Joshua Shaw, Artist And Inventor

This biography of Joshua Shaw, Artist and Inventor, from 1869 also features the early history of the copper percussion cap. Many people claimed invention of this system but it was such an obvious development from the patch lock that it must have occurred to a good many people almost simultaneously - Research Press

Source: Scientific American, 7 August 1869

The Early History Of The Copper Percussion Cap 

 The biography of distinguished men, is not only a pleasant but a profitable study. Especially is this the case, when the subject of personal history has risen from humble obscurity by his own talents and industry to high and honourable position, in the observance of those moral qualities which constitute an example worthy of imitation.

In this pushing age we do not perhaps think often of the brave pioneers in invention, who cleared away obstacle, and smoothed the path of progress, before we came on to the stage of action.

It may well be questioned whether any invention in the art of gunnery, since the introduction of the gunpowder, was a longer stride in advance than the invention of the copper percussion cap.

Joshua Shaw, whose name will ever be connected with this improvement and the extension of the principle to the discharge of heavy artillery, was born in the eventful year 1776, at Bellingborough, Lincoln Co., England. By the courtesy of Mr. John Dickinson, a grandson of Mr. Shaw, now residing at Fort Hamiliton, Long Island, we have been put in possession of a manuscript autobiography, written by Mr. Shaw, at the request of William Dunlap, an epitome of which is embodied in the latter's "history of the Rise and Progress of the arts of Design in the United States," published in 1834. To this interesting and characteristic manuscript, with the voluminous correspondence held by Mr. Shaw with various European governments and particularly with the Ordnance Department of the United States, we are principally indebted for the facts contained in this sketch.

Mr. Shaw was left an orphan at the age of seven years, by the death of his father, and he says: "I had from that moment to earn my dinner before I ate it; and like Bloomfield's farmer boy, I had to watch the cattle and keep the sparrows away from the cornfields; a kind of domestic Crusoe of the lonely field and common, with an old gun on my shoulder, and carrying a noisy instrument called the "bird-claps." With these I was able to frighten away the little intruders but many a time when my own supply of food ran short, I had compassion on them, and would say: How hard it is to be without bread, I will give them time to pick a few grains and then either fire the gun or start the rattlers." Three years did the young artist watch the sparrows, occupying the hours and relieving the monotony of his task by drawing pictures in the sand, of owls, pigs, and other objects, animate and inanimate, thus evincing the early budding of a genius destined in the future to be recognised and honoured by the world. Nor was his invention wholly absorbed by his passion for drawing; our young aspirant learned to read and write, making the sand his rude though ample page, in the three years of his shepherd boy life, during which time his wages was one penny per day. At the end of that time, his mother having in the mean time married, he was called home to assist in the business of his stepfather, a plumber and glazier by occupation, at the end of which time, Mr. Shaw, a lad of about fifteen years, was again obliged to shift himself. An uncle now gave him nine weeks' schooling, the only regular tuition he had during his life. He then obtained employment upon one of the rural mail-routes, and entered His Majesty's service as a mail carrier. This employment did not last long, and again he says: "I found myself threatened with the prospect of dining on roasted sloes and bilberries, and driving the sparrow and yellow hammer from the forbidden feast. I was on my way home, and being hungry, I purchased by the way some cheese and bread, which the shopkeeper, out of respect I suppose for the elevated situation I had occupied as mail carrier, wrapped in part of a newspaper, which I read at my leisure after dining. Amongst other things an advertisement met my eye, 'Wanted, an apprentice to the Sign, Coach, and House-painting business, apply by letter, post-paid, to George Sparrow, Stamford, Lincolnshire. A premium will be expected.' I turned short about and travelled twenty miles that same day, determined to see Mr. Sparrow, but as he expected a premium I had small hopes of success, except my talents for drawing should be a recommendation. My hand however, had only been tried upon crows, magpies, owls, mice, and other familiar objects, while I was drill officer of the cow-pasture, and lest I should be imperfect, I sat down, and with my finger drew upon the dust which covered the road, a pig, a goose, and such other objects as were suggested, and in this way night overtook me before I had reached the sixteenth milestone. I budged along with only nine shillings in my pocket which belonged to my stepfather, in deep reflection upon coming events and possible results. At eight in the evening I reached Stamford, and the house in which the Great Apelles of the place resided. How my heart palpitated as I touched the knocker."

Here our aspirant remained all night, and in the morning, after trial, was accepted without a premium, in consideration of his talent for drawing. In this way he reached the first and lowest rung of the ladder, which he at once began to climb so vigorously that in time he was placed in charge of the business. His first exploit of a public nature was the painting of Commandments in St. Michael's Church with the King's arms, and beneath it Moses and Aaron, agreeably to the old English custom. He now began to acquire considerable reputation as a painter of the pictorial signs of the period. His employer having become jealous of Mr. Shaw's reputation, a separation took place, the latter purchasing freedom from his last year of service for twenty pounds sterling, and removing to Manchester, where he was installed foreman of a very respectable establishment. It was here that he formed a resolution to become an artist in the highest sense of the term, and to that end he commenced a system of constant and laborious practice, taking for his studies dead game, flowers, fruit, and landscape.

At length he was so fortunate as to find purchasers for three or four subjects in rapid succession, and emerged from the obscurity he had hitherto been forced to sustain into public notice as an artist of considerable promise. He now went to London where he met with much discouragement from cold-hearted critics, and after staying there three years, retired to Bath, where he practiced his art for some seven years with increasing reputation. He now met with some encouragement from the surrounding gentry and nobility, and as he was a good sportsman and possessed of fine social gifts, he became a frequent guest at their tables.

He next returned to London, where he enjoyed considerable popularity and received many commissions; but being so unfortunate as to differ in politics from the aristocratic directors of the British Institution, he was subjected to persecution, and the prize awarded to his painting of the deluge, by that institution, was with-held. This and other subsequent events disgusted him with England, and he resolved to come to America. He had previously, however, made the acquaintance and secured the warm personal friendship of Benjamin West, then President of the Royal Academy, who urged him to canvass for a membership in that institution, but he refused to stoop to what he considered a degradation, the begging for honours to which he considered his merits entitled him.

He, therefore, after obtaining introductory letters from West to many distinguished men of the time in the United States, came to Philadelphia, where he permanently established himself. He was the bearer of West's celebrated picture of "Christ Healing the Sick," a present to the Philadelphia Hospital, where he placed it appropriately, and where it still hangs.

Thomas Wilson his Patents, Arms and Ammunition

Andrew Appleby of Cape Town, South Africa, is researching the little known Victorian Engineer, Thomas Wilson and his rifle systems in order to write a definitive book on this man and provide some insight into his weapons system work conducted during the 1860’s and later.

The book will cover certain key patent details including the development of his Capping–Breech-loading system for the conversion of Enfield muzzle loading rifles through to the development of a 0.50 calibre centre fire rifle and a further system identified as an integral forerunner in the design of machine guns and quick firing guns of today.

Detailed coverage of the numerous Army Trials and comparative information / statistics will be included, together with commentaries from users of the day to the inclusion of patent drawings, photographs, a data list of the few remaining specimens that have been found and auction prices of his rifles from around the world over for the last 14 years.

T. Wilson’s Capping Breech-Loading System

The main objective of this book is to collate and concentrate the known information on Thomas Wilson and his breech-loading systems developed during the 1860’s, a time when he and others were at the forefront of a transitional movement away from muzzle loading guns to full breech loading weapon systems.

Little is known about Thomas Wilson and even less on his weapon designs, as he and so many capable engineers of that time have been consigned to history and old bookshelves. Thankfully the internet and the digitising of thousands of books and newspapers has provided the author with a rich collection of snippets, allowing them to be brought together and placed with his patents to give the reader some insight into his designs and understanding of the Wilson rifle systems. Included also will be the various trials and results presented by the Ordnance Select Committees to parliament in the search of a suitable breech-loading rifle to meet the needs of a modernising British Army.

Information has been sourced from around the world from, Auction Houses, Dealer Catalogues, Other Authors, Collectable Shops, Libraries, Museums and from Private Collections in an attempt to develop a common record from the scattered and piece meal scraps of information.

The second objective is to try and strike a balance between the academic weight of the book and the lighter moments derived from third party comments, likes and dislikes, to the simplicity of a hunter’s daily diary in Africa recalling his use of his Wilson. Included will be magazine & the newspaper advertising of the day particularly those bringing new inventions and developments to their reader’s notice.

The Auction information will provide the reader with some idea of international prices from country to country with the inclusion where possible of photographs of the individual auction pieces and descriptive write ups.

T. Wilson & Co, Straight Pull, 50 Cal bolt action rifle
To ensure as much information is collected, I am looking for any contributions particularly examples of:
  • Further information on Wilsons Carbines, Short Rifles, Long Rifles and Sporting Rifles.
  • Photographs of such guns.
  • Serial Numbers and prefix letters - found in front of the breech, also any cartouches to the woodwork etc.
  • Newspaper / Magazine Advertising, Advertorial and Broad sheet Advertising particularly that of Rabone of Birmingham who were one of many licensed manufacturers.

If you can help me with anything, please contact me directly at

The Enfield Rifle

Source: The Times (London), Saturday, 4 February 1860

In the first article on this weapon we traced the manufacture of the most important portion, the barrel, up to its final completion, when the gauge is placed in its muzzle, and proves such a perfect mechanical fit that it remains bobbing up and down, according as the column of air in the tube yields or expands beneath the pressure. Will Birmingham, where all the anvils are now resounding with the manufacture of rifles for the Volunteer Corps, turn out a weapon as perfect in its gauge as that of Enfield? We can only hope so, for, if not, the Volunteers will be but poorly off when they come to be supplied with ammunition, made by the Government with the same care as to size as the barrel itself, and which should fit with almost the same nicety as the gauge we have mentioned. At Enfield everything is done by machinery, as we have already pointed out, and so each portion of the lock, stock, bayonet, and fittings of the gun is manufactured by the same kind of labour-saving machines as those employed upon the barrel. The part of the works devoted to this portion of the manufacture is filled with a peculiar and most ingenious modification of the pile-driving machine, where the weights are wound up by steam, and are ready for dropping again and again at the precise time required by the workmen in each stage. These weights punch out the hammers, lock-plates, springs, triggers, bands, and, in fact, every part of the gun or its fittings which is made either of iron or steel. After being thus roughly formed they are turned down to their exact size, according to gauge, and then case-hardened. This latter process is done by heating the parts to a dull red in a mixture of bone-dust (animal charcoal, in fact), so that the outside of the metal has all the hardness of the finest steel, while the centre retains the strength and toughness of wrought iron. The bayonet is, of course, manufactured at Enfield, with the other parts of the complete weapon, and nearly all the 68 processes which this piece undergoes are very interesting. Take it for all in all, no troops in the world are armed with such a strong, well-tempered, and efficient steel instrument of destruction as the bayonet which is issued to our troops. It is very much to be wished that the cavalry sabre at all approached it in either temper or strength, or that it had never been superseded by the cumbrous and inefficient sword-bayonet, which is only a bad and very heavy sword when off the rifle, and neither a sword nor a bayonet when on it. When the bayonets are first beaten out at Enfield they are as brittle as glass; they are then annealed in a slow fire, and become as soft as lead. While in this state they are subjected to the last chief process, that of tempering, which gives them that immense strength and spring which is found in no other weapon. The tempering is done by immersing all the blades in a bath of molten lead, which heats them to a dull red tint, when they are withdrawn and plunged into linseed oil, becoming then so hard again that the file makes no impression whatever. They are then again heated to a low temperature, and this perfects them as steel. A man then tests them as to their strength by striking them with the handles downwards over the edge of an anvil with all his force, after which they are forcibly bent backwards and forwards in a machine, and finally gauged. Those which have yielded under these ordeals, even to the very slightest degree, are rejected; the rest pass on to the grinding shop, where they are polished and finished off bright and keen as razors. The cost of each of these bayonets to the Government, even including interest and wear and tear of plant, is only 3s. 6d. They could scarcely be made elsewhere at any price whatever. In making the stocks of the rifles the machinery employed is about the best and simplest that has ever been devised, and from the time that the rough beam of walnut-wood enters the row of machines at one end of the finishing-room till it comes forth at the other end a perfect stock, complete even to the most minute receptacles for the lock-work, the process occupies not quite 20 minutes. If there is any part of the manufacture in which a saving of time and labour might possibly be effected, it would certainly be in the gauging. Not only is every portion gauged in every process, but when all is done each is gauged and regauged again by half-a-dozen independent measurers one after the other. The result of all this is, that the very perfection of a mechanical fit is insured, and all parts, whether of stock, lock, or barrel, are interchangeable among all the Enfield rifles in the service. For the sake of this advantage alone, and exclusive of the undoubted superiority of manufacture, it would be well worth the while of Volunteer Corps to pay even a higher price in order to secure the Government rifle. The cost of each one to the Government is 2l. 5s., and they are produced at Enfield at the rate of 2,000 a-week. A perfect musket and bayonet are turned out there every two minutes, though from the time the processes commence with a single musket until it is finished, proved, and passed to store requires a period of seven weeks – of which, however, no less than four are occupied in “browning” the barrel. As with the manufacture of the Armstrong gun so with the Enfield, its rate of production is capable, at a short notice, of being extended to an almost unlimited amount by merely increasing the machinery employed in its manufacture. It swallowed up very much more than 200,000l. to enable the Enfield works to produce the number they at present do weekly. Less than 80,000l. expended in increasing the plant would now, however, give the existing factory the means of turning out 5,000 rifles a-week, while 80,000l. in addition to this again would suffice for the production of nearly 10,000.

The Enfield Rifle

Source: The Times (London), Thursday, 2 February 1860

Some three or four years ago many of our engineers, manufacturers, and scientific men were deluded into going over to New York in the expectation of there seeing an industrial exhibition. Among others so misled was Mr. Whitworth, who, like all the rest, finding nothing worth looking at in the exhibition itself, tried to recompense himself for his visit by inspecting those manufactories which most abounded in the labour-saving machines which are used more or less extensively throughout the States: The two great centres for machinery of this description were at the United States’ arsenals at Springfield and, Harpers Ferry, and these accordingly Mr. Whitworth visited, saw the various processes there pursued of making small arms in thousands by machinery, and reported to our own Government strongly in favour both of the plan of the Government making its own weapons, and the means by which it could best be accomplished. The War-office, on receiving this report, adopted it forthwith, and, to their infinite credit, at once took a step which at the time even the most strenuous friends of progress in their secret souls scarcely approved. They sent out a commission, of which Mr. Anderson, now the chief superintendent of the Armstrong Gun Factory at Woolwich, was at the head, to make further inquiries into the subject of Mr. Whitworth’s report, and with power not only to order machines in America, but to engage American engineers to superintend them. This was the commencement of the now famous Enfield factory, and this is the first instance in which the English Government have ever had to send abroad either for machinery or men to work or make it. To their praise be it said they at once overstepped the formidable though narrow boundaries of national prejudice, and looked only for that market in which what they wanted could be best and easiest obtained. For a short time several of the new machines were erected and worked at Woolwich; but, when “Brown Bees” was no longer paramount in the service, it was determined to create an immense establishment for the manufacture of rifled small arms, apart and in itself distinct from the operations carried forward at the arsenal. A small shop, if we may so term it, for the manufacture of gun-stocks had always existed at Enfield, and this led the Government to turn their eyes in that direction, and once the place was seen, their gaze was, so to speak, fascinated. It was not at all the beauty of the spot which induced the Government to select it, for, in truth, a flatter or more dreary-looking waste, save Aldershot, was never seen. It was certainly not its salubrity, inasmuch as the whole country is eminently damp and unhealthy; neither was it either its convenience of access or its vicinage to skilled labour, for in both these requisites it was and still is singularly deficient as compared with other neighbourhoods. The reason why the Government selected it was, entirely independent of all these considerations of fitness, and due only to the simple fact that near the shop before alluded to was a canal which turned a waterwheel exerting some 20 or 25 horse-power. The idea of economizing and bringing into play this little waterwheel (which has now ten times its power of steam machinery to assist it) settled the whole affair. Foundations were laid and buildings commenced forthwith, and factories the size of little villages sprang up with more than the rapidity of colonial enterprise. Already the nucleus of a small town is fast gathering round the works. Hucksters’ shops, workmen’s houses, and small hotels are dotted here and there; and as it becomes easy now to calculate when, according to the natural course of things, “Ordnance Enfield,” as it is called, will some day become a town clamorous for corporate rights and the privileges attaching to its own M.P. And all these changes will be due to an old waterwheel which the Government could have got anywhere, and that, too, without the drawbacks attendant upon a superabundant supply of the pure element which turns it, and which occasionally hides the face of the surrounding country at Enfield, and places the floors of cottages and houses some inches under water. However, we suppose we must not quarrel with any cause which produces an effect so perfect in itself, so economical in its work, and so admirably managed, as the factory at Enfield undoubtedly is. It used to be a general remark, and one pretty generally believed, that Government could never compete advantageously with private manufacturers, and, to do them justice, the Government occasionally gave great force to the observation by rashly entering into contests with the trade on most unequal terms. At Enfield, however, they have discarded the usual routine. There is no costly system of supervision; on the contrary, everybody connected with the place is rather underpaid. The Government only seek there to make their own weapons, and intrusts all the means and appliances to the hands of private engineers of acknowledged, though unofficial, capacity. Mr. Burton, an American gentleman, is the working and real head of the factory, and to his untiring skill and diligence its singular excellence is due.

With such tokens of military ardour as now so extensively prevail throughout the kingdom the Enfield rifle is likely to become not only a household word, but almost a household weapon. At such a time, therefore, some account of the manufacture and peculiarities of this most effective, but most easily injured weapon, may be of interest, and, if it does not make our young volunteers good marksmen, it will at least put them on their guard against such careless treatment of their pieces as may put it out of their power ever to hit anything with them smaller than a haystack.

The Soper Rifle

Source: The Engineer, 13 December 1867

The rifle invented by Mr. W. Soper, of Reading, and illustrated in Figs. 1 and 2, was one of the number sent for the recent competition at Woolwich, and was rejected on the ground of "complication of breech arrangement." In this rifle the breech-piece is formed of a block of steel R, working freely up and down in a vertical slot at the rear of the barrel, and secured to a lever fixed at the bottom of the lock, which is placed in the center of the stock. The striker J is mounted inside the breech-piece, and works easily without any spring. The cock is also secured to the breech lever in such a manner that the breech-piece and cock are worked simultaneously.

The attachment is effected by the swivel H, furnished with a projection and recess for working the extractor L, so that the one movement of drawing down the lever opens the breech, cocks the piece, and throws out the cartridge case. The trigger A is mounted on the lever, and has no connection with the sear E until the breech is placed home, and thus the rifle cannot be fired until the safety catch B is pressed. For cleaning purposes the lock and breech-piece can be removed by withdrawing a couple of screws. Fig. 3 shows a section of the rifling, the calibre being that of the service rifle.

The trials of this rifle at Woolwich were satisfactory. For rapidity twelve rounds were fired in thirty-nine seconds with three mis-fires; the mean deviation of eight shots fired for accuracy from a shoulder rest at 500 yards, with Boxer cartridges, No. 3 pattern, was 2.30ft. Many excellent results have also since been obtained. Nevertheless we cannot but agree with the committee that the mechanism of the breech and lock is too complicated for a purely military weapon, and, moreover, that they were perfectly correct in doubting the value of the safety catch as a substitute of the ordinary half-cock. Mr. Soper has expended a great deal of ingenuity, and has produced a weapon which gives good results, but we think it cannot be denied that it is unsuitable for the use of the soldier.