The Reverend Alexander John Forsyth died on the 11th of June, 1843.
That a man of god invented a means of killing people more efficiently is maybe a bit of an embarrassment for the defenders of the faith. However, in his defence, the frustrated Minister was only trying tip the balance in favour of the shooter when it came to killing burdies and beasties. The Minister was the Reverend Alexander John Forsyth and he was gey fond of game shooting. The trouble was, the Minister’s flintlock fowling piece suffered from the same inadequacies of technology as everyone else’s did, which meant that his invention, like many before or since, was born of necessity. Never mind the sport; he needed to put a few game birds in the pot.
The Reverend Forsyth invented the percussion method of discharging a firearm, which along with the evolution of the metallic cartridge case, was one of the most significant advances in firearms technology. The modern primer traces its history back to the ‘detonating powder’ developed by Alexander Forsyth. The Minister’s compound offered a more convenient and reliable alternative to the flintlock ignition system and unquestionably led to the development of the modern bullet.
His invention was no small accomplishment for Forsyth, considering that the flintlock ignition system had dominated the firearms world for over two hundred years. The flintlock ignition system produced flint-on-steel sparks to ignite a pan of priming powder and thereby fire the gun’s main powder charge. However, flintlock guns were prone to misfire in wet weather and, in addition to the major problem of its unreliability in damp conditions, the flintlock was susceptible to hang fire. That latter fault refers to an unexpected delay between the triggering of a firearm and the ignition of the propellant, which was common in firearm actions that relied on open primer pans, such as flintlocks, due to the poor or inconsistent quality of the powder.
The result of the, albeit minor, delay caused by hang fire was that, too often for the shooter, by the time the bullet was discharged, the lucky duck had time to bank and dive as the shot whistled harmlessly overhead. Forsyth had also noticed that sitting birds would startle when smoke puffed from the powder pan of his flintlock shotgun, effectively giving them additional warning. At least the ducks had a sporting chance.
Alexander John Forsyth was born in Belhelvie, in Aberdeenshire, in 1768, the son of a Presbyterian minister, whom he was destined to follow into the clergy. He was educated at King’s College, Aberdeen, before being ordained a Minister and taking over his father’s parish, in 1790. Resolving to do something to improve the reliability of his fowling piece, Forsyth realised that, along and more efficient propellants, some reliable method of igniting the package was required.
The discovery of fulminates had been made by Edward Charles Howard, in 1800, and that recent development provided Forsyth with the ingredients he needed. By 1805, Forsyth had designed a new priming system, his scent-bottle lock, which he patented, in 1807. Forsyth’s invention involved a small container filled with a mixture of fulminate of mercury and potassium chlorate, sulphur and charcoal, which ignited an enclosed charge when struck by the hammer. The Minister’s invention of a fulminate primed firing mechanism deprived the birds of their early warning system, by avoiding the initial puff of smoke from the flintlock powder pan as well as shortening the interval between trigger pull and the shot leaving the muzzle. Fulminate-primed guns were also less likely to misfire than flintlock guns.
Forsyth’s invention of the detonating cap was later improved through successive developments of what has become the conventional percussion cap. As Forsyth’s invention was gradually improved by various gun makers and private individuals, it came to be used first in a steel cap and then in a copper cap, before coming into general military use nearly thirty years later. The percussion cap led directly to the self contained cartridge (or cartridge case). This in turn, rendered possible the general adoption of the breech loading principle for all types of firearms.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Forsyth’s invention was enthusiastically received by the army, who at first gave him a workshop in the Tower Armories, where he worked on his design. However, when a new Master General of Ordnance was appointed, Forsyth was dismissed, because several of his experiments had destructive results and the new Master General was feart that Britain’s main arsenal would be destroyed. Forsyth’s invention also came to the notice of Napoleon Bonaparte, who offered him £20,000 to bring his secret to France, but true patriot as he was, Forsyth declined. The French gunsmith, Jean Lepage, developed a similar form of ignition in the same year as Forsyth patented his work. It was based on Forsyth’s design, but was not brought to completion.
Forsyth’s invention was later adopted by the British army without his knowledge, however, the Government did, somewhat tardily, allocate him a modest pension; the first (and last) instalment was received on the day of his death. He died on the 11th of June, 1843, and is remembered by a memorial in the Tower of London, which was erected in 1929, a replica of which was erected in 1931, on the Cromwell Tower where he conducted his experiments at King’s College, in Aberdeen.
This ancient Scottish name of Forsyth may have been derived from a Gaelic first name ‘Fearsithe’, which means ‘man (or place) of peace’ – not quite appropriate in terms of how the Minister’s invention has been used. There is also a legend that it originated from ‘Forsach’, a Norseman who settled in Aquitaine and afterwards became the Viscomte de Fronsoc at the English court, with lands in Northumberland and subsequently in the Borders of Scotland. The name has the stress on the second syllable. The Forsyth Clan motto is ‘Instaurator ruinae’, which means ‘A repairer of ruin’, reasonably appropriate to the Reverend Alexander John Forsyth, from the Monymusk branch of the Clan, in Aberdeenshire.