it was in Pinar del Rio that Colonel Villalon made his campaign.  Another of these guns was acquired by the United States and subsequently used by the Rough Riders in the Santiago campaign.  The missile or shell contained four and a half pounds of  nitro-gelatin, the high explosive of the period.  It was detonated by a hollow cylinder of guncotton which, in turn, was set off by a powerful fulminate of mercury cap.  The main charge was safe enough in transportation; not so the guncotton.”

“A special suitcase, softly lined, was made in which to nest each cylinder. The detonating caps were carefully fitted into a padded frame.”

“I had placed one of these suitcases under my-desk and, after a short absence from my office, found a friend sitting in my chair beating a tattoo with his feet on the bag.  I begged him not to scratch the nice, new-suitcase, but explained no further. Presently a super-cautious messenger was dispatched to carry it to-a-tug, thence to sea.”

“The most effective and practical trajectory was that of a high parabola. The gun was not rifled. The missile was equipped with an aluminum-feathered rod so that if looked like an ordinary shell, with an arrow sticking out of the centre of the base.”


Rubens, Horatio S.  “CHAPTER XI THE PLAGUE OF INVENTORS” in  “Liberty. The Story of Cuba” AMS Press New York, 1970 reprint of 1932 edition.  SBN 404-00633-7 pp. 213-215

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