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Dr. Maynard's Cap Gun: some ideas survive with surprising results.


Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when celluloid cowboys rode the purple sage in mostly black and white. Yes, for those of us older than dirt, cowboys were our heroes and every kid worth his salt had a cap pistol. And not some plastic piece of dreck from China, but guns made in America out of "real" pot metal! Our heroes were John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And Madison Avenue made sure we were equipped with our favorites' six-shooters, belts, holsters, hats and what not. Boy, those were glorious days!

So, are we going to talk about toy cap pistols this month, like the Mattel Toys "Fanner 50"? No, but I would bet, most of you today do not realize there was a "real" honest to goodness "Cap Gun" dating from before the Civil War.

The percussion cap was invented in the early 1820s and folks were still continually experimenting with the basic concept trying to improve upon it. One of those folks was Dr. Edward Maynard, a Washington, DC dentist of some renown. Maynard was born in 1813 and in his younger years aspired to a military career. He was able to secure an appointment to West Point Military Academy, but was forced to withdraw in his first year due to poor health. He then went on to study dentistry and developed a well know and respected practice in Washington, DC. But enough of that and on to his cap gun.


Maynard did not invent a "cap gun" per se, but rather a system utilizing a compartment, ratchet mechanism and a tape primer that could be fitted onto current muzzleloading rifles and pistols. His tape primer was an exact precursor to the paper rolls of caps we used in our younger years. Maynard's tape was made up of two layers of paper on which small dollops of a fulminating compound were sandwiched at intervals and then glued together and covered in varnish.

This roll of "tape primers" was placed in an oval compartment fitted into the weapon's sideplate. When the hammer was cocked a linkage to a ratchet arm or finger advanced the tape placing a cap over the nipple. The arm would place the "cap" over the nipple and the weapon was ready to fire. Maynard was granted Patent 4208 in 1845, the first of more than 20 patents relating to firearms and dentistry he would be granted in his lifetime. Maynard claimed his automatic primer feeder would ease loading and increase rapidity of fire. The rolls of primers came in quantities of 25 and 50 and metal tubes of 10 rolls.


The US Army at the time was looking for ways to advance firearms reliability and ease use. In 1842 they had adopted their first percussion rifle and musket. After testing, they adopted Maynard's Tape Primer on three arms: the Model 1855 Infantry Musket, Model 1855 Rifle and the Model 1855 Pistol-Carbine.

The Pistol-Carbine was a strange weapon, being neither fish nor fowl, combining a "large" single shot pistol with a detachable shoulder stock and was issued in pairs to the cavalry. Only 4,000 were made. While not particularly well thought of or used extensively, today they bring a collector's premium. Conversely, nearly 60,000 of the muskets and 8,700 of the dries were produced at Springfield Armory. Oddly, both the musket and rifle were of a rifled 58 caliber utilizing the then new "Minie ball" projectile. The rifle had a barrel length of 33" and the musket a barrel 40" long.


In use, the Maynard tape primer system did not always perform as well as hoped. In inclement weather the tape would sometime fail to fire or the cut off mechanism would fail to cleanly cut off an individual cap. Also the caps would sometimes fail to "fall off" the nipple blocking the way for the next cap.

These malfunctions also occurred in our "toy" cap guns. Maynard sold his patent to the Army and moved on to other endeavors in the firearms field. The Model 1855 Musket was supplanted by the Model 1861 Musket which returned to the single copper cap system at the beginning of the Civil War. The Model 1855 could also be loaded using single metal caps.

Dr. Maynard went on to design several versions of a single-shot cavalry carbine starting in 1857 and many were used in the Civil War. He later built a sporting and target rifle and spent considerable effort designing and improving his proprietary metallic cartridge cases featuring large heads and wide rims.

Happy trails.
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Title Annotation:A GUNS MEDLEY
Author:Miller, Martin J., Jr.
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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