Book Review: Système Lefaucheux

The pinfire system, as invented by Casimir Lefaucheux and expanded by his son Eugene, is one of the most significant corners of cartridge firearms development that has been thoroughly overlooked by collectors and firearms enthusiasts. This was probably the most widespread and relevant cartridge prior to the standardization of the centerfire brass cartridge, and yet it is generally dismissed as cheap junk. It can be hard to blame people too much for this, though, as there is precious little literature to help illuminate the history and significance of the lowly pinfire – with Chris Curtis’ book being the best option bar none.

Curtis’ work is really just an introduction to the subject, because it is really is such a broad topic to attempt to cover in one book. Curtis does a good job condensing all this information down to about 300 pages, including chapters on the work of both Casimir and Eugene, European and American military use of pinfire arms, commercial pinfire long guns and handguns, pinfire pepperbox pistols, pinfire oddities, pinfire cartridges and reloading, and a chapter specifically for those looking to collect pinfire arms. That chapter on collecting includes several pages of proof marks that can be found on these guns, which is often the only reliable way to document their date and place of origin.

Anyone who wishes to become a well-rounded firearms historian would be overlooking a major part of the subject if they did not have this book in their library, and Curtis is to be commended for dedicating so much effort to a topic so widely ignored and dismissed. Cover price is $44.95, but it is more typically found for $50.

7 Comments

  1. The terms used in the publishing industry are as arcane as those used in the gun industry; but even more wedded to terms that were developed in the 19th Century and not revised since.

    ‘In print’ looks like a sensible term (somebody’s actually printing it) but is almost meaningless. It should mean a publisher has books to sell, somewhere.; and that they have the sole right to print more. It might mean that the book will be reprinted (possibly as a new edition) but there is no guarantee of that.

    I hope Mr Curtis’ work does sell out, and does get reprinted so he benefits; but it is far more likely amazon will claim the price has gone up 10 fold once the first few dozen are sold because of this review; and Ian Curtis will get jack, beyond any long agreed percentage of the few still left in the publisher’s warehouse.

    Get it this minute; or face claims it costs several hundred.

  2. “This was probably the most widespread and relevant cartridge prior to the standardization of the centerfire brass cartridge, and yet it is generally dismissed as cheap junk.”
    Well, it is logical for shooting collector to ignore such guns. Firstly they use ammunition which is far from easily available, secondly even if someone is willing to hand-load such cartridges need specific equipment, while in case of even “odd” center-fire metallic cartridge, there is greater chance of using common equipment. Not to mention percussion revolver, which do not need “hand-loading” in metallic cartridge sense, just percussion caps and black-powder (or its equivalent).
    For non-firing collector such problems are not issue and he would generally prefer rarer revolvers or just one which fit certain criteria.
    Fact is that pin-fire system is dead, or almost*. As many pioneer solutions it gave way to better ones developed later.

    * there exist miniature guns for 2 mm pin-fire cartridge, see photos: https://minifirearms.com/2-mm-pinfire-guns/

  3. Pinfire revolvers were used fairly extensively in the American Civil War. The Union alone bought about 12,000 Lefaucheux Model 1858 “naval” model pinfires, nominally 12mm. (Actually, the case was 12mm diameter at the rear, but the bullet and bore spec was closer to 9.8mm.)

    They are seldom mentioned in historical arms books, apparently because most of them went to the Army of the West under first Lyon,then Fremont, and finally (as the Trans-Mississippi District) under Grant. So few were seen in the great cavalry actions of the Eastern campaign.

    After 1865, most surviving Lefaucheux and other pinfires on this side of the Atlantic were converted to either rimfire (fairly simple and straightforward) or centerfire (a bit more involved but doable).

    About the same time, the French Navy, having introduced their model 1870 double-action, centerfire 11mm revolver (a genuine .44 caliber, this time around) took most of the Mdle 1858s back to the shop, converted them to centerfire and double-action, and rebored them for the new 11mm cartridge. The Mdle 1858 was the most advanced combat handgun in the world when it was introduced, and the 1870 “transform” just made it better.

    The reason the pinfire rather died out in the United States after Appomattox was purely practical. Most Westerners carried their revolvers on belts with cartridge loops, and most Easterners carried their spare ammunition in their pockets. That evil little pin sticking out of the side of the pinfire cartridge’s base made either procedure extremely hazardous, especially when the boys sat down at the poker table or bellied up to the bar.

    Rimfires and (especially) centerfires didn’t have such problems. In fact it could be argued that carrying a spare, capped cylinder for a percussion Remington or Adams-type revolver wasn’t as dangerous as carrying pinfire rounds.

    The pinfire was indeed an important stage in the development of the metallic-cartridge breechloader. Its rather rapid demise was due to the fact that it had inherent safety problems.

    cheers

    eon

    • “Its rather rapid demise was due to the fact that it had inherent safety problems.”
      I want add, that beyond that, while rim-fire and center-fire cartridges could be relatively easily made to work both in revolver and tubular magazine of lever-action repeating rifle, like for example .44 Henry, pin-fire could be not. Which was of greater importance to users in USA that abroad.

      • Very true. Also, the pinfire was not really adaptable to any sort of box magazine, which is why breechloading rifles using pinfire-type ammunition, such as the Model 1854 Treuille de Beaulieu Mousqueton Lance de Cent Gardes, were single-shots.

        cheers

        eon

  4. In addition to this, for the past decade I have been focused on studying the pinfire system from the perspective of the cartridge and its development. I have a column called The Pinfire Page in the International Ammunition Association Journal and recently compiled the first 5 years of my column into a publication. You can see some of the pages on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2H1oBSe and it has about a dozen pages on the relationship between pinfire cartridges and The United States including images from my collection of some of the rarest pinfire cartridge boxes from people such as Allen & Wheelock, Ethan Allen, UMC, C. D. Leet and more!

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