The Relationship Between the United States and Pinfire Cartridges

Civil War Soldier with Pinfire Revolver
Adam Rabel of the 116th Ohio Infantry Regiment with a Lefaucheux model 1854 pinfire revolver in his belt

The pinfire system was one of the most important developments in the history of firearms. It mainstreamed the concept of fully-self-contained cartridges and breech-loading firearms.

An early 1/9 plate melainotype of a Union Cavalry Sergeant from the American Civil War. He has a Lefaucheux model 1854 Pinfire Revolver on the table next to him.

Charles Allen from Gouverneur, St Lawrence, New York holding a pinfire revolver. He was a private in the 1st New York Light Artillery.

Pinfire guns were made and used everywhere and were adopted at some point by nearly every major military in the world. Read through the following articles to learn about the relationship between the United States and pinfire.

Christian Sharps Pinfire Cartridges

For the next few posts we will take a detailed look at the relationship between pinfire cartridges and The United States. We will start with Christian Sharps.

Christian Sharps pinfire Cartridges

In the late 1850s the United States Ordnance Department began testing many different weapons systems with the goal of modernizing its aging technology. They had received many favorable reports of European armies adopting the pinfire system so in 1857 and 1858 a few tests were performed on various calibers of pinfire revolvers, all of which received very favorable reviews. 

September 28, 1861 marked the entrance of pinfire arms in the American Civil War. On this date 52 Lefaucheux revolvers with ammunition were purchased from a New York gun dealer, Hermann Boker & Co. A month later the Army’s purchasing agent, Colonel George Lee Schuyler, purchased 10,000 Lefaucheux Model 1854 revolvers directly from Eugene Lefaucheux’s company in France. Another 2281 revolvers were acquired through small purchases from various military suppliers. Colonel Schuyler also brought back at least 200,000 pinfire cartridges.

C. D. Leet & Company Pinfire Cartridges

In our continuing saga of the relationship between pinfire cartridges and the United States, this post will take a look at C. D. Leet & Company.

C. D. Leet Pinfire Cartridges

Last post we talked about Christian Sharps and their problems with being able to fulfill their pinfire cartridge contract. Because of the delays, the Frankford Arsenal received permission on February 20, 1862 to buy 200,000 pinfire cartridges with the higher powder quantity “equal to those of Colts army revolvers” from a different manufacturer. So on February 28th, Captain Crispin contacted C. D. Leet to order 250,000 pinfire cartridges. This was actually the very first order, for any kind of cartridge, that C. D. Leet received from the Army.

C. D. Leet delivered the first 50,000 cartridges on April 14th and received a payment of $856.25 for them on April 30th. They deliver another 88,000 in the beginning of May and the rest of the first order on May 16th. On May 3rd, 200,000 more were ordered which were all delivered on June 17th. The final order of pinfire cartridges from any manufacturer was Dec 10, 1863 for 76,000 from C. D. Leet which were delivered on December 30th.

C. D. Leet Pinfire Box
C. D. Leet Pinfire Box

C. D. Leet was the only manufacturer who seemed to have had no quality issues with the cartridges they delivered. You will notice that the design of the cartridge is a little different than Christian Sharp’s version. Leet’s cartridge contains a lead plate at the base of the case rather than having the case itself be reinforced. The next manufacturer we will look at uses the same technique as well. This had to have been easier and more efficient than Sharp’s method and is probably why there were much less issues manufacturing them to an acceptable standard.

Allen & Wheelock Pinfire Cartridges

Our exploration of the relationship between pinfire cartridges and the United States continues with a look at Allen & Wheelock and Ethan Allen & Co.

Allen & Wheelock Pinfire Cartridges

Ethan Allen was in the firearms and cartridge industry for nearly 40 years beginning in 1832. Many other articles and books cover his business relationships in much more detail than I will go into. This article will only take a look at the time periods where he was making pinfire cartridges. 

In the early 1860s Ethan Allen filed for a patent on what would become known as his lipfire cartridge. His patent was initially denied because examiner thought they were too similar to the pinfire cartridges; specifically, the ones described in Eugene Lefaucheux’s 1854 revolver patent filed in England by patent attorney John Henry Johnson. Allen responded that the pinfire cartridge was well-known in the United States and that his lipfire cartridge was an improvement in many ways such as being gastight, waterproof, and less dangerous. He mentioned the dangers of unintentional detonations of pinfire cartridges when dropping them. The patent office agreed with his remarks and noted that other than the fact that they were both cartridges there were practically no other similarities. Even though Allen believed his lipfire cartridges were superior to pinfire cartridges he realized that there was still money to be made from them.

Excavated Pinfire Guns and Cartridges from the American Civil War

Excavated 12mm pinfire revolver recovered from the sand in Beaufort, South Carolina
Excavated 12mm pinfire revolver recovered from the sand in Beaufort, South Carolina

Over the past few posts we have taken a look at the three American companies that manufactured pinfire cartridges for use in the American Civil War. Between Allen & Wheelock, Christian Sharps and C.D. Leet they manufactured a total of 1,572,000 pinfire cartridges. 

However there is no known documentation on which manufacturers we imported additional cartridges from. We know that the Union Army purchased at least 200,000 cartridges with the large order of Lefaucheux revolvers from France. We know some of the smaller purchases also came with cartridges. We also know that the Confederate States Army had pinfire cartridges stored in their arsenals and used pinfire revolvers.

So I figured the only way to answer this question was to acquire the actual cartridges they used. And that is exactly what this article is going to focus on.

Selma Arsenal Inventory
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

On August 13, 1864 an arsenal inspection of the Selma Arsenal showed that the Confederate States Army had 52,800 pinfire cartridges in stock. Various inspection reports also list cartridges in Union arsenals as well as pinfire revolvers in use by various Union and Confederate units.

The .58 Schubarth, Gallager & Gladding and Other Uncommon American Pinfire Cartridges

The last few posts of our exploration of the relationship between pinfire cartridges and the United States has focused on their use in the American Civil War. In this article we will take a look at some lesser known pinfire cartridges that played their part in the constantly evolving history of ammunition in the United States. First up is the .58 Schubarth.

The .58 Schubarth.

Schubarth's Breech-Loading Rifle

The .58 Schubarth was patented and made in 1861 by Casper D. Schubarth who resided at 6 North Main Street, Providence, RI. 

The whole idea of the cartridge and rifle is based on a modification and improvement of Gallager & Gladding’s cartridge and rifle that was created a couple years prior. It is an inside-primed pinfire that was made to be easily reloadable with the common Minié bullets and percussion caps. Schubarth’s improvement also made it gas-tight and waterproof by dipping the cartridge in melted tallow after inserting the bullet. The design also called for a small cork wad to be placed between the bullet and the powder to clean the barrel on each shot.

In Schubarth’s interview with The Scientific American he described a rimfire variation of this cartridge by stating that “for army use a ridge may be formed entirely around the cartridge and filled with fulminating powder, in place of the wire, and cap, so that the cartridge may be inserted in any position. But for sporting it is more economical to adopt the arrangement represented, as the same case may be refilled and used many times.

While I do not have ballistic information on the cartridge, in 1861 Schubarth said that “the powder is fired in the middle of the charge thus causing a rapid combustion […] that causes so great force be generated that 60 grains of powder has driven a bullet through 15 one-inch boards at a distance of one hundred yards” so it sounds like a fairly powerful cartridge!

You can see and read this whole Scientific American article here:

The example in my collection was once owned by the well-known author and ammunition researcher, Colonel Berkeley R. Lewis of the United States Army Ordnance Corps. He acquired it from the Smithsonian Institution.

.58 Schubarth Cartridge

Union Metallic Cartridge Company Pinfire Cartridges

Over the past few posts our exploration of the relationship between pinfire cartridges and the United States has taken a look at the cartridges used in the American Civil War and we have taken a look at some of the uncommon pinfire cartridges that never made it into mass production. In this article we will look at the most prevalent American manufacturer of pinfire cartridges, Union Metallic Cartridge Company (UMC) of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

There are many articles and books about UMC that go into great detail about the beginnings and history of the company so we will only glance at history that pertains to their production of pinfire cartridges.

American Companies who Loaded Pinfire Cartridges

In this article we will look at a few American companies who loaded pinfire cartridges. Von Lengerke & Detmold was a well-respected New York dealer of fine European-made sporting guns and fishing tackle. They were founded in 1882 and were sold to Abercrombie & Fitch in 1928. They had these pinfire shells custom made by Kynoch & Co. of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and then loaded them in the United States. They also sold their custom shells as new-primed empties

The firm of A. G. Genez was a manufacturer of high quality double barrel shotguns. They also made conversions on guns from earlier types of detonation forms, such as pinfire or percussion, to newer formats, such as centerfire. They also loaded and sold shotshells for their manufactured or converted breech-loading shotguns. The company was established by August G. Genez and spent most of its history at 9 Chambers Street. Genez operated there until November of 1880 when it was advertised as succeeded by Vincent Bissig.

A much more detailed article on A. G. Genez can be found here:

W. Tibbals Revolving Firearms Patent Model

William Tibbals Pinfire Patent Drawing

One of the most famous American ammunition manufacturers was William Tibbals. William Tibbals was the partner in the company, Crittenden & Tibbals, who supplied mostof the rimfire ammunition during the American Civil War.

Part of what made Crittenden & Tibbals so successful was their early relationship with firearms manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson. Crittenden & Tibbals made some of the earliest rimfire cartridges for Smith & Wesson, Bacon, Spencer and others. I am sure that within their relationship with Smith & Wesson they were well aware with the issues of many people trying to circumvent or infringe on the Rollin White patent that Smith & Wesson had an exclusive license to use; especially since some of their main customers were some of the infringing companies.

The Rollin White patent was actually a fairly ridiculous pistol design that would have unlikely ever been made. However, there was one interesting feature about it that Daniel B. Wesson was interested in; the concept of a revolver with a bored-through cylinder which allowed metallic cartridges to be inserted from the back. This concept already existed with pinfire revolvers in Europe but it was the first time the concept was patented in the United States. So from 1855, through the next 17 years, anyone who wanted to make a revolver that loaded from the back had to go through Smith & Wesson.

During this time period there were a few notable designs that effectively evaded this patent such as the cupfire, teatfire and thuer cartridges. The revolvers that used these were designed to be loaded from the front of the cylinder and have a back that was not bored all the way through.

Hundreds of Gévelot pinfire cartridges excavated at Civil War site in Rolla, Missouri

Pinfire cartridges

During the American Civil War, Rolla, Missouri was a heavily garrisoned town that played a strategic role protecting the terminus of the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad. This section of the railroad branched off the main Pacific Railroad of Missouri 40 miles southwest of St. Louis in Pacific City. It began construction in 1855 and the first train pulled into Rolla on December 22, 1860.

Laying track. Date and location uncertain. Western Historical Manuscripts Collection; Missouri S&T
Laying track. Date and location uncertain. Western Historical Manuscripts Collection; Missouri S&T