While doing some research into the British Army’s breechloading trials for another upcoming episode I came across an offshoot report into repeating rifles. This offshoot trial tested the repeating rifles that were then available, not with the goal of selecting one to adopt, but to see what was currently available.
Following the Prussian Danish War of 1864 and the decisive advantage the breechloading Dreyse Needle Gun gave the Prussians most of Europe scrambled to make the transition to breechloaders. In 1865 the British Army began a series of trials examining new breechloading rifles. The aim was first to find an adequate conversion as a stopgap measure – Jacob Snider’s action won that competition, but also to find the ideal breech-loader that was best suited to service all around the British Empire – the Martini-Henry was eventually adopted.
But as an offshoot to these breechloading trials the Army also carried out testing on new repeating arms. I like many people have often wondered why the Winchester lever action or other repeaters weren’t taken more seriously by European powers during the 1860s. Today, we’re going to take a look at the February 1869 report on repeating arms and try to answer that question.
A testing committee headed up by Lt Colonel H.C. Fletcher (of the Scots Fusilier Guards) with officers from the 48th and 3rd regiments began examining repeating rifles in 1867. Six repeating rifles were tested, the Henry, the Ball & Lamson, the Larsen, the Spencer, the Vetterli (misspelled ‘Vertelli’) and the Winchester Musket. The Norwegian Larsen was provided without ammunition and was quickly dropped due to concerns about the safety of its action. The Vetterli and Winchester were added during the later stages of the trials. As I mentioned the aim wasn’t to select a repeater for adoption rather to get an idea of what was available. So the trials weren’t exhaustive but they did test for accuracy and ran the guns through sand tests.
To test accuracy 20 rounds were fired at 2 targets at 500 yards to find the mean deviation, the Spencer was found to be the most accurate, while not surprisingly the Henry chambered in .44 Rimfire fared the worst. The rifles’ rates of fire were also tested: the Ball and Lamson fired 40 rounds in just under 3 minutes, the Spencer fired 14 rounds in 1 minute 33 before jamming and being dropped from testing, and the Henry fired 45 rounds in 1 minute 36 seconds. The rifles were also subjected to sand tests with the Ball and Lamson and Henry performing well, the Spencer, however, jammed and became unserviceable.
At this point the Committee liked the Henry best stating that it was “the most suitable for a military weapon” but that it would be better if it could be single loaded and the magazine held in reserve for emergencies. The late entry from Winchester was examined following the first round of tests, having heard about the improved Henry, Fletcher and the committee contacted Winchester and requested a rifle to test but it seems that some modifications were made at their request – probably to address the shortcomings of the Henry that had become clear in testing.
The exact configuration of the Winchester is a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t a standard Model 1866 Musket chambered in .44 Rimfire. The report describes it as a 50 inch long rifle, weighing 8lbs 12.5 oz, with a 29.75 inch barrel and a 12 round magazine. It chambered a .45 calibre, centrefire rather than rimfire round, with a 320 grain bullet. The Cody Firearms Museum, which houses the Winchester factory collectio,n has a number of prototype 1866-pattern rifles chambered in larger calibres than .44. The rifle tested by the British committee may have looked similar to those.
As the Committee contacted Winchester directly it is possible that they directly requested a rifle chambered in a larger, centrefire round to improve on the Henry’s poor accuracy at longer ranges. When tested at 500 yards the Winchester achieved groups with less than 1.5 feet of deviation and when pushed out to 800 yards managed 3.6 feet.
The rapidity of the Winchester was also tested and fired it managed 25 rounds in just 1 minute 18 seconds reloading 3 times. The new rifle included the new loading gate in the receiver, designed by Nelson King, this was seen as a much more practical method of loading.
When sand tested the Winchester, unlike the Henry, became jammed, with its lever becoming bent and unserviceable. Despite the weakness of the lever the trials committee decided that the Winchester “was simpler in construction and better adapted to the purposes of a military weapon” than the other rifles and the Swiss Vetterli, which they described as not as well suited to “the purposes of a military rifle”. But the committee wasn’t prepared to recommend a repeater for general adoption based on the testing.
So why wasn’t the Winchester adopted, even in small numbers, it seems that a repeating rifle may have been useful for scouts or mounted infantry. The Committee’s final report in February 1869, concluded that while they felt the Winchester was the best of the rifles tested, and it could be improved further, it was believed that the heavy weight of the rifle when fully loaded and the complexity and weakness of the action made it “objectionable” for service. The committee felt that “the mechanism of the Winchester was more complicated than that of the Martini and many other single loaders; it is also more liable to injury, and not so well calculated to resist the wear and tear of service.”
The Committee, however, could see the benefits of rapid magazine-fed fire, with the report stating “there may, however, be occasions when a repeating arm might be useful” As a result the Snider-Enfield remained in service and was replaced during the 1870s by the Martini-Henry, it wouldn’t be until the adoption of the Lee-Metford in 1888 that the British Army adopted a repeating rifle.
This article has only examined British opinion on the repeating rifles of the period and has not explored how other European nations felt about their military applications and value. Indeed, much has been made of Turkish use of Winchester repeating rifles during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) but that’s a topic for another day. This 1869 report is merely one case study, from one country, but it does add some interesting perspective. Hopefully the wider reaction to repeating rifles during the late 19th century is a subject we can touch upon in the future.
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‘Report on Repeating Arms’, Reports from Commissioners, Vol. 12, 1869, (source)
Our thanks to Danny Michael & the Cody Firearms Museum for sharing the photograph of the Winchester prototype featured above.