The Pinfire System
By: Derek Landers
Derek Landers takes a look at the pinfire system and suggests that they deserve a little more recognition
Not too long ago you could visit an arms fair and pick up a Belgian 7mm pinfire revolver for around thirty pounds. Lack of interest, and perhaps knowledge, relegated these weapons to the collections of those who had a desire to own antique guns but who could not run to the cost of the big names such as Colt or Remington, or to those of the more knowledgeable who recognised these guns for what they are, an important step in the development of metallic cartridge ammunition. Those same collectors will be smiling now if they still have their pinfire guns as the values have grown steadily as they become more appreciated. Because of their relatively low price you can still build up a very interesting collection for a fairly modest outlay. While they will never be the “blue chip” items of antique weapons, if bought wisely they are still a good long term investment. The variety of calibres and styles will also guarantee that the collection can be both interesting and stimulating.
Generally accredited with the invention of the pinfire cartridge, in 1835, is Casimir Lefaucheux. This was the year in which the French company, Gevelot, manufacturers of percussion caps, began commercial production of pinfire shotgun cartridges, the invention of which they credited to Lefaucheux. For several years development of the system was confined to shotguns, principally in mainland Europe, with the full range of calibres from 4 bore down to .410 being catered for. The English and their American counterparts were strangely reluctant to adopt these new breechloaders, relying instead on their trusty muzzle loading weapons. Doubtless some of the reluctance was due to stories of these new breech loading guns bursting as some of the early guns did. These problems were more the fault of poor workmanship, material defects or bad engineering rather than to the breech loading concept itself. Indeed, reports of shooting accidents in the press at that time were usually related to reloading mishaps with the muzzle loading weapons. Regardless of the quality of the gun, if the shooter was a little careless and perhaps loaded a double charge into one barrel, accidents were going to happen. With the new pinfire breech loaders even the rawest novice would have been hard pressed to have a loading-related accident.
Lefaucheux’s cartridge consisted of a paper tube with a brass head out of the rim of which, at right angles to the case, sticks a pin. The hammer of the gun drove this pin into the internal primer, igniting the powder charge. The effectiveness of this system was improved greatly when in the mid 1840’s, another Frenchman, Houillier, invented a base wad which made the cartridge gas tight and gave it more strength. Still the British gun makers largely ignored this new idea until it was displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. It was here that Joseph Lang recognised the pinfire as a great step forward and began making improvements, including making the bolt mechanism less liable to wear during continuous use. In 1856 the Scottish firm of John Dickson & Sons sold their first pinfire with James Purdy following suit a year later. By the end of the decade most of the major English gun makers were supplying guns of this type. Even so in 1858 Birmingham gun maker, W. Greener was still denouncing the system “… no fear need be entertained that the use of breech loaders will become general…” Ironically his son was about to make his fortune building these guns in great numbers!
Arguments still raged between the advocates of both breech loaders and muzzle loaders and in 1858 gun trials were organised by ‘The Field’ magazine in which the muzzle loaders delivered better patterns and greater penetration. Twelve months later however with the pinfire gun and cartridge makers having gained more experience, the differences were insignificant and the new system was finally recognised and accepted in England.
Lefaucheux’s display at the Crystal Palace Exhibition was awarded a Medal of Honour but sadly the inventor was not to see the fruits of his work as he died the following year. He was succeeded by his son, Eugene who quickly realised that if the pinfire system could be developed into a large calibre military revolver it would undoubtedly be very successful. He quickly designed such a pistol and was granted a 15 year French patent in June, 1854 protecting the idea of a breech loading revolver. Twelve days later he registered his design in England and was granted a seven year patent there. It was this English patent which discouraged Rollin White from applying for a similar patent the following year. The American firearms industry might have had a different history had Eugene applied for a US patent in 1854. The Lefaucheux Model 1854 single action revolver became one of the most popular handguns in Europe, and a great number were kept in service by later conversion to centre fire. Generally chambered for the 12mm pinfire cartridge it was used extensively by several governments as the standard sidearm of their military and in its various forms was made, both licensed and unlicensed, in Belgium, Spain, Norway and Russia.
Not so in the United States where the Rollin White patent gave Smith and Wesson a stranglehold on the production of breech loading revolvers and the threat of war between the North and the South was convincing American arms makers to gear up for maximum production with a view to major military sales. With the rimfire cartridge already being used in a number of carbines and the Smith & Wesson pistols there was little chance for the pinfire system to succeed. Nevertheless a small number were eventually made over there and it is known that the US Government and the Confederacy imported many of these pistols from European sources during the War to supplement home production. By the end of the American Civil War the rimfire cartridge was becoming widely available and the centre fire was not far behind, spelling the beginning of the end for the pinfire. Once again the English resisted the change, this time saying they preferred the pinfire shotgun as they could see at a glance if the gun was loaded by the protruding pins. Such was the number of these weapons that had been produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century that pinfire shotgun cartridges were manufactured up to the start of World War II with the more popular gauges lasting until the 1950’s.
What to Collect
Whether you wish to collect pinfire guns in their own right or as a part of a more general firearms collection you will find that your needs can be met by the great number of these weapons still around. Choose to specialise in pinfires alone and you could concentrate further and collect those of a particular type or manufacturer. A collection with a “theme” is always more interesting to fellow collectors and non-collectors alike, rather than a mixed group with no connection. The shotgun collector will encounter a variety of styles, actions and makers to gather up a sizeable group, which will be further enlarged by the different calibres available. This group could be sub-divided into single and double barrelled guns. A sample or two of pinfire shot shell loading tools and a few empty cartridge cases would further enhance such a display. Many of these shotguns were cased and an example of such an item would be a great addition to any collection. You should be on the lookout for anything that is a little out of the ordinary but be aware that these items will normally bring a premium as they will also be sought after by the collector of “firearms curiosa”. As with all antique weapons condition is a factor in determining the value and while guns with broken or missing parts are obviously going to be cheaper, unless you have the ability to repair them they are usually best avoided. They will be difficult to dispose of when you find a better example later on.
It is within the category of revolvers that the potential collector will find the greatest potential for a collection of pinfire arms. Calibres range from 2mm up to 15mm with firepower ranging from single shot pistols to those with 20 shot cylinders. Many of the above mentioned “firearms curiosa” will be found among pinfire weapons, with values placed accordingly. If you decide on a general pistol collection and you can amass a considerable number of guns without duplication, from the common 7mm revolvers with folding triggers (beware broken or missing trigger return springs and ejector rods) to the more exotic offerings including the multi shot revolvers, harmonica pistols and examples made by Le Mat. Should you choose to specialise it could be in the field of Lefaucheux 1854 models, pepperboxes, double barrelled pistols or the “Apache” pistols. A great number of pinfire revolvers were decorated by engraving or acid etching and make a very desirable acquisition especially if fitted with fancy grips such as ebony or ivory. Many of these pistols are also to be found in cases, ranging from the simple “purse” style through the cigar case, pipe case to the wooden cases which can contain a partial or full set of accessories. These latter cases were usually tailor made for the revolver so a pistol that does not fit very well in the box probably does not belong in there. Likewise, check that everything that is in the box is compatible with the pistol.
Finally, a word to those who have an interest in the American Civil War, especially the Confederate connection. Because of the “romance” of the Southern cause and the value of any artefact associated with it, a number of large calibre pinfire revolvers are to be found stamped ”CSA”. Unless there is some cast iron providence accompanying such a pistol it should be treated with great suspicion. Remember the old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true it usually is!”
The reader is referred to the following books on the subject of pinfire arms:
“The Pinfire System” by Gene P. Smith and Chris C. Curtis. This book is out of print but occasionally turns up at one of the specialist booksellers.
“Systeme Lefaucheux: Continuing the Study of Pinfire Cartridge Arms Including Their Role in the American Civil War” by Chris C. Curtis. Available from Dixie Gun Works or ask one of the book dealers.
All Prices Are Guides Due to the Changes in US & European Exchange Rates