Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mr. Pratt’s Gun Hat or How to Be Fashionable But Deadly in the Trenches


Albert Bacon Pratt of Lyndon, Vermont patented a hat and a gun, but the interesting thing is that they were designed to be used together.  The patent for the hat was US 1,183492 A and the patent for the gun itself was US 1,323609 A. The patent office took a little longer in approving the gun than the hat for some reason.
In that mythical period before the internet, I stumbled on an interesting book called, Firearms Curiosa [1] and found an item on page 260 that looked like a joke or something out of a Monty Python Victorian cut-up animation.  It was Albert Bacon Pratt’s hat helmet with a patent drawing of the bespiked chapeau sporting a gun barrel above the visor.

My original copy of the book was lost during the storm (Hurricane Katrina) and a few years later I required another copy for some research on a belt buckle pistol that I had previously seen in its pages, but that’s another story.  After I turned up the information I was originally seeking in Firearms Curiosa, I reacquainted myself with the peculiar weapons depicted and saw familiar image; dear Mr. Pratt’s Hat Gun.  Since it handily had the patent number.  I could look up that patent online and read in full the details of this amusing head cover.  Thank you, Mr. Winant for your thoroughness in writing a most interesting book sixty years ago.

With a bit of research not only did I turn up the original patent drawings of the hat gun and the legal description of the intricacies and eccentricities of the hat, but equally exciting, I found the patent for the automatic pistol itself, which sat inside the armored hat.  With a bit more poking around, I found that Mr. Pratt also patented a few other objects as well as a handy sliding stock for rifles.  It’s the only thing he patented that was practical and still usable today.  The M16/AR15 collapsing stock is pretty much along the same concept as his, although it was only adopted by the military a half century or more afterward.[2]  The rest of the stuff ranged from amusing to impractical, as with most patents. 
But let’s get back to that hat.  The forms for patenting Mr. Pratt’s Wonderful Hat were filed on 14 July 1915, which was before America itself got involved in The War to End All Wars and it was eventually approved by the US Patent Office on 16 May 1916.  America went to war thanks to Congress’ declaration, 6 April 1917, armed with a number of useful patents and inventions, but Mr. Pratt’s Wonderful Hat is not among them.[3]

The hat is both a sun helmet as well as an armored gun port with a fixed handgun-sized semiautomatic pistol ensconced in the crown.  What appears to be a cannon barrel protruding in the hat in the illustration is in fact a semi shroud over the gun barrel itself.  The bottom portion of the barrel shroud is open.  The handy hat also has a generous bill fore and aft, which is not a bad thing in itself, shedding sun and rain.  The chinstrap is a pretty conventional set of buckled armored scales often seen on metal cavalry helmets of the 19th century.  A secure chin strap also necessary when firing the gun to keep the hat from flying backwards off the head.
Alongside the left chin scales is the trigger for the gun.  It a pneumatic tube, which can fire the gun with a simple puff of air. The pneumatic trigger to fire the gun was activated by blowing into a rubber tube possibly takes some inspiration from the pneumatic squeeze bulbs used to operate cameras, if so it’s on solid historical ground.  This allows the gun to be fired hands-free, which is a salient point in the patent text.  Aiming the hat gun is performed by simply turning the head and looking at the target.  For pinpoint accuracy a flip down sight is included which is housed inside the barrel shroud when not needed.  Who could ask for more convenience a century ago?  Before weapons computers, there was the brain!  You need only look, puff and fire.  The auto pistol loads a new round into the chamber and you are ready for action.

Pratt also patented the special gun that resides in the hat.  It’s basically an automatic pistol with a lateral magazine.  I’m not sure what happens to the hot brass extracted from the gun, but I hope it doesn’t fall down the collar of the intrepid hatketeer (musketeer) as he might be christened.  That clever gun is has patent number US 1323609 A, filed on 15 May 1916 but not granted until 2 Dec 1919, well after the war was over.  Ah well, it’s our loss.

The gun can be quickly charged by pressing a rod just beneath the barrel and easily accessible to the shooter’s finger since the shroud does not enclose the bottom of the barrel.  With practice cocking the gun can be accomplished with ease.  The gun’s safety is as simple as just tucking the pneumatic tube up into the helmet out of the way of errant sneezes.  The gun takes box magazines, which can be exchanged by doffing the hat, opening the top and quickly inserting a fresh magazine.  It appears that the gun might use a standard caliber, such as .32 automatic or possibly 9mm Kurtz, as the patent does not specify a preferred loading.  Certainly nothing larger than those would function well in a gun perched on the top of the head.  Of interest is the fact that the forward bill of the hat functions also as a blast shield from the gun’s discharge.  It’s a useful point. 

The gun can be removed from its bed on the lower section for cleaning or service quickly by rotating a toggle that lies quite near the charging handle.  I don’t think the gun was ever tried out nor has a patent model ever surfaced.  It’s a shame, because the thing would make an amusing Youtube video. 

The top of the hat functions as an armored helmet, which was just beginning to coming into vogue in the trenches of WWI due to shrapnel injuries.  The top of the hat can be removed by pressing spring held latches, which release that section.   The upper metal portion also has the handy feature of being used as a cooking pot as per the patent description.  The handy spike can be struck into the ground to hold the pan above a fire and the barrel shroud makes a handle.  The gun mechanism itself would be left behind and would remain in the bottom half of the hat and did not partake of the stew.  In fact, in a cooking emergency, the bottom of the hat, with the gun could remain on the head and fired at an enemy without interrupting your cooking!

Back to that fancy spike on top of the hat, which is type that graced the famous pickelhaubes of the Germans for decades.  But keep in mind that Teutonic spike also had appeared on the apex of American military hats as well.[4]  In fact the shape of Mr. Pratt’s hat is fairly close in outline to British military pith helmets such as the Bengal Lancer pattern, which on occasion could sport a spike as well.  You might take a look at my previous post on pith helmets if you have an interest on their history.  http://coastconfan.blogspot.com/2012/06/pith-helmets-sun-helmets-and-sola.html 

In considering Mr. Pratt’s Gun Hat, I don’t think much of having an army of hat gunners who point their weapons at the person they are looking at.  Imagine in formation: “Fall in, dress right dress, atten-shun .. eh .. eyes right, no sneezing in the ranks”!  Yes it could get quite dicey in some situations.  I think I’ll leave the hat gun for another war and another time.  Although they might have been useful for a bicycle corps, which at one time had a vogue among the military, especially in Europe. 

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I had reading and researching about Mr. Pratt’s Hat Gun.  I added some cleaned up and modified patent drawings to illustrate some of the operating points of the hat and the gun.  Hopefully it should be clear up any questions the reader may have. If you know if there was a patent model produced or you know where the model is located, let me know and I’ll add that information to the blog entry. 

                   CoastConFan

Footnotes
  [1] The hat gun is mentioned in Firearms Curiosa, 1955, page 260, by Lewis Winant, published by Bonanza Books, NY.  The book is still reasonably priced from used book dealers. 

  [2] Patent number US 1191460 A   

  [3] Also not among them was the Wright Brother’s patent for safely controlling aircraft with ailerons.  The government didn’t want to pay them anything, so war-bound US aircraft were shipped up to Canada and the US patented bits were added there, prior to shipment to the front.  Military authorities also were not much interested in the Lewis Gun (due to politics), which was invented by US Army Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911, based on previous work by Samuel Maclean.  But the Brits loved it and it became one of the practical first man-portable machine guns.  It was used from WWI through WWII and years beyond.  The US did make a few on their own, but seemed largely disinterested after the Browning Automatic Rifle came out. 

  [4] American sun helmet Models 1880/1887/1889 and the 1902 sun helmet most of which had optional spike   http://www.nyc-techwriters.com/militaria/american_helmets1.htm

Links of Interest 
25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was an African-American military unit at the end of the Victorian era.  http://www.historynet.com/us-armys-25th-infantry-bicycle-corps-wheels-of-war.htm


The Wright Brother’s aircraft patent problems https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers_patent_war



2 comments:

  1. Very interesting article Mr Coastcon :)

    I remember reading this (or hearing, can't quite recall now) from the author Bill Bryson. Be commented that the creator had simultaneously discovered whiplash :D

    I think the invention had some merit, but it would have proven, as you mentioned, to be impractical in the field. Still, it would have been "fun" to see it on action.

    Thanks again for the great read :)

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  2. You’re right that there is indeed merit to the concept. For example, the Modern Heads Up Display (HUD) integral with a helmet/mask is one of those ideas that has come to stay. An eye directed targeting laser is another. Rather than firing a weapon on the helmet, the laser can direct artillery fire, aircraft strikes or missiles from different locations to a target. The integrated battlefield also ties all those helmets together in a way never envisioned my Mr. Pratt. Thank you for your comment Mr. Papafakis, I am constrained by space to give the text to the two patents, but they are worth a read to people with a mechanical bent.

    I was thinking an amusing experimental simulacrum of Mr.Pratt’s idea might be created using off-the-shelf components such as an old Ruger .22 pistol laid on its side and attached to an old metal helmet with a standard cable system to fire the gun. In this experiment, you can make work the cable end into something that you could bite down on to fire the fun. You can discard the old optical site and update with a laser for aiming. For just a few dollars, you too can have a gun hat. It would be wiser and cheaper to stick with a .22 rather than moving up to an Automag – and better on your neck! Happy reading and happy shooting..

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