Berdan Primers

Can anyone tell me why the British Government has always specified Berdan primers for all its small arms ammunition? I am told it it a specified requirement and not just one of those things that they never got round to changing.

It must be intentional otherwise surely they would have changed to boxer primers years ago.
To broaden the question a bit, why on earth did they persist with those strange non standard size primers in the .303 right up to the end of production in the late 50s?

For that matter, why did they stick with cordite all that time when it had such a damaging effect on barrels? The cordite charge has to be placed inside the case during the making of the case before the neck is formed which must have made the process a lot more complicated, and therefore costly, than it needed to be.

I have had some boxer primed RG 7.62 greenspot about 10 years ago but it was apparantly a temporary thing to overcome some problem at the plant. I think my friend Maurice might still have some of the cases.


I believe that one of the main reasons that the UK persisted with cordite for so long was shelf life. The British Empire was far spread and ammunition had to be transported by sea and over land. Storage was frequently in very hot conditions. Nitro propellants fail very quickly under these conditions. Nowadays ammunition is shipped by air and the empire has gone so we have a “throw-away” attitude to ammo.


Firstly, it was a matter of Colonial Politics (Can’t have the natives reloading ammo, can we now???)
Not that Berdan priming or re-priming stood in the way of the Afghans or the Africans…or even a lot of the White colonials…

When the .303 cartridge was introduced in 1888, it was initially primed with a small Boxer primer (about .200 or so). This was sufficient to ignite the compressed, tubular black powder column inside the case.

When Cordite was introduced in 1890-91, it was found that the small primer gave insufficient flash to ignite the cordite reliably, so they switched to the most common Berdan primer of the time, the Express rifle primer used by many of Britain’s ammo makers (and also that used in the Martini-Henri case, the .250 primer (quarter inch).
This size was also the most common BP rifle size primer on the Continent as well.

The reason for “Cordite” are many, the first is its stability in all climates, especially the tropics (where the majority of the Empire was situated)

Also, the method of making the Black powder cases (filled with compressed powder whilst still untapered,then shouldered and necked) was also suitable (indeed essential) for loading Cordite…other types of Smokeless powders of the 1890s were very unreliable as to life span and consistent burning.

The need to avoid excessive erosion was met by firstly removing the ground glass from the Priming Compound (where it acted as a friction agent in Primer dlagration) and also changing the composition of cordite to “MDT” (modified, tubular ) The first cordite had been solid rods, with no vaseline as a modifier; the MDT had up to 5% Vaseline, which stabilsed the NG-NC Mix, and made it easier to extrude; also the final tubes were not liable to crack when the Cordite cable was wound onto spools for delivery to the “Filling Factory”. The tubularity gave a better “progressive Burn” thus reducing the flame erosion character

Once they were on a Good thing, why change…The large Berdan primer ensured ignition if struck at almost any point in its circumference ( worn chambers then tended to cause off-set firing indentations; The large primer charge ensured reliable ignition in all climates, and the cordite ignited in all climates.
When the British had to accept Nitro Powder loaded contract ammo (WW I US contracts, WWII as well,) they found that such ammo deteriorated very quickly compared to Cordite, and so at the end of WW I, an estimated One Billion rounds of US contract .303 was dumped in the North sea, or given away (Baltic States, Portugal, British colonies) for immediate use…the Portuguese had so much of it they recycled the projectiles into their own manufacture cases in the early 1930s (from personal research and Ammo analysis…Winchester ammo was the worst in the reliability stakes here.(“W-15” ammo especially, with age cracking of the necks and primer failures).

By the Second World War, US contract .303 had improved, but even the
"Red label" ammo for the RAF was found wanting after a year in store…so it was relegated to Training or to “allied nations” using Britain as an Exile. a lot ened up with the Dutch after WW II, where it was sent to the War in Indonesia, and remained till surplussing off in the 1980s…mostly non firing and cracked.

Only the Canadian Boxer primed, NC loaded ammo (“DI Z”) was consistently good, and still is, some sixty years after the end of the war.

Any of the supposed problems of "Berdan "primed ammo were swiftly overcome by British attention to detail

The Primers are corrosive??..then wash out the barrel after shooting with your Tea water (it’s Boiling) or pass by the Cookhouse, with its steam jet from the Wiles Cooker

The primers are hard to dig out to reload the case.??..pass the primer chisel, Mohammed,
( I have seen an Afghan/Khyber Pass reloading tool for .303…made like a Lyman tong tool (or the earlier Ideal designs of the 1880s,) and it digs out the primer, seats a new one, and also casts a 215 grain lead projectile (a la mark II/VI), as well as sizing the case and seating the bullet. Of course the tool is made out of solid steel (railroad line head.) and weighs quite a lot…but it does the job.

Cordite was easy to make, and the load was basically a cut section of cable…no weighing or other messy loading practices. No spillage of powder grains in the loading room…although the (female) operators suffered from "cordite skin (yellowish tinge) and after a weekend away from the works, “cordite withdrawal” (the NG caused changes to heart rate and blood pressure.)

As to the size of the primer…tooling was easier to make ( given the larger size) and they were easier to fill --given that they were effectively “Hand filled”…Primer cups were placed(by shaking) into a special brass tray…with lots of holes, just right for the cup to sit upside down and flush…
the moist primer compound (always kept moist) was placed at one end of the plate, and “squee-geed” over the open cups with a hard rubber strip.
when all the cups were evenly filled, the excess compound was removed, the plate cleaned, and passed through a slot into the pressing and foiling room, where a machine took over to press the compound(still moist) into the cup, and apply a paper/lead foil over the top of the compound. Then the primers, still in their tray, were allowed to dry in warm air, before final lacquering and checking.

The “squeegee” operator worked behind a very thick glass plate, but with (her) hands actually in the “primer area” : Later factories (post-WWII) used “robot” extensions to draw the squeegee across the trays.

The usual causes for Primer room explosions was excessive amounts of compound drying and forming dust, which could be ignited by the simple friction of moving a primer tray.

Now the RG ammo:
Radway Green ammo for many years has also been made by Raufoss of Norway, especially the Boxer primed stuff.(under a headstamp contract)

Nowadays, Radway Green makes Blank 7,62 and 5,56 with Boxer cases, although all the 1966-67 RG L10A1 Blank I use for Movie work is still definietey Berdan (.217/5,5mm)

Several other Nato countries have switched to Boxer for Blanks, but most still use Berdan primers for Ball…on simply a reliability factor. And the cost of making the primers as well. Berdan primers are simple to make and fill; with Boxer primers, one has the added work in making the anvil correctly, fitting it correctly, and it only works if the firing pin strikes it correctly.(and the anvil material is the right hardness as well.
The Berdan cup, with the anvil as part of the case, avoids all these problems.

As to why the British (and other Commonwealth countries) did not switch to Boxer primers after the war…why waste money in a change of tooling and production methods, with millions of rounds still in stock, and quite recent machinery available (WW II saw nearly all the factoruies work with NEW made machinery…as most factories were new from the ground up…in fact Australia had Six factories making .303 from go-to-whoa during WW II, and two primer making plants…at war’s end, they sold off the earliest factory (MF (No.1) and used MG (no.2) as their main plant…and several years later, reverted to the older (MF) headstamp; the other factories had been dismantled and plant sold off to such places as India, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The other reason was that by 1955, Britain and the Commonwealth had adopted the 7,62 Nato…so why change the .303 primer system at all…it was an obsolescent cartridge… and the Gun-shy British Government didn’t want the natives being able to reload ammo like those rebellious colonials in the USA and Australia etc.

Hope this short dissertation on .303 production and British colonial politics has informed some one…

Regards, Doc AV
AV Ballistics.

.303 Reloading taught me of the advantages of Berdan reloading…from 1967 on.

There are a lot of small arms cartridges dug up from the battlefields of europe every year. Usually the cases are corroded to the point of crumbling away. If they were Nitro filled the powder has long since decomposed but the cordite sticks are usually still Ok and burn when ignited with a match. As an experiment years ago I loaded a .303 case with 1914 dated cordite removed from water-flooded cases. It is not possible to get the full charge in by poking sticks into the case, but enough. The round fired very briskly indicating that there was still plenty of life in the cordite.


What a fantastic reply! thanks very much for that.

Its summer in Britain (a pretty poor one) and summer finds me down at Bisley for the seasons competitions. I don’t shoot in many but I work some times as a volunteer and I love the atmosphere of the place.

The big competion of the year the Imperial meeting / Queens prize has to be shot with issued ammunition. Again the RG ammunition has been coming in for heavy critcism.
With 1200 competitors coming from literally all over the world to shoot it is just embarrassing frankly.

The talk in the clubhouses in the evenings was the basis of this question.

Just a few comments to add

(1) I was told this year that British sniper teams in Iraq an Afganistan are now using Lapua ammunition because they too found the RG inadequate. Does anyone know if this is true? If so should it qualify Lapua as “issued” ammuniton for competition use?
Of course the easiest thing to do would be to change the rules of the competition but after 100 or so years its tradition.(yawn)

(2) DocAV It wasn’t just the colonials they were worried about reloading ammuninition. After the 1st WW and the Russian Revolution Germany came so close to going the same way its hard to see now how they managed to avoid it. We had also had the Irish uprising closer to home.
The British Government were worried about Civil unrest at home. The legacy of that to us was that they introduced the first firearm laws.

Initially it was just really registration but it imposed limits on how much ammunition you can hold. This was significant, restricting the ammuntion you can hold won’t stop you robbing a bank or shooting your neighbour but it will severely restict your ability to start a civil war.

However, making the cases more difficult to reload is the popularly held view of why they have stuck to berdan primers. Even though that view is weakened by the fact that they sell primers to the public.

(3) My own cynical take on the reason why they did nothing to change the .303 was that for decades it was in the status of "We are probably going to replace it soon so its not worth it"
The saga of the plans to replace the Lee Enfield and the .303 cartridge was the longest running non event in history.
Even finally they did not make a decision they were forced into it by external politics.

But thanks again, I really appreciate it.


In your initial posting you said: "To broaden the question a bit, why on earth did they persist with those strange non standard size primers in the .303 right up to the end of production in the late 50s?

DocAV has covered the primer type and size question very thoroughly. Your question seems to come from your perspective as a competition shooter who reloads. This consideration would have carried no weight with the military 50 to 100 years ago. The question is: Who says that they are “non-standard”. The War Office will have manufactured billions of these primers for all types of small arms ammunition every year, who did they need to standardise with? I believe that most, if not all, UK 5.56 is boxer primed.



You flatter me by describing me as a competitive shooter. I could never afford the time or the money required to be a competitive match shooter. Even if I could afford the shooting I could not afford the divorce!

I used to be a competitive pistol shot and indeed ran a large and successful club for many years. Today I just plink for pleasure, to give you some idea of the sort of things I do now have a look at this website.

I bought my first SMLE when I was 18 and they were regarded as useless junk. In those days it was possible to get unlimited supplies of free ammo if you knew how. I also shoot muzzle loaders.

My interest in all forms of the Lee Enfield and its ammunition has always left me wondering why they persisted for so long with what appears to me to be unnecessarily complicated to make ammunition. Having been through the trials of WW1 I would have thought the desire to simplify some aspects would have been paramount.

As an example, the 174grn bullet is unnecessarily heavy and not suited to the 1 in 10" twist rifling.
Why they never switched to a 150grn bullet or even (too radical) a 125grn bullet I fail to see.
Apart from a loss in performance at extreme range it would have been less costly in terms of materials etc.

A lighter bullet would have allowed an increase in velocity. Killing power comes predominantly from the velocity rather than weight of the bullet so a lighter bullet would have been more not less effective.

Having an extreme range capability on an infantry rifle is a dubious attribute, the sights are not capable of accurate fire at those ranges and the average soldier is not that well trained.

Anyway, its all history now.

[quote=“Vince Green”]Gravelbelly

My interest in all forms of the Lee Enfield and its ammunition has always left me wondering why they persisted for so long with what appears to me to be unnecessarily complicated to make ammunition. Having been through the trials of WW1 I would have thought the desire to simplify some aspects would have been paramount.

As an example, the 174grn bullet is unnecessarily heavy and not suited to the 1 in 10" twist rifling.
Why they never switched to a 150grn bullet or even (too radical) a 125grn bullet I fail to see.
Apart from a loss in performance at extreme range it would have been less costly in terms of materials etc.

A lighter bullet would have allowed an increase in velocity. Killing power comes predominantly from the velocity rather than weight of the bullet so a lighter bullet would have been more not less effective.

Having an extreme range capability on an infantry rifle is a dubious attribute, the sights are not capable of accurate fire at those ranges and the average soldier is not that well trained.

Anyway, its all history now.[/quote]

Several points;

As Doc says, the Berdan priming system is much simpler to produce and inherently more reliable than the Boxer system. After WWI there was so much ammo in reserve and also no money to invest in changing production methods and machinery.

With regard to bullet weights, the Mark VII round was originally introduced with a 160 grn bullet, but was almost immediately withdrawn in late 1910 when the first batches of production ammo failed accuracy proof. The 174 grn bullet was the result of a hurried re-design.

A reduction in weight and a consequent reduction in long range effectiveness still mattered. Barrage fire from Vickers guns was still an intrinsic part of infantry tactics and to have two bullet weights for rifle and MGs is never a good idea.

I also question your statement that velocity is what matters in killing power. It is delivered energy that matters. How about the .455 revolver round? Read “Shooting to live” about policing Shanghai in the 1930s for some interesting comments on stopping power.


One of the interesting things discovered during the intro of Cordite was that increased bullet weight often increased the velocity over a lighter bullet. This was because the slower moving heavier bullet in the barrel allowed the Cordite to combust more efficiently - so the bullet exited at maximum velocity in relation to the propellant load. I suspect the 174 gr .303 bullet was arrived at by pragmatic experiment (Greenwood & Batley claimed credit for it).
There were plenty of Cordite-loaded .303 x 150 gr bullets - but these were designed for thin-skinned game.

It’s probably pretty much common knowledge but Frankford Arsenal loaded one lot of 1930 National Match ammunition with a Berdan primer. The cartridges showed the best accuracy ever acheived and was issued for the matches, but unacceptable high pressures during hot weather caused the Ordnance Department to withdraw the lot and the matches were completed with other ammunition loaded with the Boxer primer.

The primer appears to be the same size (.215") as the Boxer FA primer and the cartridge is loaded with the GM 173 grain 9 degree BT match bullet and stick powder. Headstamp is FA 30 R.

I’m not positive that these cartridges can be identified other than pulling a bullet and visually confirming the twin flash holes. That’s the way I did it. Maybe there is another way?


Ray, You don’t suprise me about the primers. In Principles and Practice of Loading Ammunition by Earl Narramore which was written about that time in the US he goes into some detail about the differences between the variablity of non corrosive primers compared to the wonderful consistancy of corrosive primers.
It was an interesting time for primers.

Tony, I have read shooting to live and its an amazing book in many ways. It parallels the arguements put forward by Elmer Keith that size matters, but they are talking about pistols.

A sub sonic pistol round and a supersonic rifle round perform very differently whan it comes to wound channel ballistics.

A supersonic rifle bullet does most of its damage by hydraulic shock. This is not strictly dependant on kinetic energy.

Since any body, human or animal, is predominantly water it is the fact that the molecules physically cannot get out of the way of the bullet quickly enough resulting in an “irristible force meets immovable object” situation with explosive results.

This effect becomes greater as the velocity increases. It is the reason why bullets have got smaller and velocities have become greater over the years.

If you have ever seen a fox shot with a .22-250 you will understand what I mean. The animal literally explodes and you have a head and tail with nothing but mush in between.

The bullet has caused damage to flesh and organs nowhere near the path of the bullet because of the hydraulic effect.

Many of us will remember those pictures so popular in Guns and Ammo of HV bullets fired into giant plasticene blocks. The cavernous holes left by the bullet were many times bigger than the swept path of the bullet. I remember thinking how can that be so? It because the bullet becomes effectively a hydraulic piston driving a hydro shock wave before it. ( Hydro shok is now a trade mark)

I remember those videos in the 80s of people firing different calibre rifles into 5 gallon plastic drums of water. The were a bit contrived but they did demonstrate the significance of hydraulic shock.

However, high velocity comes with a price to be paid in barrel life. These ultra HV rifles can turn a barrel into scrap metal in as little as 1000 rounds.


As an example of the weight having a significant benefit at longer ranges, the Vickers MG in .303 cal will outrange the same gun in .30-06. U.S. machine gunners who had trained in the UK with .303 Vickers complained that their issued .30 Vickers would not range far enough when they got to the front in Europe.


Tony - respectfully, I have to disagree with you, as Vince did, about bullet weight versus velocity in “killing power” or “stopping power.” Any hunter knows that to really drop an animal, you have to “bleed them out” quickly, unless something has been hit that simply causes instant death. I agree with Vince, with some reservations, about the damage done by light bullets at high velocity when fired out of rifles and at rifle velocities.

In pistol parameters, the heavier, bigger bullets do it better because they penetrate deeper and crush more tissue than lighter bullets. This causes more internal bleeding and a more rapid loss of blood to the brain, which cause unconsciousness and a stop to resistence by the person hit. Light pistol bullets simply do not move fast enough to create the collateral damage that a high velocity rifle bullet does! They do not penetrate deep enough, generally speaking, to crush the amount of tissue of the heavier bullet or even, in some cases, to reach anything important. Organs outside of the wound track are often pushed aside and bruised, but not ruptured violently as happens with HV rifle rounds.

The high velocity rifle bullet does a huge amount of collateral damage, causing catastrophic tissue destruction and massive internal bleeding. Of course, on the other hand, they do not have the range of heavier rifle bullets, and therefore, depending on the case capacity and initial velocity (which HV caliber), they can lose velocity to the point of being ineffective in pretty short range when fired out of short barrels, one of the problems of the M4 Carbine.

Of course, the most important factor is shot placement. Despite the myth of a .45 bullet doing massive damage if it even strikes a finger (I have read that many times - baloney) shot placement is everything. A .25 auto bullet to a vital part of the anatomy is more effective than a graze or flesh wound with a .30-06 rifle, in ending a confrontation. Hits count!

Muzzle energy can be a useful figure for determining effective pistol calibers, but it really is not what stops fights. Bullets don’t knock people down. Ever see those videos of the guy Davis, who so successfully marketed kevlar bullet proof vests, shoot himself in the midsection with a .44 Magnum, while wearing his vest? He barely steps backwards.

Just my opinion, but one based on much reading in scholarly works and reports, many from the Letterman Army Institute, Wound Ballistics Laboratory, LGH, Presidio of San Francisco, Ca., before the Presidio was turned into a park, with the military gone. Also from many articles in the Journal of the International Wound Ballistics Association, of which I was a member when it was extant. Definitely not the pap from the popular gun press. There are only one or two writers in that venue that seem to have real wound ballistics knowledge. Most of the others get their “knowledge” from a couple of published books on the subject that are fraught with errors and misinformation, and have been repudiated by real Forensics experts (one of which I am NOT!).

I do agree with you though that the .303 heavy bullet was one of, if not the longest-ranged projectile of WWI, certainly with a longer effective range than our .30-06 of the day, or of the Type S bullet in the German 7.9 x 57.
With the theory of using volley fire in lieu of artillery, both from machineguns and the S.M.L.E. (I recall some have volley-fire long range sights on the side of the stock - wish I had one like that just for the fun of woning it) and without judging the validity of that theory, I can understand why it was used.

Not sure if this is a topic frowned on here or not. It most certainly is ammunition related, perhaps much more intimately and importantly than what color tip a tracer has, although for us ammo freaks, it is all interesting of course.

The longest ranging ball bullet in the Great War was the French 8m/m balle D, joined late in the war by the German 7.9m/m sS. Very possibly the Swiss 1911 was superior to either in absolute range, but Switzerland wasn’t one of the contestants. JG

John / Vince

Perhaps I should have said that I disagreed “…velocity is only what matters in killing power.” I agree with you that the wound ballistics of very high velocity rounds are hydraulic in effect, but as John pointed out, the 5.56mm has hardly been an outstanding success as a combat round.

It seems that most agree that a hit from a 7.62mm is far more likely to immediately incapacitate an enemy than a similar hit with a 5.56mm, yet the 5.56mm has an advantage of about 300 fps MV. Admitedly the US M4 and the British L85 have fairly short barrels but even so, the heavier bullet seems to do a better job.

I suspect the real truth as John suggests, lies in shot placement.


Even though it was fiercely resisted by the old guard, the 5.56x45 and M16 rifle rifle were not adopted in a vacuum. You guys need to read the 1952 APG reports that led to the SCHV (Small Caliber High Velocity) and SALVO programs which, in turn, resulted in the M16 rifle and the 5.56x45 cartridge. One of the biggest considerations in selecting a military weapon is the probability of hitting and wounding or killing the enemy. Studies showed that, during the Korean war, the average combat distance was seldom more than 150 yards but the best marksmen were unable to make predictable hits as close as 100 yards with the M1 rifle. The number of rounds fired per casualty was astounding. If you can’t hit the other guy it makes little difference how big or how fast that bullet is travelling.



Which was why the British had decided on the intermediate .280 as the ideal calibre after a great deal of research!

However, the US forced the full power T65 on NATO.



You’re spot on! I said that the 5.56x45 was not adopted in a vacuum- but the 7.62x51 and the M14 were.



Are you sure that the M4 and AS 80 have similar short barrels? The SA 80 looks short but it is a bullpup with a full length barrel as far as I know.


Dave - I said that both the M4 and the L85 have “fairly short barrels”. I don’t know the length of the M4 but the L85 is 495mm or 19.5 inches, which I think is “fairly short” compared to a regular rifle barrel of say 25 to 28 inches.