Thursday, June 30, 2011

Massacre at Mons

In the hands of a trained soldier, the British Short, Magazine-Loaded Lee-Enfield was easily capable of 15 rpm of accurate fire. In the 1930s, a Small Arms School Corps Warrant Officer managed a rate of 37 rpm. This fast rate of fire proved significant in World War I.
Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and when, by mid-August, the Belgians had been mauled by the German Army, only one intact force stood in the way of the Germans: the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The first shots fired on 23 August by the BEF were at Malplaquet. The advancing German infantrymen were pulled up short near Mons as the withering rifle fire of the British caused them heavy casualties.
Two days later at Le Cateau the story of Mons was repeated, only on a bloodier scale. Once again the Germans attacked in tightly bunched waves and again they were met with rifle fire so intense that they thought the British were equipped with machine guns.

World War rifles

The excellent bolt-action rifles produced at the close of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, such as the German Gewehr 98, British SMLE and American M1903, were used in World War I and, with some modifications, remained in service during World War II.

A Winchester by any other name

In 1848 American small arms designer Walter Hunt developed the concept of the first repeating rifle, giving it the grand name of "Rocket Ball and Volition Repeater." A lever-action, tube-loading repeater, it eventually evolved into the Winchester Model 1873. A US patent was granted in 1849 for an improved design by a machinist named Lewis Jennings and Hunt's partner George Arrowsmith.

Historic guns

The American Winchester 1873 was not the first gun bearing the Winchester name, but its popularity earned it the nickname of "The Gun That Won the West" The British Lee-Metford had only a short operational life with the British Army, while the Italian Carcano 91/94 had a long and ultimately notorious history, due to its most famous owner. On 22 November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald used a Mannlicher-Carcano serial number C2766 with an Ordnance Optics 4x18 scope to kill the US President John R Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

Smokeless propellants

Poudre B or poudre blanche (white powder, to distinguish it from black powder), was the first smokeless propellant, developed around 1885 by Paul Vieille. Made up from nitrocotton and ether-alcohol, unlike black powder it did not produce clouds of white smoke when it was detonated. Subsequently, the prolific Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel added to the growing list of smokeless powders a substance called ballistite.

Conversion rifles

The successful Snider P/53 was a converted rifle produced in Enfield from 1866. It was replaced by the 1871 Martini-Henry single-shot rifle, which was used by the British Army for 30 years and could truly be called the gun that served the empire. However, another conversion rifle - the American "trapdoor" Springfield - was a cost-cutting conversion that would prove unsatisfactory when tested in war.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

1849 Minie bullet

The innovative gunsmith Claude-Etienne Minie was born in 1814 in Paris. After serving as an officer in the French Army, in 1849 he developed the Minie rifle and bullet.
Inaccurately pronounced minnie and incorrectly called a ball, the bullet was a cylindro-conoidal (i.e., bullet-shaped) lead projectile fired from a muzzle-loading rifle. It was small enough to fit down the J, barrel of a rifle even when fouled with burned J powder. When the rifle was fired, expanding gases entered the bullet's hollow base, pushing the outer edges into the rifling of the barrel. Since it greatly improved the accuracy, range and rate of small-arms fire, the Minie ball was rapidly adopted by the US Army. During the American Civil War, the Minie became one of the most widely used types of ammunition by the armies of the Confederacy and the Union.

Mid-19th-century wars

Although the combatants in the American Civil War bought arms from Great Britain, such as the Whitworth .451, they also had stocks of their own weapons, such as the Model 1842 percussion musket and the Model 1865 Spencer carbine. However, it was the bullet designed by Frenchman Claude Etienne Minie that would play a major part in the war. Meanwhile in France, his fellow national Antoine Alphonse Chassepot had produced the innovative Modele 1866 breech-loading rifle.

1807 percussion cap

One of the problems of flintlock weapons was that sometimes the priming powder didn't ignite because the lock wasn't able to keep it entirely dry. The solution was found in 1807 by Alexander John Forsyth who patented a priming powder made from an unstable mix of chlorate of potash, sulphur and charcoal, which exploded when it was struck. He saw it as a useful development for sportsmen who were wild fowling on wet days. It took 30 years for the technology to be recognized and adopted by the military authorities. In the meantime, it was gradually improved by gunmakers and private individuals,who developed the copper percussion cap.

Rifles from 1800-2000

An inventive century
The mid-19th century saw two major developments in small arms technology: the Pauly cartridge and the Dreyse needle gun. Just as the percussion cap had advanced weapons technology in its day, so these two inventions would take it further and point to modern small arms of the 20th century While the British 1853 Enfield rifle did not mark any significant technological advances, it did demonstrate ruthless commercial enterprise, since the British sold it to both sides in the American Civil War.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Volley firing

Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when smoothbore muskets were slow to load and inaccurate, short-range volley firing was an essential tactic. A trained soldier could fire a shot about every twenty seconds but could not expect to hit a human target beyond 73m/80yd. To accommodate this limitation, infantry soldiers fired in closely disciplined volleys, in which one rank would fire while the second reloaded. The firing rank might take place from the standing or kneeling position, while reloading was conducted from a standing position. A variation of this drill had a row of kneeling men with muskets and bayonets at a 45-degree angle, presenting a formidable barrier to enemy infantry or cavalry. A volley could also be fired by all the soldiers simultaneously, producing a crushing weight of fire which would then be followed up with a bayonet charge.

The last flintlocks

The Prussian Jager rifle and the Mississippi rifle were examples of weapons built by countries that did not have a large industrial base. The British, by contrast, who were entering the Industrial Revolution, embarked on more systematic weapons production and design rationalization with their Short Land Pattern and India Pattern muskets.

Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

The wars fought by Britain and European powers against the nationalistic and ambitious French leader Napoleon Bonaparte marked a significant change in the practice of land warfare.

Art and utility

Two types of firearm used in the 19th century are at the extreme end of weapons design. The miquelet, produced in Turkey, was more a work of art than a weapon. By contrast, the Baker rifle, used by British riflemen in the Peninsula War, was a functionally efficient weapon, and the soldiers who used it were trained to make the most of its potential.

Musket drill 1764

Musket drill in the mid-18th century was based around a series of commands. On the order "Poise your Firelocks", the soldier took his musket in his right hand, and turned the lock outwards, while keeping the musket upright. He then swung the musket off his shoulder and grasped it with his left hand just above the lock with the little finger resting upon the spring, and the thumb on the stock.

Guns of the Revolution

In 1776 the United States was locked in war with Britain, the colonial power, and was desperate for muskets. In the spring of that year, the US Congress sent a secret agent to France to ask the king for help in the form of weapons, equipment and financial support. The 1766 musket, shipped over by France, would later be replaced by the home-produced US 1795 musket, made at the Springfield Armory.

Muskets in action

Infantry soldiers were armed with a musket and a bayonet. The musket was muzzle loading with a flintlock mechanism at the butt end of the barrel. The soldier's normal ammunition load was 24 cartridges. Each cartridge contained a single load of gunpowder and a spherical lead ball. When loading, the soldier ripped open the paper cartridge with his teeth and poured a small quantity of powder into the firing pan. He poured the remainder of the charge into the muzzle of the musket, followed by the cartridge paper as a wad, and poked the charge to the bottom of the barrel with the ramrod.

Three special muskets

The Kentucky rifle was made famous as the weapon carried by "Hawkeye", the colonial trapper Nathaniel Poe, in James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans. The blunderbuss was a short-range weapon that fired a load of heavy gauge shot (not scrap metal, as has been suggested). In the 18th century the British Army received the "Brown Bess" musket, a reliable weapon that would serve it well through the Napoleonic Wars and the colonial campaigns around the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The miquelet and flintlock

The miquelet lock was named after Catalan militia leader Miquelot de Prats. Popular in the Mediterranean area from the 16th to 19th centuries, it was a distinctive flint-on-steel ignition mechanism. The design is attributed to an anonymous Italian gunsmith working for a Madrid gunmaker, Pedro Marquart, in the mid-1570s. This prototype was refined by Madrid gunsmiths into the Spanish patilla style now commonly known as the miquelet. A distinctive Italian miquelet lock was also developed.

Tools of the trade

Men in the 17th and 18th centuries armed with muzzle loaders such as the doglock, miquelet and flintlock required a number of essential pieces of equipment in the field. These would enable them to carry gunpowder securely and maintain their weapons sufficiently when on campaign in all weather conditions.

Wheel lock and snaphance

The wheel-lock mechanism used a fluted or grooved steel wheel located above the priming pan and held under tension by a strong spring. The bock was also regulated by a spring and fitted with a piece of iron pyrite.To fire the gun, the lock was wound up with a key, then the cock was let down on the priming pan, so that the pyrite rested on the wheel. To ignite the powder in the pan, the trigger was pressed which caused the wheel to be released and spin round quickly. The sparks produced then ignited the powder. The lock was not only complicated and expensive but also prone to damage, which prevented its wider adoption. Wheel-lock and matchlock combinations were fairly common because many wheel-lock mechanisms were unreliable. Such a gun would function as a regular wheel lock, but if the wheel lock broke or malfunctioned the user would still be able to fire the gun using the matchlock.
The wheel' lock was an efficient but complex mechanism that never entirely replaced the much more basic matchlock in military use. The wheel lock was popular with aristocratic hunters and sportsmen as an obvious demonstration of their wealth.

The snaphance marked a new innovation since it used flint and steel to ignite the powder. When the trigger was pulled, the pan covering the powder opened mechanically as the flint scraped down the face of the steel to produce sparks.

Classic 16th century designs

In 1517 and 1518, the first gun-control laws were introduced by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, when he attempted to ban the manufacture or possession of matchlocks; being compact and more reliable than earlier firearms, they were seen as an ideal assassin's weapon. The matchlock nevertheless remained popular as a sporting arm and weapon. Meanwhile, the new Spanish musket became a common weapon of war for nearly a century.

Matchlock drill

In 16th-century European armies, there was a strict set of orders for firing a musket. On the command "Handle your piece',' the musketeer placed the weapon on the rest, near the point of balance. On receipt of the order "Take forth your match',' he transferred the burning match from the left hand to the right hand. On the order "Blow off your coal" he blew off any loose ash from the burning end of the slow match. On the command "Cock your match" he clamped the burning end of the slow match between the jaws of the serpentine.

16th century technology

The 16th century saw great developments in weapons technology, much of which remains in use today. These innovations included the wheel lock, which was invented around the turn of the century, although the actual inventor is unconfirmed. In addition, sights and rifling were major advances, and ensured that weapons could be aimed accurately and that the bullet had a straight flight path to the target.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

War on the North-West Frontier

A series of conflicts known as the Anglo-Afghan Wars took place during the imperialist struggle for domination in Afghanistan between Britain and the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

New users of the matchlock

The simplicity of the matchlock led to its adoption by indigenous warriors wherever it was taken by European traders and soldiers. The Japanese learned how to build matchlocks from Portuguese traders, while the Indians and Afghans adopted the technology from the British. On India's North-West Frontier, warlike tribesmen used their Jezail matchlocks, designed for easy fire from horseback, with ruthless efficiency against the British.

The gunsmith's craft

Firearms were a "must-have" weapon for the monarchs and rulers of Europe. In addition to their beautifully crafted armour and edged weapons, these leaders had firearms made to order, and gunsmiths came up with some ingenious designs that were pointers to the future. A revolving matchlock was presented to King Louis XIII of France. This gun had multiple chambers, each of which had its own priming pan. To fire it, the user rotated each chamber into place and opened the pan and fired as a conventional matchlock.

King Henry VIII of England had a custom-made breech-loading matchlock. This gun was loaded through the rear by lifting the breech block, placing the shot followed by gunpowder into the barrel and then closing the breech block. The pan was then primed and the gun fired as a conventional matchlock.

The beautifully engraved breech-loading matchlock used by Henry VIII; his crest featuring a rose can be seen on the barrel. The carefully engineered breech was designed to give an effective gas seal for the exploding powder.

The matchlock

The 15th century saw improvements in firearm design such as the matchlock, which looked less like a miniature cannon and more like our familiar rifle with a butt and trigger. Further developments in design produced the arquebus, some versions of which were fitted with snapping matchlocks or sear-lock matchlocks.

Early rifles

The first firearms developed in Europe in the 14th century were hand cannon. These crude weapons were refined during the following century through a series of modifications such as the hackbut and arquebus, some fitted with snapping matchlocks or sear-lock matchlocks. In some regions of the world, including Japan and India's North-West Frontier, matchlocks would survive for centuries, and in the hands of trained marksmen prove very effective weapons. The development of the wheel lock and snaphance in the 16th century led to the production of the flintlock, a weapon that was used until the American Civil War. During this period, sights and rifling were developed, which greatly improved the accuracy of rifles. In the 17th and 18th centuries, new technologies were introduced to allow soldiers to carry gunpowder more safely. The section also covers the muskets of the 18th century, which also saw service in the American Civil War (1861-65) and the British Army in its conquest of colonies around the world.


Firearms have exerted a fascination since medieval times, and today's weapons are more accurate and effective than the first designers could have imagined. The rifle has been developed for use both in target shooting and for hunting, while the machine gun was exclusively developed for major conflict - and has demonstrated its devastating efficiency.