James Erskine patent Cartridge Loading Machine

James Erskine, a gunmaker and inventor from Newton Stewart, Scotland had a prolific career inventing and patenting many improvements to guns and cartridge loading machines. His patented cartridge filler was universally accepted and used by all of the great British gunmakers of the day!

Erskine was born on September 12, 1812, in Penninghame, Wigtownshire, Scotland, the son of Mary Watson and Thomas Erskine. He married Elizabeth Sinclair on December 4, 1854, in his hometown. They had eight children over 21 years. He died on November 20, 1891, in Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, Scotland, having lived a long life of 79 years.

During most of those 79 years Erskine was active learning and then working in the gun trade. The IGC Historical Database indicates that Erskine began his apprenticeship at 14 years old, working as a gun finisher for Williams & Powell, or their predecessor, Edward Patrick in Liverpool.

Sometime after 1841 and before the 1851 Scotland Census, Erskine moved to Newton Stewart and began working for himself as a gun maker.

He displayed two guns at the 1851 Great Exhibition and was awarded a bronze metal.

On July 20, 1859 he delivered the following provisional specification to the British patent office for an update to the Lefaucheux-style pinfire shotgun:

I, James Erskine, of Newton Stewart, North Britain, Gun Maker, do hereby declare the nature of the said Invention for “ Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms,” to be as follows :—
I joint the barrel or barrels of the gun or fire-arm by a slotted joint to a sole of iron or other metal connected to the stock, which sole forms part of the false breech, and is hollowed or grooved so as to receive the barrel or barrels in the round instead of the flat, as hitherto adopted, and is also formed so as to admit of the bar action or forehand lock. In order to shift the barrel or barrels to and from the false breech as required, I employ a lever working up and down upon a joint in the sole, and entering when closed into a recess cut in the fore part of the stock, strictly on a level with the wood. One end of the said lever is formed with notches or teeth fitting corresponding notches or teeth attached, to the under side of the barrel or barrels, so that when the lever is raised the barrels will be opened upon the breech, and when depressed they will be closed or withdrawn. The sole may be either in one piece, or composed of two parts jointed or hinged together, so that the fore part shall be depressed when the barrels are opened from the breech, and straight when closed, the lever for opening and closing being jointed to the hinder part of the sole. I also make small holes in the face of the hammer sufficiently deep to retain the hold of the pin of the cartridge after firing, so that when the lever moves or brings the barrel forwards from the cock or false breech for the purpose of reloading, the exploded cartridge is loosened or partly withdrawn, and thus is easily removed by the fingers when the fore part of the barrels have descended to their lowest position and raised the breech end for the purpose of receiving fresh cartridges.

He submitted the full specification about 6 month later on January 19, 1860 and received full patent coverage for his inventions. The key aspect to this invention was the way the barrel opened and extracted the cartridge. It is a forward sliding under-lever. The lever forced the barrel forward about an inch by use of a cam (think, cog wheel) before it swiveled down, which combined with the hammers that were slightly hollowed out to hold the pin, held the cartridge still while the barrel pulled itself forward, effectively extracting the cartridge.

Here is the full patent I acquired and scanned in:

In 1862 he took out the following advertisement for this new invention where he advertised that many people of the trade have called it “the most perfect gun of the kind yet invented.”

Field - Saturday 21 June 1862
Field – Saturday 21 June 1862

This barlock gun would continue to be advertised for a few more years.

Field - Saturday 02 July 1864
Field – Saturday 02 July 1864

1866 would be a big year for Erskine as he registered 3 pinfire-related patents; A new breech-loading gun, a cartridge loading machine and a tool for closing cartridges. We will look at the gun first.

In May of 1866, the popular British newspaper, The Field, The Country Gentleman’s Newspaper, ran a trial and rated 35 guns. Many of these including this new Erskine model were pinfires. One June 2nd, Field published the results of the gun trial and showed that Erskine’s model did very well.

Field - Saturday 02 June 1866
Field – Saturday 02 June 1866

The newspaper described his gun as decidedly better and stronger than the typical Lefaucheux gun though they did not go into too many details as he had not yet patented his inventions.

Field - Saturday 02 June 1866
Field – Saturday 02 June 1866

He submitted his provisional patent specification a week later on June 9, 1866 and described his invention as follows:

I, James Erskine, of Newton Stewart, in the County of Wigton, North
Britain, Gunmaker, do hereby declare the nature of the said Invention for
“ Improvements in Breech-loading Guns,” to be as follows :—
The line of resistance in the ordinary Lefaucheux or drop gun (which depends on its fulcrum pin) being at a considerable angle to the line of force exerted by the explosion gives the barrels a tendency to open upwards, and by repeated firing to loosen the parts and render the closure of the breech less perfect ; to obviate this, according to my Invention, I make the parts so that the closure depends upon parts formed solid on the barrel, projecting downwards and entering openings in the sole or body, the contact of the one part with the other forming an abutment or abutments which press and hold the barrels up to the breech face, and in such way that the fulcrum pin is not at all depended on, and might in fact be withdrawn at the time of firing without detriment. I adopt the usual locking apparatus to hold the barrel down, and I make the projecting pieces forming the abutments available in such locking ; by preference I make the abutting surfaces that hold the barrels to the breech at right angles, or nearly so, to the line of the barrel. In my arrangement of this gun I also dispose the fulcrum further from the breech, as also higher up, that is to say, nearer the line of the bore.

The same day The Field reported on this invention and described it as follows:

Another action selected by the committee is the invention of Mr Erskine, gunmaker, of Newton Stewart, and though only a slight modification of the Lefaucheux double grip action, it is a very considerable improvement on it, but we are very doubtful whether it is new in principle, and whether Mr Erskine can sustain his patent. With this, however, we have nothing to do at present, and have simply to remark that the improvement consists in throwing the hinge forward and nearer to the barrels, by which the recoil-bearing surfaces on the lump at (a) and (b) are more nearly at right angles to the long axis of the barrels, and, therefore more capable of receiving the recoil. In other respects the action differs little from the double grip.

Field - Saturday 09 June 1866
Field – Saturday 09 June 1866

This sparked a multiple weeks-long conversation in The Field on the validity of this patent. The next week Erskine wrote into the editor the following:

Sir,—In the remarks and explanations made in connection with the engraving of my new patent breech-loading action, in The Field of June 9, doubts are thrown out as to the principle being new, and whether it would sustain a patent. The action shown, and so highly approved of by the judges, was strictly of my own planning; an extensive knowledge and practice in breech-loaders, foreign and home made, justifies me in claiming the invention as new, and until a similar plan can be shown to have been in use previous to mine, I think the law will allow me protection in a patent right.
James Erskine.
Newton Stewart, N.B., June 14.

[We highly approve, as we stated last week, of the improvement, and must leave the legal question to the proper tribunal. — Ed.]

Field - Saturday 16 June 1866
Field – Saturday 16 June 1866

The following week, John James Buck another breech-loading action patentee wrote the following to the editor:

Sir,—In The Field of June 16 is a letter from Mr Erskine, claiming improvements in the position of the axle-pin and the general form off body of his breech-loading action.
I inform Mr Erskine that the form of body, the position of axle-pin, and fixing of fore-end are precisely those used by Mr Henry Jones, breech-loading action filer, Kaye Hill House, Birmingham, in his patent gun, for which he obtained a patent five years back.
John James Buck, Breech-loading Action Filer. 7, Great King-street, Birmingham.

[It will be seen by reference to or article that we had our doubts on the point of originality.—ED.]

Field - Saturday 23 June 1866
Field – Saturday 23 June 1866

Erskine responds again and claimed that Jones is actually the one who stole from him and claims that the things Jones mentioned were all in his patent that we talked about above that was filed 2-years before Jones’:

Sir, —I beg in justice to me that you will be kind enough to insert a few remarks in answer to Mr John James Buck’s in THE FIELD of the 23rd of June.
Mr Buck boldly states that my patent breech-loading action, shown to the judges of the late FIELD gun trial, is precisely the same in the form of the body, the position of the axle pin, and fixing of fore end, as that made and patented by Mr Henry Jones, action filer, Birmingham, for which he obtained a patent five years back. I beg distinctly to say that the piracy is entirely on the other side, as the action shown by me was mostly made upon my patent plan taken ont seven years ago, the late improvement being the two notches formed from the solid lump on barrel dropping almost vertically into corresponding recesses in the body or sole of metal, and a longer sole, also fitting the ends of barrels to it strictly close to the breech, independent of the tilting pin, and having the gun proven at proof-house before the fulcrum or tilting pin is introduced at all, merely depending on the said axle or pin to tilt the barrels on.
I send you a copy of my patent, seven years old, in which I claim to be the first inventor of hollowing out a sole of iron to receive the barrels in the round instead of the flat. Also claim to be the first to introduce the fore or bar lock instead of the solid body and back-action lock. Also the attached fore end instead of the loose or shifting one.
Then, I ask Mr Buck how I can rob Mr Jones of precisely what I made and patented two years before his? and in proof I send you both my own specifications and that of Mr Jones, having sent to the Patent-office for a copy of Mr Jones’s to ascertain his claims to my patent action. I hope, Mr Editor, that you will examine the copies sent, and then you will be able to judge how far I have been wronged.
JAMES ERSKINE. Newton Stewart, June 28.

[We have examined the specifications, but cannot discover the identity which Mr Erskine claims.—ED.)

Field - Saturday 07 July 1866
Field – Saturday 07 July 1866

This is the last we hear on the issue, but as you may have noticed above in the patent document, Erskine only received provisional protection for his invention. So he either did not submit the full specification and continue on with the patent process, or he did and it was denied.

The next patent is for a roll-turner for closing cartridges. It also only received provisional protection. The specification is as follows:

I, James Erskine, of Newton Stewart, in the County of Wigton, North 5 Britain, Gunmaker, do hereby declare the nature of the said Invention for Improvements in Apparatus for Turning over or Closing the Ends of Cartridges,” to be as follows :—

Apparatus for turning in or closing the ends of cartridges has hitherto consisted of a long tube or socket to receive the full length of the cartridge, and with a slot in the side to receive the pin of pin cartridges, which pin has acted as a stop to prevent the cartridge rotating with the action of the rotating instrument operating on the ends of the case within the tube or socket, as well understood, to turn the end down and close the cartridge. So far this instrument answers the purpose passably, but it is some little trouble to withdraw and insert the cartridge, while for central-fire cartridges which have no pin projecting from the side the instrument has been almost useless, and numerous contrivances have been added to hold such cartridges and prevent them turning round, which are all more or less troublesome and inconvenient for operating quickly.

Now according to my Invention I make the socket which receives the cartridge short, and so as to contain a short length of the cartridge only and without any slot for the pin of pin cartridges. In operating to turn in and close cartridges, whether pin cartridges or otherwise, I hold the cartridge in the hand all the time (the greater part of its length being exposed offers facilities for so doing), and thereby prevent its rotating (there being no stop whatever), and at the same time press it up to the instrument operating the turning in. By this means I am enabled to turn in and close cartridges with greater facility and rapidity than by the ordinary machine or apparatus.

This “Apparatus for Turning over or Closing the Ends of Cartridges” was mentioned in the article above on The Field Gun Trial of 1866. The following patent was also mentioned in this same article and described in more detail than any of the guns. It is also what Erskine will be most famous for; his patented cartridge loading machine. They wrote the following:

Mr Erskine, a Scotch gunmaker, produced a machine capable of filling one hundred cartridges at once; and it could easily be constructed to complete five hundred or a thousand simultaneously, without any waste or risk. The charge is increased or lowered by a very simple arrangement, and the simile of the filler, with the few simple tools used in Mr Erskine’s process, can be obtained at the cost of an ordinary single cartridge-loading machine; or rather at the price one of these instruments used to cost. At present the inventor produces them singly by hand labour, but by the aid of machinery much expense will be saved; and what a workman at the bench cannot finish under £3 will be offered to the public at a reduction of 25 per cent.*

The inventor tested the machine at the suggestion of the committee, and he completely finished fifty cartridges for the gun in the short space of nine minutes and a half. It is only fair to Mr Erskine to say that he is by no means a skillful operator, and that we believe young and practised fingers would make much shorter work of it. Mr Erskine himself, we feel sure, would fill and turn down four hundred in the hour with his one-hundred machine; and we have little doubt that he will make a few improvements hereinafter by which the placing of wadding on powder and shot will be very much facilitated.

As it is exceedingly improbable that Mr Erskine’s “pace” has ever been approached, we give the time occupied below:

Placing fifty cartridges in position – 2 minutes
Filling them with the powder charge – 1/2 a minute
Placing the thick wadding, and ramming down – 2 minutes
Filling with shot – 1/2 a minute
Placing the wadding on the shot 2 minutes
Turning over the cartridges 2 1/2 minutes

The cartridges were all adapted or fitted with the pin, but the central-fire would take even less time.

The committee tested several specimens selected by one of their number, and they found the work good, and equal to that performed by the single instruments.

Mr Erskine also showed a small, cheap, portable turning-down machine, acting in a very simple way, and entirely removing any necessity for cramp or lever. Both of his inventions were unanimously approved and highly commended as of great practical utility.
*This machine will be at The Field Office for inspection after Saturday, the 2nd of June.—ED.

Field - Saturday 02 June 1866
Field – Saturday 02 June 1866

He filed for this patent on March 23, 1866. The patent talks about this working for pinfire or centerfire but he mostly talks about and the drawings all show pinfire cartridges.

The following example from my collection gives a good idea of how this works. You first turn it upside down and pull out the drawer covering the bases of the cartridges.

Erskine's Patent Cartridge Loader

You load in 100 pinfire cartridges.

Erskine's Patent Cartridge Filler
Erskine's Patent Cartridge Filler

The metal tray on the underside of the top section would slide back to allow you to load the powder and shot without it falling all the way though.

Erskine's Patent Cartridge Filler

Once it is placed on top you put powder all over the top and push it into the holes until the are full. The excess can be scraped off and used on the next batch. You then slide the tray back and the powder falls into the cartridges as the holes align with the shells.

Erskine's Patent Cartridge Loading Machine

You can then load in wads and repeat the same process for the shot.

Some examples come with another attachment that make it easier to load the wads as shown in the patent drawing. Mine is missing this piece.

Erskine's Patent Cartridge Loading Machine

The following is an example of two sizes of the loader that came with all the extra bells and whistles. It shows the piece for loading the wads, and an extra plate to allow for a large amount of powder or shot. It also has the tray for scraping off the excess powder and shot and the four-pronged tamper to make easy work of tamping everything down.

Image courtesy of Peter Wilson Fine Art Auctioneers Ltd

A couple weeks after the back-and-forth letters-to-the-editor we talked about above, Erskine took out an ad in The Field to sell this new invention of his as he could not handle the amount of orders he was getting since he was making them by hand.

He talked up its merits about its accuracy and how fast and easy it was to use. He also mentions here that the patent was taken out for 3 years but could be extended for up to 14 years.

Field - Saturday 28 July 1866
Field – Saturday 28 July 1866

His trade label at the time lists his royal sales and continues to mention his results from The Field Gun Trial of 1866.

Image courtesy of the IGC Historical Database

He did not end up selling the patent. However, he did lease the rights and manufacture of it for 5 years to Mr. Thomas Burnie Robertson who began advertising it under the name, J. Erskine and Company. This new company advertised a few months later that they had erected steam power machinery to better manufacture “this very important and valuable invention.” It was said that they could now be made in unlimited quantities. Some of the glowing testimonial we covered above in The Field Trials were quoted and it was also indicated that many noblemen and gentlemen have used the machine and love it!

Field - Saturday 05 January 1867
Field – Saturday 05 January 1867

The next year he begins taking out large ads which show the invention drawn out. He highlights its perfect accuracy and perfect safety. He also begins his practice of name-dropping all the people who use this machine. He advertises that one could go see the invention in London at any of the following gun makers who are using it: Mr. Egg, Stephen Grant, Charles Lancaster, Edwin Lancaster, Mr. Dougal, Rigby and Co, Boss, Blisset, James Woodward, Reilly, Mr. Garden, Needham, Mr. Murcott, Moore and Grey, Blanch and Son, Vaughan, Mr. Whistler, Mr. Holland, Cogswell and Harrison, Mr. Smith, Gustave Masu, Mr. Beattie, Mr. T. Jackson, Mr. Gallyon, Crane, Sylvan, Geo Fuller; and all the principal gunmakers in London.

Field - Saturday 11 May 1867
Field – Saturday 11 May 1867
Sporting Gazette - Saturday 08 June 1867
Sporting Gazette – Saturday 08 June 1867

It probably starts to get expensive listing out all of the many gunmakers who use his machine load cartridges so in future ads he simply states that it may be seen at “all the principal gunmakers’ in London and the provinces.” I think this may be the beginning of the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” If you don’t use his machine then you must not be a principal gunmaker!

Field - Saturday 10 October 1868
Field – Saturday 10 October 1868
The Field - Quarterly Magazine and Review - 1870
The Field – Quarterly Magazine and Review – 1870

But it’s really not too far off, in fact, the use of this machine became an advertising point for others that they would include in their ads to entice customers in ads and newspapers all over the country.

Mansfield Reporter - Friday 14 August 1885
Mansfield Reporter – Friday 14 August 1885
Somerset County Gazette - Saturday 17 August 1867
Somerset County Gazette – Saturday 17 August 1867
North Wilts Herald - Saturday 30 January 1869
North Wilts Herald – Saturday 30 January 1869
Southern Reporter - Thursday 27 August 1874
Southern Reporter – Thursday 27 August 1874
Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle - Monday 13 September 1869
Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle – Monday 13 September 1869

Below are a few variations from over the years of his metal badge on the loading machines.

In 1872 is when we find out that for some period of time the manufacture of his machine was leased to Mr. Thomas Burnie Robertson and that had now ended. Erskine was again manufacturing the machines himself.

Field - Saturday 23 March 1872
Field – Saturday 23 March 1872

But apparently Robertson did not stop making them so Erskine filed a legal complaint against him and his patent infringements.

Erskine would go back to using his full name as the company name and continue manufacturing these machines for decades into the future. He also mentions that these machines are even used in America.

Field - Saturday 08 January 1876
Field – Saturday 08 January 1876
Field - Saturday 30 September 1876
Field – Saturday 30 September 1876

He would take out multiple additional patents on guns and on cartridge loading machines to make them more automated and even to load military cartridges. His sons, Thomas and William would continue running his company after his death in 1891 and the company would be renamed as James Erskine & Sons.

Erskine Hammergun
Image Courtesy of HOLTS Auctioneers
Erskine Hammergun
Image Courtesy of HOLTS Auctioneers

Below is a price list from William Erskine showing all of the inventions and their accessories invented over the years.

William Erskine Price List