Ask Ian: History and Development of Pinfire Cartridges

From Nintendoeats on Utreon:

“Modern centerfire and rimfire cartridges seem (to the casual observer) like they would always have been the simplest cartridge types to make. Why was pinfire ever used, and how was it economically manufactured?”

Essentially, pinfire represents a cartridge development that predates the technology to draw brass cartridge cases. Pinfire developed from the first Pauly self-contained cartridges, and in its original iteration is used a non-obdurating case head combined with a paper body. It became popular because it was a convenient fit with the existing firearms architecture – the hammer required to fire a pinfire cartridge could be nearly identical to the hammer from a percussion lock.

As technology around brass improved by the 1850s, solid brass cartridges became possible. At this point the all-metal pinfire cartridge evolved, and became popular driven by Eugène Lefaucheux as a continuation of his father Casimir Lefaucheux’s original system. At the same time, many other cartridge systems were also in development. Pinfire got a boost from its existing manufacturing and intellectual property foundations, while other cartridges had to create their own new firearms platforms.

In the US, George Morse (of Baton Rouge, not South Carolina as I say in the video – sorry) invented the predecessor to the modern centerfire cartridge and primer, but his work was interrupted by the US Civil War, and further by Morse’s allegiance to the Confederacy and thus his difficulty in refining his invention during the war. Eventually, though, the most efficient system – centerfire – came to dominate the firearms landscape.

Related videos:
Pauly Shotgun:
Pottet Shotgun:
Volcanic Rocket Ball Ammunition:
Morse Confederate Centerfire Carbine:


  1. Hi, Ian! Reminder: gunpowder does not normally detonate, it combusts. Black powder will detonate (a BAD thing) if loaded too loosely, thus we are told to be sure to pack it tightly. You are doing a super job with your “Ask Ian”.

  2. If I didn’t know pinfires were real, they’d seem like a deliberate caricature of the opposite of today’s obsession with safety. “What, you worry about a firing pin resting on a primer? How about resting it on the unprotected fulminate side instead of the metal? Not scary enough? OK, all six cartridges in the gun – plus however many you have jostling around in your pouches!”

    • In comparison to modern cartridge yes, but comparing to then used solution in form of percussion revolver? Metallic case should avert any chain-fire accidents

      • I experienced cap’n’ball chain fire, but only because of my own youthful ignorance (using .429″ diameter “.44″ bullets in cloth patches). Ramming .454” lead balls into each chamber gives an exceptionally good seal at the front.

        At the back, percussion cap nipples are still imperfectly sealed, but so are cartridges that have pins sticking out of holes.

  3. Hi Ian,
    I own a pin fire revolver and a box of approximately 35 cartridges. Would you be interested in firing it and doing a video? I’m not concerned about what might happen to the gun. I have often thought about doing a test with a long piece of string but it might be more interesting if you did a video for your followers.

  4. I feel compelled to observe “Put not your faith in spell-checkers!”, cf. obdurate vs. obturate.

    • Truer words were never written. Spell check and I will be frenimies ’till my departure from this blue orb.

  5. Supposedly, fulminate of Mercury was first made around 1800. Forsyth got in the first patent using pellets of it to ignite a powder charge in 1807. Others seem to have been tinkering with the same notion, leading to a brisk shower of legal actions.

    • “Supposedly, fulminate of Mercury was first made around 1800.(…)” claims that Das Knallquecksilber wurde wahrscheinlich bereits Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts von Kunkel von Löwenstern und anderen Alchemisten erstmals isoliert. Die Herstellung aus Quecksilber, Ethanol und Salpetersäure wird erstmals 1799 von dem Engländer E. Howard beschrieben.
      So this substance was already examined by alchemist Kunkel von Löwenstern in end of 17th century, but first modern description was given by Englishman E. Howard in 1799.

      • Whoa…whoa….whoa….
        *I’m* a Kunkel. Perhaps a von Lowenstern – perhaps not.
        But I would like to personally collect the intellectual property rights to this.

        Thank you.
        Tim Kunkel

  6. Reading Lt James Forsyth “the sporting rifle and it’s projectiles” published first in 1862, 2nd edition 1866 when centrefire was certainly an emerging technology and pinfire was established felt that centrefires required additional complexity and expense because guns that fired them needed a mechanism for extraction whilst pinfire cases were extracted by the pins and no extraction or ejection system was required.

  7. The United States was the downfall of the pinfire, from the Civil War and on to the western frontier.

    Pinfire revolvers were imported and used by both the Union and the Confederacy during the war, since both sides were perennially short of revolvers for the cavalry. The superiority of the self-contained metallic cartridge over the percussion system was well understood, but the Rollin White patent plus Smith and Wesson’s refusal to make anything larger than a .32 rimfire were severe handicaps to equipping the cavalry with effective metallic-cartridge handguns. Importation of the pinfires was, quite simply, a way around the roadblocks.

    Once they were in use, however, their drawbacks became apparent. Most obviously, the hole for the pin meant that humidity could enter and ruin the powder. Extraction was by no means made easier by the pin, as it was small and difficult to grasp.

    And the most obvious problem was that in an ammunition pouch, the pins sticking out always carried the danger of the cartridge going off when bumped by another cartridge, or even just crowded against the leather inside of the pouch.

    When pinfire revolvers went west after the war, these problems became even more obvious. The westerners’ custom of carrying cartridges in belt loops was reasonably safe with rimfires like the .44 Henry, or perfectly safe with any sort of centerfire cartridge, but was a constant danger with that evil little pin sticking out of the side of every round.

    The advent of smokeless powder finally finished off the pinfire. While the centerfire solid head case could handle almost any level of breech pressure, and the rimfire could handle moderate smokeless powder pressures (as the .22 rimfire does to this day), the pinfire was already at its limits with black powder operating pressures. Putting smokeless powder in a pinfire was tantamount to having two projectiles with every discharge; the bullet going out the muzzle and the pin attempting to rocket out, with only the hammer restraining it.

    The United States in the 19th Century was the world’s largest “laboratory” of firearms development, an environment in which practical use meant that a Darwinian process of evolution quickly weeded out what didn’t work.

    The pinfire was out-evolved very quickly indeed in that environment.



  8. I found this: (Link below)

    Awhile ago “Year or so” and did not know what said Lancaster patent was… Still not entirely sure, I assumed it was a centrefire – pinfire – if you will; a nipple formed into a case type thing, sort of alluded to as a later Lefaucheux in the authors video I think. Although maybe it was more Morse after watching this video, a cartridge I had forgot about or had not read about… Probably forgot. Anyway I found this quote:

    “Charles William Lancaster came up with a number of unique designs, in 1853, he came up with the Base-fire cartridge – the first true centerfire cartridge ever developed.”

    About it; the Lancaster system. Says 1867 for the gun in the link above… Probably a Morse type, cartridge?

    I found the video interesting, in regards “Brass” given I had heard of early Martini rounds which were foil, as oppose rolled brass. So I thought the Authors explanation of why pin fire was around in regards, the lack of appropriate brass made sense.

    Though about the early Lefaucheux pin fire design 5 mins ago; thought Metal Storm “You know those… Forgot the term, super-imposed is it; projectiles/propellent stacked in the barrel” Anyway might be handy for that, plastic cases Niti sealing rings… Crossed with a slight variation of ye olde Lefaucheux pin fire idea:

    / shaped pin fire, pins “bases” Er… Tap, tappity, tap… That rest on / shaped surfaces in the barrel; basically you smack the last super-imposed round forward and said push via the / shaped pins hitting the / Shaped “Sections in the barrel” would set them all off…

    Hmmm… Wee gaps maybe, none for 1st a mm for 2nd 2mm for 3rd… Stagger the discharges… Perhaps.

    Anyway, might work; A non electric way to do (Metal Storm type systems) or not…

    How about a case! A three round burst case; plastic (Niti sealing rings, he he.) .50bmg cal. With 3 super etc imposed rounds within. .50 Beowulf maybe he; length… Telecoped maybe. Er, anyway; one “Round” is chambered, fires 3 rounds each time then ejects; belt feed rounds as per.

    Anyway, quite like the idea of “cardboard rounds” so plastic; lightweight… Niti sealing rings might work, grooved chambers like chamber ring delay type thing.

    Interesting isn’t it, history with guns; full circle development like, caseless, cases, back to cases etc… Suppose alot of it is to do with just that “Alluded to in the video” what you can actually do at the time with the materials available as oppose the lack of ideas. Smokeless powder for example, made machine guns practical etc.

    • Just going back to .50 Bmg, the brass cases are heavy; and a Hmg goes through quite alot, he he… If obli… The gas seal thing, is really why we use brass “And it works, so we do; which is good.” But like, if we could seal rounds, without the weight etc of brass surely that is good also. Must be another way…

      The chamber ring delay type groves, could see Niti rings expand into them… Maybe the rear of the case would still need to be brass etc, but allowing for more plastic further up, with niti perhaps.

      • Heat see Niti, Bang! So heat, said ring expands into chamber groove… Try to equal the seal given by a full brass case. Might create other problems, but if you have a shed; might be worth trying he he.

        • Quite like the idea of super-imposed 3 rnd burst cartridges personally… Could be niti discs; central hole big enough for the next round to pass through… Be ways, we have plastics that survive heat and can be ejected; shotgun cartridges, anyway meh he he.

          • Even in 5.56mm get 3 rounds, for every case AR15 style rifle; case ejects as per. Probably be more beowulf sized cases like he he. But 3 projectiles… Might be better than one overweight projectile. In a mag dump, thats 270 bullets going down range; ricochets etc. Something will hit and cause an ouch or plural; body armour or not. The multi projectile idea in the 70’s was spot on; in regards projectiles, but the delivery system was lacking; materials etc.

            Anyway I be quiet, but I look at modern tech; and guns just seem… Well lacking in advancement. I know they work. But still… Seems a bit behind.

    • “full circle development”
      Then if you desire device with high Rate-of-Fire and more than 1 bullet / 1 round then considering reviving
      Gustloff Suhl Reichswerk HF 15
      The HF 15 was a highly unusual gun. The round contained a single charge and seven or nine 15mm projectiles, fired in a single burst a at an extremely high (36000rpm) rate.
      Hopefully using modern materials Rate-of-Fire might be improved, though I am unable how much or it would meet your requirements regarding minimal Rate-of-Fire

  9. Chamber grooves gerat/hk lark, could try them infront of the chamber; to blow more gas back into the case, yes… For stuff; say you owned a Seecamp and had a spare he he… You could put a niti ring insude the case at the point of chamber ring delay; and if the gun jams, great scale it up.

    • Rest it on an insert; shed… Etc. To keep it level, experiment to avoid more than 2… Three seecamps, he he. Your retired, you have a shed go for it.

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