The Future Weapon of the British Soldier

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Source: The Living Age, May 1869

From The Spectator

AN inquiry which has been nearly five years in progress has at last terminated. It is now pretty well determined what arm the British Soldier shall wield for the future. In assigning a duration of five years to the inquiry, we are well aware that the actual selection of the proposed weapon has occupied something considerably under two years. But there remains the fact that on the 11th of July, 1864, a Committee, appointed by Lord de Grey, with General Russell as president, formally recorded its opinion that it was desirable forthwith to arm the British Infantry Soldier with a breech-loading instead of a muzzle-loading musket.

So that it is nearly five years since the doom of the Enfield rifle was sealed, after a term of honoured service of eleven years, now extended, if we regard the arm as not yet obsolete, to fifteen years. During the five years which have elapsed since the Report of General Russell’s Committee was rendered the subject has made vast strides. We then knew little of breech-loaders; we had not yet grasped their full value, of which we had derived from the Dano-German war only a dim appreciation; of the principles of construction of the arms, of the relative merits of particular varieties, we knew next to nothing. Our accumulated experience with breech-loaders was practically limited to an acquaintance with the Sharp rifle, the Westley-Richards’, Green’s, Terry’s, and the like arms which were all discharged by means of a percussion cap applied in the old-fashioned way to a nipple, and all, therefore, failing to satisfy that condition of breech-loading which is now accepted as a sine qua non, viz., the employment of cartridges containing their own ignition. So that, if we consider that we have been engaged during these five years, or the greater part of them, in spelling out the alphabet of the subject, and that we have advanced out of darkness and doubt into light and certainty, – from some of the worst types of the system to an arm which, we believe, is superior to any other military breech-loader at present existing, – the time will scarcely appear to have been ill-spent.

It was a wise step, in the first instance, to insist on the conversion of the existing muzzle-loading Enfield rifles before proceeding to the selection or manufacture of a wholly new weapon. Not merely was the store of these arms considerable, but the arm itself was an accurate and far-reaching shooting machine, as good, at least, as that possessed by any other nation, if not better. The decision, moreover, indicated a perception of the true principles of the subject, which may be regarded as in advance of the general perception of the age. It implied a distinct recognition of the fact that the shooting part of a gun and its breech-loading arrangement are separate things. A gun may be accurate, or the reverse, powerful, long-ranging, and the like, without any reference whatever to its rapidity of fire. The breech arrangement is merely a means of multiplying the rate of discharge, – a contrivance, more or less ingenious, more or less perfect, for rapidly opening and closing the back end of the barrel. It is not necessarily more connected with the character of that fire than is the number of barrels which a gun possesses, – merely it enables the gun to be shot twice, three times, six times as fast. In the Enfield rifle we had a capital barrel. Could not mechanical ingenuity produce some simple, endurable arrangement for easily and swiftly opening the back end of that barrel to admit the charge and bullet, and then securely and easily closing it?

The solution of that problem, as is well known, was found in the Snider-Enfield rifle, an arm of recognized efficiency, an arm which has now outlived its many and not always disinterested detractors, and which we would not willingly exchange with any foreign military breech-loader now in use. But it is not so generally recognized, because the recognition entails a closer appreciation of the details and fundamental principle of the subject, that the success of the Snider has been due in a very large measure to, if indeed it may not be said to depend upon, the very excellent cartridge which Colonel Boxer designed for its use. Substitute for this cartridge one of inferior resisting power, one less easy to load or extract, one less reliable or efficient in any way, and the Snider becomes more or less of a failure. Compared with most other systems of breech-loading, this is one which throws a maximum of work upon the cartridge and depends most largely upon it. The cartridge is not merely the means of sealing the breech against a possible escape of gas, – that the non-consuming cartouche obturatrice must be as a first necessity of its existence, – but in the Snider the actual safety of the arm depends upon the cartridge. If the cartridge yields or if the gun does not support it properly, the block becomes blown open; and such an accident occurring in a large per-centage of cases would practically determine the failure of the system. But the cartridge has proved good enough to cover this radical defect, as we must consider it, of the Snider breech action; the explosive escapes have been comparatively few; and the system, in which expression we include breech and cartridge, has furnished, on the whole, thoroughly satisfactory results. But the store of Enfield rifles available for conversion was not unlimited, and it became necessary to look forward to the time when new arms would have to be manufactured. At once the question arose, should these arms be Snider-Enfields, or some other weapon? Clearly, it was desirable to institute experiments on this point, to discover, before resuming the manufacture, if the Snider-Enfield could be improved upon. Accordingly, a special Committee was appointed, consisting of Colonel Fletcher, Scotts’ Fusilier Guards, president; Earl Spencer, Mr. Edward Ross, Captain Rawlins (48th), and Captain Mackinnon (3rd); with Captain Haig (R.A.) as secretary. The Committee was formed early in 1867, and its first duty was to award prizes in connection with a War-Office advertisement of the 22nd October, 1866. These prizes were offered for the best arm, for the best breech action, and for the best cartridge. With this part of the inquiry we need not concern ourselves. To gunmakers and inventors, it had a certain interest; as a means to an end, – the end being the collection of a certain number of arms to select from, – it was important; as an opportunity for acquiring experience, it proved instructive. But it had no direct or immediate bearing upon the decision which has now been come to as to the future arm of the British Soldier, and may, therefore, be passed by.

We have said that the questions of accuracy and rapidity of fire are distinct; they have been so dealt with by the committee during the inquiry. The barrel and breech action were tried separately, and this separation even extends to the ultimate selection. For the choice has fallen on the barrel of one gunmaker, Mr. A. Henry, of Edinburgh, and the breech action of another, M. Martini, a Hungarian. Throughout the inquiry the Boxer cartridge-case has held its own, and it will be the service cartridge of the Martini-Henry rifle, as it has been the service cartridge of the Snider. But the bullet will be one of Mr. Henry’s designing, a hardened-lead bullet, of 480 grains’ weight, and cylindro-conoidal in form. The lubrication consists of pure beeswax, placed in the form of a disc, at the base of the bullet between two pieces of cardboard. When we add that the charge is 85 grains (hitherto of Curtis and Harvey’s powder, to be superseded, no doubt, hereafter by powder of Government make); that the bullet is enveloped in thin paper slightly smeared with wax, to prevent “leading,” and that the cartridge-case is adapted for a 45-in. bore, and is therefore longer and thinner than that of the Snider, we shall have said all that is necessary respecting, the Boxer-Henry ammunition. Returning to the arm, the barrel is 35 inches long, and is made of steel; its weight is 41b, 6oz; calibre .45in.; rifling, Mr. Henry’s, i.e., on the polygonal system, with ribs running down the inter-sections of the planes; twist 1 in 22. The Martini breech action is distinguished from most others in use by the absence of a lock and hammer. The piston is driven forward by a powerful spiral spring, which is situated within the breech block. The block is hinged behind, and by the action of a lever behind the trigger guard the fore part of the block is sufficiently depressed to admit of the cartridge being introduced. The same movement places the striker on full cock (if we may use that not very accurate expression, in default of a more convenient one), and ejects the empty cartridge-case. The arm is fitted with an indicator to show when it is at full cock, and with a safety bolt to secure it from accidental discharge. It weighs, complete, 91b. 4oz.

To follow the details of the inquiry which has resulted in the selection of this arm I would occupy more space than we could afford; it will perhaps be sufficient if we state generally of what the arm has proved capable, and what tests it has satisfied. Taking the breech mechanism, first, we find that the general course of the experiments was as follows. The arms were carefully examined, and if approved, twenty or more shots were fired for rapidity. Sand was thrown over the breech actions both open and closed, and the rifle fired without cleaning. Cartridges so damaged as to ensure a serious escape of gas, such as would have blown open the Snider block every time, were fired. Then there was the test of long-continued firing, and the exposure test. This last was peculiarly severe, the arms being exposed unprotected for a week to the effects of weather, and water being poured over them to aggravate their sufferings. During the trials, the facility of manipulation, and general simplicity, and durability of the mechanisms were observed. It is not surprising that under tests such as these arm after arm broke down. What is more noticeable is, that there were some arms, the Henry and Martini breech actions among them, which passed through the whole of the tests, severe as they were. Of these two the Martini action acquitted itself the best, and was ultimately, after a close competition, preferred by the Committee to its formidable rival. A rate of fire of 20 rounds in 48 seconds has been obtained with it. Turning to the barrel, we find that the Henry defeated all the other barrels which entered against it, including the Westley-Richards, Whitworth, Rigby, Lancaster, and the .5-in. bore, as well as the Service .577-in. bore. It was superior to these in accuracy at all the four ranges of 300, 500, 800, and 1,000 yards, giving figures of .47ft., .90ft., 1.85ft., and 2.59ft., at these distances respectively. In flatness of trajectory it was “practically equal to any of the other rifles of .45-in. calibre,” and superior to the larger bores. With the Henry bullet and the beeswax wad, the arm proved free from fouling in continued firing. Its penetrative power was remarkable: it pierced 14 1-2 half-inch elm plank, and iron plates up to .261in. thickness; rope mantlets, gabions, and sap rollers were penetrated by it, and when tried against a dead horse the Henry bullet produced the most severe fractures. The initial velocity was 1,362ft. per second (that of the Service Snider is 1,252ft.); and the Henry bullet was much less sensible to the effects of wind than any other bullets which were tried. As to durability, a Henry barrel fired over 2,000 rounds without any injury or deterioration whatever, and evidence was received that as many as 30,000 rounds have been fired without any indications of wear. What more need we add? Only this, that the new arm will cost in supply £2 18s. 9d. against £2 13s. 2d. for a new Snider-Enfield, – a difference of price which is wholly insignificant when measured beside the advantages which it promises to purchase.

It is intended, before proceeding with the manufacture of the new arms on an extended scale, to issue a few hundreds to the troops for further trial, and report as to their general serviceability. What tests the troops will be able to apply more severe or searching than those which the arms have already satisfied, we know not; and yet the precaution of eliciting the opinion of the Army on the subject before finally adopting the arm is a commendable one. It is just possible, although scarcely probable, that some defects may thus be brought to light which the Committee have not been able to discover; at any rate, some useful practical suggestions and minor modifications may result from this rougher trial, and we are happily not so desperately pressed as to be unable to afford the time which it will occupy.

But if, as there is every reason to anticipate, the performances of the arm in the hands of the troops shall confirm the opinion which its experimental performances appear to warrant, the country will possess an unequalled military breech-loader, and the Committee to whose intelligent and long-sustained labours its selection has been due, will merit an expression of warm commendation, which even at this stage it is scarcely premature to bestow.