The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
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Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)
In early 1865, in the wake of the Danish-Prussian War which had shown how effective breechloaders could be, Britain’s Board of Ordnance began to explore retrofitting Britain’s muzzle-loading Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Muskets with a breech-loading cartridge conversion. Along with this interim solution the Ordnance Department also began the search for a breech-loading rifle designed from the ground up. Dozens of designs were examined from engineers and gunsmiths from across Britain, Europe, and the United States. One of these came from Johann von der Poppenburg, a Birmingham based engineer. Poppenburg’s rifle was tested along with 24 others during the initial phase of testing. The Ordnance Department’s Breech-Loading Rifle Committee were largely unimpressed by the rifles submitted and selected only four to progress, Poppenburg’s design was not included.
Poppenburg patented his first breech-loading design in February 1865 (#421) with an American patent following in October (US #50,670). It was this system which was first submitted to the trials, the rifle while described as ‘Poppenburg’s principle’ was made or at least submitted by Messers. Benson and Co., also of Birmingham.
Poppenburg’s patent describes a system that could be loaded with either loose powder and a projectile – with a percussion cap igniting the charge held in the ‘charge-chamber’ or with a paper cartridge which was detonated when pierced by a needle. It was the latter, more modern, option which was chosen for submission to the British trials.
The submitted design used a needle fire action, which ignited a paper cartridge by piercing through the paper and powder to ignite a copper cap in the base of the projectile. Poppenburg patented this cartridge design was on 3rd April 1865 (#932), it lapsed three years later and became void in April 1868. The action was hinged to the right, with a hollow breech chamber swinging out to allow a cartridge to be loaded into it. The estimated unit cost to produce these rifles, for quantities over 5,000 rifles, was £3 each. The needle fire action and hinged breech proved “too complicated, and liable to accident for a military arm” according to the Trials report.
Interestingly, in October 1866 Poppenburg also patented specific system for a breech-loading conversion (#2580). The system used a vertically hinged breech block which locked using a rack and pinion system attached to a lever. It does not appear that this system was tested by the Trials Committee. This action may have been developed following the failure of his more complex action and the adoption of the brass-cased .577 round. This patent lapsed and became void in October 1869.
The October 1866 patent (#2580), appears to be the last patented solely under Poppenburg’s name. Subsequently patents were granted jointly between Poppenburg and John Solomons Benson. This may have been due to the cost of applying for and maintaining patents, which in the 1860s could cost over £45 for three years of protection. Today that’s the equivalent of over £5,000 or nearly $7,000. Both Benson and Poppenburg were based in Birmingham, Britain’s leading centre for small arms manufacturing at the time. In a patent notice, dated 22nd December 1866 (#3382), Benson is listed as a merchant while Poppenburg is described as a mechanical engineer. It may be that Benson provided the financial backing for Poppenburg’s breech-loading system, this was an arrangement that was common at the time.
In 1866-7 Benson and Poppenburg submitted a number of rifles for testing in the Prize Competition launched by the War Office to find a new breech-loading rifle. The system submitted was radically different to Poppenburg’s earlier needle fire designs which used hinged breeches. The patent for the new system was granted jointly to Benson and Poppenburg on the 22nd December 1866 (#3382).
Benson and Poppenburg’s new rifle had a breech which opened horizontally with a ‘tubular breech-block’ which slid to the rear when a hinged lever was liftedand pulled backwards. To open the breech the rifleman first depressed a small catch on the left side of the breech cover, once depressed the breech block could then be pulled back by the hinged lever. This movement also actuated the rifle’s T-shaped semi-circle extractor allowing the rifleman to remove the spent case. A new cartridge could then be loaded and the breech closed and the striker was then pushed forward with the thumb to cock the weapon. Once the hinged lever was pushed forwards again the breech block moved forward, closing the action, and locked with a pair of lugs cut into the receiver (described as the ‘breech-shoe’ in the patent) and at the rear by the catch.
Depressing the breech release button with the striker cocked will de-cock the action and in theory allow a round to be carried in the chamber. The example pictured in the accompanying photographs may be a slightly more refined version of the rifle submitted as it differs from another rifle, said to be a trials gun, which more closely resembles the December 1866 patent.
Breech Closed (Matthew Moss)
Breech Open (Matthew Moss)
The rifle with its breech closed (left) and open (right)
At least four rifles (with some differences in design between them) were provided for testing, the War Office’s April 1868 Report on Breech Loading Arms found that three of the rifles submitted were shorter than the required length while a fourth was too long – with the maximum overall length allowed being 51 inches. Examples of both full-length rifles, with 32 inch barrels, and carbine models with 23½ inch barrels exist (both of these lengths are significantly shorter than the Snider-Enfield’s barrel length). The trials rifles appear to have been sighted out to 1,100 yards and were chambered in a .577 calibre cartridge (probably the Boxer cartridge selected officially in 1866). At least two probable trials example were also chambered in a .450 cartridge. From a survey of the remaining examples it seems that the serial numbers for the rifles range up to at least 239.
The Benson-Poppenburg was unsuccessful during the trials, being rejected from both the Prize Competition and the Breech Action Selection Trials. With the Committee’s report stating that despite the rifles having “several good ideas embodied in their breech action”, they “appear to have been hastily manufactured and the inventions are as yet in an incomplete state”. The specific reasons given for this were that the rifles were of unsatisfactory overall lengths. It seems they were submitted in a rush, in an ‘incomplete state’, with the report also noting that the extractors on two of the rifles submitted destroyed cartridges during extraction, probably ripping the base from the case.
The Committee’s report explained that its rejection from the separate Breech Action Selection Trials was due to issues: “if dirt or sand enters the shoe of this rifle it causes misfires, and even prevents the bolt from entering the aperture in the block.” They also noted that “The working of the breech mechanism is slow.”
The British Army’s extensive trials eventually resulted in the selection of Jacob Snider’s system, adopted in April 1866 to convert existing Pattern 1853s and the selection of Friedrich von Martini’s action and Alexander Henry’s barrel, which when combined as the Martini-Henry was formerly adopted in March 1871.
Mathieu Willemsen, curator of the Netherlands’ Military Museum, was kind enough to share some information about The Dutch Army’s trials with the Poppenburg in 1868. The Dutch trialled a version similar to that tested by the British but chambered in 11x42mmR. The rifle’s action has a more angled external appearance than the example we have examined but works along the same principle.
The rifle was found to be rapid firing but suffered from some issues with fouling and failed a pressure test. Later testing with a smaller calibre round was also carried out but the rifle was not adopted. We hope to have a chance in the future to examine a Dutch trials rifle for comparison.
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Treatise on the British Military Martini, I. Skennerton, (1995)
Reports of a Special Committee on Breech-Loading Rifles (1869)
Abridgements of the Specifications Relating to Fire-Arms and Other Weapons, Ammunition, and Accoutrements, Commissioners of Patents, (1870)
‘Poppenburg’s Projectiles’, Newton’s London Journal of Arts and Sciences, (January, 1866)
Experiment and Trial, M. Willemsen (2012)
Various British Patents:
‘Breech Actions, Hinged-Chamber’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #421, 14th Feb. 1865
‘Projectiles and cartridges for central-fire breech-loading fire-arms and ordnance’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #932, 3rd Apr. 1865
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J. von der Poppenburg , UK Patent #2580, 6th Oct. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Sliding Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patnet #3382, 22nd Dec. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #1950, 15th June, 1868
‘Improvement in breech-loading fire-arms’, J. von der Poppenburg, US Patent #50670, 24th Oct. 1865, (source)
Special thanks to our friends at the Hayes Collection for letting us examine their rifle, and thanks to David Minshall over at the Research Press for his help researching Poppenburg’s numerous patents.
In 1981, Heckler & Koch introduced what would be their last infantry rifle that used their tried and tested roller-delayed blowback action, the HK G41. In October 1980, following NATO’s smalls arms and ammunition testing during the late 1970s, a meeting of NATO Armament Directors, agreed to standardise to the 5.56x45mm round favoured by the United States since the mid-1960s. Standardisation Agreement (STANAG) 4172 saw NATO standardise on the Belgian/FN SS109 ball round. At the same time Draft STANAG 4179 proposed adopting US 30-round M16 magazines as the standard 5.56 magazine pattern, while this proposal wasn’t ratified the M16’s magazine became the de facto standard.
At this time Heckler & Koch were engaged in a major engineering project to develop the G11 caseless ammunition-firing individual weapon. Their main offering for the 5.56x45mm rifle market at the time was the HK33, a rechambered version of the 7.62x51mm G3 developed by Tilo Moller, which was introduced in 1965. The HK33, however, used a proprietary HK magazine and was not compatible with the M16’s magazines. In 1977, as the NATO trials began and it became clear that 5.56x45mm would be adopted, HK began to develop what would become the G41. In 1979 with initial development completed HK submitted 18 G41s for testing with the West German Army. It wasn’t until 1981 that HK introduced the G41 onto the market.
While continuing to use the same roller delayed blowback operating system as the G3, HK33 and MP5, the G41 embodied a number of improvements. While still using a stamped metal receiver it utilised 1mm thick high tensile steel rather than the 1.2mm thick steel used by the HK33. This helped to lighten the receiver. The new rifle also used a lighter bolt assembly, paired with a new recoil spring which comprised of five wound strands around a central coil, rather than a single coil, which had a longer stroke. This acted to lower the felt recoil. The G41, however, had a higher rate of fire at around 850 rounds per minute compared to the 750 rounds per minute of the HK33. Some of the G41’s bolt geometries were reworked and a new extractor was added.
The G41’s lower receiver was redesigned to allow the rifle to feed from STANAG magazines rather than HK’s earlier proprietary magazines. The cocking lever and forward assist were taken from the HK21A1 (XM262) general purpose machine gun, developed for the US SAW trials.
It also had a new more triangular polymer foregrip and added a plastic dust cover to the ejection port, a NATO pattern optics mount (meeting STANAG 2324) replaced HK’s claw-mount system, and a spring-loaded folding carrying handle near the centre of balance was added. Importantly it also added a last round hold open device and a bolt release catch, on the left side of the lower receiver.
The usual thumb serrations on the side of the bolt, for pushing the bolt home, were replaced by a prominent forward assist, similar to that found on the M16A1 and other HK weapons such as the HK21 light machine gun and the PSG-1 sniper rifle. HK sales literature described it as a ‘low noise’ forward assist and the manual describes the “quiet cocking of the weapon” – essentially riding the cocking handle back into battery and then pushing the forward assist to lock the action, the system is not as ‘low noise’ as advertised.
Another important feature of the rifle was the inclusion of a three-round burst setting alongside semi and fully automatic. The G41 could mount a standard G3 bayonet, fit an M16 bipod and had a flash hider designed to enable it to fire NATO standard rifle grenades. The 40mm HK79 under barrel grenade launcher could also be mounted to all variants of the G41, simply swapping it out for the polymer forend. HK referred to this set up as the G41-TGS or ‘Tactical Group Support system’.
The G41 came in a number of variants with designations A1 to A3. The base rifle had a fixed buttstock and its rifling had 1 turn in 7 inches with a right-hand twist, in a 18.9 inch barrel. The A1 had a 1 in 12” twist barrel and fixed buttstock. The A2 had a collapsing, single position stock and 1 in 7” inch twist rifling, while the A3 had 1 in 12” inch twist rifling. The 1 in 7” rifling was optimised for the new SS109, while the 1 in 12” optimised for the US M193 round. There was also a shortened G41K model which had a collapsing stock and a 15 inch barrel available with both rifling types.
One of the main issues with the G41 was its weight. Despite efforts to lighten the sheet metal receiver, it weighed more than its predecessor the HK33. According to measurement data compiled by researcher Nathaniel F, unloaded the G41 weighs in at 4.31kgs or 9.5 lbs, this is a full pound heavier than the HK33. A contemporary M16A2 weighed 3.39kg or 7.5 lbs while the Spanish CETME L, a similar stamped receiver rifle chambered in 5.56×45, weighed 3.72kg or 8.2 lbs. The rifle eventually adopted by the Bundeswehr, the HK G36, weighed 3.13kg or 7.3 lbs. The G41K with its collapsing steel stock wasn’t much lighter, weighing 4.3kg or 9.5 lbs, according to HK sales literature. Another potential issue may have been reliability with the move to the STANAG magazine rather than the optimised proprietary HK magazines may have introduced some issues.
Following NATO’s decision the early 1980s saw a large number of countries looking to replace their ageing 7.62x51mm battle rifles. Sweden began to look for a 5.56x45mm rifle to replace its licensed version of the G3, the Ak4, in the late 1970s. HK could initially only offer the HK33 but the G41, tested later, was also rejected by the Swedes in favour of FN’s FNC. Italy sought to replace the BM59 with a more modern rifle and HK entered into an agreement with Luigi Franchi which saw them offer both the original HK configuration and the develop their own, slightly modified version, the Franchi mod. 641, but the Beretta AR70/90 was selected. Similarly, in 1984 Spain decided to adopt the indigenously developed CETME L. In 1986 the HK G41 was also submitted to the Irish Army’s trials to replace the FN FAL, it was beaten by the Steyr AUG. Initially West Germany had hoped to procure up to 20,000 HK G11 rifles per year, with a total of 224,000 in service by 2003.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent reunification of Germany saw Federal budgets stretched and the G11 programme was subsequently abandoned entirely. The Bundeswehr still needed a suitable rifle to replace the G3 and in the 1990s sought a lighter weight rifle. HK felt their HK50 project, in development since the mid-1970s was a better bet than the heavier G41, and following Bundeswehr trials the G36 was subsequently adopted in 1997. Sadly, I have not been able to get a hold of any of the trials reports from the nations that tested the G41, so can not say with certainty why the countries mentioned above rejected HK’s rifle.
From photographs of members of the Turkish Gendarmerie special operations group training at the Foça Commando School, dating from the early 2010s, it appears that Turkey either purchased a number of G41s or Turkey’s state-owned defence manufacturer, MKEK, produced an unknown number under license.At some point in the 1980s the British Army also tested a small number G41s with serial numbers #11131, #11832 and #11833 remaining in UK collections.
Denmark’s elite Jaegerkorpset and Froemandskorpset used the G41 for a time and Argentina’s special forces, including the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales, have also been photographed with both HK G41s and G41A2(collapsing stock) fitted with the TGS package comprising of the HK79 under barrel grenade launcher.
The G41 represents the last evolution of HK’s infantry rifles using the roller delayed blowback action. It comes from a period when HK were developing what they hoped would be the next generation of small arms technology and with the collapse of the G11 programme and the lack of interest in the G41 the company faced financial uncertainty throughout the early 1990s. HK’s move away from the roller delayed blowback action to a more conventional gas operated rotating bolt system, combined with lightweight polymers, in the G36 proved to be more successful than the ill-fated G41.
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In February 1855, London gunmaker Frederic Prince patented an intriguing breech-loading system. Prince offered his rifle to the Board of Ordnance for testing where it outshot the then-standard Enfield 1853 Pattern rifle musket during trials at the School of Musketry at Hythe in 1855. However, the Ordnance Department refused to consider adopting the new breechloading system believing it to be too complex and expensive to manufacture. It would be another nine years before the British Army took breechloading seriously.
Prince’s system used a sliding barrel to open up the breech to allow the loading of a paper cartridge, once the breech was closed the percussion lock was then capped. Once the hammer was brought back to full cock the rifle was ready to fire. In order to load the rifle the weapon was placed on half cock, the ‘bolt handle’ was then unlocked by pulling back the locking piece which protruded from the base of the trigger guard. The bolt handle was then turned slightly to the right disengaging the two lugs, which locked the breech, and then the bolt could be pushed down a short ‘L’ shaped channel. This pushed the barrel assembly forward several inches, opening the breech and allowing the rifleman to load a paper cartridge.
Once loaded the bolt handle was pulled rearward again, and turned to the left again to re-engage the locking lugs. The bolt locking piece was then pushed back into a recess in the bolt handle to secure it. The bolt handle, along with the lugs inside the receiver, act to keep the breech block locked during firing.
Hans Busk, the prominent Victorian rifle proponent, described Prince’s action, in his book The Rifle, and How to Use It (1861) as: “one of the simplest and handiest breechloading rifles that has yet been tried.”
Prince’s patent for the system was granted on the 21st February 1855. Between 1854 and 1859, Frederic Prince patented no less than eight improvements to small arms ranging from actions to manufacturing processes and even improvements in metallurgy. Prince was a gunmaker working in London, for a time in partnership with William Green with premises on New Bond Street.
One of the key elements to Prince’s system was his self-contained paper cartridge, protected by two patents dating from January 1855 (#33 and #173). Prince’s cartridges were relatively conventional in their design; made up of a paper tube with a wad between the bullet and powder. The paper was treated with a mixture of sulphuric and nitric acids, the process toughened the paper but also, according to Busk, caused it “to be entirely consumed in the barrel”, in theory leaving no debris behind, once it was ignited by the flash of the percussion cap. This had the result of greatly speeding up loading, in a similar way to the cartridges used by the continental needle guns but not going so far as to include the primer inside the cartridge.
Prince’s February 1855 patent describes a conical plug at the rear of the breech with a pair of locking lugs which locked into the walls of the breech. The patent also mentions the possible use of rubber gas seals to obturate during firing and prevent gases being vented. A subsequent patent (#3036 22nd December 1856) protected the concept of having a hollow, concave plug which could either be circular or hexagonal.
In his book Busk recounts that during the trials at the British Army’s School of Musketry at Hythe, Prince’s rifle was reportedly able to fire six rounds in just 46 seconds and a total of 120 rounds were fired in just 18 minutes by Prince himself. On another occasion, using a small bore version of the rifle, Prince was able to demonstrate how accurate his rifle was putting 16 rounds onto a small piece of notepaper, a grouping of 1 ¾ inches, at a range of 100 yards during a demonstration at the Victoria Regimental Practice Ground. The trials at Hythe saw it fired against the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle musket where it put 48 out of 50 rounds on target at 300 yards compared to the Enfield’s 47.
The School of Musketry’s annual report for 1855-56 makes some interesting observations. The report states that testing took place in July 1855 and noted that the Pattern 1853 performed better at 600 yards, no doubt because of its longer barrel, while the Prince “had a slight advantage at the shorter distance”. The report also notes that Prince’s rifle required “a greater angle of elevation than the rifle musket 1853, especially at the longer distances, which proves that the latter has a more horizontal trajectory”, the more parabolic trajectory of the Prince rifle is likely due to its shorter barrel and possibly its five groove rifling. In terms of rate of fire the official report the Pattern 1853 was said to be capable of 35 rounds in fifteen minutes whereas Prince’s rifle managed 72. This casts some doubt on Busk’s account of the trials, which of course may refer to a different test, but it does support the rapidity of Prince’s action. One final interesting observation from the report is that in operating his rifle Prince administered “copious lubrications of saliva” to the action which as a result “worked easily throughout”. The report concludes with the suggestion that Prince’s rifle should “be subjected to a prolonged trial before an opinion can be expressed as to its efficiency for infantry.”
While Prince’s rifle performed admirably the War Office refused to order a batch for further testing, perhaps feeling his system was too complex or too expensive to manufacture, or perhaps not robust enough for military service. Another important factor to consider is that in 1855, the British Army had just two years earlier formally adopted the muzzle-loading 1853 Pattern rifle musket and was of course engaged in the Crimean War.
Prince’s patent is undeniably an ingenious breech-loading system. It is a testament to the belief in the design that in 1858, three years after it had first been rejected, a group of prominent London gunmakers including Manton, Wilkinson, Samuel Nock, Parker Field, and Tatham petitioned the Department of the Master-General of the Ordnance to reconsider their decision in a testimonial, published in The Field magazine in April 1858, arguing that they wished “to see the most effective weapon in the hands of our soldiers” and describing Prince’s rifle as “the best we have seen”. Several of these gunmakers, including Manton and Wilkinson, went on to produce rifles based on Prince’s system.
A survey of surviving examples of rifles using Prince’s action shows that a large number of contemporary gunmakers made rifles based on his system, although how many exactly were made remained unknown.
The rifles were produced by gunmakers including Prince’s own company – Prince & Green, as well as Wilkinson’s, E.M. Reilly, Robert S. Garden, Manton & Sons and Hollis & Sheath (later Hollis & Sons). According to De Wit Bailey the London Armoury Company also took on a manufacturing license for Prince’s action in 1861, it is unknown if any were ever produced before the company collapsed in 1866.
Many Prince’s patent rifles were made for civilian sporting and target use. The surviving rifles tend to have barrel lengths of between 25 and 31 inches and most have either three or five groove rifling. The rifles were made in various calibres from the British army’s preferred .577 to much smaller rook and rabbit hunting guns in .24 and .37 calibre. Other larger calibres include .500 and .90 inch bores. With the variety of makers the sights, stocks and fittings found on the rifles vary greatly from simple dovetailed leaf rear sights to more complex ladder sights. There is some variation in the shape and orientation of the locking lugs on the breech plug, this may indicate some experimentation by gunmakers to find the most efficient shape and angle. There is also variation in the style of the barrel bands which held the barrel to the stock, most have a single barrel band that loops over the barrel but there are several examples which have bands split in half and do not surround the barrel, one example has a set of two of these. All of the guns, however, have back action locks – in order to leave more room around the breech to ensure strength.
Following the rejection of his system by the military Prince developed another breechloading action, patenting it in January 1859 (#259). The new rifle combined a percussion cap magazine inside the rifle’s stock, below the barrel, with an under-hammer lock which was connected to a vertically sliding breech block. It is unclear if this design was ever produced, tested or sold commercially.
In refusing to adopt Prince’s breech-loading system it can be argued that the British Army passed on an opportunity to leap ahead of its rivals. The system was undoubtedly fast and accurate in action, it is possible the Ordnance Department felt the system was too complex and its sliding barrel was not robust enough for service conditions. However, the Prince rifle was a single victim of a wider trend between 1842 and 1865, the Board of Ordnance and later Ordnance Department examined and trialled dozens of breech-loading rifles during the period but did not feel it necessary to adopt one until they had been overwhelmingly proven in the field.
In early 1864, the armies of Europe were shocked by the decisive victory the Prussian Dreyse needle guns helped to bring about during the Danish-Prussian War. In 1865 the British began to seriously look for a breech-loading replacement of their Enfield 1853 Pattern rifle muskets. Following trials of various submitted designs Jacob Snider’s cartridge conversion was selected and in September 1866, the Snider rifle was introduced becoming Britain’s first breech-loading service rifle.
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22nd December 1854, Patent #2705
3rd January 1855, Patent #33
23rd January 1855, Patent #173
21st February 1855, Patent #386
16th November 1855, Patent #2590
22nd December 1856, Patent #3036
28th January 1859, Patent #259
15th July 1859, Patent #1679
Before its adoption by the British Army in 1954 the Patchett Machine Carbine, later better known as the Sterling submachine gun, was extensively tested all over the world. The Patchett went through nearly a decade of testing, evaluation and refinement. It was tested by British troops around the world, from West Germany to Africa, from the middle east to Malaya.
Today, we’re going to examine a unique Patchett/Sterling prototype assembled in Malaya. The gun we’re examining is officially a MkII Patchett Machine Carbine, but as the guns are better known as the Sterling we will refer to it as such from here on out. This prototype has been specially adapted with a shotgun style rib sight to help aiming in jungle conditions.
It was in Malaya that the specially adapted but short-lived prototype improvement emerged. As early as December 1952, British troops were testing the gun during operations against communist insurgents in Malaya. The harsh jungle conditions were a challenge for any weapon but an early report testing a single prototype noted that the weapon performed well but one of the issues identified was that the rear aperture sight was found to be “smaller than was desirable” and the report suggested that the aperture be widened to 0.098 inches 2.5mm – the same as the Owen gun. The report also noted that the front sight “did not stand out well in relation to the front sight protectors”.
It seems that when a batch of 75 trials guns arrived in 1953, a number of them were specially adapted in theatre. It was hoped that the shotgun-style rib sight fitted along the length of the receiver would aid snap shooting in the jungle. It was intended to enable users to engage fleeting targets quicker and improve ‘first shot hit’ probability in thick jungle and heavy rainstorms.
During operations in Malaya and Borneo, many scouts and point men carried shotguns such as the semi-automatic Browning Auto-5. Shotguns were favoured during jungle operations because of the ease with which they could be quickly and instinctively aimed and their exceptional close-range firepower.
The modification saw the complete removal of the standard front and rear sights and the razing on of a rib sight running along the length of the top of the gun from the muzzle to the rear sight. It appears an armourer cut down and removed the front and rear sight assemblies and used them as mounting points. The first few inches of the rib are stippled to minimise glare and a brass front sight bead has been added to help sight acquisition.
The simpler sight rib also helped with another issue that was identified during early jungle testing, it removed the problem of the sights getting clogged with mud. It is unknown just how many were adapted but at least three are known to survive. The jungle-specific modifications were short-lived and not formerly adopted because the rib sight offered poor longer range accuracy.
Here are some more detail photographs of the rib sight prototype:
With the adoption of the Patchett as the L2A1, in 1954, a list of modifications based on trials recommendations was drawn up in June 1953, one of the suggestions was the enlargement of the rear sight aperture to 0.1, (2.5mm) 0.15 (3.8mm) or 0.2 inches (5mm). In August 1953, the infantry board decided that the 100 yard aperture would be 0.15 (3.8mm) in diameter while the 200 yard would be 0.1, (2.5mm). The spacing of the rear sight protectors was also subsequently widened to 0.55 inches (14mm). With these changes made the Sterling saw service in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo for over a decade during the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation.
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‘Operational Research Section, Singapore, Technical Note No.5 – Technical Notes on Initial Trials of the Patchett Carbine in Malaya’, Maj. R.St.G. Maxwell, 1th December, 1952, Royal Armouries Library
‘Minutes of a Meeting held at the war office on Friday 7th August, 1953, to decide whether the Patchett sub-machine gun be introduced into the Service as a replacement for the Sten sub-mahcine gun’, Royal Armouries Library
I have written a book for Osprey’s Weapon series looking at the development, use and significance of the Sterling, it’s available now, you can find out more about it here.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 Ferguson’s rifles and perhaps a mix of Pattern 1776 muzzle-loading rifle 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
Louis Schmeisser’s 1910 patent (Us Patent Office)
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.
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.
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.
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.