Long Island, NY Matinicock Point Dudley Power Pneumatic Gun Explodes, Apr 1896

Directly to the left of this gentleman and opposite the trunnion of the gun were two garden settees. On one of them and within twenty feet of the gun sat Major Frank H. Phipps, United States Army, one of the official judges of the tests, and John Brisben Walker of the Cosmopolitan. W. Scott Sims, General Manager of the Sims-Dudley Defense Company, stood about twenty-five feet to the right of the gun and close by there were dozens of spectators.

Mr. Elwell took a rapid glance at the target and the spectators and pulled the lanyard with a jerk. An instant later every one knew that disaster had come. The noise of the gun’s discharge is little louder than that of a fowling piece, rather a long hoarse, and strident cough. This was absent. There was a sort of muffled report, and a little flame and smoke shot from the muzzle; then a distinct interval, although the lapse of time was not perhaps the hundredth part of a second, and a frightful, blinding white flash and a sharp, crashing deafening report.

The flash appeared to envelop Engineer Elwell. It came just behind the trunnion band. As the echoes of the detonation came, the muzzle of the gun, which had been elevated to 27 degrees, went up, and the breech struck the ground.

All knew that the gun had burst, and nearly everybody, after a moment of so of standing aghast, thought of possible consequences. Each looked for his neighbor and on the ground, as if expecting to see fragments of human beings. But there stood Elwell, just as when he pulled the lanyard, apparently unscathed, but transfixed with astonishment, certainly not fear. Not a few were ready to laughingly evince their delight that only an awful peril had come and gone without injury to any one, when there was an agonized exclamation, and Joseph Roll of the Oriental Hotel, Glen Cove, who has been caterer for the Defense Company, ran blindly and totteringly toward the gun.

From his hands, which grasped his throat ran a steam of blood, and he was caught and supported by half a dozen spectators, and there were shouts for a surgeon. Dr. Frank W. Merriam of New-York was present, and he was soon kneeling on the grass beside Roll and examining his injury. A piece of metal, probably a portion of the casing of the dummy shell, had struck him just under the chin. The injury appeared to be a frightful one, but Dr. Merriam was able to promptly assert that no fatal result should be feared, as the jawbone had not been fractured, and there was no cutting or lacerating of any important vessel. The bleeding was soon controlled, and as there were plenty of compressors and bandages on hand, the sufferer was, in half an hour, able to be lifted into a wagon and driven to his home. He was put to bed, and Dr. Wright of Glen Cove attended him and made a favorable prognosis. Roll had recovered this evening from the shock of his injury and was quite comfortable.

Gen. Miles knew of the disaster as soon as any one, and before Roll was in the care of Dr. Merriam he had scaled the bluff and was solicitous about him and all who were exposed to danger. When there was a count of heads it was found that only two persons were slightly wounded. One was Engineer Elwell, in whose right arm were about thirty small punctured wounds, all but two or three due, apparently, to powder being blown into them. The others seemed to have been made by small particles of brass. He said he was not inconvenienced, and refused treatment by Dr. Merriam. Mr. Elwell had also a slight wound of the left leg, which he did not discover until he was about to take a train for New-York. The other one injured was H. P. Merriam, the inventor of the Merriam fust, which used in the test of the live shells. He had a small wound on the right cheek bone, which did not even need a fragment of court plaster.

Several of the spectators were made deaf by the explosion, and had not recovered their hearing when they left Glen Cove. Among them were Mr. Elwell, C. H. Woodruff, Attorney for the Defense Company, and E. W. Frazar, its Treasurer.

An examination of the gun showed that four feet of the discharging barrel or tube had been blown out, with fragments of the brass casing, half of the dummy shell, and the entire sighting apparatus, consisting of elaborate mechanism. These went within a hair’s breadth of Mr. Elwell, and over Major Phipps’s head, or in direction of the ammunition. One portion of the gun was blown 200 yards, on the roof of the Summer house. Part of the sighting gear was thrown on the beach near to where Gen. Miles stood. The shock of the detonation partly destroyed a wooden casing for the gun, which stood in its rear.

The wreck of the gun did not precisely explain the accident, while there was evidence of the force of the explosion. What are known as the “side tubes” of the gun were buckled. The trunnion band and the breech band were split and gaping, and the breech block of the powder chamber was jammed.

The disaster was probably due to the faulty mechanism of the fuse. The safety set was released before the projectile had gone more than six feet in the discharging tube, and the firing pin acted. Behind the shell was the energy developed in the gun, before it the energy developed by the ignition of four pounds of powder. The “padding” in the shell telescoped until the wood jammed the tube. Something had to give, and the energy behind the shell found vent in blowing out the tube behind the tunnion and in the same instant the tube at the trunnion was firmly blocked by the splitting of the wooden padding. This blocking was of such a nature that it held the tube at the point of the extreme recoil, three and one-half inches. As there was doubt, in spite of the testimony of spectators, about the ignition of the powder at the point of the shell, no attempt was made to explore the tube from the muzzle.

Another theory that was discussed and practically rejected was that the accident was due solely to the wooden “padding” which was forced out of place so as to jam the tube, compelling the energy behind the shell to seek vent at the weakest point, which was to the rear of the trunnion. This theory held that the powder in the shell had not exploded. The defense company is to thoroughly investigate the mishap and determine the cause. It may be predicted that the fuse used with the dummy shells will be shunned in future.

Gen. Miles left for New-York soon after Roll had been taken away. He said to THE TIMES correspondent
“I regret the accident, but it does not affect the principle of the gun in the least. The tests have been exceedingly interesting to me and to the other members of the Board of Ordinance and Fortification. I cannot, of course talk in advance of the report of the board.”