Before its adoption by the British Army in 1954 the Patchett Machine Carbine, later better known as the Sterling submachine gun, was extensively tested all over the world. The Patchett went through nearly a decade of testing, evaluation and refinement. It was tested by British troops around the world, from West Germany to Africa, from the middle east to Malaya.
Today, we’re going to examine a unique Patchett/Sterling prototype assembled in Malaya. The gun we’re examining is officially a MkII Patchett Machine Carbine, but as the guns are better known as the Sterling we will refer to it as such from here on out. This prototype has been specially adapted with a shotgun style rib sight to help aiming in jungle conditions.
It was in Malaya that the specially adapted but short-lived prototype improvement emerged. As early as December 1952, British troops were testing the gun during operations against communist insurgents in Malaya. The harsh jungle conditions were a challenge for any weapon but an early report testing a single prototype noted that the weapon performed well but one of the issues identified was that the rear aperture sight was found to be “smaller than was desirable” and the report suggested that the aperture be widened to 0.098 inches 2.5mm – the same as the Owen gun. The report also noted that the front sight “did not stand out well in relation to the front sight protectors”.
It seems that when a batch of 75 trials guns arrived in 1953, a number of them were specially adapted in theatre. It was hoped that the shotgun-style rib sight fitted along the length of the receiver would aid snap shooting in the jungle. It was intended to enable users to engage fleeting targets quicker and improve ‘first shot hit’ probability in thick jungle and heavy rainstorms.
During operations in Malaya and Borneo, many scouts and point men carried shotguns such as the semi-automatic Browning Auto-5. Shotguns were favoured during jungle operations because of the ease with which they could be quickly and instinctively aimed and their exceptional close-range firepower.
The modification saw the complete removal of the standard front and rear sights and the razing on of a rib sight running along the length of the top of the gun from the muzzle to the rear sight. It appears an armourer cut down and removed the front and rear sight assemblies and used them as mounting points. The first few inches of the rib are stippled to minimise glare and a brass front sight bead has been added to help sight acquisition.
The simpler sight rib also helped with another issue that was identified during early jungle testing, it removed the problem of the sights getting clogged with mud. It is unknown just how many were adapted but at least three are known to survive. The jungle-specific modifications were short-lived and not formerly adopted because the rib sight offered poor longer range accuracy.
Here are some more detail photographs of the rib sight prototype:
With the adoption of the Patchett as the L2A1, in 1954, a list of modifications based on trials recommendations was drawn up in June 1953, one of the suggestions was the enlargement of the rear sight aperture to 0.1, (2.5mm) 0.15 (3.8mm) or 0.2 inches (5mm). In August 1953, the infantry board decided that the 100 yard aperture would be 0.15 (3.8mm) in diameter while the 200 yard would be 0.1, (2.5mm). The spacing of the rear sight protectors was also subsequently widened to 0.55 inches (14mm). With these changes made the Sterling saw service in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo for over a decade during the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation.
‘Operational Research Section, Singapore, Technical Note No.5 – Technical Notes on Initial Trials of the Patchett Carbine in Malaya’, Maj. R.St.G. Maxwell, 1th December, 1952, Royal Armouries Library
‘Minutes of a Meeting held at the war office on Friday 7th August, 1953, to decide whether the Patchett sub-machine gun be introduced into the Service as a replacement for the Sten sub-mahcine gun’, Royal Armouries Library
I have written a book for Osprey’s Weapon series looking at the development, use and significance of the Sterling, it’s available now, you can find out more about it here.
The CETME AMELI was developed by Spain’s state-owned small arms institute, Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales or CETME. It was an attempt to develop a light machine gun chambered in 5.56x45mm. Its name, AMELI, is an acronym for ‘Ametralladora ligera’ – simply Spanish for light machine gun.
Development of the AMELI began in 1974 under the supervision of Colonel José María Jiménez Alfaro (who would later become the director of CETME). The Ameli was officially unveiled in 1981 and after undergoing exhaustive military trials was adopted into service in 1982 as the standard squad-level support weapon of the Spanish Army under the designation MG 82. It was manufactured by the Santa Bárbara National Company (now General Dynamics Santa Bárbara Sistemas) at the La Coruña factory.
The initial model was the NA variant, or Standard Model. This is the model that closely resembles the MG-42 with its conical flash hider. The Spanish military, however, wanted a lighter gun and the NB variant was designed, this is easily identified by the straight flash hider that is now integral with the barrel and not part of the barrel shroud. The NB model reduced the unloaded weight from the original 7.24 Kg (16 lbs) to 5.4 Kg (12 lbs). However, this weight reduction and the use of materials of lower cost than the original trialled guns caused reliability issues with the AMELI in service. Both variants had a rotating rear disk sight, graduated from 300 to 1,000 metres, and a folding front sight. A mounting block for a British SUSAT optic was later added to the top cover.
Parts breakages and stoppages plagued the AMELI in service and gunners had to take great care of their weapons to keep them serviceable. One issue was that the stamped forward barrel shroud was a press fit over the receiver and held in place by steel ‘barbs’. Rough handling and downward pressure on the bipod during manoeuvres and firing caused the shroud to deflect, this caused accuracy and functionality issues. To alleviate these problems the Spanish Marines went so far as to TIG weld the forward barrel shroud to the receiver, this fixed most of those issues.
The AMELI’s shape resembles the MG42 machine gun but the similarities are external only. While the MG42 uses the short recoil, roller locked system (where the barrel and bolt recoil together a short distance before separating), the AMELI employs a roller-delayed blowback action with a fixed barrel and a fluted chamber. This system was also used in the CETME Model A, B, C and L rifles, as well as in the HK G3 rifle, the HK 33 rifle and the HK MP5 submachine guns. Similarities with the CETME Model C and Model L rifles are limited to the commonality of the takedown pins and no other parts contrary to popular myth!
Both AMELI models have similar rates of firing of around 1,000 rounds per minute. The AMELI used the same feeding system used in the MG42, it had a cross bolt safety located at the rear of the top of the pistol grip and a quick change barrel system. To remove the barrel you pull the two sides of the barrel latch, which is built into the rear sight assembly, rotate the handle clockwise until the gate in the side of the barrel shroud opens and then pull the barrel back out of the gun. The front of the barrel is secured by a round ball detent which clicks into the front of the barrel shroud.
CETME also developed a top feeding magazine adaptor system, perhaps inspired by the contemporary FN Minimi’s ability to feed from magazines as well as a bolt. The Bren-like adaptor allows a STANAG magazine to be loaded in upside down into the action. To fit the adaptor the gun’s top cover and feed tray had to be removed. To deal with the magazine housing now obscuring the front sight the adaptor had a new set of sights – one at the rear and a new ‘front’ sight built into the side of the magazine housing, a little like the Australian F1 submachine gun. This short sight radius isn’t too practical for a light machine gun.
The AMELI was sold to only a few operators apart from the Spanish Military, the Mexican Army and the Malaysian PASKAL Naval Special Forces have used the AMELI but the current status with those operators is unknown. In Spanish service the Ameli has almost entirely been withdrawn from service, being replaced with the Heckler & Koch MG4 5.56x45mm LMG. This is partly due to reliability issues and the original guns being worn out and with spares and new guns no longer available as the original manufacturer ceased manufacture in 2013 and went out of business.
The AMELI is an interesting machine gun that should have had more success than it did. It was sadly a victim of government cost cutting which much like the British SA80 undermined the quality of the finished product. The story of the AMELI also reminds me of the ArmaLite AR10 produced by Artilleries Inrichtingen in the Netherlands, in so much as the AMELI was produced in very limited numbers (around 3-4,000 guns), in various models and variants with no clear defined history as to why aspects of the design were changed. Evidence of this was seen when a very good contact of mine bought up all remaining inventory from the CETME factory some years ago including around 30 Ameli’s. Apparently there were variations between every one they bought!
Our thanks to the collection that holds the G11 for the privileged and nerve-wracking opportunity to field strip it and take a look inside. If you’d like to know more about the history of the G11’s development you can check out our video and full blog on it here. Vic has done a great series of videos looking at the G11 and the other prototype rifles from the US Army’s abortive Advanced Combat Rifle trials – you can find those here.
In this blog we’ll take a closer look at some of the G11’s components, for a demonstration of dissassembly and and explanation of how the rifle works in principal check out the video above.
Firstly, lets take a look at the exterior of the rifle. The weapon has a box-like polymer coated outer shell. The shell is made up of three parts, with the butt assembly and forend locking into the centre assembly which includes the pistol grip, trigger mechanism and optical sight. The forend and butt are locked into the centre assembly by plastic locking tabs. While stiff and somewhat difficult to depress the tabs are reportedly prone to breaking.
Before we look at the G11’s internals lets take a look at the shell components. Here we can see the inside of the forend, we can see a metal (aluminium I believe) barrel tube into which the barrel slides.
Below is a photograph of the rear of the centre assembly looking forward, the small white circle (sadly slightly out of focus) is the bushing the barrel protrudes through into the forend.
Next we have a view of the inside of the rifle’s butt assembly. Note the scuff marks on the inside where the centre assembly has scrapped the plastic. We can also see the locking tab windows which are on the top and bottom of the butt.
Inside the butt we can see the ‘toothed wheel’ and ‘sealing gear’ which are turned when the cocking piece is rotated. These plastic pieces act directly on the action. Behind that is the gas escape valve, which will tap off excess gas if over pressure problems occur with the rifle.
The first step to disassembling the G11 is ensuring the weapon is clear by pushing the cleaning brush up into the breech.
Lets now take a look at the rifle’s action up close, below we can see the G11 with its forend and butt assembly removed. Next to it is the breech cylinder and control disk.
Here are some photos of the action from various angles:
Here’s some close ups of the breech cylinder and control disk:
Here are some close ups of the various parts of the action:
According to the 1989 armourer’s manual, provided for the ACR trials, the G11 is made up of a total of nearly 450 individual parts. 144 of those make up the G11’s breech assembly.
With the breech and barrel assembly removed from the centre assembly here’s a diagram I put together showing most of the component parts of the G11’s action:
Next lets take a look at the G11’s barrel assembly with its recoil management system and gas piston:
Finally, here’s a photo of the G11 broken down into its major component assemblies: magazine, forend, centre assembly breech & barrel assembly and butt stock:
HK G11- ACR. Armourer’s Manual for Maintenance of Repair of Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR, March 1989 (source)
The first viable firearm suppressors appeared just after the turn of the 20th century with a series of patents being granted on various designs between 1909 and 1920. In 1895 Hiram Percy Maxim, son of Sir Hiram S. Maxim – inventor of the machine gun, established his own engineering company. Initially this company focused on the burgeoning automobile market. But in 1906, Maxim began developing a series of designs to moderate sound. Initially, he experimented with valves,vents and bypass devices, however, he eventually finalised his basic idea based on baffles and developed a series of practical suppressors; which were sold through the Maxim Silent Firearms Company (later renamed the Maxim Silencer Company.) He filed his first patent on 26th June, 1908, which was granted in March the following year (US 916,885).
The US military first took interest in silencers in 1908. The 1909 annual report of the Chief of Ordnance notes that:
“The reports of tests so far received recommend that the silencer be not adopted for use in the service in its present form. On damp, cloudy days the slow escape of gas from the silencer might assist an enemy in locating the position of a firing line; it is also difficult to handle the silencer when it becomes heated, and additional manipulation is required when it becomes necessary to fix the bayonet.”
The following year the Annual Report from Chief of Ordnance describes the Model 1910 silencer, which overcame “most of the defects found in the original”, the report then describes the Model 1910’s mounting method:
“The rear of the silencer is extended to fit over the end of the barrel and takes the place of the front sight fixed stud. The silencer is prevented from turning by means of a spline on the barre, and is held from moving longitudinally by means of a pin. The front sight movable stud is mounted on the silencer.
Intriguingly, the report confirms that “five hundred of the silencers are now being procured with a view to the issue of one or more to each organisation for instruction of recruits in target practice, and for issue to the militia, on requisition.”
In 1910, Springfield Armory tested Maxim silencers fitted to both a M1903 and an older .45-70 trapdoor Springfield. Colonel S.E. Blunt, the Armory’s commanding officer, reported in January 1909 that the Maxim silencer reduced report at the muzzle and felt recoil by around a third with no loss of accuracy. The initial tests put 400 rounds through one silencer before it failed, noting that the silencer could “withstand any rapid fire to which they could be exposed in service under ordinary conditions.”
The US School of Musketry also tested the Maxim silencer. Twenty four soldiers were issued silenced M1903s for the test. The School of Musketry’s testing found that the report at the muzzle and the recoil felt by the rifleman was reduced when compared to a normal, unsuppressed, M1903. The School of Musketry’s report noted that:
“It greatly facilitated instruction of recruits in rifle firing. It materially lessened the fatigue of the soldier in prolonged firing, such as would occur in modern battle, which is a distinct military advantage.
The muffling of the sound of discharge and the great reduction in the total volume of sound which permits the voice to be heard at the firing point about the sound of a number of rifles in action, greatly facilitate the control of the firing line.”
They also reported that “the silencer annuls the flash” a quality that they felt was a “positive military advantage in view of the extent to which night operations may be employed in future wars.”
They also felt that the silencers would help “conceal positions of sentinels and to deceive the enemy as to the position of the firing line” especially at night. As the silencer was used with standard ammunition it could do nothing to reduce the crack the round made as it travelled down range, without subsonic ammunition the silencers were only able to moderate the report of the rifle firing.
Maxim did his best to develop a robust silencer that would meet the military’s needs. He incorporated a mounting point for a bayonet on the military variant of the Model 1910. The model 1910 silencer for the Springfield M1903, however, required the removal of the rifle’s front sight. This attachment method was felt to be the Model 1910’s weakest point and something Maxim himself actively looked to address.
The Maxim Silencer Company subsequently developed the Model 1912 and subsequently the further improved Model 15, which Maxim christened the ‘Government Silencer’. Encouraged by this early military interest Maxim envisioned a military silencer being useful in roles such as sniping, guard harassment and marksmanship training. He believed that the increasing number of American men joining the military from cities who lacked experience in shooting were struggling to master the .30-06 M1903 because of its loud report and stout recoil. Maxim felt that using a silencer would prevent recruits being intimidated by their rifle and help them to learn the fundamentals of marksmanship faster. This was an issue that was subsequently resolved by the use of .22 calibre training rifles.
Maxim was not the only designer working in the field and Robert A. Moore, his most competent competitor, also submitted a design for military testing. The Moore Silencer Company secured a number of patents protecting designs for both civilian and military rifles (US 956,717 & US 1,021,742). Moore’s designs used large gas expansion chambers which sat beneath the rifle’s muzzle as well as a series of vortex chambers ahead of the muzzle. The muzzle gases were supposed to be deflected by concave surfaces down into the silencer which had a number of partitioned chambers. The sides of Moore’s first silencer were ported with vents to allow cool air to rush into the casing theoretically cooling the gases, but this was abandoned by his second 1911 design (seen below).
US Ordnance tests with Moore silencers began in 1910. When the two silencers were compared the US Army found that there was little difference between the two rival designs with regards to the reduction of sound, recoil and flash. Colonel S.E. Blunt later reported:
“the opinion that there is but little difference between the Moore and Maxim silencers as regards, reduction of sound, recoil and flash; that the method of attachment of the Moore silencer to the service rifle is superior to the attachment provided with the Maxim silencer, model 15; that while the Moore silencer gives higher velocity and does not deflect shot group as much as the Maxim silencer; yet the endurance of the Moore silencer indicate that it has not yet been sufficiently perfected to withstand rapid fire and is therefore inferior to the Maxim silencer.”
The Springfield Armory’s report in July 1912, found that the Moore silencer was more accurate and had a better attachment system. The Maxim silencer, however, was more durable and could withstand more prolonged rapid fire. Moore’s silencer attached by latches behind the front sight post and at the bayonet lug and required no tools to fit. It could mount a standard M1905 bayonet while Maxim’s design required a specially adapted proprietary bayonet. While the Maxim required some minor modifications to the front sight to enable it to be mounted to the M1903. The US Army subsequently purchasing 100 Moore silencers for a full trial (this was confirmed by the 1911/12 Annual Report of the Chief of Ordnance) – these were still in inventory in 1918, but no evidence of their use in service has been found.
With field trials planned, there appears to have been discussion of equipping two rifles per company with silencers for use by sharpshooters in conjunction with two star-gauge (accurate barrelled) rifles and the M1908 or M1913 Musket Sights. This was not the large-scale contract that Maxim had hoped for believing silencers might become standard issue, however, the funding was not available and the idea behind the silencer’s use was not fully embraced by the military.
Between 1912 and 1915 Maxim improved his silencer offering the military Model 14 and Model 15. The US Army appears to have only purchased the Model 15 for testing, although secondary sources suggest the purchase and testing of some Model 1912 silencer. In his February 1913 patent (US 1,054,434), filed in April 1910, protecting his new attachment system Maxim explains how it worked:
“The improved coupling comprises a sleeve adapted to fit upon the barrel, a split grip-v sping ring to encircle the barrel and a nut or internally threaded sleeve adapted to engage the threaded portion of the coupling sleeve and at the same time to clamp the gripping ring tightly about the barrel.”
This patent appears to protect the later Model 15 or ‘Government Model’ silencer’s attachment method which required no removal of parts from the rifle. While the Model 14 could mount a standard M1905 sword bayonet with no modification to the bayonet the Model 15 did not have an attachment point for a bayonet.
In August 1915, the commanding officer of Rock Island Arsenal requested permission to transfer “20 rifles fitted with maxim silencers, 20 bayonets for same turned in from field” to Springfield Armory. This tantalising primary document fragment confirms that further testing occurred during 1915.
In terms of primary source information about testing and deployment of silencers by the Army before the First World War there isn’t a great deal available. Secondary sources, including William Brophy and David Truby, note that the US military’s first deployment of silencers came in 1916, when General John Pershing’s Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa included a squad of snipers apparently armed with silenced M1903s, however, little is known about their use in the field.
In addition to the military’s continued testing, the Maxim silencers had gained some public notoriety and President Woodrow Wilson was familiar enough with them to raise concerns about public ownership of the devices on the eve of America’s entry into the war. On the 30th March 1917, just three days before the US entered the war, President Wilson had his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, write to the Department of Justice requesting that they look into the threat German Fifth Columnists might pose if they used Maxim Silencers to attack key infrastructure. His letter stated that the sale of Maxim Silencers “should be prohibited and all outstanding weapons collected by the police.” The President was concerned that sentries guarding isolated posts such as bridges and munitions factories might become targets of opportunity for assassins with silenced weapons. His memorandum said “great damage could be done before main guard… discovered sentry’s death.” On the 3rd of April, the Department of Justice in turn wrote to the Secretary of War and asked for his comment on the issue.
Brigadier General William Crozier, Chief of US Army Ordnance, was consulted by the Adjutant General. Crozier responded on the 7th April, saying that the use of a Maxim Silencer by ‘unauthorised persons’ was not considered sufficiently important to require special action by the War Department. He continued saying it should be noted that: “a silencer reduces the intensity of the report at discharge, but does not entirely eliminate it.” Despite the War Department’s lack of concern about silencers the Maxim silencer has the distinction of being mentioned in the US declaration of war on Germany. Presidential Proclamation #1364, published on 6th April, 1917, stated:
“An alien enemy shall not have in his possession, at any time or place, any firearm, weapon or implement of war, or component part thereof, ammunition, maxim or other silence, bomb or explosive material used in the manufacture of explosives.”
I’ve been unable to find any mention of silencers being used by ‘alien enemies’. Maxim’s military silencers, however, reportedly shipped around the world with orders from Mexico, South America, China, Japan, Britain, France, Belgium, Russia and Germany. One pre-war Maxim advert boasted that the design had been approved by the German military. During the First World War both the British and Germans reportedly deployed snipers equipped with Maxim silencers in small numbers. In February 1916, the Greek government wrote to the US War Department enquiring about obtaining the Army’s test results for what they called ‘Maxime Silencers’. The Ordnance Office provided the requested report in March but it is unknown if it was forwarded on.
Did the US Army Use the Maxim Silencer During WWI?
The extent of the use of silencers by the US Army during World War One is unknown but recently uncovered Ordnance Office documents show that silencers did reach France but the desire for them was mixed.
Both William Tantum and Clark Campbell suggest that an order for 9,100 silencers was placed. This is said to have been part of a plan to deploy silencers with rifles with accurate star-gauged barrels fitted with M1913 Warner & Swasey Musket Sights for sniper use. Alex MacKenzie, Curator of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, notes that reports from the Armory show that 1,041 “U.S. Rifles, Cal. .30, Model of 1903, Fitted for Tel. Musket Sight” were assembled but with no mention of the rifles being mounted with a Model 1910 or a Model 15 silencer. He also notes that Springfield Armory produced 3,100 “Knife Bayonets, Model of 1905, for Use with Maxim Silencer” during the fiscal year of 1918. The production of these bayonets would suggest the use of the Model 1910, as the Model 15 could not fix a bayonet.
The documents recently found by researcher Andrew Stolinski, of Archival Research Group, suggest that Maxim silencers did indeed reach American Expeditionary Force (AEF) stores in France.
In June 1918, the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms at the GHQ of the AEF suggested the supplying of “Maxim silencers for use with Springfield rifles”, this suggestion, however was rejected by General Pershing himself, replying that “Maxim Silencers not desired in Europe. Recommend that they be left out of equipment tables.” It seems that the Chief Inspector of Machine Guns and Small Arms may have made the suggestion at the behest of Major T.J. Hayes, Division Ordnance Officer for the US 5th Division, who wrote to the Chief Inspector again on August 17th to make the case for silencer use saying:
“I wish to make the recommendation that 15 of these be issued to each infantry regiment, to be used by the Scout platoons of each battalion. Their use would tend to increase the efficency [sic] of these Scout platoons and allow them to perform their work with less chance of detection… I urgently recommend that they be issued and given a thorough trial. I am convinced that some sort of flash arrester [sic] or Silencer is needed for dangerous night patrolling. The Shotguns [likely Winchester Model 1897s] have given most excellent results but the silencers should be provided in addition.”
On the 27th August, Lt.Colonel H.K. Hathaway, an Ordnance officer with the supply division, circulated a memorandum stating that Maxim silencers “are no longer an article of issue” but that “there are in stock at Intermediate Ordnance Depot No 2[in Gievres], 200 of these Silencers and from 100 to 150 Springfield Rifles fitted with these silencers.” While at “Advance Ordnance Depot No 1 [in Is-Sur-Tille], there are 20 Springfield rifles so fitted.” This confirms that silencers both individually (likely Model 15s) and mounted to rifles (probably earlier Model 1910s) were sent to France for use by the AEF. It seems, however, that very few of them left the Ordnance stores.
On the 30th August, a Major Herbert O’Leary, of the Ordnance Department, wrote to the Supply Division on behalf of the AEF’s Chief Ordnance Officer, to inform that “if Maxim Silencers are fitted to rifles, it precludes the use of bayonets as an essential weapon for raid purposes. It is the opinion of this Division that Silencers should not be issued.”
On the 7th September the matter appears to have been settled by a letter from Brigadier C.B. Wheeler, the Chief Ordnance Officer, to the Chief Inspector Machine Guns and Small Arms in response to his suggestion in June. Wheeler quotes General Pershing’s earlier rejection and states that “it is not considered desirable to issue them”. From these documents it appears to suggest that the silencers saw little to no use in France with the AEF, despite the enthusiasm for them among some more junior Ordnance officers like Major Hayes.
The 1918 Ordnance Storage Catalogue, Vol. V, listed the ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, M1910 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, ‘SILENCERS, Maxim, Model 15 for U.S. rifles, M1903’, and the ‘SILENCERS, Moore, for U.S. rifles, M1903’. Although no numbers are given.
After the war the silencer’s remained in US Army inventory well into the 1920s. In March 1922, Rock Island Arsenal requested spare parts to repair some Model 1915 silencers from the Chief of Ordnance’s office only to be told that “there are no repair parts for the Maxim silencers available. It is not believed necessary to repair the Maxim Silencer as they are more or less obsolescent.”
Campbell states that after the war some of the rifles fitted with Model 1910 silencers were offered for sale through the Civilian Marksmanship programme in 1920. Archival research has found later enquiries from the head of the programme requesting silencers to mount on Krag rifles. In May 1923, the Director of Civilian Marksmanship wrote to the Rock Island Arsenal enquiring if the Model 1915 silencer would fit the M1892 Krag and if they were available for sale. Rock Island Arsenal’s commanding officer Colonel D.M. King replied advising that only a small number were available. As a result the Ordnance Office refused to sell a substantial number of the Model 1915’s for fear of depleting “the small stock” still remaining.
In his 2016 Small Arms Review article on the Maxim silencers Frank Iannamico suggests that a small number were given to National Guard units for training purposes. A 1916 Maxim sales brochure mentions that it was sold “to individual members of the National Guard” but makes no mention of larger sales. Hiram P. Maxim himself also appeared on the front cover of the February 1910 edition of the National Guard Magazine, demonstrating his device fitted to a M1903 (see photo above).
On March 23rd 1925, the rifles mounted with silencers listed as ‘Maxim Silencer & U.S. Rifles Cal .30 fitted for same’ were declared obsolete. While the First World War offered a brief boom in sales of silencers this did not last and Maxim’s company continued to diversify after the war. The Maxim Silencer Company manufactured not only firearm silencers but also sound moderating devices for everything from automobiles to naval engines; from plant machinery to building silencers which were fitted to heating and air conditioning systems. Similarly Moore, like Maxim, also later developed silencers for automobiles filling a patent for an Exhaust Muffler in 1930.
A Closer Look at the Maxim Silencer
The Model 1910 silencer is 7.3 inches (18.5cm) long which when fitted gave the M1903 an overall length of 50.5 inches (128cm). Despite the attachment of the silencer this was still around an inch shorter than the French Lebel Mle 1886.
To fit the Model 1910 silencer to the rifle a coupling piece was used. First the front sight was removed, then the coupling piece slipped onto the barrel and was secured against rotation by the barrel’s front sight spline (a rib on the top of the barrel which the front sight sat upon). A pin was then passed through the standard front sight stud hole to secure the silencer to the muzzle. The front sight, which had a dovetailed base, was then fitted to the top of the coupling piece.
The Model 1910 had 18 baffles inside a steel outer casing with a blued finish. Unlike earlier Maxim silencers that had a central channel, down which the bullet travelled, the Model 1910 had a channel off set to the top the silencer, so as not to interfere with sight picture. Maxim’s silencer has a female dovetail on its underside, into which a specially adapted proprietary M1905 bayonet with a male dovetail was fixed. This mounting system rendered about half the bayonet’s length useless as the silencer projected out above it. While not a serious issue, when compared to the Moore’s attachment method, it did hamper the bayonet somewhat.
The Model 1910 silencer was sealed an could not be easily cleaned, the Maxim Silent Firearms Co.’s literature advised running warm water through the silencer and letting it soak overnight before drying it on a hot surface to evaporate the water inside and oil it thoroughly. Not the most practical method of cleaning.
A Maxim Silent Firearms Company brochure dating from 1916 priced the Model 15 at $8.50. Seven years later, in 1923, the Ordnance Office noted that the Model 15 was valued at $5.34.
Specifications (taken from 1910 US Army Annual Report)
Weight: 11 ounces or 312g
Length: 5.9 inches or 15cm
Diameter: 1.3 inches or 3.3cm
Baffle Bore Diameter: .341 inches or 8.7mm
Special thanks to both the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing us to examine and film their rifle and to Andrew Stolinski for his archival research into the US Army’s use of the Maxim Silencer. Check out his website, Archival Research Group, here.
Presidential Proclamation #1364, 6th April, 1917, US National Archives, (source)
Various War and Ordnance Department files at The National Archives in Washington, DC (Archive 1) and The National Archives at College Park, Maryland (Archives II) courtesy of Andrew Stolinski at Archival Research Group
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1909, Vol.6 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1910, Vol.1 (source)
War Department, Annual Reports, Report of Chief of Ordnance, 1913, Vol.1 (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)
M1903 Springfield with Maxim Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
Moore Silencer, Springfield Armory, online catalogue entry (source)
The Springfield 1903 Rifles: The Illustrated, Documented Story of the Design, Development and Production of All the Models of Appendages and Accessories, W.S. Brophy (1987)
The ’03 Era: When Smokeless Powder Revolutionised US Riflery, C.S. Campbell (1994)
Silencers, Snipers & Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death, J.D. Truby (1972)
Firearm Silencers, N. Wilson (1983)
Hatcher’s Notebook, J.S. Hatcher (1947)
History of the Maxim Silencer Company, Small Arms Review, F. Iannamico (source)
Officially designated by Heckler & Koch as the ‘Spezialkoffer’ or Special Case, the Briefcase Gun, sometimes referred to as the Operational Briefcase, is a clandestine weapon system designed for personal protection details. The ‘Special Case’ was introduced in the late 1970s offering the firepower of an MP5K in a concealed package which could be rapidly brought into action.
While the MP5K is already a compact weapon that can be carried concealed under a coat or tucked under the arm, the Special Case, in theory, allowed the weapon to be carried in an instantly accessible way. One H&K leaflet stated that the case retains “approximately the same rapid readiness to fire” as an unconcealed submachine gun. The case had the added advantage of being able to be operated with just one hand.
To build the brief case Heckler & Koch turned to Hofbauer GbmH, a German manufacturer that specialises in extrusion blow moulded protective cases for tools and equipment, to make the case body. The case is made from black plastic moulded over an aluminium body with a stainless steel locking clasps and a strip of silver trim tape around the lower half. Inside on the right hand rim of the lower half of the case is the case maker’s marking ‘Hofbauer Boss Flanegg’.
Inside the case Heckler & Koch used a modified STANAG claw mount, with a modified release lever, that was normally used to mount optics on G3s and MP5s. The claw mount system holds the weapon in place and a firing mechanism connects a trigger in the briefcase’s handle to the weapon’s trigger inside. The weapon itself is an MP5K, the example we’re examining today has a ‘SEF’ selector and the contoured stahl G3 griffstück (pistol grip assembly). The MP5K was first introduced in 1976, reportedly developed following a request from the security detail of a South American head of state.
The muzzle of the MP5K’s 4.5 inch barrel fits into a tube or shroud in the left side of the case. Below the weapon is a clip to hold a standard plastic MP5 cleaning kit. While inside the lid of the case there is a clip to hold a spare magazine. The MP5K-PDW, introduced in the early 1990s, will not fit into the case as the muzzle and folding stock prevents it from fitting.
The trigger in the case’s handle works through a series of linkages which connect it with the MP5K’s trigger. Pulling the external trigger upwards pulls an linkage forward which in turn acts on a pivoted arm which pulls the weapon’s trigger. The case has a built in safety on the left side of its handle. When pulled to the rear with the thumb it moves a blocking bar backwards and allows the trigger, inside the handle, to travel upwards to fire the weapon. There is some variation to the trigger mechanisms with a slightly dog-legged, rather than straight, trigger arm being introduced to allow the use of MP5Ks with ambidextrous selectors.
Once fired the spent cases are deflected down into the body of the case and can only be removed once the case is opened to reload or remove the weapon from the case. There is no ejection system built into the case.
In addition to the case we have examined in this video/article, there is also another version based on a leather satchel-style briefcase, known as the ‘Spezialtasche’ or Special Bag. Instead of the moulded plastic case the MP5K is held inside a leather case with a ‘reach-inside opening’, which allows the user to put their hand inside the case and hold the pistol grip and operate the weapon’s controls. The gun is still held in the same kind of cradle claw mount but the leather case does not have the integrated trigger in its handle. The upper half of the case, held in place by four snap buttons, could come free of the lower section to allow the MP5k to quickly be accessed for reloading and removal from the claw mount.
As you would expect aiming a briefcase is no easy feat, the Special Case was intended for engaging targets at very close ranges or gaining initial fire superiority, suppressing a target long enough to either deploy the MP5K properly from the case or extricate the principal being protected. One of the major issues with the case is naturally limited access to the weapon which makes changing fire more, clearing stoppages and reloading impossible without opening the case – which can only be accomplished by opening the case’s two locking clasps, which in a contact situation would take precious seconds of fumbling.
Here’s what appears to be some vintage promotional footage showing the case in action:
A substantial number were sold, especially to Middle Eastern countries. During the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the troops from the US 7th Infantry discovered a cache of 24 H&K Briefcases untouched, like new in their wrappings, bought by Saddam’s regime. Heckler & Koch continue to offer the case, two models are currently listed on their website: the original briefcase, now referred to as ‘Schießkoffer’ or ‘shooting case’, and a quick deploy ‘Zerfallkoffer’ case (offered for both the MP5K and the MP7) .
Specifications (taken from H&K data sheet c.1984):
Case External Dimensions: 17.24×4.25×12.67in (438x108x322mm)
Weight of case without MP5K: 3.3 lbs (1.5kg)
Weight of case with unloaded MP5K: 7.72lbs (3.5kg)
Weight of case with MP5K + 60 rounds: 14.88 lbs (6.75kg)
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.
Richard Fisher, the director of the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association, was kind enough to invite us down to take a look at his collection of Vickers guns. Richard is a fantastic source of information on the Vickers, and British small arms more generally, and I’ve picked his brains on numerous occasions in the past so it was a real pleasure to meet him in person and discuss the collection.
I thought the best way to explain what the collection and research association does is to discuss it on camera with Richard, so as a result we have TAB’s first ever interview. Incidentally, it’s also the first on-camera interview I’ve ever conducted!
Richard’s impressive collection spans much of the Vickers’ history with representative examples of not just the many different types of Vickers that were produced but also the accoutrements and equipment that went along with the guns. The collection endeavours to bring together all the weapons, kit and equipment that a British Army section that operated the Vickers would have carried – during both World Wars.
Vickers Machine Gun Collection (Matthew Moss)
Vickers Machine Gun Collection (Matthew Moss)
Vickers Machine Gun Collection (Matthew Moss)
Vickers Machine Gun Collection (Matthew Moss)
The collection is open to visits from interested individuals and parties and is often shown at history events around the UK. Richard’s website is one of the best sources of information, manuals and documents on the Vickers available and is well worth checking out.