The Ferguson Rifle

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’.

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A Durs Egg-made Ferguson military-pattern rifle with breech open (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Philip James de Loutherbourg’s sketches of light infantrymen c. 1778 (courtesy of Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University)

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.

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A Michael Bidet-made sporting gun built for King George using the Chaumette system (courtesy of the Royal Armouries)

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.

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Patrick Ferguson’s patent for ‘Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms’, granted 2nd December, 1776, British Patent #1159

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.

An account of the demonstration was published in a number of publications including The Gentleman’s Magazine and the Annual Register, a yearly almanac of notable events:

“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.

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Close up showing the serial number #2 engraved on the iron trigger guard of the Morristown Board of Ordnance Ferguson Rifle (Morristown National Historical Park, courtesy of Miles Vining)

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 rifles 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.

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Map showing the Battle of Brandywine September 11, 1777 (source)

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.”

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Xavier della Gatta’s painting of the Battle of Paoli, which supposedly shows Ferguson’s green-clad riflement in the centre (source)

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.

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Alonzo Chappel’s artistic impression of the death of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780 (courtesy of Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University)

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.

Ferguson’s Rifle

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.

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View of the ‘D Egg’ marked lock plate on the right side of the rifle (Matthew Moss)

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.

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View of the Durs Egg Ferguson’s bayonet lug, brass nose cap and steel ramrod (the Board of Ordnance guns used wooden ramrods) (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Rear leaf sight with notches and apertures on a Durs Egg-made rifle, believed to date from 1776, the same pattern was used on the Board of Ordnance Rifles (courtesy of Morphy’s Auctions)

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.

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A commercial Durs Egg-made Ferguson Rifle, believed to date from 1776 but not a Board of Ordnance gun (courtesy of the Royal Armouries0

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.

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View of the Ferguson’s breech opened, note the 10 points, each represents the start of one of the breech plug’s threads, note also the brass rear sight just behind the breech (Matthew Moss)

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.

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A view of the Ferguson’s breech plug with anti-fouling groove (Matthew Moss)

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.

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Close up of the crack in the stock of the Morristown Board of Ordnance Ferguson Rifle (Morristown National Historical Park, courtesy of Miles Vining)

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.

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A view inside the Ferguson’s breech, note the threads and the breech chamber, note also the proof marks (Matthew Moss)

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.


Specifications:

Calibre: .65 calibre bore / .615 carbine balls
Action: Flintlock screw breech
Overall length: 49 inches
Barrel length: 32 inches
Weight: approx. 7.5 lbs


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Saturday 1st June, The Gentleman’s Magazine & Historical Chronicle, Vol.46, p.283 (1777)

June 1st, Annual Register for 1776 (4th Edition, 1788), p.148

‘An Account of Major Patrick Ferguson’, Scots Magazine, Vol. 43, Jan. 1781 pp.29-30

‘Return of Small Arms in Ordnance Stores, New York, Nov. 30, 1779 – May 8, 1781’, Sir Henry Clinton Papers 155: 7, W. L. Clements Library, Uni. of Michigan

‘Improvements in Breech-loading Fire-arms’, P. Ferguson, British Patent No. 1139, 2nd Dec. 1776

Secondary Sources:

British Military Flintlock Rifles 1740-1840, D.W. Bailey (2002)

Patrick Ferguson: A Man of Some Genius, M.M. Gilchrist, (2003)

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, M.H. Spring, (2008)

British Military Firearms 1650-1850, H.L. Blackmore, (1994)

The Men Who Lost America, A. O’Shaughnessy, (2013)

Whispers Across the Atlantick, D. Smith (2017)

Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, M. Harris, (2014)

‘The Ferguson Rifle and Its Origins’, American Society of Arms Collectors, Bulletin 24:2-9, W.K. Neal, (1971)

‘Ferguson and his Rifle Come to America’, Black Powder, Winter 2011, R. Roberts & B. Brown (2011)

Every Insult & Indignity: The Life, Genius & Legacy of Major Patrick Ferguson, R. Roberts & B. Brown (2011)

‘The First Fight of Ferguson’s Rifle’, Journal of The American Revolution, B. Ruppert, (Nov. 2014)

‘A Fresh Look at Major Patrick Ferguson’, Journal of The American Revolution, W. Lynch, (Sept. 2017)

‘The Revolutionary Wear in the South: Re-Evaluations of Certain British & British American Actors’, Journal of The American Revolution, I. Saberton, (Nov. 2016)

‘Almost Revolutionary: Patrick Ferguson’s Breechloading Rifle’, TFBTV, M. Vinning, (2018)

 

 

The Curtis Rifle – The First Repeating Bullpup

Today we’re examining an intriguing firearm with a fascinating history. It is difficult to understate the potential importance of the Curtis Rifle. Despite being designed in Britain in the 1860s the firearm gained more notoriety when it was offered as evidence in a legal battle between the Winchester Repeating Arms company and Francis Bannerman. What makes the firearm most noteworthy, however, is its fundamentally unconventional layout. Designed by William Joseph Curtis in the mid-1860s, it is arguably one of the earliest ‘bullpups’ and almost certainly the first repeating bullpup.

Curtis bullpup full length
William Curtis’ 1866 ‘bullpup’ rifle, built in 1895 by Winchester (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

For the purpose of this article it would be wise to first define what a bullpup actually is. It can be defined as a weapon with a somewhat unconventional layout which places the action and magazine behind the weapon’s trigger group. This has the benefit of maintaining a conventional rifle’s barrel length while making the overall length of the rifle more compact.

Bullpup rifles became popular with a number of militaries around the world during the 1970s and 1980s – namely the Austrian Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS and the British SA80, and more recently with rifles from China and Singapore as well as the Tavor series of rifles from Israel.

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Thorneycroft, Farquhar and Hill’s 1905 carbine patent (source)

The bullpup, however, dates back much further with some argument to be made for the first firearms to utilise the concept being 19th century percussion target shooting rifles. The earliest military bullpups date to the beginning of the 20thth century, these include a rifles designed by Samuel McClean, the initial designer of the Lewis Gun, patented in 1896 (US #723706), by Major Philip Godsal (US #808282) and a carbine developed by James Baird Thorneycroft in 1901. Thorneycroft subsequently worked with Moubray Gore Farquhar and Arthur Henry Hill to patent a refined version of the carbine in 1905 (US #827893). While the Thorneycroft was tested by the British army it was rejected due to ergonomic and reliability shortcomings.

Faucon bullpup
Faucon’s 1911 ‘Fusil Équilibré’ patent (source)

In 1908 Lieutenant-Colonel Armand-Frédéric Faucon of the Troupes Coloniales (French Colonial Infantry) began developing what he termed a ‘Fusil Équilibré’ or balanced rifle. Faucon patented his concept in France in 1911 (FR #422154) and continued to work on the balanced rifle during World War One, utilising a Meunier A5 semi-automatic rifle in working prototypes. The Faucon-Meunier rifle was tested in 1918 and 1920 but eventually rejected. It would be nearly 45 yeas before the bullpup concept was revisited by a major power. Engineers working at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield and at the British Armament Design Department in the 1940s began to develop designs based around the bullpup concept. (Some of these will hopefully be the focus of future videos!)

William Curtis’ design, however, predates all of these. Patented in Britain on 10th July, 1866, Curtis is listed by the London Gazette as a Civil Engineer. His design is unlike anything that had been seen before. Based on a slide-action with a drum magazine, it was placed over the shoulder – much like a modern shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon.

Curtis patent abridgement
William Joseph Curtis’ July 1866 patent for ‘Breech actions, sliding breech-block & stocks’ (courtesy of Research Press)

Curtis’ rifle is probably the very first bullpup magazine rifle, one of the earliest to have a drum magazine (an Italian, Marco Antonio Francois Mennons, patented an earlier design for a drum magazine in March 1862, GB #637) and also an early striker-fired design. Clearly a design well ahead of its time and radically unconventional.

This unconventional gun’s designer was born in Islington, London in 1802, as a civil engineer he worked on Britain’s rapidly growing railway network. He died in 1875, placing the development of his rifle nearer the end of his life.  With hindsight Curtis’ design clearly had revolutionary potential but it appears that his concept was never taken up. It appears that he only patented his design in the United Kingdom. If not for a corporate lawsuit on another continent, decades later, then it is possible Curtis’ design, like so many others, would have slipped into historical obscurity.

Francis Bannerman
Francis Bannerman, (source)

Francis Bannerman vs. the Winchester Repeating Arms Company

In 1890, Francis Bannerman VI, a successful entrepreneur specialising in junk, scrap and later surplus, purchased the Spencer Arms Company and the rights to their patents. The company had been founded by Christopher Miner Spencer, designer of the Spencer Rifle, they produced the first commercially successful slide or pump-action shotgun. This pump action shotgun was designed by Spencer and Sylvester H. Roper and patented in April, 1882 (US #255894). Bannerman continued producing the shotgun as the Bannerman Model 1890, however, in 1893 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, introduced the John Browning-designed Model 1893 pump shotgun (US #441,390).

Spencer Roper patnet
Spencer & Roper’s 1882 patent for their pump action shotgun (source)

In response in October 1894, Bannerman filed a law suit against the Winchester Repeating Arms Company claiming that the slide/pump actions used by Winchester’s Model 1890 and new Model 1893 shotgun infringed on the patents that he owned.

He called for the court to force Winchester to halt production and claimed $10,000 in damages and royalties for the sale of guns which he believed infringed his patent. Winchester temporarily halted production of the Model 1893, in the meantime Bannerman continued producing and improving his shotgun introducing the 1894 and 1896 models.

Times report on bannerman suit
News report on the ruling of the Bannerman vs Winchester case from The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

Various contemporary newspaper reports suggest between 100,000 and 500,000 people were directly interested in the case as ordinary owners were liable under the conditions of Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester dispatched George D. Seymour to Europe to scour the French and British patent archives for any patents for similar actions that had been filed there before those now owned by Bannerman. Winchester discovered four patents: three British and one French. The earliest of these was Alexander Bain’s patent of 1854. Two more patents held by Joseph Curtis and William Krutzsch were found, dating from 1866. The later French patent was filed by M.M. Magot in 1880. All of these designs, including the Curtis we are examining here, never progressed beyond the development stage and were largely forgotten until rediscovered by Winchester.

Krutzsch's pump action rifle
Model of William Krutzsch’s pump action rifle (Photo by Nathaniel F, courtesy of Cody Firearms Museum)

Winchester claimed that these earlier designs invalidated Bannerman’s patent claims. To illustrate their defence Winchester decided to build working models of each of the designs, breathing life into long forgotten patent drawings. This must have been a major engineering task as the patent designs would not have had all the information needed to produce a working model.

In 1895-96 Winchester engineers, including T.C. Johnson, assembled working models of each of the designs to prove their viability. These were tested and Winchester’s lawyers took them into court and submitted them as evidence, even offering a firing demonstration. The court declined the demonstration and made its decision on June 27th 1897. Judge Hoyt H. Wheeler of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favour of Winchester and threw out Bannerman’s suit.

Winchester had produced some 34,000 Model 1893s before, in November 1897, they introduced the improved Model 1897 which proved to be hugely popular on both the civilian and military markets. Bannerman unveiled a final shotgun, the Model 1900, but production ended in the early 1900s.

Curtis’ Unconventional Design

Curtis Rifle right side
Right side, rear quarter, view of the Winchester-made Curtis Rifle (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

Curtis’ design encapsulates a number of features which, in 1866, were unheard of and arguably revolutionary. Not only is it probably the first magazine-fed repeating bullpup but it also uses a drum magazine, something that would not see substantial military use until the First World War. It has a folding shoulder support or stock, uses a striker fired action and makes use of self-contained ammunition.

 

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The Curtis’ rifle is placed over the top of the user’s shoulder with a folding leather strap which fits into the shoulder pocket. Curtis’ original patent also suggests a fixed hook and strap. The user then grasps the loop near the muzzle with their support hand and the trigger and bolt handle with their other hand. Novel, but not the most ergonomic of designs.

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Illustration of how the Curtis Rifle was ‘shouldered’ (Courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The magazine appears to hold at least 13 or more rounds according to the available patent and Winchester’s engineering drawings. The magazine is fixed in place and rounds appear to have been fed into it through the loading/ejection port on the left side of the weapon. This would have also put spent cases being ejected right next to the user’s neck. Curtis’ patent explains that the magazine has a spring inside which has a length of string attached to the top of it which the user can pull back to depress it and allow cartridges to be loaded into the drum. The magazine has a single stack or loop of cartridges. Once loaded the string can be released, allowing the magazine spring to push rounds into the action.

Curtis trigger and bolt
Close up of the left side of the Curtis’ trigger, bolt assembly and hand loop (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The Curtis rifle’s action appears to lock at the front of the weapon with the bolt handle acting on a hinged, spring-loaded, locking piece or flapper which dropped into place when locked. To unlock the action the bolt handle was sharply pulled to the rear which pushed the locking piece out of engagement and unlocked the action allowing the operating rod to be cycled.

Winchester Curits drawing
Winchester engineering drawing drawn up c.1895 of the Curtis (courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The weapon’s chamber appears to be just forward of the centre of the drum magazine with the striker assembly located behind it. To operate Curtis’ rifle the magazine was loaded and then the user had to unlock the action by pulling the bolt handle backwards. This then allowed the operating rod to be pulled backwards, like a pump action, which pushed the bolt and striker assembly to the rear, cocking the striker, the bolt handle was then returned forward and locked back into position. This chambered a round ready to be fired.

Curtis drum mag
Close up of the Curtis’ brass drum magazine and loading/ejection port (Photo by Matthew Moss, courtesy of the Cody Firearms Museum)

The trigger at the front of the firearm is connected to the striker assembly by a long length of wire. When pulled the wire becomes taught and trips a sear to release the striker, firing the weapon.

Originally Curtis’ patent describes how ‘small punches’ on the bolt face would pierce the cartridge base during firing to enable the spent case to be extracted once the action was cycled. From Winchester’s engineering drawings, however, it appears they replaced this with a more reliable and conventional extractor at the 7 o’clock position of the bolt face.

Given that the weapon would have fired black powder cartridges it is unclear how well the rifle would have faired with sustained firing. The drum magazine would have been susceptible to jamming as a result of powder fouling. This, however, would not have been an issue for Winchester later version of the rifle.

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Detail of Fig.1 & Fig.10 from Curtis’ 1866 patent (courtesy of Research Press)

But the Curtis has one more interesting surprise. The original 1866 patent also includes what might be one of the earliest descriptions of a gas operated firearm. One of the most fascinating sections of Curtis’ original patent details how the rifle might have been adapted for gas operation:

“An arrangement is shown in Fig.10, in which the rod G is dispensed with; in this case the barrel may be shorter, not projecting beyond the shoulder; the butt is similar. The breech may be opened automatically by the powder gases, which pass by an opening in the barrel to a cylinder with which works a breech operating plunger.”

Curtis does not go into further detail but he is clearly describing a piston-driven, gas operated system. The patent drawing also depicts an alternative tube magazine instead of the drum magazine.

It is unknown if Curtis ever put his theory to the test and developed his gas system idea further. It is tempting to wonder if, in 1895 when Winchester were assembling their model of the Curtis, if John Browning or William Mason, who were also developing their own gas operated systems at the time, were aware of Curtis’ idea from 30 years earlier. As such Curtis’, admittedly vague, gas system pre-dates the first patents on gas operation by just under 20 years.


Specifications:

Action: Slide action
Calibre: .32 Winchester Centre Fire
Feed: ~12 round drum magazine


My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for allowing me to examine and film the Curtis. Special thanks to the CFM’s assistant curator Danny Michael for making extra time to open up the case where the rifle Curtis is on display so we could examine it and for also sharing Winchester’s technical drawings and other records.

Thanks also to David Minshall of Research Press.co.uk for his assistance finding Curtis’ original British patent abridgement and to John Walter for digging up some additional information about Curtis’ life.


Bibliography:

‘Winchester Suit Decided’, The Times (Philadelphia), 27th June, 1897

‘Recollections of the Forming of the Pugsley & Winchester Gun Collections: A Talk Given by Mr. Edwin Pugsley at the New Haven Meeting of the AS of AC’, September, 1955.

Curtis Rifle, Cody Firearms Museum, online catalogue entry (source)

‘Francis Bannerman VI, Military Goods Dealer to the World’, American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 82:43-50, D.B. Demeritt, Jr., (1982)

Patents:

Improvements in fire-arms’ A. Bain, British Patent #1404, 26th June, 1854

‘Breech actions, sliding breech block; stocks’, W.J. Curtis, British Patent #1810, 10th July, 1866

‘Breech actions, hinged and laterally-moving breech block; magazines’, W. Krutzsch, British Patent #2205, 27th August, 1866

‘Magazine Fire Arm’, Spencer & Roper, US Patent #255894, 4th April, 1882

‘Magazine Bolt Gun’, S. McClean, US Patent #723706, 28th May, 1896

‘Breech-loading small-arm’, P.T. Godsal, US Patent #808282, 19th June, 1903

‘Breech Loading Small Arm’, Thorneycroft, Farquhar & Hill, US Patent #827893, 4th August, 1905

‘Fusil équilibré’, A.B. Faucon, French Patent #422154, 15th March, 1911

 

 

TAB Short: Pattern 14 Cutaway

During my recent research trip to the US I was lucky enough to handle and examine a lot of very interesting firearms. This short video is a bonus, while we were opening one of the cases at the Cody Firearms Museum to examine another firearm (that video is coming soon) I noticed a sectioned British Pattern 14 rifle, made by Winchester for the British government during the First World War. It was too good an opportunity to pass up so I filmed this quick video taking a look at the P14’s internals.

The P14 would go on to be the basis of the US M1917 rifle built by Winchester, Remington and Eddystone.

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Cutaway of a Winchester-made Pattern 14, note the rear volley sight and sectioned magazine and chamber (Matthew Moss)

The cutaway shows the internals of the rifle’s actions as well as the barrel, chamber and magazine. It was cool to see a cutaway of the P14 up close and I couldn’t resist grabbing some footage.

My thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum, at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, for allowing me access to their collection. You can find out more about the CFM here.

AAI Advanced Combat Rifle

This is the first of three introductory videos looking at the US Army’s ACR prototypes. We will be revisiting these later to show disassembly and how they worked. You can check out our introduction to the H&K G11 here. You can also find our in-depth ACR Program overview article here.

The AAI Corporation was founded in 1950, as Aircraft Armaments, Inc., and has long been involved in advanced firearms design, taking part in a number of the US military’s previous small arms programs. Throughout the Cold war AAI was involved in the US Army’s search for a new advanced infantry weapon system. Before we examine the AAI ACR, it is important to understand the context in which it evolved.

The Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW) program, an off-shoot of Project SALVO began in the early 1950s and ran until the late 1960s. During the SPIW program AAI developed a series of designs, including an entire family of weapons, which used flechette technology. These culminated with the XM19 rifle, or SFR – Serial Flechette Rifle.  The XM19 represented the pinnacle of over a decade of flechette technology development, however, the end of the US war in Vietnam saw the need for SPIW disappear and the program was wound down.

4 guns from AAI's family of weapons 60s SPIWs
AAI SPIW family of weapons from the early 1960s (Reproduced in Stevens & Ezell’s SPIW Deadliest Weapon)

In the early 1970s SPIW essentially morphed into the Future Rifle Program, but with the end of US involvement in Vietnam, this also proved a failure. During the early 1980s the US Army awarded development contracts to both AAI and Heckler & Koch to develop caseless ammunition and a weapon system capable of firing it. While H&K G11 is no doubt the better known of the two weapons, AAI’s Caseless Weapon, while a move away from flechette technology, was also an interesting design.

AAI's Caseless Ammunition Rifle (US Army)
AAI’s Caseless Ammunition Rifle, another image available here (US Army)

Firing a variety of ammunition the AAI design was capable of firing a high cyclic rate 3-round burst at 1600-1800rpm. The ACR program summary report noted that the AAI Caseless project was feasible and only lacked development funding to make it a reality, as the design was much simpler than the G11.

AAI were one of six companies to respond to the ACR program’s Request for Proposals, released in September 1985. AAI’s ACR was an evolution of the earlier SFR/XM19 rifle. The weapon AAI submitted was gas-operated, fed from a 30-round box magazine, and fired a brass cased flechette round in either single shot or a high cyclic rate three round bust – fired at a cyclic rate of ~1800rpm.

Left of the AAI ACR rifle (Matthew Moss)
Left-side view of AAI Corporation’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)
AAI Corp ACR rifle (Matthew Moss)
Right-side view of AAI’s ACR entry (Matthew Moss)

AAI’s ACR fired from a closed bolt and used a muzzle device to reduce muzzle climb during burst firing. The 1990 ACR Program Summary report explains how the rifle’s gas system worked:

“…incorporate an ‘entrapped gas’ operating system. Gun gases enter a cylinder, drive a piston to power the system, and prevent any leakage of propellant gases and residues into the other mechanism parts.”

AAI developed a polymer saboted steel 10.2 gr ‘sub-calibre’ flechette which fitted within a standard M855 brass case. As a result the rifle used a proprietary magazine to avoid the accidental chambering of conventional 5.56x45mm rounds. The flechette rounds had a muzzle velocity of 4,600 ft/s with propellant produced by the Olin Corporation.

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An AAI Corporation ACR marked serial number 20 (Matthew Moss)

The rifle was designed to mount a quick detachable 4x optic and also had a white-highlighted shotgun-style rib sight along the barrel to aid snap shooting. The rifle was one of the longest entries with an overall length of 40 inches or 101.6cm. Interestingly, rather than a push-button magazine release, AAI opted for a large paddle release.

Front end of AAI ACR (Matthew Moss)
The fore-end of the AAI ACR, note the front sight post and muzzle device which reduced muzzle climb during burst firing (Matthew Moss)

AAI’s rifle borrowed some of its external ergonomic characteristics from the M16A2, then in service. With a moulded polymer pistol grip and butt, forming part of the lower receiver, shaped to mimic the M16’s. It also utilised the M16’s sling loops and butt plate.

According to the ACR program summary the AAI entry proved to be a “mature design which performed in a reliable fashion” during the field trials. It was regarded as a weapon with known reliability with a flechette round superior to the Steyr, the other flechette-based entry.

AAI ACR Ejection Port (Matthew Moss)
Close up of the right-side of the AAI ACR, note the ejection port and moulded plastic case deflector, selector level, paddle magazine release and sight mount (Matthew Moss)

Today, AAI continue to develop both small arms and other defence technologies. Now a part of Textron, they are currently involved in the US Army’s Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) program.

Specifications (From 1990 ACR Program Summary):

Length: 40 inches / 101.6cm
Weight: 9.39 lbs / 4.26kg
Sights: Iron or 4x optic
Action: Gas operated
Calibre: 5.56mm brass cased flechette
Feed: 30-round box magazine

You can find out overview article on the ACR program and all of the rifle here.


Bibliography:

Advanced Combat Rifle, Program Summary, Vol.1, ARDEC, 1992 (source)

‘Revisiting the SPIW Pt. 1-3’, Small Arms Review, R. Blake Stevens, (123)

The SPIW The Deadliest Weapon that Never Was, R. Blake Stevens & E.C. Ezell (1985)

Our thanks to the collection that holds these wonderful examples of the ACR rifles


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2018.

Special Episode: The ArmaLite AR-10 (Pt.2)

If you missed the first part of our special episode on the AR-10 you can find it here!

Vic brings us the second part of his special episode looking at the story of the AR-10, with a very unique run down of various variants of Eugene Stoner’s weapon. Vic runs us through every production model made by Artillerie Inrichtingen as well as several special prototypes and transitional models.

After a recap look at an example of a Hollywood-made rifle Vic shows us how the AR-10 worked using an instructional cutaway model. Throughout the video Vic examines all of the major production guns, beginning with an early A.I. production gun that incorporates the same ‘beer can’ muzzle device as the original American-made rifles. Vic then takes us through a series of rifles that represent the evolution of the design.

Photograph from the Bundeswehr rifle trials of a German soldier firing an AR-10B in 1957, the German’s classified the AR-10 as the G4 during the trials (source)

Beginning with the Cuban model, with its pencil profile barrel and top mounted gas tube. This model was also trailed by both the Dutch Army and the German Bundeswehr. Later in the video Vic gives us a quick look at the various German trials rifles the FAL (G1), the SIG 510-1 (G2), the H&K/CETME (G3) and the AR-10 (G4).

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Soldier firing an AR-10 during the Dutch Army trials (source)

Vic follows the Cuban model with a look at the Sudanese Model, with its bayonet lug sleeve, and the Guatemalan variant which swaps out the bayonet lug for rifle grenade launching capability. The Sudanese military ordered 2,508 rifles from A.I.

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Caçadores Paraquedista with an AR-10 (source)

In addition to these Vic also gives us a look at an extremely rare prototype carbine, a sporter model (the AR-102) and a prototype squad automatic weapon with a heavier profile barrel.  Vic then takes us through the features of the final A.I.-made variant, the Portuguese or NATO model. The rifle was officially adopted by the Portuguese army’s Caçadores Páraquedistas (paratroops) and saw action in Angola, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique.

Vic then takes a look at a series of rare variants and one-offs, including a rifle with green furniture made for Prince Bernhard, the Royal consort to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and a heavy barrelled magazine-fed squad automatic rifle with a rubber butt-pad and additional folding carrying handle.

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‘Transitional’ model AR-10 (source)

To round out the story of Artillerie Inrichtingen’s involvement with the AR-10, Vic is lucky enough to take a close look at an M1 Garand adapted to feed from surplus AR-10 aluminium waffle magazines. This concept was developed to equip the NATRES, the Dutch Army Reserve, and was based somewhat on the Italian Beretta BM-59. Vic shows us both a very early prototype BM-59 and one of only two A.I. Garand adaptation prototypes.

In the next part of the series Vic will examine several examples of the belt-fed AR-10. If you missed the first part of the series, which featured the early history of the ArmaLite AR-10 and a very rare original promotional film featuring Eugene Stoner himself, you can find that here!


Bibliography:

The Armalite AR-10: World’s Finest Battle Rifle, J. Putnam Evans (2016)

Special Episode: The ArmaLite AR-10 (Pt.1)

In this first part of a TAB special episode examining the history of the ArmaLite AR-10 Vic discusses the early origins, history and development of the now legendary 7.62x51mm rifle. At the heart of this episode is a remastered version (certainly the best currently available online) of the c.1958 ArmaLite/Fairchild promotional film that features Eugene Stoner and shows many of the early ‘Hollywood’ Armalites in action! The first part of this special documentary concludes with Vic examining a Hollywood-made AR-10B (the last iteration of the US-made AR-10s).

Part two of the episode can be found here and includes an overview of almost every Artillerie Inrichtingen (A.I.)-made model of AR-10, including the Cuban, Sudanese and Portuguese variants. 


Armalite & the AR-10’s Early History

Much has been written about the AR-10, Eugene Stoner and the genesis of the AR-15’s parent rifle. It’s a design which owes much to many: Stoner, George Sullivan, Melvin Johnson and later the engineers at Artillerie Inrichtingen.

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Photographs taken during Springfield Armory’s evaluation of the AR-10B (source)

ArmaLite, formed by George Sullivan with the help of Richard Boutelle, President of the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, began work on the first AR-10 prototypes in 1955. Designed by Eugene Stoner, using his patented direct gas impingement system. Stoner patented this system in 1956, with the patent being granted in September 1960 (US #2,951,424).

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Stoner pictured with some of the Hollywood AR-10 prototypes for a 1958 article in Guns magazine (source)

The AR-10 had an aluminium-alloy forged receiver, an in-line stock, polymer furniture and chrome-lined steel parts. While conventional steel barrels were the norm an ill-fated attempt to use an aluminium/steel composite barrel during US Army evaluations proved disastrous when the steel inner parted from the aluminium outer and caused the barrel to burst. As a result of these weight saving efforts the rifle weighed just ~3.4kgs/7.5lbs unloaded. The Armalite AR-10 had a side mounted gas tube, a top mounted charging handle and fed from 20-round box magazines. One of the most interesting features was the large aluminium muzzle device, fitted to some ArmaLite-made Rifles, which reduced sound and flash.

In 1957, ArmaLite sold the AR-10 manufacturing rights to the Dutch small arms manufacturer Artillerie Inrichtingen, while US manufacture was licensed by Colt in February 1959. With minimal financial returns Fairchild sold their interests in ArmaLite in 1962.

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A Springfield Armory file photograph of the AR-10B disassembled, taken during evaluations in 1956 (source)

Featured in the first part of Vic’s special episode on the AR-10 is an original Armalite/Fairchild promotional film, originally filmed in 16mm, that dates from around 1958. While a version of this film has been shared online for a number of years it is grainy, washed out and of relatively low audio quality. Vic reproduced the very rare promotional sales film in the 1990s onto VHS (a process he explains in the video). He has managed to take an original VHS copy and digitally remaster it to regain some of the original’s clarity and detail.

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A still from Vic’s remastered 1958 promo film showing Stoner firing the belt-fed variant of the AR-10 (source)

The promotional film was originally used by salesmen to showcase the AR-10 to potential clients and features Hollywood-produced guns. Both Stoner and Charles Dorchester (ArmaLite’s production manager) are seen in the film demonstrating the AR-10. The rifle’s action, function and controls are explained and various variants, including rifle and light machine gun, are demonstrated. The demonstration segment included a sub-zero test, covering in sand and much and Stoner himself dumping 5 magazine’s through the rifle in quick succession. The promotional film concluded with demonstrations of firing rifle grenades and a belt-fed AR-10.

Vic concludes the first part of the AR-10 overview episode with an examination of an AR-10B rifle held by the Netherlands’ Nationaal Militair Museum. In the second part of the episode Vic will look at nearly a dozen AR-10 variants made by Artillerie Inrichtingen (A.I.) between 1957 and 1961.

Part 2 of the AR-10 special can be found here!


Bibliography:

The Armalite AR-10: World’s Finest Battle Rifle, J. Putnam Evans (2016)

An Introduction to the Heckler & Koch G11

Vic kicks off his series looking at the US Army’s ACR trials rifles with a look at, not one but two versions of, Heckler & Koch’s advanced caseless ammunition assault rifle – the G11. This video is an introductory overview, we’ll be delving into the G11’s insanely intricate and wonderfully complex action in later videos!

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HK ACR 4.92x34mm G11 (Matthew Moss)

There are few experimental weapons that have cultivated myth and reputation like Heckler & Koch’s G11. The product of decades of research and development into what was hoped would be the next evolutionary step in small arms design. The G11 was Germany’s attempt to combine advanced caseless ammunition with a weapon system which could increase the average infantryman’s hit probability. The G11’s action has three distinct modes of fire and uses a complex action and buffer/recoil system to achieve a high rate of controlled fire.

The program began in the late 1960s as part of a NATO initiative, however, it became a primarily Bundeswehr project and over two decades the design evolved substantially. The project sought to increase the hit probability of the individual infantryman. Heckler & Koch’s approach to this problem was the most radical. Working with Hensoldt to develop an integrated optical sight and with Dynamit-Nobel to create a new kind of ammunition.

Numerous studies and theoretical designs were worked up but by the mid-1970s the base design of what would become the G11 was cemented. The design team included Gunter Kastner, Dieter Ketterer, Tilo Moller and Ernst Wossner – all of whom are credited in H&K’s 1976 patent protecting the G11’s rotary action.

The G11 went through dozens of iterations throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the first firing prototypes ready by 1974. Both the design and the ammunition also went through a number of changes.

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Diagram showing the composition of the G11’s caseless ammunition (source)

The revolutionary ammunition was developed by Dynamit-Nobel AG.

The 4.73x33mm round which was finalised comprised of a solid propellant material body which encased a primer, booster, projectile and a plastic nose cap. Dynamit-Nobel developed the High Ignition Temperature Propellant (HITP) in an effort to prevent accidental ignition (cook-off) of the ammunition’s outer propellant body.

The G11 fed from 45 or 50-round horizontal, single stack box magazines which fed rounds into the action at 90-degrees. The rounds were then rotated into alignment with the breech by the rifle’s action.

The rectangular shape of the Dynamit-Nobel ammunition was more efficient and better suited to storage than conventional circular rounds. The positioning of the magazine along the top of the weapon, parallel to the barrel, also in theory helped minimise the rifle’s profile and reduce encumbrance for the soldier equipped with the weapon.

The G11 is a gas-operated weapon with gas being tapped from the barrel, to cycle the rifle’s cylinder drive system, which rotated the breech through a series of cams and gears. At the heart of the G11 is a complex rotary action. Rotating actions themselves are not a new concept with the earliest dating back to the 17th century, such as the Lorenzoni system.

The G11’s rotating breech was patented in late 1976 by Heckler & Koch. While our initial video does not go into detail on how the G11 operates, we will be covering this in later videos, this article will explain the action in more general terms.

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H&K’s early patent showing the G11’s rotating action – note the early incarnation of the ammunition with the projectile protruding from the propellant block (source)

Below are two diagrams showing the internal layout and major components of the G11 from a March 1982 draft of the ‘Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR’ armourer’s manual (source). It shows the major assembly groups and also a component list for the breech assembly.

From the diagram we can see the various action parts which feed the projectile into the breech, lock the action and ignite the round. We can also see the counter-recoil system beneath the barrel.

 

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The G11 used a counter-recoil buffer mechanism to allow high rates of burst fire. When firing three round bursts the weapon send the rounds downrange at a rate of ~2,000 rounds per minute, only when the last round has left the barrel does the barrel and action begin to recoil inside the stock along a central guide. When in sustained fire the rate of fire is closer to ~460 per minute.

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H&K promotional diagram showing the G11’s mounted recoil system (source)

The buffer spring below the barrel is compressed as the recoiling barrel and breech assembly moves. In sustained fire the buffer spring is partially compressed with each round, but in burst fire the buffer is compressed to its maximum hitting before the buffer housing (which is when recoil from the burst is felt by the operator), this is described as having the barrel and breech assembly ‘float’.

To ready the weapon to fire a magazine was loaded into the magazine channel on top of the G11, a magazine dust door, which automatically closed when unloaded, was depressed as the magazine was pushed home. The cocking handle on the left side of the butt was then actuated. The operator rotated the handle 360-degrees counter-clockwise until the weapon was cocked (essentially like winding a clock). The same process will eject any rounds left in the chamber once the magazine has been removed.

Gas tapped from the barrel cycles the cylinder drive system with gas pushing a piston back to act on a series of gears which rotated the rotary breech from horizontal to vertical to allow a new cartridge to drop into the breech. There was a vent for high pressure gas underneath the butt stock this prevented pressure build up and mitigated some of the thermal build up.

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Members of the Gebirgsjäger (Bundeswehr alpine light troops) on the march with G11s (source)

The G11 K1 was tested by the German Army in the late 1980s with adoption planned for the early 1990s. Heckler & Koch continued to develop the G11, entering the G11 K2 into the US Army’s Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) trials alongside entries from Steyr, AAI and Colt [all of which we will examine in upcoming videos]. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that West Germany no longer had the huge amount of funds needed to field the G11. At the same time the ACR program ended inconclusively and the G11 project was finally abandoned.

The extreme complexity of the design, the inadequacy of the weapon’s ergonomics and its inevitably high production cost casts doubt on whether the G11 would ever have seriously been considered for widespread adoption. Regardless of this the G11 is a fascinating footnote in small arms history representing a false start along a technological avenue which, with the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) program, may still prove fruitful. Heckler & Koch and Dynamit-Nobel’s ambitious design marks one of very few serious and potentially successful attempts engineers to overcome the plateau that firearms technology is currently stuck on.

Technical Specifications (from 1989 H&K Brochure):

Length: 75cm (29.3in)
Weight (unloaded): 3.8kg (8.4lb)
Barrel Length: 54cm (21.3in)
Action: Gas-Operated, rotary breech
Calibre: 4.73x33mm
Feed: 45 or 50-round, single stack, box magazine
Cyclic Rate: sustained fire: ~460rpm /  3-round burst: ~2,000rpm


Bibliography:

Die G11 Story. Die Entwicklungsgeschichte einer High-Tech-Waffe, W. Seel, 1993

‘Shoulder Arm with Swivel Breech Member’, US Patent #3997994, 21 Dec. 1976, (source)

‘Automatic or Semi-Automatic Small Arm’, US Patent #4078327, 14 Mar. 1978, (source)

From the Small Arms Review Archive:

HK G11- ACR. Armourer’s Manual for Maintenance of Repair of Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR, March 1989 (source)

‘Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR’ Operator’s Manual (source)

HK G11 Caseless Ammunition Weapon System. The G11 Rifle. HK Factory Brochure, 1989 (source)

Our thanks to the collections that hold these examples of the G11. While one wishes to remain anonymous, we would like to thank the Dutch Military Museum for access to their G11.


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2017.