The Minister Who Invented the Modern Bullet
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 11, 2012
The year of 1807 was better for hunters than birds. In the wetlands north of Aberdeen, Scotland, a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexander Forsyth, was engaged in a war of wits with local ducks.
They’d figured out how to dodge a shot by diving when the spark from his flintlock produced a flash of gunpowder in the firing pan of his muzzle-loader. Dampness on the North Sea coast also frequently caused Forsyth’s weapon to misfire.
After much tinkering, he devised and patented the first percussion-ignition device, a sort of metal perfume bottle for injecting a tiny amount of mercury fulminate into the chamber of the gun, where the impact of a hammer could ignite it and spark the gunpowder charge far more reliably (and without alarming the birds).
Forsyth’s invention, patented in 1807, would lead by mid-century to the development of the metal percussion cap and the modern bullet. It would prove an essential tool for species seekers, particularly in wet climates—and also the chief instrument of the bloodiest military conflicts in the history of the Earth, from Gettysburg and Gallipoli to the Somme.