From Pearson's Magazine, February 1897. To save file space this on-line version omits high-resolution scans of the graphics.

The Gentle Art of Killing


THE late John Stuart Blackie used to tell a capital story in his most dramatic manner of one of his students in Edinburgh. The Professor pictured the man as tall, gaunt, hungry-eyed — a Highland aboriginal. One day the class was asked the question: "What is the strongest human instinct?" to which this primeval savage replied: "The Thirst for Blood."

There, that is the whole thing in a nutshell. Original man wanted to kill. The complaint which ladies make in our time—it has been made probably from the beginning—is that the menfolk must be always slaying something. They say man's idea of having a good time is to go and kill something. And by this they do not refer to that specially deadly form of sport known as lady-killing, but where the life of some innocent creature is ruthlessly sacrificed.

Before the dawn of history (this is a fine phrase, and I know it is the right one to use, and the right place also, although so many people have used it before), man appears to have done his killing by means of weapons of stone—a clumsy kind of way, one would think, of doing the business. Compared with steel, or even the much older bronze, spear-head, or arrow-head, a sword of stone seems a maliciously cold and clammy way of killing. But that it did kill you may be sure, and the people who used it didn't bother about anything else.

There has been much poetical ornament wrapped about the sword and spear—when made of metal—and, indeed, there has been in some sort a general conspiracy to make the whole business of killing, especially if it were of the professional kind, and on an extensive scale, appear to be a highly meritorious and glorious thing. But, as the American humourist has said : "War ain't what it's cracked up to be."

Compared with the most recent developments in our own times in the science of slaughter, it is perfectly astonishing to think how stupidly and crudely professional killing used to be done.

When the killing was of single individuals, what may be called the "chop or steak" methods—the guillotine or the blazing faggots—seemed to have been pretty general, and are not altogether unknown yet.

When the killing was of individuals in a mass, as in an army, it used to be thought necessary to knock great, big, rude, ugly, gaping holes in their poor bodies—something to show, in fact, for the money spent by the taxpayer on the support of his military friends.

So far, at least, as the rifle is concerned and its work, we shall hear little more of "gaping wounds" and that kind of stuff. All that is changed.

Wheel lock

Every bullet finds its billet just as before, indeed, it may find several billets, but the business is done nowadays in such a gentle and even insinuating manner, that, to quote the words of a doctor who has seen some service in the field: "First, you don't know you are hit, then you feel a little faint, and then you don't know anything."

Snaphaunce lockBrown BessSurely this is a great improvement, yet it has taken some centuries to bring it about, although the idea of the gentle death—that is, the idea of introducing a greater or less humanity or inhumanity, phrase it as you please—is at least more than two hundred years old.

Witness one PuckIe. This worthy invented a machine cannon provided with two sets of chambers. "Onne with rounde holes for shooteynge rounde bulletes agaynst ye Chrystiannes, and ye other with square holes for shooteynge square bulletes agaynst ye Turkes."

As a matter of fact, the development of gun-making, and particularly that highest branch of it which is the evolution of the rifle, is one of the most interesting things in the world.

The rifle is above all others the instrument of the gentle death; to the magazine rifle, its latest form, with the accessories of smokeless powder which explodes practically without a sound, is the instrument of the gentle death by wholesale.

It is quite five hundred years ago since "gonnes" were used in warfare; the transformation of the gun into the rifle of to-day has been a long and slow progress. It is only comparatively recently that the rifle, and even a special kind of it, has appeared as the maker of history.

Thus it was in the American Civil War that the troops of the Northern States, being armed with the first magazine rifles used in war, while the Confederates had only the single chambered rifle, were easily victorious in several engagements.

The needle gun made its first record in the Danish War of 1864. Two years later, in the Seven Weeks' War between Prussia and Austria, the possession of it by the former decided the fate of Germany.

In the Russo-Turkish War of 1876, it was because of their Remingtons that the heroic defenders of Plevna managed to keep at bay so long the Muscovite, who had to trust to his older fashioned Berdan rifle.

Lee Metford

And so it will doubtless come to pass in the next great European war, which, as we are warned from day to day, is so near at hand, that after the duels between the big cannon on the opposite sides are over, and the machine guns have done their worst, the superiority of the best magazine rifle will close the contest.

You will see in museums specimens of the old guns—the hand-gun, the wheel-lock, the flint-lock; and you will notice that a great deal of very careful and beautiful workmanship has been expended on their ornamentation. In the good old days they seem to have taken some unnecessary pride in these matters, spending far more time and ability on the thing that did the killing rather than in the killing itself.

The invention of the flint-lock has really quite a touching history.

The earliest form of it was the "Snaphaunce," which was first manufactured by a set of German hen thieves, who found that, when they were engaged in robbing the poultry yards, the burning match which they had to keep flaming over their hand-guns gave them dead away—often literally, I suspect, dead away.

As their business of robbing the roosts was not a very profitable one, they found it impossible to buy wheel-locks, which were very expensive, and so, spurred on by necessity, one bright-witted poultry stealer produced the flint-lock.

The Swiss, who have always been well in front where anything connected with marksmanship was concerned, probably invented the rifle, for in the sixteenth century, we find the government of that people rising to remark that "discord had been sown" amongst marksmen at the shooting matches, because those who had rifles were more accurate in their fire than those who had only smooth-bores.

In 1800, the old 95th Regiment, which later has become famous as the Rifle Brigade, was armed with the "Baker," which discharged a bullet of about the same size as a golf ball, and there was nothing gentle or pleasing about its action whatever.

When it came to actual killing—I mean killing as a continuous affair—this weapon was not of much use, for after firing a few rounds the barrel became so foul that it was almost impossible to ram the bullets home.

This was gotten over to some extent, by giving each soldier a wooden mallet to drive the ball down the barrel. I love to think of Tommy Atkins, stopping in the middle of a fight, hammering that bullet into place, and the language he would use—if he could find any to suit the occasion.

The next step in the business took place in 1807, when a Scotchman named Forsyth, who, oddly enough, was a clergyman, obtained a patent for priming with fulminating powder, an invention which revolutionised the mechanism of fire-arms, the cap and nipple taking the place of the flint-lock.

Something like progress was at length made when the Prussians discarded the muzzle-loading, smooth-bore musket, replacing it by an arm, which, besides having a rifle barrel, was also constructed to load at the breech. This was the celebrated needle gun, and it killed all right, not perhaps very gently or nicely, but it killed. So the Danes and the Austrians found.

During my researches into this matter as regards the British army, I have been pained to discover that the Allies in the Crimean War, to use an American phrase, "played a low down game" on the Russians, as the latter were armed only with old smooth-bores, whereas the former had a rifle, the "Brunswick." I feel sure the Russians could not have known of this, otherwise they would have begged off.

Yet what a rifle was that our army had in the Crimea! How it would be scorned now! But it did its work, and very nasty work it was. There was nothing neat or pretty, or gentle about it. It weighed nearly ten pounds. It was 4ft. 7in. long, and the diameter of the bore was .702in., while the bullet weighed six hundred and eighty grains. Where that bullet hit anything with life in it, woe betide the being who was struck. What a big, brutal hole it did make, to be sure!

Passing over the "Enfield" and "Snider," we come to the "Martini-Henry" rifle of 1874, the bullets for which were only half the size of those formerly in use. The smaller missile, it was found, when in argument with the human body, did its work with quiet effectiveness. It did more work than the bigger bullet, for it was noticed that it was not satisfied with merely silencing one opponent, but passed on through him to the man behind him, and shut him up also.

Of late years all European nations have been adopting the magazine rifle; and the latest form of this weapon, the new "Lee-Metford," now being made for the British army, carries ten bullets, which look like probes of shining metal rather than bullets, according to the old ideas of what these should be.


The long slender bullet of the "Lee-Metford" goes through body or limb, and leaves as little trace of its presence almost as a fine dagger or some needle-shaped surgical instrument might do. It does not disfigure; its victim is hardly conscious of it. As a general thing he dies, and without knowing much or anything of what has happened.

The power of penetration, even at long range, of such bullets is extraordinary, so that there is little chance of escape from them, unless one happens to be in some other part of the world.

This is the great feature of all the new rifles.

Not long ago, when some French officers were trying the powers of a " Lebel," the magazine arm of their soldiers, a bullet which had been discharged at a bull several hundred yards away, went clean through the animal, entering it at the shoulder and coming out at the flank.

If five men had been standing in a row one behind the other where the bull stood, the bullet would have gone through them all. If the men had been standing behind a tree of medium width or a wall of some thickness, neither the tree nor the wall would have saved them.

A somewhat gruesome story came the other day from Germany. The Kaiser, it appeared, was anxious to test the penetrating effect of the newest "Mauser" magazine rifle on the human body. So he arranged that the dead bodies of some paupers should be shot at from various distances, and the bodies were stood up singly or bunched together in twos or threes, and so on. I daresay the paupers did not mind, but it is not a pleasant story. And when we take into account the penetrating effect of these magazine bullets, and combine that with such a suggestive thing as the "New Photography," it is evident that we are in the near presence of something new and strange in war.

When the Kathodal rays, or whatever you like to call them, can be applied together with some form of Electric Eye, so that men can be seen behind the ramparts or any other sort of cover, and these deadly bullets fired with unerring precision through the ramparts, what shall happen next?

In any case, and this at least is something, death when it comes will be gentle—almost pleasant.

The ping, ping of the rifle will be no longer heard; no smoke will blur the charms of the surrounding scenery; there will be little actual shedding of blood; the soldier when shot will simply subside upon the ground, and simply die.

Special thanks to Roger Todd for pointing this article out to me - Marcus L. Rowland