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King's College, Aberdeen
King's College, Aberdeen

Alexander John Forsyth lived from 1768 to 1843. He was a Church of Scotland minister best remembered for inventing percussion ignition for firearms. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Alexander John Forsyth was born in Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire, where his father was a Church of Scotland minister. He attended school in Aberdeen before concluding his education at King's College, Aberdeen. In 1791 the 23 year old Forsyth succeeded his father as minister of Belhelvie.

Forsyth was an enthusiastic game hunter, but found himself dissatisfied with the firing mechanisms of the day. His flintlock fowling gun worked by using a flint to ignite a charge of power in a pan on the top of the gun, which then ignited the firing charge through a hole. There were three disadvantages with this. When out fowling it was easy for the powder in the external pan to become damp, which prevented the gun firing. There was also a delay, the "hang-fire", between the trigger being pulled and the projectile being fired, which made accurate aiming very difficult. And the third drawback was that the flash and smoke from the powder in the pan being ignited gave the birds being hunted a small but significant warning they were about to be shot at.

In 1800 Edward Charles Howard, an English chemist, discovered fulminates, which would explode on concussion. In 1807 Alexander John Forsyth took out a patent on his invention of a fulminate-primed firing mechanism for guns, and was asked to work on the development of the idea at the Royal Armouries in London. The initial enthusiasm of the British government soon evaporated after a the appointment of a new Master-General of the Ordnance who did not support Forsyth's work. Some could see the potential, however: it is said that at one point Forsyth rejected a proposal that he work on the development of his idea in France in return for £20,000 from Napoleon's government.

In the event Forsyth's invention was only half a step en route to the real solution to the problems of flintlock weapons, and it was not until the invention of the percussion cap after Forsyth's patent had expired that a truly practical solution became widely available. Forsyth is commemorated by memorials at the Tower of London and at King's College, Aberdeen.

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