How a Scot­tish par­son and a Swiss bal­loon­ist helped to shape gun­mak­ing as we know it to­day. By The Back Gun.

Shooting Gazette - - This Month -

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.”

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