Author Topic: Comments on percussion ignition  (Read 25220 times)

jwh1947

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Comments on percussion ignition
« on: November 30, 2009, 11:40:11 PM »
Let's discuss percussions, particularly the "cap" in "cap and ball."  There's a lot of percussion Kentuckies made as such, and many more that were originally flints and were period converted to percussion, which, to many, was seen as the normal technological upgrade of the day.  But, when were those days?  Let's first try to pin that down.

A man in England named Howard first identified fulminates in the year 1800.  For our purposes, it suffices to say that a fulminate is a chemical compound containing an unstable, friction sensitive ion. Whack one and it will explode.  Fulminate of mercury was soon seen as useful in the firearms industry.  

A Scottish minister from Aberdeenshire named Alexander John Forsyth is normally credited as the person who invented the percussion cap, first encapsulating fulminate of mercury in a tiny copper cup, and using it to detonate his shotgun through a nipple attached to the barrel.  He wrote that this was an invention of necessity, because he was missing birds while hunting, the consequence of the time lapse between primer ignition and charge ignition in his flintlock, along with that big puff of smoke.  He was the first to see the value of fulminates in eliminating this problem.  Hence in 1807 he was granted a patent for his invention.   Note, most historical commentary indicates that it was not until after the lapse of this patent that the percussion system proliferated.  If I am correct, that puts us beyond 1817.  Incidentally, the first U.S. military rifle to employ the percussion system was the M1833 Hall.  Arsenals also converted many M1819 Halls to percussion.

I think that it is safe to say that there was little or no percussion application to Kentuckies until 1820 and afterwards.  Some rifle commentators have suggested 1830 as a good guess for the introduction of percussion ignition to the trade, allowing for the time lapse for technology to take hold.  I find this a bit late, but can buy 1825 as a target date.

Incidentally, there was a Joshua Shaw in USA who patented a similar system in 1822, so we are just establishing the time period here, regardless of whom you wish to credit with the invention.  All we are doing now is ruling out proliferation of percussions prior to 1820 as pure anachronism.  All this is based on recorded facts.

Now, what happened afterwards?  Here's my opinion intertwined with the facts I have.  I believe that most conversions were done between 1825 and 1845.  I also believe that this period saw the building of numerous flintlocks and percussions built side-by-side in the shops, based upon customer preference.  Sort of like buying a car in the 1960's...the salesman asked you what you wanted...automatic transmission or "straight stick"?  You ordered one or the other.

 The next step was the containment of the fulminate charge as a primer in a self-contained cartridge.  As you know, while the standard arm of the Civil War was a cap and ball rifle-musket, cartridge firearms were used then, too.  For military purposes and mass consumption, the days of both the flint and percussion system were finished, except for traditional sportsmen and firearms enthusiasts.

 The exception would be a manufacturer like Henry Leman of Lancaster, PA , who built percussions into the 1880's and refused to re-tool his factory to build cartridge arms.  One of his main customers was the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, from all appearances, his products continued to be distributed to Indians well into the cartridge era as intentionally outmoded technology.   Yes, there were old-timers who continued to make an occasional muzzleloader afterwards, but this was no longer the norm for firearms manufacture.

I have lived long enough to witness several times the conservatism of old age and experience when something new comes out.  At Camp Perry in the old days, the oldtimers refused to give up their bolt action 1903 Springfields when the M1's replaced them.  Same thing happened when the M14 came out.  Some said it would never be as good as the M1.  There is still room for debate on this, but scores improved as the years went on (at least until the M16 came out).

  So my bet is that many hunters came into a shop like M. Fordney's in the late-flint/percussion era and ordered a flint in preference to the new system.  I can hear it all now: "You can't outshoot my flint with your new-fangled percussion."  "What do you do when you run out of caps?"  "Prove to me that it is really faster."  "I can light a fire with my flint and you can't with your cap 'n ball." Then some crack shot probably went out with his flint and won a match or two and refueled the whole issue.

So, again, we have an overlap of technology, a blend of the kinds of rifles built, and exceptions to the norms.  By the way, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of reconversions.  My feeling is that if a great rifle comes down to me that has been converted neatly and the gun needs nothing else, I let it alone.  As a matter of fact, I see history upon history which would be destroyed with reconversion.  On the other hand, if I encounter a wrecked gun that was originally flint, and it needs a lot of work, then I see it as a candidate for reconversion.  That's just my take on it.  



 



 

« Last Edit: December 02, 2009, 07:56:36 PM by jwh1947 »

Pvt. Lon Grifle

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #1 on: December 01, 2009, 01:41:36 AM »
As far as I know the federal military, the state militias, and the volunteer militias pretty quickly adopted the percussion cap, and then other aspects of the military rifle seemed to lag.   Lon

Offline JTR

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #2 on: December 01, 2009, 05:36:51 AM »
Not actually a comment on the initial use of the percussion cap, but a question as to just when did the percussion back action locks come into common use? I don't mean the hand made back actions that were used on swivel breech rifles, but the factory made ones used on late rifles.
I'm thinking about 1840 or 1850, but that's only a guess. Anyone with any solid info?
John
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Offline flintriflesmith

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #3 on: December 01, 2009, 06:15:01 AM »
... just when did the percussion back action locks come into common use? ... the factory made ones used on late rifles.
I'm thinking about 1840 or 1850, but that's only a guess. Anyone with any solid info?
John

I think the key phrase in your question is "common use." I think they came into use on European double barrel shotguns before we see many on longrifles. There are probably dated examples out there that will prove me wrong but I have been thinking 1835 or later.

Gary
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Offline Tanselman

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #4 on: December 01, 2009, 06:25:29 AM »
Caps - The conversion to percussion undoubtedly occurred at different times in different locations, probably earlier back east, and later west of the Appalachians, and only after caps were readily available in the immediate area and locals became comfortabel with the new concept.

In Kentucky, the earliest documented commercial sale of percussion caps took place in Louisville in mid-1832. Perhaps a few were sold earlier, but this is the first known advertisement for the sale of percussion caps. Louisville was probably the most progressive town in Kentucky, due to its strong connection with eastern cities by way of the Ohio River, and the heavy importation of materials from back east, principally Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, by way of the Ohio, including gun mountings, barrels, and locks. While other major towns in KY probably didn't lag too far behind Louisville, I would think there probably was some lag time, if only a few months. I have heard of a rifle that was carried in the Black Hawk War (1832) in Illinois that was original percussion, and the gun was dated 1827 or 1828. However, I think the gun had been made "back east," which would make more sense than in the midwest, at that early day.

Back Action Locks - The earliest back action lock I've seen on a midwest rifle - where the gun is dated so that we known for sure when the lock was installed - was  on an "1837" dated rifle made in Bardstown, Kentucky. It was a fancy, high grade rifle purchased by the wealthy owner of a local bourbon distillery, so probably had the "latest and greatest" parts available at that time. The lock was imported into Louisville, sold through the large Louisville shop of gunsmith Moses Dickson (as stamped on the lock plate), and mounted on a Bardstown gun. I've seen another similar Bardstown rifle, made between 1834 and 1838, with a back action lock. This second rifle can be dated by the double signatures on its barrel, and one of the gunsmiths died in 1838, setting a cutoff date for guns bearing his name. Back action locks were considered superior locks at that time, and only found on the better rifles at first. I think widespread use of back action locks on general longarms made west of the Appalachians didn't really get going until about 1840. Shelby Gallien
« Last Edit: December 01, 2009, 06:31:39 AM by Tanselman »

Offline JTR

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #5 on: December 01, 2009, 06:58:12 AM »
Thanks guys. I'll revise my thoughts to 1835ish.
I'll be traveling the next few days, so it'll be interesting to see what other tidbits of useful info come up on this thread by the time I get to a computer again.
John
John Robbins

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #6 on: December 01, 2009, 07:16:36 AM »
Hi Wayne,
Not to distract from your thread (which is a good one) but Alexander Forsyth did not invent the percussion cap.  He was the first to use a fulminate as a detonating compound for guns.  He invented a "scent bottle" device that poured a small quantity of fulminate powder into a tube, which was then struck by a "firing pin" when the cock (hammer) hit it. Forsyth went on to create his own gun making firm (imagine a reverend owning a gun making shop today), which for a while employed the famous James Purdey. Keith Neal and David Back published a book devoted to the Forsyth Gun Company. No one really knows who invented the percussion cap.  Several people claim the honor (Joshua Shaw, Joe Manton, and the French maker Prelat).  I think after Forsyth, the idea of putting the fulminate in a metal cap ocurred to a number of people independently.

dave 
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Online Majorjoel

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #7 on: December 01, 2009, 01:59:38 PM »
When it comes to back action locks, I have noticed many of todays collectors turn their noses up and the first word to come out of their mouths is "LATE". Well, maybe if the 18th century is the line set for the early standards. In such a case then ANY percussion lock that was used to build a longrifle would be considered late. The real deal is the back action and what we call the standard percussion lock system were really used pretty much simultaniously from the beginning of the percussion period. That is a time frame documented around 1830 or there abouts depending upon the location. This percussion era started (like most innovations) in the eastern urban (most populated) areas and slowly fanned outward toward the frontier.  I happen to like the look of a well built longrifle with a back action lock. I know it is an acquired taste and has a very different line of architectural flow through the wrist than the standard percussion longgun.  I don't really care if the B\A system gets a bad rap from some of todays collectors. This attitude has at times put a nice rifle or two into my hands at affordable prices. :)
Joel Hall

Offline Don Getz

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #8 on: December 01, 2009, 04:25:03 PM »
I had always been under the impression that Joe Long built guns between 1820-1860.   I have no proof of that starting
year, but most of his guns were built as percussion guns.   Throughout his lifetime he did occassionally build a flintlock,
I know of one as late as 1840.   I'm not sure when the other Snyder county gun builders started, but most of them were
working with percussion locks...............Don

Mike R

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #9 on: December 01, 2009, 07:41:23 PM »
St Louis merchandisers were advertising they had 2 million percussion caps in stock by 1831/32 [forget exact quote]--which indicates widespread usage in the west by then.  JJ Audabon reported seeing his first percussion rifle in New Orleans in 1830/31 [again forget the exact quote--old age].  If you read between the lines of Meschach Browning's 40 years a hunter book, it seems that he shot a percussion rifle back east [W Va/Pa] ca. 1825 or so....he does not give the exact date, but it falls in his story between bracketing dates.

Offline Feltwad

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #10 on: December 01, 2009, 08:52:36 PM »
There have been many unreliable findings wrote about the invention of the percussion cap and have been wrote down from historian to historian  since its invention  because one Joseph  Egg patented it in about 1822,thus making that a lot that was written cannot be correct which research has shown
Alexander Forsyth did not invent the percussion cap but did invent the percussion compound which he used in his scent bottle lock. Other gunmakers tried to copy the percussion system like  Joseph Manton with his tubelock and also other with the patch or pill lock, because they used Forsyths compound he sued them,this is one of the main reasons why Joseph Manton became bankrupt.
The most likely inventor of the percussion cap was Joshua Shaw  his first caps were steel top hat caps which could be reprimed and the first percussion gun using his principle was built by a gunmaker named James Rowntree of Barnard Castle Co Durham, England How did James Rowntree become involved with Shaw is mainly down to Shaws profession he was a landscape painter and like many other painters of the period came to Barnard Castle to paint landscape there he would have lodged at the local inn which was opposite Rowntree Gun shop ,I have examined several guns built by Rowntree at this period which used the steel tophat cap ,to hold these caps on the nipples Rowntree fixed a devise instead of a frizzen which came forwad  and held on the cap these guns date from 1814 onwards.  It is recorded that Rowntree built for Shaw a sxs percussion shotgun with steel top hat caps,if this was correct it was prior to 1817 that was when Shaw emigrated to America aboard the Electra this was mainly due to Forsyth who sued any body that used his compound.Later Rowntree sold the patent of a percussion cap to Egg who changed it from steel to copper
Feltwad
« Last Edit: December 01, 2009, 09:53:48 PM by Feltwad »

jwh1947

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #11 on: December 02, 2009, 12:51:15 AM »
I'm tuned in here and understand most of your issues; that's why I worded my original as  Forsyth "normally credited" for the advancement/seminal patents.  My question on Shaw would be this.  The Hall Rifle, model 1833 employs a percussion system.  That rifle did not develop by spontaneous generation; please concede me a few years for the engineers to move the project.   When was Shaw's patent issued?  Pour coffee (I'll make mine an Irish) and discuss.  This is all good.
« Last Edit: December 02, 2009, 08:42:49 PM by jwh1947 »

Offline oakridge

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #12 on: December 02, 2009, 03:34:31 AM »
Apparently the change over from flint to percussion was a slow transition, especially in the area of the South where I live. The first mention I find of conversions is in a newspaper in 1829. The gunsmith advertises "making new guns or repairing old. Alter plain to percussion plan, or make new locks on any planned ordered". Another gunsmith advertised in 1839 "flint guns altered to percussion, from 5 to 8 dollars". And, surprisingly, an ad in 1848 stated "guns restocked, altered to percussion , and other repairs executed".  These ads span almost twenty years. Maybe the local folks were just slow to accept the percussion system, or too poor to buy a new gun.

Offline jwl

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #13 on: December 02, 2009, 04:18:14 AM »
Were the early Halls not Flint? Caplocks came some later so there was time after l8l9 for caps to be estb. in USA

Offline Nate McKenzie

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #14 on: December 02, 2009, 06:02:47 AM »
Flayderman's Guide lists Hall's flintlock breechloader model 1819 made till 1840 and the percussion model 1841 percussion  made in 1841 and 1842.

Offline Dphariss

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #15 on: December 02, 2009, 06:24:38 AM »
Flayderman's Guide lists Hall's flintlock breechloader model 1819 made till 1840 and the percussion model 1841 percussion  made in 1841 and 1842.

The percussion Hall carbine was the 1833 model IIRC.

Dan
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Offline Dave B

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #16 on: December 02, 2009, 06:48:26 AM »
I found this quote
"The Hall Rifle was the first breech loader adopted by the U.S Military and the first rifle made with fully interchangeable parts. The 1833 Hall Carbine was the first new arm adopted that used a percussion cap." -Excerpt from NRA American Rifleman Nov/Dec 1998.
Dave Blaisdell

Mike R

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #17 on: December 02, 2009, 05:07:10 PM »
Apparently the change over from flint to percussion was a slow transition, especially in the area of the South where I live. The first mention I find of conversions is in a newspaper in 1829. The gunsmith advertises "making new guns or repairing old. Alter plain to percussion plan, or make new locks on any planned ordered". Another gunsmith advertised in 1839 "flint guns altered to percussion, from 5 to 8 dollars". And, surprisingly, an ad in 1848 stated "guns restocked, altered to percussion , and other repairs executed".  These ads span almost twenty years. Maybe the local folks were just slow to accept the percussion system, or too poor to buy a new gun.

I think the flintlock held on in backwoods southern mountain areas until the Civil War, when most got replaced or converted. I have seen alot of old hunting stories that refer to flintlock usage in the Ozarks for example through the 1850s [see the Turnbo stories, etc].  After cartridge guns were introduced, the old longrifles, now mainly percussion, were largely used for target shoots, hog killings and occasional hunts, but the single shot cartridge shotgun and leverguns eventually took over the main hunting chores.  This evolution can be seen both in old photos and writings.

Offline Dphariss

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #18 on: December 02, 2009, 06:35:53 PM »
I am not convinced that the early percussion cap was any more reliable than the flintlock and may have been less so.
The percussion cap really took off with the shotguns in England but lagged in the rifles.
I suspect that the inconsistency of the early caps may have been less accurate in rifles than flint ignition. This was not important in the shotgun where the speed of ignition made wing shooting much easier.
Percussion caps were available at posts etc in the west by the 1830s, at least before the end of the "beaver era". There is an account of 2-3 mountain men going to a post to have their rifle "percussed" after their powder got wet/damp and would not work properly in a flintlock (?)

Dan
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northmn

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #19 on: December 02, 2009, 06:44:46 PM »
If one reads Hansens Trade Rifle books, the comment is made that the Western trade rifles were flint well into 1840's as to popularity.  His exa,ples from that time frame are flint.  These were rifles traded to both Natives and "mountain men".

DP

jwh1947

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #20 on: December 02, 2009, 08:36:28 PM »
You are right.  M1819 Halls originally made as flint, many later converted.  Government conversion activity apparently was a major focus around our time period of 1840.  Flayderman mentions that govt. flintlock production was not terminated until 1842, and that conversions continued into the 1860's.  It seems evident that our builders were well into percussion production by the time the army decided to abandon flints.

  Most of our discussion pertains to that 20-year window mentioned above--1825-1845.  I am envisioning a bell curve here.  Like Don suggested, some makers perhaps jumped on the new system prior to 1825 and some percussions were made well after the Civil War.  Some documented gunsmiths around here, most notably in Perry County, lived into the 20th century.  I guess what we can agree upon is simply that percussion Kentuckies most likely won't pre-date 1820.  

One tidbit of data that falls into our time frame is pictured on p. 118 of Kaufmann's book and reprinted in mine.  A bill for services from Levi Jackson, gunsmith of Wilmington, dated July 3, 1839.  "To altering duck gun to percussion--$2.25; to cutting off barrel & stock and replacing thimbles and sight--$0.75. Total $3.00."  

Incidentally, Dan, I, too, have spoken to experienced flint hunters here in PA that still aren't convinced that percussions offer them anything more.  JWH
« Last Edit: December 02, 2009, 08:47:22 PM by jwh1947 »

Mike R

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #21 on: December 02, 2009, 09:53:40 PM »
I refer to JJ Audabon, who, writing about his introduction to the percussion system ca. 1831 in New Orleans, relates that the owner of the new perc rifle, in a demo,  immersed it in a basin of water and fired it--try that with your flintlock!   It was Hanson, I think, that tabulated the reports that St Louis dealers had 2 million caps on hand ca. 1832--someone was demanding them!  Personally, I think some of the early western demand was for perc pistols before the men gave up on their flint rifles.  Many "Mt Men"/plainsmen carried a pistol or two.  Perc pistols are handier than flinters.  Audabon by the way used mainly a flintlock double barrel shotgun much of his life.

Offline mr. no gold

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #22 on: December 02, 2009, 10:40:01 PM »
The first edtion of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal published by the Museum of the Mountain Man, in Pinedale Wyoming, has an excellent, well researched and authoritative paper written by Alex Miller, professor at Siskiyou College. It is titled, "The Yankee Pedlar: Introduction of Percussion Lock Firearms in the Far West." He has timelines, origins of the system, and a concise history of early use in the US.
He notes that Etienne Provost carried a pecussion gun into Crow counry in 1829, and that Nathaniel Wyeth, early trader, carried a regular supply of percussion caps in his trips west, from 1832 to 1835, plus a gunsmith to do conversions.
From my own experience, the San Diego County Historical Society had a Kentucky pistol of a somewhat unusual design, which was one of two taken from fur trapper, Jedediah Smith, by the Mexican Alcalde, who arrested him in San Diego in 1828. Smith was detained because he did not have a permit to come into Mexico; he was later released without his weapons. The pistols were kept in a family and much, much later given to the Historical Society. Unfortunately, it was stolen sometime in the mid 1900s. The other, had disappeared long before then.
As to the pistol: (working off of an old memory here of some 55 years), it was percussion, and of a style, we now know to have been favored by Philip Creamer, of Kaskaskia, Illinois.
It had some silver inlays and the oddity was in the lock area. The nipple was set into the quarter flat of the barrel and the hammer was shaped to reach over to strike it.
If the history is correct, this suggests that Smith carried percussion guns early on his travels into the Far West, and probably continued to do, until his death. If he did, others did, too. There seem to be many other Creamer percussion pistols, as well.
This prompts several questions. Could the percussion system have gained popularity in the West before it really caught on in the East? Younger, less traditional men, came West for adventure, trade, furs, and land, whereas the older well settled people stayed put. They might have been less likely to show interest in the newer system since they had used flintlocks, traditionally. An improved mechanism would have apppealed to someone who's life was often dependent on a reliable firearm, as well.   
Who was the first maker of percussion guns? Could it have happened in Philadelphia, since a number of makers there seemed to have an affinity for things, English?
Did the importers, and local manufacturers of percussion caps find themselves with a glut of unsold product and Wyeth saw an opportunity to build a need and market them out West? They seem to have been a large part of his inventory.
Is that an important reason as to why he took a gunsmith along who was skilled in doing conversions?
Guess that is enough for the moment, but there are many more.
Miller's paper has a good biblography that will lead to more facts and questions, no doubt.
It is contained in Volume I, 2007 and should still be availabe through the Museum.
Regards-Dick
 

Offline JV Puleo

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #23 on: December 02, 2009, 11:47:39 PM »
The flintlock Hall's were convert late but the M1833 (and later) Hall carbines were made as percussion from the beginning. There never was a flint Hall carbine. I also believe they are the first regulation percussion arms.

Offline Dphariss

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Re: Comments on percussion ignition
« Reply #24 on: December 03, 2009, 05:00:08 AM »
<snip>
This prompts several questions. Could the percussion system have gained popularity in the West before it really caught on in the East? Younger, less traditional men, came West for adventure, trade, furs, and land, whereas the older well settled people stayed put. They might have been less likely to show interest in the newer system since they had used flintlocks, traditionally. An improved mechanism would have apppealed to someone who's life was often dependent on a reliable firearm, as well.   
<snip>
Regards-Dick
 

I don't know. We have accounts of people being told to use a flint gun since its more likely to remain serviceable and flints are easier to find than caps if the caps you have get damp they are not likely to to dry out, damp powder can usually be dried. Don't know if the percussion caps of the time were "fixable" if they got damp.
My answer, there are people that can shoot a flintlock about as well as a percussion. To them the percussion system might not have been as appealing. There are people that have a heck of a time shooting flint and a percussion might be their answer.
I just like a flint better than a percussion. I suspect some folks were the same way in the past.
Some people hung on the to flintlock. Some embraced percussion.
Its the only answer I can see that fits.

Dan
No, sir, I don't give 'em $#*!, I just tell the truth and they think it's $#*!. Harry S Truman