The Ferguson Rifle

Major Patrick Ferguson’s rifle is one of the most interesting and arguably successful early attempts at a breech-loading service rifle. Coupling a surprisingly robust screw breech block/plug with rifling Ferguson’s rifle was said to be capable of an impressive seven rounds per minute. It has the distinction of being the first breech-loading rifle adopted for service and used in action by the British Army.

In an age when three or four rounds a minute from a trained infantryman was accepted as an impressive standard, six or even seven shots a minute, which were more accurate than those from an average musket, was tactically ground breaking. Ferguson’s rifle was what would today be described as a ‘force multiplier’.

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A Durs Egg-made Ferguson military-pattern rifle with breech open (Matthew Moss)

The Man Behind the Rifle

Born in Pitfour, Aberdeenshire, in 1744, Ferguson joined the army at 15, initially as a cornet with the Scots Greys, before spending two years at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Woolwich specialised in training artillery and engineer officers indicating that Ferguson was an intelligent young man. He first saw action during the Seven Years War (1756–63) in Europe. In 1768, at the age of 24, Ferguson sold his cornetcy and transferred to the 70th Regiment of Foot buying a commission as a captain and served in the Caribbean for several years.

Some sources suggest Ferguson first encountered breechloading firearms in Germany and Flanders with the Scots Greys, others suggest that while serving in the Caribbean he examined guns by Georges Bidet, John Hirst and Willet and purchased a John Warsop pattern breech-loaded with a screw plug breech which required the use of a separate spanner to unscrew the plug.

In 1771, the British Army reintroduced dedicated light infantry companies to each infantry battalion and Captain Ferguson was given command of the 70th Foot’s light company. At this point, however, the British Army’s light infantry arm was merely ‘light’ in name with little specialist training given. In 1774, Ferguson and his company spent the summer at the light infantry training camp established by General Sir William Howe, learning how to deploy and fight as skirmishers. Further lessons would be quickly learnt, however, when the British found themselves fighting in North America a year later.

Ferguson was part of a generation of active, intelligent, professional and ambitious British light infantry officers. The light infantry arm of the 18th century British Army was arguably one the most able elements of its day. Ferguson was reputedly one of the Army’s finest marksmen and by the time he arrived in North America he was well versed in the light infantry tactics of the day, including skirmishing, scouting and irregular warfare.

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Philip James de Loutherbourg’s sketches of light infantrymen c. 1778 (courtesy of Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University)

In his book British Military Firearms 1650-1850 Howard Blackmore details how experience in North America of rebel riflemen drove interest in the adoption of suitable rifles for British forces. 1,000 German Jaeger-pattern rifles (described as the Pattern 1776 Infantry Rifle by De Witt Bailey) were ordered in late 1775, and in April, Ferguson’s attempts to interest to British Army’s senior officers in his breechloading rifle began to come to fruition.

The Ferguson, however, was not the British Army’s first experimentation with a screw plug breechloader. In 1762, John Hirst had provided the Board of Ordnance with five breechloaders, twenty more were reportedly ordered but they never saw service. Twelve years later, in 1774, Ferguson is believed to have started working on his rifle. He subsequently commissioned Durs Egg, a renowned Anglo-Swiss gunmaker, to produce a slightly improved version of Isaac de la Chaumette screw plug breechloading action. La Chaumette had originally developed his screw breech rifle in the early 1700s, with his ‘Fusil qui se charge par la culasse’ or roughly translated ‘rifle which is loaded by the breech’ first appearing in 1704. La Chaumette came to Britain as a Protestant Huguenot refugee and patented some of his firearms designs in 1721.

Ferguson’s Ordnance Rifle was in principle similar to a number of earlier screw breech rifle designs which had preceded it. In addition to La Chaumette’s system, another was designed by John Warsop and another near contemporary which used a screw plug was made by Payne of Kirdford, dating from 1770.

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A Michael Bidet-made sporting gun built for King George using the Chaumette system (courtesy of the Royal Armouries)

It was on predominantly La Chaumette’s earlier work, however, that Ferguson based his action on. He made a number of improvements to the earlier design, principally by introducing a multi-start perpendicular screw breech plug with 10 or 11 threads at one pitch. This meant the breech could be opened by completing just one full revolution of the trigger guard which was attached to the base of the plug, and acted as a lever. While it might be expected that fouling from powder residue or from dust and dirt might quickly seize up the screw breech Ferguson designed the screw to have a number of recesses and channels to provide a place for fouling to be moved to during use and while not noted in contemporary sources the plug itself could be lubricated. Ferguson’s breech plug was also tapered, at an 10 or 11-degree angle, making it less prone to fouling but still able to create an adequate breech seal. Unlike most contemporary rifles pressed into service Ferguson’ rifle could also mount a bayonet and also had an adjustable rear sight – the first of its kind to see service.

A number of sources, including an article in the Journal of the American Revolution, quote a passage said to be from the Annual Register, which describes Ferguson’s rifle and its bayonet as “25 in. long and 1 1/2 in. wide, and being of fine temper and razor edge was called a sword bayonet.” I, however, have been unable to locate this passage in the Annual Register.

In 1775, Ferguson began lobbying senior officers including Lord Townsend, the Master General of Ordnance. He told Townsend in a letter that his rifle “fires with twice the expedition, & five times the certainty, is five pounds lighter and only a fourth part of the powder of a common firelock.” Eventually, the Board of Ordnance took notice of Ferguson’s rifle and following a successful initial trial he was allowed to demonstrate his gun before senior officers in April 1776. He fired at targets at 80, 100 and 120 yards away and “put five good shots into a target in the space of a minute.” Durs Egg was directed to make improvements and two more rifles were built, Egg appears to have had a close working relationship with Ferguson, many of the surviving guns appear to have been built before and after the 100 Board of Ordnance guns made by other makers.

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Patrick Ferguson’s patent for ‘Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms’, granted 2nd December, 1776, British Patent #1159

Ferguson never claimed to have invented the breech system himself, writing that “altho (sic) the invention is not entirely my own, yet its application to the only Arm where it can be of use is mine, and moreover there are several original improvements… which are entirely mine.” He was keenly aware that other interested parties, such as the British East India Company’s army, the West Indies Militias and gentlemen hunters, may eventually be interested in the rifle. As such Ferguson’s eventual patent, filed in December 1776 and granted the following March (No. 1139), is titled ‘Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms.’

In the early hours of Saturday the 1st June 1776, Ferguson was advised that Lord Townsend along with General Lord Jeffery Amherst (the Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance), Lieutenant-General Edward Harvey (the Adjutant-General) and Lieutenant-General Thomas Desaguliers (of the Royal Artillery) wished him to demonstrate his rifle at Woolwich later that morning. The morning was wet and windy but Ferguson put on a display of shooting which is still widely regarded as an impressive feat.

An account of the demonstration was published in a number of publications including The Gentleman’s Magazine and the Annual Register, a yearly almanac of notable events:

“under the disadvantages of heavy rain and a high wind, performed the following four things, none of which had ever been accomplished with any other small arms. 1st, He fired during four or five minute at a target, at 200 yards distance, at the rate of four shots each minute. 2dly(sic), He fired six shots in one minute. 3dly, He fired four times per minute advancing at the same time at the rate of four miles in the hour. 4thly, He poured a bottle of water into the pan and barrel of the piece when loaded, so as to wet every grain of the powder, and in less than half a minute fired her as well as ever, without extracting the ball. [This suggests that Ferguson cleared the sodden powder from the pan and re-primed, with the ball protecting the powder behind it.] He also hit the bull’s eye at 100 yards, lying with his back on the ground; and, notwithstanding the unequalness of the wind and wetness of the weather, he only missed the target three times during the whole course of the experiments.”

The demonstration had a dramatic effect, Lord Townsend, the Master General of Ordnance, directed that 100 rifles should be produced and that Ferguson was to oversee their production. Up until this point Captain Ferguson had paid for all of the testing and development of the rifle himself. Now four Birmingham gunmakers were contracted by the Board of Ordnance to produce 25 rifles each, these companies were: William Grice, Benjamin Willetts, Matthias Barker [likely in partnership with John Whateley] and Samuel Galton & Son. Birmingham was then the hub of British gun manufacture, in 1788 it was estimated that some 4,000 gunmakers were at work in the area. Each contractor was paid £100 for 25 guns, giving the rifles a cost of £4 each. Sources disagree over what the plugs were made from, some sources suggest that half of the 100 guns were made with bronze or brass breech plugs (the surviving example at Morristown National Historic Park in Morristown, NJ, has a bronze/brass plug, although this may be a later replacement.)

Little is known about the production of the guns and the manufacturing techniques used but one estimate of how long it might have taken to cut the plug threads using a contemporary treadle lathe and lapping techniques suggest at least around 10 hours work. The rifles were handmade and none of their parts were interchangeable. Engraver William Sharp, was paid three pence per rifle to engrave serial numbers in three places on the rifles (the butt plate, trigger guard and tang) to ensure the unique plug was matched to the right rifle.

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Close up showing the serial number #2 engraved on the iron trigger guard of the Morristown Board of Ordnance Ferguson Rifle (Morristown National Historical Park, courtesy of Miles Vining)

Ferguson was given a small detachment of six men from the 25th Regiment of Foot to train in the use of his rifle and on 1st October, he gave a demonstration for King George III at Windsor. With his small detachment Ferguson repeated some of his earlier feats of marksmanship, firing from his back and putting five rounds into the bullseye.

During his meeting with the King, Ferguson went so far as to propose new practical uniforms for light troops. Sources do not confirm if these were green, but Ferguson’s experimental corps did later have green tunics made up when they arrived in America. This was not unusual, during the previous French & Indian War (1754-1763) some British light infantry units like Rogers’ Rangers and Gage’s 80th Regiment of Light-Armed Foot had worn proto-camouflage uniforms just as did some of Ferguson’s contemporaries like the Queen’s Rangers and Tarleton’s British Legion.

As a result of his demonstrations and petitioning of senior officers Ferguson was authorised to raise an experimental corps of riflemen to test the rifle in the field. Initially, intended to comprise 200 men forming two companies. This plan was temporarily cancelled in late 1776, but early the next year Ferguson was directed to begin forming and training his corps in Chatham, with Lord Townsend ordering all the available rifles to be sent to Ferguson there.
The men who formed the new corps were drawn from the 6th and 14th Regiments of Foot, Ferguson described them as not “in any respects to my wish…”. The King granted him £100 to equip his small force. Ferguson and his riflemen were to sail for America and join General Sir William Howe’s imminent campaign to take Philadelphia.

Ordered to America and with time short Ferguson scrambled to gather supplies and begin training as many men as he could find. While officially he was to take a company of 100 men, he privately hoped to gather another 60, “which there are rifles for”, suggesting that by February 1777, there were at least 160 rifles expected available. It is possible that a second order for guns was placed by the Board of Ordnance, or Ferguson himself, but there is no direct evidence of this.

Ferguson also intended to take with him two prototype light canon he had developed, likely based on the same screw breech system scaled up, described as firing a 1-pound ball and able to be carried by just two men and produced at a cost of £5. Only one of the prototype guns was ready by the time Ferguson sailed on the 25th March. When he finally tested his gun in July, its barrel bust because the shot fired was of the wrong diameter.

Captain Ferguson was formally seconded from the 70th Foot and officially given his command on 6th March 1777, his corps was authorised for one campaign season before Ferguson and his men would have to return to their units unless the unit was seen as worthy of maintaining.
Ferguson and his men landed in late May and, according to M.M. Gilchrist, at some point before the campaign began the experimental corps had green jackets made from cloth sent with them by Lord Barrington, the secretary of war, these green uniforms were worn by Ferguson and his men throughout the Philadelphia campaign. Interestingly, according to Roberts & Brown’s 2011 book, Every Insult & Indignity, Ferguson’s report to the Ordnance Store Keeper in New York noted that his corps arrived with only 67 ‘rifle guns’. Correspondence, dating from June 1777, from the Master General of Ordnance’s secretary shows that a further 33 rifles were sent to America along with 40 bayonets. It is unclear if these reached Ferguson and his men by the time they embarked for the Philadelphia campaign.

In July, he confirmed that his ‘small command’, which had lost six men in early skirmishing, “never exceeded 90 under arms”, a far cry from the 160 to 200 he hoped to field. Recruiting in North America proved difficult and Ferguson realised that to grow his corps he would have to take men from other battalions, who were naturally averse to this. If Ferguson did not have enough rifles to equip his entire corps it seems likely that his men were armed with a mixture of rifles and standard issue Short Land Pattern muskets.

Throughout the Philadelphia campaign Ferguson’s experimental force acted as scouts and fought in a number skirmishes and engagements, the largest of these was the Battle of Brandywine Creek. Ferguson and his company were attached to General Wilhelm von Knyphausen’s column which was tasked with fixing George Washington’s Continental Army in place while General Sir William Howe’s main force flanked the American position. Ferguson and his men found themselves in some hot fighting at the head of Knyphausen’s column with the light infantry vanguard which screened the advance. Alongside the Loyalist light infantry battalion, the Queen’s Rangers, led by Major James Wemyss, Ferguson’s riflemen pushed back American light infantry under Brigadier William Maxwell.

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Map showing the Battle of Brandywine September 11, 1777 (source)

Famously, Ferguson and a party of his riflemen are supposed to have encountered George Washington during the battle. In a letter home Ferguson wrote that he’d been forward near the American line when he saw “a Rebell (sic) Officer remarkable by a Huzzar Dress passed towards our Army within 100 yards… not perceiving us – he was followed by another dressed in dark green on blue mounted on a very good bay horse with a remarkable large high cocked hat.” Ferguson initially ordered three of his men forward to open fire on the mounted rebel officers but thought better of it, feeling it was an ungentlemanly act. Instead he moved forward and called on the hussar to surrender, but the two men rode off, Ferguson chose not to shoot them in the back and likely give away his position in the process. Shortly after the alleged encounter Ferguson was badly wounded and his men were forced to fall back. He was shot in the right arm, his elbow shattered by a musket ball. It took a year for Ferguson to recuperate with numerous painful surgeries removing bone fragments needed to save his arm from amputation.
According to Ferguson while in hospital he was told that the two officers he and his men had encountered were likely General Washington and the cavalry officer General Kazimierz Pułaski. While the story cannot be proven with any degree of certainty it is definitely a colourful anecdote. Ferguson himself later said that he was “not sorry that I did not know all the time who it was”.

The heavy casualties suffered by Ferguson’s corps are often described as one of the key reasons for its disbandment. However, Roberts & Brown suggest that while Wemyss’ Rangers suffered heavily, up to 25% casualties, Ferguson’s corps reportedly lost just two killed and six wounded – including Ferguson himself. In a letter home to his brother George, Ferguson attributed this relatively low casualty rate to “the great advantage of the Arm [his rifle] that will admit of being loaded and fired on the ground without exposing the men.”

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Xavier della Gatta’s painting of the Battle of Paoli, which supposedly shows Ferguson’s green-clad riflement in the centre (source)

In the meantime, with well-trained light infantry in short supply, Ferguson’s experimental corps was disbanded. His men were returned to their original parent units and while one contemporary source suggest their rifles were placed in store, Bailey believes that the men took their kit back to their parent battalions. Xavier della Gatta’s 1782 painting of the Battle of Paoli (20th Sept. 1777) shows what is believed to be some of Ferguson’s men, in their green jackets with their long sword bayonets fixed, over a week after Brandywine. De Witt Bailey also notes that a February 1778 entry in the orderly book of the Guards brigade calls for an inventory of the rifles still in use with various battalions. If this was the case then attrition of the remaining guns from use in the field partially explains why so few survive today. In July 1778, an order was issued to the army for the return of all Ferguson rifles still in use to the Ordnance Office for repair and probably storage. It is worth noting that the logistics of getting .615 carbine balls and special rifle powder to the individual riflemen now attached to regular light companies would have been problematic.

Although a near-contemporary account, published in the Scots Magazine, in January 1781, suggests his corps was reformed when he was fit enough this, however, is probably a confusion with the later corps of loyalist troops Ferguson led. At 34, recovered but with a largely lame right arm, Ferguson returned to the field he had taught himself how to fence and shoot with his left hand and was hopeful that his rifle would see more service in the future. He wrote to the army’s new commander General Henry Clinton suggesting the rapid expansion of the light infantry arm. In the meantime, in late 1778, he led a number of scouting expeditions and raids on American bases at Chestnut Neck and Little Egg Harbour, in New Jersey. He was subsequently made a brevet Lt. Colonel and appointed commanding officer of a Loyalist militia force, the Loyal American Volunteers and later Inspector of Militia in the Carolinas. During 1779 and 1780, Ferguson led his Loyalist volunteer forces in the Carolinas. Interestingly, a Commissary of Artillery ordnance stores return from November 1779 to May 1781, found in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers, notes that 200 ‘serviceable’ rifles were issued to a ‘Capt. Pat. Ferguson’ on the 16th December 1779. It does not state whether these rifles were of his pattern or if they were muzzleloaders.

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Alonzo Chappel’s artistic impression of the death of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780 (courtesy of Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University)

While commanding the Loyalist militia force Ferguson, then 36, was killed during the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, in October 1780. It is possible but unconfirmed that a handful of Ferguson’s rifles may have been used during the battle.

Opinion of Ferguson is somewhat divided with Andrew O’Shaughnessy describing him as an example of “ambition, motivation, professional dedication and courage”. Ian Saberton describes Ferguson as “a humane, benevolent officer who, despite trying circumstances, applied his best endeavours.” While Wayne Lynch is more critical of his strategic skill, suggesting that despite being “an active and enthusiastic soldier, I do not see military genius… he was a probably a good officer at times but not really the stuff of independent command.” Despite his debated ability as a soldier and tactician, Ferguson’s true legacy lies with his innovative rifle, his belief in his design and the limited but intriguing service it saw.

Ferguson’s Rifle

For the purposes of this article we will confine our discussion to the military-pattern rifles, excluding the later hunting pieces. There is a great deal of variation amongst the few surviving Ferguson Rifles in terms of aesthetic differences, such as wood or steel ramrods or the type of rear sight but also more fundamental differences such as the potential use of brass/bronze plugs or the number of threads and the presence and positioning of fouling grooves. This is the result not just of the 18th century’s manufacturing processes but also due to choices made by individual gunmakers and also evolution of the design itself.

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View of the ‘D Egg’ marked lock plate on the right side of the rifle (Matthew Moss)

Typically, the rifles have a number of common features including the multi-start breech plug, trigger guard lever, the presence of one of two unusual patterns of rear sight and a bayonet lug beneath the barrel. There is some slight variation in barrel length and bore diameter, the style of stocks seen on the rifles is fairly uniform. The Board of Ordnance rifles had .65 calibre bores and used the same eight groove rifling as the Jaeger-pattern 1776 muzzle-loading rifles, not the four groove Ferguson patented in 1776.

Markings on the rifle vary in terms of manufacturer while the guns made for the Board of Ordnance are believed to have marker’s stamps on the barrel, various proof markings and a serial number at the tang while the locks were marked with ‘Tower’ & ‘GR’. The non-Board of Ordnance guns have commercial gunmaker’s marks on both lock and barrel. Most of the surviving military pattern rifles have wooden rather than steel ramrods. There is some slight variation in the brass pipes, which hold the ramrod, between the guns as well as some differences in the position and wide of the bass nose cap.

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View of the Durs Egg Ferguson’s bayonet lug, brass nose cap and steel ramrod (the Board of Ordnance guns used wooden ramrods) (Matthew Moss)

Two patterns of rear sight are seen, the Board of Ordnance guns have a rear notch post, sighted at 200 yards, and a folding leaf sight with an aperture sighted at 300 yards, and a further notch cut above the aperture likely sighted for 350 yards. The other pattern of sight, not seen on the Ordnance contract guns, is a brass rear sight located behind the breech, just in front of the tang, which slides up and down. This sight is seen on two Durs Egg-made rifles as well as an example produced by Hunt dating from 1780, held by the National Army Museum.

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Rear leaf sight with notches and apertures on a Durs Egg-made rifle, believed to date from 1776, the same pattern was used on the Board of Ordnance Rifles (courtesy of Morphy’s Auctions)

The two surviving rifles believed to have been original Board of Ordnance guns, held at the Morristown National Historical Park and the Milwaukee Public Museum have 11 thread breech plugs while others have 10. Not all of the surviving Ferguson rifles appear to have the anti-fouling cuts, described in the 1776 patent, in their plugs. The style of trigger guard also varies slightly with most being made from iron and all appear to be held in the closed position by a similar detent projecting from the rifles wrist. Damage to the guns is common as the stocks proved to be somewhat fragile. The two of the surviving rifles believed to have been used by Ferguson’s experimental corps have a number of cracks and breaks in their stocks, whether these occurred during service or in the years afterwards is unknown but the wrists and wood surrounding the breech and lock are fragile.

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A commercial Durs Egg-made Ferguson Rifle, believed to date from 1776 but not a Board of Ordnance gun (courtesy of the Royal Armouries0

We’ve already discussed some of the improvements that Ferguson made to La Chaumette’s earlier system. According to Ferguson’s patent the breech plug was designed to be cleaned without having to be fully removed from the rifle, the lower section of the plug on some guns was smooth and allowed fouling to be pushed out of the threads as the action was worked. The plug was not retained in the gun by any mechanical means, however, and if unscrewed too far could come free. Additionally, according to Ferguson’s patent, the threads cut into the plug directed fouling away from the breech and were intended to spread powder gases evenly. A ‘hollow or reservoir’ behind the plug also aims to help direct fouling out of the action – not all surviving examples have these. The chamber and ball had a larger diameter than the barrel to ensure the ball remained seated until fired and to make sure it engaged the barrel’s rifling.

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View of the Ferguson’s breech opened, note the 10 points, each represents the start of one of the breech plug’s threads, note also the brass rear sight just behind the breech (Matthew Moss)

Firing the Ferguson

The rifle would be loaded with powder, either from a powder only cartridge or a flask, and ball. Ferguson’s rifle, like the other 1776 Jaeger-pattern rifles in British service at the time, used double strength or ‘double glazed’ rifle powder. De Witt Bailey notes that five 100 lb barrels of this powder were ordered for Ferguson’s corps before they embarked for America. Each barrel costing £7 and 10 shillings, about six times more expensive than regular issue powder.

The rifle used the British Army’s standard .615 calibre carbine ball (the bore of surviving examples reportedly varies from .56 to .69), rather than a full sized .71 musket ball. They also had a ramrod like more conventional muzzle-loaders in case the screw plug became jammed or so fouled it could not be opened as well as for cleaning and in case there was a barrel obstruction. Provided the plug was in place the rifle could still be loaded from the muzzle, without the plug the rifle was useless.

The period correct loading procedure for the Ferguson is uncertain. Riflemen likely carried both paper cartridges and a flask and ballbag. To load the rifleman would first place the rifle on half cock and then unscrew the breech – making one full revolution to lower the plug. Then place the ball in the breech where it would be held in place by the narrower bore. He would then pour in powder from either his flask or from a cartridge behind the ball. He would then screw the breech block back into place. He then primed his pan from either the remains of the cartridge powder, his flask or pushed excess powder across from the top of the breech into the pan, he was then ready to fire. This system removed the need to ram the ball home which was one of the lengthier loading steps requiring the infantryman to withdraw his ramrod, reverse it and place it into the muzzle, then ramming home the ball before withdrawing it and replacing it.

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A view of the Ferguson’s breech plug with anti-fouling groove (Matthew Moss)

Unlike contemporary muzzle-loading rifles the Ferguson had the advantage of much quicker and easier loading, a muzzle-loading rifle takes longer to load as the ball has to be forced down the rifled bore, mating it with the grooves – this also becomes exponentially more difficult as the barrel fouls. The rifle also had the distinct advantage of allowing the rifleman to rapidly load and fire in almost any position, or even while on the move, enabling him to make best use of cover – a tactic favoured by the light infantry.  

The two greatest advantages of Ferguson’s design were the ease and speed with which it could be loaded and its performance in wet conditions normally difficult for muzzle-loading muskets. With the powder poured directly into the breech the rifle was somewhat less prone to misfires in wet weather. At just over 32 inches long the barrels of Ferguson’s 1776 Board of Ordnance rifles were 10 inches shorter than the Short Land Pattern Brown Bess then in service. It was also substantially lighter weighing around 7.5 lbs to the musket’s 10.5 lbs. This made the rifle a handier weapon, one ideal for use by light infantry. While the rifle was light, accurate and reliable it did have several weaknesses.

The first of these stemmed from its construction, the rifle’s slender lightweight stocks were prone to cracking at the lock mortice where the wood was thinnest. As a result an iron horseshoe shaped repair beneath the lock surrounding the breech screw is seen on the rifle held at the Morristown National Historic Park, it is unclear exactly when this reinforcement was added. While not as robust as a standard issue Brown Bess, it is important to remember that the first batch of Ferguson rifles were still prototypes and the design could have been improved upon.

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Close up of the crack in the stock of the Morristown Board of Ordnance Ferguson Rifle (Morristown National Historical Park, courtesy of Miles Vining)

The cost of the rifles also a disadvantage, as the rifles were markedly more expensive than a smoothbore musket or even the Jaeger-pattern muzzle-loading rifles, which was around seventeen shillings cheaper, that the British also produced at the time. Records show that the cost of producing one Ferguson Rifle during the first production run of 100 was in £4, this was double the cost of the Short Land Pattern Brown Bess musket then in service – although economies of scale may have made the rifle cheaper later. This and the slower rate at which the rifle was able to be produced meant that it could not be produced in the numbers necessary to challenge the dominance of the musket as the average light infantryman’s weapon.

While only 100 rifles were officially made for the Army, the fate of many of them is unknown. A handful of original Ferguson Rifles survive in private and public collection and after his death some of London and Birmingham’s finest gunsmiths, including Egg and Henry Nock and Joseph Hunt, made Ferguson-pattern rifles, in relatively small numbers, for both military and hunting purposes.

Ernie Cowan and Richard Keller, who have built replicas of the rifle describe it as “one of the finest rifles built during the 18th century.” But De Witt Bailey describes it as “virtually useless as a military weapon” because the weakness of the rifle’s stock and the potential for fouling of the breech and bore. In these criticisms I believe Bailey is too harsh. It must be remembered that these were prototype rifles being used by an experimental corps, the strength of the rifle’s wooden furniture could have been improved relatively easily and the impact of fouling is debated by those who have experience with modern replicas.

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A view inside the Ferguson’s breech, note the threads and the breech chamber, note also the proof marks (Matthew Moss)

While some erroneously believe the rifle was destined to replace the Brown Bess in general service, this is not the case. The Master of Ordnance had initially directed the future focus of rifle production should be on the Ferguson breech-loader rather than the Jaeger-pattern, however, if larger scale production had begun – the rifles would only have been destined for light troops, the elite, disciplined well trained, skirmishers who were best suited to their use. Ferguson himself was a proponent of light infantry, even suggesting that half the army in America should be light infantry, but I do not believe he intended his rifle to be issued to every soldier.

The Ferguson Rifle has the distinction of being the first breech-loading rifle adopted for service by the British Army. Although its service life was relatively short and its use limited it paved the way for later attempts at introducing rifle technology within the British Army. Sadly, with so few made and with the death of its inventor, the rifle did not have the opportunity to fully prove itself. It would be another 22 years before the British Army experimented with another green-coated, rifle-armed unit – what would eventually become the 95th Rifles.


Specifications:

Calibre: .65 calibre bore / .615 carbine balls
Action: Flintlock screw breech
Overall length: 49 inches
Barrel length: 32 inches
Weight: approx. 7.5 lbs


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Saturday 1st June, The Gentleman’s Magazine & Historical Chronicle, Vol.46, p.283 (1777)

June 1st, Annual Register for 1776 (4th Edition, 1788), p.148

‘An Account of Major Patrick Ferguson’, Scots Magazine, Vol. 43, Jan. 1781 pp.29-30

‘Return of Small Arms in Ordnance Stores, New York, Nov. 30, 1779 – May 8, 1781’, Sir Henry Clinton Papers 155: 7, W. L. Clements Library, Uni. of Michigan

‘Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms’, P. Ferguson, British Patent No. 1139, 2nd Dec. 1776

Secondary Sources:

British Military Flintlock Rifles 1740-1840, D.W. Bailey (2002)

Patrick Ferguson: A Man of Some Genius, M.M. Gilchrist, (2003)

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, M.H. Spring, (2008)

British Military Firearms 1650-1850, H.L. Blackmore, (1994)

The Men Who Lost America, A. O’Shaughnessy, (2013)

Whispers Across the Atlantick, D. Smith (2017)

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, M. Harris, (2014)

‘The Ferguson Rifle and Its Origins’, American Society of Arms Collectors, Bulletin 24:2-9, W.K. Neal, (1971)

‘Ferguson and his Rifle Come to America’, Black Powder, Winter 2011, R. Roberts & B. Brown (2011)

Every Insult & Indignity: The Life, Genius & Legacy of Major Patrick Ferguson, R. Roberts & B. Brown (2011)

‘The First Fight of Ferguson’s Rifle’, Journal of The American Revolution, B. Ruppert, (Nov. 2014)

‘A Fresh Look at Major Patrick Ferguson’, Journal of The American Revolution, W. Lynch, (Sept. 2017)

‘The Revolutionary Wear in the South: Re-Evaluations of Certain British & British American Actors’, Journal of The American Revolution, I. Saberton, (Nov. 2016)

‘Almost Revolutionary: Patrick Ferguson’s Breechloading Rifle’, TFBTV, M. Vinning, (2018)

 

 

Interview with Richard Fisher of the Vickers Machine Gun Collection

Richard Fisher, the director of the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association, was kind enough to invite us down to take a look at his collection of Vickers guns. Richard is a fantastic source of information on the Vickers, and British small arms more generally, and I’ve picked his brains on numerous occasions in the past so it was a real pleasure to meet him in person and discuss the collection.

I thought the best way to explain what the collection and research association does is to discuss it on camera with Richard, so as a result we have TAB’s first ever interview. Incidentally, it’s also the first on-camera interview I’ve ever conducted!

Vickers guns
A pair of Vickers Guns dating from 1915 at the Vickers Machine Gun Collection (Matthew Moss)

Richard’s impressive collection spans much of the Vickers’ history with representative examples of not just the many different types of Vickers that were produced but also the accoutrements and equipment that went along with the guns. The collection endeavours to bring together all the weapons, kit and equipment that a British Army section that operated the Vickers would have carried – during both World Wars.

The collection is open to visits from interested individuals and parties and is often shown at history events around the UK. Richard’s website is one of the best sources of information, manuals and documents on the Vickers available and is well worth checking out.

You can find the Vickers MG Collection on twitterfacebook and online at their website: www.vickersmg.org.uk

We’d like to thank Richard for inviting us down and for speaking to us about the collection. In the future we will hopefully have more videos featuring the collection.

 

Dreyse Model 1907

This week’s TAB Short episode takes a concise look at the German Schmeisser-designed Dreyse 1907, my thanks to Chuck at GunLab.net for allowing me to take a look at his pistol!


The Dreyse Model 1907 was manufactured by Rheinische Metallwaaren & Maschinenfabrik (RM&M), who later became Rheinmetall. The pistol was designed by Louis Schmeisser and produced by RM&M under the Dreyse brand name.

The Model 1907 was striker-fired, blowback pocket pistol, chambered in .32 ACP / 7.65mm Browning, which fed from a 7-round single stack magazine. Introduced in 1907, but not entering meaningful production until 1908, production ceased in 1918 with approximately 250,000 manufactured.

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Right side of a Dreyse 1907 (Matthew Moss)

Schmeisser filed his patent protecting the design in the US in June 1908, it was granted two years later in April 1910. Earlier German patents were filed in 1906-1907. The pistol was designed to avoid infringing on some of John Browning’s semi-automatic pistol patents. To do this Schmeisser’s pistol had a ¾ length slide which attached to a breech block.

To cock the weapon, the user grasped the slide at the front and used the slide serrations to pull it to the rear, chambering a round. Spent cases were ejected out of a port on the right side of the pistol. The pistol’s front sight was situated at the front of a scalloped trough in the slide while the rear sight consisted of a raised a notch in the upper receiver.

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Close up of the rear of the 1907, note the rear sight notch, the protruding cocking indicator, the disassembly catch and safety in the ‘safe’ position (Matthew Moss)

When fired the slide and breech block recoiled rearwards, the travel of the slide was stopped by the solid upper receiver housing. There was a frame mounted safety on the left side of the gun, with the safe position pointing to the rear. The 1907 had a heel type magazine release, typical of European pistols of the period.

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View of the 1907’s sights (Matthew Moss)

The pistol’s receiver is hinged and pivots apart for cleaning, clearing and disassembly (see the original patent drawings above). There was some substantial variation, with the 1907’s design evolving during the course of its production life. Early models lacked the scalloped slide that we can see in the pictured model. Internal changes were also made with the addition of a disconnector.

The 1907 was favoured by the German police and gendamarie, with John Walter noting that most of the initial 1,000 pistol production run being purchased by Saxony’s gendamarie and later by the Berlin municipal police.  In 1910, there were abortive attempts to develop a larger 9x19mm version of the pistol. Introduced in 1911, various German state police forces and Prussia’s Border Customs officers strongly interested.

1
1911 British patent for the 9mm ‘M1910’ (British Patent Office)

The design, however, was still an unlocked blowback and relied on an extremely strong recoil spring. The spring was so strong that it necessitated a cocking lever which disconnected the spring. This version is often referred to, but not officially marked as, the M1910. The flawed design and production problems at Rheinmetall saw the project abandoned before the outbreak of World War One.

The .32 ACP Dreyse 1907 continued to be manufactured during the war and saw service with elements of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies during, as an auxiliary side arm. The Norwegian reportedly examined the 1907 during their pistol trials (1902-1914) and found it lacking. The Czech military purchased some 1907 pistols but they were quickly removed from service and replaced with the Pistole vz. 24.
In Germany the pistols remained in police service into the 1930s, and some saw auxiliary and late-war Volkssturm service during the Second World War.

My thanks to Chuck Kramer of Gun Lab for letting me take a look at his Dreyse 1907, check out his blog here.


Specifications:

Calibre: .32 ACP / 7.65mm Browning
Action: Blowback
Overall length: 16cm (6.3 inches)
Barrel length: 9cm (3.6 inches)
Weight empty: 7.1g (1 lb 9 oz)
Magazine capacity: 7 rounds

(taken from John Walter’s Military Handguns of Two World Wars)


Bibliography:

Military Handguns of Two World Wars, J. Walter, (2003)

1907 Dreyse, UnblinkingEye.com, (source)

Dreyse 9mm, UnblinkingEye.com,  (source)

Patents:

‘Automatic Firearm’, L. Schmeisser, US Patent #956431, 26 Apr. 1910 (source)

‘Improvements in the Breech Operating Mechanism of Automatic Firearms’, L. Schmeisser, UK Patent #13800, 16 Nov. 1911 (source)

Videos:

Small Arms of WWI Primer 020: German Dreyse 1907 Pistol, C&Rsenal, (source)

Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018

Winchester N2 Prototype Reassembly

In addition for the full episode on the Winchester Experimental Submachine Gun, we have also put together a video showing the reassembly process for the N2 prototype that we disassembled and examined in the main video. Check it out below:

My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing me to examine and film the Winchester submachine gun prototypes. Special thanks to the CFM’s assistant curator Danny Michael for helping disassemble and reassemble the N2.

Winchester Experimental Submachine Gun

Held in the collection of the Cody Firearms Museum (CFM), at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West, is a most intriguing Cold War submachine gun. The weapon came from the collection of the old Winchester Firearms Museum, which the CFM inherited, it is not a test & evaluation weapon made by another company but a submachine gun designed and developed by Winchester. Those who know their Winchester history will know the company had no prior background in submachine gun design, instead being best known for their rifles and shotguns.

left N4 and N2
Left side profile view of the N4 and N2 Winchester submachine gun prototypes with their stocks folded (Matthew Moss)

Very little is known about Winchester’s submachine gun project, but two prototype examples survive, an early ‘in the white’ model labelled ‘N2’ and another which Herbert Houze, the CFM’s former curator, designated ‘N4’ . The documentary evidence for the Winchester submachine guns is sparse, amounting to just entries in the Winchester Museum’s inventory and a faded battered item tag attached to N2. A confusing element is that the inventory simply refers to the two prototypes as N-1 and N-2, with no mention of an N4.
There is also believed to be original engineering drawings housed in the Winchester Archival collection, currently held by the McCracken Research Library, but searches by myself and library staff  have been unable to locate these.

It is unclear if the tag from N2 is contemporary, perhaps added when the gun was handed over to Winchester’s museum, or if it was added later. In under 100 words it give us a short potted history of the N2 itself and the company’s programme to develop a submachine gun.

N2's item tag
Close up of the N2’s item tag detailing the gun & program’s history (Matthew Moss)

Houze suggests the development programme began in 1955 and the tag attached the N2 suggests that development ceased in 1957, whether this is solely for that gun or the entire programme is unclear. This would make Winchester’s weapon a contemporary of the famous Israeli UZI.

The tag describes the N2 as a 9mm blowback ‘NATO Burp Gun’, followed by the name A.A. Arnold, a Winchester engineer perhaps best known for writing a series of manuals for Winchester firearms, followed by ‘dropped Dec ’57’. In his 1994 book, Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981, Houze suggests that the weapons were designed by A.A. Arnold and Melvin M. Johnson in 1955, for possible adoption by NATO. The association with NATO might also be the origins of the ‘N’ prefix. I have been unable to find any published patents attributed to Arnold, Johnson or the company relating to the experimental submachine gun.

I contacted NATO’s Archives who advised that they were unable to find any reference or documentation relating to a direct NATO submachine gun requirement. Another possibility is that the weapon was developed to market more broadly to NATO member nations. The submachine gun market at this time in Europe, however, was already saturated by both wartime surplus and a new generation of guns, including the Sterling, the UZI, the Madsen M50, and the Carl Gustav m/45.

N2 prototype
Right side profile view of the N2 ‘in-the-white’ prototype with its stock deployed (Matthew Moss)

The reverse of the N2’s label documents the prototype weapon’s reliability and feeding problems. The tag states that the N2 did “not eject well” and that the bolt slide assembly was too heavy. It also highlights failures to cycle properly with extracted cartridge cases catching under the firing pin. The label then gives a brief description of some of the N2’s features: “fixed firing pin, 33x Mag. Folding stock.” Interestingly, it also notes that the weapon would be cocked by a rod – the hole for which had not yet been added. The tag ends with a suggestion that the heavy one piece bolt assembly should be lightened.

N2 Tape
Close up of the N2’s difficult to decipher tape note (Matthew Moss)

N2 itself also has a piece of masking tape, on the recoil spring assembly cover, with its serial number and calibre written on it, along with A.A. Arnold’s name and some words that are too difficult to make out, but include ‘feed’.

Houze has also suggested that Melvin Johnson, designer of the Johnson rifle and light machine gun who joined Winchester as a designer and adviser in the early 1950s for a short time, and Stefan Janson, designer of the Brtish E.M.2 bullpup and subsequent Winchester engineer, both worked on the project. However, I have been unable to find any documentary evidence of their involvement.

Examining the N2:

N4 and stripped N2
Winchester N4 and disassembled N2 prototype (Matthew Moss)

We can learn a lot from hands on examination of the two Winchester ‘N’ prototypes. Examining N2 we find that the receiver is made up of a piece of shaped sheet metal with a rounded upper half containing the barrel, bolt and cutouts for the grip points on the bolt assembly that allow charging. The bolt assembly rides over the rear portion of the barrel and projects back into the receiver. The lower section of the stamped receiver is rectangular and has a cut out for a separate magazine housing and fire control mechanism consisting of a trigger and push through safety – which we did not remove during disassembly. The N4 is missing its safety.

magazine housing
Close up of the N2’s magazine housing and trigger guard, note also the trunion freed from the receiver (Matthew Moss)

In the N2, the magazine housing is held in place by the stamped metal trigger guard which rocks into a notch behind the trigger and at the front interfaces with a notch in the magazine housing which has to be placed in the receiver at the same time, both are then held in place by a screw. This was changed in the later ‘N4’ with the trigger guard as a separate independent piece.

Winchester N2 Prototype Reassembly:

The side plates, muzzle end cap and recoil spring assembly cover all made from Aluminium – ostensibly to reduce weight. The submachine gun prototypes both use a pinch cocking method similar to that seen in the earlier British BSA WELGUN developed during WWII. The recoil spring proved to be too strong to cock easily, the addition of ‘rod’ cocking handle is suggested on the N2’s tag. The blued, later N4 prototype, however, is still lacking a conventional cocking handle. The pinch cocking method is not ergonomic, the user’s fingers could easily be caught by reciprocating bolt in charging cut outs in the receiver.

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The N2 prototype disassembled, sadly we were unable to free the bolt from the receiver (Matthew Moss)

Another ergonomic consideration is the Winchester’s submachine gun’s unusually swept back pistol grip angle, the angle of the forward grip made by stock when folded is also similarly angled. Both the weapons have a push though safety selector just above the trigger (likely safe & fully automatic, but could not check as gun unable/difficult to cycle the prototypes easily). The weapon likely fed from a double stack, single feed magazine – either of an similar pattern to the MP40 or proprietary. The N4 seen in Houze’s 1994 book is shown with an MP40 magazine. UZI magazines fit the weapon but don’t lock into place.

The basic design does not change substantially between the prototypes with the control configuration, folding wire stock, pistol grip angle and magazine housing dimensions remaining the same. The N4, however, differs from the earlier prototype in a number of respects. The N4’s nose cap now fits over the rounded half of the receiver, rather than sitting flush and the cut outs in the upper receiver to access the bolt assembly for charging have been moved back slightly.

N4 close up
Right side view of the N4 blued prototype, note the half cocked bolt and the narrower grip serrations on the bolt assembly. Note also the intersection points of the recoil spring assembly cover and the upper receiver (Matthew Moss)

The later N4 model has pins in place of some of the screws used on the N2. The side plates have been replaced by a one-piece recoil spring assembly cover which projects back further over the magazine housing to the rear of the receiver. The most fundamental difference between the two is that it appears that the front part of the N4’s receiver has been significantly altered with the lower receiver at the front of the gun removed. It appears to have been replaced by the recoil spring assembly cover which appears to slot into the receiver. Sadly, we didn’t have time to disassemble the N4 to examine this.

The N4’s bolt assembly also has more serrations, in a slightly different orientation, on its bolt assembly gripping area, but still no charging handle as recommended on the N2’s tag. The ejection port on the blued prototype is also at a position closer to 12 o’clock when compared to the N2s.

Right side 2 Winchester SMG prototypes
Right side profile view of the two prototypes with their stocks deployed (Matthew Moss)

The N2 has a metal trunnion block, that the recoil spring guide rod screws into, this is held in place within the receiver by a cross pin. The bolt appears to be removed through the rear of the receiver once the stock assmbly/end cap is removed and the bolt assembly freed.

The folding stock was retained by spring tension of the wire metal stock against a wingnut-shaped catch that is riveted onto the recoil spring assembly cover. The stock is locked by a spring loaded push button system similar to the MP40s, this is not particularly sturdy. The shape of the wire stock itself is reminiscent of the US M3. When folded the butt of the wire stock acts as a front grip, the retention of the stock is surprisingly strong and stable.

Intriguingly, the Winchester Museum inventory notes that the guns are designated the N-1 and N-2, with an additional wooden model of the ‘Nato Burp Gun’ being transferred along with a box of duplicate parts in steel for the N2’s aluminium parts.


Specifications:

Calibre: 9x19mm
Action: Blowback
Overall length: ?
Barrel length:  7.5 inches
Weight empty: ?
Magazine capacity: 33 rounds

Bibliography:

Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981, H. Houze (1994)


My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing me to examine and film the Winchester submachine gun prototypes. Special thanks to the CFM’s assistant curator Danny Michael for helping disassemble the N2.

All photographs taken by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the CFM & the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Please do not reproduce photographs without permission or credit.

©The Armourer’s Bench 2018

Live Fire: MAC Modèle 1950

In this live fire video we’re going to take a look at the MAC Modèle 1950, a French 9x19mm service pistol. The Modèle 1950 replaced the earlier M1935A and M1935S pistols, both chambered in 7.62mm longue.

In 1946, the French Army began the process of selecting a new service pistol, chambered in the more powerful 9x19mm round. A number of designs were tested including the SIG P210. The Modèle 1950 was developed by Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Saint Étienne (MAS) and while suffering initial reliability problems it was refined and eventually adopted.

The Modèle 1950 combined elements from the previous 1935 pistols but added a larger, more ergonomic grip. The pistol feeds from a 9-round single stack magazine, has a single action trigger and has a slide mounted safety which blocks the hammer.

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Riht side view of the French MAC Modèle 1950 service pistol (Matthew Moss)

Shooting the Modèle 1950

I enjoyed shooting the Modèle 1950, its large grip size makes it pleasant to shoot but felt like it should have held a larger double stack magazine. The pistol has a decent set of combat sights, easy to pick up in good light.

Through firing several magazines through the pistol it became clear that you had to be sure not to accidentally engage the safety when racking the slide. This is something I encountered and explain in the video. It took me a few of seconds to realise the problem, take the safety off and recock the hammer. In the safe position the catch juts out the back of the slide, while this is a good indicator of the weapon’s condition it seems possible it could be disengaged while in a holster.

MAC 1950
A view of the left side of the Modèle 1950, note the slide mounted safety catch in the safe position (Matthew Moss)

Produced at both MAS and Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Châtellerault (MAC), over 340,000 Modèle 1950 were manufactured. The pistol is still in limited French service but has largely been replaced in service by the PAMAS G1, a licensed version of the Beretta 92.

We will have a full video and blog looking at the earlier Modèles 1935A & S and the 1950, examining the design, development and history of pistols in the future. My thanks to my friend Chuck Kramer over at Gun Lab for helping us with this video, check out his blog here.

The Curtis Rifle – The First Repeating Bullpup

Today we’re examining an intriguing firearm with a fascinating history. It is difficult to understate the potential importance of the Curtis Rifle. Despite being designed in Britain in the 1860s the firearm gained more notoriety when it was offered as evidence in a legal battle between the Winchester Repeating Arms company and Francis Bannerman. What makes the firearm most noteworthy, however, is its fundamentally unconventional layout. Designed by William Joseph Curtis in the mid-1860s, it is arguably one of the earliest ‘bullpups’ and almost certainly the first repeating bullpup.

Curtis bullpup full length
William Curtis’ 1866 ‘bullpup’ rifle, built in 1895 by Winchester (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

For the purpose of this article it would be wise to first define what a bullpup actually is. It can be defined as a weapon with a somewhat unconventional layout which places the action and magazine behind the weapon’s trigger group. This has the benefit of maintaining a conventional rifle’s barrel length while making the overall length of the rifle more compact.

Bullpup rifles became popular with a number of militaries around the world during the 1970s and 1980s – namely the Austrian Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS and the British SA80, and more recently with rifles from China and Singapore as well as the Tavor series of rifles from Israel.

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Thorneycroft, Farquhar and Hill’s 1905 carbine patent (source)

The bullpup, however, dates back much further with some argument to be made for the first firearms to utilise the concept being 19th century percussion target shooting rifles. The earliest military bullpups date to the beginning of the 20thth century, these include a rifles designed by Samuel McClean, the initial designer of the Lewis Gun, patented in 1896 (US #723706), by Major Philip Godsal (US #808282) and a carbine developed by James Baird Thorneycroft in 1901. Thorneycroft subsequently worked with Moubray Gore Farquhar and Arthur Henry Hill to patent a refined version of the carbine in 1905 (US #827893). While the Thorneycroft was tested by the British army it was rejected due to ergonomic and reliability shortcomings.

Faucon bullpup
Faucon’s 1911 ‘Fusil Équilibré’ patent (source)

In 1908 Lieutenant-Colonel Armand-Frédéric Faucon of the Troupes Coloniales (French Colonial Infantry) began developing what he termed a ‘Fusil Équilibré’ or balanced rifle. Faucon patented his concept in France in 1911 (FR #422154) and continued to work on the balanced rifle during World War One, utilising a Meunier A5 semi-automatic rifle in working prototypes. The Faucon-Meunier rifle was tested in 1918 and 1920 but eventually rejected. It would be nearly 45 yeas before the bullpup concept was revisited by a major power. Engineers working at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield and at the British Armament Design Department in the 1940s began to develop designs based around the bullpup concept. (Some of these will hopefully be the focus of future videos!)

William Curtis’ design, however, predates all of these. Patented in Britain on 10th July, 1866, Curtis is listed by the London Gazette as a Civil Engineer. His design is unlike anything that had been seen before. Based on a slide-action with a drum magazine, it was placed over the shoulder – much like a modern shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon.

Curtis patent abridgement
William Joseph Curtis’ July 1866 patent for ‘Breech actions, sliding breech-block & stocks’ (courtesy of Research Press)

Curtis’ rifle is probably the very first bullpup magazine rifle, one of the earliest to have a drum magazine (an Italian, Marco Antonio Francois Mennons, patented an earlier design for a drum magazine in March 1862, GB #637) and also an early striker-fired design. Clearly a design well ahead of its time and radically unconventional.

This unconventional gun’s designer was born in Islington, London in 1802, as a civil engineer he worked on Britain’s rapidly growing railway network. He died in 1875, placing the development of his rifle nearer the end of his life.  With hindsight Curtis’ design clearly had revolutionary potential but it appears that his concept was never taken up. It appears that he only patented his design in the United Kingdom. If not for a corporate lawsuit on another continent, decades later, then it is possible Curtis’ design, like so many others, would have slipped into historical obscurity.

Francis Bannerman
Francis Bannerman, (source)

Francis Bannerman vs. the Winchester Repeating Arms Company

In 1890, Francis Bannerman VI, a successful entrepreneur specialising in junk, scrap and later surplus, purchased the Spencer Arms Company and the rights to their patents. The company had been founded by Christopher Miner Spencer, designer of the Spencer Rifle, they produced the first commercially successful slide or pump-action shotgun. This pump action shotgun was designed by Spencer and Sylvester H. Roper and patented in April, 1882 (US #255894). Bannerman continued producing the shotgun as the Bannerman Model 1890, however, in 1893 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, introduced the John Browning-designed Model 1893 pump shotgun (US #441,390).

Spencer Roper patnet
Spencer & Roper’s 1882 patent for their pump action shotgun (source)

In response in October 1894, Bannerman filed a law suit against the Winchester Repeating Arms Company claiming that the slide/pump actions used by Winchester’s Model 1890 and new Model 1893 shotgun infringed on the patents that he owned.

He called for the court to force Winchester to halt production and claimed $10,000 in damages and royalties for the sale of guns which he believed infringed his patent. Winchester temporarily halted production of the Model 1893, in the meantime Bannerman continued producing and improving his shotgun introducing the 1894 and 1896 models.

Times report on bannerman suit
News report on the ruling of the Bannerman vs Winchester case from The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

Various contemporary newspaper reports suggest between 100,000 and 500,000 people were directly interested in the case as ordinary owners were liable under the conditions of Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester dispatched George D. Seymour to Europe to scour the French and British patent archives for any patents for similar actions that had been filed there before those now owned by Bannerman. Winchester discovered four patents: three British and one French. The earliest of these was Alexander Bain’s patent of 1854. Two more patents held by Joseph Curtis and William Krutzsch were found, dating from 1866. The later French patent was filed by M.M. Magot in 1880. All of these designs, including the Curtis we are examining here, never progressed beyond the development stage and were largely forgotten until rediscovered by Winchester.

Krutzsch's pump action rifle
Model of William Krutzsch’s pump action rifle (Photo by Nathaniel F, courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)

Winchester claimed that these earlier designs invalidated Bannerman’s patent claims. To illustrate their defence Winchester decided to build working models of each of the designs, breathing life into long forgotten patent drawings. This must have been a major engineering task as the patent designs would not have had all the information needed to produce a working model.

In 1895-96 Winchester engineers, including T.C. Johnson, assembled working models of each of the designs to prove their viability. These were tested and Winchester’s lawyers took them into court and submitted them as evidence, even offering a firing demonstration. The court declined the demonstration and made its decision on June 27th 1897. Judge Hoyt H. Wheeler of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favour of Winchester and threw out Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester had produced some 34,000 Model 1893s before, in November 1897, they introduced the improved Model 1897 which proved to be hugely popular on both the civilian and military markets. Bannerman unveiled a final shotgun, the Model 1900, but production ended in the early 1900s.

Curtis’ Unconventional Design

Curtis Rifle right side
Right side, rear quarter, view of the Winchester-made Curtis Rifle (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

Curtis’ design encapsulates a number of features which, in 1866, were unheard of and arguably revolutionary. Not only is it probably the first magazine-fed repeating bullpup but it also uses a drum magazine, something that would not see substantial military use until the First World War. It has a folding shoulder support or stock, uses a striker fired action and makes use of self-contained ammunition.

 

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The Curtis’ rifle is placed over the top of the user’s shoulder with a folding leather strap which fits into the shoulder pocket. Curtis’ original patent also suggests a fixed hook and strap. The user then grasps the loop near the muzzle with their support hand and the trigger and bolt handle with their other hand. Novel, but not the most ergonomic of designs.

sketch of curtis rifle
Illustration of how the Curtis Rifle was ‘shouldered’ (Courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The magazine appears to hold at least 13 or more rounds according to the available patent and Winchester’s engineering drawings. The magazine is fixed in place and rounds appear to have been fed into it through the loading/ejection port on the left side of the weapon. This would have also put spent cases being ejected right next to the user’s neck. Curtis’ patent explains that the magazine has a spring inside which has a length of string attached to the top of it which the user can pull back to depress it and allow cartridges to be loaded into the drum. The magazine has a single stack or loop of cartridges. Once loaded the string can be released, allowing the magazine spring to push rounds into the action.

Curtis trigger and bolt
Close up of the left side of the Curtis’ trigger, bolt assembly and hand loop (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The Curtis rifle’s action appears to lock at the front of the weapon with the bolt handle acting on a hinged, spring-loaded, locking piece or flapper which dropped into place when locked. To unlock the action the bolt handle was sharply pulled to the rear which pushed the locking piece out of engagement and unlocked the action allowing the operating rod to be cycled.

Winchester Curits drawing
Winchester engineering drawing drawn up c.1895 of the Curtis (courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The weapon’s chamber appears to be just forward of the centre of the drum magazine with the striker assembly located behind it. To operate Curtis’ rifle the magazine was loaded and then the user had to unlock the action by pulling the bolt handle backwards. This then allowed the operating rod to be pulled backwards, like a pump action, which pushed the bolt and striker assembly to the rear, cocking the striker, the bolt handle was then returned forward and locked back into position. This chambered a round ready to be fired.

Curtis drum mag
Close up of the Curtis’ brass drum magazine and loading/ejection port (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The trigger at the front of the firearm is connected to the striker assembly by a long length of wire. When pulled the wire becomes taught and trips a sear to release the striker, firing the weapon.

Originally Curtis’ patent describes how ‘small punches’ on the bolt face would pierce the cartridge base during firing to enable the spent case to be extracted once the action was cycled. From Winchester’s engineering drawings, however, it appears they replaced this with a more reliable and conventional extractor at the 7 o’clock position of the bolt face.

Given that the weapon would have fired black powder cartridges it is unclear how well the rifle would have faired with sustained firing. The drum magazine would have been susceptible to jamming as a result of powder fouling. This, however, would not have been an issue for Winchester later version of the rifle.

detail from curtis patent
Detail of Fig.1 & Fig.10 from Curtis’ 1866 patent (courtesy of Research Press)

But the Curtis has one more interesting surprise. The original 1866 patent also includes what might be one of the earliest descriptions of a gas operated firearm. One of the most fascinating sections of Curtis’ original patent details how the rifle might have been adapted for gas operation:

“An arrangement is shown in Fig.10, in which the rod G is dispensed with; in this case the barrel may be shorter, not projecting beyond the shoulder; the butt is similar. The breech may be opened automatically by the powder gases, which pass by an opening in the barrel to a cylinder with which works a breech operating plunger.”

Curtis does not go into further detail but he is clearly describing a piston-driven, gas operated system. The patent drawing also depicts an alternative tube magazine instead of the drum magazine.

It is unknown if Curtis ever put his theory to the test and developed his gas system idea further. It is tempting to wonder if, in 1895 when Winchester were assembling their model of the Curtis, if John Browning or William Mason, who were also developing their own gas operated systems at the time, were aware of Curtis’ idea from 30 years earlier. As such Curtis’, admittedly vague, gas system pre-dates the first patents on gas operation by just under 20 years.


Specifications:

Action: Slide action
Calibre: .32 Winchester Centre Fire
Feed: ~12 round drum magazine


My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing me to examine and film the Curtis. Special thanks to the CFM’s assistant curator Danny Michael for making extra time to open up the case where the rifle Curtis is on display so we could examine it and for also sharing Winchester’s technical drawings and other records.

Thanks also to David Minshall of Research Press.co.uk for his assistance finding Curtis’ original British patent abridgement and to John Walter for digging up some additional information about Curtis’ life.


Bibliography:

‘Winchester Suit Decided’, The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

‘Recollections of the Forming of the Pugsley & Winchester Gun Collections: A Talk Given by Mr. Edwin Pugsley at the New Haven Meeting of the AS of AC’, September, 1955.

Curtis Rifle, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)

‘Francis Bannerman VI, Military Goods Dealer to the World’, American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 82:43-50, D.B. Demeritt, Jr., (1982)

Patents:

Improvements in fire-arms’ A. Bain, British Patent #1404, 26th June, 1854

‘Breech actions, sliding breech block; stocks’, W.J. Curtis, British Patent #1810, 10th July, 1866

‘Breech actions, hinged and laterally-moving breech block; magazines’, W. Krutzsch, British Patent #2205, 27th August, 1866

‘Magazine Fire Arm’, Spencer & Roper, US Patent #255894, 4th April, 1882

‘Magazine Bolt Gun’, S. McClean, US Patent #723706, 28th May, 1896

‘Breech-loading small-arm’, P.T. Godsal, US Patent #808282, 19th June, 1903

‘Breech Loading Small Arm’, Thorneycroft, Farquhar & Hill, US Patent #827893, 4th August, 1905

‘Fusil équilibré’, A.B. Faucon, French Patent #422154, 15th March, 1911