Percussion cap

The percussion cap or primer was the crucial invention needed to make fire-arms that could fire in any weather. Before this development, firearms used igniters with flints or matches to set fire to a pan of gunpowder.

Missing image
Pistol (left, fired) and shotgun(right) primers against an inch and mm scale

A primer is a small, disposable copper or brass cup, 4 to 6mm in diameter (standard sizes are 0.175 inches and 0.210 inches for handgun and rifle cartrdiges). In the cup is a precise amount of stable, but shock-sensitive explosive mixture, with ingredients such as lead azide or potassium perchlorate.

A striker hits the outside of the cup, which bends, and the explosive is crushed on an anvil. The shock-sensitive chemical compound explodes, igniting a secondary charge of gunpowder or other explosive.

Caps were originally manually placed on nipples on the outside of single-shot muzzle-loading weapons. Pulling the trigger released a hammer to crush the cap against the nipple. (See caplock mechanism.)

Eventually, caps were incorporated into the rear of metallic cartridges. A small stamped anvil was added to the design, placed inside the cup to make the modern replaceable primer.

Corrosive primers use stable, long-lived explosives that generate corrosive residues in a gun, usually metallic oxides which, when exposed to moisture, form hydroxides. They are popular with the many militaries because they work reliably under severe conditions.

Noncorrosive primers are somewhat less reliable when stored for many years, but far easier on guns. Most civilian ammunition uses noncorrosive primers.

New on the market in the late 1990s are lead free primers, which address the concerns over the lead and other heavy metal compounds found in other primers. The heavy metals, while small in quantity, is released in the form of a very fine soot, and many indoor firing ranges are moving to ban primers containing them for the potential health risk they pose. Lead free primers were originally less sensitive (and thus less reliable) and had a much greater moisture sensitivity and correspondingly shorter shelf life than normal noncorrosive primers. Since their introduction, lead free primers have improved to the point that they are nearly equal in performance to lead based primers, and will likely become the norm in the near future.


The percussion cap replaced the powder pan of the wheel lock and flint-lock rifles. It was only generally applied to the British military musket (the Brown Bess) in 1842, a quarter of a century after the invention of percussion powder and after an elaborate government test at Woolwich in 1834.

The invention that made the percussion cap possible was patented by the Rev. A. J. Forsyth in 1807, and consisted of priming with a fulminating powder made of fulminate of mercury, chlorate of potash, sulphur, and charcoal, which was exploded by concussion. Joshua Shaw - an English born American - is sometimes credited with the development of the first metallic percussion cap in 1814 but his claim remains clouded with controversy as he did not patent the idea until 1822. Shaw’s percussion caps used a mixture of fulminate of mercury, chlorate of potash, and ground glass contained in a small metallic cup. Other possible claimants include Joseph Manton, Col. Peter Hawker, Francois Prelat, and most likely of all, Joseph Egg (nephew of Durs Egg).

This invention was gradually improved, and came to be used, first in a steel cap, and then in a copper cap, by various gunmakers and private individuals before coming into general military use nearly thirty years later.

The alteration of the military flintlock to the percussion musket was easily accomplished by replacing the powder pan with a perforated nipple, and by replacing the cock or hammer which held the flint by a smaller hammer formed with a hollow made to fit around the nipple when released by the trigger. On the nipple was placed the copper cap containing the detonating composition, now made of three parts of chlorate of potash, two of fulminate of mercury and one of powdered glass. The hollow in the hammer contained the fragments of the cap if it fragmented, reducing the risk of injury to the firer's eyes.

The detonating cap, thus invented and adopted, brought about the invention of the modern cartridge case, and rendered possible the general adoption of the breech-loading principle for all varieties of rifles, shotguns and pistols.

Caps are used in cartridges, grenades, Rocket propelled grenades, and rescue flares.

See also


Lewis Winant,'Early Percussion Firearms' , Bonanza Books, 1956de:Anzündhütchen fi:Nalli


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools