Beginning in around the 1820’s through the late stages of the 1800’s, three major developments were made that revolutionized the firearms industry and gave birth to the modern firearm. Individually, they are all significant steps in technology that changed the role and use of firearms throughout the world. The first started with a change to the age-old musketball.
The Minié Ball
Since the dawn of firearms, other than shot, the only projectile fired from a gun was a round ball. Being fired by muskets for centuries, these were called musketballs. However, in the early part of the 19th century the musketball evolved into the “Minié ball” (pronounced “MI-nee” if you’re not French). The minié ball was the first effective bullet (or slug) design that was not round. Instead, the minié ball was elongated, had groves towards the back and had a concave bottom. What this design allowed the slug to do was, first, expand at the base which forced it to grab more firmly to the rifled barrel and then created a much more effective spin. The rounded, yet somewhat pointed nose of the slug gave it better aerodynamic capabilities increasing the effective range of firearms considerably. These are the earliest versions of today’s common bullet designs.
Shortly after the introduction of the minié ball, a great leap in firearms technology would improve the firing method for any type of gun. The next step in the evolution from the matchlock was the “percussion cap”. The percussion cap was developed around 1830 following the discovery of “fulminates” - chemical compounds that are friction sensitive explosives. Being “friction sensitive”, fulminates such as mercury and potassium will explode on impact. Thus, the flint and steel of the flintlock design was replaced by a chemical compound that would explode on contact proving to be incredibly more reliable than the flint and steel method.
Percussion caps were small copper or brass cylinders with one open end and the other end filled with a fulminate compound. The serpantine system used in both matchlocks and flintlocks was modified again as it was shaped into – and referred to as – a hammer. The priming pan on the weapon was removed and modified to incorporate a nipple on the end where the percussion cap would be affixed. The nipple end contained a small opening to allow the spark from the percussion cap to ignite the powder in the barrel. The hammer would be pulled back (or “cocked”), then, when the trigger is pulled, the hammer would spring forward smacking the percussion cap and causing the spark that would light the charge.
Percussion caps only saw widespread use for about 50 years. It was adopted by most armies around the globe as it was far more reliable, especially in wet weather, than the previously used flintlock design. Indeed, for the first time in firearms history, weather was no longer a factor for combat. While it was only used for a brief time, the percussion cap was the catalyst to the greatest achievement in ammunition technology: the “self contained cartridge”.
The Bullet Cartridge
Like the long-standing musketball, the only way to fire a gun since their invention was three separate pieces being loaded down the barrel of a gun: powder, wadding and a projectile. An external spark was then needed to ignite the powder in the gun thereby firing it. It wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that the first self-contained bullet cartridge was introduced – forever changing the firearms industry.
These early bullet cartridges used cloth or, more commonly, paper to wrap the powder and projectile into a single, self-contained unit. While extremely crude compared to their all metal successors, these early paper cartridges completely changed firearms combat. Instead of carrying containers of powder, measuring it and pouring it down the barrel, one simply had to ram one of these cartridges down the barrel, put on a new percussion cap and he was ready to fire. It increased the rate of fire considerably, however, being paper, wet conditions were still a problem.
Paper bullet cartridges were used around the world from the early 1800’s through the 1860’s. It wasn’t until 1847 when a Frenchman, M. Houiller, introduced the first fully contained all-metal bullet cartridge. This new design would take many forms over the next decade or so and standardization of metal bullet cartridges would not be refined and implemented until around the 1860’s. The American Civil War was fought mainly with paper cartridges or lose powder and ball.
The metallic bullet cartridge was a major improvement over the paper versions in two ways: first the metallic cases meant these cartridges were waterproof. Rain or even dropping them in standing water would not cause a misfire. This was a huge advantage over paper cartridges as weather would have no effect in firearms effectiveness. Secondly, these metallic cases went one step further than their predecessors: they also included the charge into the case in the form of a primer. Percussion caps were no longer needed as the primer was now the method of igniting the powder in the cartridge with a simple strike of a hammer. This incarnation of the bullet is the primary form that bullet cartridges are made to this day. These cartridges fueled some major leaps in firearms technology in the decades that followed including the advent of the truly repeatable firearm.