The Muzzle Loading Match Rifle in Great Britain

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Written by: David Minshall

Wimbledon, 1870
A firing point at Wimbledon, 1870

During the late 1850’s there was growing apprehension as to the prospects of French invasion of Great Britain. This culminated in 1859 with the Government authorising the formation of Volunteer Rifle Corps. There was an immediate rush of Volunteering, but it was not expected to last. The formation of the National Rifle Association (NRA) late in 1859 did however put measures in place to secure the long-term prospects of the Volunteers, its aims including “the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain.” The NRA established an annual rifle meeting with matches at distances of up 1,000 yards. The NRA held their first annual national rifle meeting on Wimbledon Common, in July 1860. 

For the gun makers of the time this development created a new market in the form of discerning riflemen seeking accurate long range arms. Following principles established by Joseph Whitworth, there developed a special class of ‘small-bore’ target rifle. The majority of these rifles were around .451 calibre, and the contemporay term ‘small-bore’ used to distinguish them from the ‘large-bore’ service rifle of .577 calibre.

Whitworth military match rifle
Whitworth military match rifle

Rifles used for competition evolved, during the decade of the 1860’s, from variations of the military pattern to specialised items not suitable for military use. The early rifles outwardly appeared much the same as the service arm of issue, with full length military stocks and open sights, the bore and form of rifling being where the major differences lay. These are generally described as military match rifles (see Whitworth rifle pictured above). Towards the end of the decade of the 1860’s the small-bore rifle had evolved into a highly specialised form of target rifle. The full length stock had reduced to a half stock with ‘pistol grip’, and the ramrod was no longer attached. These features allowed more weight to be concentrated in the barrel (the overall weight limit of the rifle being restricted to 10lb for NRA competitions). Open sights had been replaced with aperture sights; foresights took interchangeable elements, and incorporated a spirit level to aid eliminating cant. Sight mountings were also included on the heel of the rifle stock to permit the use of the back position. This is the match rifle (see Rigby rifle pictured below).

Rigby match rifle
Rigby match rifle

Captain Heaton, in his 1864 ‘Notes on Rifle Shooting’ describes a number of small-bore rifles: Baker, Beasley, Bissel, Crockart, Edge, Henry, Kerr, Lancaster, Newton, Parsons, Rigby, Turner and Whitworth. These are just a few of the gunmakers connected with the history of the small-bore rifle.

By 1870 Whitworth’s deeply rifled hexagonal bore and mechanically fitting bullet, together with other makers who had followed these principles, were being supplanted by designs by Metford and Rigby, which used shallow groove rifling and hardened lead bullets. These latter rifles dominated in long range shooting for a number of years.

In the right hands the match rifles are extremely accurate. One notable achievement was made by J.K.Milner of Ireland, firing at Creedmoor in the Centennial Match of 1876. Using a Rigby muzzle loading match rifle he scored an unprecedented 15 consecutive bulls-eyes at 1000 yards.

Demise of the Muzzle Loader

In 1874 the first of a short series of international rifle matches took place at Creedmoor, USA. These matches were long range team events fired at ranges of 800, 900 and 1,000 yards and drew huge crowds of spectators and much press coverage. In the 1874 match between America and Ireland, the Americans used Remington and Sharps breech loading rifles, while the Irish used Rigby muzzle loaders. This was a close run event with the Americans winning by just 3 points. This competition marked the beginning of the end for the muzzle loading match rifle.

Dollymount, 1880

Subsequent international long range team competitions at Dollymount, Ireland, in 1875 (pictured), and Creedmoor in 1876 and 1877 were won by the Americans using their breech loading rifles. A final match fired at Dollymount in 1880 between America and Ireland was notable for the fact that for the first time both teams used breech loading rifles.

By 1878 there were calls from within the ranks of the NRA to abandon the muzzle loader in competition. Given that many muzzle loaders were still in the hands of private persons, it was however pointed out that this would destroy their value and many would not face the expense of new rifles, with resultant loss in competition entries. Finally it was resolved that muzzle loaders would still be permitted provided that competitors were ready to fire when called upon to do so. In practice there was a gradual phasing out of the muzzle loading match rifle as the breech loader gained popularity.

The Modern Day Revival

The modern revival of long range muzzle loading in the UK occurred during the 1960s when the Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain introduced long range muzzle loading into their calendar of events.