French Rifle Music

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

Rifles can be used to produce music. Colonel Gaston Bordeverry, a French marksman, devised a crowd-pleasing way to combine melody with the traditionally percussive nature of the machine.

Details, including photographs, appeared in The Strand in 1904, in an article called "Playing the Piano with a Rifle" (vol. 28, December, 1904, pp. 580--81). (The article was quickly reprinted, with minor changes in the text, in The Musical Age, vol. 48, no. 8, December 24, 1904, p. 243).

The Strand says that the colonel, while highly skilled at firearms, had no formal and little informal musical training. It took him months to learn how to play only one song: the intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni's 1890 opera "Cavalleria Rusticana."

The colonel created the piano with help from Parisian pianoforte maker Lucien Burgasser. Reportedly he had first approached British manufacturers. But, The Strand reported, "English makers passed the chance of inventing the instrument. It was too much trouble, and they did not believe in its feasibility."

The Strand describes in some detail the mechanics of the performance:

What readers will first notice from this photograph is that the piano appears to all intents and purposes just an ordinary instrument---it is a cottage upright grand--- save that it bears a most curious pattern of circles and notes. The circles are bull's- eyes---at least, some of them are---not larger in circumference than a shilling.

When mention of playing a piano with a rifle is made one naturally thinks that it is done in the ordinary way---by firing at the keys.

Unassuming in appearance so far as its exterior goes, its interior is a mass of marvellous mechanism. But to explain it a start must be made at the outside and attention drawn to that portion immediately beneath the key-board. This is the target at which the colonel fires. Like the rest of the instrument it is covered with tiny bull's-eyes, but it is only at certain of these that aim is taken; the remainder are there for decorative purposes---to make the harmonious whole.

A portion of the intermezzo from Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." Note the absence of a part written specifically for rifle.

The target is cardboard, and movable, of course, for every two or three days it has to be replaced. It will be noticed that the colonel rarely misses his mark, and seldom is it he goes outside the circle. Still, should he do so, he could hardly fail to strike the box behind and sound the note....

Special bullets are used, it may be mentioned, and here again the colonel brought his genius into play. They had to be noiseless when they struck the box, and the report of the rifle and the smoke from the discharge of it had to be done away with. So Colonel Bordeverry prepared a special powderless bullet in which a secret chemical compound takes the place of the powder. With what force the projectile strikes the interior of the box may be gathered from the fact that it ploughs its way easily through a one inch-thick plank.

One of our photographs shows Miss Bordeverry seated at the piano playing, her father being behind ready to take up the tune the moment she ceases. This is done to demonstrate the remarkable fact that it can be used even as an ordinary piano and that it is a piano in every sense of the word.

The Strand article, published in 1904, includes a rare photograph of Colonel Gaston Bordeverry playing the piano by shooting a rifle at it. His daughter is seated at the piano.


The article above is republished with permission from the September-October 2013 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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