We think we know our way around guns and gun history, but in fact we know, mostly, the success stories — the winners that went forward into widespread use, more than the many other ways that were tried and found wanting. This Civil War veteran revolver is one of those also-rans; can you identify it?
It’s a French Lefaucheux pinfire revolver, in 12mm pinfire (about .47), introduced in 1854 and so edging Rollin White’s .22 short Smith & Wesson by a bit. Pinfire had some pros and cons. The rounds contained a primer or cap internally, including an anvil and a priming mixture, and the cartridge held a pin poised above that cap. The firearm’s hammer drove the pin into the anvil, setting off the primer and the (black) powder. Contrary to common belief, some pinfire rounds, at least, were field-reloadable. Both the Union and the Confederacy bought Lefaucheux pistols, and they were also very common as private-purchase arms for European officers before the centerfire system’s dominance was fully established.
They persisted for a very long time; Gustloff-Hirtenberg in Austria made pinfire ammunition as late as 1944 (stopping just before, or as soon as, the Red Army rolled over the plant), suggesting that the 90-year-old revolvers were still in second- or third-line service somewhere in Mitteleuropa. If the Soviets did their usual thing and carted the machinery off as reparations without checking it, they were probably pretty sore when they opened the crates and found out what they’d shipped. Needless to say, they never restarted production.
An education in pinfire and other alternative early ignition systems can be had at this weeks Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week, which is called the Cartridge Freedom Act (or by its URL, FreeMyCollection.com) but it’s basically the blog and webpage of advanced early cartridge collector and historian Aaron Newcomer. Aaron freely shares his knowledge, his expertise, and his articles for cartridge collector magazines, demonstrating a deep knowledge and fresh enthusiasm for these time capsules from the dawn of the fixed-ammunition era.
In the early days of cartridges, today’s center- and rimfire rounds were far from the only ideas tried; they’re just the only ideas that still survive today. Indeed, it wasn’t at the time completely obvious that they would be the winners, and early centerfire cartridges tended to have some differences from those today (we keep meaning to do a post on early balloon head cartridges, whose manufacture had a lot in common with rimfire cartridges of the day).
Here’s another dead branch on the evolutionary tree, cupfire cartridges. These were like a rimfire cartridge, except the “rim” was in the front of these front-loaded revolver cartridges, and the hammer struck the cup in the rear, which contained the priming mixture, against the side of the chamber. This was a dodge to get around the Rollin White patent on through-bored cylinders loaded from the rear. The cartridges are a .28, three .30s, and a .42 — even the dimensional nomenclature of these oddball rounds was different. They were popular enough to be loaded by several ammunition producers, despite being utterly forgotten — except by Aaron and other collectors, perhaps — today.
An advantage of cupfire was shared with center- and rim-fire: it didn’t matter how the cartridge was oriented. For a pinfire round, naturally, it mattered greatly, but there was usually a notch to make sure the pin went in the “right” way. Some time on the site will make you smarter about this kind of thing.
We were drawn to the blog when we read this thread on Reddit, and were originally going to simply blog the subject of the thread, the rare .58 Schubarth round, so rare in fact that a note card from a previous owner, Berkeley R. Lewis, Colonel, Ordnance, misstates that it is a Gallagher and Gladding round. It’s amazing that Newcomer gets this right when Lewis had it wrong. (The Schubarth patent was different from that of Gallagher & Gladding).
The rifle was a complicated conversion of the Springfield. Looking at this drawing, it’s easy to see how the far simpler centerfire Allin conversion (which also didn’t have any right way or wrong way to load the rounds) won out.
The rounds were reloadable with Minié balls and, we believe, ordinary percussion caps. Here’s a picture of the egg-shaped, 2-inch-long loaded cartridge:
Aaron’s post on the .58 Schubarth has more pictures, including those of other rare specimens (including a fired case) of this near-unicorn rarity, from the collections of his friends and fellow collectors, and patent pictures. He’s also been answering questions in the Reddit thread.
We were meaning just to blog the .58 Schubarth, but then Nathaniel F at The Firearms Blog did, and since a lot of you read that site too, we took our post in a different direction.
Bonus thing to find on his page: there’s some really interesting stuff on excavated Civil War pinfire casings.
While the Civil War has a reputation as a muzzle-loading war, cartridge arms were coming into vogue, and by war’s end Union cavalry were predominantly equipped with breechloaders, mostly rim- and center-fire single shots, but also some repeaters.