6 Dec 21
“Periods of peaceful stability, long life-spans, relentless technological progress, and plentiful consumer-goods that used to characterize Western Civilization (especially the United States) are extremely anomalous historically.
The sage are thus preparing for an inevitable return to a less prosperous, and a much less peaceful state of affairs, a ‘return’ that is now well underway!”
History is important!
How we got here:
Muzzle-loading matchlock muskets were in use in Western Civilization starting in the 1400s, but were rendered instantly obsolete by the flintlock system (starting in the early 1600s). Yet, matchlock muskets continued in common use, particularly in less-advanced parts of the world, well into the 1800s. They required no complex lockwork and were thus far easier and faster to manufacture than flintlocks.
Wheellock firearms were in-between, but came and went quickly, never enjoying much popularity, save among wealthy consumers. Wheellocks were complicated, temperamental, expensive, and again were rendered instantly obsolete by the flintlock.
Mercury fulminate, as an impact-detonated primer compound for firearms, was developed by a Scot, Alexander Forsyth, in the first decade of the 19th Century. Sam Pauly, in France, takes Forsyth’s idea and manufactures the first self-contained cartridge, with propellant, powder-charge, bullet, and primer, all in the same package.
The base was brass, the forward part was paper. Most shotgun shells still take that form today (although paper has be replaced with plastic).
Many other manufactured cartridges of the era had no metallic base. The “cartridge” was simply a paper “cocoon” filled with black powder, with the bullet bonded to the front. These cartridges “self-consumed” completely when fired. The bullet squirted out the muzzle of course, but nothing remained in the breech, so there was nothing to “eject.” A percussion cap had to be added separately, and the expended “cup” had to be removed from the nipple after firing, before it could be replaced with another.
One issue with these “caseless” paper cartridges was, of course, lack of durability. The bullet tended to detach and fall off as cartridges were carried in the field, and when these cartridges got wet, they were rendered impotent.
The other issue with non-metallic cartridges in breech-loading firearms was inadequate obturation. That is, adequately sealing the breech was never possible, so gas leakage (sometimes spectacular!) at the breech was a continuous problem.
Pauly’s metallic-based, self-contained, seal-sealing cartridge thus represented the beginning of a startling revolution, but it would take most of the balance of the 19th Century for it to universally catch-on!
For example, the idea of a self-contained cartridge received much initial push-back from war-planners (including Napoleon himself), as they were concerned about a cartridge’s primer and propellant charge being constantly so close to each other in the same package. They preferred, for safety’s sake, to keep powder and primer separated from each other until the weapon was being readied to fire.
Hence, during his lifetime most of Pauly’s gun designs were developed and intended for sporting, not military, purposes
Nicholas von Dreyse (inventor of the Dreyse Needle-Fire System) and Casimir Lefaucheux (along with his son, Eugene, inventors of the pin-fire system) were both employees of Pauly!
When Pauly died in London in 1829, Casimir Lefaucheux, bought the factory in France and went on to develop his famous line of metallic-cartridge, pin-fire guns.
Pin-fire guns garnered a following in Europe, but never had much of a presence in the USA, as pin-fire was quickly superceded by center-fire, where the primer cup is in the center of the metallic case head.
Mercury fulminate was replaced with more stable potassium perchlorate in the late 1800s, and with less-corrosive lead styphnate in the 1950s.
Everyone wanted breech-loading guns as early as the match-lock era, as muzzle-loaders were slow, and difficult to reload while the shooter was in the prone position. The main problem with all attempts at breech-loading firearms was, as noted above, obturation, adequately sealing the chamber during ignition and subsequent propagation of the bullet down the barrel. It was a persistent issue with all attempts at designing breech-loading guns. Hence, most that saw the light of day (eg: Walter Hunt’s “Volition Repeating Rifle,” of 1848) were low-powered and short range.
Metallic (copper, later brass) cartridges cases mostly solved the obturation problem and made powerful, long-range cartridges possible. In fact, “bottle-necks” were added to some metallic cartridges (both black powder and later, smokeless powder), mostly for the purpose of enhancing the seal between the case and chamber walls.
However, there was again much push-back from war-planners of the era. Repeating, breech-loading rifles offered a significant increase in individual firepower, but metallic cartridges required sophisticated machinery to manufacture, and manufacturing was still slow. An army in the field, enthusiastically consuming metallic cartridges, may well out-pace the supply. When thus “out,” the entire army might suddenly be rendered impotent! By contrast, when the factory-version of paper cartridges (black powder) was in short supply, they could still be cobbled-together in the field, and guns that fired them could be made to keep running, so long as there was a supply of bullets and powder.
Some early black-powder metallic cartridges featured a “paper patch” bullet, as the patch scrubbed-out some of the fouling repeated shots invariably deposited within the bore.
With the advent of French-invented progressive-burning, “smokeless” propellant (1880s) and resultant conversion to light, high-velocity “spitzer” bullets (pointed bullets were at first called “picket bullets”), tube-magazines became obsolete, along with rimmed cartridges, and heavy, blunt bullets. Double-column, box magazines were far more suitable for use with this new generation of rimless, shouldered cartridges.
Spitzer bullets are dangerous, hence unsuitable, for use in tube-magazines. Yet, there were innumerable ingenious ways devised to prevent pointed bullet tips in tube-magazines from resting in the middle of the primer of the cartridge in front of it. None proved satisfactory!
The rimmed French 8mm Lebel was the first military cartridge to use smokeless propellant, from its inception (1886). Others followed quickly! The 8mm Lebel would serve the French through WWI.
Some, like the rimmed 303 British, actually started life as a black-power cartridge, later “converted” to smokeless powder. Yet, the 303 British persisted in general military use in the UK through the end of WWII, long after it was hopelessly obsolete!
The rimmed 30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire), which a short time later became generally known as the “30-30,” was among the first sporting cartridges to use smokeless propellant, again from its inception.
As noted above, rimmed military rifle cartridges (30-40 Krag, 303 British, 8mm French Lebel, 7.62x54R Soviet) are not suitable for double column/double-feed, box rifle magazines because of “rimlock,” and are all thus obsolete, although the Soviet 7.62x54R is still in use to this day in some quarters (mostly in belt-fed machineguns).
Rims on cartridges were first used for the sake of consistent head-spacing, easy extraction, and ease of manufacture. Rims on shouldered cartridges (which head-space on the shoulder) are unnecessary. As noted above, rimmed cartridges are eminently unusable with modern, spring-loaded box magazines. However, rimless, bottle-neck cartridge cases require more precision during manufacture than do rimmed cases. It thus took several decades of the above-mentioned issues to convince manufacturers, and war-planners alike, that rimless cartridge cases represented the future of military rifles.
The Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle (dating from the 1880s, and still in-use to this day), chambered for the rimmed 7.62x54R cartridge, does have a box magazine, which is charged via stripper-clips. But, charging the magazine is always a sticky, problem-prone procedure, because of the above issue. In spite of this, Soviets still manufactured thirty-seven million of them, over nearly a century! The British Enfield, chambered for the rimmed 303 British cartridge, has the same issue, and for the same reason.
By contrast, charging the box magazine on a German Mauser bolt-gun, with rimless cartridges (8mm, 7mm), and using the Mauser-style stripper-clip, is smooth and flawless.
During the black-powder era, “polygonal” rifling was actually preferred, because a lack of sharp edges meant reduced fouling. With the advent of high-pressure, progressive-burning “smokeless” powder, sharp-edged rifling became the norm.
The first iteration of the British bolt-action was the Lee-Metford Mk1, adopted in 1889, in (smokeless powder) 303 British Caliber, replacing the problem-prone, single-shot Martini-Henry Rifle, cambered for the black-powder 577/450 Martini Cartridge.
When the Lee-Metford was in development in the mid-1880s, the 303 British cartridge was loaded with black powder. Smokeless-powder (cordite) “conversion” took place between 1886 and 1889.
In America at about the same time, the hopper-magazine-fed Krag-Jorgensen Rifle in the (smokeless powder) rimmed, shouldered 30-40 Krag Caliber was replacing the single-shot Trap-Door Springfield which had been chambered for the (black powder) rimmed, straight-walled 45-70 cartridge.
Several Trap-Door Springfield rifles were actually re-chambered/re-barreled to fire the new smokeless-powder, rimmed 30-40 Krag cartridge, in an effort to “upgrade” obsolete technology, but the project was quickly abandoned in favor of the Krag’s magazine-fed system.
The British Lee-Metford Mk1 featured an eight-round, single-column, detachable box magazine and magazine cut-off lever. However, the magazine was actually chained to the rifle itself, so as not to get lost.
Issuing multiple magazines with each rifle was yet to be imagined!
When multiple magazines were finally issued with each rifle in the 1950s/60s, they were considered “semi-disposable,” at least in Western nations. They were light (aluminum) and lean, particularly in the AR era. Magazines were thus expected to wear-out and be replaced several times during the service-life of the rifle to which they were assigned.
Not so with the Soviets! AK magazines are robust, and designed to last for the entire service-life of the rifle itself. As a consequence, they are heavy and thick.
Military rifle cartridges of the first half of the Twentieth Century were all between 6.5mm and 8mm (25.5-31.5 caliber), in order to have an acceptable combination of adequate range, penetration, manageable recoil, capacity, and terminal effect.
When horse-mounted cavalry was still a military consideration, adequate “terminal effect” implied an ability to take-down a horse.
When horses were phased-out and no longer a consideration (since post WWI), 5.5mm (22 caliber) bullets (5.56×45, 5.45×39 Soviet, 5.8×42 Chinese) are now considered appropriate chamberings for military main-battle rifles, at least by some.
Not everyone agrees!
Then came the “needle-shooters”
FN’s 5.7×28 cartridge was specifically developed to penetrate Soviet body armor, and accomplish little else. It is a bottle-neck case, but the rear portion has no taper, so there is no curvature in the 50-round horizontal magazine of FN’s P90 bullpup PDW (personal defense weapon)
H&K’s 4.6×30 cartridge was likewise developed mostly for armor penetration. It is designed to work in the gas-operated H&K MP7 SMG
Neither the P90, nor the MP7, were ever used, nor issued, for their ostensible intended purpose (rear-area defense)! However, both have enjoyed a following within the Special Operations Communities of a number of national militaries.
What is now scheduled to replace (at least in the US, probably the rest of NATO), the 5.56×45 is a more-powerful 6.8×51 cartridge, although it may never see the light of day, as “caseless” and “semi-caseless” technologies are in active competition!
The Pentagon, never known for decisiveness, nor progressivity, continues to drag its feet. We’ve been hearing about a “new” American military cartridge for the past five decades!
There is little doubt that if/when the Pentagon actually makes a decision, it will be decades before existing M4s can be entirely replaced with the new rifle. In the interim, we’ll have a two-tier system, with 5.56×45 weapons being assigned to rear-areas, while the new rifle (and GPMG), in the new caliber, will go to front-line troops.
Meanwhile, Russians show no sign of moving away from the Kalashnikov System and the 5.45×39 round.
Chinese are now issuing their own 5.8×42 cartridge and their new QBZ191 rifle, which looks a lot like an M4! The cartridge, virtually unknown outside China, is ballistically nearly identical to the 5.45×39.
For individual American citizens, there are many good choices in serious rifles, but 5.56×45 and 7.62×39 will be the calibers you’ll most likely be able to get most places you go.
You should have an adequate supply in any event!
Twenty years from now, maybe ten years from now, who knows if any of the foregoing will even be relevant?
Assuming the world is still standing!