Purdey’s Perspectives on Percussion Guns
by Fred Stutzenberger
Purdey is a name revered in gunning circles. James Purdey & Sons (currently a subsidiary of Cie. Financiere Richemont SA) produces some of the most prestigious (and costly) firearms in the world. The James Purdey (Fig.1), founder of the company, was born in London in 1784. Of eight children, only he and his sister Martha survived early childhood. Purdey’s father was a blacksmith who supplied specialty parts to the local gun-making trade. After his sister married gun-maker Thomas Keck Hutchinson, Purdey began a seven-year apprenticeship under his brother-in-law, which he completed in 1805.
He spent the next three years working for the famed London gun-maker, Joseph Manton. During that time, Purdey proved to be such an observant and talented journeyman that Manton (never a self-effacing fellow) later said when asked his opinion as to whom he considered to be the premier gunmaker in London: “Purdey gets up the best work, next to mine” (Unsworth 32). Coming from “Old Joe,” that remark could never have been construed as faint praise.
James Purdey founded James Purdey & Sons Limited in 1814 and located his business on Princes Street, in London. Two centuries later, the “Purdey Wisdom” is as instructive to gun makers and users now as it was then. The purpose of this article is to glean some practical knowledge from the writings and practices of those who used muzzleloaders on a daily basis or made them for those who did.
Not only did James Purdey make the best firearms (Joe Manton’s comment notwithstanding), he wrote about the proper use of them in a detailed if somewhat quaint manner of the day. An example of his direct expository manner follows:
Directions Proper to Be Observed by Gentlemen Using Purdey’s Detonating Guns
1. Load with the cocks down, which prevents the powder from being forced out of the pegs that receive the copper caps. When ramming down the shot, observe the distance the brass worm is from the muzzle of the barrel to prevent overcharging.
2. Prime the last thing, otherwise in ramming down the wadding, the powder will be driven into the caps and become so finely compressed as to destroy their effect.
3. Should the caps be put on by mistake prior to loading, force them off with the turnscrew and replace them with new ones. Never put the cocks down on the copper caps when the gun is loaded, as it compresses and spoils the detonating powder, and is very dangerous; the cocks being able to be lifted up by catching hold on any substance; and their falling will explode the gun. But if left in half cock, it cannot possibly happen.
4. Keep the copper caps dry—If exposed to the fire for a few minutes when required for use, in damp weather they will never fail. Take care that no oil or grease gets to them.
N.B. From the peculiar structure of detonating locks, they should not be snapt either with or without with copper caps but in the act of shooting. When the Gun is loaded, the flash from the detonating powder never enters the inside of the barrel, but if snapt upon the caps when the Gun is unloaded, it drives the detonating gas into the barrels, which creates rust; and if done without the caps, the works are liable to be injured by reason of the locks meeting non resistance in their fall, as in flint locks.
The detonating pegs will last a season’s hard shooting, but by no means be used after the holes are worn large by repeated firing as it will weaken the force of the gun, and damage the locks. Always return the pegs into the holes they belong to, the left is marked ‘L’ and the right ‘R’. Oil the screw of the pegs before they are entered into the breach. (Purdey 2)
The reader must remember the uncertainty of the times in which Purdey was writing; the flintlock era was waning and the percussion era was rife with inventions, adaptations, false claims and counterclaims characteristic of the changing of the times. In his discourse, Purdey was describing the proper practices for the loading, use and preservation of scatterguns (the thin walls of which were most susceptible to abuse), but his general directions given in his pamphlet were applicable to rifles as well. It is obvious that many of his admonitions were self-serving to protect his guns and therein himself from any accusation of weakness or flaws in his products incurred through improper handling or care.
According to Captain Richard Lacy, Purdey could well have conceived of the principle of the copper percussion cap, yet did not follow up to secure a patent. Speaking to a friend dissatisfied with the performance of the early paper patch detonating system in wet weather, Purdey recalled:
“Yes, replied I, inverting an empty tumbler, a metallic cap in this form with a perforated peg to communicate with the charge. The day following…I set to work to realize this new idea, and from the tag of an old umbrella (the little cylindrical tubes holding the fabric on the ribs) produced a brass cap, which was handed about for some time, and a year or two afterwards, Mr. Egg brought out the copper cap.” (Unsworth 32)
Whether James Purdey was the erstwhile inventor of the percussion cap or not, he was very particular about the quality of caps used on his guns.
“Purdey always insisted on thick copper well knowing that such caps, when once made to fit the peg retain their shape, and are less liable to fly, and to stop up the orifice of the pivot when fired; they are manufactured from the best wrought copper, and with splits, so that, on explosion, instead of being shivered into splinters, they merely expand equably, giving full vent to the gas all around the whole of the copper remaining under the concavity of the striker head, whilst those caps which are made solid, and of thin copper (like the French ones) are apt to fly…In proof of the superior excellence of Purdey’s copper caps I know many who use them who do not shoot with his guns.” (Lacy 217)
Although no specimen of Purdey’s percussion caps has been verified, I have inspected a tin of caps manufactured during the 1850s by Pharmacist Fred K. Joyce (located at 57 Upper Thames St., London) that were marketed as Waterproof Central Fire Percussion Gun Caps (Fig. 2). Their wall thickness was measured to be 0.016” compared to the relatively flimsy 0.009” wall thickness in caps available today. Striations on the period cap would cause its wall to separate in a radial fashion without releasing flying fragments, plus providing for easy removal after firing.
In the author’s experience, foreign-made caps are nominally very slightly smaller diameter than the American-made #11s. Therein lies a problem: if one turns the nipple to allow the foreign caps to fully seat, the larger caps will be so loose as to fall off, particularly on sidehammer or underhammer guns. On the other hand, if the smaller caps do not seat fully on a nipple that is a bit too large, the result is a snap rather than a detonation (usually the snap will further seat the undersized cap and allow it to detonate on second strike). Rather than irreparably altering the nipple, it is preferable to merely slit the wall of the smaller cap using a pair of small snips (Fig. 3) to allow it to open like the caps of Purdey’s era.
James Purdey was still a young gun-maker when the transition from flint to percussion began in earnest around 1818. Stemming from Reverend Alexander Forsyth’s earlier “scent bottle” lock employing loose fulminates, percussion technology advanced rapidly through paper patch primers to pelleted fulminates to tubed fulminates and finally to the copper cap. (Peterson 119). While Purdy remained at the cutting edge of firearms technology, he was practical enough to refuse abandonment of the integral flash shield on the plates on his newly designed percussion locks (Fig. 4). Considering the advantage of safety to the shooter, it is not surprising that Purdey continued to equip his guns with locks having integral flash shields on the plates until the late 1820s when the shields were cast into the standing portions of the hooked (“false”) two-part breech; the flash shield integral to the breech may have indeed been a Purdey innovation (Unsworth 32).
Whether flint or percussion, Purdey was farsighted and practical enough to realize the benefit of a flash shield to the shooter in either ignition system. I have had hot cap fragments burn my exposed knuckles when using guns without flash shields. Several years ago I began incorporating shields into my percussion lock plates (Fig. 5). Shields can be cut and shaped out of 1/6” thick mild steel plate. After tinning with low-temp silver solder (suppliers’ list), they can be pressed into a hacksaw kerf on the top of the lock plate. Gentle heating of the plate will allow the shield to settle securely into place.
On convertible rifles supplied with both flint and percussion locks, there is also a matter of aesthetics. When the conventional percussion plate is in place in the mortise of a convertible rifle, it creates a crude and unfinished appearance in the gap left between the wood of the lock mortise shoulder and the drum (Fig. 6). However, the addition of a flash shield, carefully formed and located in the same position as the flintlock flash fence (Fig. 7), will fill the ugly gap left by the flintlock. It protects the wood…and the shooter…and the appearance of the breech as well. (Fig. 8)
Another prominent feature of nearly all Purdey percussion breeches, whether early or late, was the vent insert (Fig. 9). Usually of platinum, rarely of gold, the tiny pin hole in the vent insert allowed less pressure to escape than did the flint touchhole, yet provided an equilibration of pressure within the breech during both loading and firing no matter what the position of the hammer. Ostensibly the soft metal, while resistant to burnout, would also have blown out to release over-pressure rather than bursting the breech, causing possible injury to the shooter (although a bystander could conceivably have been hit by a blown plug that would have amounted to a very precious bullet indeed). This feature might have been Purdey’s invention. In any case, he advanced it from a simple pinhole to a vertical slot receptive to a screwdriver for easy removal and replacement.
Peter Alexander (100) discussed the issue of the vented breech in some detail: “Now they did have problems with the early percussion guns, and the English especially designed blow plugs in the side of the snails. These were basically pressure valves and were designed to blow out in the face of lethally high pressures inside the barrel. In view of the above, I would suggest very strongly that you vent your drum or snail.”
Purdey always vented the cast breeches of his long guns, and most of his pistols as well (although the potential for excessive pressure in a pistol is less, given the lower powder charges and shorter barrels). Although I have not seen it put to the test, it would seem that venting would also release back-pressure at the instant the cap is detonated. That should speed the travel of the fire to the charge thereby providing faster ignition. On this hope yet to be verified, I usually drill a tiny hole (which can be waxed shut when hunting in inclement weather) in the forward curvature of the drum to release gas away from the shooter. This supposition of an advantage should be amenable to testing in Larry Pletcher’s innovative and precise computer-based system for the measurement of ignition timing. (Pletcher & Stutzenberger 11)
Purdey & Sons has survived (albeit certainly not always profitably) for two centuries. That says a lot amidst a large group of extinct firearms manufacturers including the illustrious John and Joseph Manton. Purdey firearms today are considered the crème de la crème, fetching money that would put a Jaguar waiting impatiently in your driveway. Take some time out to muse through a detailed history of the man, the legend and the legacy. It’s an enjoyable education that you can put to good use, whether in the gun shop, the field or at the range.
Alexander, P. A. The Gunsmith of Grenville County. Texarkana, TX: Scurlock Publishing Co., Inc., 2002.
Beaumont, Richard. Purdey’s. The Guns and the Family. London: David & Charles Publishers, 1984.
Lacy, Richard. The Modern Shooter, Whittaker and Co., London, 1842.
Peterson, Harold L. Treasury of the Gun. New York: Golden Press, 1962.
Pletcher, Larry and Fred Stutzenberger. “Touchhole ignition timing.” Muzzle Blasts, Feb., 2000.
Purdey, James. Observation on the Proper Management and Cleaning of Detonating Guns. London: J. Mills Publisher, 1826.
Unsworth, Patrick L. The Early Purdeys. London: Christie’s Publishers, 1996.
1. This portrait of James Purdey is attributed to Sir William Beechey (Beaumont 49).
2. Some modern percussion caps constrict themselves tightly on the nipple on detonation, making them hard to remove. Early period (circa 1840) percussion caps (indicated by arrows) were much larger and had thicker walls than today’s caps. Deep striations in the early period caps caused their walls to separate evenly in a radial fashion for easy removal after firing without releasing hot fragments that might burn the shooter.
3. Caps that are slightly too small for the nipple to seat fully will cause misfires. Snipping the edge of the wall will allow full seating and easy removal after firing.
4. Purdey’s early percussion locks retained the flash shield integral with the plate as they were on flint-type locks. By the late 1820s, breeches had been redesigned to incorporate the shield into the standing portion of the hooked breech.
5. This flash shield was incorporated into a slot in the top of the lock plate and secured with silver solder. It protects the wood and the shooter too.
6. When building flint/percussion convertible rifles, the percussion lock is usually inlet first. Then additional wood needs to be cut away before the flintlock can settle into the mortise. That leaves an ugly gap when the percussion lock is in place.
7. When building a rifle with interchangeable locks, a carefully located shield on the percussion lock should closely match the mating surface of the flint flash shield.
8. The shield on the modified percussion lock should mate up closely with the exposed shoulder of the mortise. More importantly, the threading of the flintlock vent must exactly match the scallop in the percussion lock plate bolster.
9. The vent breech insert evolved from a simple pinhole (as shown in Fig.4) to one with a slotted orifice that facilitated replacement using a screwdriver.