Pistols for the Uninformed

One of the challenges a writer of historical fiction faces is, of course, describing appropriate items in usage during the time in which the story is set, particularly the kind with which he or she is unfamiliar. Sometimes that extends to weaponry, which in my case requires research.

I confess to you that I am not a gun person. I don’t own one, I don’t collect them, and I don’t particularly like them. I tend to see them as objects whose fundamental purpose is to destroy something, sometimes a human being. To write scenes authentic to their period, however, my characters need to use them. Consider this, therefore, the basics for non-gun folk.

Flintlock pistol in the collection of Skokloster Castle

Flintlock pistol in the collection of Skokloster Castle

“Firearms” being too broad a subject, and more than I needed to know, I narrowed my research to small arms, specifically pistols. The first two books of my new series, Children of Empire, set in the 1830s, presented me with questions. What sort of weapon would Rand Wheatly keep on hand on the relatively settled but still frontier world of Upper Canada in 1832? What would his brother Fred be issued by the East India Company armies and which might he own personally in 1835? The period appears to be a transitional one.

The first half of the 19th Century saw a number of improvements in that type of weapon, the invention of the percussion cap, improvements in projectiles or bullets, and improvements in repeating or techniques to fire several times without reloading. While most of these advances would come into full maturity in the 1850s and 60s (Think Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, and British Crimean War), they were already having an impact in the era that interested me.


Flintlock Mechanism by Computer comp geek at English Wikipedia

From the time firearms were invented one challenge was ignition, finding a way to create a spark that would explode the charge to expel the projectile. Throughout the 18th Century and much of the 19th the primary means for creating the spark was flintlock. A flintlock worked by striking a piece of flint (locked between two jaws by a screw) against a piece of steel called a frizzen. It caused a spark, moved the frizzen to expose gunpowder, and set off the charge. The technology (superior to matchlocks, which required an external fuse, and wheel-locks, both of them complex to use and prone to fail in bad weather) made firearms reliable enough for common usage.

As it turned out, flintlocks were still somewhat prone to misfire in bad weather. In addition the ignition sequence had a few second delay between cock/hammer/fire. A plume of smoke, just before fire, was enough to allow canny birds to escape according to one early observer.

The invention of mercury fulminate in around 1800 brought a better option. Fulminate would explode with a simple percussion enabling faster ignition. The percussion lock or caplock was introduced around 1820. It worked by having a hammer strike a cap containing the fulminate, which exploded on contact. Compared to flintlock, caplock was easier to load, faster to fire, more reliable, and weather resistant.

Caplock Mechanism. Photo by Wilfied Wittkowsky at the German language Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Caplock Mechanism. Photo by Wilfied Wittkowsky at the German language Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

The percussion cap eventually speeded the development of the all-metal bullet cartridge but those would not come into widespread use until the 1860s. Before that time paper cartridges, usually employing the minee ball rather that the round projectile of previous eras, were in common use.

As an East India Company infantry officer Fred Wheatly might not have been issued a pistol. If he had retained a horse pistol from his cavalry service a decade before, it would likely have been flintlock. When he fired into the air in his courtyard to stop a loud melee (in The Reluctant Wife), however, I decided he fired a single barreled Nock percussion pistol, a state of the art reliable personal weapon bought for protection from brigands and intruders.

Because early guns of all sizes were limited to a single shot before reloading, the need for a repeating pistol of some sort loomed over gun development. Examples of individual attempts to create them dating from far earlier centuries exist, but none proved practical. Samuel Colt is generally credited with perfecting what came to be called the revolver. He began his work in 1829 and began selling the Colt revolver in 1835.

The first thirty years of the 19th Century saw other attempts. One notable inventor, Casimir Lafaucheux, experimented with a number of designs in the 1820s including a twenty round double barreled model and pepperboxes which had several rotation barrels.

Elisha Collier is credited with creating the first truly effective flintlock revolver in 1814. Thought flintlock, his invention was self-priming and single action pistol. Flints, as we noted were unreliable, however, and the gun was prone to misfiring. He patented his design in 1818 and the revolvers were produced in quantity in London, many for use by the East India Company.

Wheatly would use the smaller model at the top.

Elisha Collier’s flintlock revolvers. Wheatly would use the smaller model at the top.

When Rand Wheatly pulls his pistol on intruders prepared to burn his house down (in The Renegade Wife), it is a Collier revolver. He has several shots, assuming it doesn’t misfire. While his brother’s pistol might be more reliable, his pistol has the advantage when taking on a group of miscreants. I assume Rand knew to keep his powder dry and his gun in order and it would fire flawlessly.MercuryFulminate

My problem solved I couldn’t help wandering down some of the odd side trails research sometimes turns up. One had to do with the TV show Breaking Bad. The show brought the explosive power of mercury fulminate some notoriety. As a result recipes for it proliferated on the Interwebs for the convenience of terrorists.

The second oddity had to do with Henry Nock, the founder of the firm that produced the Nock percussion pistol. Several sources I consulted referred to him as “a British Islamic inventor.” Those that did appeared to use the same phrase as Wikipedia; no in depth article about Nock mentions it. He was born in Staffordshire and worked first in Birmingham and then in London. The only connection with Islam I could find had to do with his son-in-law who took over the business after Henry’s death and who may have had a student named Muhammad Ali, one of six Persian students who had come to England seeking scientific and engineering knowledge on behalf of their king. Odd that.

Someone looking for information about guns and gun collecting would do well to consult:

American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletins, http://americansocietyofarmscollectors.org/resources/articles/

The Military Factory, http://www.militaryfactory.com/smallarms/guns-1800-1899.asp


The Complete Blackpowder Handbook by Sam Fadala

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