Mid-Nineteenth Century Firearms and Artillery

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The Enfield ‘rifled musket’

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Minie ball

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The Whitworth experimental 3-pounder during test firing at Liverpool. The breech and breech-screw can be seen.

A quarter of a century after Waterloo the flintlock was in process of ending more than a hundred years of supremacy on the battlefield as it was replaced by the percussion cap. Smooth bores would also pass from the hands of the infantry as soon as a satisfactory way could be devised for forcing a ball down a rifled barrel. Once again Captain Delvigne was a pioneer. In 1841 he devised a ball which was the precursor of all subsequent rifle bullets, a shape which he described as cylindroconical. It had a hollow base of which the rim, from the explosion of the propellant charge, was expanded into the rifling. His design was improved upon by Captain Claude Etienne Minie, of the School of Musketry at Vincennes who added to the cylindroconicallead ball an iron plug at the base. The force of the charge drove this forward into the lead, expanding it to fit the grooves. After the rifling itself had been improved by his colleague, Captain Tamasier, the Minie rifle was adopted by both the British and French armies. It had a calibre of 0.702 inch, weighed 10lb., a fraction less than the smoothbore musket, and was sighted to 1,000 yards although it was accurate at scarcely half that range. In the British army it was officially known as a ‘rifled musket’ since the Duke of Wellington, Colonel Commandant of the Rifle Brigade, insisted that if the infantry of the line were allowed to fancy themselves as Riflemen ‘they will be asking next to be dressed in green; or some other jack-a-dandy uniform’.

Although the British adopted the Minie rifle in 185 1 and began to issue it to their troops over the next three years they were not satisfied with it and, before any infantryman had one in his hands, a committee was set up to design a successor weapon. The secretary was Captain Pitt-Rivers of the Grenadier Guards who, as part of his duties, made a collection of firearms of all types. From this he took to collecting artefacts of all kinds which illustrated the progress of human invention. Thus, as a by-product of his secretaryship, he became the founder of systematic archaeology.

The committee recommended adoption of the Enfield ‘rifled musket’ which incorporated improvements to the rifling and the bullet suggested by William Ellis Metford, an Indian railway engineer. This was a smaller weapon than the Minie, weighing less than 9lb. and .having a calibre of only 0.577 inch. It was sighted to 1,200 yards but those who used it considered that its effective range was little more than 250. Although adopted in 1853, the Enfield was not available in sufficient quantities to equip the army which sailed for the Crimea. The early battles there were fought with the Minie although the Enfields were shipped out as they became available. They were in India in quantity, and it was the grease necessary to force the bullet down the barrel which was the ostensible cause of the outbreak at Meerut which in tum led to the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857.

In fact both the Minie and the Enfield were obsolete before they were designed. In 1843 the Prussian Army had adopted the Zundnadelgewehr or needle gun, the first practicable military breech-loader. Designed by Nicholas Dreyse this rifle was the first which enabled the soldier to load and fire lying down since inserting the rounds through the breech made it unnecessary to use the ramrod, an operation which could only be done standing. It also raised the possible, rate of fire from the two rounds a minute possible with a rifled muzzle-loader, to eight or even twelve rounds a minute. It was not until the third quarter of the century that the needle gun was recognised as a revolutionary weapon, although the Prussians used it in their almost unnoticed campaign in Denmark in 1864, and meanwhile even more advanced weapons were being evolved in the United States.

In 1848 an American, Christian Sharp, patented a breech-loading lock on what is known as the ‘drop-lock’ principle, by which a lever behind the trigger guard is pulled down thus causing the breech block to swing down from its position. At about the same time, largely in France, fixed ammunition, paper or cardboard cylinders enclosing percussion cap, propellant, and bullet, was being developed. Sharp’s rifle, with these ‘pinfire’ cartridges, was much used by the Federal troops in the American Civil War but the most advanced design was the brainchild of a 20-year-old American, Christopher M. Spencer. He used Sharp’s dropping breech block but introduced into the butt a spring-loaded tube which could contain seven cartridges, one of which was forced into the breech each time the breech block dropped, while an ejector working on the rim of the cartridge removed the spent case. It will come as no surprise that in 1861 the military authorities in Washington refused to contemplate the first magazine rifle. Spencer, however, contrived an interview with President Lincoln who examined the weapon and tested it in the garden of the White House. Before the Civil War ended 61,685 Spencer carbines had been issued to the Union cavalry.

During the same twenty-five years artillery at last began to emerge from the stagnation in which it had remained for more than a century. The first stirring came with the introduction of a percussion tube to replace the slow match (or in the navy the flint gun-lock) as a firing device. It was a surgeon who produced the model adopted by the Royal Artillery in 1845. In this a tube containing one of Forsyth’s percussion caps was struck with a hammer but, six years later, a more sophisticated tube, in which a roughened bar was drawn through fulminate, was taken into service. At about the same time Captain Boxer R.A., produced a fuse based on a wooden tube filled with powder and bored at timed intervals. This greatly improved the effectiveness of shells and shrapnel.

All artillery pieces were still smooth bores and the artillery taken to the Crimea by both the British and French armies was scarcely distinguishable from the guns used by the two armies at Waterloo. When heavy guns were needed for’ the siege of Sebastopol the navy came forward with some 68-pounders and some 8-inch guns which had been converted to rifling on the Lancaster principle. Under Charles William Lancaster’s scheme, spin was given to the projectile not by rifling grooves but by making the entire bore of the barrel oval and twisting it so that it would make one tum in thirty feet. The projectile was also oval in shape. At Sebastopol Lancaster guns made good practice at ranges of up to 2,600 yards but, since three of the eight guns employed blew up when being fired, there was little enthusiasm for them among the gun crews and Lancaster’s ideas were allowed to lapse.

Nevertheless it was inevitable that rifled guns, which gave accuracy at twice the range that could be obtained with smooth-bores, would have to be taken into service and, in all armies, the arguments centred round whether the new models of field gun should be loaded through the muzzle or the breech. Defenders of the old-fashioned system pointed out, not without cause, that no one had yet devised a reliable method of closing the breech and it could not be denied that as long as guns recoiled several feet each time they were fired the saving of effort resulting from breech loading was not as great as might now be supposed.

In Britain the advocates of progress won a temporary victory. In 1859 a start was made with re-equipping the field and horse artillery with rifled 12- and 9-pounders which were breech-loading on the principles laid down by William Armstrong. By this system the breech was closed by a vent-piece which dropped into place in grooves and was held there by a breech screw which was so bored that the shell could be loader through it when the vent-piece was raised. This was a simple and, on the whole, efficient design but suffered from the defect that the vent-piece, even on a field gun, was cumbersome and heavy to handle. Hardly had the issue of these Armstrong guns started when the French produced a shell which fitted the bore and was equipped with studs which could move easily down the rifling from the muzzle. The British thereupon appointed a committee to reconsider the merits of breech and muzzle loading and its report, published in 1860, was emphatic ‘that the breech-loading guns are far inferior to muzzle loading as regards simplicity of construction and cannot be compared to them in this respect in efficiency for active service’. It was consequently decided that the Royal Artillery should revert to muzzle-loaders just at the time when in Germany Herr Krupp was perfecting an improved breech-loader for the Prussian army.

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