Rival Rifles

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Written by: David Minshall

The National Rifle Association (NRA) held their first rifle meeting in the summer of 1860. Queen Victoria offered encouragement by founding an annual prize that Volunteers competed for in two stages; the first at 300, 500 and 600 yards, and the second at 800, 900 and 1000 yards. The first stage was shot using the long Enfield, this, however, was deemed of insufficient accuracy for the second stage.

Trials were held at Hythe in May 1860 to select a suitable rifle. Mr. Whitworth and a deputation of Birmingham gun makers contested the trials, with the Whitworth rifle being the clear winner. With one exception, the Whitworth rifle continued to be issued to Queen’s Prize finalists until 1871, when for the first time the match was shot throughout with breech-loaders. The Snider replaced the Enfield in the first stage, and the War Office made a special issue of Martini-Henry’s for the second stage.

The notable exception was in 1865, when the Rigby rifle was issued to Queen’s Prize finalists. A report of its selection, which follows, was published in The Times of Monday, 29 May 1865.

MR. RIGBY’S RIFLES – In the competition last year which went on between Mr. Whitworth’s and Mr. Rigby’s rifles the Council of the National Rifle Association reserved to themselves the right of instituting further trials of both weapons, which as far as the contest went, had shot in an almost equal figure if merit. To these further trials, however, which were ordered by the Association Mr. Whitworth declined to accede, and Mr. Rigby’s rifles were accordingly chosen by the Association as the weapons with which the second stage of the Queen’s prize should be shot, instead, as here to fore, with the rifle of Mr. Whitworth. To test the weapons thus supplied by Mr. Rigby, of Dublin, a special trial has just been made by the Council of the Association at the 1,000 yards range of the Royal Factory at Enfield. A number of rifles were supplied which were examined by Lieutenant-Colonel Dixon. The bores were gauged for diameter, the lock and other parts tested, the rifle weighed, and a lead pattern of its interior, and the pitch of its rifling ascertained. All proving perfectly correct, 15 were selected for trial at the targets. In the firing no mechanical loading rod was used, nor, it is stated in the official report to the National Rifle Association, was such assistance necessary, as there was no fouling or any difficulty experienced in sending the bullet home from first to last; and the report further adds that the Council “may safely congratulate themselves upon the excellent arm which has been selected by them for the year for the 60 best shots at Wimbledon.” In all, 15 rifles were tried and 83 shots, at 1000 yards; all, of course, from a mechanical rest of Mr. Rigby’s own make. The mean total deviation of all the shots fired was as low as 1.57. In some cases it was as low as 1.11, and the greatest deviation was only 2.15. Mr. Rigby had made the acceptance of his rifle by the Council depend upon its making an average figure of merit at least equal to the figure of merit made by Mr. Whitworth’s rifles at 1,000 yards in the trials of 1862, 1863 and 1864. In 1862 Mr. Whitworth’s mean deviation was 2.35, in 1863 it was 1.77, and last year it was as low as 1.83, the mean of the three trials therefore being 1.98. As Mr. Rigby’s mean for this year is the lowest ratio of deviation that has ever been attained by any rifle at 1,000 yards, and well within the figure of merit allowed by Mr. Whitworth, it follows that up to the present Mr. Rigby gas gained the best of the contest, and produced a rifle which has as yet shot more truly than any other known in this country, at least.

The Whitworth ‘camp’ were obviously not pleased with this selection, and Mr. Leece, the Whitworth works manager, wrote to The Times to say so. His letter elicited a response from Mr. Rigby. Both letters follow.

The Times, Wednesday, 31 May 1865

To The Editor Of The Times
Sir, – A statement appeared in The Times of the 29th inst. with reference to the Whitworth and Rigby rifles which is inaccurate and highly injurious to the reputation of the former weapon, and which, therefore, I beg your permission to correct. The competition between the two rifles is described as having been almost as far as it went, and as having led, from the refusal of Mr. Whitworth to encounter a further trial, to the selection of the Rigby by the National Rifle Association for use in the second stage of the contest for the Queen’s Prize.

In connexion with these misrepresentation, details are given of the performances of the Rigby rifle, upon which is founded a claim of superiority over the Whitworth, or any other known rifle, in this country at least.

The competition which took place between the Rigby and Whitworth rifles at the last Wimbledon meeting had nothing whatever to do with the Queen’s Prize, and was strictly confined to the prize of £50 given by the Marquis of Tweeddale for the best muzzle loader fired at a range of 500 yards. In that competition I fired 400 rounds for rapidity, without cleaning out, in 1h. 43m. 13 sec., making 1,160 marks, and 40 rounds for accuracy, making 120 marks. Mr. Rigby took 2h. 37m. 34 sec., for the 400 rounds for rapidity, making only 1,075 marks, and his 40 rounds for accuracy made gave 108 marks. It thus appears that, so far from being almost equal in the contest, I had beaten the Rigby in time and 85 marks for the 400 rounds, and by 12 marks for accuracy.

It is true that the Council of the National Rifle Association had reserved the right of instituting a further trial, which after a delay of several weeks, they expressed their wish to have; but after so marked a difference in time and accuracy, Mr. Whitworth did not feel disposed to renew the competition a determination which was there upon made the ground for handing over the Marquis of Tweeeddale’s prize to the beaten weapon.

In the rifle to be used for the second stage of shooting for the Queen’s Prize an annual competition takes place at Woolwich in November. At that competition on the last occasion the Whitworth rifle was not entered. It is unnecessary to trouble you with the reasons for this, but the Council of the National Rifle Association are well aware that they had nothing whatever to do with any fear of rivalry by the gunmakers who, Mr. Rigby included, have approached Mr. Whitworth’s accuracy of shooting, just as they have been more or less careful to copy the form and turn of rifling and finish of workmanship by which that accuracy has been secured.

At the last November competition the Whitworth rifle not being entered, the Rigby, which is a close imitation of it, and had complied with the rules of the Association, was allowed to walk over the course without any opposition. Mr. Rigby, however, did shoot three of his rifles at 1,000 yards, 30 rounds each, and they gave a mean figure of merit 3.04 ft., which is inferior by 1.06 ft. to the average obtained by the Whitworth rifle for the three preceding years.

Mr. Rigby has recently had his rifle tested at Enfield, and according to the statement you have published, 83 rounds have been fired from the 15 rifles. This, if correct, would give a mean of 5.53 shots for each rifle – a number in my opinion, not sufficient to give a fair overage estimate of the shooting qualities of any weapon. I have frequently made diagrams of 20 shots at 1,000 yards for the Whitworth giving a figure of merit of 1.0 ft., and in one instance of 0.875 ft., the weather being particularly favorable. I beg further to remark that target practice obtained at this season of the year with the Rigby cannot be fairly compared with that obtained in November or February with the Whitworth or any other similar rifle.

I have the honour to be, &c,
Manchester, May 30

The Times, Tuesday, 13 June 1865

To The Editor Of The Times
Sir, – Under the above heading a letter appeared in The Times of the 31st ult. From Mr. Leece, on behalf of the Whitworth Rifle Company.

Being absent from home I did not see the letter until lately, or I would have at once asked your permission to correct certain statements which it contains.

Referring to the first topic, the award to me by the Council of the National Rifle Association of the Marquis of Tweeddale’s prize for military muzzle-loaders, it is not necessary that I should defend the Council against the reclamations of a defected competitor. The grounds for that decision have been published, and your readers will find them in the Report of the Association for 1864. So far from Mr. Whitworth refusing to compete in the second trial ordered by the Council, the date of it was altered to suit his wishes, and it was not until the day fixed on that he withdrew.

In the next paragraph of his letter Mr. Leece propounds in a rather involved sentence, the doctrine of the finality of the Whitworth rifle and the vanity of all attempts to improve on iy. I should be sorry to see Mr. Leece abandon his belief, and only dain tolerance for my own heretical opinions. I have always been ready to admit that to Mr. Whitworth’s labours and great talents is chiefly due the extraordinary progress which has been chiefly due the extraordinary progress which has been made of late years in long range rifles; but all art is progressive, and rifle-making obeys the rule.

Mr. Leece in his next sentence states that my own rifle is a close imitation of the Whitworth. My old one was also claimed as an imitation, and yet the two are totally dissimilar.

Almost all rifles are formed by cutting grooves of various number and shape in a cylindrical barrel. In Mr. Whitworth’s those grooves assume the form of a hexagon.

The system I have adopted, so far from being an imitation of Mr. Whitworth’s is to form raised spiral ridges on the interior surface of the barrel, and to make corresponding indentations or grooving in the bullet.

A further distinction between the two rifles is that mine does not require the use of a mechanical cleaning rod or any similar contrivance, to obviate fouling.

The first rifles ever made on this system were experimental ones by my father in 1846.

The difficulty of producing this particular form with the tools then in use prevented its general adoption, and has only recently been overcome by improved machinery.

In his next paragraph, Mr. Leece has taken up a slight error in your notice of Colonel Dixon’s report on the trial of my rifles at Enfield, and in place of correcting it, as in fairness he should have done, has attempted to use it for the purpose of invalidating that trial. He says that by your statement it would appear that only five or six shots were fired from each rifle and argues that such a trial is of no value, whereas he well knows that these were but the trial shots fired immediately before and in addition to 20 shots from each rifle, and that the whole number fired for the purpose of obtaining the figure of merit was 300, and not 83. In Mr. Leece’s last remark I fully concur – namely that trials of rifles made at different times are inconclusive for purposes of comparison. I hope that at the next November competition the opportunity for a really comparative trail may be embraced by the company he represents.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant.
Gun Manufactury, Dublin, June 9

Humphry and Freemantle in their ‘History of the National Rifle Association’ observed for the year 1865; “The Silver Medal for the first stage of the Queen’s was won by Pte. E. Ross, London Scotttish, with 47. The second stage was shot with Rigby match rifles. As these were fitted with coarse sights like those of the Enfield rifle, the scoring was thought likely to be lower than in 1864. In the event the average rose from 43.27 to 48.91, and the score of the winner, Pte. Sharman, 4th West York, was 64, four points better than Mr. Wyatt’s score in 1864.”

In November 1865 the competitive trial of small-bore rifles for use in the next years final took place at Woolwich. Unfortunately for Mr. Rigby he was disqualified on a technicality. The Birmingham Small-Arms Company, proprietors of the Whitworth rifle, beat the only other competitor, Mr. Henry, by a small margin. This was the last year that gun makers’ trials were held, so Mr. Rigby never got his “opportunity for a really comparative trail” after all.