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Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Associated History

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During the 1850s and 1860s the British service rifle calibre was .577, both for the muzzle-loading Enfield rifle and its breech-loading successor the Snider (a conversion of the Enfield). Early manufacture of the Enfield relied on much hand labour and consequently lead to problems of inconsistent performance, non-interchangeability of parts and slow supply. Joseph Whitworth was approached to provide assistance with regards to the design of appropriate machinery for its manufacture.

Joseph Whitworth was the foremost manufacturer of machine tools of his time. Not content with considering the machinery for the manufacture of the rifle, he determined that a more appropriate course of action would be to establish that the proposed rifle was of optimum design before considering its mass production. In Whitworth’s 1873 book, 'Guns and Steel', he writes:

“IN the year 1854, when Lord Hardinge (the then Commander-in-Chief) was endeavouring to obtain the best possible rifle with which to arm the British troops, he requested me to aid him by investigating the mechanical principles applicable in the construction of an efficient weapon. I willingly agreed to do so, subject, however, to the condition that I should have a suitable gallery, protected from changes in the wind and from fluctuations in the atmosphere, wherein to carry on the experiments which were necessary for enabling me to arrive at any sound conclusion.

“It was absolutely essential to track the path of a rifle bullet throughout its entire course, to determine whether its point preserved a true forward direction, and to record its trajectory. This could be done most readily in a closed gallery provided with screens of very light tissue paper.

“Accordingly a gallery, 500 yards in length, was erected in my grounds at Rusholme (Manchester), in the year 1855. Its height was 20 feet and width 16 feet; it was slated, and had openings on the south side only for the admission of light and for getting rid of the smoke.”

The only design criteria Whitworth had was restriction to the service charge of 70 grains with a 530 grain weight bullet. The conclusion of his experiments was that the optimum bore for the charge and weight bullet specified would be .45 cal with a 1 in 20” twist to the rifling. Figures relating to the Enfield and Whitworth rifles are shown in the table below.

  Bore dia Bullet Weight Bullet Length Rifling
Enfield (P.53) .577 530 grains 1.81 diameters of the bore 1 in 72" twist
Whitworth .45 530 grains 3 diameters of the bore 1 in 20" twist


Whitworth bulletWhitworth’s rifling was a radical departure from that used on the current service rifles, being of hexagonal form and shooting a mechanically fitting bullet (see figure at right). It should be noted that the polygonal rifling was not an original idea, having been previously considered by that great engineer, Brunel.

Despite rifle trials which resulted in Whitworth’s favour his rifle design was never adopted, and the large bore service rifle continued in use until the Snider was replaced by the .45 calibre Martini-Henry in 1871. Whitworth somewhat acrimoniously summed up the development of the rifle in his ‘Guns and Steel’:

“The superiority of the Whitworth, as compared with the Enfield rifle, was first proved in a series of trials made at Hythe, in the year 1857, under the direction of Lord Panmure, then Minister of War.

“These trials led to no satisfactory conclusion, and after a lapse of eighteen months a Committee of Officers reported to the Government in 1859 that the bore of my rifle was too small for use as a military weapon.

“Compare with this the report of another Committee of Officers made in 1862, “that the makers of every small-bore rifle, having any pretensions to special accuracy, have copied to the letter the three main elements of success adopted by Mr. Whitworth, viz., diameter of bore, degree of spiral, and large proportion of rifling surface.”

“In 1869 a Special Committee reported to the War Office that the calibre of a breech-loading rifle, should be .45 inches, as appearing to be the most suitable for a military arm. This conclusion is directly contrary to that arrived at in 1859, but is the exact bore which I recommended in 1857.”

While Whitworth may have missed out on a lucrative military contract, other events in the UK were to create a new market for his rifles.

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 issuing a circular authorising Lords Lieutenant to raise Volunteer corps. There was an immediate rush of Volunteering, but it was not expected to last. Measures to secure the long-term prospects for the Volunteers were, however, put in place late in 1859 with the formation of the National Rifle Association (NRA), its aims including “the encouragement of Volunteer Rifle Corps and the promotion of rifle shooting throughout Great Britain.”

Whitworth rifle restThe first prize meeting of the NRA was held on Wimbledon common, where it was to remain an annual event until 1890 when it moved to the new ranges at Bisley. Queen Victoria fired the inaugural shot at the first rifle meeting on 2 July 1860. A Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle placed in a mechanical rest had been aligned with a target at a distance of 400 yards. Joseph Whitworth handed a silken cord attached to the trigger to Her Majesty and the rifle was discharged by a slight pull on the cord. The adjustment was so accurate that the bullet struck the target within 1.25 inches from the centre.

The Queen further 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 1,000 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. Joseph Whitworth and a deputation of Birmingham gun makers contested the trials, with the Whitworth rifle being the clear winner. With one exception (1865 when a Rigby rifle was issued), 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.

Following the principles established by Whitworth, gun makers developed a special class of ‘small-bore’ target rifle. The majority of these rifles were around .451 calibre, and the term ‘small-bore’ was used to distinguish them from the ‘large-bore’ service rifle of .577 calibre. Captain Heaton, in his 1864 ‘Notes on Rifle Shooting’ describes a number of small-bore rifles: Baker, Beasley, Bissell, 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.

A Whitworth military match rifleA Whitworth military match rifle

Although Volunteers using the service arm of issue carried out much of the shooting, other matches permitted the use of any rifle and were open to all-comers. It was here that the small-bore rifle came to the fore. Rifles used in these competitions evolved, during the decade of the 1860’s, from variations of the military pattern to specialised items not suitable for military use.

Whitworth's military match rifle was introduced late in 1859 and this is the form used in the Queen's Prize final.

The classic form of the full match rifle was introduced by Whitworth by 1863. The full length military stock had reduced to a half stock (incorporating a ‘pistol grip’) and the ramrod was no longer attached to the rifle stock. 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 taking interchangeable elements, and incorporating a spirit level to eliminate cant.

By the mid-1860s other gunmakers had developed rifling systems to rival Whitworth's, and his dominance on the rifle range was to wane.

Whitworth match rifle A Whitworth full match rifle with associated accessories.
Rifle courtesy: Dr. Ron Dillon
Photograph by: Fred Stutzenberger

The 1865 Cambridge Cup match in Great Britain, which comprised two days shooting at 1,000 and 1,100 yards, fifteen shots at each range each day, was won by Sir Henry Halford using a Gibbs-Metford match rifle. The Times of 15 June 1865 had this to say of the rifle: “The weapon with which the prize was won, will, it is said, create some stir among those interested in small-bore and long-range shooting, being on entirely new principles.” Metford’s design utilised shallow rifling and a hardened expanding cylindrical bullet.

In the same year, 1865, the Whitworth rifle was still enjoying popularity with the top riflemen of the time. In the Elcho Shield match seven of the English team used Whitworth rifles while one, Sir Henry Halford, used a Metford. The entire Scottish Eight used Whitworth rifles. Only the Irish Eight who were competing in this event for the first time differed, using the Rigby rifle. The latter is likely to be of the form described by Captain Heaton in 1864, Rigby's extensive rebarelling program not commencing until 1866.

With the undoubted successful introduction of the Gibbs-Metford in 1865, the period to c1870 marked the demise of the Whitworth rifle. Its deeply rifled hexagonal bore and mechanically fitting bullet was to be supplanted by the Metford and later Rigby rifles, with their shallow groove rifling and hardened lead bullets. It is noteworthy that The Birmingham Daily Post of Friday, 16 July 1869, carried the following report:

“It is a subject worthy of remark that the Whitworth rifle, which carried the palm for so many years, was not used by any competitor for the Elcho Challenge Shield. The shallow grooved rifling, and hardened, expanding cylindrical bullet, manufactued by Mr. Metford, and introduced into his patent rifle in 1865, is now universally adopted, and has entirely superseded all the deep-grooved rifles with their mechanically fitting bullets. As regards the Metford rifle, it ought to be known that although Mr. Metford is the inventor of the rifle that bears his name, Mr. Gibbs, of Bristol, is the sole manufacturer of it. It is simply known as the Metford rifle, and Mr. Metford is not a manufacturer.”

Whitworth did not patent the hexagonally bored rifle, rather a complete polygonal system for barrels and projectiles and method by which it could be made. From a system lacking in uniformity and based on ‘rule of thumb’ Whitworth created a system using precision engineering that would guarantee an accurate shot and stimulated the British gun trade into a period of experimentation and development.