Joshua Shaw

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Joshua Shaw
Born 1776
Ellesmere Port, England
Died 1860
London, England
Occupation firearms designer, artist, writer

Joshua Shaw (1776-1860) was an English-American artist and inventor.[1]

Early life[edit]

Joshua Shaw was born in Billinngborough, Lincolnshire County, England in 1776 and was orphaned at the age of 7. To survive he worked for a local farmer as a bird scarer. During the three years he spent doing this work he discovered his artistic talent and began drawing the animals he encountered. After his mother remarried Shaw worked for his stepfather's plumbing and glazing business, and later as a mail carrier.[1]

Artistic career[edit]

Witch Duck Creek, oil on canvas, c. 1835. Reynolda House Museum of American Art

At the age of 16 he painted his first work: 10 commandments in St Michael's Church. His master, jealous of Shaw's skills, sent him to Manchester to work as a foreman. Shaw was able to find purchasers for his work and emerged from obscurity, traveling to London where his paintings attracted many wealthy clients.[1]


Joshua Shaw (a.k.a. Joseph Shaw) claimed to have invented the copper percussion cap in 1814, but experts no longer consider this a valid claim. He was an early developer of percussion primers and a gun dated to be no earlier than 1817, was made by William Smith of Lisle Street in London to test his prototype steel cap. Shaw, writing in the Journal of the Franklin Institute in 1929 clearly states that he adopted the use fulminate of mercury, which was improvement over the corrosive chlorate of potash fulminate patented by Alexander Forsyth.

In 1816 Forsyth filed for an injunction against Joseph Manton's patent for the tube lock or 's scent-bottle lock[2] and the suit was found in favor of Forsyth in 1818. He also successfully filed suits against Joseph Vicars, William Beckwith, and Jackson Mortimer in 1811; Isaac Riviere in in 1819, and Collinson Hall in 1819. Forsyth's patent expired on April 11, 1821. However, there was no evidence these lawsuits influenced Shaw.

Shaw came to Philadelphia in 1817 and filed for a patent on June 19, 1822 and surrendered it the Patent Office in 1829 to obtain a revised patent reissued on May 7, 1829. His patent was overturned by Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York in October 1829 and upheld in by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1833.[3] At some point prior to 1823 the U.S. Ordnance Department converted one of John Hall's breech-loading rifles to test Shaw's percussion caps and based on this, despite the Supreme Court ruling, successfully petitioned Congress [4] for compensation for use of his patent. In 1846 the U.S. Congress authorized a payment to Shaw in the amount of $25,000. He received $18,000 on May 4, 1847 and the remainder by 1858.

During the Regency period the percussion cap, along with Forsyth and Manton's inventions, became popular among hunters on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1827 copper percussion caps were manufactured by the millions in both England and France and imported to the U.S. A number of people in the U.S., including Joseph Cooper as early as 1824 [5] were manufacturing them in smaller quantities by 1827. In the 1840s the British, French and Russian armies began adopting his form of ignition. The Austrians, by contrast, preferred the tube-lock derived from Joseph Manton's design.[6] The Model 1841 Springfield rifled musket was the first percussion-lock firearm produced for the U.S. Ordnance Department.

Shaw returned to England in 1833 with his new design for cannon locks. His invention was adopted by both the British and the Russians.

By the time Shaw died in 1860 he was well-known and respected in America as a member of the Franklin Institute; in addition to being an artist and scientist he was a prolific writer.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d "Joshua Shaw, Artist And Inventor (Scientific American, 15 Aug 1869)". 1984-02-31. Retrieved 2012-05-20. 
  2. ^ Ricketts, H, Firearms, (London, 1962) p.54
  3. ^ Shaw v. Cooper, Page 32, U.S. Petition 292
  4. ^ House of Representatives, Bills and Resolutions, 29th Congress, 1st session, H.R. 206, Feb. 10, 1846
  5. ^ Shaw's testimony, Shaw v. Cooper, Page 32, U.S. Petition 292
  6. ^ Myatt, F, 19th century firearms (London, 1989)