A cowboy of the 19th Century got dragged back into the past (just in case, stable time loop does not apply here since it also has an alternative timeline/universe), after some feats of battle, the King and nobles were extremely impressed, especially with his gun, the problem is that his ammo is limited.

Would it be possible for the king and nobles, using everything they have, finding the best and brightest of the era to research..etc.. to produce bullets for the cowboy's revolver (with some unused bullets given to them), or better, the revolver itself?

  • 16
    $\begingroup$ So you're also wanting to produce gunpowder of the right grade, cartridges, and caps? Just producing the bullets would be a simple task for any competent blacksmith of the age. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ ^ that is correct $\endgroup$
    – Pointman
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ Would you mind clarifying what kind of revolver you are talking about? E.g. a .44 Colt? $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ whatever that available to a cowboy in the 19th Century . $\endgroup$
    – Pointman
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", a novel by Mark Twain. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 13:35

5 Answers 5


It depends on the pistol

The 19th century spans a number of revolutions in firearms including percussion caps, revolvers, cartridges, smokeless powder, and semi-automatic pistols. It spans everything from a single shot, muzzle loading, flintlock pistol using black powder...

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To a recognizably modern cartridge revolver like the iconic Colt Single Action Army of 1873, but still black powder...

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To the first commercially successful semi-automatic pistol, the C96 "Broomhandle" Mauser in 1896.

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Black Powder, Yes. Smokeless Powder, No.

Modern firearms use "smokeless" powder which is more powerful than black powder and, surprise, doesn't produce smoke. It's made of various things including nitrocellulose. None of this would be available in 14th century England and a cowboy would not know how to make it.

While smokeless powder was invented in the mid 19th century, black powder was used well into late 19th century. Fortunately for your cowboy, many of the pistols available to them would be black powder. And 14th Century England would be familiar with black powder. A little careful experimentation would find the right amount and grind to work safely and effectively.

Flintlocks Are Easy

A flintlock is easy enough to deal with. All you need is a lead ball and some black powder. 14th century England would have plenty of lead, it's a byproduct of silver mining. No percussion cap is necessary, the flint striking steel provides the spark to light the powder.

With some care and trouble they could probably even copy a flintlock. The biggest problem would be the springs and metallurgy, but the very simple design gives them a lot of wiggle room. In a pinch they could replace the flintlock with a matchlock.

No Semi-Automatics

The lack of smokeless powder rules out any sort of semi-automatic pistol. Black powder leaves a lot of residue which would rapidly gum up the moving parts.

In addition, early semi-automatic pistols like the Mauser C96 were recoil operated meaning they use the recoil energy from firing the bullet to work the action and chamber the next round. Since black powder is weaker than the smokeless powder they're designed for, it would not have enough recoil energy to cycle the action. You'd have to cycle the gun manually.

Brass Cartridges Are A Problem

At the other end of the spectrum is any pistol that takes cartridges like the Colt Single Action Army / Peacemaker or the C96 Mauser. Cartridges required a lot of trial and error to get right. They require a very thin brass case made to exacting tolerances which 14th century England would not have the metallurgy to make in any quantity.

As someone who's accidentally fired the wrong caliber cartridge in a pistol, a .40 in a .45, you don't want to get this even a little bit wrong. At best the burst case gets stuck in the cylinder. At worst it blows up in the shooter's face.

What about reloading cartridges? A cowboy might know how to do that, but not all cartridges are reloadable. And you have the serious problem of replacing the primer (see below).

Primers Are A Problem

Anything after a flintlock requires a primer, some chemical sensitive enough to explode when struck by the hammer, but inert enough to not go off from being jostled around. Primers are made of mercury fulminate which would not be available in 14th century England. Bullets have primers in their base. Others use little caps like a cap gun.

The Sweet Spot: A Cap And Ball Revolver

A cap and ball revolver is a revolver that doesn't use metal cartridges. Instead, each cylinder is loaded with black powder and a lead ball like a muzzle loader. This gives our cowboy the relative speed and mechanical simplicity of a revolver, without having to try to make brass cartridges. A good and popular example is the Colt 1851 Navy.

enter image description here

However, it does need percussion caps filled with an explosive primer. This is going to require some chemistry that doesn't exist in the 14th century and that your cowboy is unlikely to know.

It might be possible the revolver could be retrofitted to use flint or a match in place of the cap, but I've never heard of such a thing.

"Making X Is Easy! Just Put Y into Z!"

There's a bunch of comments of people saying that making this or that chemical is easy. There is no "just" when it comes to making explosives. And there is no "just" for doing anything in the 14th century. The question of whether a 19th century cowboy could, even with all the help of the King of England, make smokeless powder and primers for their gun is one that deserves its own question and answers. But here's my take.

Your typical cowboy, or anyone from the 19th century, will have no chemistry education. If it's early enough in the 19th century they're lucky they can read. Maybe they conveniently worked in a gun shop, but the probably weren't mixing explosives. So the author has to explain why this 19th century cowboy knows how to make smokeless powder and primers from scratch.

If they were making explosives, they definitely weren't mixing up the ingredients themselves. If they were then they're not a cowboy, they're a chemist. Even in the 19th century one can order a bottle of this or that and be sure of what they're getting. In the 14th century there are no purified chemicals to work with. There are few standard measurements. Even if our increasingly atypical 19th century cowboy knows that, for example, Aqua fortis is Nitric Acid necessary for the production of guncutton, do they know what strength the solution they're buying is? Do they know what impurities it has in it? Do they even know it's what they say it is? Working with impure or mislabeled chemicals is a good way to get blown up.

Finally there's the problem of remembering formula and procedure. There are no chemistry textbooks to refer to in the 14th century. Unless this cowboy is like Ash Williams and brought a practical chemistry textbook along with them in the trunk of their car saddlebags of their horse...

enter image description here

...they won't be able to rattle off the formulas and procedures for making mercury fulminate and nitrocellulose, much less make it consistently to the tolerances for the smokeless powder in their bullets to avoid damaging their irreplaceable gun.

Let's list it out. In order to make smokeless powder and primers for their revolver our "cowboy" needs...

  • To have memorized the formulas, ratios, and procedures.
  • To know the 14th century names for the ingredients.
  • To somehow find and verify pure samples of the ingredients.
  • Not blow themselves or their gun up in the process.

It's not impossible, rather those are the plausibility hurdles the OP's story has to overcome.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Pete You wanna to tell Clint Eastwood that cowboys didn't use Mausers? ...okay using "Joe Kidd" is cheating, that's set in the early 1900s. But seriously, our idea of the "typical cowboy revolver" is mostly from movies, not history. More to the point, I wanted to illustrate for the OP how broad a range of firearms the 19th century represents. An early 19th century cowboy would be using a flintlock simply because revolvers hadn't been invented yet. The Peacemaker isn't until 1873. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete "Cowboy" and "19th century" are terms so broad as to be basically meaningless when it comes to firearms. Otherwise you're talking movie cliches. Part of my point is the OP needs to do some more research. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg A revolver is a type of pistol (technically it's a style of magazine mechanism that's also been used on carbines). Putting the wrong caliber cartridge in a revolver is also bad, probably worse than in a semi-automatic. because of cylinder gap. There's more risk of explosive gases from the split cartridge venting out the gap between the cylinder, barrel, and hammer into the shooter's face and hands. Mythbusters illustrated cylinder gap pretty well. $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ @John, making mercury fulminate is easy. Making mercury fulminate without blowing yourself up is hard. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ @watne any decent blacksmith can make a die, especially if they have an unfired cartridge to use for a guide. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 5:17

One aspect of the question which other answers haven't yet covered:-

...or better, the revolver itself?

The problem with everything involving gunpowder is making sure all of the bang goes out of the front, otherwise you're not holding a firearm, you're holding a pipe bomb. A 14th century armourer would have extensive experience with brass cannons, and would likely be aware of hand cannons. But with that, they'd be all too bitterly aware of what would happen with any small flaw in the metal, because cannon regularly blew up and killed their crews. Metallurgy simply wasn't anywhere near advanced enough to make a halfway modern firearm.

The 14th century armourer could certainly identify that the revolver is made out of steel. He could probably even take some moulds and produce something that looked similar. There's even some chance he could drill the barrel fairly cleanly, using the same kind of drills used for piercing stone. But the steel he'd be using would be nothing like good enough for the gun to hold together, so it would be a lot more dangerous to the user than to the target!

A more profitable line would be to use some of the cowboy's knowledge relating to the use of firearms. The problem isn't just having them, it's using them effectively. It took a hundred years to get the arquebus, and another hundred years before people worked out how to turn it from an isn't-this-cool gimmick into an actual weapon that worked effectively on the battlefield. Hand cannons did exist, but the cowboy could take his knowledge of what a musket looks like and basically invent the arquebus early. Bringing volley fire concepts to primitive hand cannons would then make the new arquebus a battle-winner, as would be the invention of the bayonet so that they wouldn't need a protective screen of pikemen. He could also suggest the star fort concept, which would be a dramatic change to the defensive side of things and would be as valid for defenders with bows as it is for firearms.

In the meantime, the main limiting factor on development is always investment. If the king is keen on firearms and is pumping money into them, he's inevitably going to attract the best and brightest metallurgists and chemists from across Europe, and that's likely to accelerate a lot of development.

  • $\begingroup$ the Kings of England at the time would have been intrested in firearms, during the 1340s they deployed cannons in the battles of the 100 Years War. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't knowledge of rifling be a bigger impact, since it could be applied to cannons of the age as well? $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn, Despite the concept of rifling existing from the mid-1400s, it would not be widely used on military arms until the 1800s with the advent of breechloading guns, due to both the difficulty of muzzle-loading a rifled barrel and the need for exacting tolerances between projectile size and bore diameter. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn I thought about that too. Hitting Wikipedia though, it suggests that early attempts at rifling were not practical because of the amount of black powder residue left in the barrel. The reason it wasn't widely used until the 1800s has nothing to do with tolerances (all early rifled weapons still used wadding) and everything to do with smokeless powder. He could still suggest it though. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham While black powder fouling was an issue for the accuracy of rifled guns during sustained use, it was the development of conical ammunition which expanded to engage the rifling that made rifles militarily practical several decades before smokeless powder was invented. Prior to Minie balls, rifle ammunition had to be sized very slightly larger than the bore (hence my tolerances comment), and pounded down the rifling with substantial force, a time-consuming process. This is totally impractical for artillery, but maybe the King might be interested in a better hunting weapon. $\endgroup$
    – Catgut
    Commented Dec 6, 2016 at 18:21

Assuming your cowboy is a pure consumer, he knows only how to load, fire and maintain his gun.

Luckily cannon have been invented in the 14th Century, they've been around in Europe for 50-100 years. Gunpowder is a known compound and it doesn't change much until smokeless powders in the very late 19th Century, so it's likely the right propellant for the weapon.

Any blacksmith will be able to make the bullets, he just needs some lead and a mold. That's a minor detail.

However the bullet cartridge and firing button is a much tougher object to make to the correct tolerances and would be best passed to a jeweler.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well, if you kept the empty cases, you should be able to reload them. What I'm not sure of is how to make a cap (the part that translates the hammer into the "bang" and ignites the gunpowder). The mix of gunpowder is pretty crucial too. One wrong mix and you're likely to lose your gun (and the hand of the person holding it). $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete, "black powder" is not that sensitive, you might end up with a duff charge but it's unlikely you'll take your hand off. I'm no expert but my perusings of the internet to get the details here suggest that the modern cap you're thinking of is actually made of black powder. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ I am however looking for the name of that bit in the middle that moves to fire the charge $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, you're probably right there. I've shot black powder and gunpowder weapons in the past but never mixed my own. FYI and informed forum post here tells us that cowboys wouldn't have known how to reload cartridges (unless maybe if they were in the civil war and learnt there). For this reality-check question, we could assume he's one of the "load and shoot" guys. $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg, I'm going to back out here and let Schwern have this one as he does seem to know this stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:13

The bullets are easy. Cowboys in the 19th century did actually cast their own lead bullets. But the chemistry for percussion caps (or for any kind of primer really) simply did not exist in the 14th century (fulminate of mercury was discovered mid-17th century and refined at the end of the 18th century). Not to mention: steel is very expensive and nobody knows how to make it with consistent properties -- nobody has ever seen molten steel, much less cast it -- there are no precision lathes able to process hard metal -- there is no simple way to make measurements more accurate than maybe half a millimeter -- there are no precisely standardized units of measurement -- nobody has thought of mass production -- etc. The 14th century was a very different world from ours.


No, they could not have done it. The problem is that fulminates were unknown at that time and knowledge of fulminates would be necessary to make the percussion cap for the bullet.

Making the cartridge casing would have also been very difficult with no help. Brass was largely unknown at that time and drawing bronze into a casing without it cracking would have difficult.

The gun could have been made... almost. The main body of the gun would be achievable, although it would have been fantastically expensive because it would have taken a great deal of meticulous work. The problem would be the springs. In the 15th century they did not yet have the knowledge to make the kind of tempered wire necessary to make a small springs. It is possible that might have been able to find some way around this problem, but it would be difficult.


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