WHEN, nearly fifty years ago, England was taught one of the bloodiest lessons her history has to record, before the cotton-bale breastworks of New Orleans, a lesson, too, which was only the demonstration of a proposition laid down more than a hundred years ago by one of her own philosophers,2 who would have believed that she, aiming to be the first military power in the world, would have left the first advantage of that lesson to be gained by her rival, France?
When the troops that had defeated Napoleon stopped, baffled, before a breastwork defended by raw militiamen; when, finding that the heads of their columns melted away like wax in fire as they approached the blaze of those hunters’ rifles, they finally recoiled, terribly defeated,—saved from total destruction, perhaps, only by the fact that their enemy had not enough of a military organization to enable them to pursue effectively; when, in brief, a battle with men who never before had seen a skirmish of regular troops was turned into a slaughter almost unparalleled for disproportioned losses in the history of civilized warfare, the English loss being about twelve hundred, the American some fifteen all told; one would have thought that such a demonstration of the power of the rifle would have brought Robins’s words to the memory of England,—“will perhaps fall but little short of the wonderful effects which histories relate to have been formerly produced by the first inventors of fire-arms.” What more astonishing disparity of military power does the history of fire-arms record? twelve hundred to fifteen! But this lesson, so terrible and so utterly ignored by English pride, was simply that of the value of the rifle intelligently used.
They tell a story which makes a capital foot-note to the history of the battle:— that General Jackson, having invited some of the English officers to dine with him, had on the table a robin-pie which he informed the guests contained twelve robins whose heads had all been shot off by one of his marksmen, who, in shooting the twelve, used but thirteen balls. The result of the battle must be mainly attributed to the deadly marksmanship of the hunters who composed the American forces; but the same men armed with muskets would not only not have shown the same accuracy in firing, but they would not have felt the moral force which a complete reliance on their weapons gave,—a certainty that they held the life of any antagonist in their hands, as soon as enough of him appeared to “draw a bead on.” Put the same men in the open field where a charge of bayonets was to be met, and they would doubtless have broken and fled without crossing steel. Nor, on the other hand, could any musketry have kept the English columns out of the cotton-bale breastwork;—they had often in the Peninsula stormed stronger works than that, without faltering for artillery, musketry, or bayonet. But here they were literally unable to reach the works; the fatal rifle-bullet drew a line at which bravery and cowardice, nonchalant veterans and trembling boys, were equalized in the dust.
Rifle-Practice. By Lieut.-Col. John Jacob, C. B., of the Bombay Artillery. London: Smith, Elder, & Co. 1857.
The Rifle; and how to use it. Comprising a Description of that Admirable Weapon, etc., etc. By Hans Busk, M.A. First Lieut. Victoria Rifles. London: J. Routledge & Co. 1858.
Report of the U. S. Commission on Rifles. 1856.
We remember once to have met an old hunter who was one of the volunteers at Plattsburg, (another rifle battle, fought by militiamen mainly,) a man who never spoiled his furs by shooting his game in the body, and who carried into the battle his hunting-rifle. Being much questioned as to his share in the day’s deeds, he told us that he, with a body of men, all volunteers, and mainly hunters like himself, was stationed at a ford on the Saranac, where a British column attempted to cross. Their captain ordered no one to fire until the enemy were half-way across; “and then,” said he, “none of ’em ever got across, and not many of them that got into the water got out again. They found out it wa’n’t of any kind of use to try to get across there, and after a while they give it up and went farther down the river; and by-and-by an officer come and told us to go to the other ford, and we went there, and so they didn’t get across there either.” We were desirous of getting the estimate of an expert as to the effect of such firing, and asked him directly how many men he had killed. “I don’t know,” said he, modestly; “I ruther guess I killed one fellow, certain; but how many more I can’t say. I was going down to the river with another volunteer to get some water, and I heerd a shot right across the river, and I peeked out of the bushes, and see a red-coat sticking his head out of the bushes on the other side, and looking down the river, as if he’d been firing at somebody on our side, and pretty soon he stuck his head out agin, and took aim at something in that way; and I thought, of course, it must be some of our folks. I couldn’t stand that, so I just drawed up and fired at him. He dropped his gun, and pitched head-first into the water. I guess I hit him amongst the waistcoat-buttons; but then, you know, if I hadn’t shot him, he might have killed somebody on our side.” We put the question in another form, asking how many shots he fired that day. “About sixteen, I guess, or maybe twenty.” “And how far off were the enemy?” “Well, I should think about twenty rod.” We suggested that he did not waste many of his bullets; to which he replied, that “he didn’t often miss a deer at that distance.”
But these were the exploits of fifty years ago; the weapon, the old heavymetalled, long-barrelled “Kentucky” rifle; and the missile, the old round bullet, sent home with a linen patch. It is a form of the rifled gun not got up by any board of ordnance or theoretic engineers, but which, as is generally the case with excellent tools, was the result of the trials and experience of a race of practical men, something which had grown up to supply the needs of hunters; and with the improvements which greater mechanical perfection in gun-making has effected, it stands at this day the king of weapons, unapproached for accuracy by the work of any nation beside our own, very little surpassed in its range by any of the newly invented modifications of the rifle. The Kentucky3 rifle is to American mechanism what the chronometer is to English, a speciality in which rivalry by any other nation is at this moment out of the question. An English board of ordnance may make a series of experiments, and in a year or two contrive an Enfield rifle, which, to men who know of nothing better, is wonderful; but here we have the result of experiments of nearly a hundred years, by generations whose daily subsistence depended on the accuracy and excellence of their rifles, and who all experimented on the value of an inch in the length of the barrel, an ounce in its weight, or a grain in the weight of the ball. They tried all methods of creasing, all variations of the spiral of the groove; every town had its gunsmith, who experimented in almost every gun he made, and who was generally one of the best shots and hunters in the neighborhood; and often the hunter, despairing of getting a gun to suit him in any other way, went to work himself, and wrought out a clumsy, but unerring gun, in which, perhaps, was the germ of some of the latest improvements in scientific gunnery. The different gun-makers had shooting-matches, at which the excellence of the work of each was put to the severest tests, and by which their reputations were established. The result is a rifle, compared with which, as manufactured by a dozen rifle-makers in the United States, the Minié, the Enfield, the Lancaster, or even the Sharpe’s, and more recent breech-loaders, are bungling muskets. The last adopted form of missile, the sugar-loaf-shaped, of which the Minié, Enfield, Colonel Jacob’s, and all the conical forms are partial adaptations, has been, to our personal knowledge, in use among our riflemen more than twenty years. In one of our earliest visits to that most fascinating of ateliers to most American youth, a gunsmith’s shop, a collection of “slugs” was shown to us, in which the varieties of forms, ovate, conical, elliptical, and all nameless forms in which the length is greater than the diameter, had been exhausted in the effort to find that shape which would range farthest; and the shape (very nearly) which Colonel (late General) Jacob alludes to, writing in 1854, in these terms, “This shape, after hundreds of thousands of experiments, proves to be quite perfect,” had been adopted by this unorganized ordnanceboard, composed of hundreds of gunmakers, stimulated by the most powerful incentives to exertion. The experiments by which they arrived at their conclusion not only anticipated by years the trials of the European experimenters, but far surpass, in laboriousness and nicety, all the experiments of Hythe, Vincennes, and Jacobabad. The resulting curve, which the longitudinal section of the perfect “slug” shows, is as subtile and incapable of modification, without loss, as that of the boomerang; no hair’s thickness could be taken away or added without injury to its range. Such a weapon and such a missile, in their perfection, could never have come into existence except in answer to the demand of a nation of hunters to whom a shade of greater accuracy is the means of subsistence. No man who is not a first-rate shot can judge justly of the value of a rifle; and one of our backwoodsmen would never use any rifle but the Kentucky of American manufacture, if it were given him. An Adirondack hunter would not thank the best English rifle-maker for one of his guns any more warmly than a sea-captain in want of a chronometer would thank his owners for a Swiss lepine watch.
The gun which we thus eulogize we shall describe, and compare the results which its use shows with those shown by the other known varieties of rifle, and this without any consideration of the powers of American marksmen as compared with European. The world is full of fables of shooting-exploits as absurd as those told of Robin Hood. Cooper tells of Leatherstocking’s driving the nail with unfailing aim at a hundred paces,—a degree of skill no man out of romance has ever been reported to possess amongst riflemen. We have seen the best marksmen the continent holds attempt to drive the nail at fifty yards, and take fifty balls to drive one nail. A story is current of a French rifleman shooting an Arab chief a mile distant, which, if true, was only a chance shot; for no human vision will serve the truest rifle ever made and the steadiest nerves ever strung to perform such a feat with any certainty. Lieutenant Busk informs us that Captain Minié “will undertake to hit a man at a distance of 1420 yards three times out of five shots,”—a feat Captain Minié or any other man will “undertake” many times before accomplishing, for the simple reason, that, supposing the rifle perfect, at that distance a man is too small a mark to be found in the sights of a rifle, except by the aid of the telescope.* We could fill a page with marvellous shots quos vidi et quorum pars, etc. We have seen a bird no larger than a halfgrown chicken killed off-hand at eighty rods (nearly fourteen hundred feet); have known a deer to be killed at a good half mile; have shot off the skullcap of a duck at thirty rods; at twenty rods have shot a loon through the head, putting the ball in at one eye and out at the other, without breaking the skin;— but such shooting, ordinarily, is a physical impossibility, as any experienced rifleman knows. These were chance shots, or so nearly so that they could not be repeated in a hundred shots. The impossibility lies in the marksman and in human vision.
In comparing the effects of rifles, then, we shall suppose them, as in government trials and long-range shooting-matches, to be fired from a “dead rest,”—the only way in which the absolute power of a rifle can be shown. First, for the gun itself. There are two laws of gunnery which must be kept in sight in comparing the results of such trials:—1st, that the shape and material of two missiles being the same, the heavier will range the farther, because in proportion to its momentum it meets less resistance from the atmosphere; 2d, that the less the recoil of the gun, the greater will be the initial velocity of the ball, since the motion lost in recoil is taken from the velocity of the ball. Of course, then, the larger the bore of the rifle, the greater will be its range, supposing always the best form of missile and a proportionate weight of gun. As the result of these two laws, we see that of two guns throwing the same weight and description of missile, the heavier will throw its missile the farther; while of two guns of the same weight, that one which throws the smaller missile will give it the greater initial velocity,—supposing the gun free to recoil, as it must, fired from the shoulder. But the smaller ball will yield the sooner to the resistance of the atmosphere, owing to its greater proportional surface presented. Suppose, then, two balls of different weights to be fired from guns of the same weight;—the smaller ball will start with the higher rate of speed, but will finally be overtaken and passed by the larger ball; and the great problem of rifle-gauge is to ascertain that relation of weight of gun to weight of projectile which will give the greatest velocity at the longest range at which the object fired at can be seen distinctly enough to give a reasonable chance of hitting it. This problem the maker of the Kentucky rifle solves, by accepting, as a starting-point, the greatest weight of gun which a man may reasonably be expected to carry,—say, ten to twelve pounds,—and giving to that weight the heaviest ball it will throw, without serious recoil,—for no matter what the proportion, there will be some recoil. This proportion of the weight of gun to that of projectile, as found by experience, is about five hundred to one; so that if a gun weigh ten pounds, the ball should weigh about 10/500 of a pound. Of course, none of these gun-makers have ever made a mathematical formula expressing this relation; but hundreds of thousands of shots have pretty well determined it to be the most effective for all hunting needs (and the best hunting-rifles are the best for a rifle-corps, acting as sharp-shooters). By putting this weight of ball into a conical form of good proportions, the calibre of the gun may be made about ninety gauge, which, for a range of four hundred yards, cannot be excelled in accuracy with that weight of gun.
But in a rifle the grooving is of the utmost importance; for velocity without accuracy is useless. To determine the best kind of groove has been, accordingly, the object of the most laborious investigations. The ball requires an initial rotary motion sufficient to keep it “spinning” up to its required range, and is found to gain in accuracy by increasing this rotatory speed; but if the pitch of the grooves be too great, the ball will refuse to follow them; but, being driven across them, “strips,”—that is, the lead in the grooves is torn off, and the ball goes out without rotation. The English gunsmiths have avoided the dilemma by giving the requisite pitch and making the grooves very deep, and even by having wings cast on the ball to keep it in the grooves,—expedients which increase the friction in the barrel and the resistance of the air enormously.
The American gun-makers have solved the problem by adopting the “gaining twist,” in which the grooves start from the breech nearly parallel to the axis of the barrel, and gradually increase the spiral, until, at the muzzle, it has the pitch of one revolution in three to four; the pitch being greater as the bore is less. This gives, as a result, safety from stripping, and a rapid revolution at the exit, with comparatively little friction and shallow groove-marks on the ball, —accomplishing what is demanded of a rifled barrel, to a degree that no other combination of groove and form of missile ever has.
English makers have experimented somewhat on the rifling of barrels, but with no results which compare with those shown by the improved Kentucky. English hunting-rifles, and all military rifles, are made with complete disregard of the law of relation between the weights of ball and barrel. The former seems to be determined by dividing the weight of ammunition a soldier may carry in his cartridge-box by the number of charges he is required to have, and then the gun is made as light as will stand the test of firing,—blunders all the way through; for we never want a rifleball to range much farther than it is possible to hit a single man with it; and a missile of the proper shape from a barrel of sixty gauge will kill a man at a mile’s distance, if it strike a vital part. The consequence is, that the rifles are so light in proportion to their load that the recoil seriously diminishes the force of the ball, and entirely prevents accuracy of aim; and at the same time their elastic metal springs so much under the pressure of the gas generated by the explosion of the powder that anything like exactitude becomes impossible.4 This the English gunsmiths do not seem to have learned, since their best authorities recommend a gun of sixty-four gauge to have a barrel of four pounds weight, and that is considered heavy,—while ours, of sixty gauge, would weigh at least twice that. To get the best possible shooting, we find not only weight of barrel requisite, but a thickness of the metal nearly or quite equal to the diameter of the bore.
Mr. Whitworth, of Manchester, revived the old polygonal bore, and, by a far more perfect boring of barrel than was ever before attained in England, has succeeded in doing some very accurate shooting; but the pitch of his grooves requisite to give sufficient rotation to his polygonal missile to enable it to rotate to the end of its flight is so great, that the friction and recoil are enormous, and the liability to burst very great. Mr. Whitworth’s missile is a twisted prism, corresponding to the bore, of two and a half diameters, with a cone at the front of one half the diameter. Such a gun, in a firing-machine, with powder enough to overcome all the friction, and heavy enough to counteract torsion and springing, would give very great accuracy, if perfectly made, or as well made as American rifles generally; but no maker in England, not even Mr. Whitworth, has attained that point yet; and even so made, they would never be available as serviceor hunting-guns.
The Lancaster rifle avoids grooves (nominally) altogether, and substitutes an elliptical bore, twisted to Mr. Whitworth’s pitch (twenty inches). General Jacob says, very justly, of this gun: “The mode of rifling is the very worst possible. It is only the two-grooved rifle in disguise. Let the shoulders of the grooves of a twogrooved rifle be removed, and you have the Lancaster rifle. But by the removal of these shoulders, the friction, if the twist be considerable, becomes enormous.” To compare this twist with the rifled bore, one has only to take a lead tube, made slightly elliptical in its cross-section, and, fitting a plug to its ellipse, turn the plug round, and he will see that the result is to enlarge the whole bore to the longest, diameter of the ellipse, which, if it were a gun-barrel, unelastic, would be equivalent to bursting it. But this is exactly the action which the ball has on the barrel, so that, to use General Jacob’s words, “the heat developed by the friction must be very great, and the tendency of the gun to burst also very great.” Lieutenant Busk—who seems, if we may judge from the internal evidence of his book, to know little or nothing of good rifles or rifle-practice, and to have no greater qualification for writing the book than the reading of what has been written on the subject and an acquaintance of great extent with gunsmiths—remarks, in reply to the veteran of English riflemen: “Having given the matter the very closest attention, I am enabled confidently to state that the whole of this supposition [quoted above] is founded in error...... So far from the friction being enormous, it is less than that generated in any other kind of rifle. It is also utterly impossible for the bullet to act destructively on the barrel in the way suggested.” Such cool assurance, in an unsupported contradiction of experience and the dictates of the simplest mechanical common-sense, would seem to promise little real value in the book, and promises no less than it really has.
The same objection which lies against the Lancaster rifle (?) applies to the Whitworth in a less degree. If the reader, having tried the lead-pipe experiment above, will next hammer the tube hexagonal and try the plug again, he will find the same result; but if he will try it with a round bore grooved, and with a plug fitting the grooves, he will see that the pressure is against the wall of the groove, and acts at right angles to the radius of the bore, having only a tendency to twist the barrel in order to straighten the grooves,—a tendency which the barrel meets in the direction of its greatest stability. We may see, then, that, in theory at least, there is no way of rifling so secure as that in which the walls of the grooves are parts of radii of the bore. They should be numerous, that the hold of the lands (the projection left between the grooves) may divide the friction and resistance as much as possible, and so permit the grooves to be as shallow as may be. The figure represents, on one side of the dotted line, three grooves, 1, 1, 1, cut in this way, exaggerated to show more clearly their character. In the Kentucky rifle this law is followed, except that, for convenience in cutting, the grooves are made of the same width at, the bottom and top, as shown at 2, 2, 2, which is, for grooves of the depth of which they are made, practically the same, as the dotted circle will show. Our gun-makers use from six to ten grooves.
To sum up our conditions,—the model rifle will conform to the following description:—Its weight will be from ten to twelve pounds; the length of barrel not less than thirty inches,* and of calibre from ninety to sixty gauge; six to ten freed grooves, about .005 inch deep, angular at bottom and top, with the lands of the same width as the grooves; twist increasing from six feet to three feet; barrel, of east steel,† fitted to the stock with a patent breech, with back action set lock, and open or hunting and globe and peek sights. Mr. Chapman, whose book is the most interesting and intelligent, by far, of all hitherto published, recommends a straighter stock than those generally used by American hunters. Here we differ;—the Swiss stock, crooking, on an average, two inches more than ours, is preferable for quick shooting, though in a light rifle much crook in the stock will throw the muzzle up by the recoil. With such a gun,—the best for hunting that the ingenuity and skill of man have ever yet contrived and made,—one may depend on his shot, if he have skill, as he cannot on the Minié, Enfield, or Lancaster; and whether he be in the field against a foe, or in the forest against the deer, he holds the life of man or deer in his power at the range of rifle-sighting.
Of all the variations of the rifle, for the sake of obtaining force of penetration, nothing yet compares with the Accelerating Rifle, invented some years since by a New York mechanic. In this the ball was started by an ordinary charge, and at a certain distance down the barrel received a new charge, by a side chamber, which produced an almost incredible effect. An ellipsoidal missile of ninety gauge and several diameters long, made of brass, was driven through thirty-six inches of oak and twenty-four inches of green spruce timber, or fifty inches of the most impenetrable of timbers. The same principle of acceleration has, it is said, been most successfully applied in Boston by the use of a hollow tige or tube fixed at the bottom of the bore with the inside of which the cap-fire communicates,—so that, when the gun is charged, part of the powder falls into the tige, and the remainder into the barrel outside of it. The ball being driven down until it rests on the top of the tige, receives its first impulse from the small charge contained in it,—after which, the fire, flashing back, communicates to the powder outside the tige, producing an enormous accelerating effect. But it is doubtful if the gun can be brought into actual service, from being so difficult to clean.
It is questionable if any greater range in rifles will be found desirable. With a good Kentucky rifle, we are even now obliged to use telescope sights to avail ourselves of its full range and accuracy of fire. The accelerating inventions may be made use of in artillery, for throwing shells, and for siege trains, but promise nothing for small arms.
Then, as the secondary point, comes the form of projectile, that in which the greatest weight (and thence momentum) combines with least resistance from the atmosphere. In the pursuit of this result every experimenter since the fifteenth century has worked. Lautmann, writing in 1729, recommends an elliptical missile, hollow behind, from a notion that the hollow gathered the explosive force. Robins recommends elongated balls; and they were used in many varieties of form. Theory would assign, as the shape of highest rapidity, one like that which would be made by the revolution of the waterline section of a fast ship on its longitudinal axis; and supposing the force to have been applied, this would doubtless be capable of the greatest speed; but the rifle-missile must first be fitted to receive the action of the powder in the most effective way. An ellipsoid cone would leave the air behind it most smoothly, but it would not receive the pressure of the gas in a line with its direction of motion; and so of the hollow butt; the gas, acting and reacting in every way perpendicularly to the surface it acts on, wastes its force in straining outwardly. The perfectly flat butt would take as much forward impetus at the edge of the conebase, where the soft lead would yield slightly. And so we find the best form to be a base which receives the force of the powder in such a way that the resultant of the forces acting on each point in the base would be coincident with the axis of the missile. And this, in practice, was the shape which the American experiments gave to the butt of the ball, the condition in which it left the air being found of minor importance, compared with its capacity of receiving the force of the powder. The point of the cone was found objectionable in practice, and was gradually brought to the curve of the now universally used sugarloaf missile or flat-ended picket shown in fig. 1.
* There is much difference of opinion amongst gun-makers as to the length of barrel most desirable. We believe in a long barrel, for the following reasons: 1st, a longer distance between sights is given, and the back sight can be put further from the eye, so that finer sighting is possible; 2d, a long barrel is steadier in off-hand shooting; 3d, it permits a slower powder to be used, so that the ball starts more slowly and yet allows the full strength of the powder to be used before it leaves the barrel, getting a high initial velocity with little recoil, and without “upsetting” the ball, as we shall explain farther on. The experiments of the United States government show that the increasing of the length of the barrel from thirty-three to forty inches (we speak from memory as to numbers) increased the initial velocity fifty feet per second; but this will, in long ranges, be no advantage, except with such a shape of missile as will maintain a high speed.
† Hunters still dispute as to iron or steel; and we have used iron barrels made by Amsden, of Saratoga Springs, which for accuracy and wear were unexceptionable; though gunsmiths generally take less pains with iron than steel barrels. But give us steel.
This picket has but a single point of bearing, and is driven down with a greased linen patch, filling up the grooves entirely, and preventing “leading” of the barrel, as well as keeping the picket firm in the barrel. This is of vital importance; for no breech-loading or loose-loading and expanding ball can ever fly so truly as a solid ball whose position in the barrel is accurately fixed. A longitudinal missile must rotate with its axis coincident with its line of flight as it leaves the barrel, or else every rotation will throw the point into wider circles, until finally it becomes more eccentric than a round ball. It is a mistaken notion that a conical missile is more accurate in flight than a round; on the contrary, hunters always prefer the ball for short shots,—and a “slug,” as the longer missile is called by them, is well known to err more than a ball, if put down untruly.
The improved Minié ball (fig. 2) was intended to obviate the danger of the missile’s turning in flight, by hollowing the butt, and so putting the centre of gravity in front of the centre of resistance, so that it flies like a heavy-headed arrow, while at the same time the powder expands the hollow butt and fills the grooves, securing perfect rotation with easy loading. But the hollow in the ball diminishes the gravity and momentum; the liability of the lead to expand unequally, and so throw the point of the missile out of line, makes a long bearing necessary, producing enormous friction. This objection obtains equally with all pickets having expanding butts, and is a sufficient reason for their inferior accuracy to that of solid pickets fitted to the grooves at the muzzle with a patch. General Jacob says,—“I have tried every expedient I could think of as a substitute for the greased patch for rifle-balls, but had always to return to this”; and every experienced rifleman will agree with him. Yet both English and American (governmental) experiments ignore the fact, that the expansible bullets increase friction enormously; and the Enfield bullet (fig. 3) is as badly contrived as possible, being roundpointed, expansible, and with very long bearings, without the bands which in the French and American bullets reduce the friction somewhat. The Harper’s Ferry bullet (fig. 4) is better than either the English or the French, and is as good as a loose-loading bullet can be.
Besides all the objections we have urged against the bullet with long bearings, another still remains of a serious nature. No missile that has two points of bearing can be used with the gaining twist, as the change in the direction of the ridges on the shot formed by the grooves will necessarily tend to change the position of the axis of the shot; and the gaining twist is the greatest improvement made since grooving was successfully applied;—to reject it is to reject something indispensable to the best performance of the rifle. The flat-ended picket complies with all the requisites laid down; and we will venture to say, that, if any government will give it a thorough trial, side by side with any loose-loading bullet, it will be found preferable to any other bullet, despite the disadvantage of slow loading from using a patch and a tight-fitting ball.
To make the statement conclusive, we give the results of the United States experiments, and a statement of the European as compared with the United States firing, and then the results of Kentucky rifle-firing. With the new trial-rifle at Harper’s Ferry, (a target 1 X 216 feet being put up at two hundred yards,) with the American ball, (fig. 4.) the best string of twenty-five shots averaged 3.2 inches vertical deviation, 2.4 in. horizontal deviation. At five hundred yards, the best string of twenty-five shots averaged 10.8 inches vertical deviation, 14 in. horizontal deviation. At one thousand yards, 26.4 vertical deviation, 16.8 horizontal deviation. In another trial with the new musket-rifle, the mean deviation at two hundred yards was 4.4 vertical, 3.4 horizontal.
In a comparison of the power of French, English, and American rifles, it was found that at two hundred yards the American gun averaged 4.8 vertical and 4.5 horizontal deviation. The Enfield rifle gave 7 in. vertical, 11.3 horizontal; the French rifle à tige, 8 vertical, 7.6 horizontal. A Swiss rifle, at the same distance, gave 5.3 vertical and 4.3 horizontal deviation.
At five hundred yards, the following was the result:—
American gun, 13 in. vert. dev. 11.5 hor. dev.
Enfield, “ 20.4 “ 19.2 “
Rifle à tige, 18.5 “ 17.1 “
At one thousand yards,—
American gun, 31.5 in. vert. dev. 20.1 hor. dev.
Enfield, “ 42 “ 52.8 “
Rifle à tige(874 yds.),47.2 “ 37.4 “
The only detailed reports of General Jacob’s practice are at one thousand yards or over, at which his shell averaged 31.2 in. horizontal deviation, 55.2 in. vertical; not far from the range of the Enfield. His bullet is fig. 5.
But long ranges test less fairly the accuracy of a rifle than short ones, because in long flights they are more subject to drift of the wind, etc. We shall compare the government reports of shooting at two hundred yards with that of the Kentucky rifle at two hundred and twenty, the usual trying distance. At that distance, the American gun gave
4.8 in. vert. dev. and 4.5 hor. dev.
Enfield, 7 “ 11.3 “
French à tige, 8 “ 7.6 “
Swiss, 5.3 “ 4.3 “
Kentucky, (according to Mr. Chapman,) 1.06 absolute deviation.
At 500 yards, the comparison stands,—
American, (government,) 13 in. vertical deviation, 11.5 in. horizontal. (About 17 in. absolute.)
Kentucky, (550 yards,) 11 in. absolute deviation.
We give cuts of two targets, of which we have duplicates in our possession, made by rifles manufactured by Morgan James, of Utica, New York, that the reader may appreciate the marvellous accuracy of this weapon; the first was made by a rifle of 60 gauge, twenty-five shots being fired, the average deviation being 1.4 in.; the second by a 90 gauge, the average being .8 in.; both at two hundred and twenty yards, and better than Mr. Chapman’s report. In the northern part of the State of New York, the practice at shootingmatches is, at turkeys at one hundred rods, (five hundred and fifty yards,) and a good marksman is expected to kill one turkey, on an average, in three shots,— and this with a bullet weighing from two hundred and forty to one hundred and sixty grains, while the army bullet weighs five hundred and fifty-seven. The easily fatal range of the bullet of two hundred and forty grains is a thousand yards; and farther than that, no bullet can be relied on as against single men.
In breech-loading guns, much must be sacrificed, in point of accuracy, to mere facility of loading; and here there seems room for doubt whether a breech-loader offers any advantage compensating for its complication of mechanism and the danger of its being disabled by accident in hurried loading. No breech-loading gun is so trustworthy in its execution as a muzzle-loader; for, in spite of all precautions, the bullets will go out irregularly. We have cut out too many balls of Sharpe’s rifle from the target, which had entered sidewise, not to be certain on this point; and we know of no other breechloader so little likely to err in this respect, when the ball is crowded down into the grooves, and the powder poured on the ball,—as we always use it. The government reports on breech-loaders are adverse to their adoption, mainly because they are so likely to get out of working order and to get clogged. We have used one of Sharpe’s two years in hunting, and found it, with a round ball at short shots, perfectly reliable; while with the belted picket perhaps one shot in five or six would wander. Used with the cartridge, they are much less reliable. They may be apt to clog, but we have used one through a day’s hunting, and found the oil on the slide at night; and we are inclined to believe, that, when fitted with gas rings, they will not clog, if used with good powder. The Maynard rifle is perfectly unexceptionable in this respect, and an excellent gun, in its way. The powder does not flash out any more than in a muzzle-loader. Of the other kinds of breech-loaders we can say nothing from experience, and should scarcely recommend using one for a hunting-gun. One who has used a rifle of James, of Lewis (of Troy, New York), Amsden of Saratoga, (and doubtless others in the West are equally famous in their sections,) will hardly be willing to use the best breech-loader. There is no time saved, when the important shot is lost; and the gun that is always true is the only one for a rifleman, if it take twice the time to load.
In the rifling of cannon, there seems to be no reason why the same rules should not hold good as in small arms. The gaining twist seems more important, from the greater tendency of the heavy balls to strip; and there being less object in extreme lightness, the gun may be made a large-sized Kentucky rifle on wheels; and there is less difficulty in loading with the precision that the flat-ended picket requires. In the cannon, even more than in the rifle for the line, there is no gain in getting facility of loading at the expense of precision. If, by careful loading, we hit the given mark twice as often as when we load in haste, it is clear how much we gain. The breech-loader seems to be useless as a cannon, because that in which it has the advantage, namely, rapidity of loading, is useless in a fieldpiece, where, even now, artillery-men can load faster than they can fire safely. Napoleon III. has made his rifled cannon to load at the muzzle, and practical artillerists commend his decision. The Armstrong gun, of which so much is expected, we confidently predict, will prove a failure, when tried in field-practice in the hurry of battle, if it is ever so tried. It is a breech-loader of the clumsiest kind, taking twice as long to load as a common gun, and very complicated. Its wonderful range is owing to its great calibre, —sixty-four pounds; but even at that, it furnishes no results proportionate to those given by the Napoleon cannon, or by our General James’s recent gun.
The great anticipations raised by the general introduction of the rifle, and its greater range, of such a change in warfare as to make the bayonet useless, seem to have met with disappointment in the recent wars. No matter how perfect the gun, men, in the heat and excitement of battle, will hardly be deliberate in aim, or effective enough in firing to stop a charge of determined men; the bayonet, with the most of mankind, will always be the queen of weapons in a pitched battle; only for skirmishing, for sharp-shooting, and artillery, will the rifle equal theoretical expectations. Men, not brought up from boyhood to such constant use of the rifle as to make sure aim an act of instinct with them, will never repel with certainty a charge of the bayonet by rifle-balls. With men whose rifles come to an aim with the instinctive accuracy with which a hawk strikes his prey, firing is equivalent to hitting, and excitement only makes the aim surer and more prompt; but such must have been hunters from youth; and no training of the army can give this second nature. American volunteers are the only material, outside the little districts of Switzerland and the Tyrol, who can ever be trained to this point, because they are the only nation of hunters beside the Swiss and Tyrolese. The English game-laws, which prevent the common people from using fire-arms ad libitum, have done and are doing more to injure the efficacy of the individual soldier than all their militiatraining can ever mend. In the hands of an English peasant, “Brown Bess” is as good as a rifle; for he would only throw the ball of either at random. Discipline is wonderful and wondrously effective; but, in the first place, it won’t make a man a ready and accurate shot, in time of excitement; and, in the second place, it won’t make his bayonet a shield for a ball from the rifle of a man who has learned, by the practice of years, not to throw away a ball or to fire at random; —it couldn’t carry the bravest men in Wellington’s army over a cotton-bale intrenchment, in the face of a double line of Kentucky rifles. It is very well to sing,
“Riflemen, riflemen, riflemen, form!”
but where are the riflemen? Can Britannia stamp them out of the dust? or has she a store of “dragon’s teeth” to sow? God grant she may never have to defend those English homes against the guns of Vincennes! but if she must, it is on a comparatively undisciplined militia she must depend;—and then she may remember, with bitter self-reproach, the lesson of New Orleans.
- Instructions to Young Marksmen in all that relates to the General Construction, Practical Manipulation, etc., etc., as exhibited in the Improved American Rifle. By John Ratcliffe Chapman, C. E. New York: D. Appleton &. Co. 1848.↩
- Robins (on Projectiles) said in 1748, “Whatever state shall thoroughly comprehend the nature and advantages of riflepieces, and, having facilitated and completed their construction, shall introduce into their armies their general use, with a dexterity in the management of them, will by this means acquire a superiority which will almost equal anything that has been done at any time by the particular excellence of any one kind of arms, and will perhaps fall but little short of the wonderful effects which histories relate to have been formerly produced by the first inventors of fire-arms.” Words, we now see, how prophetic!↩
- The technical name for the long, heavy, small-calibred rifle, in which the thickness of the metal outside the bore is about equal to the diameter of the bore.↩
- A man, five feet ten inches high, at 1450 yards, will, in the back-sight of the Minié rifle, at fourteen inches from the eye, appear 1/53 of an inch in height and 1/185 in breadth of shoulders. If the reader will look at these measures on a finely divided scale, he will appreciate the absurdity of such a boast. A man at that distance could hardly be found in the sights.↩
- Experiments have shown, that, with a barrel about the thickness of that of our “regulation rifles,” the spring will throw a ball nearly two feet from the aim in a range of six hundred yards, if the barrel be firmly held in a machine.↩