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