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
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
S&W no 2 revolver
Berdan center-fire cartridge
French "réglementaire" model of
French "réglementaire" model of
Schönberger - Lauman 1892