Digest>Archives> October 2002

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Life-Saving Line Guns

By Jim Claflin


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Galbraith iron line gun for shipboard use. ...

Experiments in shooting tethered projectiles for rescue from shipwrecks dates back to the 1700’s, but it wasn’t until West Point and M.I.T. graduate David A. Lyle (1845 - 1937) began his research and testing that a reliable and efficient design was developed and adopted by the US Life-Saving Service. Over the history of the Life-Saving Service, Lyle’s design was credited with saving over 4,500 lives. Earlier mortar devices developed by Edmond S. Hunt and another by Col. Robert P. Parrott was credited with saving a number of lives in the early 1800’s. These “guns” were used by the Life-Saving Service and Massachusetts Humane Society for a number of years until the Lyle’s gun was adopted in the late 1870’s.

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Over the years there has been much confusion regarding these and other guns. A number of other versions intended for civilian shipboard use have been inappropriately labeled as “Lyle Guns” thus fetching considerably higher prices than warranted. There were numerous companies making line throwing guns from the late 1800’s into the 20th century. In response to steamship disasters in the 1880’s, Congress passed regulations requiring line guns to be carried on all vessels carrying over a minimum number of passengers. During these years there was a proliferation of guns on the market by such companies as Coston Supply Company, American Ordnance, Driggs, Reed & Sons, Reading, Galbraith (shown above), General Ordnance, Naval Co., Sculler, Steward and others. Invariably these guns were made of iron or steel on a steel base or carriage. Though some later versions may be embossed “USCG Approved” or similar, such guns were not used at Life-Saving or Coast Guard shore stations. Now and then such guns appear at auction labeled as “Lyle Guns” which may mislead the purchaser into overestimating their value.

After use of the Hunt gun was discontinued by the Life-Saving Service, the only gun accepted for use for rescue by these shore stations was the Lyle Bronze Gun “C” (shown at right). The barrel was entirely of bronze, mounted on an oak carriage bound with iron. These guns are easily recognized by their markings: The muzzles were embossed with the foundry initials, serial number and year manufactured (eg. “RIW No 569 1905”). In addition the Trunion would be embossed: “U. S. L. S. S.” or U. S. C. G.” Barrel measures 24 1/4” overall with a 2 1/2” bore. The carriage was constructed with wooden cheeks, bound with iron and with four iron handles and mounting hardware. The carriage measured 30 1/4” overall in length, 10” wide and 91/2” high. The carriage was generally labeled “U. S. Springfield” or with its symbol as they were made at the US Arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. The arsenal at Springfield remains today as a wonderful museum which includes an exhibit on David Lyle and his work on such ordnance.

We will touch on this subject again in more detail in later columns. Again this month we continue with our listing of Edward Rowe Snow’s many titles. Next month we will complete this listing for you.

New England Sea Tragedies 1960

Nautical Engagement Calendar. 1949

New England Coast in Maps and Stories

An Island Citadel

Essex, Ipswich and Rowley

Bristol County Shores

Enigmatographical New England

Scituate, Marshfield and Norwell

Our American Flag

Women of the Sea 1962

True Tales of Terrible Shipwrecks 1963

Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast 1961

Unsolved Mysteries of Sea and Shore 1963

Fury of the Sea 1964

Legends, Maps and Stories of Boston and New England

Astounding Tales of the Sea 1965

Tales of Sea and Shore 1966

New England Coastal Heritage

The Drama of New England in Charts, Maps and Memorabilia

Incredible Mysteries and Legends of the Sea 1967

Next time, we will take a look at three china patterns used by the US Coast Guard, and complete the listing of Edward Rowe Snow’s works. Please continue to send in your questions on the subject or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this specialty since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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