The ballistic pendulum was invented in 1742 by English mathematician Benjamin Robins (1707–1751), and published in his book New Principles of Gunnery, which revolutionized the science of ballistics, as it provided the first way to accurately measure the velocity of a bullet.

Robins used the ballistic pendulum to measure projectile velocity in two ways. The first was to attach the gun to the pendulum, and measure the recoil. Since the momentum of the gun is equal to the momentum of the ejecta, and since the projectile was (in those experiments) the large majority of the mass of the ejecta, the velocity of the bullet could be approximated. The second, and more accurate method, was to directly measure the bullet momentum by firing it into the pendulum. Robins experimented with musket balls of around one ounce in mass (30 g), while other contemporaries used his methods with cannon shot of one to three pounds (0.5 to 1.4 kg).

Robins' original work used a heavy iron pendulum, faced with wood, to catch the bullet. Modern reproductions, used as demonstrations in physics classes, generally use a heavy weight suspended by a very fine, lightweight arm, and ignore the mass of the pendulum's arm. Robins' heavy iron pendulum did not allow this, and Robins' mathematical approach was slightly more complex. He used the period of oscillation and mass of the pendulum (both measured with the bullet included) to calculate the rotational inertia of the pendulum, which was then used in the calculations. Robins also used a length of ribbon, loosely gripped in a clamp, to measure the travel of the pendulum. The pendulum would draw out a length of ribbon equal to the chord of pendulum's travel.

The first system to supplant ballistic pendulums with direct measures of projectile speed was invented in 1808, and used a rapidly rotating shaft of known speed with two paper disks on it; the bullet was fired through the disks, parallel to the shaft, and the angular difference in the points of impact provided an elapsed time over the distance between the disks. A direct electromechanical clockwork measure appeared in 1840, with a spring-driven clock started and stopped by electromagnets, whose current was interrupted by the bullet passing through two meshes of fine wires, again providing the time to traverse the given distance.

Data and images from [b]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballistic_pendulum#cite_note-eb1911-1[/b]