How a Scottish parson and a Swiss balloonist helped to shape gunmaking as we know it today. By The Back Gun.
Names mean a great deal. If you are invited to a day shooting woodcock with Dashwood, pheasant with Digweed or grouse with Percy, you know that, between bumbling inaccurately through the day yourself, you are likely to see sporting shooting of the highest order. Buy a watch from Patek Philippe or Bremont or luggage by Louis Vuitton or Rimowa and chances are that they will outlive you. Laverstoke water buffalo mozzarella is peerless, as is the GWCT research into all things important about shooting and even Michael Gove’s masterplan for farming are good things, but the EU, PETA and LACS are demonstrably less so.
Closer to home, the names Samuel Colt, Henry Derringer, Richard Gatling, George Luger, Peter Mauser, Sir Hiram Maxim, Mikhail Kalashnikov and Uziel Gal are immediately recognisable for what they have contributed to the world of shooting, though few of my acquaintances take a German longhair on walked-up day carrying either a Kalashnikov or a Uzi, engaging as that thought might be.
Two names that may not immediately strike such a resonant chord are those of Alexander John Forsythe and Samuel Johannes Pauly, but it was they who did much to change shooting from the cack-handed, time-consuming and immensely dangerous activity it was in the days of the musket to approaching the levels of ease and sophistication that we enjoy today.
In the 16th century, matchlock muskets were all the rage, but with a 10lb, 6ft long firearm, a bandolier, 12 percussive chargers, a bag of bullets, powder flask and cartridge box, priming flask and spare matches your musketeer was more beast of burden than finely honed fighting machine. And nothing happened quickly, due to the many separate sequences required to load and prime.
In 1622, shooting whiz Francis Markham listed 18 movements for loading and 14 for discharging a gun, including ‘clearing your pan, casting off your loose corns, shortening your stick, ramming in your bullet and recovering your rest’; all this while the pesky French, Walloons or Dutch were approaching at the run.
Early game shooters certainly used matchlocks and, by the mid1800s, went after woodcock with long rifles that still needed priming, before progressing to doublebarrelled percussion shotguns. Enter Alexander Forsythe, a keen shooter, a bit of a chemistry boffin and Kirk of Scotland minister, who solved the problem of priming after experimenting with the highly unstable fulminates of mercury and silver. This, he discovered, possibly accidentally, would explode upon impact. Known locally as ‘the God-botherer with nae eyebrows’, Forsythe also discovered that mixing these fulminates with blackpowder encouraged more rapid burning and reduced the hangfire time, or lag, between the primer catching fire and the explosion that followed to get the bullet out of the barrel.
To say that the whole process was unpredictable vastly understates the reality and many people thought him barking mad and bloody dangerous. However, his unstable brew worked better as prime ignition rather than main propellant, thus saving this man of God for his preaching, though reputedly his early experiences had left him with crossed eyes, a disturbing twitch and loose bowels.
Forsythe’s first experimental percussion caps certainly made shooting easier and faster but did not overcome the problem of stuffing the bullet down the business end. Enter Pauly, once a sergeant-major in the Swiss artillery, sometime disciple of Montgolfier and latterly an amateur gunmaker with contacts in St.etienne. In Paris in 1812, he patented a system for dropping the barrels from the stock on a pivot, thus giving access to the breach, much like today’s shotguns. In itself this was not new, but his novelty lay in the cartridge into which he fitted a percussion cap and slotted neatly into the breach of each barrel, tapered to receive it.
Thus did a Scottish parson and a Swiss balloonist bring together the chemistry and engineering that gives us today’s refined firearms.
“Forsythe’s early experiences had left him with crossed eyes, a twitch and loose bowels.”