Could a percussion rifle such as the springfield m1861 be made somewhere between the 15th-17th century? If so how would it be made?


4 Answers 4


A percussion rifle needs two things - a percussion cap and a rifled barrel.

Percussion cap depends on the discovery of fulminates to work. It happened in 1800.

Rifled barrels appeared significantly earlier, but were the pain both to produce in significant amount and to load in muzzleloaders.

Of those two, the discovery of fulminates seems to be a more limiting factor. Unless something changed significantly in some alternative world, I do not see percussion firearms managing to appear earlier then they did - in limited numbers in 1820s and tried out by the militaries in 1830s (there existed a percussion version of M1819 Hall rifle).

If this is a time traveler scenario, I think that all mechanisms after the wheellock are of comparable mechanical complexity to percussion mechanism. So a time traveler would be able to have one custom rifle made with a percussion mechanism any time after 1500s.

If he has means to produce mercury fulminate primers (which is its own big assumption) and wants to arm a significant amount of people with percussion firearms, he is better to go with percussion muskets - he will not be able to have standardized rifled barrels of a single caliber made any time before 1800s.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that making the mercury fulminate is a big issue; if you know the trick, you might well be able to do it quite a long way back into antiquity because the key ingredients aren't particularly exotic. This issue is one of the development of chemistry to the point where someone discovers it, I think. I'll add 'percussion cap firearms' to my list of things that can be invented by timetravellers, though ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ In time travel conditions it is worked out in the 1632 universe, (original book by Eric Flint, now worked on by many people,) there are a few technical essays which are about percussion cap riffles and related guns. Wikipedia page about the series, does not contain link to articles, which are in the paid stories part of the Grantville Gazette website. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1632_series $\endgroup$
    – Willeke
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ Loading a rifled muzzle-loader is no problem, once you look at it correctly. The answer is called the Minie ball. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ Kentucky rifles were the reason the American Sharpshooters were feared by the Brits in the revolution - so not sure about that last statement (late 1700s more like). Further, (since time traveler) closest actually used weapon would be the Ferguson Rifle which the British used in the Revolution (high cost mind you). In fact, we can push back breech loading flint guns to 16th century and Henry VIII. So percussion, maybe. Rifle, definitely (Kentucky Rifle). Breech Rifle, possible $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ the 1819 Hall percussion conversion started in the 1825 to 1832 area - 1832 was the side-lever 1819 Hall, which was all percussion cap. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 19:28

There is an exciting, although somewhat impractical means of making primers using the technology of the times: fulminating gold!

Fulminating gold was the first high explosive known to man and was first noted in western alchemy as early as 1585

  • $\begingroup$ Generally, it is best to avoid accidentally creating this substance, sounds good to me $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 10:31

The percussion cap (patented 1807 by Alexander Forsyth) was only able to be introduced in 1820 because of the discovery of mercury fulminate:

discovered in 1799 by the British chemist Howard (sic)

The answer to the question comes from a later developement:

However a system which was subsequently developed as an alternative - the Maynard tape primer uses a roll of paper (sheltered inside the mechanism) with primer enclosed in "pimples", which are fed by a ratchet mechanism to the hammer plate when the hammer is cocked. When the trigger releases the hammer, it causes the pimple to violently deflagrate - the subsequent explosion is then fed through a channel igniting the powder in the barrel (and trimming the tape at the same time - neat).

Whilst the modern primer (Armstrong's mixture) would require advanced chemistry not available in the 15th century, black powder can be set off by percussion. In principle there is no reason that a similar system could not have been invented as early as metalurgy (with precision smithing and the ability to temper springs), gunpowder and paper existed in your world.

  • $\begingroup$ Maynard tape still relied on the fulminate primer, as far as I understand. You will not be able to reliably ignite black powder by hitting it with a hammer, while it's wrapped in paper. $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, if just ordinary black powder did the trick you would not need a separate primer, or matchlocks, or flint locks or... In addition to the Maynard tape, the modern cap guns use priming compounds as well. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Cumehtar It was my understanding that it's just gunpowder, otherwise it couldn't be so widley available in children's toys - and you can indeed set off gunpowder with a hammer- quite unwiseley I've done it. Quite right, reliability in the field was a problem - fouling, getting damp etc.. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi I'm prepared to accept I've got it wrong, but I can't find a recipe online for rolls of caps. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cap_gun has mentions at the beginning. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:26

The answer: It depends on what you want.

Could you make it? Yes, provided you can give the people the required know-how and find somebody willing enough to sponsor the project or earn enough money by yourself.

Is it usefull to try and get it?

Absolutely not, there are some magnificent guns made throughout the ages with all sort of interesting systems. They had breachloaders and rifled barrels a long time before the 19th century for example. Fulminates are the main limiter, but hey they had some nifty mechanisms to achieve the same deal with flintlock and wheellock mechanisms.

However these guns tended to either be very expensive or impractical, often both. Rich people could afford them and used them for stuff like hunting. You would need a skilled gunsmith to make all of the individual parts of the gun, since mechanization was not in swing yet. The mechanisms were also complex and spare parts were expensive. Good for a noble or a rich merchant to take on a hunting trip. Pretty much useless for everyone else.

Only a rich noble or merchant or a state (obviously) could equip a decent force of soldiers with such guns and for that kind of money they could propably buy other stuff; more men, more 'conventional' weapons, more supplies,...

Guns require a lot of support; spare parts, gunpowder, ammo, fulminates (in your case), training your men to maintain and use them,...

So once again, you could, but I doubt it would be worth the hassle.


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