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Rifle History

Around the beginning of this millennium, the Chinese invented a mixture of chemicals loosely known as "gunpowder." Gunpowder has proven itself to be one of the most, if not the most, important invention of this millennium.

Gunpowder and the machines that employ its massive potential for energy have dominated every major military conflict since the 1600s. Guns came into being when the Europeans adopted gunpowder from the Chinese, who had primarily used it as a fuel for fireworks and very crude cannons. They bored a hole in a cylinder of metal, drilled a small hole in the closed end, poured in some gunpowder and a tight-fitting lead ball, applied some source of fire to the touchole at the end, and resulting "boom" signified the invention of the gun.

The first firearms were bulky, heavy, and slow to load. The earliest guns employed by medieval armies were nothing more than a long cylinder of metal similar to the type described above. The shooter fired the weapon by applying a slowly burning piece of rope, or match, to the touchole at the end of the firearm. There were no provisions for aiming the device, and fired projectiles were more likely to be lobbed onto opposing armies than fired directly at them. At the same, massive cannons were developed to fire large round balls great distances at besieged towns. Any monarch who could afford such monstrosities could only utilize them when besieging a city, due to the enormous weight of both cannon and projectile. However, once employed, they were the scourges of cities that had once depended on their tall, thick walls being impenetrable. As cannons became more and more powerful, no city could stand in the way of an army employing such weaponry.

In the mid-1600s, gunsmiths began to experiment with lighter and more accurate firearms for foot soldiers. The guns which dominated the English Civil War were still bulky and heavy, but were easier to load, and provisions were being made to compensate for their weight. Monopods with forks attached to one end were employed to support the guns' weight. The "matchlock" came into active service, allowing the match aforementioned to be held in a hammer which, when the trigger was pulled, would allow the glowing rope to fall into a pan of gunpowder, igniting the powder charge in the barrel. The matchlock was the first lock type to be heavily manufactured. However, the gun itself was still relatively bulky, inaccurate, and could only be fired once to twice a minute by a capable marksman.

For a short time in the waning days of the matchlock, a new, more radical lock was introduced, the wheelock. In this new lock type, a piece of iron pyrite was held by a hammer against a wheel with extremely rough edges. The wheel would then be turned by the operator using a special key. The trigger being pulled caused the wheel to rotate quickly, grating off pieces of flaming metal and throwing them into a small powder charge that would in turn ignite the main charge in the barrel. However, the wheelock was very expensive to manufacture, and the key used to crank the wheel prior to firing was easy to lose and break. The wheelock was quickly abandoned in favor of a new and more reliable lock type, the flintlock.

Invented in the late 1600s, the flintlock stands today as the lock type with the longest tenure in history. The premise was simple. When the trigger was pulled, a hammer holding a piece of flint would fall forward, striking a piece of steel, shaving off sparking shards of metal, allowing them to fall into a small powder charge which, when ignited, lit off the main powder charge in the barrel.

In the 1690s, European armies developed and fielded the socket bayonet, a long spike-shaped blade that could be fixed on the end of a musket without obstructing the bore of the weapon during loading and firing.1 This simple device allowed well-disciplined infantry to withstand norse cavalry charges without the aid of specialized weapons such as the pike. For the next 150 years, infantry units armed solely with smoothbore firearms and bayonets were the backbone of all Western armies.

The first truly famous, or perhaps infamous, gun in history was a flintlock, the "Brown Bess." The British actively employed the Brown Bess during the American War for Independence, the French and Indian War, and the War of 1812. However, Brown Besses still ended up in the hands of American militiamen in the Mexican War and even in the American Civil War! The Brown Bess still had no provision for aiming, but its weight had been reduced to around 8lbs. This allowed quick firing by most soldiers in the range of three shots per minute.

The flintlock era also gave birth to a new development in firearms, rifling. While military guns like the Brown Bess still employed the smooth barrels of their ancestors, many of the homemade American flintlocks of the same era employed rifling, or a cutting of grooves into the metal of a barrel for the sake of stabilizing a bullet in flight. The disadvantage to this new form of accurizing was that fouling, the byproducts of firing gunpowder, tended to accumulate in the grooves in the barrel, hence making it difficult to load the tight-fitting bullets of the period after five or six shots. As a result, frequent cleaning was the scourge of early rifles. However, while smoothbore rifles like the Brown Bess were only capable of accurate shots out to fifty yards, American riflemen of the era could boast to being able to drop a man at three hundred yards with relatively little difficulty. The range at which a rifleman could kill a man was the measure of skill in the Revolutionary era. American flintlocks were also some of the first to employ systems of aiming, hence the resulting high-accuracy.

In 1798 Eli Whitney contracted with the Army to make muskets using an assembly line and featuring interchangeable parts. The 1795 model Springfield Arsenal musket, the first official U.S. shoulder production, was a caliber .69, flint lock, smooth bore, muzzle loader, and the first standardized, quantity production infantry weapon. Prior to this innovation, weapons were logistically unsupportable as any repair parts had to be custom manufactured. Manufacturing tolerances had progressed to the point where parts interchangeability became a feasible option. The benefits of interchangeable parts is that a modest but generalized stock of spare parts can be accumulated to logistically support equipment. For example, if spare bolts and nuts are required, the bolts and nuts should all be of identical thread specifications and of a few sizes and lengths. Imagine the level of complexity of the spare parts bins if standardized threads were not used.

In the early 1800s, gunsmiths began to develop a new type of ignition for gunpowder firearms. In 1805, Reverend John Forsyth of Aberdeenshire, Scotland invented the percussion system of ignition, receiving a patent in April 1807. As opposed to sparks being flaked into a small powder charge, the percussion cap contains fulminate of mercury, a chemical compound which explodes when it is struck, hence the term "percussion cap." The percussion cap looked like a tiny "top hat" or cap, thus the name. The cap was made of copper, slightly conical, with a rim or flange at the open end. The interior of the percussion cap had a small quantity of fulminate of mercury and then waterproofed by coating it with shellac varnish. The cap was placed on a nipple with a hole bored through. When a hammer fell onto the cap, the cap would explode when struck with a sharp blow and sent flames into the barrel, igniting the powder charge and expelling the bullet from the gun. The percussion cap would be placed on the cone at the breech (back) end of the gun.

In 1855 the U.S. Army adopted a .58-caliber rifled musket to replace the .69-caliber smoothbore. The new infantry weapon was muzzle loaded, its rifled barrel taking a hollow-based cylindroconical bullet slightly smaller than the diameter of the bore. The loading procedure required the soldier to withdraw a paper cartridge containing powder and bullet from his cartridge box, tear open one end of the cartridge with his teeth, pour the powder into the muzzle, place the bullet in the muzzle, and ram it to the breech using a metal ramrod. The soldier then placed a copper percussion cap on a hollow cone at the breech. To fire the weapon, he cocked the hammer; when he pulled the trigger, the hammer struck the cap and ignited the powder charge in the breech. Each soldier was expected to be capable of loading and firing three aimed shots per minute. Although the maximum range of a rifled musket was sometimes over 1,000 yards, actual fields of fire were often very short, with musketry relying on volume at close range rather than accuracy at long range.

The first American military arm to be mass-produced was the 1861 Springfield Rifled Percussion Musket. The average soldier could load and accurately fire the long-arm three times per minute. The development of a conical projectile that was smaller than the gun barrel, but expanded when fired to meet the gun's rifling made the weapons easier to load, despite repeated firing without cleaning. Over one million Springfields were produced from 1861-1873.

Up to the invention of the percussion cap system, where the ignition charge was self-contained and only required a sharp strike, gunpowder pistols were direct relatives of their rifle parents. With the advent of the percussion system, Samuel Colt used the new ignition to invent the revolver in 1836. The revolver still had to be loaded from cylinder to cylinder, loading powder and ball one at a time.

In the late 1850s, gunsmiths also began to experiment with an entirely self-contained shot. Their goal was to combine powder, bullet, and ignition system into one compact package, called a cartridge. The development of this technology yielded the invention of lever-action rifles in 1860. The Henry Rifle used the lever action and the cartridge technology to allow highly accurate, powerful, rapid-firing guns. The Henry gave birth to the 1873 Winchester, "the gun that won the West." Cartridges were also adopted by many revolver makers, making them easier to reload, fire, and clean.

The end of the 1800s continued the success of the lever action rifle and the revolver, and saw the advent of "smokeless" powder. Even though it is not totally smokeless, it significantly reduced the amount of smoke and fouling produced by firing a cartridge. The new powder was also highly powerful, allowing cartridges to become more powerful than ever.

The Army, aware of the serious deficiencies revealed in the War with Spain and of the rapid technological changes taking place in the methods of warfare, also undertook to modernize its weapons and equipment. Development of high-velocity, low-trajectory, clip-loading rifles capable of delivering a high rate of sustained fire had already made obsolete the Krag-Jrgensen rifle, which the Army had adopted in 1892. In 1903 the Regular Army began equipping its units with the improved bolt-action, magazine-type Springfield rifle, which incorporated the latest changes in weapons technology.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:48:10 ZULU