History of Ignitions- Part 2- '˜Gun Stories'™
June 21, 2018
The flintlock followed in the steps of the snaphaunce with a flint bolted into the hammer, striking an anvil, but was far more reliable than the earlier gun. The biggest change to warfare was that the flintlock, since it didn't involve burning matches, allowed soldiers to stand closer together, increasing the effect of volley fire.
While we can probably credit French court gunsmith, Pierre Le Bourgeois, with the first flintlock in 1615, it was not immediately adapted to warfare. In fact, the flintlock's first uses were as a falling piece. Flintlock smooth bore muskets dominated European warfare for almost 200 years, until 1840 and the rise of percussion guns.
So how does a frustrated duck-hunting minister change the entire world of firearms? Meet Reverend Alexander John Forsyth, Presbyterian minister in the tiny Scottish town of Belhelvie. Reverend Forsyth was frustrated that he kept missing ducks, because his flintlock took so long to ignite. So, in the way of inventors everywhere, Forsyth built the better mousetrap.
Reverend Forsyth created percussion ignition using the guns hammer to ignite a small amount of fulminate of mercury which in turn ignited the gunpowder. Explosion happened very quickly, and was death on ducks. The British were quick to figure out that it might also be death on enemies of the empire, and quickly adopted Forsyth's patent.
Our own Stephen Hunter has said that, "The great leap forward in firearms development was not the gun itself but, the brass cased centerfire primed cartridge." It took a while to get there, with the French leading the way to encasing the priming compound in the rim of the cartridge. But, there were bigger changes to come.
Colonel Hiram Berdan, of Union Sharpshooters fame, patented his Berdan primer, just after the Civil War. At the same time in England, another Colonel, Edward M. Boxer, created the Boxer primer. Both primers utilized copper cups, and an internal anvil for the hammer to hit. The easier to reload Boxer primers are still in use today.
In his landmark work Napoleon the third wrote, "Invention's born before their time remain useless until the level of common intellects rise to comprehend them." That statement is certainly a true one, in the long and twisted history of how we make firearms go bang.
Watch 'History of Ignitions- Part 1'² here.