The Turner Rifle

by Fred Ray on February 17, 2016 · 2 comments

I was recently fortunate to acquire a Turner rifle. Thomas Turner (1834-1890) was a 19th Century gunsmith who lived and worked in Birmingham, then the center of the gun trade. He was “a prolific manufacturer of Volunteer rifles in the 1859-1862 period. His small-bore (.451) rifles were very popular into the mid 1860s, rivaled only by the Whitworth and the LAC Kerr. Turner was a good marksman and often competed (no doubt as a form of advertisement) at the Wimbledon and provincial rifle matches.” In addition to running his own firm he was a major shareholder in Birmingham Small Arms (BSA). His firm produced both military and civilian match and sporting rifles, and is said to have produced many of the trials rifles for the British government.

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Turner’s guns included standard Enfield-pattern military rifles in the service .577 caliber as well as match and sporting rifles in “small bore”.451 caliber. These were more or less derived from Joseph Whitworth’s innovations, which showed that a longer bullet of smaller caliber gave much better long-range performance than the short, fat Minié bullet of equivalent weight. However, since Whitworth had patented his distinctive hex-bore rifling, other makers were forced to come up with their own systems. In Turner’s case this was a distinctive 5-groove progressive depth rifling. He claimed would never foul and in fact there were many testimonials to its efficacy. There is no question that Turner’s system was extremely accurate, and his rifles were regular visitors to the winner’s circle.

Turner made a hybrid as well, the Military Target Rifle, which is what I have. These were military pattern rifles that have been adapted in various ways for target use, much like the “National Match” rifles of today.

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British arms historian David Minshall had this to say about them:

With the burgeoning Volunteer movement in Great Britain in the 1860s came a great interest in target rifle shooting, stimulated largely by the National Rifle Association. This market lead to a proliferation of gunmakers who, following principles established by Joseph Whitworth, developed a special class of ‘small-bore’ target rifle. Outwardly these rifles initially maintained the characteristics of the military issue arms of the time, with open sights, full stocks, band fastened barrels and ram rods. The majority of these rifles were around .451 calibre, and the term ‘small-bore’ was used to distinguish them from the ‘large-bore’ service rifle of .577 calibre.

Captain Heaton, in his 1864 ‘Notes on Rifle Shooting’ describes a number of small-bore rifles: Baker, Beasley, Bissel, Crockart, Edge, Henry, Kerr, Lancaster, Newton, Parsons, Rigby, Turner and Whitworth. These are just a few of the gunmakers connected with the history of the small-bore rifle.

Some were quite fancy, while others like mine are extremely plain. In fact, mine was probably about the least expensive one could get and still have a real Turner. There are no frills whatsoever – no checkering on the stock, no fancy sights, elaborate trigger guard, &c. The lock is standard military one with a crown stamp, but as befits a target rifle there is no bayonet lug.

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I like to think of it as a workingman’s rifle, owned by someone, perhaps a Volunteer, who really wanted a good rifle but didn’t have a lot of money to spend on it. Turner seems to have catered to this market, which most of the other high-end gunsmiths ignored. I found it at an auction in Canada and was pleasantly surprised that it sailed right through customs with no hassles at all. Being an antique it’s not considered a firearm either here or in Canada. The rifle was in surprisingly good condition but did have  a few problems. The breech area was scarred where someone had clamped it in a vise and somewhat pitted. The biggest flaw, however, was that the nipple was pretty much stripped out. Off it went to Dan Whitacre in Winchester, VA, to be fitted with an oversized nipple. I also had him remove the breech plug so I could inspect the rifling. Although clogged with 153 years’ of crud, it cleaned up nicely with a liberal application of Kroil and a bronze brush. Although no longer shiny the bore and rifling are in excellent shape. The rest of the rifle is in fine condition, especially considering that the lock date is 1863.

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Once back together we took a trip to the range and with some trepidation I touched off a load of black powder. The Turner lit off the first time and never missed a beat. Shoots a good bit to the left as the result of a whack the sight took sometime in the past, and I don’t think I have exactly the right bullets for it, but overall I was very pleased with the results and plan to continue experimenting. I buy guns to shoot, not sit in a safe.

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A question that often comes up is whether the was Turner used during the Civil War as a sharpshooter’s rifle? No question that some Turners were used by the Confederacy, however those found so far with genuine CS markings are all of standard military configuration in .577 caliber, although some have target sights. Thus far no small bore Turner with actual CS markings has turned up, although this doesn’t mean they weren’t used. Sharpshooter rifles were not always marked with all the standard markings. Period descriptions were often maddeningly vague. Had someone been handed this rifle in 1863, they might have described it as a “small bore Enfield.” Confederate records show many of these, but since Enfield never made anything other than the standard .577, they were almost certainly some sort of match/target rifle like the Turner, Kerr, and others, all of which were quite similar in appearance to each other and to the service .577 Enfields. Just to confuse the issue even further, gunmakers often made rifles with their competitors rifling systems. For example, on my web site (scroll down to the bottom of the page) there is a very nice cased Turner with a (licensed) Whitworth barrel. If this rifle had somehow made it to the South it would have been classified as a Whitworth rather than a Turner. Another example is the London Armoury Company, which produced some small bore rifles with Turner’s rifling as well as those with their with own.

In truth, the Confederacy used pretty much anything it could get, whether called a small bore Enfield, sporting rifle, sharpshooter’s rifle, or whatever. Of all these the only ones other than the Whitworths that we have a clear record of are the Kerr rifles used by the sharpshooters of the Army of Tennessee. In Britain until 1862 a Volunteer who provided his own rifle could have one with two barrels – one in .577 for drill and another in .451 for match use. After that the British War Department specified that only the regulation P53 was to be used, and many men sold their old rifles to Confederate buyers.

So the rather convoluted answer to whether the Turner was used as a sharpshooter’s rifle by the Confederacy is …. very likely, but so far lacking definitive proof. This, of course, has not stopped people from advertising them as such.

In any case, it’s a fine old rifle and I’m sure I’ll enjoy shooting it.

Update: The Turner is indeed a fine shooter, but I did find that it will take a standard P53 socket bayonet. So except for the non-standard caliber, it’s a fully functional military rifle.

Camp Pope Publishing

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Thomas E Altman August 5, 2018 at 6:34 pm

I have a thomas turner percussion rifle for sale I am at tom.altman@comcast.net
I can send you pictures!
Can anyone help me identify this rifle?

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