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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In this episode we bring you our first live fire and slow motion footage! Matt had the opportunity to fire a British L2A3 Sterling submachine gun and Vic captured some great video. The Sterling was adopted by the British military in 1954 and standardised as the L2A3 in 1956.
Designed by George Patchett, at the Sterling Armaments Company, development began towards the end of the Second World War. After a decade of development and testing the British Army adopted the Sterling. It remained in service into the 1990s and Sterling produced and sold the gun overseas until the company closed in the late 1980s. Licensed versions of the Sterling were made in Canada and production continues today in India.
While the Sterling Armaments Company, the original developers and manufacturer of the gun, produced L2A3s for the government and the commercial market most of the British Army’s Sterlings were made by the government owned Royal Ordnance Factory in Fazakerly near Liverpool.
The gun featured in the video is a Fazakerly-made British Army L2A3, the magazine is also of the slightly simplified government pattern.
In this episode we look at the firing cycle of the L2A3 and how the weapon works. The Sterling uses a standard blowback action and this footage shows it firing in semi-automatic. We can see the breech block travel forward, strip a round from the magazine and chamber it. The round is fired and the breech block then travels rearward again before repeating the cycle.
In future videos we will discuss in-depth the design, development and history of the Sterling.
We would like to thank Graham over at www.slomocamco.com for the loan of the brilliant slow motion camera which captured this great footage!
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At the end of the Second World War the British Army had two primary infantry machine guns: the Bren light machine gun and the Vickers medium machine gun. These weapons had proved their worth, the Bren was especially well liked and the venerable Vickers continued to be a reliable workhorse.
In the late 1940s, the British Army recognised the Soviet threat to Western Europe. In 1947, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the newly appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff wrote a paper outlining rearmament plans based on intelligence estimates of how quickly the Soviet Union was likely to be ready for another full-scale war. Montgomery believed that Britain had just 10 years to develop new weapons and begin rearmament before the Soviet Union had recovered enough to launch an invasion of Western Europe. As such the British Army felt that rearmament needed to be complete by the late 1950s.
A number of large budget programmes were launched while small arms projects were also undertaken. These included the Infantry Personal Weapon programme which sought to develop a new intermediate calibre infantry rifle – the IPW programme later yielded Stefan Janson’s EM-2, a bullpup chambered in .280, which was briefly adopted as the Rifle No.9. The FN FAL was later adopted due to changes in political circumstances – a long, fascinating story for another article. The companion to the IPW programme was the development of a Sustained Fire Machine Gun also chambered in .280. The TADEN, a belt-fed derivative of the Bren firing the new .280 round was designed by Harold Turpin (‘T’), the Armament Design Establishment (‘AD’) and Enfield (‘EN’). With the abandonment of the IPW the TADEN was also abandoned but its design greatly influenced the later X11.
Another major small arms programme was the search for a new machine carbine (or submachine gun). This saw the testing of designs from Sterling, BSA and Madsen – with the Sterling finally adopted as the L2.
The other major small arms project was the programme to find a new section level machine gun. The German MG34 and MG42 had impressed the Allies during the war, so much so the US went as far as to clone it with the T24. After the abandonment of the EM-2 and TADEN machine gun the British issued a new specification for a lightweight sustained fire machine gun, chambered in the 7.62x51mm round recently adopted by NATO, in the mid-1950s.
The design team at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield developed a belt-fed derivative of the Bren light machine gun. The X11 series of prototypes sought to convert the Bren’s proven design into a weapon capable of sustained fire. The X11 made a number of changes to the Bren included the addition of a detachable butt/grip/trigger assembly which could be swapped for a pair of spade grips and a paddle trigger for static sustained fire from a tripod. This resulted in the pistol grip being located much further back than the traditional Bren’s.
It appears that during the mid-1950s British military parlance described the General Purpose Machine Gun as a Sustained Fire Machine Gun (SFMG). From the available photographs it appears that the L4 and X11 use the same barrel with its distinct flash hider. The receivers of all the prototypes appear to be milled to attach the optical long range sight seen above.
The main drawback with the X11 was its feed mechanism. The feed slide was indexed by a rotating vertical feed shaft which was driven by the gas piston’s recoil. This created a considerable amount of friction within the action. It had the effect of causing failures to feed during adverse conditions testing and elevated firing tests. A series of four X11 prototypes were developed with Harold Turpin (co-designer of the STEN gun and later TADEN) working on the new gun. Each prototype appears to have a sightly different trigger configuration. The most interesting of these is a two-finger double-crescent trigger reminiscent of the MG-34’s – from the photographs it appears that the conventional selector lever, used in the X11E2, was replaced with a fire-selector system similar to the MG-34’s (upper crescent – semi-auto, lower crescent – full-auto). However, the trigger of the example of the X11E4 examined by Vic (serial number #11) was fully automatic only, despite its crescent shape.
Below are photographs of examples of the three types held at the Royal Armouries:
The X11 was tested against the M60, French AA-52, Swiss MG51, Danish Madsen-Saetter, German MG-3, and the Belgian FN MAG. The FN MAG, designated the X15E1 by the British, fared best in the trials with the X11 coming second due to its feeding issues. In January 1958, the British abandoned the X11 and moved to adopt the X15E1 general purpose machine gun, negotiating a license for its manufacture. The weapon was finally adopted as the L7A1 in 1961, with production at Enfield beginning in 1963. It seems that the Birmingham Small Arms Company were a latecomer to the competition having developed the another belt-fed Bren gun derivative known as the X16.
The Bren did continue in service after the switch to 7.62x51mm. In 1954, before beginning work on the X11, Enfield had developed the X10E1. Taking a Canadian manufactured 7.92x57mm Bren breech block and converting it to cycle the new round. The X10E1 was formally adopted as the L4. The L4 remained in service, alongside the L7, into the early 1990s. The L7 GPMG continues to be used by the British Army.
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Matt was recently lucky enough to examine a 1785 Pattern Durs Egg Breech-loading cavalry carbine. Based upon Giuseppe Crespi’s breech-loading system, the Egg carbines were tested by British cavalry regiments in the late 1780s. You can check out our full-length article on the weapon here and our video here.
Below are a some photographs I took of the carbine showing some of the details of its design:
Our thanks to the collection that holds this example of the Durs Egg Carbine, whom wish to remain anonymous, which was kind enough to allow us access to their impressive array of small arms.
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By the Autumn of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled most of mainland Europe, France had surrendered, and the British Army had been forced to evacuate the continent and in the process had lost much of its arms and equipment.
Arms production in Britain was ramped up in order to arm the returning troops and the new units being formed to defend against the imminently expected German invasion. Existing designs like the Bren light machine gun and the Lee-Enfield Rifle were simplified to increase production however new options were also examined. The cheap, quickly manufactured STEN submachine gun was introduced and calls were made for a simplified light machine gun which could be made in any machine or workshop with simple tooling. Even before the fall of France the British Ordnance Board sent out a memo in June 1940, requesting a light machine gun which could be produced in garages and smaller workshops throughout Britain in the event that the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield was bombed.
In December 1940, the Chief Superintendent of Design outlined a light machine gun based on the Lewis Gun’s rotating bolt, which fed from Bren gun magazines.
The Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) were approached to develop a design. BSA tasked their chief designer, Henry Faulkner, with the project. Members of the British Army’s Ordnance Board, however, began to question the decision to have an established manufacturer build a prototype for a gun that was supposed to be assembled in small ad-hoc workshops. As a result the contract was cancelled, however, BSA and Faulkner persisted anyway.
Faulkner, with the help of Roger Wackrow, came up with a weapon which later became known as the BESAL. The design was developed to be simple, cheap and quick to manufacture. The standards of finish were significantly lower than those of the standard Bren then in production. The plan was to issue the BESAL in the event Britain’s armed forces found themselves engaged in a last ditch defence with German invasion either imminent or already underway.
Faulkner’s design was chambered in .303 and fed feeding from standard Bren gun curved box magazines. It used a basic trigger mechanism, a simple pressed gas cylinder and a body held together by pinning and spot welding. The first prototype had a folding but non-adjustable bipod and a skeleton butt stock with a wooden insert. With the manufacture of barrels expected to be a bottleneck to the weapon’s production it was suggested that the spare barrel issued with each Bren gun be recalled for use in the new BESAL. This clearly illustrates just how desperate the situation was expected to be. The first prototype BESAL was ready by late 1941, and testing began in March 1942. The BESAL proved to be reliable and effective during trials.
Faulkner’s design went through a number of iterations but the gneral design had been finalised by May 1942 when BSA, Faulkner and Wackrow filed three patents protecting the design. The principle feature of the later BESAL patterns was the use of a cocking system which saw the operator push the pistol grip forward to catch the bolt, and then pull it to the rear to cock the weapon. This is a system that was later seen in the Czechoslovakian Vz 52/57, 59 series and the Finnish KVKK-62 general purpose machine gun.
Iterations of the BESAL:
(Artists impression of 1st BESAL prototype – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Right side cocking handle
Simple fixed peep sight
Non-adjustable bipod mounted on the receiver
(Photograph of a 2nd Pattern BESAL with a pan magazine, note the right-side cocking handle – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Bipod moved to front of the gas tube
Universal magazine adaptor fitted for Bren and Motley Pan magazines
Full wooden stock – similar in profile to the Lewis Gun’s
Disassembly knob introduced
Pistol grip cocking mechanism replacing the conventional cocking handle
(Photograph of a 4th Pattern BESAL, note the selector on the pistol grip – from Dugelby’s Bren Gun Saga)
Introduction of a selector switch on the left side of the weapon’s pistol grip
In August 1942, BSA submitted the 3rd Pattern Prototype for trials. It was extensively tested between September and November 1942. On 6th January, 1943, BSA renamed the BESAL the ‘Light Machine Gun, Faulkner, 0.303-In Mk1’ in order to prevent confusion with the 7.92x57mm BESA machine gun used in some British tanks. The BESA, also produced by BSA, used a similar pistol grip cocking mechanism. We hypothesise that the the BESAL’s name might come from the BESA, meaning BESA-Light. This, however, is unconfirmed.
It seems that over time as BSA and Faulkner improved and refined the design the BESAL ceased to be a cheap, simple, quickly-made alternative to the Bren. Instead it appears that BSA hoped the weapon might be adopted as a somewhat cheaper substitute standard to the Bren. Final testing of the BESAL were held in March 1943, but by now the weapon’s original purpose had been made defunct by the huge increase in Bren manufacturing capacity. By 1943 the Bren was in production on four continents: at Enfield in the UK, at John Inglis in Canada, at Ishapore in India and Lithgow in Australia. Inglis alone was producing 10,000 Brens a month by 1943.
With the need for a new light machine gun gone the BESAL project was cancelled in June 1943. BSA produced an estimated 20 guns, of various patterns, during the BESAL development project. Today, it is believed that only a handful remain.
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Length: 118.5cm (46.6in)
Weight: 9.7kg (21lb 8oz)
Barrel Length: 56cm (22in)
Action: Gas operated, short recoil
Feed: 30-round Bren box magazine or 100-round Motley pan magazine
Cyclic Rate: 600rpm
The Bren Gun Saga, T. B. Dugelby (1999)
Bren Gun, N. Grant, (2013) Military Small Arms, I. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Modern Small Arms, F. Myatt (1979)
‘Improvements in or relating to gas-operated automatic firearms’, GB572925, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572926, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)
‘Improvements in or relating to automatic firearms’, GB572924, BSA, H. A. Faulkner & R.D. Wackrow, 30/10/1945, (source)