THE KILBURN GUN CAMERA
American Optical Company / Scovill Manufacturing Company, New York 1882-1886
Push/Pull Lever Focusing Version
The Kilburn Gun Camera was designed in 1883 by Benjamin West Kilburn (1827-1909) of Littleton, New Hampshire, under Patent No. 286,447 granted October 9, 1883. The patent was assigned to the Scovill Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Connecticut. Kilburn, a photographer best known for his stereo views, was an iron founder in 1860, who would later enlist in the Civil War on August 13, 1862 as a corporal. By 1880, the census notes his occupation as "Kilburns Stereoscopic Views". He died on January 15, 1909.
Surviving examples of the Kilburn have been found stamped American Optical Company, or Scovill Manufacturing Company. Advertisements for the camera have been found as early as 1883 in Scovill's The Photographic Amateur. With the preface in this publication dated December, 1882, the camera was most likely being manufactured in 1882 prior to the filing and issuance of the patent.
Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office
Kilburn's Gun Camera was aimed at the wilderness photographer, who had to deal with equipment over uneven terrain. Kilburn eliminated the need for a tripod by combining a lightweight 4x5 camera with a specially fitted gunstock and trigger-release linkage. Kilburn's camera was also favorable in those instances where it was not possible to use a tripod, such as hanging over a precipice or sitting on a rock ledge. Some stereoviews by B.W. Kilburn feature scenes taken with his "Gun Camera", and a statement to this effect is found on the stereo view's back mark. In these instances, though, the camera used would have been a stereo version of the Kilburn.
The bed on this example is secured by a thumbscrew. Another known example of the Kilburn Gun Camera has the familiar sliding-bolt bed lock, seen on other American Optical/Scovill Manufacturing field cameras. This sliding-bolt design was patented by Mathias Flammang, Patent No. 328,664, dated October 20, 1885. Although the patent wasn't initially assigned to Scovill Manufacturing, at least ten other Flammang patents would be over a 14-year period. The camera's bed rail and focusing screen frame are both stamped "Scovill Manufacturing Co., New York":
Of the four surviving Kilburn Gun Cameras I know of, none are equipped with their gunstocks. Like one other known example in a private collection, this camera has a push/pull locking lever to achieve and secure the focus. All the advertisements found so far from 1885 to 1886, feature rack-and-pinion focusing as seen in the engravings. As 1886 appears to be the last year of manufacture, this suggests that the push/pull focus is earlier than the rack-and-pinion focus. Or possibly, rack-and-pinion came first, and Kilburn never updated his engraving. It would seem though, that rack-and-pinion would offer finer focusing, thereby representing an improvement.
Photographic supplier W. H. Walmsley marketed this particular example, equipped with a Darlot, Paris, No. 1 Hemispherique Rapide lens, Serial No. 2277, marked "W.H. Walmsley & Co., Philadelphia". The camera was accompanied by three plate holders stamped "Amer. Optical Co." and "W.H. Walmsley & Co., Phila.", and Walmsley's Phantom Drop Shutter, marked "W.H. Walmsley & Co., Philada." The shutter's design and manufacture originated in England, but was improved upon and later built by W. H. Walmsley. It is very similar to "Moore's Phantom Shutter" also made in England. Moore's Phantom Shutter is believed to be the precursor to Walmsley's improved model, and was referenced in one of Walmsley's 1886 advertisements. Walmsley's Phantom Drop Shutter was introduced at a meeting of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York in 1884, and is referenced in Scovill's The Photographic Times and American Photographer for that year. 1884 also marked the founding of W. H. Walmsley & Company.
Walmsley's Phantom Drop Shutter of 1884
Moore's Phantom Shutter Pre-1884
With so few known examples of the Kilburn Gun Camera, and a few more yet to be discovered, the camera can be considered rare.