Early Pistol Cartridges – What, When & Why?

In a recent discussion with a friend the topic of early automatic pistol cartridges came up. Specifically, looking at the context of which cartridges were actually available at which times, and how this might provide helpful context for understanding why particular cartridges were adopted (or commercially successful) or were not.I decided to see if I could put together a useful video on the subject, and this is the result.

We will look at the cartridges available prior to 1900, the ones developed or introduced between 1900 and 1904, and then a few followups which appeared between 1905 and 1910. Some cartridges became popular because of their ballistic characteristics – like the 7.63mm Mauser and the C96 “Broomhandle” – while others became popular because of the handgun much more than the cartridge itself – like the Browning 1900 and the .32ACP / 7.65mm Browning.

This is a bit of a different format from my usual video work; I hope you enjoy it!


  1. Excellent video!

    Something I’ve always been interested in learning is the question of “why” in addition to just “how” — in other words, what were the goals and strategies, both in design and marketing concerns (which often trumps logical engineering practices). It’s interesting that older American smokeless-powder [locked-breech] cartridges of Browning’s design used slow-burning/low-pressure gunpowder while the German ones of that era started off much more powerful. Many decades passed before American pistols caught up to the Germans in this regard and finally started using more potent gunpowder.

    I’ve wondered if it might have been because John Browning was too proud (or embarrassed) or too financially invested to admit he’d made a mistake — requiring the redesign of all his locked-breech pistols and their corresponding ammo — or were there more logical considerations?

    For instance, I just don’t know any valid technological reason why it took three decades for somone to come up with the “revolutionary” idea of using faster burning powder in the .38 ACP to create a “new” cartridge 38 Super when everything had been in place all along had anyone on this side of the Atlantic (Browning included) chosen to do so right from the start.

    Yes, I’m guilty of over-simplifying things a great deal, actual “reasons” can get complicated and and there were no doubt advantages/disadvantages in the various gunpowder formulations available, as well as many other considerations of course, but just like the issue of corrosive vs. non-corrosive primers today, it’s interesting that both sides of the Atlantic each took different directions in [locked breech] cartridge design in the early 20th century.

    • ” I just don’t know any valid technological reason why it took three decades for somone to come up with the “revolutionary” idea of using faster burning powder in the .38 ACP to create a “new” cartridge 38 Super when everything had been in place all along had anyone on this side of the Atlantic (Browning included) chosen to do so right from the start.”
      According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.38_ACP original (commercial) load launch 130gr @ 1260fps, however due to limitations of automatic pistol firing this cartridge powder charge was done smaller. So in fact .38 Super was not new development but rather return to initial done when more durable automatic pistol, which can withstand it, was developed.
      states that
      ·38 Automatic Pistol
      has 6 grs. Smokeless charge and fire 130 gr. Metal-covered at 1,050 fps

      • Thanks Daweo. It’s almost as if the Germans designed the gun to match the cartridge while the Americans designed the cartridge to match the gun. I find it kind of hard to believe that Germany was able to make pistols such as the C96 Mauser and Luger that were able to tolerate high cartridge loadings, while Browning could not.

        My interpretation of that Wikipedia narrative was that Browning simply goofed in his original estimates, and “fixed” the resulting pistol:cartridge mis-match by taking the much much cheaper solution — diluting the cartridge loading rather than re-engineering the pistol.

      • According to Gen. Julian S. Hatcher in Hatcher’s Notebook (available online free in PDF), the difference was that few double-base powders were made in the U.S. before the late 1920s/early 1930s, while almost all European powders, including German ones, were double-base types. They had inherently faster burning and generated higher pressure, hence greater muzzle velocity with similar calibers and bullet weights.

        Bullseye was one of the first U.S. double-base powders suitable for handguns (although it was actually intended as a shotgun powder for trap and skeet shooting), and it only became available in 1927.

        There was also a prejudice against double-base powders in U.S. military and police circles for two reasons; one fancied and the other all too real.

        The fancied reason was the belief that corrosion of bores was caused by smokeless powder to the same degree or even more so than black powder. this was in fact incorrect. The real culprit in bore corrosion was priming that contained fulminate of mercury, potassium chlorate, or both.

        U.S. military primers, for instance, contained mercury fulminate until the early 1930s, and even after its elimination in 1934-35, potassium chlorate was still in the composition until after WW2. By comparison, the German Army had been using non-corrosive priming based on lead picrate since 1912 mainly due to it being cheaper and less hygroscopic in storage than Hg or KCl based priming.

        The other reason, which was more accurate and serious, was that double-based powders had a tendency to develop esters in storage which, over time, caused them to become unstable.

        And even if they didn’t, a spark or flame in large-volume powder stores could cause “deflagration”, a rapid burning cycle which, as it fed on more and more of the powder, could result in a massive explosion not unlike a modern large-scale thermobaric munition.

        For an example of the results of such deflagration, see the loss of HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941;


        It’s worth noting that one of the few “artillery” applications of double-based powder in U.S. service prior to WW2 was in U.S. naval guns of 12 inch or larger caliber. Such propellants were stored aboard the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941, and may have been the actual mechanism of the magazine explosions which destroyed her after the bomb hits and torpedo hits she sustained in the Japanese air attack.

        Truly high-velocity ammunition for U.S. small arms had to wait for double-based powders. And those had to wait for both development, and convincing the customers that their advantages outweighed their real or perceived drawbacks.



        • German military ammo was noncorrosive that early on? All the WWII German 8mm and 9mm I’ve fired has been corrosive.

          Also, aren’t corrosive potassium chlorate (KClO3) primers supposed to be less hydroscopic than others? The residue KCl is very hydroscopic, which is why it corrodes bores, but I thought one of the advantages of potassium chlorate priming was that it has a long shelf life because it’s not very hydroscopic.

          • German military started using non-corrosive primers (of the Sinoxid composition) from 1930 onwards. Primer types 88 (rifle) and 08 (pistol), as mentioned on each box label, were corrosive.
            Originally it was thought that Sinoxid primers had a shorter shelf life. So first use on a broad basis (rifle primer 30; copper colored or black) was in blank ammunition.
            In wartime, most primers by far were of the Sinoxid type 30/40 (zinc covered steel cup instead of brass) and its 08/40 pistol equivalent. Luftwaffe type 43 primers were equivalent to 30/40. One reason is that Germany was very short on mercury.

            If you managed to have all your German WW2 ammunition corrosive, this is quite an achievement, because corrosive primers dominated only in the very early phase of the war.

            Rust inside late war steel cases is not due to primers but to deteriorating propellant which has not been freed from acid residue properly.

          • One of the reasons that you see a lot more corrosive vintage ammo today is that the known non-corrosive ammunition has been consumed. I know from personal experience, my family sat on a lot of corrosive surplus ammo, but burned up the known non-corrosive at the range early on. ^__^

          • Good to know, thanks. The corrosion I saw was inside the case after firing, like I usually see in known corrosive stuff a while after firing. I guess I need a larger sample size because I only bothered to look inside a few of the cases.

        • Sorry, but I have to disagree. In the small arms field, German propellants definitely were single-base types. Double-base propellants as used in the UK (Cordite) or Italy (Ballistite) were considered to be too erosive for small arms.

        • Another good reference for turn of the century ammunition components is _Complete Guide to Handloading_ by Philip B. Sharpe … the 1937 edition also available online.

  2. Collector Firearms a few years ago in in Houston had a magnificent Colt 1905 with shoulder stock holster.They were asking 29 grand for it. It looked worth it, of course that is if 29 grand is about a months salary for you.

  3. Some notes: the muzzle velocity Ian mentions for the 8mm Nambu and the Granpa Nambu is correct for the period, but in the early 1930 the IJA adopted a hotter loading for the 8×20mm, which increased muzzle velocity to about 1050 fps (117mm barrel). This also explains why many sources have a higher muzzle velocity for the Type 94 pistol than for the Type 14 despite the formers shorter barrel. The Type 94 was simply never tested with the older, milder load, or if it was, no record of the test is available in the West.

    The 9×20SR Browning Long was actually adopted by the French Army as the new official semi-auto pistol cartridge in 1920. However, at that point there was no money for new weapons, so no actual pistols were bought. Later, as 7.5mm emerged as the new rifle caliber, the French decided to switch to the 7.65×20mm Longue to simplify production (the bullet diameter of both cartridges was the same, 7.85mm).

  4. Excellent presentation. You really know your facts. I particularly like your approach to put developments into perspective.

    Regarding Theodor Bergmann let me add that I see him not as a weapons designer but as a businessman, somewhat like Oliver Winchester. Bergmann set up all kinds of business ventures, including sawmills, electricity and automobiles. You mention the name of his engineer Louis Schmeisser, by the way father of Hugo Schmeisser (MP 18,I and MKb 42). I think the Bergmann pistol designs have to be attributed to Louis Schmeisser.

    A pistol I missed in the video is the FN model of 1910 as a successor to the 1900 model. It really was extremely popular in Europe because of its small and smooth shape. It also was offered in .32 ACP as well as .380 ACP.

    But these points do not detract from the quality of information presented in your video.

    • Good addition about Bergmann! I also missed FN 1910, but perhaps it was ‘missed’ on purpose since it was on division line and will be brought to attention in follow-up.

  5. ARRRGH!

    The Browning “Baby” didn’t come out until 1927!

    The 1905 Browning pistol is either the FN Model 1905 or FN Model 1906 depending on whether you’re going from patent date or production; they are commonly called Vest Pockets. See this pic http://www.fn-browning.com/1905_web_1.jpg

    The Colt version was simply the Caliber .25 Automatic Pistol. It’s commonly called the 1908 Vest Pocket.

  6. Per aa’s comment about whether the gun came before the cartridge or vice-versa, I understand that it is usually easier to develop a handgun for a pre-existing cartridge than to develop a new pistol and cartridge altogether. Of course, one would need to remember that rimmed rounds were developed during the times of bandoleers and revolver gun belts. As a result, the first semiautomatic handguns were designed around such ammunition, most of which were filled with black-powder. Developing new side-arms and more powerful ammunition such that they match requires years of trial and error (not all gun makers devote their entire schedules to research, since they need their batches of existing products to sell well first!!!!). Borchardt, Luger, and Mauser all had pistol rounds powerful enough to be used in pistols and in medium-length barrel carbines (usually at the whims of the aristocracy, the top brass of the army, and the rich fat cats of the day). If in contrast Browning diluted a cartridge to match a gun intended exclusively for personal defense, it’s no surprise to me. As long as the resulting BANGS were more than enough to mortally wound a mugger by means of well-placed hits to the liver or pancreas, the customer would be happy.

    One strange “could-have-been” long arm was the Schlegelmilch Model 1896 prototype bolt-action rifle, which chambered a 6×58 mm round. It appears Louis Schlegelmilch designed a new round and made a rifle (based on existing Mauser weapons) to match! Pictures of the rifle are in the James D. Julia September 2014 auction pages….

    Did I mess up?

    • “it is usually easier to develop a handgun for a pre-existing cartridge than to develop a new pistol and cartridge altogether”
      This depend from some factors, as you already noted using rimmed cartridge in self-loading is problematic (it can be done, but it need more effort) and also it is better to use smokeless powder than blackpowder.
      In Soviet Union there were attempts at building automatic pistol and sub-machine gun firing 7.62x38R Nagant cartridge, both give unsatisfactory effects – Nagant cartridge was not only rimmed but also has hidden bullet, which complicate reliable ramming into chamber.
      Also difference between civil and military market must be marked.
      Military contractor (assuming that he don’t have proper automatic pistol cartridge) will more willingly accept totally new cartridge than civil buyer and when offer accepted it will give big profit.
      On the other hand civil buyer will more likely chose fire-arm chambered for commercially available cartridge and will give smaller profit, but civil market can accommodate more types of cartridges.

    • “One strange “could-have-been” long arm was the Schlegelmilch Model 1896 prototype bolt-action rifle, which chambered a 6×58 mm round.”
      I want note that if you go beyond some point of CASE-CAPACITY to BORE-CROSS-SECTION ratio it will give problems. Exact point depend on given powder technology and steel technology. Such problems happen with 6mm Lee Navy cartridge, it was developed into .220 Swift and accepted as hunting cartridge, but anyway it wear barrel (made in 1930s technology) fast.
      More advanced metallurgy further this point is, for example of recent 6mm high-velocity rifle cartridge see 6×62 Frères: http://www.municion.org/6Mm/6x62Freres.htm
      but anyway it was always compromise between muzzle velocity and barrel service life

  7. This was an excellent video! We often talk about small arms, but the ammunition they use is just as important to understand.

    I’m looking forward to more videos like this.

  8. This is an excellent review and something I had been missing long time. What makes this so much appreciated that it is work done obviously for free, unlike introduction of guns sold in auctions.

    I am not giving myself a right to evaluate or classify this page, but it makes it clearly among the most respected. Makes me feel good that I am at probably the most complete and funded historic gun source, as an appreciative reader and sometimes (silly) commenter.

    • Oh, I missed something. Since I am aware of, but not at home with imperial/american units, I very much appreciate metric equivalents. I is done in easy to review manner.

    • I don’t find your comments silly, but my perspective on the auction houses is different. Anybody with a pile of cool guns is at “risk” of a very polite blogger with a video camera showing up on their doorstep. A lot of the guns shown are in private collections, but the auction houses have many cool guns which I find is the main motivation for going there. Just my 2 cents.

      • My presumption was that there was a commission paid to a person who introduces auctioned items, a function which should help wider awareness.

  9. I want point to one article, it deals with rifle cartridge, not automatic pistol cartridge, but I found it can be interested:
    has quote from 1897 article, which states that:
    my belief being that no cartridge of the bottle-neck pattern could possibly be of as much all around value as a straight shell inside and with just enough taper outside to make extraction sure and easy.
    and predict that straight-wall is future
    I wish to predict a gradual change to the straight cartridge
    It states that straight-wall is more handloaderfriendly and is a stronger shell mechanically, there is no shoulder to crack open

    This shows that in 1890s there was not agreement which case shape (bottle-neck or straight) is better.

    • My understanding is that some early bottle-neck cartridges were in order to face (relative for the time) high pressures which in following period became unnecessary. Today’s production seem to support the trend for straight pistol casing, as the 7.62×25 remains the only bottle-necked one there.

        • .32 & .25 NAA are also still produced and North American Arms makes pistols that chamber them. They are very US spesific cartridges, but the concealed carry market there is big enough to support such niche cartridges. Corbon makes the ammo; I don’t know if there are other manufacturers.

          • I think that one of the biggest driving forces for the many new pistol cartridges that littered the market in the 1990s was the gun magazines, with literally every issue touting some “best ever” new caliber/cartridge/whatever pistol that no one could do without. Most, like the the .357SIG and .45 GAP, never really caught on, and even the once-popular .40 S&W is quickly headed toward obsolescence. Then there were all the wildcats that came and went. Despite this, there are bound to be even more new cartridges being marketed in the future, each with their own promise of something special … and then eventually abandoned, of course.

            Some, like FN’s bottlenecked 5.7×28 made perfect sense for a specific niche application — defeating kevlar vests. But many new designs, such as the bottlenecked .32 & .25 NAA, don’t seem to serve much point, since similar pistol ballistics could be achieved by sticking with the original unbottlenecked .32 and .380 ACP cases and using a lighter bullet and/or higher pressure variant. That would at least cut down on the number of (eventual) orphan cartridges, which in itself is a very worthy goal in my opinion.

  10. Wish that all of the cartridges had included the metric designation (e.g.- 9mm Luger include 9 x 19mm) not just the common name.
    Nice job!

  11. Really great, informative video! Just got around to watching it, and glad I did. You would really do us all a service if you would publish those comparison graphs on this page as a ready reference. A lot of work went into those, I can tell. I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere else on the web! Thanks for all of your effort!

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