Cartridge Extractors – their development and amazing variety

The second half of the 19th Century saw the introduction into Britain of the completely self-contained cartridge starting with the pinfire system and going into a centrefire cartridge later in the Century. These enabled much easier and rapid loading for the Victorian sportsman but could produce problems in the field through cartridge cases becoming stuck in the breech of the barrel.

Until the 1960’s shotgun cartridge cases were made from paper with a brass head and could be affected by damp atmospheric conditions, rain and heat. These conditions together with the effect of discharging the cartridge could all make the case swell up slightly resulting in an expanded empty case stuck in the breech. The same problem was found by hunters using rifles in the tropics where brass cases could expand in the heat and corrode badly in the high humidity. Early rifle cases were coiled brass, sometimes paper covered, with iron bases and not as robust as the later drawn brass cases. Fingers often weren’t strong enough to withdraw the cartridge and stuck cases could also jam the complete opening of the gun. Another problem encountered was pulling the base of the cartridge off the paper or coiled brass tube so leaving the remains of the case in the breech which also prevented reloading the gun.

The answer was to produce a tool that helped the sportsman remove the stuck case and any torn parts of the tube. This tested the ingenuity of the Victorian gun implement manufacturers and fuelled a wide variety of designs in a range of qualities which happily has also resulted now in another fascinating area for collectors.

The first completely self-contained cartridges to come into use in Britain during the late 1850’s were pinfire ignition. These relied upon an external pin and internal percussion cap which was detonated when the pin was struck by the hammer of the gun. The cases didn’t have much of a rim on the brass head and the shotguns didn’t have an extractor so removal of the cartridge was made by pulling the cartridge backwards by the pin.

The first cartridge extracting tools were generally made from iron and utilised a hook which could be used to pull the pin or retrieve the remnants of any torn paper case from the breech.

Three early simple pinfire extractors. From top to bottom: an ebony handled tool possible a copy of the early French pattern, a steel extractor stamped with the makers name Dixon & Sons and catalogue number 1132 and a ring extractor.n
Some early pinfire cartridge extracting tools. The middle tool is marked Dixon & Sons and was shown as a catalogue item as early as the 1860’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More expensive versions of the simple iron hook were designed to be easier to carry in a pocket by using a similar design to a folding button hook inside a hoop and this design of extractor was registered on 27th August 1859 by Henry Elliott, gunmaker of Birmingham under design no. 4198 described as a “cartridge case drawer”.

Three folding pinfire extractors all marked H. Elliott. Two are also stamped with the registration of design date in 1859. The middle tool is an improved model fitted with a small brass double wheel to use as a fulcrum when pulling or levering the case out of the breech.

This idea of a loop with a swivelling extractor arm was subsequently taken a stage further by the Sheffield gun implement manufacturers James Dixon & Sons and William Bartram who each produced an improved version. Bartram used a large wheel behind the pin slot to act as a fulcrum. Dixon’s version had a double roller in front of the pin slot and was also fitted with Pope & Henry’s Patent which was an eccentric wheel in gunmetal at the other end of the extractor arm to snag any torn paper case still stuck in the breech and enable it to be removed.

Four more sophisticated versions of the folding pinfire extractor employing wheels and rollers for use as a fulcrum. The tool 2nd from the right is by William Bartram. The other three tools were all made by James Dixon & Sons and are fitted with Popes patent torn case extractors.
The folding pinfire extractors showing the Popes patent torn case extracting wheels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another pattern of very early pinfire extractors embodied a pair of pliers which could be used to grip the slight rim on the base of the cartridge in addition to a hole through which the pin could be slotted and a hook on one arm to retrieve a torn case. This pattern is extremely rare but two examples can be seen in the following photos. The quality of the steel tool is exceptional and whilst un named has the appearance of being made by a surgical instrument manufacturer. An identical tool is shown in Richard Akehursts book “Game Guns and Rifles” on plate 35 included in the tools cased with a pinfire shotgun made by John Dickson gunmakers of Edinburgh in 1865.

Two very rare versions of pinfire extractors. The lower tool is in nickel silver and was made by William Bartram (you can see their trademark NIMROD with a jockey cap and whip). The upper tool is unamed but similar style. It is beautifully made in steel with the hook of copper to avoid scratching the bore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the 19th Century progressed the majority of pinfire extractors were manufactured by the three large Sheffield gun implement makers: James Dixon & Sons,   G & J.W. Hawksley and William Bartram, all of whom had a long history of working in non-ferrous metals and so, in addition to iron and steel, manufacturing materials began to include brass, gun metal (a bronze type alloy)  and nickel silver.

                                                                                                                                  Three early pinfire extractors by G & J.W. Hawksley. The outer two are made in gunmetal and the middle tool is in nickel silver.

Although the three Hawksley extractors shown above are of a similar pattern the bottom extractor features an improvement – a wheel has been fitted by the pin slot which can be used as a fulcrum against the breech of the gun to lever out the stuck case.

 

A page from an original Hawksley catalogue of the late 1870’s showing their range of pinfire extractors.
An excerpt from a James Dixon catalogue of 1876 showing Pope & Henrys Patent on a range of pinfire swivelling tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dixon catalogue page refers to Pope & Henry’s Patent but this is usually just stamped as “Popes Patent” on the gunmetal eccentric wheel at the end of the extractor.

As time progressed the pattern or style of pinfire extractors began to standardise. The fulcrum wheel became common and many featured a loop in the centre to thread your finger into to assist in pulling or levering the case out.

 

A selection of later pinfire extractors manufactured by James Dixon & Sons. All feature a ring to assist pulling. Case hardened steel, gunmetal and nickel silver are all used. This pattern was still for sale in their 1883 catalogue.

The last pinfire extractor I would like to show you is an intriguing dual purpose pin or centre fire extractor combined with a rammer and closer by  G & J.W. Hawksley. This is the only one I have seen and it doesn’t appear in any of the Hawksley catalogues I have. Is this experimental? It is an odd combination. It is quite heavy and at 5″ long too big to be practical to carry in the pocket with all the other shooting paraphernalia so would only have been used in possibly the gunroom, in which case why would you need an extractor?

The G & J.W. Hawksley combination tool comprising a plier extractor, pinfire extractor and rammer closer. Centrefire or pinfire use.

 

 

 

The advent of the centrefire cartridge heralded, if anything, an even wider range of designs for cartridge extractors. In the main they relied on a 2 or 3 prong claw to fit over the rim of the cartridge base allowing a straight pull. It wasn’t possible to provide any leverage. The cheapest and most basic tool was the finger ring extractor which was extensively sold at every gunsmiths and ironmongers shop.

Three simple finger extractors. A nickel silver Dixon & Sons plus two brass Lightwood extractors. The cheapest model you could buy.

Probably next was a long handled 2 prong extractor. As the slots inside the prongs were slightly angled this extractor does fit on the base rim surprisingly securely. These extractors are now much scarcer than three prong so this may mean that they weren’t so popular at the time. The lower two Dixon extractors in the photograph below have a hook at the opposite end to the claw to use in removing torn cases from the breech.

A selection of 2 prong gunmetal cartridge extractors by James Dixon & Sons and G & J.W. Hawksley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike pinfire, centrefire cartridge extractors had to be made for specific bore sizes as they relied on fitting accurately and securely on the rim of the cartridge base. In shotgun calibres, I have seen extractors ranging in size from .410″ up to 4 Bore so here are a few examples of different patterns of extractors in a selection of the larger sizes.

A couple of 8 Bore extractors by James Dixon & Sons.
A couple of James Dixon & Sons 10 bore extractors. The lower tool also has a Popes patent torn  case remover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                        

A massive 4 Bore lacquered brass extractor ( 5″ long ). No name but probably Lightwood & Son Birmingham.

As always manufacturers offered a range of qualities both in complexity and materials going from the basic two prong claw brass ring extractor up to the long three prong claw in solid nickel silver with Popes patent . They also decided to expand their product range by combining the extractor with a variety of other tools which provided extra features for the sportsman such as whistles, striker keys, turnscrews, carriage keys and even game despatchers. In the following photos you can see some of the variations and interesting combinations produced.

Three nickel silver whistle extractors. From the top makers are G & J.W. Hawksley, James Dixon & Sons and William Bartram.
A couple of nickel silver cartridge extractors combined with whistles. The two prong 12 bore extractor is unusual in that it unscrews from the whistle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very rare combination whistle, cartridge extractor and game despatcher by James Dixon & Sons.
When the whistle is pressed, a blade emerges from the extractor to kill the bird. Cheaper versions of this model were subsequently copied by the Birmingham gun implement manufacturers but lacked the quality of the solid nickel silver Dixon version.

 

 

 

 

 

An extremely rare crucifix shaped combination tool by James Dixon & Sons.

 

 

 

 

The body of the tool is made from nickel silver and has steel turnscrew and striker key sweated into the arms.

 

 

 

A 14 Bore cartridge extractor mounted on a brass tube with space for spare strikers and a steel striker key which is screwed into the other end.
No makers name but the price 3 shillings is inked in on the extractor. Presumably this was a trade price for a dozen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very high quality polished steel 12 and 16 Bore swivelling extractor combined with turnscrew and carriage key.
Gay & Son were high quality Gents outfitters at 113, High Holborn st. London

Many sportsmen owned and used a range of guns of different calibres and so an adjustable extractor would have proved very useful. James Dixon & Sons recognised this and produced a small hoop extractor with a centre wheel which, when rotated, opened or closed the two pronged claw at the end of the hoop to fit a limited range of different bore sizes.

A variable cartridge extractor by James Dixon & Sons marked with their catalogue number.
J D & S is stamped as a pseudo hallmark along with the Dixon trademark of a bugle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A later development in the history of the cartridge extractor was an infinitely variable extractor which consisted of a plated spring steel hoop which when squeezed opened the claw to suit a larger variety of bore sizes. Robert Roper, a gunmaker in Sheffield registered a design for a cartridge extractor on 10th February 1881 under registration design no. 3398.

A plated sprung variable extractor stamped with R. Roper & Son who were gunmakers in Sheffield.
The variable extractor fitted onto a 16 bore cartridge.

 

 

 

 

 

Modern cartridge extractors often have cup shaped claws rather than two or three pronged claws. However this isn’t a recent development as James Dixon started to manufacture this pattern in the late 19th Century.

Two extractors by James Dixon & Sons with cup type claws. The extractor at the top is 12 Bore and unusually is fitted with a gunmetal cup rather than making it part of the nickel silver casting. Was this done for a practical reason or just aesthetics to balance the gunmetal Popes Patent wheel. 

 

The lower extractor is for a .380 cartridge. I think this would have been a rifle round for possibly a rook rifle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extractors were also produced in a much lower quantities for rifle calibres and cased double rifles of the Victorian period usually had a suitable extractor fitted into the case. Rifle extractors are much rarer than the shotgun extractors and I have seen them in the popular Victorian big game double rifle calibres .380, .400, .450, .500 and .577. They aren’t usually combined with other tools apart from occasionally Popes Patent.

A selection of extractors for rifle cartridges.
Four more rifle cartridge extractors. The second from the top has a wheel to remove broken cases marked “Pope & Henry’s Patent”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two small calibre rifle extractors by G & J.W. Hawksley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until recently I wasn’t aware of any extractors for pistol cartridges, but amazingly, within a short space of time, I acquired two. Both are made by Bussey & Co. London and as one came in the case of a Tranter .32 rimfire revolver I wonder if they were just made for rimfire revolvers. They are tiny (2 3/8″ long) and use the cup type claw. These two are the only ones I have ever seen.

 

Two tiny gunmetal extractors for pistol cartridges (possibly rimfire revolver) By Bussey.

Lastly to complete the story of the cartridge extractor it is only fair to mention those fitted to folding sportsman’s knives. These knives traditionally were made with a main blade, pen blade, saw, scissors, awl, lancet, tweezers and corkscrew and had been manufactured by a multitude of Sheffield and London cutlers since the early 1800’s. In the last quarter of the 19th Century, following the development of the centrefire breech loader a useful additional tool for the knife was of course a cartridge extractor and many knives were subsequently manufactured with either extractors as part of the guard or with a folding extractor fitted inside the scales which acted on one of the back springs.

 

Two Victorian sportsman’s knives with cartridge extractors. The knife on the left is known as “The Stanley Knife” after Henry Morton Stanley the explorer and newspaperman.
The Stanley knife has a 12 Bore extractor on one side and 10 Bore on the other. The black horn scaled knife has a sprung variable extractor with one claw fixed and the other forming the end of the back spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Stanley Knife” was made in the 1870’s in Sheffield by Brookes & Crookes. It is massive measuring 6 1/2″ long when closed and weighs nearly 1 1/2 pounds. This example was owned by Captain The Honourable Sir Seymour John Fortescue, GCVO, CMG Royal Navy who fought with Naval Brigade at Tel El Kabir in 1882 and during the Boer War. He subsequently became equerry to King Edward VII
A promotional pocket knife for Spratt’s Animal Food which was made with a cartridge extractor in the guard and a variable extractor at the base of the button hook.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief story of the cartridge extractor. I am sure there are many patterns I have yet to come across and if anyone has any other unusual or complicated variations I would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Splendid documentation which can be found nowhere else. 100 years from now collectors will be very thankful for the contents of this blog. Andy thanks so much.
    Warm regards from Alaska, Will

  2. Great work, greatly appreciated, I am into whistle combinations. Had been waiting many years to see
    the crucifix shaped combination by James Dixon & Sons.
    Would love to have one.

  3. I think this is one of the most important info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on few general things, The website style is great, the articles is really excellent : D. Good job, cheers

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