Title Page


About the Author


About the Companion Website

chapter 1: Firearms History

1.0.1 Introduction

1.0.2 The Flintlock (Figure 1.0.1)

1.0.3 The Percussion System (Figure 1.0.5)

1.0.4 The Pinfire System (Figure 1.0.6)

1.0.5 The Rimfire System (Figure 1.0.7)

1.0.6 The Dreyse Needle Fire System (Figure 1.0.8)

1.0.7 The Centre Fire System (Figure 1.0.9)

1.0.8 The Revolver (Figure 1.0.10)

1.0.9 The Self-Loading Pistol (Figure 1.0.11)

Further Reading

Chapter 2: Weapon Types and Their Operation

2.0.1 Introduction

2.0.2 Handguns

2.0.3 Rifles

2.0.4 Shotguns

2.0.5 Combination Weapons

2.0.6 Sub-Machine Guns

2.0.7 Assault Rifles

2.0.8 Machine Guns and Heavy Machine Guns

2.0.9 Muzzle Attachments

2.0.10 Important Parts of a Weapons Mechanism

2.0.11 Bent and Sear

2.0.12 Other Important Parts of a Revolver Mechanism

2.0.13 Hand and Ratchet

Further Reading

chapter 2.1: Gas and Air Powered Weapons

2.1 Introduction

2.1.2 Weapon types

2.1.3 Ammunition

2.1.4 Considerations

Further Reading

chapter 2.2: Rifling Types and Their Identification

2.2.1 Introduction

2.2.2 Basics

2.2.3 Class Characteristics

2.2.4 General Introduction to Rifling

Additional Reading

chapter 2.3: Home-made, Improvised and Converted Firearms

2.3.1 Introduction

2.3.2 Improvised Firearms

2.3.3 Converting air Weapons

2.3.4 Home-Made and Converted Toys and Replica Weapons

2.3.5 Home-Made Ammunition

Further Reading

chapter 2.4: Antique Weapons

2.4.1 Introduction

2.4.2 Background

2.4.3 Defining ‘Antique’

Chapter 3: Proof Marks

3.0.1 Introduction

3.0.2 Proof Marks

3.0.3 Types of Proof

3.0.4 Proof Marks and the Examiner

3.0.5 Examples of Proof Marks

Further Reading

Chapter 4: A Brief History of Ammunition

4.0.1 Introduction

4.0.2 Basics

Further Reading

chapter 4.1: Ammunition Components

4.1.1 Introduction

4.1.2 Basics

4.1.3 Ammunition Types

4.1.4 Primer Cap Types

4.1.5 Cartridge Cases

4.1.6 Shotgun Ammunition

Further Reading

chapter 4.2: Bullet Types

4.2.1 Introduction

4.2.2 Basics

4.2.3 Bullet Materials

4.2.4 Other Bullet Types

4.2.5 Bullet Nose Configuration

4.2.6 Bullet Base Configuration

4.2.7 Bullet Lubrication

Further Reading

chapter 4.3: Headstamps and Other Identifying Features on Ammunition

4.3.1 Introduction

4.3.2 Basics

4.3.3 Clandestine Ammunition

4.3.4 Colour Coding of Ammunition

Further Reading

chapter 4.4: Non-toxic and Frangible Bullets

4.4.1 Introduction

4.4.2 Elimination of Lead in Ammunition

4.4.3 Materials Used in Non-Toxic Ammunition

4.4.4 The Current Situation

Further Reading

chapter 4.5: Non-toxic Shot

4.5.1 Introduction

4.5.2 Materials Used in Non-Toxic Shotgun Ammunition

Suggested Further Reading

chapter 4.6: A Brief History of Propellants

4.6.1 Introduction

4.6.2 Basics

4.6.3 Black Powder

4.6.4 Nitro Propellants

4.6.5 Dating of Ammunition

4.6.6 Reduced Loads for Target Shooting

Further Reading

chapter 4.7: Priming Compounds

4.7.1 Introduction

4.7.2 Basics

4.7.3 A Short History of Priming Compounds

4.7.4 Manufacture

4.7.5 Accidental Discharge of Primers

Further Reading

Chapter 5: An Introduction to Ballistics

5.0.1 Introduction

5.0.2 Basics

5.0.3 Background

Further Reading

chapter 5.1: Internal Ballistics

5.1.1 Introduction

5.1.2 Basics

5.1.3 Recoil

5.1.4 Barrel Pressure

Further Reading

chapter 5.2: External Ballistics

5.2.1 Introduction

5.2.2 Basics

5.2.3 Maximum Range of Missiles

5.2.4 Maximum Altitude That a Bullet Will Attain

5.2.5 Terminal Velocity

5.2.6 Use of Sight to Compensate for Bullet Drop

5.2.7 Other Influencing Factors

5.2.8 Muzzle Energy

5.2.9 Momentum

Further Reading

chapter 5.3: Terminal Ballistics

5.3.1 Introduction

5.3.2 Basics

5.3.3 General Wound Ballistic Concepts

5.3.4 Other Factors Influencing the Wounding Capabilities of a Missile

5.3.5 Bullet Performance and ‘Wounding Capabilities’

5.3.6 Relative Stopping Power (RSP)

5.3.7 Bullet Resistant Vests (BRV)

Further Reading

Chapter 6: A Brief History of Forensic Firearms Identification

6.0.1 Introduction

6.0.2 Early Cases Involving Bullet Identification

6.0.3 Use of Photomicrographs

6.0.4 Identification of Weapon from Breech face Markings

6.0.5 Early Use of Comparison Microscope

6.0.6 Introduction of the Binocular Comparison Microscope

6.0.7 Improvements in Illumination

6.0.8 Photography of Stria

6.0.9 Modern Technology for Stria Comparison (Figure 6.0.1)

Suggested Further Reading

Chapter 7: Basic Concepts of Striation Matching

7.0.1 Introduction

7.0.2 Basics

7.0.3 Identification of Weapon Type

7.0.4 Individual Characteristics on Cartridge Cases

7.0.5 Formation of Stria

7.0.6 Problematical Areas

Further Reading

chapter 7.1: Basic Concepts in Comparison Microscopy

7.1.1 Introduction

7.1.2 Basic Methodology and Background to Stria Comparisons

7.1.3 Lighting used for Comparison Microscopy

7.1.4 The Concept of Consecutive Matching Stria

7.1.5 Obtaining Control Samples

7.1.6 Manufacturing Marks on Ammunition

7.1.7 Recovery Methods for Fired Bullets

7.1.8 Conclusion

Further Reading

chapter 7.2: The Concept of Consecutive Matching Stria

7.2.1 Introduction

7.2.2 Basics

7.2.3 Arguments for and Against the Concept of Stria Comparisons

Further Reading

chapter 7.3: A Statistical Model to Illustrate the Concept of Individuality in Striation Matches

7.3.1 Introduction

7.3.2 Basics

7.3.3 Stria Individuality

7.3.4 Philosophy


Chapter 8: Accidental Discharge

8.0.1 Introduction

8.0.2 Basics

8.3 Trigger Mechanisms

8.4 Reasons for an Accidental Discharge

8.5 Negligent Discharges

Further Reading

Chapter 9: Identification of Calibre from the Bullet Entry Hole

9.0.1 Introduction

9.0.2 Basics

9.0.3 Determination of Bullet Type

Further Reading

Chapter 10: Ricochet Analysis

10.0.1 Introduction

10.0.2 Basics

10.0.3 Variables Influencing the Liability of a Missile to Ricochet

Further Reading

Chapter 11: Bullet Penetration and Trajectory through Glass

11.0.1 Introduction

11.0.2 Glass Types and Glass Substitutes

11.0.3 Deviation of missile after penetrating glass

11.0.4 Penetration of Normal Window Glass

11.0.5 Penetration of Laminated and Bullet-Resistant Glass

11.0.6 Penetration of Tempered or Toughened Glass

11.0.7 Determination of Bullet Type from the Entry Hole

11.0.8 Deflection of Bullet by Glass

Further Reading and References

Chapter 12: Range of Firing Estimations and Bullet Hole Examinations

12.0.1 Introduction

12.0.2 Basics

12.0.3 Range of Firing Estimations for Pistols and Rifles

12.0.4 Extended Range of Fire Estimations

12.0.5 Range of Firing Estimations on Badly Decomposed Bodies

12.0.6 Bullet Wipe Marks

chapter 12.1: Chemical Tests for Range of Fire Estimations and Bullet Entry/Exit Hole Identification

12.1.1 Introduction

12.1.2 Chemical Tests for Range of Firing Estimations

12.1.3 Range of Firing Estimations on Heavily Bloodstained Garments

12.1.4 Range of Firing Estimations for Non-Toxic Non-Lead Primers

Further Reading

chapter 12.2: Range of Fire Estimations for Shotguns

12.2.1 Introduction

12.2.2 Basics

12.2.3 Shotgun Cartridges Fired in Revolvers

Suggested Further Reading

Chapter 13: The Use of X-ray Photography for Projectile Identification

13.0.1 Introduction

13.0.2 Estimation of Calibre from X-ray Photographs

Further Reading

Chapter 14: Gunshot Residue Examination

14.0.1 Introduction

14.0.2 Basics

14.0.3 Identification of GSR Particles

14.0.4 The Use of the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis (EDX) for the Detection and Analysis of GSR Particles

14.0.5 Sample Collection

14.0.6 GSR Retention

14.0.7 Interpretation of Results

14.0.8 Identification of Type of Ammunition and Country or Origin from GSR Composition

14.0.9 Environmental Contaminants

14.0.10 Extending the Period Over Which GSR Particles can be Recovered

14.0.11 General Considerations to be made when Examining GSR Analysis Results

14.0.12 Discussion


Chapter 15: Gun Handling Tests

15.0.1 Introduction

15.0.2 History

15.0.3 Methodology for the use of Ferrozine

Further Reading

Chapter 16: Laser-etched Serial Numbers and Bar Codes

16.0.1 Introduction

16.0.2 Laser-Etched Serial Numbers

16.0.3 Bar Codes

16.0.4 Conclusion

Further Reading

Chapter 17: Classification of Firearms-related Death

17.0.1 Introduction

17.0.2 Basics

17.0.3 Multiple Shot Suicides

References and Further Reading

chapter 18: Practical Considerations in a Firearms Case from a Legal Point of View

18.0.1 Introduction

18.0.2 Key Questions

18.0.3 Legal Challenges to Forensic Firearms Evidence in the USA

18.0.4 Conclusion

Further Reading and References

chapter 19: Qualifying the Expert and Cross-examination Questions

19.0.1 Definition

19.0.2 Introduction

19.0.3 Qualifying the Expert

19.0.4 General Background Questions

19.0.5 Comparison Microscopy

19.0.6 Gunshot Residue

19.0.7 Ferrozine Test

Further Reading

chapter 20: Chain of Custody

20.0.1 Introduction

20.0.2 Basics

20.0.3 Process

20.0.4 In Court

Further Reading

Appendix 1: Standard of Review: ‘Daubert Trilogy’

Appendix 2: Commercial and General Abbreviations for Bullet Configurations

Appendix 3: Some of the More Common Trade Names

Appendix 4: Important Dates in the History of Firearms from 1247

Appendix 5: Dates for the Introduction of Various Cartridges by Calibre

Appendix 6: Some Trademarks Found on Guns

Appendix 7: General Firearms Values Conversion Table

Appendix 8: Hearing Loss

Appendix 9: A List of Handgun Cartridges

Appendix 10: A List of Rifle Cartridges

Appendix 11: Air Weapon Legislation


Title Page
Registered office: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8SQ, UK
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The Atrium, Southern Gate, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8SQ, UK
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148-5020, USA

About the Author

Brian Heard started his career as a forensic firearms examiner in the New Scotland Yard Forensic Science Laboratory in 1966. He rose to become Deputy Head of the firearms section before joining the Ballistics and Firearms Identification Bureau in the Royal Hong Police Force. In 1996, he was promoted to Director of what was then called the Forensic Firearms Examination Bureau of the Hong Kong Police Force.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Police Meritorious Service Medal for his work in forensic science.

He retired in 2001 and now works as a consultant and lecturer in Forensic Firearms Examinations.


An expert may be used in, basically, two different capacities: for consultation or for testimony.

These are derived from five general categories of expertise:

1. Lay people: common sense and life long experience.
2. Technician/examiner: limited area experience and concentrated training, applies known techniques, works in a system and taught with the system (e.g. investigator and supervisors (observers and viewers)). The technician is generally taught to use complex instruments (gas chromatograph, infrared spectrophotometer, mass spectrophotometer) or even ‘simple’ breath alcohol testing equipment as ‘bench operators’, who have only a superficial understanding of what the instrument really does and how the readout is generated. Bench operators, who qualify as expert witnesses, are not competent to explain the instrumentation used unless it is established that they received the training and education necessary to impart a thorough understanding of the underlying theories.
3. Practitioner: material and information analysis and interpretation.
4. Specialist: devoted to one kind of study or work with individual characteristics.
5. Scientist: conducts original empirical research, then experiments to verify the validity of the theory; designs and creates instrumentation and applied techniques; is published in own field with peers; and advances his/her field of knowledge.

In court, the proffered witness must be assessed as to his/her:

Judges also have to consider the following factors in determining the manner in which expert testimony should be presented to a jury and in instructing the jury in its evaluation of expert scientific testimony in criminal proceedings:

1. Whether experts can identify and explain the theoretical and factual basis for any opinion given in their testimony and the reasoning upon which the opinion is based.
2. Whether experts use clear and consistent terminology in presenting their opinions.
3. Whether experts present their testimony in a manner that conveys, accurately and fairly, the significance of their conclusions, including any relevant limitations of the methodology used.
4. Whether experts explain the reliability of evidence and address problems fairly with evidence, including relevant evidence of laboratory error, contamination or sample mishandling.
5. Whether expert testimony of individuality or uniqueness is based on valid scientific research.
6. Whether the court should prohibit the parties from tendering witnesses as experts and should refrain from declaring witnesses to be experts in the presence of the jury.
7. Whether to include in jury instructions additional specific factors that might be especially important to a jury's ability to assess fairly the reliability of, and weight to be given to, testimony on particular issues in the case.

Many of the reported problems with forensic science evidence have resulted from the failures of trial legal representatives to investigate thoroughly forensic science evidence, the misunderstandings concerning the nature of that evidence, and mis-statements concerning the weight to be attributed to that evidence. Until an elevation in the knowledge base of trial legal representatives is achieved, the adversarial system will continue to falter with respect to the proper presentation of forensic science evidence.

In investigating, assessing and presenting forensic science evidence, the legal representatives should consider the following:

By keeping these considerations in mind during the investigation and presentation of forensic science evidence, legal representatives will better inform the jury of the relevant contested forensic science issues in the case. The evidence presented that is relevant to these considerations will also provide the underlying basis for instructions to the jury concerning the consideration of the forensic scientist.

Experts frequently testify that they have made a match ‘to the exclusion of all other firearms.’1 This is simply another way of claiming uniqueness. In United States v. Green,2 the court questioned such testimony: ‘O'Shea [the expert] declared that this match could be made “to the exclusion of every other firearm in the world”.... That conclusion, needless to say, is extraordinary, particularly given O'Shea's data and methods.3

Further, in 2008, a year before the National Academy of Science (NAS) report on forensic science was issued, a different NAS report, one on computerised ballistic imaging, addressed this issue. The report cautioned: ‘Conclusions drawn in firearms identification should not be made to imply the presence of a firm statistical basis when none has been demonstrated.4 In particular, that report was concerned about testimony cast ‘in bold absolutes’, such as that a match can be made to the exclusion of all other firearms in the world: ‘Such comments cloak an inherently subjective assessment of a match with an extreme probability statement that has no firm grounding and unrealistically implies an error rate of zero.’ Some courts are in accord.5

The court should consider whether additional factors such as those set forth below might be especially important to a jury's ability to fairly assess the reliability of and the weight to be given testimony on particular issues in the case.6

1. The extent to which the particular forensic science technique or theory used in the analysis is founded on a reliable scientific methodology that gives it the capacity to accurately analyse evidence and report findings.
2. The extent to which the forensic science examiner followed, or did not follow, the prescribed scientific methodology during the examination.
3. The extent to which the particular forensic science technique or theory relies on human interpretation that could be tainted by error.
4. The extent to which the forensic science examination in this case may have been influenced by the possibility of bias.
5. The extent to which the forensic science examination in this case uses operational procedures and conforms to performance standards established by reputable and knowledgeable scientific organisations.
6. The extent to which the forensic science examiner in this case followed the prescribed operational procedures and conformed to the prescribed performance standards in conducting the forensic science examination of the evidence.
7. The qualifications of the person(s) conducting the forensic science examination.
8. Whether the handling and processing of the evidence that was tested was sufficient to protect against contamination or alteration of the evidence.
9. The extent to which the particular forensic science technique or theory is generally accepted within the relevant scientific community.
10. The reasons given by the forensic science examiner for the opinion.
11. Whether the forensic science examiner has been certified in the relevant field by a recognised body that evaluates competency by testing.
12. Whether the facility is accredited by a recognised body, if accreditation is appropriate for that facility.
13. The extent to which the forensic science examiner has complied with applicable ethical obligations.
14. Whether the physical observations made by the forensic science examiner are observable by others.
15. Other evidence of the accuracy of the forensic science examiner's conclusions.
16. The extent to which the forensic science technique or theory has undergone validation.
17. The known nature of error associated with the forensic science technique or theory.
18. The fact that the nature and degree of error associated with the forensic science technique or theory (why, and how often, incorrect results are obtained) cannot be, or has not been, determined.
19. The estimation of uncertainty (the range of values encompassing the correct value at a defined confidence interval) associated with the forensic science technique or theory.

As a consequence of advances in analytical technology and limitations on the way in which suspect interrogation is carried out, there has been an increasing necessity for courts of law to rely on expert testimony. Scientific proof has therefore become a necessity in reconstructing the sequence of events at a crime scene. Such ‘scientific proof’ covers a large range of disciplines, varying in value from the indisputable to that of very dubious value.

Data obtained in a forensic laboratory has no meaning or worth until presented to a court of law. It is the expert witness who must serve as the vehicle to present this scientific data effectively to the court in a manner understandable to the layman.

Unfortunately, it is often the interface between the lawyer and the expert that breaks down, leaving the court with a somewhat myopic view of the evidence available. This lack of intelligible dialogue with the expert will often result in both the defence and prosecution failing to utilise the testimony of the expert fully and to their best advantage.

At times, it is the lawyer's lack of scientific knowledge which is at fault, while at others it is the expert's inability to present his testimony in a clear and precise manner.

It must be stated that it is not the role of the defence – or, for that matter, the prosecution – to verbally batter the expert into submission. This could easily destroy a perfectly well-qualified expert's career and alienate the court towards the lawyer concerned. What is required is for the lawyer to qualify the expert, seek out the relevance of his or her experience and qualifications to the matter in question, and then delve into the probative value of the evidence tendered.


1. See Giannelli, P.C. & Imwinkelried, E.J. (2007). Scientific Evidence (4th ed., citing FBI Handbook of Forensic Sciences 57 (rev. ed. 1994)), § 14.01, at 706 n.1. Albany, NY: Lexis Publishing Co.

2. United States v. Green, 405 F. Supp. 2d 104 (D. Mass. 2005).

3. Ibid. at 107 (citations omitted).

4. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Ballistic Imaging 82 (2008).

5. See United States v. Alls, slip opinion, No. CR2-08-223(1) (S.D. Ohio Dec. 7, 2009) (‘Although Ms. McClellan may testify as to her methodology, case work, and observations in regards to the casing comparison she performed for this case, she may not testify as to her opinion on whether the casings are attributable to a single firearm to the exclusion of all other firearms.’); Diaz, 2007 WL 485967, at ∗1.

6. The court should instruct the jurors only on the factors relevant to the specific forensic science evidence in the case as presented by the parties. Not all factors will be relevant in every case. Parties should consider limiting the instruction to the most probative contested factors to avoid overwhelming the jury with a ‘laundry list’ of factors that may diminish the jury's consideration of the most probative evidence.

About the Companion Website

This book is accompanied by a companion website:

The website includes:


Firearms History

1.0.1 Introduction

It may seem that a history of firearms is an illogical way to begin this book, but any competent forensic firearms examiner needs to have a good working knowledge of this subject matter. As such, it should form part of the court qualification process at the beginning of any trial. Having said that, though, it would be unreasonable to expect a firearms examiner with many years' experience to be able to give, for example, a precise date for the introduction of the Anson and Deeley push button fore-end. Such an esoteric piece of firearms history may have formed part of the examiner's training many years ago, but unless s/he had a particular interest in shotgun history it would be unlikely that s/he would remember little other than an approximate date or period.

Knowledge of the subject matter will also add gravitas to the presentation and examination of witnesses by the legal team. It may not help the case, but it will show that the solicitor or barrister is familiar with the history and workings of the presented firearm and can pose knowledgeable questions without the fear of being bamboozled by an expert witness.

It should also be appreciated that there is a very large market in replica ‘antique’ firearms. Some of these are only approximate reproductions of the original weapon, while others are made to the exact measurements of the original. A working knowledge of what these particular weapons look like and how their mechanisms work is therefore a perquisite.

While a history of firearms should start with the earliest of hand cannons, progressing through the wheel lock, miquelet and so on. For this book, however, it will start at the flintlock, as it is unlikely that anything earlier would be encountered in everyday case work. A much more comprehensive history of firearms is offered in Appendix 4.

1.0.2 The Flintlock (Figure 1.0.1)

Figure 1.0.1 The flintlock


The flintlock ignition system really signalled the advent of an easy-to-use firearm with a simple mechanism for the discharge of a missile via a powdered propellant. In this type of weapon, the propellant was ignited via a spark produced by striking a piece of flint against a steel plate. The piece of flint was held in the jaws of a small vice on a pivoted arm, called the cock. This is where the term ‘to cock the hammer’ originated.

The steel, which was called the frizzen, was placed on another pivoting arm opposite the cock, and the pan containing the priming compound was placed directly below the frizzen. When the trigger was pulled, a strong spring swung the cock in an arc so that the flint struck the steel a glancing blow. This glancing blow produced a shower of sparks which dropped into the priming pan, igniting the priming powder. The flash produced by the ignited priming powder travelled through the touch hole, situated at the breech end of the barrel, igniting the main charge in the barrel and thus discharging the weapon.

The flintlock represented a great advance in weapon design. It was cheap, reliable and was not overly susceptible to damp or rainy conditions. Unlike the complicated and expensive wheel lock, this was a weapon that could be issued in large numbers to foot soldiers and cavalry alike.

As in the case with most weapon systems, it is very difficult to pinpoint an exact date for the introduction of the flintlock system. There are indications of it being used in the middle of the 16th century, although its first widespread use cannot be established with acceptable proof until the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Three basic types of flintlock were made:

Snaphaunce (Figure 1.0.2)

Figure 1.0.2 The snaphaunce


A weapon with the mainspring inside the lock plate and a priming pan cover which had to be manually pushed back before firing.

The snaphaunce was used from about 1570 until modern times (in North African guns), but by about 1680 it was out of fashion everywhere except Northern Italy, where it persisted until the 1750s.

Miquelet (Figure 1.0.3)

Figure 1.0.3 The miquelet


A weapon with the mainspring outside of the lock plate, but with a frizzen and priming pan cover all in one piece. In this type of lock mechanism, the pan cover was automatically pushed out of the way as the flint struck the frizzen. The great advantage of this type of lock is that the gunpowder in the priming pan is covered up until the point of ignition by a spring loaded plate, thus allowing the weapon to be used in adverse weather conditions.

It is generally thought that the miquelet was introduced after the disastrous campaign of Algiers (1541), where ‘wind and rain’ prevented firing, firstly by blowing away the gunpowder and/or secondly by wetting the gunpowder. In less than three decades, a lock did appear that is known today as the miquelet lock.

True Flintlock (Figure 1.0.4)

Figure 1.0.4 True flintlock


A weapon with a mainspring on the inside of the lock plate and with the frizzen and priming pan cover in one piece. This also had a half cock safety position, enabling the weapon to be safely carried with the barrel loaded and the priming pan primed with powder. This system was probably invented by Mann Le Bourgeoys, a gun maker for Louis XIII of France, in about 1615.

1.0.3 The Percussion System (Figure 1.0.5)

Figure 1.0.5 The percussion lock


The flintlock continued to be used for almost 200 years. It was not until 1807 that a Scottish minister, Alexander John Forsyth, revolutionised the ignition of gunpowder by using a highly sensitive compound which exploded on being struck. When struck by a hammer, the compound, mercury fulminate, produced a flash which was strong enough to ignite the main charge of powder in the barrel. A separate sparking system and priming powder was now no longer required. With this invention, the basis for the self-contained cartridge was laid down and a whole new field of possibilities opened up.

Once this type of ignition, known as percussion priming, had been invented, it was still some time before ways for it to be applied practically were perfected.

From 1807 to 1814, a wide range of systems were invented for the application of the percussion priming system, including the Forsyth scent bottle, pill locks, tube locks and the Pauly primer cap.

The final form of the percussion cap was claimed by a large number of inventors. It is, however, probably attributable to Joshua Shaw, an Anglo-American living in Philadelphia in 1814. Shaw employed a small iron cup, into which was placed a small quantity of mercury fulminate. This was placed over a small tube, called a nipple, projecting from the breech end of the barrel. When the hammer struck the cap, this detonated the mercury fulminate, causing a strong flame to travel down the nipple and thus igniting the main charge in the breech end of the barrel.

1.0.4 The Pinfire System (Figure 1.0.6)

Figure 1.0.6 The pinfire


Introduced in the United Kingdom at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 by Lefaucheux, the pinfire was one of the earliest true breech-loading weapons, using a self-contained cartridge in which the propellant, primer and missile were all held together in a brass case.

In this system, the percussion cup was inside the cartridge case, while a pin, which rested on the open end of the percussion cup, protruded through the side of the cartridge case. Striking the pin with the weapon's hammer drove the pin into the priming cup, causing the mercury fulminate to detonate and so ignite the main charge of propellant powder. The pin, which protruded through a slot in the side of the weapons chamber, not only served to locate the round in the correct position, but also aided the extraction of the fired cartridge case.

The pinfire was at its most popular between 1890 and 1910 and was still readily available in Europe until 1940. It had, however, fallen out of favour in England by 1914 and was virtually unobtainable by 1935. Boxes of old ammunition can, however, still be purchased in shooting quantities, from specialised ammunition dealers. This could place into question the placing of this type of weapon into the category of ‘Antique’ rather than that of a firearm requiring certification.

Calibres available for pinfire revolvers were 5, 7, 9, 12 and 15 mm, while shotgun and rifle ammunition in 9 mm and 12 bore and other various calibres were also available.

The really great advance of the pinfire system was, however, not just the concept of it being a self contained cartridge, but obturation, the ability of the cartridge case under pressure of firing to swell and so seal the chamber preventing the rearward escape of gases.

1.0.5 The Rimfire System (Figure 1.0.7)

Figure 1.0.7 The rimfire system


Although the pinfire system was a great step forward, it did have a number of drawbacks, not least of which was the tendency for the cartridge to discharge if dropped onto its pin. The problem was all but eliminated by the rimfire system which, like the pinfire, was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

The rimfire system consists of a thin walled cartridge with a hollow flanged rim. Into this rim is spun a small quantity of a priming compound. Crushing the rim with a firing pin causes the priming compound to explode, thus igniting the propellant inside the case.

The initial development was made by a Paris gunsmith, Flobert, who had working examples of it as early as 1847. It was some time before it gained acceptance, however, and it was not until 1855 that Smith and Wesson manufactured the first revolver to fire rim fire cartridges. This was a .22″ calibre weapon in which the barrel tipped up by means of a hinge on the top of the frame. This enabled the cylinder to be removed for loading and unloading the weapon.

Although the rimfire was a great step forward, the rimfire cartridge was only suitable for high pressure weapons in small calibres. With any calibre above .22″, the soft rim necessary for the ignition system resulted in cartridge case failures.

1.0.6 The Dreyse Needle Fire System (Figure 1.0.8)

Figure 1.0.8 The Dreyse needle fire


The Dreyse needle gun was a military breech-loading rifle famous as the main infantry weapon of the Prussian army, who adopted it for service in 1848 as the Dreyse Prussian Model 1848. Its name, the ‘needle gun’, comes from its needle-like firing pin, which passed through the cartridge case to impact on a percussion cup glued to the base of the bullet.

The Dreyse rifle was the first breech-loading rifle to use a bolt action to open and close the chamber, executed by turning and pulling the bolt handle.

The Dreyse rifle was invented by the gunsmith Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse (1787–1867) and it was first produced as a fully working rifle in 1836. From 1848 onwards, the new weapon was gradually introduced into the Prussian service, then later into the military forces of many German states. The employment of the needle gun radically changed military tactics in the 19th century.

The cartridge used with this rifle was a self-contained paper case containing the bullet, priming cup and black powder charge. The bullet, which was glued into the paper case, had the priming cup glued to its base. The upper end of the case was rolled up and tied together. Before the needle could strike the primer, its point had to pass through the paper case, then through the powder charge, before striking the primer cup on the base of the bullet. The theory behind the placement of the primer was that it would give a more complete ignition and, thus, combustion of the charge of propellant. Unfortunately, this led to severe corrosion of the needle, which then either stuck in the bolt or broke off, rendering the rifle useless. It was, however, a major step forward in the production of a modern rifle firing a self-contained cartridge.

1.0.7 The Centre Fire System (Figure 1.0.9)

Figure 1.0.9 The centre fire system


This was the great milestone in weapon and ammunition development. In centre fire ammunition, only the primer cup needed to be soft enough to be crushed by the firing pin. The cartridge case could thus be made of a more substantial material, which would act as a gas seal (obturation) for much higher pressures than could be obtained with rimfire ammunition.

Once again, the exact date for the invention of the first centre fire weapon is difficult to ascertain, although a patent was issued in 1861 for a Daws centre fire system.

Probably no invention connected with firearms has had such an impact on the principles of firearms development as the obturating centre fire cartridge case. Although invented around 1860, the principles are still the same and they are utilised in every type of weapon, from the smallest handgun up to some of the largest artillery pieces.

Rocket-propelled bullets (the Gyrojet), caseless ammunition, hot air ignition and many other esoterica have come and gone. However, for simplicity, reliability and ease of manufacture, the centre fire ignition system in an obturating cartridge case has not been excelled.

1.0.8 The Revolver (Figure 1.0.10)

Figure 1.0.10 Major parts of a typical solid frame revolver


A revolver is a weapon that has a revolving cylinder containing a number of firing chambers (basically a revolving magazine) which may be successively lined up and discharged through a single barrel.

In the long history of revolvers, no name stands out more strongly than that of Samuel Colt. However, despite his claims to the contrary, Colt did not invent the revolver.

The earliest forms of the revolver include a snaphaunce revolver made in the days of King Charles I, said to have been made before 1650, and an even earlier weapon made during the reign of Henry VIII, some time before 1547.

Those early revolvers were, surprisingly enough, practically identical to the actions covered in Colt's early patents. The actions for those early patents are still in use today in the Colt Single Action Army or Frontier model.

Colt's original patent, dated 1835, dealt with revolving of the cylinder via a ratchet and pawl arrangement. The original patents belonging to Colt were so tightly worded that no other manufacturer had any real impression on the market until these patents ran out in 1850. After this, the market opened up, with Dean-Adams in 1851, Beaumont in 1855, and Starr and Savage in 1865 all bringing out innovative designs. These were, however, still all muzzle-loading percussion systems.

It was not until the advent of the rimfire in 1851 that breech-loading revolvers really started to appear. Even then, it was not until 1857 that Smith and Wesson introduced the first hinged frame .22″ rim fire revolver. The patent for bored-through chambers and the use of metallic cartridges gave Smith and Wesson the market until 1869.

With the passing of the Smith and Wesson patents, there was a flood of breech-loading arms in calibres from .22″ to 50″. However, except for .22″ target shooting, the days of the rimfire were numbered, thanks to the introduction of the centre fire system.

The first centre fire Colt revolver to be patented was the Colt Single Action Army Model 1873. In 1880, Enfield produced a .476″ hinged frame revolver, but it was a design monstrosity and was soon superseded by the now familiar Webley top latching hinged frame design in 1887. In 1894, this was modified slightly and it became the standard Webley Mk.1 British Army service revolver. In 1889, the US Government officially adopted a Colt .38″ revolver, using the now familiar swing-out cylinder system.

A multitude of variations on the Smith and Wesson and Colt designs followed, but little has really changed in the basic design of the revolver mechanism since then. It would seem that little can be done to improve on the efficiency of the basic Smith and Wesson and Colt designs.

1.0.9 The Self-Loading Pistol (Figure 1.0.11)

Figure 1.0.11 Major parts of a typical self-loading pistol


The principle of the self-loading pistol was grasped long ago. It is reported in Birche's History of the Royal Society for 1664 that a mechanic had made a claim of being able to make a pistol which could ‘shoot as fast as presented and stopped at will’. However, without the necessary combination of a self-contained cartridge, smokeless propellant and metallurgical advances, it was not possible to utilise these principles in a practical way.

While patent records from 1863 show numerous attempts to develop a self-loading pistol, it was not until 1892 that the first successful weapon appeared. This was a weapon patented by the Austrian Schönberger, and made by the company Steyr. It was a blowback design and made for the 8 mm Schönberger, a very powerful cartridge.

The first commercially successful design was by an American, Hugo Borchardt. Unable to finance his design, he took it to Germany to have it manufactured there. Although clumsy, this weapon was of radical design, containing the first magazine to be held in the grip and the ‘knee-joint’ toggle locking system. It was this design which was slightly modified by Luger to become Germany's first military self-loading pistol, the Walther P08.

In 1893, Bergman produced a whole range of pistols, one of which, the 1897 8 mm ‘Simplex’, is of particular interest as the cartridge became the .32″ Colt Automatic Pistol (ACP) cartridge.

In 1896, the story of the truly successful self-loading pistol really began with the introduction of the 7.63 mm calibre Mauser ‘broom handle’ pistol (Mauser Model C96 pistol). This was the pistol made famous by Winston Churchill, who purchased one for use during the Sudan campaign of 1898. Churchill credited the weapon with saving his life when he shot his way out of a native trap, ‘killing several fuzzy-wuzzies’! I have lost count of the number of Mauser C96 pistols I have examined which have had ‘Winston Churchill’ engraved on the side. So far not one has proved to be genuine!

In 1898, the German factory of DWM brought out the first model of the famous Luger pistol in 7.65 mm Parabellum calibre. In 1904, the weapon was made available in 9 mm Parabellum, which was the calibre adopted for the German service pistols.

In 1897, John Browning, the greatest of all American small arms designers, produced his first patent. This was finally introduced as the Model 1900 Colt .38″ automatic.

Webley made a few unsuccessful forays into the self-loading pistol market, with their .455″ calibre 1904 model, the .45″ 1905 model, the 1910 .38″ calibre and the .455″ Navy model in 1913. The Webley design was not, however, very successful and never became popular.

Probably the most successful pistol ever to be introduced was the Colt Model 1911. This was designed by Browning and was placed into military service as the Colt Government Model in .45″ calibre. With minor modifications, as the Model 1911A1, the weapon was the standard issue military weapon for the USA until the late 1980s.

Since then, the main innovations have been in the use of lightweight aluminium and plastics for the weapons frame, the move towards smaller calibres and higher velocity bullets, the development of magnum handgun ammunition and the use of gas-operated locking systems. These are, however, only variations on a theme and, as with revolvers, it would seem that there is little that can be done to improve on the basic design.

Further Reading

1. Chase, K. (2003), Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-82274-2.

2. Myatt, F. An Illustrated History of the Development of the World's Military Firearms During the 19th Century.

3. Fowler, W., North, A. & Stronge, C. The Development of Small Firearms, from 12th-century Hand Cannons to Modern-day Automatics.

4. Fowler, W., North, A., Stronge, C. & Sweeney, P. The Illustrated World Encyclopaedia of Guns: Pistols, Rifles, Revolvers, Machine and Submachine Guns through History in 1200 Colour Photographs.

5. Hogg, I. Jane's Guns Recognition Guide: Every firearm in use today. Jane's Recognition Guides.

6. Hogg, I.V. The Greenhill Military Small Arms Data Book.

7. Greener, W.W. The Gun and Its Development.

8. Jane's Infantry Weapons (2012).

9. Mathews, Firearms Identification Vol. I, II & III.