English Match Rifles
Last week I did a post on Sir Joseph Whitworth and how he changed long range shooting. It’s hard to exaggerate the effect his innovations had on rifle technology, and I’d rate them together as one of the major “revolutions in arms” such as the breech loader, the repeater, and smokeless powder. To reprise, Sir Joe’s design featured a small bore (.45 caliber), a long bullet with great sectional density, and a fast rifling twist. Combined with his precision manufacturing techniques, the result was a light rifle that was very accurate at extended ranges. Small bore shooting became all the rage, and gunsmiths in the British Isles rushed to fill the demand. Some, like Thomas Turner and George Daw, eschewed Whitworth’s (patented) hexagonal bore and designed their own patented rifling system. It was in many ways a golden age of rifles, with some truly beautiful specimens of the gunmakers’ art being turned out.
As it happened Britain was going through one of its periodic panics about a French invasion in the late 1850s, which led to the formation of the Volunteer Corps, “a self-uniformed, self-armed combination militia and target shooting organization.” The British military establishment did what it could to encourage them because it meant a reserve force on the cheap, and to everyone’s surprise the whole thing took off on a large scale even after fears of an invasion faded. Long-range target matches, which doubled as gala social functions, became the order of the day. Winners became instant celebrities. In fact, Queen Victoria herself kicked off the first rifle match at Wimbledon by scoring a bullseye at 400 yards!
Well, sort of. Here’s how David Minshall describes it:
Queen Victoria fired the inaugural shot at the first rifle meeting on 2 July 1860. A Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle placed in a mechanical rest had been aligned with a target at a distance of 400 yards. Joseph Whitworth handed a silken cord attached to the trigger to Her Majesty and the rifle was discharged by a slight pull on the cord. The adjustment was so accurate that the bullet struck the target within 1.25 inches from the centre.
Six months earlier the National Rifle Association (precursor of today’s NRA in the US) had been organized “for the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain.” Many prominent citizens joined, the elegance of their arms and uniforms an advertisement of their wealth and status (just how much use they would have been on the battlefield was another question altogether). Her Majesty established an annual marksmanship prize of £250 (a good deal of money in those days), to be shot in two stages: “the first at 300, 500 and 600 yards, and the second at 800, 900 and 1000 yards.” This is quite a long ways to be shooting in 1860, especially compared to the standard 40 rods (220 yards) in the US.
Thus, “local and regional rifle matches become commonplace and by the end of the decade of the 1860’s Great Britain, with no prior tradition for rifle marksmanship, had thousands of trained riflemen.” By 1888 the number of entries at the Wimbledon matches topped 40,000.
Volunteers had to provide their own rifle, which could be of any type as long as it was the standard .577 caliber. Most preferred the Enfield Short Rifle (usually referred to in the US as the “two band” model) or the equivalent to the longer P53 Rifle-Musket. Actually all were copies made by various companies like the London Armoury Company, since the production of the Enfield factory was reserved to the military. Whitworth, Beasley, Daw, Turner, Kerr, and several other gunmakers catered to the trade.
Many Volunteers bought rifles with two interchangeable barrels. That way they could drill one weekend with the standard .577 barrel, then shoot a match the next with the “small bore” .45 caliber barrel. One could either buy a rifle with two barrels, such as this Kerr, or buy the barrel separately. Most of these rifles looked very much like the Enfield, and many of the parts were interchangeable.
In 1862 Whitehall decreed that all Volunteers must use the standard P53 Enfield. Many men then sold their old rifles to Confederate buyers, who were just then scouring the British Isles for arms. Thus a good number of the “short” Enfields that came into the possession of the Confederate sharpshooters were actually ex-Volunteer rifles. Many are finely finished and elegantly made, and some have the .45 caliber small bore barrel.
Next: Where did those rifles end up?