Mad Mondays: 9. Percussion

History, Imperial Era, Mad Mondays, Weapons

Last week and the week prior, we looked at Colt’s revolvers and some early repeaters, which benefitted hugely from the introduction of the percussion cap. This week we shall look at the more conventional mainstream military uses. Although the Colt revolver did slowly catch on, it was still a freak in military terms, every other man on the battlefield was still using a single-shot, muzzle loaded musket or rifle. The rate of fire had not changed for the majority of soldiers since the mid 1700s.

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We’ve already looked at the development of the percussion cap here so we shan’t go over it again. There were clear advantages to military adoption of the percussion cap over flintlocks in the form of reliability (in nearly all conditions), consistency, ease of loading and the lack of the initial puff of smoke and sparks from the pan that makes it easier to hold your aim.

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In spite of this, it still took around 20 years between the initial development of the percussion cap and its common military adoption.  Once the technology had proven itself, the changeover was actually relatively painless in comparison to later developments. Muskets and rifles could be fairly readily modified to take the new technology at relatively little expense.  As a result, this is what pretty much every world military did and it is quite difficult to pin down the first adopters of the percussion cap as there are no distinct new firearms having to be produced to accommodate this new technology.

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Some early examples of the percussion cap in military use include the ‘Brown Bess’ musket, which was converted in fairly large numbers from 1842.  the US adopted a form of the breech-loading M1819 Hall rifle which used a percussion cap in 1833, though this was far from standard issue. The French converted a handful of their 1766 pattern muskets.

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It appears that once the concept had been proven, many countries started to build firearms exclusively for this system. Changes were afoot however, which meant that the smooth bore musket  had seen the last of its military usefulness.  Rifles were far superior for accuracy, all that was holding them back was a way to load them at least as fast as a musket so that they could be used for regular troops…

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Mad Mondays: 6. The Revolver is born

History, Mad Mondays

As discussed a few weeks ago, metal cartridges were not an option yet as precision mass-production didn’t exist. While you could make a handful of cartridges that would work in one given firearm, Making hundreds of thousands of cartridges that would work in every musket issued to your soldiers potentially all the way around the world was a manufacturing impossibility.

During the years of the Lorenzoni action, soldiers were almost universally issued paper cartridges to speed up reloading over manual powder pouring and ball loading. As a result, well-trained soldiers could fire three to five rounds per minute with a consistent load each time. As the advantage of breech loaders became clear, militaries looked at the various options for cartridges that could be loaded from the back of the gun and continue to speed up the rate of fire.

Although manufacturing had come a long way since Henry VIII’s carbine, a universal metal cartridge wasn’t a realistic possibility yet, however if designers could find a way to make a series of cartridges that were somehow locked to the gun…

This is how the revolver was born. Early revolvers were made as rifles and pistols and in wheellock and flintlock versions, clearly developments from earlier rotating-barrel designs, some were even made by the same manufacturers.large_di_2013_0644

They were quite different to the revolvers of today, cylinders were loaded from the front with loose powder, wadding and ball much like miniature musket barrels. After each shot the cylinder had to be rotated and indexed by hand. In the first models, the pan had to be re-primed as well, though self-priming pans did really start to make sense for these pieces.

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This genre of firearms was short-lived, the percussion cap changed the way that firearms were able to be used and designed overnight. As a result they are not well-known today compared to their descendants of only 20 years later.

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One of the few to gain any attention is the Collier system, which by modern standards was a flop with only 150-450 produced. But for hand-made, cutting edge armaments this wasn’t doing too badly for the day. This had a hand-turned cylinder and a self-priming pan, which refilled as you cocked the hammer.

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Some have suggested that Samuel Colt may have been inspired to create his revolver by one of these designs, apparently coming across them during his travels in India.

However it is interesting to note that this late Collier revolving carbine in the Royal Armouries collection has either an unusually complex indexing system or something which looks awfully like a slot for a hand in the back plate and arms on the back of the cylinder…

This guy got SO close to completely revolutionising firearms. It was just within reach to create the single-action revolver 16 years ahead of Colt. As it was, the gas-seal for these would have made it impossible but it could have been remedied for the loss of a little velocity.

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You can see Ian’s AWESOME video on these at Forgotten Weapons.

 

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Links:

https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-15216.html

https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-40772.html

https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-35751.html

https://collections.royalarmouries.org/object/rac-object-10494.html

 

 

Mad Mondays 2: Multi-shot madness

History, Mad Mondays, Weapons

The standard struggle for firearms designers during the age of flintlocks was to improve the shot count of each firearm. In an age where the sheer number of shots that could be fired in a minute had as much effect on the outcome of a battle as any tactics this really mattered.

 

One solution was to strap a bundle of barrels together, fired by a single lock to create a ‘volley gun’. Although this was a devastating weapon the recoil was ferocious, it took a long time to reload and it still did not have the same effect as the same number of shots aimed and fired separately, not to mention the sheer weight. The most famous example of this is the Nock volley gun, used by the British Royal Navy.

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The next step was to equip each barrel with their own lock to fire them individually. The trouble with this is you end up with a very unwieldy weapon with lots of moving parts that require maintenance and is expensive to produce. You also still have the massive weight of all those barrels, plus the extra lockwork. It’s OK up until about two shots, but gets worse after that.

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One example in military service was the Austrian Jäger ‘double-rifle’ (though it was in fact a rifled barrel over a smoothbore).

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Harder than you thought this business!

Another option that caught on was to have a set of revolving barrels that you rotate to line up with a lock, which you prime for each shot. Still a bit of a faff but still faster than reloading a musket. Some were produced with self-priming pans (but more on that in a later post) to speed this up.

Mr Nock produced a variant of his gun on this principle, with six barrels rotating about a centre pin.

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Finally someone had a really bright idea. Why not ram several loads down one barrel and set them off one after another? What could possibly go wrong?

Well if you fired the locks in the wrong order the gun would blow up in your face, but apart from that not much.

This terrifying concept was used experimentally, but as far as I know it was never adopted by any military force. There was too much to go wrong.

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There’s quite a bit more to this story, this is just the beginning!

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