Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Maynard Tape Primer

After all the geeky stuff we've studied in the last few posts, it might be a good idea to study a piece of history instead. We will study the Maynard Tape Primer system in today's post.

First, let us go way back to one of the earliest posts on this blog, which was posted around 2 weeks after this blog started. We're talking about the percussion lock system, which was invented by the Reverend Alexander Forsyth. While he did invent the firing system, it wasn't widely adopted by other manufacturers until the patent rights expired around 1840 or so.

While the percussion lock was a big improvement over the flintlock in that it fired quicker and wasn't as affected by damp weather as a flintlock, reloading was still a slow process, especially for muzzle loading weapons. In the era of single shot firearms, any scheme to reduce the number of steps needed to reload a firearm was definitely a time saver.

The classic percussion cap muzzle loader requires the user to pour some powder down the muzzle, then ram a ball and cloth patch down the barrel, then pull the hammer back and place a copper percussion cap filled with a fulminate (such as mercury fulminate or potassium chlorate) on the nipple, before preparing to fire. Dr. Edward Maynard, a dentist with an interest in firearms design, figured out how to remove one of these steps.

Dr. Maynard's solution was to replace the copper percussion cap with a different system. His idea was to take a thin strip of paper, embed pellets of fulminating materials on it and then glue a second thin strip of paper on top to hold the pellets in place. Then, the paper tape is rolled up and attached to the side of the firearm, near the chamber. Every time the hammer is cocked, a feeding mechanism advances the paper tape so that the next pellet is moved in front of the nipple. When the hammer drops, it not only detonates the pellet, but also cuts the used part of the paper tape.

The Maynard Tape Primer System. Public domain image.

This system was cheaper and quicker to manufacture, since paper is much cheaper and easier to handle than copper. With this system in place, the user would only need to pour in the powder, load the ball and cloth patch and then cock the hammer and the firearm is ready to fire. There is no need to place a percussion cap onto the nipple or cone, which makes the reloading process faster. Dr. Maynard patented this system in 1845 (it was his first firearm patent) and it was used by some commercial manufacturers and attracted the attention of the US government.

The US Army's Ordnance board was initially hesitant about adopting this design, but it got the enthusiastic backing of the then Secretary of War, Mr. Jefferson Davis (who later went on to become the President of the Confederate States of America). Therefore, this mechanism was adopted in the Springfield Model 1855 rifle-musket, which was issued to the US Army. The US government paid Dr. Maynard a royalty of $1.00  for every Model 1855 rifle-musket that was manufactured. If this seems a small amount of money, bear in mind that at that time, the cost of manufacturing the entire Model 1855 musket was $18.00, so this invention made him a very rich man. Dr. Maynard went on to develop various other firearm inventions and registered a total of 23 different firearms related patents during his life.

Springfield Model 1855 musket. Click on image to enlarge. Public domain image.

In the above image, note the dark gray part between the hammer and the nipple, which is the Maynard tape primer system.

So why did we not see this system continue to be used very much afterwards? There were multiple reasons: While the system worked well under clean controlled conditions, it was a different story when used outdoors. British cavalry troops who were armed with Greene carbines (which used the Maynard tape system) during the Crimean war, found them unreliable on the battle field. Tests conducted by the US army in the field between 1859 and 1861 showed that about half the primers misfired and the tape feed springs also didn't work well. The mechanism was also unreliable in muddy conditions and fouled easily. The biggest drawback was that though this system was advertised as waterproof, it didn't actually work well in damp conditions. An attempt was made to use foil instead of paper to make the tapes, in order to solve the problems with damp weather. In spite of this improvement, the Ordnance department dropped the Maynard system and went back to the old percussion cap mechanism with the Springfield Model 1861.

Springfield Model 1855s were used by both sides during the American Civil War, as they were available in greater numbers than the Springfield Model 1861, especially during the beginning of the war

While no real firearms today use the Maynard tape primer system currently, variants of his system are still used for toy roll cap pistols today!

As you can see from the above video, the feed system is somewhat unreliable and doesn't fire on every trigger pull. This and the fact that it is affected by dirt and damp weather spelled the doom for the Maynard Tape Primer in real firearms and only toys use it these days.

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