A Brief History of the British Rifle


'Rifle' has become a general term for any gun that is held to the shoulder. However the word actually means a spiral groove or 'Lands' within the barrel of a weapon; this is known as rifling and was discovered by Gaspard Koller in the 16th century.

What is Rifling

Before rifling became an engineering possibility for bulk production long barrelled arms were known as Muskets. With a Musket the ball or projectile was fed into the open end of the barrel (smooth bore). On leaving the barrel the ball wobbled and hence deviated randomly from its trajectory; something well known by the oncoming enemy. Only one in ten balls found their mark.Lengthening the barrel did more to improve the sighting than to get the ball to go where it was intended but it did protect the man in front from exploding powder when firing in two rows (one firing one loading).

Early archers knew that, if the feathers on an arrow were arranged in a manner such as to make the arrow spin in flight, accuracy was improved. Benjamin Robins, an English mathematician, proved this theoretically and this theory was eventually implemented in a rifle by making a spiral groove on the inside of the barrel.

Brunswick Percussion Cap Rifle

Brunsick Percussion Cap Rifle, 1830's

Baker Flintlock Rifle

Baker Flintlock Rifle, 1803

Early Rifles

In the early 19th Century rifles were a specialised weapon only available in small numbers and very expensive to produce. Examples of British weapons of this type are the "Baker" using Flintlock and "Brunswick" using Percussion cap methods of ignition . Producing accurate grooves was one obstacle to rifling, making the barrel of a uniform size to grip the ball was another. If the ball stuck in the barrel it would explode, if it was too loose no spin was achieved. One temporary solution was to insert the ball down the barrel with a 'patch' wrapped around it to make it grip, this was greased with oil made from pork or cow fat which became a problem when Muslims and Hindus were expected to handle the guns during the First Indian War of Independence in 1856. Previously in 1853 the Enfield Factory produced rifled weapons in large numbers for use in the Crimean War.

The Percussion Cap

Brunswick Percussion Cap Rifle

Flintlock Mechanism

The rifle was slow to load as ramming a ball down the barrel took longer than a smooth bore. The Flintlock mechanism had to ignite the powder in the barrel using a hammer with a piece of flint that was released by trigger moving down onto a steel plate producing sparks which ignited powder in a pan. This flash was conveyed through a small hole in the barrel igniting the final charge. Loading the weapon also required that the pan be loaded with powder each time the weapon was fired.

The introduction of the copper percussion cap addressed the second of these problems. It was first used in the US on the percussion carbine version of the M1819 Hall rifle (c.1833), after being trialled on the British military musket (Brown Bess) in 1842.

The principle of a practical percussion cap was invented by the Rev A.J.Forsyth in 1807, consisting of fulminating powder made of potassium chlorate, sulphur, and charcoal, which exploded by concussion. Forsyth simply wanted to prevent the flash in the pan of his flintlock which scared off the birds he was shooting prior to the main charge ejecting the ball. The percussion cap first used a steel cap and then copper. It was used by gun makers for private weapons before coming into use by the military thirty years later.

Brunswick Percussion Cap Rifle

Percussion Cap Mechanism

Modifying existing flintlock rifles and pistols simply involved replacing the powder pan with a hollow stem called a nipple, and replacing the flint head with a hammer hollowed out at the base to cover the percussion cap which was been placed over the nipple; the hollow on the hammer prevented the exploding cap from disintegrating and harming the user. The charge of the percussion cap was now made of three parts of potassium chlorate, two of fulminate of mercury, and one of powdered glass.

It was a simple step from the invention of the percussion cap to combine the main projectile charge and primer in one brass casing, the latter being fired by a firing pin on the hammer. This led to breach loading weapons and eventually a metal jacket on the lead bullet, solving the problem of the lead bullet sticking in the barrel due to expansion.

Note:- Breach loading, placing the cartridge at the beginning of the barrel above the trigger, rather than the slow method of pushing it down the barrel.

Rifles at the Museum of Technology

Brown Bess Musket, 1790
Baker Flintlock Rifle, 1803
Brunswick Perccussion Cap Rifle, 1830's
Enfield 3 Band Rifle, 1853

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