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The Cupfire System

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On April 3, 1855 a gun maker named Rollin White patented a system for breech loading, bored-through cylinders for revolvers. A couple years later Smith & Wesson made an agreement with White to pay him $0.25 for every gun they sold using this design, and that he was responsible for any litigation regarding the defense of infringement of the patent. This jump started Smith & Wesson as a company as they became the exclusive makers of rimfire cartridges and revolvers. Eventually other cartridge and gun makers paid royalties to Smith & Wesson to use their design. This business made Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson the wealthiest men in Springfield, MA.

Not all companies wanted to pay Smith & Wesson licensing fees to make the popular style gun of the day. Some companies blatantly infringed the patent and made guns anyway, and often times were forced through litigation to pay royalties to S&W, or even surrender their company to S&W. Another popular option was to make a gun and cartridge just different enough that it would evade the patent.

Another gun making duo, Willard Ellis and John White, who also lived in Springfield did just that. They, along with backing from Henry Reynolds, Ebenezer and Amzi Plant, and Alfred Hotchkiss patented a gun and cartridge that would load from the front of the cylinder to avoid paying royalties to S&W. This has come to be known as the cupfire system.

Merwin & Bray Cupfire Revolver
.30 cupfire revolver by Merwin & Bray

They made the cupfire revolver and cartridges in three different sizes; .28, .30, and .42. Many people who know about cupfire cartridges do not know that these sizes are actually based on the base diameter and not the actual bullet caliber. The bullet caliber is actually .26, .28 and .39 respectively. All of the cartridge boxes I have seen all go by the first set of numbers so those sizes have become the popular designation.

A few manufacturers produced the cartridges, some of which are easy to identify by the headstamp they placed on the base. American Metallic Ammunition Co. placed a raised "A" for the headstamp, while Phoenix Metallic Cartridge Co. places a raised "P." I know of no others that placed a headstamp.

Selection of Cupfire Cartridges
.28 cupfire cartridge, three .30 cupfire cartridges (notice the P and A headstamps,) and a .42 cupfire cartridge.

Cupfire cartridges are loaded from the front of the cylinder. They have a flange at the top of the cartridge that rests on an indentation in the cylinder that keeps them from falling through. The base of the cartridge is still very much like a rimfire cartridge where the fulimate is in the rim of the bottom cup. The hammer hits the inside of that rim.

Cupfire Cartridges and Cylinder from Cupfire Revolver
Cylinder of a cupfire revolver along with some cartridges.

Cupfire Cartridges and Cupfire Revolver
Cylinder of a cupfire revolver along with some cartridges. Notice how the hammer comes into the base of the cartridge.

This particular revolver is a very early model Merwin & Bray revolver. It is model number 178 out of 10,000 or so. Merwin & Bray made the 2nd and 3rd model .42 Army versions, as well as .30 pocket revolver that has been shown in all of the pictures.

Model number of the Merwin & Bray revolver
Revolver's model number. It is printed on the bottom of the grip's frame.

Label from inside a Cupfire revolver box
Label from inside a Merwin & Bray Cupfire revolver box.

These guns are known to have been used in the US Civil War, though there are no official Army procurements. Soldiers would often bring their own sidearm since many were only issued a rifle.

References and Further Research:

Thomas, Dean. Round Ball to Rimfire Part Three. Gettyburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 2003.

Jinks, Roy G., Krein Sandra C.. Smith & Wesson. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

Article last updated: October 5, 2010 11:30 PM

Author: Aaron Newcomer


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