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Primers in the Old West

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I've seen all kinds of information about powders, bullets, casings, but I'm wondering about primers.  Looking at todays modern primers I'm sure that back in the day they were nothing like they are now.  What did they use for primers back then?  What if you were reloading your own did you have to buy pre-made primers?

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@Sedalia Dave it is an interesting read.  I just wish they talked more about primer itself.  Was it BP or something else? how did they keep the powder in the primer cup? Could you buy new primer cups and make your own primers?  

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Copper primer case.  Potassium Perchlorate compound in those primers - corrosive as all get out once fired.   The old timers  did not make their own - there were patents on most of the priming technology, and the chemistry was beyond what all but the best chemists could make happen.   Cartridges and the guns that fired them were the HIGH TECH of the old west.  Primer design was largely one of three types - Boxer (like we use today, invented by a Brit), Berdan (like some euro ammo, invented by an American); or pin fire (a pin whacked from outside of the cartridge, that punched a primer pellet inside the case; French firearms used these a lot).  Also, there were lots more rimfire cases than what we see today.

 

Making primers then would be sorta like making your own cell phone today.  They would be gob-smacked by how (and how quickly) we put up ammo in our garages and sheds today.

 

They bought components and loaded with tong tools and such low-tech equipment (and a lot of those folks were professional hunters/buffalo butchers).  Or they shot factory loads.

 

Good luck, GJ

Edited by Garrison Joe, SASS #60708
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There were also internally primed cases, which were centerfire but were not reloadable and look like rim fire.  The army used a lot of these in the early days.  They held a pellet of priming in the center of the copper case which was crushed between the base and a bar or cup on the inside of the case.  They are identifiable by the caliber, lack of a visible primer, copper case, and the crimp near the base that keeps the internal primer in place.  Here are a .45 colt and Schofield.

7FBFBB67-23DC-49C0-9244-AA3CD79A4042.jpeg

Edited by Doc Coles SASS 1188
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Priming compounds were initially mercuric.  These were not so hard on the rifling, but would embrittle the cartridge cases when fired. The mercuric primers were later replaced by perchloride material, which turned into potassium perchlorate, a salt which would adsorb water on firing, and, while they wouldn't hurt the cartridge cases, they were hard on the steel rifling unless washed out with some type of bore cleaner pretty quickly.  Then the chloride primers were replaced by lead styphnate which was non-mercuric/non-corrosive.  More recently, concerns about lead in the environment have been replaced with some other stuff that may not be as good, but won't mess up the "environment"!

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Mercury fulminate was used ftom the early part of the 19th centuty well into the early 20th.  It is not as cortosive as potassium percholorate, just more unstable evrntually decomposing naturally.

However the primary ingedients are much easier for frontier places to get a hold of.  Mercury, nitric acid and ethanol.

The former two back then used a lot in mining operations.  Nitric acid can be made with ammonia, to make nitric oxide, then reacted with oxygen and water to make nitric acid.  Again fairly easily obtained ingrediants.

 

Yes back then you got mercury you where inhaling when you fired your guns, these days it is lead, go figure.

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@Sedalia Dave it is an interesting read.  I just wish they talked more about primer itself.  Was it BP or something else? how did they keep the powder in the primer cup? Could you buy new primer cups and make your own primers?  

 

Priming compounds are usually a thick liquid or paste that dries once placed in the primer cup.

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Had an old timer back in Idaho tell me they used to clean out their bores by loading up a shell with mercury (not sure how they kept it in there) and just blasting it out at a berm or some such. Yikes! Wouldn't want to be around for that!

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For  a well-documented reference piece on the history of various primer compounds, see:

 

https://www.bevfitchett.us/ballistics/priming-compounds-and-primers-introduction.html

 

Good luck, GJ

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@Garrison Joe, SASS #60708 Thanks!  That's what I had in mind, I never knew about Mercury Fulminate being used.  I'm glad it's safer than that today. 

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Had an old timer back in Idaho tell me they used to clean out their bores by loading up a shell with mercury (not sure how they kept it in there) and just blasting it out at a berm or some such. Yikes! Wouldn't want to be around for that!

 

Wow!

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Had an old timer back in Idaho tell me they used to clean out their bores by loading up a shell with mercury (not sure how they kept it in there) and just blasting it out at a berm or some such. Yikes! Wouldn't want to be around for that!

I have heard of putting mercury in the bore and swishing it back and forth , or filling the bore and let it set for a while to clean out lead deposits. This seemed to be fairly common a generation or two ago.

Never heard of shooting it though !!!

Rex :D

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As a side note about mercury, ever hear the phrase "mad as a hatter?"

 

Hat makers used mercury to work and shape the hats. 

It worked great, but the hatter was breathing in mercury with effects the brain,

So gradually declined (eventually voted democrate) and later had to be put away. :D:D

 

 

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Brisance.   Spell checker got to your post, OLG.

Dictionary meaning - "shattering effect of the sudden release of energy in an explosion"

Applied to primers, brisance is the volume and energy of hot sparks that are thrown by the primer, with more heat, more velocity and more solids thrown usually igniting powder better.

Good luck, GJ

 

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Brisance.   Spell checker got to your post, OLG.

Dictionary meaning - "shattering effect of the sudden release of energy in an explosion"

Applied to primers, brisance is the volume and energy of hot sparks that are thrown by the primer, with more heat, more velocity and more solids thrown usually igniting powder better.

Good luck, GJ

 

 

It was the fat-fingered doofus on the keyboard....:lol:

OLG 

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Some insight into the period from the instructions issued with Sharps rifles:

“Instructions for Re-Loading Metallic Shells

The cartridge issued with the Sharps Company's Arms are made up of shells that are susceptible to being re-loaded and fired many times.

After the cartridge has been fired, the following process must be strictly observed in re-loading:

Bore a hole in a piece of hard wood, the size of the body of the cartridge, leaving the rim of the cartridge even with the surface of the board, in which place the empty shell.

Perforate the exploded cap on one side of its centre with the awl, and pry out the exploded cap; clean out the debris in the small end of the exploded shell perfectly, and insert a new cap in the head of the shell, setting it home snugly by pressure.

Charge with 70 grains of powder, with a pasteboard wad upon the powder, forcing the wad down the full length of the follower.

Insert upon the wad a lubricant disk composed of one part of pure beeswax to 2 parts sperm oil in weight, to occupy 3/16 of an inch in length of the shell.

Dip the base of the ball [bullet] up to the forward ring [grease groove] in the melted lubricating compound, taking care to fill the grooves.

Insert the point of the ball in the chamber of the Ball Seater, and introduce the shell through the circular orifice at the opposite end of the Ball Seater, and press the shell home with the hand on a soft piece of wood.

Wipe the cartridge clean and it is ready for use.”

I know the question was about primers, but more interesting in its entirety.

Edited by Crisco
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@Crisco  That was certainly interesting.  I bet the cowboy doing it that way couldn't load too many in an hour.

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Howdy

 

First of all, not many shooters were loading their own ammunition in the 19th Century. So not much thought was given to primers.

 

One of the early rounds to use Boxer primers was the 44-40 in 1873.  The primers did not look much different than they do today.

 

Most cowboys probably did not shoot more than one box of ammo in an entire year.

 

Most simply bought a box of factory loaded cartridges in the local dry goods or hardware store. Very few, with the exception of the Buffalo hunters who were shooting a lot of buffalo at fairly long range, ever loaded their own ammo. The notes above about reloading a Sharps would be relevant to this.

 

Here is a photo of some of the Benet Primed folded rim cartridges similar to what Doc Coles showed in his post. This style of priming was developed by Col. S.V Benet commander of Frankford Arsenal in the late 1860s.  The two cartridges in the center are a Benet Primed 45 Colt and 45 Schofield. They are flanked by modern versions.

 

45%20colt%2045%20colt%2045%20schofield%2

 

 

 

 

Here is a photo showing the construction of the cartridges. The cup shaped plate inside the cartridge was called an Anvil Plate. It was crimped in place in the cartridge. Priming compound was deposited on the inside of the case. When struck by a firing pin, the priming compound was compressed between the base of the case and the Anvil Plate. This ignited the priming materiel. The spark generated came though the two holes in the Anvil Plate to ignite the charge of Black Powder. These cartridges could not be reloaded, once fired they were discarded.

 

benet.jpg

 

 

 

 

Here is a box of 12 45 Colt cartridges manufactured at the Frankford arsenal in 1874. Note how they could easily be mistaken for rimfire cartridges. A modern cartridge is on the right for comparison.

 

45ColtBenetPrimedBox03_zps73800f6e.jpg

 

 

 

 

Early 45-70 rounds were Benet primed too, that is one on the left in this photo. These rounds were developed for the early Trap Door Springfield rifles. Problems happened when the extractor ripped through the soft copper case, jamming the round in the chamber.

 

BenetPrimed45-70.jpg

 

 

 

 

Edited by Driftwood Johnson, SASS #38283
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Thanks @Driftwood Johnson, SASS #38283  I won't even asked how you got all those great pictures, not to mention knowledge.  I noticed one striking difference (besides the roll at the bottom of the case) is the crimp on the bullet.  In the picture at least it looks like modern rounds have a lot more crimp than they used to.

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