James Erskine Cartridge Loading Machine

James Erskine, a gunmaker and inventor from Newton Stewart, Scotland had a prolific career inventing and patenting many improvements to guns and cartridge loading machines. His patented cartridge filler was universally accepted and used by all of the great British gunmakers of the day!

Erskine was born on September 12, 1812, in Penninghame, Wigtownshire, Scotland, the son of Mary Watson and Thomas Erskine. He married Elizabeth Sinclair on December 4, 1854, in his hometown. They had eight children over 21 years. He died on November 20, 1891, in Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, Scotland, having lived a long life of 79 years.

During most of those 79 years Erskine was active learning and then working in the gun trade. The IGC Historical Database indicates that Erskine began his apprenticeship at 14 years old, working as a gun finisher for Williams & Powell, or their predecessor, Edward Patrick in Liverpool.

Sometime after 1841 and before the 1851 Scotland Census, Erskine moved to Newton Stewart and began working for himself as a gun maker.

He displayed two guns at the 1851 Great Exhibition and was awarded a bronze medal.

1866 would be a big year for Erskine as he registered 3 pinfire-related patents; A new breech-loading gun, a cartridge loading machine and a tool for closing cartridges.

This “Apparatus for Turning over or Closing the Ends of Cartridges” was mentioned in the article above on The Field Gun Trial of 1866. The following patent was also mentioned in this same article and described in more detail than any of the guns. It is also what Erskine will be most famous for; his patented cartridge loading machine.

Mr Erskine, a Scotch gunmaker, produced a machine capable of filling one hundred cartridges at once; and it could easily be constructed to complete five hundred or a thousand simultaneously, without any waste or risk. The charge is increased or lowered by a very simple arrangement, and the simile of the filler, with the few simple tools used in Mr Erskine’s process, can be obtained at the cost of an ordinary single cartridge-loading machine; or rather at the price one of these instruments used to cost. At present the inventor produces them singly by hand labour, but by the aid of machinery much expense will be saved; and what a workman at the bench cannot finish under £3 will be offered to the public at a reduction of 25 per cent.*

The inventor tested the machine at the suggestion of the committee, and he completely finished fifty cartridges for the gun in the short space of nine minutes and a half. It is only fair to Mr Erskine to say that he is by no means a skillful operator, and that we believe young and practised fingers would make much shorter work of it. Mr Erskine himself, we feel sure, would fill and turn down four hundred in the hour with his one-hundred machine; and we have little doubt that he will make a few improvements hereinafter by which the placing of wadding on powder and shot will be very much facilitated.

As it is exceedingly improbable that Mr Erskine’s “pace” has ever been approached, we give the time occupied below:

Placing fifty cartridges in position – 2 minutes
Filling them with the powder charge – 1/2 a minute
Placing the thick wadding, and ramming down – 2 minutes
Filling with shot – 1/2 a minute
Placing the wadding on the shot 2 minutes
Turning over the cartridges 2 1/2 minutes

The cartridges were all adapted or fitted with the pin, but the central-fire would take even less time.

The committee tested several specimens selected by one of their number, and they found the work good, and equal to that performed by the single instruments.

Mr Erskine also showed a small, cheap, portable turning-down machine, acting in a very simple way, and entirely removing any necessity for cramp or lever. Both of his inventions were unanimously approved and highly commended as of great practical utility.

He filed for this patent on March 23, 1866. The patent talks about this working for pinfire or centerfire but he mostly talks about and the drawings allErskine took out an ad in The Field to sell this new invention of his as he could not handle the amount of orders he was getting since he was making them by hand.

He talked up its merits about its accuracy and how fast and easy it was to use. He also mentions here that the patent was taken out for 3 years but could be extended for up to 14 years.

He did not end up selling the patent. However, he did lease the rights and manufacture of it for 5 years to Mr. Thomas Burnie Robertson who began advertising it under the name, J. Erskine and Company. This new company advertised a few months later that they had erected steam power machinery to better manufacture “this very important and valuable invention.” It was said that they could now be made in unlimited quantities. Some of the glowing testimonial we covered above in The Field Trials were quoted and it was also indicated that many noblemen and gentlemen have used the machine and love it!

The next year he begins taking out large ads which show the invention drawn out. He highlights its perfect accuracy and perfect safety. He also begins his practice of name-dropping all the people who use this machine. He advertises that one could go see the invention in London at any of the following gun makers who are using it: Mr. Egg, Stephen Grant, Charles Lancaster, Edwin Lancaster, Mr. Dougal, Rigby and Co, Boss, Blisset, James Woodward, Reilly, Mr. Garden, Needham, Mr. Murcott, Moore and Grey, Blanch and Son, Vaughan, Mr. Whistler, Mr. Holland, Cogswell and Harrison, Mr. Smith, Gustave Masu, Mr. Beattie, Mr. T. Jackson, Mr. Gallyon, Crane, Sylvan, Geo Fuller; and all the principal gunmakers in London.

It probably starts to get expensive listing out all of the many gunmakers who use his machine load cartridges so in future ads he simply states that it may be seen at “all the principal gunmakers’ in London and the provinces.” I think this may be the beginning of the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” If you don’t use his machine then you must not be a principal gunmaker!

But it’s really not too far off, in fact, the use of this machine became an advertising point for others that they would include in their ads to entice customers in ads and newspapers all over the country.

In 1872 is when we find out that for some period of time the manufacture of his machine was leased to Mr. Thomas Burnie Robertson and that had now ended. Erskine was again manufacturing the machines himself.

But apparently Robertson did not stop making them so Erskine filed a legal complaint against him and his patent infringements.

Erskine would go back to using his full name as the company name and continue manufacturing these machines for decades into the future. He also mentions that these machines are even used in America.

He would take out multiple additional patents on guns and on cartridge loading machines to make them more automated and even to load military cartridges. His sons, Thomas and William would continue running his company after his death in 1891 and the company would be renamed as James Erskine & Sons.

The lovely thing about being involved with antique arms & accessories is the people you come across. I had a email from a lady who had been doing some lanscaping in her garden and unearthed these old Erskine signs. She kindly send me some pictures.