Sir Joe and His Fabulous Rifles

by Fred Ray on June 6, 2006 · 0 comments

The period 1850-1900 witnessed some of the most radical changes in small arms in history. In 1850 the standard infantry weapon was still the equivalent of the Brown Bess .75 caliber smoothbore; but by 1900 we have the fully modern .30 caliber box magazine repeater (i.e. Mauser) firing smokeless powder.

One of the men most responsible for this quantum leap in technology was Sir Joseph Whitworth, “The World’s Best Mechanician” and a genius in anyone’s book. At the behest of the British CIC, Lord Hardinge, Whitworth took upon the task of making a rifle that was really accurate at very long ranges. He soon found that “the Enfield service rifle of that day was wrong in every particular. The diameter of the bullet was too large for the size of the gun, the bullet itself was too short, and the twist of rifling was not one-third of what it should have been.”

Remember the problem I pointed out on the post on American rifles with bullet tilt? The Yankees solved the problem with a false muzzle and a bullet starter. Sir Joe, OTOH, greatly increased the sectional density of the bullet; that is, he made it much longer (.445 inches by 1.45 inches, or 2½ times its diameter) and of a much harder material. To keep the same bullet weight (530 grains) he reduced the caliber from .577 to .451. The increased length and the unique hexagonal bore ended any bullet tilt problems, which made a false muzzle and bullet starter unnecessary. This, plus a much faster rifling twist gave it much improved performance at long ranges. There was not much difference between the accuracy of the Enfield and Whitworth out to 500 yards, but beyond that the Whitworth increased its advantage markedly, so that it would hit a target at 1200+ yards that an Enfield could not touch. Whitworth maintained a precision shop: the best Birmingham gunsmiths of the time were doing well to hold tolerances to 1/350th of an inch, while Sir Joe’s high-tech facility maintained a then-incredible 1/5,000th of an inch.

Sir Joe also perfected a method of compressing the steel for barrels while in the fluid state, which increased its strength and eliminated pinholes in the steel. This improved barrel technology combined light weight with extreme rigidity, allowing Whitworth to tame barrel whip, one of the major bugbears associated with long-range shooting. When fired with a heavy charge, a rifle barrel tended to move up and down slightly as the bullet passed through it, causing dispersion at longer ranges. The conventional solution, used in America, was to use a massive “bull” barrel to resist flexing, but this made for a heavy, cumbersome rifle. Sir Joe, however, was able to obtain the same accuracy with a rifle that weighed just under ten pounds. The light weight meant that while a soldier could easily carry the Whitworth around the battlefield, he could count on it giving him a heavy kick when he touched off that 80 grains of black powder, which launched the bullet at twelve hundred to fourteen hundred feet per second. In the field the sharp crack of the Whitworth distinguished it from the dull boom of the service muskets.

Still, there were problems. The Whitworth rifle was very expensive and those tight tolerances made it prone to fouling. The British Army issued it briefly to its rifle brigade but withdrew it shortly afterward. For a match or sharpshooter’s weapon, however, it was ideal.

In the next few days, time permitting, I’ll discuss Whitworths, clones, and copies; how many there were and how they were used.

Meanwhile, I recommend you speed across the pond and have a look at a couple of British web sites: Long Range Muzzle Loader and Research Press that have a ton of information about long-range black powder shooting, including a lengthy article by Sir Joe himself about his rifle and its accuracy.

Fred Ray

June 6, 2006


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