So you’ve never heard of Pinfire ammo? Well don’t feel bad. Pinfire ammunition and firearms chambered for them never really took off in the US for a number of reasons. Despite being one of the first self-contained cartridges ever made, the pinfire system would eventually see itself defeated by other, more advanced self-contained cartridge designs. Despite first appearing in 1835 by the 1870’s and 1880’s the pinfire cartridge saw a massive decline in adoption and eventual phasing out by the militaries that adopted the design.
The origins of the pinfire cartridge start with a man named Jean Samuel Pauly.
Pauly was a Swiss Artillery Sargent born in 1766 and in 1802 he would open a shop where he experimented on and designed a number of inventions, including an automatic bridge and an airship. However, most important to the development of firearms, was his development of Mercury(II) fulminate plantina.
This compound became an excellent primer for use in percussion and blasting caps. Using this substance, Pauly was able to create the first fully self-contained cartridge. Bearing little resemblance to what we think of cartridges today, Pauly’s cartridge had thicker case walls and a nipple on the back for a percussion cap. While not able to create a gas seal in the firearm, it was the first brass, self-contained cartridge and a revolutionary step forward for firearms design.
A Family Affair
Pauly had a number of apprentices over the years, including Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse who would eventually develop the Dreyse Needle Gun.
However one of Pauly’s apprentices was a man named Casimir Lefaucheaux. Born in 1802, Lefaucheaux would eventually take over for Pauly after he retired in 1812. After tinkering and attempting to refine Pauly’s design Lefaucheaux took out his first patent on the pinfire cartridge in 1835.
The design of the cartridge contained the primer, powder, and projectile, however a cursory glance at the cartridge shows just how different it really was. Instead of having an exposed primer like a centerfire cartridge, the primer sat at the bottom of the cartridge next to the case wall. At the bottom side of the round a firing pin stuck out from the cartridge case. This had the advantage of not exposing the primer to the elements, however it was more prone to accidental discharge. If dropped at the right angle with enough force, a pinfire cartridge could accidentally go off. When compared to modern centerfire and rimfire cartridges, the pinfire design presented a much higher safety risk, but then again, this was the 1830’s.
Lefaucheaux operated a comparatively small shop and licensed out the bulk of production to other manufacturers. Lefaucheaux eventually retired and left the shop to his son, Eugene in 1853. Eugene Lefaucheaux did not apprentice under his father and instead went to Belgium to learn the trade of gunsmithing. When Eugene took over he expanded the shop greatly, eventually employing approximately 900 employees. In total he was able to produce about 40,000 revolvers each year. In comparison to other shops at the time, this was an impressive number.
Eugene took the concept that his father developed and ran with it, further popularizing the already liked cartridge. Eventually the French Navy would adopt the pinfire system for their revolvers.
Sunsetting the pinfire
Despite the popularity of the round throughout Europe, the 1870’s saw the development of the centerfire and rimfire designs. These two designs proved to be improvements over the pinfire concept and eventually won out over the older design.
Ok so why haven’t I heard about this?
The pinfire cartridge didn’t take off in the US for a number of reasons. First Lefaucheaux patented his design in the United Kingdom and France, but not in the US. However there was a bigger reason why the pinfire never caught on in the US.
Rollin White was the first to file a patent in the US for a revolver with the cylinder bored all the way through, a critical component to the pinfire system. However due to this patent, only Smith & Wesson, who controlled White’s patent, were able to develop a revolver in the US that could use the pinfire system. However, Smith & Wesson had little interest in creating revolvers based on Lefaucheaux’s pinfire design and instead focused their work on centerfire and rimfire revolvers.
While some pinfire revolvers did see use in the American Civil War, many soldiers preferred the cap and ball revolvers that were more common in the US for a number of reasons. First, ammo for the pinfire revolvers was much harder to come by in the US and this limited their use. Secondly, the mostly French revolvers were not as robust as their American counterparts. This meant that they just did not hold up to the rigors of combat as well. Combine this with the danger of touching off a round by hitting a pin sticking out of the cylinder, few soldiers found them favorable in combat.
To address some of the issues with the firing pin facing perpendicular to the round, the horizontal variants moved the firing pin to the rear of the round instead, where the primer is on modern, center fire rounds. Many of these variants of the pinfire system had the firing pin, somewhat recessed in a cone in the back of the round. While these rounds may not have been that common, they addressed many of the issues of the pinfire system. However it was too little too late to save pinfire from centerfire and rimfire rounds.
A wide variety of firearms were manufactured for the pinfire round. Revolvers were the most common, with Single Action Only (SAO), Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA), and Double Action Only (DAO) all being produced in a wide variety of sizes. Pepperbox, pinfire, revolvers were also made, as well as long guns such as revolving rifles, carbines, and even shotguns in various gauges were made to accept pinfire shot shells.
Of course with this diversity you could find firearms in a variety of finishes and designs. Examples have been seen from the most ornate to the most plain, even folding, under barrel bayonets have been seen on pinfire revolvers. Calibers were also varied, they ranged in size from as tiny as 2mm to 13mm for the pistol calibers, and 36 Gauge to the large 4 Gauge for shot shells. Carbine examples have also been seen up to 15mm in caliber. Finally the pinfire cartridges were often referred to by the diameter of the casing and not the actual diameter of the bore. So a 10mm pinfire round might not fire a 10mm bullet.
I have found a review of a very ornate example of a pinfire Revolver from Forgotten Weapons, Ian and the rest of the team at Forgotton Weapons have been making some really great videos reviewing pinfire and other historic firearms
Hand Loading and Factory Ammo
Unfortunately for the truly enterprising hand loader there is simply no way to effectively reproduce these cartridges here in the US. The firearms that were originally made for these rounds are simply too old and modern powders too high pressure to be able to safely shoot if one were able to fabricate a new pinfire round using modern powders. To fire pinfire ammo safely one would have to get their hands on a modern reproduction and set up a unique hand loading system using black powder.
Pinfire Guns USA does produce 2mm versions of these guns, but no larger, due to ATF classifications. Larger versions may fall under Federal, State, and Local laws, unlike many black powder reproductions. As always check Federal, State, and Local Laws. Dead Calibers.com is not a legal advice site and we do not presume to give any legal advice.
However, we have been able to find one company selling reloading components for pinfire. These are modern components available from H&C if someone does want to try reload pinfire. However one would have to track down or have fabricated a working, modern, reproduction.
Where it all started
The pinfire round may be obsolete today, however it should be remembered as one of the first truly self-contained cartridges that helped to build firearms into what we know them as today.