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Breech-Loading Firearm Design

Home > Propellants, Firearms, and Ammunition Development > Evolution of Firearms > Breech-Loading Firearm Design

Paper cartridge

Dating back to flint-fired models, breech-loading firearms were very complex and expensive. During the percussion cap era, breechloaders proliferated. Nearly all used a “cartridge” that consisted of paper or linen wrapped around powder and a ball. Variations of cartridges containing a projectile and propellant existed for many years, yet they still relied on an externally mounted percussion cap.

To evolve from the percussion cap to a completely self-contained cartridge, three things had to happen:

  • The hammer blow had to be transferred to the interior of the arm where the cartridge rested.
  • The arm had to be breech loaded, which required an open end opposite the muzzle to accept true cartridges (projectile, propellant, and primer).
  • A locking mechanism on the arm was required to contain the cartridge during the pressure of firing.

Breech-loading firearm

Photo by Jean Plamondon

To satisfy the first requirement, a rod was placed between the hammer and the now remote cap. This allowed the hammer to fall on the rod (firing pin), driving it into the cartridge cap, now called a primer. In some designs (notably revolvers), the cartridge was not so remote as to require a separate part; the firing pin could be as simple a small protrusion on the nose of the hammer.

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