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Pinfire Ammo; First Pinfire Shotshells, How Cartridges Work, Ammunition Problems & More

Pinfire cartridges were an oddity that was a used early in the beginning of the cartridge era. A pinfire has a small pin that extends from the base of the cartridge penetrating the side and placed to set off the primer via the pin.

How Do Pinfire Cartridges Work?

Pinfire cartridges had to be loaded in a specific orientation to align with the hammer. On the falling hammer striking the pin was driven into the case and initiated the primer. The pin would only fit one way into a groove machined into the chamber. The advantage of a pinfire was that with the pins it was easy to determine that the gun was loaded. Another aspect of pinfire cartridges is the safety factor. With the protruding pin, it may have been easier to experience a misadventure, meaning an accidental fire of the pinfire cartridge.

First Pinfires Were Shotshells

Many will be surprised to know that the first breechloading cartridge was a Swiss invention dating back to 1812. The first pinfires were shotshells and turned up around 1832 when patented by Casimir Lefaucheux of Paris. It was 1846 that Benjamin Houllier of Paris made improvements on the pinfire. But in the Great Exhibition of 1851 many breechloading weapons were on display. While improving breechloaders of the time, the pinfire came of age. Most pinfires of the era used a metal head with a paper tubular body attached. The Brits were slow to accept the French invention, former enemies and reluctant allies that the French were. The popularity of the pinfire did not diminish until the post-civil war in the US and were replaced by rimfire and centerfire cartridges in the 1860’s.

Pinfire Ammunition Problems

Problems with the pinfire where the low velocities that attended the low pressures of these cartridges. The pin inside the body of the cartridge created a weakness in the case. Also, it is possible that gases could escape around the pin. The primary problem was weakened case thus the need for lower pressures producing lower velocities. Even the balloon heads of the rimfires where stronger. As shotguns operate at lower pressures anyway the pinhead shotshell lasted longer than the pinhead sidearm and long arm cartridges. Rimfire and centerfire cartridges where faster to reload, no alignment of the pin was necessary. Today only novelty cartridges are produced in small calibers like 2mm. There are kits available to allow the hobbyist to manufacture pinfire cartridges out of modern cartridge cases.

Volcanic Rifle

In exploring the novel cartridges of the past, one must touch on the Volcanic Pistol. A lever-action repeating sidearm that was an early Smith and Wesson endeavor. The cartridge was self-contained within the bullet. The powder was loaded into the base cavity of the bullet. Not only was the Volcanic a catalyst for the formation of Smith & Wesson, but Benjamin Tyler Henry, of the Henry rifle fame and precursor to Winchester Arms was involved in the manufacture of the gun. A Volcanic rifle was also introduced. The primary problem with the Volcanic was very low velocities. You can only put so much powder into the base of a bullet, plus the primer. The ‘Hunt Rocket Ball’ developed by Walter Hunt was designed for and used in lever action repeaters, both pistol and rifle. It only had about 56 foot-pounds of energy, low than a .25 ACP pocket pistol cartridge. It never caught on because of the feeble velocity generated. The best that can be said is that it brought together Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson and proved a catalyst for the Henry Rifle and the eventual creation of New Haven Firearms, which became Winchester Firearms.