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.
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.
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
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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