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Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Military History

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he Revolution and the War of 1812 hinted that the rifle was the firearm of the future despite the disadvantage of slow rate of fire and cost. The new nation created two armouries, one at Springfield, Massachusetts, and another at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which produced both muskets and rifles for the Army. Harper’s Ferry produced about 15,000 Model 1803 U.S. Flintlock Rifles while private contractors manufactured the Model 1817 U.S. Flintlock Rifle, often known as “The Common Rifle”, under license from Harper’s Ferry. John Hall’s design of a breech loading flintlock rifle was adopted and produced at Harper’s Ferry as the Model 1819 Hall U.S. Breechloading Flintlock Rifle. The Hall rifle bears several distinctions: it was the first regulation breechloader manufactured in significant numbers, over 19,000 rifles being made and it was the first firearm manufactured with totally interchangeable parts.

Noted firearms historian Norm Flayderman reports that it is also the only firearm every presented in lieu of a medal or citation for gallantry. By Act of Congress fifteen were taken from the production of 1824 and prepared for presentation to schoolboys who had volunteered and, much like Horatius, bravely defended a bridge during the siege of Plattsburgh, New York in 1814. The rifles were furnished with engraved silver plaques that commemorated the event.

As the new nation moved westward, the rifle would begin to replace the smoothbore musket. Technological advances would begin to redefine long range beyond the 200-300 yard distance that seemed to be the limit of the Kentucky rifle. The first major employment of rifles by the United States was the Model 1841 U.S. Percussion Rifle. This muzzle loading 54 calibre rifle was used by Jefferson Davis’ Mounted Mississippi Rifles in the Mexican War, hence its nickname, “The Mississippi Rifle”. This rifle is historically important because it was one of the first mass produced military rifles that employed the percussion ignition system, which had been perfected by Joshua Shaw around 1825. The percussion cap was a great improvement over the venerable flintlock. The new improvement was unaffected by wet weather and provided a quicker and more certain ignition under all circumstances. This innovation brought the round ball muzzle-loading rifle to its apogee.

All that was left was to improve the bullet. The round ball had limited efficiency because its small bearing surface’s inability to fully engage the rifling. Claude Etienne Minié, a captain in the French Army, made a major innovative step in firearms technology in 1853 with the creation of the bullet that bears his name. The misnamed Minié ball is actually a conical cylinder made of soft lead with an iron cup at the base. When fired the force of the rapidly burning powder forces an iron cup against the base of the bullet expanding it against the rifling causing a tight seal. The aerodynamically shaped Minié ball had a spin imparted upon it by the rifling making the bullet more stable in flight. The Minié ball was manufactured slightly smaller than the calibre of the rifle in which it was used and, as such, made it easier to load, overcoming the most important objection to muzzle loading rifles. It was a great improvement on the patched rifle ball used by earlier rifles.

The new bullet was more accurate and capable of flying further than the traditional spherical ball it replaced. Such was the impact of the new bullet that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, ordered all Springfield muskets returned to the armories to have their barrels rifled. However, tradition dies hard in the world of firearms and, to this day, any cartridge with a solid bullet is still referred to as ball ammunition.

The definition of long range was about to be rewritten for the first time since the introduction of the Kentucky Rifle. The Minié ball ammunition consisted of a bullet wrapped in a paper pouch filled with powder. The soldier only had to tear open the base of the cartridge with his teeth to begin loading. Incidentally this brought about the first serious medical examination of infantry recruits and with it a physically disqualifying condition for a new soldier. Up to this time about the only physical requirement for a recruit was that he be breathing. Now he was required to have two fully usable opposing teeth for without teeth with which to tear open the paper cartridges he was useless for as an infantryman.

The paper cartridge was torn open and the powder charge poured down the barrel. A steel ramrod then seated the bullet and paper wrap. The last step was to place a percussion cap on the nipple of the lock and the rifle was ready to be fired. Each soldier was now armed with a rifle that was accurate to about three times the distance of previous rifles, and had a maximum range of 1,000 to 1,200 yards. An additional advantage was that the speed of reloading with paper cartridges was much faster than with ball and powder flask thereby increasing the volume of fire that might be delivered in a period of time.