Sunday, June 26, 2011

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.

The miquelet
An example of a Turkish miquelet from around 1760 that came up for sale in 2006 on an internet site, with an asking price of £1300 ($2,500), shows how beautiful the work was on these weapons. It has a .60 calibre, 117cm/46in Damascus barrel that has a little silver inlay work. The gunsmith took the Ripoll pistols of Catalonia for his inspiration for the brass overlay decoration of the stock and copied a Spanish mechanism for the lock. Using a punch, the lockplate was signed in Arabic script and was extensively inlaid and overlaid with silver. The barrel may have come from a 17th-century Persian matchlock, since barrels and other parts were often reused. Miquelets like this reached Europe through trading contacts in the Balkans, part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

A Turkish miquelet was bequeathed by Admiral Lot Nelson to Alexander Davison, his friend and prize agent, together with a water canteen and scimitar. It is a beautiful weapon with an inscription on the butt: "This gun together with a skymetar and canteen were presented by the Grand Signor to Horatio Viscount Nelson and by will bequeathed to his friend Alexandei Davidson 10 May 1803." It has a Turkish variant of the Spanish miquelet lock with gold koftgari decoration. The stock is ivory and is decorated with silver and gilt studs with bands of gilt brass and mother-of-pearl. It has been suggested that the rifle, scimitar and cante< may have been gifts from the Sultan of Turkey to this successful and charismatic sailor. In 1873 Davison's son gave the rifle to Greenwich Hospital, and it was originally displayed with other Nelson relics in the Painted Hall at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

The Baker rifle

This weapon was designed and made by Ezekiel Baker, who was not an innovator but took all the best featui in the current European designs. With a seven-groov quarter-turn 76cm/30in rifled barrel, the Baker rifle was robust, soldier-proof and relatively easy to load. The rifle was originally produced in .705, the same calibre as the "Brown Bess" infantry musket in order to standardize ammunition supplies. It was later reduced to .615in, the standard ammunition used for cavalry carbines. This made the rifle lighter and easier to handle. The final innovation was specially designed ball ammunition cartridges.
As a weapon the miquelet was becoming obsolescent by the 18th century when Europeans soldiers and sailors encountered it. However, as a trophy it was exquisite, since the workmanship and designs were now no longer produced in an increasingly utilitarian European arms industry.

Most riflemen were permitted to practise with live ammunition. They aimed to accurately fire two shots per minute against human-sized targets at ranges of around 137-183m/150-200yd, a remarkable degree of accuracy given that the ordinary soldier fired his musket in volleys and was not accurate over 68m/75yd. The barrel of the rifle was browned to prevent sunlight reflecting and giving away the camouflaged rifleman's position. In his toolbag, each man carried a supply of cleaning patches, new flints, a worm and tommy bar to service his rifle as well as a turnscrew and ballpuller.
A print produced in 1813 shows riflemen of the 60th and 95th Regiments armed with the superb Baker rifle. Their camouflaged dark-green uniforms and dedicated personal weapon marked them out as an elite within the British Army.

The Baker rifle of the Peninsular War period came with a 60cm-/24in-long sword bayonet. Although handy for camp tasks, it was rarely used in combat.

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