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.
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
The Rifle and How to Use It, H. Busk, (source)
Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle, P. Smithurst (2011),
English Gunmakers: The Birmingham and Provincial Gun Trade in the 18th and 19th Century, D.W. Bailey & D.A Nie (1978)
Guns Dictionary: Guns & Gunmakers, J. Walter (source)
Annual Report on the Instruction & Experiments of the School of Musketry, 1856
Special thanks to our friends at the Hayes Collection for letting us examine their rifle, and thanks to David Minshall over at the Research Press for his help researching the Prince’s various patents.