Chapter Six

Early Firearms & Methods of Ignition

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This chapter is of Tom’s own authoring being the first from his unpublished manuscript of 274 pages entitled “The Complete History and Manual of the Modern Sporting Rifle”. The existence of this detailed and interesting work was made known to me in 2010 by Tony Curran, the 15 year old boy that Tom employed at Garnett and Keegans back in 1959. It bears no relevance to his life story, however in context; it demonstrates his obvious enthusiasm and love of the subject matter. His diligent research and experiments that contributed to this body of work is difficult to comprehend for today’s internet generation. Unlike his colleague and fellow director at Garnett and Keegans, JR Harris who published the best seller “An Anglers Entomology” in 1952, Tom would not live long enough to see his book published. In the manuscript preamble, he humbly claims…

This is not a text book; it is intended merely to convey as much general knowledge as possible, especially to the rifleman starting out either as a game hunter or target shooter. Since no literary merit exists, none is claimed…. While these pages are intended to deal with modern rifles, cartridges and sights only, it is felt that it may be of interest to many readers briefly to review the development of the gas tight cartridge case which made breech loading possible, as well as some of the ignition systems used in the early days when there was no other powder than the so called black powder”.Thomas F Smith (1960)

When, or where, gunpowder was first made and used is not known with certainty. Various claims have been made by alleged inventors and the Germans without any foundation claimed to have invented it in the early part of the 14th Century. Written evidence exists however, that the English monk, Roger Bacon, wrote about gunpowder in 1267. Even this was late as there is no doubt that Arabs used it at the siege of Mecca in 690AD.

There are some grounds for believing that gunpowder was known to the Hindu Indians centuries before the siege of Mecca and this theory is borne by the following extract from a law code known as the Gentoo Laws, written about 1300 B.C.

THE MAGISTRATE WILL NOT MAKE WAR WITH CANNON OR WITH ANY KIND OF FIREARM.Gentoo Laws

It should be noted that the words “cannon” and “firearm” would appear to have the same meaning. This text proves that Indians did in fact use some kind of propellant powder and in all probability was of similar composition of the present day, black powder. During my service in India, I spoke with those who claim India’s civilization centuries ago was much superior to that of the simple life today. Perhaps they are right as the Gentoo Laws lend some support to their claims as far as gunpowder is concerned. Wherever it was first used, gunpowder certainly was not invented by any of the Western races, as all evidence suggests it originated in the East and travelled westwards.

Whatever date gunpowder was introduced to Europe, it does not appear to come into general use until 1315. There is a definite mention of its use at the Siege of Seville in 1247, where stone missiles where projected from some kind of cannon. In this context, it is worth mentioning that some ancient Chinese cannons had wooden barrels bound with iron hoops and Malta Arsenal had a mortar made from paper externally reinforced with leather. This particular mortar is reputed to be of Eastern origin, and to have been used prior to (and perhaps during) the Christian Crusades. From all available evidence, one can conclude that gunpowder was first used in the East, and may have been discovered by Hindu Indians.

Early European Firearms

In early European firearms, the first method of igniting a gunpowder charge was by means of a red hot wire pushed directly into the powder charge through a ”touch hole” in the “breech”. This method of “spiking the guns” served to drive a spike into the touch hole and break it off flush with the outer surface of the barrel. With the touch hole blocked in this way, once fired the gun was put out of action for a considerable time as the armourer had the fairly difficult job of clearing the touch hole.

The hot wire ignition was 100% certain when used with the black powder of the day; however, it must have been a challenge to raise it to red heat just as it was needed. Hot wire ignition was soon replaced by the portable “match”, or slow match. The match was simply a piece of fibrous material soaked in saltpetre which smouldered and had to be blown upon in its early days just to keep it alight too secure effective ignition of the powder charge. Crude as the match was, it led to the first use of hand firearms. The early match hand arms were very inefficient.

Little advance was made until the match was fastened to the end of a lever, which was pivoted in the stock, and actuated by hand. One of the earliest match ignition hand arms was the “Matchlock” (though it had no actual lock). The matchlock had a lever on the stock, or hand grip, shaped like an “S” with the loops open. The upper end of the lever (called a Serpentine) carried the powder ignition match, with another match fastened to the barrel which was kept burning in readiness when firing was anticipated.

When the matchlock weapon was fired, the end of the lever (below the hand grip) was actuated to enable the match in the Serpentine to come into contact with the burning match on the barrel, and then with the priming charge in the touch hole. At this time priming pans had not then been invented. Weapons of this type were used about the middle of the 17th century and both design and workmanship were very crude.

Some advance was made in the design of matchlock weapons after the introduction of the flash pan and the lock proper. The “flash pan”(or simply the pan) was fitted to the side of the barrel, at the touch hole and carried a small priming charge of very fine powder. The objective of the pan and its priming charge was to mitigate the necessity of having to make direct contact between the match and the powder charge in the chamber or barrel. The pan charge became the first use of a primer. When the priming charge in the pan was ignited, the flame passed through the touch hole into the main powder charge.

The efficient ignition of a priming charge was not always achieved by ignition of the main powder charge because the flash of the priming charge sometimes failed to ignite giving rise to today’s expression, “a flash in pan”. The matchlock proper obviated the need of keeping a separate match fastened to the barrel as the match on the serpentine could be ignited due to the downward speed, as it was brightened sufficiently to ignite the powder charge.

Despite many improvements on both design and workmanship, the matchlock method of ignition was inherently bad and dangerous so it quickly gave way to the “Wheel-lock”. Extraordinarily, the first breech loader and the first repeating arms were matchlocks.

The matchlock breech loader was made for Henry VIII in 1537. This was a beautiful example of the gun makers’ craft, which can be seen today in the Tower of London. The method of breech loading in this weapon was by a removable hollow cylinder which contained a false pan and touch hole. When the cylinder was loaded with primer, charge and bullet, the left side of what is now called the receiver was swung open on a hinge and the cylinder inserted. When the cylinder had been chambered, the touch hole in the barrel was aligned with the cylinder, the powder charge being ignited with the muzzle loader.

The matchlock repeater was rather peculiar as it got its repeating action in the same way as the old “Roman candle”. One such weapon was made that fired 8 consecutive shots with one loading. All 8 charges were loaded into the barrel, one behind the other, each charge being separated from the others by a leather washer. There was every possibility of a spark finding its way backwards and exploding all the charges at once, with disastrous effects to both weapon and firer.

The matchlock was succeeded by the wheel lock which was the first mechanical method of striking fire into the pan. No doubt the idea of the wheel lock was the outcome of an association of ideas between the firing of gunpowder and the striking of fire from flint and steel. Invented in 1515 in Germany, the wheel lock functioned in the same way as a modern cigarette lighter. Sparks were struck by a rotary action of a steel wheel against a piece of flint or pyrites. The spring driven wheel and lock had to be wound up by a key or spanner to get the power to rotate when the trigger was squeezed, or more probably pulled. The action of the wheel revolving rapidly against the pyrites, held in contact with the wheel by a spring loaded “hammer” would strike a train of sparks directly into the priming charge in the pan. While the wheel lock was a great improvement on the matchlock, it was an expensive and fragile piece of apparatus and was quickly superseded by the flintlock, which was simpler, more reliable, and much cheaper to make.

Invented in Spain in about 1620, the flintlock was of instant appeal to gun makers, as the wheel lock quickly vanished from production. Although the flintlock used the flash pans and priming charge of both the wheel lock and the matchlock, its mechanism was much simpler, being nothing more than a hammer (called a cock) carrying a piece of flint which struck against a steel frizzen or battery. The hammer of the flintlock was spring driven, and trigger released, in exactly the same way as modern rifles. Some of the early models even had a half bent or cock. Many of the flintlock rifles reached a very high state of mechanical perfection and design comparable with the best modern arms. Mechanical perfection, however, was not enough and apart from actual ignition defects, the flintlock suffered, as did all “pan” ignition systems from “hang fires” i.e. a noticeable time elapsed between the ignition of the priming charge and that of the main charge.

While the flintlock mechanism was undoubtedly good and the spark reasonably certain, the firing of the main charge by the primer was its weak point. Despite this however, the flintlock continued to be made for many years after the general acceptance of the new percussion system. Many old “die hards” bitterly opposed the percussion system, and in early comparison tests the flintlock put in the better performance. Eventually the flintlock gave way to the obvious merits of the percussion. Obvious to those whose minds were not unreasonably prejudiced.

Percussion ignition, as we know today is accepted as the endemic. Few riflemen realise the developments that took place between the first percussion ignition and the modern centre fire cartridge which did not evolve immediately when percussion system became prominent. Nearly half a century elapsed before the metallic, or non consumable, centre fire cartridge would be invented. The first percussion arms were muzzle loaders then breech loaders were charged by inserting the bullet wad and powder separately. The use of a fulminating, or detonating, compound to ignite the powder charge in firearms was patented by Reverend Forsythe in 1807. The validity of this patent was challenged but was upheld by a Judge of the King’s Bench in London in 1819. Forsythe used fulminate of mercury as his detonator, though he also used potassium chlorate as well. In this context, it is interesting to note that an Englishman (Forsythe was a Scot) named Howard, marketed “Howards detonating Powder” in 1800, this compound being made from fulminate of mercury and saltpetre.

The knowledge that fulminate of mercury could explode with heat, friction, or a blow, was not discovered by either Forsythe or Howard. It was recorded that the explosive properties of mercury fulminate was discovered and made known by a French Army Doctor in 1774. The doctor however, had no idea of applying his discovery to firearms; therefore the first public mention made for this purpose is in the Forsythe patent of 1807. In the early arms using percussion ignition, the fulminate, was used either in powder or pellet form, or sometimes as wafers.

The best percussion system of the time was that of Wesley Richards of London. In his percussion gun, the detonator was employed in either a powder or pellet form and was placed in a tube then fitted into the touch hole where the pan was formed at the side of the barrel. The hammer, or cock, carried a stud, shaped and located that when struck the stud fitted accurately into the tube containing the fulminate. Contact between the bottom of the tube and the stud of the hammer, on firing, detonated the fulminate, the flame passing through the touch hole into the main powder charge.

The Wesley Richards was a well designed, well made weapon, and the pan cover was automatically moved clear of the striking stud by the action of the falling hammer. There were various methods used by the many gun makers of that time to obtain ignition of the main powder charge by percussion. The Wesley Richards could be taken as representation of all the best practices.

Manton’s Percussion Cap

The real impetus to percussion ignition was given when the percussion cap (invented in 1818) was made known by Joseph Manton of London who was at that time, acknowledged to be the king of gun makers. The Manton percussion cap was made of copper and loaded with fulminate. Though the Manton cap resembled the modern percussion cap, the method of using it was vastly different.

Manton’s firearms never used pellets, wafers or powder, nor did the hammer use a stud to cause detonation. Manton drilled aid tapped a hole in the barrel (at the usual location of the touch hole), into which was screwed a hollow nipple. The open end of the percussion cap was placed over this nipple, and the latter formed an anvil. The hammer was flat faced, and when it descended, the priming compound in the cap was pinched between the hammer and nipple causing the compound to explode. The flame from this explosion passed down the hollow nipple directly into the powder charge as the hollow centre of the nipple acted as the touch hole.

One should appreciate that Manton’s percussion cap was a significant contribution, as not only did the fitting of the cap over the nipple make the firearm waterproof and wind proof, but the cap itself paved the way to the development of the modern centre fire cartridge. Colonel Hawker, a very good friend of Joe Manton, appears to aid the invention of the Manton percussion system but, whatever part he played, Manton took credit for the first percussion cap that was used.

As previously stated, breech loading arms were out dated at the time of the wheel-lock, but in spite of its drawbacks, they continued to be made even in Manton’s day, in fact right up to the time when the first gas tight cartridge case was invented. This is curious as one as all were failures due to the impossibility of preventing gas escape at the breech. All kinds of mechanisms were tried and tested and many of the designs from swinging barrels, hinged chambers and falling blocks, to be the modern technology used in shotguns. One such weapon, the Gilbert Smith (U.S.A.) had a break off barrel, the break off being in the centre of the chamber in an endeavour to minimise gas escape. Despite this however, the fact that the cartridge case was made of rubber (necessary due to the breech separating in the middle to facilitate loading) gas escaped from the breech to such an extent that the rifle and cartridge were condemned by the British Government to which they were demonstrated. Without a gastight cartridge case, no breech loading system could be efficient in small arms, though one system, the Needham (referred to later) would come very close to success.

The fact we have efficient breech loading small arms today is entirely due to the invention of the gastight cartridge case. Such cases whether they are the paper shot cartridges, or the drawn brass rifle cases, effectively seal off the breech against any backward gas escape when fired. Realised by the early gun and rifle manufacturers, an efficient breech seal was necessary proved by the fact that weapons using the percussion cap were muzzle loaders. Many good muzzle loaders had been converted to the percussion system. The conversion was easy as it was only necessary to thread the touch hole after removing the pan-screw in the nipple, remove the flint cock, and substitute a flat faced hammer.

The development of the modern centre fire cartridge case from the Manton percussion cap is interesting however it is curious to think with our modern minds that none of the early percussion cartridges embodied the Manton cap. The percussion cap would have been a logical fitting to my cartridge containing its own ignition.

Early Cartridges

“Cartridges” however, were used with the muzzle loader long before the percussion cap was invented; but these early cartridges were nothing more than a bullet and measured power charge wrapped in paper. The cartridge paper and the loading of the weapon meant tearing off the paper, pouring the powder charge down the bore, pushing the paper in as a wad, and then ramming in the bullet. The British Army used such cartridges about 1770, though they were used by the French much earlier. The only advantage of these cartridges is they saved the soldier from carrying a powder flask and measuring the charges.

The first cartridge to contain its own ignition was invented in 1831 by Jacques Auguste Demondion. This cartridge had a paper case and was self consuming, i.e. the case was destroyed by firing and blown out with the muzzle ejector. The Demondion cartridge was used, with a breech loader, and suffered from the common defect of gases escaping from the breech; nevertheless it was the first cartridge to contain its own ignition, powder and bullet in one case. The method of ignition was curious given the fact the year is now 1831, 23 years after the invention of Manton’s percussion cap. It was affected by a projecting “tail” or percussion tube. This percussion tube was loaded with mercury fulminate and projected from the base of the cartridge, parallel to the cartridge axis, and formed continuation of the case. When loaded, the percussion tube of the demondion cartridge was in the downward position, and the breech block of the weapon which swung upwards for loading when closed was rested on the percussion tube and formed an anvil. The hammer was arranged to strike upward and so squeezed the percussion tube between its face and the underside of the breech block, which it did most efficiently.

The next step of importance in the evolution was the invention of the LeFaucheux cartridge with a non-consumable gastight case which expanded, when the cartridge was fired. This effectively sealed off the breech against any possibility of gas escape. The LeFaucheux cartridge was a pin fire type i.e. a pin projected at right angles from the base to effect detonation of the fulminate and this projection made the cartridges very awkward to handle. Despite this disadvantage the LeFaucheux cartridge proved efficient in sealing the breach against gas escape, more so in fact, than any muzzle loader since. With the muzzle loader some gas escaped through the touch hole or with percussion ignition, through the hollow nipple.

In 1838 Johann Nikolaus von Dreyuse of Germany improved upon the LeFaucheux by doing away with the percussion pin, and locating the priming compound between the wad and the bullet as a pellet in the centre face of the wad. With the Dreyuse cartridge, the firing pin had to pass through the powder charge to contact the primer and a very long firing pin was necessary. Weapons using this cartridge were known as “needle guns”, the Prussian needle gun being an example of the Dreyuse system.

In 1841 a so called cartridge was invented by “Golden” which was nothing more than a hollow base bullet containing a charge of fulminate sufficient to propel the bullet. A similar cartridge was invented by Stephen Taylor in 1847, though the later used gunpowder as well, the two being mixed. The dates of these two cartridges are worth noting in view of the LeFaucheux and Dreyuse cartridges of earlier dates.

A rather interesting cartridge was invented by Needham of London in 1850; over 30 years after Manton had invented the percussion cap in the same city. The Needham cartridge had a consumable case and used a percussion cap, and in the centre of the case head too. The Needham was the first centre fire cartridge however with two curious features in contrast to Manton’s (1), the percussion cap had the open end of the cap facing the standing breech, so that the firing pin struck directly into the priming compound, and (2), the base of the consumable cartridge case was a wad which was not expelled when the cartridge was fired. Upon firing, the base or wad was driven backward to seal off the breech joint against gas escape. This wad remained in the breech after firing, but when a fresh cartridge was chambered, it pushed the wad into the bore and the next firing drove the wad out from the muzzle ahead of the bullet. Since the wad was in contact with the bullet, there was no risk of an unduly high rise in pressure.

The base of the Needham cartridge case had a disc of zinc fastened to it on the standing breech side, and this disc was perforated so that an easy passage was offered to the firing pin. The Needham cartridge was the most efficient cartridge of the consumable case type to be used in breech loaders, since the wad base, being driven backwards by the expanding gases, did in fact form a reasonably good gas seal.

The modern shotgun cartridge case (paper with a brass head) was invented in France by Clement Pottet around 1855. The original Pottet cartridge is used with the present day shot gun the only slight difference is that he used two separate anvils (one acting as the counterpart of the modern “cap” chamber) to make ignition more certain. A modification of the Pottet cartridge by Schneider used a single fluted anvil, but this system did not have the same anvil strength of the Pottet system. The Schneider cartridge was not very successful, and had a very short life.

Metal cartridge cases were used with the earliest cartridges, however, not in the way we understand the term today. Early metallic cases were made from light foil with a low melting point, which would melt with the temperature of the burning gases, or were blown to pieces and expelled from the muzzle, by the powder gases.

The cartridges made by Colonel Boxer of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, for the British Army undoubtedly used non-consumable brass cases, but these cases were of coiled brass. The first solid drawn brass cartridge cases were made at the Kynoch works in England. While the Boxer cartridge cases antedated the Kynoch cases, they had a built up head (with discs), and a coiled brass body, whereas the head of the Kynoch cartridge case was integral with the body, the whole case being drawn out from a single case blank..

At what date spiral rifling was first introduced is not known with certainty. Rifled carbines definitely were used by the French Army (probably the cavalry) in 1675, but rifling was not adopted by the British Army until 1800, when a .615 calibre, rifle with 7 grooves and a pitch of: 120 were issued. This rifle was made by Ezekiel Baker of London, was met with a moderate degree of success.

The straight grooves found in many of the early rifles evidently were intended to act as traps for powder fowling only, as fouling was a serious problem in the early days. This form of straight grooving was never associated with any idea of spinning the bullet. It would be most unreasonable to believe that makers of firearms with such rifling could expect this form of grooving to have any effect upon the bullet, either spherical or elongated in flight. Perhaps the straight grooving found in old firearms was intended to serve no other purpose than to act as troughs, into which the powder fouling could pack itself, to enable more shots to be fired between each bore washing. Most early records refer to the bore having to be washed out after two or three shots, and in some cases, after each shot, to enable easy loading and retain accuracy from shot to shot.

The ordinary form of spherical bullet, even when wrapped in a cloth patch, gave so little area of contact with the rifling that such bullets were later made with one or two belts. These belts undoubtedly helped the bullet engage the rifling better and overcome the tendency to strip to permit higher velocities. The inherent disadvantage of the spherical bullet lay in its shape, because when driven at a fair velocity, the travelling angle of the bullet, due to its extremely high trajectory, quickly lost its relation with the direction of the spin i.e. if the spin is to be effective, then it must, be at right angles to the axis of the bullet and this axis must remain true with the line of flight. This was impossible with the spherical bullet.

The invention of spiral rifling was credited to both Gaspard Köllner of Vienna and Augustus Kotter of Nuremburg. The probable date of introduction being about 1520. This form of rifling does not appear to have come into general use until 1675, while many were curious about the forms of spiral rifling used at that time.

Grooves varied in number (though the majority of makers appear to have decided upon seven as the most efficient). Just as the numbers of grooves varied, so too did their shapes, some being ratchet shaped, notch shaped, and in fact, one system of rifling had grooves that were semi circular, with the lands of necessity sharp. Probably there were two reasons behind the latter system of grooving. The first was the sharp lands would cut into the bullets bearing area better, and the second is the deep channels formed by the grooves would store more powder fouling. Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt this was the effect. Opposition to this sort of rifling is understandable and it was not favourably received when it was first introduced. It was soon realised that spherical bullets, in addition to the loading difficulties brought about by the grooving, that gas could escape even when belted spherical bullets were used.

The earliest method of loading rifled arms was to have a bullet of slightly smaller diameter than the land diameter, drop it down the muzzle, before pounding it with a ramrod. It was hoped the bullet had been sufficiently expanded to equal the diameter of the grooves, and so engage the rifling to form a seal against gas escaping ahead of the bullet. Another system of loading was to have the powder chamber smaller than the bore so that a definite shoulder was formed. This shoulder was used as an anvil on which the bullet was pounded into expansion by the ramrod. Both of these systems caused so much bullet distortion that it was bound to have had an adverse effect upon whatever accuracy the bullet may have had in its true spherical form.

An improvement these systems was the William Greener expanding bullet. The Greener bullet (spherical of course) had a radial tapered hole into which was fitted a taper plug. With this bullet, it was only necessary to ensure that the plug part of the bullet went into the bore in line with the bore axis, so the pressure of the gases drove the plug into the bullet and expanded it with the grooves. Naturally, the plug expanded the bullet whether the plug entered the bore first or last the effect either way was the same. The Greener bullet was not particularly successful because of its spherical shape, though the expanding principle was undoubtedly an efficient one.

When it came to the killing of game animals, it was quickly realised that bullets: of pure lead were much too soft, and with any reasonable velocity these soft bullets flattened out to such an extent with any sort of resistance, the penetration in most cases was nil. Increased velocities were not helpful apart from the question of penetration, resulting in bullet stripping i.e. they simply passed through the bore without engaging the rifling It was then discovered that bullets could be hardened by alloying them with either tin or antimony. Such hardened bullets could give improved velocity without stripping with much better penetration.

With the introduction in 1832 of the cylindro-conoidal (or picket shaped) bullet and its proven superiority over the spherical shape, various methods were used to ensure it fitted into the grooves properly. A bullet of this shape could not; he pounded into the grooves with the same measure of brutality lavished upon the spherical bullet. To ensure a good bore seal, one type of picket bullet had the rear portion of the base hollow, so gases could expand this part of the bullet into the grooves which they did with the utmost efficiency. As we now know, this hollow base was unnecessary.

In early times, it was not generally understood the pressure of the gases in the chamber would, expand a solid flat base bullet just as easily as one with a hollow base. I say not generally understood, for the reason that at least one person did understand the action of high pressure gases on the base of a static bullet, and that person was John Bouchard. In 1854, Bouchard published a book entitled “The Volunteer Rifleman and his Rifle” and a passage from this book reads;

It matters not what the shape of the projectile may be, if elongated, for all will expand, from the simple cylindrical solid plug to the most elaborate conoidal bullet, and the expansion will be more or less according as the bullet is longer or shorter. John Bouchard - 1854, Bouchard “The Volunteer Rifleman and his Rifle”

That few people beside Bouchard had this knowledge is proven by the fact that even William Greener who was no mean authority and inventor brought out his expanding spherical bullet in the same year that Bouohard’s book was published. From our present day knowledge, Bouchard was right as we know that even a steel jacketed flat base bullet will expand, and that such expansion is “will be more or less according as the bullet is longer or shorter”. The only addition we might make would be to add that “and also according to the pressure”.

The first really successful picket bullet was invented by Captain Claude Etienne Minié of the French Army. Minié however, appears to get his idea from the bullet that Greener offered to the British Army authorities some years before. In an old established custom the British Army authorities turned down Greener, only to give Minié the sum of £20,000 for the use of his system. Later the British Government acknowledged the justice of Greener’s claim to the Minié principle and awarded him £1,000. There is no doubt that Minié was acquainted with Greener’s book ‘which earned him an easy £20,000, where as the unfortunate Mr Greener had to wait years, spending time and money to get his £1,000.

In the Minié bullet, the tapered hole in the base was fitted with an iron cup which was driven into the bullet by the gas pressure, causing it to expand. The defect was the iron cup would often flatten causing the bullet to break up while still in the bore. While the solid front part of the bullet and the iron cup were expelled from the muzzle, the hollow rear portion remained in the bore. When the Minié system was finally adopted by the British Government it was in a modified form. The iron cup was replaced by a plug of hard wad, since it was found that this latter expanded the bullet very efficiently whilst at the same time eliminating the breaking up of the bullet caused by the flattening of the iron cup.

The Minié bullet was used by the British Army in the 1853 model Enfield rifle (a muzzle loader), This rifle had a bore of 0.577in with three grooves, having a pitch of 78, i.e. one complete turn of rifling in 78 inches. While the old 1850 Enfield could shoot to 1,000 yards, its limit of accuracy was limited to 600 yards, this being considered good in 1853. A curious feature about the 1853 Enfield was its progressive groove depth. It started at the breech end with a depth of 0.01in, and finished up at the muzzle with a shallow depth of 0.005in, not much deeper than today’s groove depths, which have proved to be much more efficient.

Shallow grooving really owes its introduction to the Lee-Metford system. This system of shallow grooving (0.004in) was an unqualified success when introduced. The first small bore rifle made by Metford, a .450 calibre with 7 grooves (0.004in deep), shot accurately at 1100 yards (using the Metford picket shaped bullet with a round nose) There is no doubt however that the experiments of Sir John Whitworth were of the greatest value in assisting Metford in his designs of both rifle and bullet.

As the small bore, shallow grooved Metford rifle was so successful, Swiss authorities immediately started to experiment with smaller calibres and in 1883 they produced a rifle of only .235 calibre which gave greatly enhanced velocities. The Swiss had a lot of trouble however when velocities were increased, because of increased temperatures, a consequent upon the heavier powder charge needed. This melted not only the lead bases of the bullets, but the bearing areas as well. The Swiss overcame this difficulty by enclosing the bullet in an envelope of copper, giving us the first jacketed bullet and in addition, the first really small calibre. At that time even the Metford .450 calibre was considered very small. One other difficulty the Swiss had to overcome was that of the bulk of the power charge necessary for the increased velocity. They overcame this simply by compressing the powder charge into a solid cylinder, thus reducing bulk and increasing loading density.

From the greater part of this chapter, many readers may get the impression that any kind of accuracy was unknown until the beginning of the 20th century, and that ranges were every limited. To correct the erroneous impression given, it should be stated that the Queens Prize was won in the year 1860 by the scoring of 3 bulls out of six shots with a muzzle loader (bull being 24” in diameter at 1,000 yards). In the context of muzzle loaders and accuracy, an interesting match took place in Creedmoor (U.S.A.) in 1874. This match was arranged as a result John Rigby of Dublin, who used muzzle loaders of his make to challenge the best that the USA could produce in the way of Sharps breech loaders. That fact Rigby knew what he was talking about is proved when the Irish team beat the U.S.A. team by a very wide margin. The total and individual scores were:

An interesting side contest was shot at 1,000 yards between Rigby and General Dakin, This match was won by Rigby who scored 21 points to the 7 points scored by the General. The lowest individual score made with a Rigby muzzle loader was higher than the highest score made by the Sharps breech loader. Yale seems to have had some kind of bad luck in his shooting, but even if he had shot well, Rigby still would have won convincingly. As a further proof of 19th century shooting, it is recorded that during the Siege of Ladysmith (Boer War, 1899) riflemen of the beleaguered garrison dispersed Boer batteries with “well directed rifle fire”, at a range of 2,900 yards on several occasions.


In some corner of your life, you know more about something than anyone else on earth. The true measure of your education is not what you know, but how you share what you know with others.Ken Nerburn

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