The Volunteer Rifle Dilemma

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Written by: David Minshall

In June 1859 the Lord-Lieutenant of Norfolk, chaired a meeting called for the purpose of raising a Volunteer Rifle Company for the Holkham District of the county. While addressing the meeting he outlined issues associated with the selection of a suitable rifle – these dilemmas must have been echoed throughout the country in the early days of the burgeoning Volunteer Movement.

He had sought clarification from the War Office whether the government would provide rifles at cost price. General Peel, the Secretary for War, had responded on 28 May that “her Majesty’s government do not propose to supply arms to the members of volunteer rifle corps, either by sale or otherwise.”

With regards to the specific form of rifle, General Peel’s letter pointed to the government circular of 25 May, and reiterated the need to “to secure perfect uniformity of gauge between the rifle which the several corps may adopt, and the Enfield rifles use in the army.” This meant that only .577 calibre (or 25 gauge) rifles which would accept government ammunition and government musket caps were considered as weapons for Volunteer units.

After reading General Peel’s letter to the meeting, the Lord-Lieutenant explained – “I have made what enquiries I could respecting the rifle that would be likely to be found most efficient. I believe that one of the best rifles in this country is the rifle that has been introduced by Mr. Whitworth; but that rifle, so far as we are concerned, is entirely out of the question, inasmuch as the gauge of the Whitworth rifle is different from that of the Government rifles. There are only two rifles, as far as I can learn, that we have to deal with, and they are the Enfield rifle and the rifle known by the name of the Lancaster rifle.”

The Lord-Lieutenant had also been provided with a letter by Captain Black. It was from Colonel Sandham, Colonel of the Engineers, stationed at Chatham, who wrote: “My dear Black – There is no rifle in the service equal to the Lancaster, which we are armed with, and you may say that I say so.” The Royal Sappers & Miners Carbine (also known as Lancaster’s Royal Engineer’s Carbine) was adopted in January 1855, and was made with Lancaster’s oval bore.

It had been hoped to have specimens of arms available for examination within a week, along with exact costs. This did not prove to be possible, however the Norfolk News (2 July 1859) did report that members of Holkham District Rifle Corps met at the end of June “for the purpose of testing capabilities of several descriptions of rifle.” The result was a decided preference for the Swinburn Lancaster rifle, with some of the gentlemen choosing their rifles on the spot.

Matters addressing the government provision of rifles changed quickly, and on 13 July 1859 the government gave some assistance to the Volunteers by offering, on application, to furnish every Rifle Corps with the Pattern 1853 Rifle Musket to the extent of 25 per cent. of the effective volunteers. In October an additional 25 per cent. on the effective strength of the corps was made available, raising the aggregate issue to 50 per cent. A Circular of 20 December 1859 addressed plans to make available after 1 January 1860 “an additional supply of long Enfield Rifles (pattern 1853), to the extent of 50 per cent. on the effective strength of the corps.” This supply raised the aggregate issue to 100 per cent. on the effective strength of the force.

As the Volunteer Movement spread through the population and classes, there was a shift towards the Long Enfield, which mirrored the Government’s increasing issue of rifles. This also offset the expense of Volunteering opening it up to a wider section of the population.

Today the term “Volunteer Rifle” encompasses a variety of different rifles, the range of which is broader than would have originally been intended and often includes .45 calibre rifles. However, the .45 calibre rifles were, in actuality, military target rifles and not in the hands of Volunteers, except for long range (eg. Queen’s Prize 2nd Stage) or non-Volunteer competitions.

Further discussion on the British Volunteer Rifle 1850-1870 is included within Research Press Digest 2023.