A little bit of history

Arms are old as humanity. Firearms date back to some hundred years only. As soon as the explosive powder was discovered  (a mix of approximately 75 volumes of salpetre, 15 volumes of carbon and 10 volumes of sulphur) and its potential understood, the race to inventions was launched.

- From around 1600 to around 1840 -
This long period of time saw the development of the flintlock pistol. More than 240 years of evolution have allowed to produce a great variety of models, like the one pictured on the right band. These firearms were muzzle loaded. The powder was first poured in the barrel, and the round bullet followed, forced by a steel rod often attached in the frame below the barrel. A small quantity of very fine powder (primer) was placed in a pan from the inner base of which was drilled a tunnel through the barrel to join the combustion chamber. The pan was protected by a steel cover. Upon firing, the cock slammed down against the steel cover initiating a burst of sparks. Under the shock, the cover rotated and the primer was ignited by the sparks, communicating the fire to the main charge in the chamber through the drilled channel. This principle entailed some drawbacks as the risk to expose the primer to humidity, the quick worsening of the flint and the danger of burning gazes near the face of the shooter.

- From around 1820 -
At the beginning of the 19 century, the discovery of high explosive substances like fulminate of Mercure allowed to get rid of the weakest points of the flintlock system. The priming of the main charge was then obtained by the strike of a small copper cap enclosing a coat of fulminate. The percussion cap was placed on a nipple screwed on the barrel, which hole communicated with the chamber. This new principle appeared around 1820 and displaced the flintlock around 1840. The advantages of the percussion system were quickly taken to develop multi-shot firearms like the pepperboxes (shown on the right). Several barrels were concentrically drilled out of a large cylinder. Each trigger pull inducing a rotation and alignment of a new chamber holding its own nipple and percussion cap. The second step was naturally to reduce the barrel length and incorporate a unique barrel, foreshadowing the next step : the true revolver. With a small cylinder behind a long barrel, the weapon was lighter and could be loaded more quickly and easily. The muzzle loading was virtually out. The barrel could now be rifled which is of prime interest for precision.

It is quite impossible to speak of the revolver without evoking the name of Samuel Colt. Even if the rotating cylinder was still known, back to the flintlock period , Samuel Colt was the first to put it in practical using the percussion advantages. The very first Colt revolvers are known as "Paterson", a town where they were produced from 1837, onward. The relating patents granted to Colt insured a monopoly upon that kind of firearms until 1857. The rights covered the rotating cylinder and the priming system by cap on nipple in the chamber extension. The cylinder's rotation being phased with the hammer and the right alignment of the chamber obtained through a blocking device engaging a notch on the external cylinder's face. The Paterson venture failed in 1842. Five years later, the production resumed at Whitneyville, with the Walker model.

- From around 1830 -
If the percussion was undeniably a significant progress, an ammunition with seperate parts remained a disadvantage. To ease the loading procedure the solution was to gather all the components in one single unit. The principle of a metallic cartridge was already understood at the beginning of the century, but it was the French gunsmith Casimir Lefaucheux who gave it a substance with the pin-fire cartridge (+- 1828). However, its common use was not generalized in Europe before the 1840 period. At the same time (1854) in the U.S.A., the firm Smith & Wesson was granted a patent relating to a rim-fire cartridge.
In 1855, the American Rollin White, thought of drilling a cylinder from end to end enabling a rear loading. The firm Colt, first approached for the commercial exploitation, discarded the invention as devoid of interest. Eventually, it was the firm Smith & Wesson who bought the rights in 1856, very happy to get the opportunity to exploit the only one barrel type, likely to accept their new rim-fire cartridge. When the Colt patent relating to the barrel expired (1857), at its turn, Smith & Wesson benefited from the Rollin White barrel monopoly until 1869.

The main pin-fire characteristic was its main drawback as well. This thin pin jutting out from the case base, first compels the cartridge to be introduced in the right way into the barrel chamber. Otherwise, the risks to inadvertently crush such an exposed pin was not insignificant.

The rim-fire cartridge, if more practical, suffered from the weakness of its case base which had to be soft enough to allow a crunch. This characteristic forbade the use of hot loadings and thus limitated the cartridge power potential.

- From around 1860 -
From the start of the 1860's, several gunsmiths and inventors set about preparing a center-fire cartridge prototype. Among them was the French Clément Potet and François Schneider, the English Edward Boxer and George H. Daw, the American Hiram Berdan. All these gentlemen did their best to have the new ammunition ready for the end of the 1870 decade.

With the advent of the center-fire cartridge, the revolver quickly achieved a high technical level. The French "réglementaire" model Chamelot - Delvigne of 1874 (see picture), in calibre 11.4 mm, represents a first threshold toward modern revolvers. All great European armourer centers like for instance the Belgian town of  Liège, began to produce quantities of revolvers, progressively improving some details of operation relating to security (bouncing hammer) or loading easiness.

- The smokeless powder 1880-90 -
If the 1870's saw the center-fire cartridges consecration, the event of the years 1880-90 was incontestably the appearance of the smokeless powder. Three times more powerful than the old black powder, its complete combustion avoided the usual quick fouling of the chamber and barrel. With it, a new tendency emerged, advocating a use of lighter bullets with higher velocities and flat trajectory. The French "réglementaire" model of 1892 in caliber 8 mm Lebel is a typical exemple of that new trend.

- The first semi-automatic pistols -
This short time line ends with the advent of a new class of handguns : the semi-automatic pistols. Thanks to the smokeless powder preventing usual chamber clogging, it was then possible to take advantage of the gazes pressure to induce an automatic reloadind after each shot. Many inventors looked into the problem with more or less success. Among them the Austrian Georg Luger who improved the pistol invented by Hugo Borchardt and the American John Browning, inventor of the Colt and FN pistols. To know what comes afterwards, take a look in the sections relating to the Luger and the Colt pistols.
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Borchardt pistol 1893

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Flintlock pistol

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Percussion pistol

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Transitional pepperbox

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Colt "Walker"

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Metallic cartridges

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Lefaucheux revolver

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S&W no 2 revolver

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Berdan center-fire cartridge

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French "réglementaire" model of 1874

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French "réglementaire" model of 1892

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Schönberger - Lauman 1892

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