Ask a Weapons Man: Who invented the detachable magazine?

This isn’t from the comments here, but from a closed mailing list we’re on. One of the members there wondered “who invented the magazine with a spring and a follower.” After some clarification, what he really wanted to know is who invented the detachable box magazine, and when.

Unfortunately, like a lot of questions about invention, so many people were working along the same lines that pinning the actual invention on one guy is a bit of false precision. But let’s try anyway!

Let’s begin with the status quo ante — specifically, the state of technology before magazine-loading weapons. Powerful weapons were loaded and fired one shot at a time, finally. by breech loading metallic cartridges.

So for a magazine that would load a repeating or automatic weapon, first we needed to move from muzzle-loading separate powder and shot, to breech-loading cartridges, to fixed metallic cartridges (the kind we know now with a metal case, a primer, and a bullet, with the propulsive chemical contained inside in powder form). Each of these independently was an advance, and they took place in fits and starts, often being independently invented in several places by several men, from around 1860 to around 1890. To make the cartridges compact, smokeless powder came in in the 1880s.

Next, let’s continue with the first question, the magazine itself. As we know it today, it encompasses several technologies, but the very first magazines were of a form familiar to anyone who’s ever owned a Winchester .30-30, or any of millions of tube-fed .22s. This is a tube with the cartridges pushed towards the action by a coil spring, compressed inside the tube behind a cylindrical follower. And the first magazine-fed weapons used a tube feed like this: they were the 1855 Volcanic pistol and carbine, designed by two creative guys in Massachusetts and using an oddball form of ammunition, basically a hollow-based  bullet with powder and primer in the base. A finger lever cycled the new round it; the whole round went out the muzzle, so there was no extractor or ejector. Similar strange ammunition had been patented as early as 1848 by Hall, but it took the Volcanic guys to make a lightweight repeater out of it. (Actually, there was an even less successful rifle with the “rocket rounds” and tube magazine, by one Mr Hall, that the Volcanic improved upon… so there’s always something before what appears to be the beginning).

Tube magazines are practical, but have some faults. They are not interchangeable. You can’t carry loaded spares of them. They can render the weapon useless if dented. And they don’t adapt safely to pointed bullets and centerfire ammunition. That’s why their main use today is on vintage-styled lever actions, .22 rimfire rifles, and shotguns.

The Volcanic had problems of its own, besides the ones associated with the tube magazine. A stray spark could set off all the rounds in the magazine at once, and the weapon was weak — the Volcanic round left the muzzle with a mere 56 foot/pounds of energy. So the company got into deeper and deeper trouble and one of the investors, a shirt manufacturer, took it over and squeezed the two inventors out. It wasn’t a technical dead end, though: revitalized by the shirt guy, the company made Henry rimfire repeaters in the 1860s and then centerfire rifles under his own name. These strongly resembled the Volcanic, but with added extraction and ejection to handle metallic cartridges. You might have heard of his company and its guns: his name was Oliver Winchester.

The box magazine solves the same problem (carry multiple rounds ready for loading) in a different way. The rounds are stacked up side-to-side rather than lined up nose-to-tail. Initially, these magazines were nondetachable and blind: they loaded from the top and rounds went out the same way. By the late 1880s, it was customary to enhance rapid loading by providing the rounds in a Mauser-type stripper clip, that was used to load the ammunition and then taken away from the gun, or a Mannlicher-style en-bloc clip, which actually snapped into place and formed part of the feeding mechanism itself (the most familiar example of this to Americans is the 8-round en-bloc clip used in the M1 Garand rifle).

The first weapon that had a detachable box magazine appears to be the Borchardt C93 pistol, on the market in 1893. It was a recoil-operated, locked-breech weapon with the eight-round magazine housed in the grip — a prototype of a century’s automatic pistols. While later in the 20th century the detachable magazines began to hold more rounds, this description covers most of the guns that would drive the 19th century’s self-defense weapon, the revolver, into the history books. This beautifully made and nicely balanced (yes, despite its awkward look) weapon was modernity itself in the gas-light era, convertible to a small carbine with a screw-on stock, and coming packed in a case with all necessary accessories — including spare magazines. The Borchardt would soon be overwhelmed by smaller, handier, cheaper competitors, including the pistol its own DNA evolved into, the famous Luger of two world wars.

Wikipedia credits the design of the detachable magazine, by the way, to Arthur G. Savage, an illustration of why you should be extremely leery of trusting Wikipedia. Savage’s patent is actually for a magazine that activates a bolt hold-open — something that Georg Luger added to his improvement of the Borchardt system in 1900. (Savage used the magazine follower, as did Browning in many designs; Luger used a button on the side of the follower). The Borchardt magazine was nickel-plated and had a European walnut base with the serial number. The pistol was made initially by Ludwig Loewe of Berlin, and  later by DWM. Today it is a rare collector’s item; this seller has a complete set of Borchardt and accessories for a reasonable $35,000. Or one of the historic magazines for $850. Loewe made 1,100 or so before production went to DWM, which produced larger numbers. Today they are rare and centerpieces of some remarkable Luger collections. Few of the owners dare to shoot them, although they’re perfectly safe, even after 100 years.

Rifles took a bit longer to see the benefit of the detachable box mag. The first successful, mass produced one was the Lee-Metford rifle; Metford’s part of the design included his heavy steel 10-round magazine. With a change of barrel, the rifle became the Lee-Enfield and served the British for decades. However, while the detachable mag wasn’t usually detached in service; instead, it was loaded through the top, with stripper clips.Detachable box machine guns were common in World War I and some a little before; the Lewis gun loaded from detachable drums and was standardized in 1911. The first mass-produced rifle, as opposed to a machine or submachine gun, to have a detachable box magazine was probably the Simonov AVS of 1936.

Now, it wasn’t always entirely clear at the time that a detachable magazine was a better solution for combat weapons than stripper clips or en-bloc clips. And some odd loading mechanisms persisted: Hotchkiss machine guns fed from a metallic strip. Some Japanese MGs actually used a sort of hopper. But when magazine size increased beyond 10 rounds, detachable magazines gave rifles a clear reload-speed advantage, just as they had done to pistols as soon as magazine size was larger than the six shots of a typical revolver.

What’s next? FN an H&K have experimented with alternative magazine concepts. Colt and the Army tried to develop a disposable magazine for the M16 series in 1969-70, taking “detachable” to the next level, but the project crashed due to the very large manufacturing tolerances in M16 magazine wells. For the time being, the box magazine is with us, although in a plethora of variations.

And history moved on, leaving Hugo Borchardt and the inventors of the Volcanic system behind. But Borchardt went on to have a large quantity of patents in a variety of fields, even if he never benefited from the $30,000 prices his handguns now draw. And the Volcanic guys just kept on plugging in the gun market. You might have heard of them — their names were Smith. And Wesson.

(Images: Borchardt photos ForgottenWeapons.com and Horst Held Antique Handguns;  Volcanic ammo, CartridgeCollectors.org; Volcanic gun, SomethingAwful forums).

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  1. Pingback: First Detachable Magazine… was it Lee’s? « WeaponsMan

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