Doctor Franklin W. Mann, author of the seminal treatise on ballistics: “The Bullet’s Flight” is for most of us a mysterious figure in shooting history. Working on his experiments in relative isolation for many years, he was not one to seek the limelight; his interest was science, not fame or fortune. A contemporary and close friend of Harry Pope, Dr. Mann was at the forefront of ballistic science. Sadly, more than a century after the publication of his book, Dr. Mann’s life is less known than ever before.
We who seek accuracy and who are not content to ask merely “how?” but instead focus on the rather more important question “why?” owe Dr. Mann an incalculable debt of gratitude. In this article written in 1960, Warren Sipe, with the assistance of Dr. Mann’s daughter Gertrude, gives us a fuller portrait of Dr. Mann than had been available until then. Sadly, this article too has been lost for decades and it is with great joy that we have found it, and at not inconsiderable effort we are now able to bring it to you. We hope you will find it a good use of your time and will share it with other experimentally minded shooters.
IN ARMS FACTORIES, in ballistics laboratories, is an indispensable device: a heavy slab of steel, machined to a V, resting on a concrete pier separate from the building foundations. This vibrationless cradle is known as a “Vee rest”; but those ballisticians who give it the true name, The Mann Rest, pay tribute to the man who laid the foundation stones of modern ballistic science. Often named, but little known, Dr. Franklin Ware Mann at the turn of this century began the modern era of rifle study by his endless, patient research into the “why?” of bullet performance.
“Dr. Mann was a pioneer ballistician who spared neither money nor time in his quest for the truth,” said C. B. Lister, former Executive Director of the National Rifle Association, in a biographical profile published in 1950. “But little has been written about him, and most present day riflemen are unacquainted with the man and his book.” Mann’s experiments were published in 1909 in “The Bullet’s Flight,” but his studies did not cease then. He continued his work and later efforts, so the rumor goes, were set down in a further manuscript “burned by his wife after Mann’s death.”
With much of the lore lost in legend, Dr. Mann today is but a shadowy substance from which to reconstruct history. He was, that is, until one day recently when my wife brought into my office a small and very alert elderly woman. The weapons on the walls immediately caught her eye; her face brightened. “Oh, my father used to have a lot of guns. He was Dr. Mann. Have you heard of him?”
My visitor was none other than F. W. Mann’s daughter, Gertrude, now Mrs. Willard Lewis and, unknown to me till then, my neighbor. She it was who wrote the warm sketch of her father which prefaces the second Standard Publications edition of his book. From her I learned fact to dispel legend, anecdotes to give shape to the personal story of Dr. Mann.
Born to Levi and Lydia (Ware) Mann in Norfolk, Mass., July 24, 1856, young Frank grew up on a New England farm. There was a saw-mill, and it and the farm machinery were a challenge to him to understand tools, machinery, and how things worked. At high school in Walpole he was drawn into the argumentative current of the times, debating plunged him into thorough studies of history, politics, law, economics. But what brought him into the circle of riflemen was that episode so common to all shooters as to be almost a mark of manhood: when he was 12, someone gave him a rifle.
It was a hefty 12-pound .44 with a 41″ barrel, probably a muzzle loader. In his spare time he would go to the “shed chamber” above where the farm equipment was stored and there, high up, fire at a target outside. The bullets perversely would not print into the same hole in the target.
To his analytical mind, this was not reasonable. It was accepted as a fact that with similar bullets fired from the same barrel from a common base in a vise at the same target … well, like conditions should produce like results. Somewhere, an error existed. For the rest of his life, this “X-error” haunted him: why would a gun not shoot exactly true?
Attending Cornell for a Bachelor of Science degree in 1878, he worked on one problem that helped him to solve the X-error. He deduced why a top would not spin more than 20 minutes when friction drag was negligible; built instead a top that spun under glass – and before his professor’s astonished eyes – for two hours and fifty-seven minutes. It was not until years later, however, that he associated this gyroscopic spin with the spin of a bullet. Then he and A. O. Niedner were to make bullets costing a dollar-and-a-half each, so precisely were they machined, to solve for X-error.
From Cornell, Franklin Mann went to the Boston School of Medicine, got his MD. During the next four years he lived as a general practitioner and obstetrician. But the ills of the flesh were not to his liking: somehow he preferred working with steel and wood. At this time, his father died. With the modest legacy (he was one of four brothers) he set up a little shop where he sharpened knives and lawnmowers. In this lies some clue to Mann’s nature: physicians in those days, more than today, were required to learn how to sharpen their own knives and saws. Mann, even as a physician, preferred the mechanical problems, and his shop gave him leisure and space to work them out.
There was a commercial demand, in that winter of 1888, for ground up fresh bones as poultry food. Enormous quantities of bones from butchering were going to waste because of the lack of machines for processing it economically.
The shooting doctor’s friend, Dr. J. E. Paine, noted:
“Dr. Mann, disregarding all methods of grinding green bone, hitherto so unsuccessful, very quickly produced an experimental machine on entirely different lines from anything thus far known. ” In 1889, he produced his famous Bone Cutter which has given him his reputation and success.”
Thus at 37 he gained financial success: he now could find out why a bullet would not fly true. Mann, successful from the bone chopping machine business, had married Miss Frances Gertrude Backus of Ashford, Conn. This is not a digression: of French descent, Miss Backus was a member of the old Burgevine family, a niece of General Burgevine who was a West Point man and who later lost his life in the Boxer Rebellion. A relative was Count De Bussy, a Bishop of the Catholic Church. These were kindly people, given to the service of the nation and mankind. They responded to like personal qualities of Dr. Mann. He, too, was a kind man, and sensitive.
His children were always first in his mind. One day he brought home a donkey, its leg broken. He had been called in to destroy the animal, but his nature would not permit him to kill it, and his training as a doctor made him want to heal it. He devised a new way to mend the break. In time, the children had a new pet. The donkey shared affection with two glib parrots he had taught to cackle for the amusement of the children. There were other pets: white rats and guinea pigs, angora rabbits and Dorset sheep, horses and cats, many cats.
Gertrude Mann remembers with tenderness the way her father used to read to them. After a reading, methodically, her father would note the date. “Snow White,” she said, “had six reading dates. It was a favorite of the whole family.”
Kindly Dr. Mann was also an exacting person. A cracked plate would offend him. At home, served food on such a plate, it might end up shattered against the wall. “Haven’t I told Mother to put all cracked dishes in the trash? Surely she must realize that the cracks are filled with germs,” he would scold, but not in real anger.
Like all men who search to find, he understood time well. There was so little of it, yet so much to be done. Again and again he would repeat an experiment. Once when he returned home late in the evening, face drawn, fatigued, his wife asked, “Why didn’t you come home and eat lunch this noon, Frank?”
“Frances, when I come home, I eat; when I eat, I get sleepy. When I’m sleepy I can’t work,” he complained. “Then I waste time.” But he had long before learned to control his emotions, and his speed, in working an experiment. Anxiety or impatience could destroy an end he sought. “It didn’t go well today… I had to make a seventh start…” he might remark. But there was never discouragement in his voice, only disappointment.
Maybe to save time, maybe just in thriftyness Dr. Mann formed the habit of buying pencils by the gross, paper by the quire, and common pins for the home in ten-pound cans. Once he purchased a dozen hats of a new French felt style he especially liked: twelve hats all alike. In the time he saved, he did the work of three men.
“But what has Dr. Mann left us of material value,” you might ask. “Facts,” is probably the best simple answer. Have you ever wondered what would happen if you fired your rifle straight up? Would the bullet return to the muzzle, or would it deviate-how much? You probably never conducted the experiment. Dr. Mann did.
With plumb lines to guide him, he set up a Krag rifle on the end of a boat landing jutting 200 yards into the lake. The day was calm, but although he fired eight shots, not one came down in the lake, nor did any fall nearby on shore. They had drifted away.
Dr. Mann attacked “alibis.” Between his more gainful experiments, he worked for four years to eliminate 60 reasons advanced by riflemen as causes for their failures to shoot accurately. He threw away the guesswork, left only the facts. He proved most of them alibis, nothing more. He locked horns with prominent gun writers of the day, including E. A. Leopold, writing as “Medicus.” He and Leopold often compared notes, not always agreed. Leopold had written, “In rifle shooting, the trouble is that the bullet does not start off in the right direction from the muzzle.” Mann was not sure Medicus knew the score. The Krag bullets had started off the right way: straight up. But when Dr. Mann discovered the shortcomings of the poorly made bullets then available, he knew there was more to the question. He liked to think of the “X-error” as the constant and varying deflection of a bullet from the bullseye, thus including in his thinking what takes place both inside the barrel, and outside.
Mann’s first recorded test was made on August 8, 1894. He examined the then-popular method of seating a bullet (in a single shot rifle) forward of the case into the rifling. Fourteen years of research were to follow; then an additional year of cross checking, before he published his findings in “The Bullet’s Flight.”
By not stocking his experimental barrels, he eliminated many errors in bedding. The barrels were set in concentric rings, laid in the groove of a Vee rest and breeched by a special firing device that would fit many different barrels. The rings were made to make the barrel axis coincide with the crosshairs of his telescope set in similar rings. The rest itself was sighted-in with the scope. He called on A. O. Niedner and Harry Pope for much of his equipment, as many barrels of the day suffered from a slight curve or warp. Exacting of others, he had Niedner make up a dozen sets of rings before he found a set he would use.
Dr. Mann’s first shooting tunnel, 100 yards long. The V-rest is at the head of the tunnel, the concrete foundation had not yet been made as the supporting structure shown is made of wood. The later 200 yard range would have an enclosed shooting house.
From a heavy “Gibraltar” made of concrete and iron, Dr. Mann fired through a muslin covered corridor 18″ square and 100 yards long. Later, at great expense, he built a longer range, man-high, with supports of 2″ x 6″ planks and covered with 15″ wide one-inch boards. Check cards, “yaw· cards,” were set up along the way at measured distances so that a bullet passing through printed its tilt and spin. Today, the Bakelite company prepares special yaw cards that break cleanly along its profile when a bullet hits. Dr. Mann’s scientific methods are still with us.
Short barrels for bullet experimentation, made by Harry Pope; the right-hand figure being the concentric action and wire trigger for firing, into which the respective barrels are screwed.
Three shots a day was good, and five something to come home happy about, for it took much time to set up and collect and catalog all test cards. He used barrels as long as six feet – two ordinary barrels screwed together – and barrels so short the tip of the bullet itself was exposed.
In working with powders, he sought 8,000 feet per second and, according to Niedner, actually attained 4,000 f.p.s. But he would not tell anyone how he did this, for fear someone else would do it wrong and blow himself up.
Mann discovered many things that astounded even him. He calculated that a bullet travelling perfectly straight, hitting a hard target, would bounce straight back. Yet he could not believe this was actually true even when such bullets did come back to strike the muzzle. After several close calls, a horse blanket was set up to protect the firing area.
Niedner and Pope were frequent guests at Mann’s home. “I remember well,” Gertrude Mann said, “the many sessions father had with Mr. Niedner and Mr. Harry Pope. Mr. Niedner would stay for days out at the range on the homestead farm, whereas Mr. Pope, who was a favorite of Mother’s, would stay at the house for from 4 to 6 weeks at a time so he could work closely with father.
It was on this homestead farm, after the 25 cent bounty on crows had been discontinued, that the men shot groundhogs. “But father,” she made it a point to add, “never liked to kill anything or see anything killed or wasted.”
The “snap shot” above is of Maj. George Shorkley, U.S.A., F. W. Mann, and Dr. S. A. Skinner, at “Medicus woodchuck preserve,” Hoosick Falls, NY – home of Dr. Skinner.
His life work seemed little respected in America, but Dr. Mann was not bitter. “Father always claimed that the expense involved in his experimentation did not bother him at all. And he always said that he really did not dream of making any money from the publication of his tests,” his daughter said. But when the war began he read every newspaper. With his complete understanding of the havoc a rifle bullet – which he helped develop – could wreak, the seriousness of war was closer to him than to other non-combatants. “It seems ironical, Frank,” his wife said one day, “that a man who has spent his life perfecting bullets should worry so about something over which he now has no control.”
“Father didn’t answer, not then,” Gertrude recalled. “His face clouded and his jaw set. His work with rifles and bullets was always that of the scientist motivated by the highest type of intellectual curiosity. He gave his answer the next morning. He came slowly down the stairs from the second floor and midway, he stopped. Mother, who was making doughnuts, looked up.
“Fanny,” he said, “I wish I had never seen a bullet. All this waste. Why, when they fire that Big Bertha just one time it takes ox cart after ox cart-load of material, enough to stretch from here to the Congregational Church.”
As Gertrude remembered, it was too bad Dr. Mann did not have a few minor vices that would have let him escape his mounting tension, other than to express it with the mere slamming of a door. During the war years, he worked little at shooting. Near the end, he spent a lot of time with his wife, as if he knew.
He had worried over the unhappy marriage of a favorite daughter. He was upset because his own country could not see the value of his work. And the war bothered him. Soon he suffered from high blood pressure and on the morning of November 14, 1916, his wife found him dead in the bathroom.
Dr. Mann’s test rifle in the V-rest, with the target visible through the bore.
Dr. Mann’s legacy was his work and his notes. Of his work, Mr. Edward Larishenko, a former Lt. Colonel, chief of staff and Aide-de-Camp to Archduke William of Austria, had a few things to say. In April of 1956, he told Gertrude Mann, “The Germans had studied your father’s book before they developed the long range guns which shelled Paris. Two of these had been placed in the forest of Laon and threw 264-pound shells a distance of 76 miles.
“Your father had learned that the longest range was not obtained at an angle of 45 degrees elevation, but between 50 degrees and 55 degrees, the elevation of the Paris Gun. This information aided development of the guided missile in War II when the V2 was built. Also, the French in the First War utilized your father’s principle of the V-rest on their machine guns.”
Of his notes, Gertrude had more to remember: as close to an accurate solution as can be reached after these years. The accusation that “his wife burned them” does grave injustice to a devoted and loving wife.
“When Father died, there seemed to be tons of things he had written out,” Gertrude told me. “He was one to write down every move he made in detail, and he kept prodding Mr. Pope and Mr. Niedner to write down everything they did. Some people think my mother had something to do with the disappearance of these notes; but all during his life, Mother encouraged him and had no reason to destroy his notes. What he left was not catalogued as one would think of a book manuscript. After all, his first book was but a series of tests related numerically. He did have his test bullets filed away and carefully marked.
“At the time of Father’s death we were all much upset. It was at such an unfortunate time that a group repeatedly approached Mother and pressured her to release Father’s notes. After one of these annoying sessions, to discourage any future approaches, she told them that the notes had been destroyed. A few years later, we moved. The notes and his bullets, and the plates of Father’s first book, were stored in the new garage. It was from these plates that we carefully preserved for so long that Mr. Herman Dean was able to republish the second edition of “The Bullet’s Flight.”
“It was years later,” she went on, “after we had disturbed Father’s things for the plates, that our own boys and boys in the neighborhood discovered the bullets and used them to play with. Much time had passed and nothing had come of my father’s book in all those years. One day while cleaning out the garage, we came across stacks of papers which we burned. I am sure, now, that Father’s papers were some of these.”
Dr. Mann and A.O. Leopold, his long time friend and fellow experimenter, preparing a shot on the concrete “Shooting Gibraltar”. At the right of the muzzle is the “Whizzer” a rotating device (Leopold at the crank) built to study muzzle blast.
Franklin Ware Mann’s own words describe these papers, for though he wrote about the contents of his first book, his statement equally well would have applied to his later research:
“The results of my experiments of the past 38 years, here recorded, have been as persistently and laboriously worked out with an earnest desire, born of a scientific mind, to assist my fellow-craftsmen and add my mite to the world of scientific knowledge.” Only after a second war, has the hobby interest in weapons created a new respect for his work. It is a major reference for, the handloader, for the bullet and powder and case experimenter. Dr. Mann, when he presented “The Bullet’s Flight,” gave us the outstanding contribution to the science of ballistics in the twentieth century. In both his aims, for so many years, he was unsuccessful. For long after his death, “The Bullet’s Flight” was a virtually unknown volume in American scientific literature.