The Use of the Rifle

IN no branch of manufacture has human ingenuity been taxed more vigorously, for the attainment of the highest possible point of perfection, than in that of rifled guns for the use of the troops, on whose capacity for the destruction of their opponents the throne of the tyrant or the liberty of the people may be dependent. Nations, companies, and individuals have expended years of time and millions of money in testing every conceivable contrivance which offered a hope of improvement in precision, force, facility of loading or firing, or any of the minute details which contribute to render the weapon more serviceable.

And yet, at this day, not only are the troops of different nations armed with rifles differing in size, weight, calibre, and degree of twist, requiring different instruction in their use, and shooting projectiles of widely different pattern, but scarcely any two gun-makers will be found to agree in all the details requisite to the construction of the most serviceable weapon. The reason for this diversity lies in the fact, that perfection in any one of its requirements can be attained only by the sacrifice of some portion at least of its other elements, and the point at which the balance should be fixed is a sliding scale covering as wide a range as that of the mental and physical differences of the men on whom the decision rests.

The objects to be attained are, precision and force at long ranges, facility of loading and firing, and such simplicity and strength in the general construction as to allow the least possible chance of derangement or mistake in the management, at the moment when such error might cost the owner his life. And in addition to these points it is required that the weight shall not exceed the amount which a man of the average strength needed for a soldier can manipulate and carry on the march without over-fatigue. It will be seen that we have awarded the first place on the list of requisites to precision and force at long ranges; and we presume it is unnecessary to enter into any explanation of the obvious primary necessity for the attainment of those qualities. We find, however, that our progress towards perfection in this direction cannot proceed beyond a certain point, except at the cost of other qualities, which cannot be sacrificed with impunity.

Regarding it as a settled point that any recoil of the gun is just so much taken from the initial velocity of the ball, (and if any one doubts it, let him try the experiment of throwing a stone, and stepping backwards at the moment of propulsion,) it is obvious, that, for the attainment of the longest range, such a preponderance of weight in the gun over that of the projectile is necessary as to secure the least possible recoil, and this point seems to have been fixed by our best gun-makers at the ratio of five hundred to one, which would require a gun weighing nearly sixteen pounds to carry a half-ounce ball or shot. We use the word ball from habit, meaning, merely, the projectile, which will probably never again resume its spherical shape in actual service. We conceive the perfection of precision and range in riflepractice to have been attained in the American target-rifle, carrying a slug or cone of one ounce weight,— the gun itself weighing not less than thirty pounds,— and provided with a telescope-sight, and Clark’s patent muzzle. At three-quarters of a mile this weapon may be said to be entirely trustworthy for an object of the size of a man, and to have force enough at that distance to disable three men. But it is obvious that such weight and such equipments as are required for it must render it utterly useless for ordinary field-service. It becomes, in fact, a species of light artillery, and as such we are firm in the conviction that it is destined to establish for itself a reputation which will render it henceforth a necessity in the composition of an army.

For troops of the line the weight of the gun should not exceed ten pounds. Now, if we reduce the rifle to that weight, and preserve the ratio of -JJ-Q as that of the ball, we reduce its range ; for the momentum being, as every school-boy knows, in proportion to weight as well as velocity, a projectile which may be perfectly sure for two or three hundred yards flies wide of the mark at six hundred, and can hardly be found at a thousand. Here begins the operation of the sliding scale, in the necessity of sacrificing some degree of precision, in order to procure a weapon fulfilling other indispensable requisites for the soldier’s use. In the English and our own service, the Enfield and Springfield rifled muskets have been fixed upon as presenting the nearest attainable approach to perfection in all the desirable elements of a military rifle.

It is out of the question to look for any such nice work with these tools as our best amateur riflemen are constantly in the habit of performing with the heavy thick-barrelled American rifle. The short Enfield is found to shoot better than the long, owing to the increased “spring” of the long, thin barrel of the latter; and the English themselves are becoming aware that they have carried the point of reducing the weight too far, and their best gun-makers are now insisting upon the fact which General Jacobs told them years ago, — that a “ heavy conical ball cannot be used effectively from a long, thin barrel like that of the Enfield rifle, which is liable to great vibration.”

The Enfield rifle, however, is a long step in advance of the old smooth-bored musket, concerning which a veteran British officer has declared his opinion that “ a man might sit at his ease in an armchair all day long while another at two hundred yards’ distance was blazing away at him with a brown Bess, on the sole condition that he should, on his honor, aim exactly at him at every shot." Percontra to this, may be stated the fact, mentioned by Lord Raglan in his despatches, that at Balaklava a Russian battery of two guns was silenced by the skill in rifle-shooting of a single officer, (Lieutenant Godfrey,) who, approaching under cover of a ravine within six hundred yards, and having his men hand him their Enfield rifles in turn, actually picked off the artillerymen, one after another, till there were not enough left to serve the guns, and this in spite of the storm of shot and shell which they poured around him in reply, he being under - no necessity of exposing a larger target than his head and shoulders for them to aim at.

A trustworthy breech-loading rifle has long been a desideratum with military men; but nothing has yet been produced which offers sufficient advantages, or seems sufficiently free from objections, to authorize its introduction as anything more than an experiment. In fact, the special object of a breech-loading gun — that of enabling its owner to deliver his fire with greater rapidity—is found in actual service to be an objection : the soldier being tempted, in the excitement of battle, to load and fire as rapidly as possible, and thus to waste the greater portion of his shots, whereas the primary object at such a time is to induce the deliberation which alone can insure efficiency. It must be obvious to any one who reflects upon the matter, that in reality the whole question of efficiency in battle must hinge upon the one point of precision of fire. It is well known that in actual service not more than one shot in six hundred takes effect, and, except for the moral effect of the roar of the musketry and the whistling of the balls, the remaining five hundred and ninety-nine might better have been kept in the cartridge-boxes. Upon raw troops, for the most part, this moral effect is sufficient to decide the question, with the addition of a comparatively small number of killed and wounded. But veteran troops are not disturbed by it. They know that a ball which misses by a quarter of an inch is as harm less as if it had never been shot, and they very soon learn to disregard the whistling. When they encounter such a fire, however, as the English met at Bunker’s Hill and at New Orleans, — when the shots which miss are the exceptions, and those which hit, the rule, no amount of discipline or courage can avail. Disciplined soldiers are no more willing to be shot than raw levies ; but having learned by experience that the danger in an ordinary action is very trifling in comparison with its appearance to the imagination of a recruit, they face it with a determination which to him is inconceivable. Make the apparent danger real, as in the cases we have cited, and veterans become as powerless as the merest tyros. With the stimulus of the present demand, it is probable that Yankee ingenuity will erelong produce some kind of rifle so far superior to anything yet known as to supersede all others; and indeed we have little doubt that such would already have been the case, but for the fact that comparatively few of our most ingenious mechanics are also expert riflemen, and none but a first-rate shot can thoroughly appreciate all the requirements of the weapon.

Since the Crimean War, the Governments of Europe seem to have become awakened to the fact, that, however important and desirable it may be to secure the best possible implements for the soldier’s use, it is infinitely more so that he should know how to use them. In the hands of a marksman the rifle is an efficient weapon at half a mile’s distance; but to expect on that account that it will do any more execution in the hands of one who is not familiar with it than a smooth-bored musket is as idle as it would be to hope that a person unacquainted with the violin could give us better music from a Cremona than he could from a corn-stalk fiddle.

For years past the European powers have been training men to the use of the rifle. Hundreds of thousands of Englishmen and Frenchmen are at this moment as familiar with the practical? of its powers as if their subsistence had been dependent upon its use. Government and people have perceived that the improvements in small-arms have wrought such a revolution in the art of war as to revive the necessity which existed in the days of archery, of making every man a marksman, and in England the old archery sports of prize-shooting and unremitting private practice have been renewed, with the substitution of the rifle for the bow; and besides the regular standing army, England is now guarded by two hundred thousand volunteers, every one of whom is a good rifleman, and who have all been subjected to such an amount of drilling as would enable them speedily to accomplish themselves in the art of united action. The inciting cause of this great national movement was the apprehension of a French invasion. Whether there was any ground for such apprehension, or whether the preparations which were made in consequence have served to avert the danger, are questions which are irrelevant to our present object, which lies nearer home.

It needs no argument at this moment to prove the possibility that we may become engaged in a foreign war, before we have done with the one we have on our hands at home; but without troubling ourselves with apprehensions of possible contingencies, have we not sufficient motive in the condition of affairs at home to render it an imperative duty to strengthen ourselves by every available means ?

We have been so long unused to anything like warlike preparations that we find it difficult to arouse ourselves to a realization of the fact that every ablebodied man is liable to be called upon to render active service for his country; and when a war is raging within our borders, of whose termination the only thing that can be predicted with certainty is that it can be reached only through fearful suffering and destruction of life and property, is it not incumbent on every man to prepare himself by whatever means are within his reach to render his services efficient? That the affirmative would be the popular answer is sufficiently proved by a recurrence to the zeal with which we organized drill-clubs and practised military tactics in the early stages of the war. It was not long before the zeal died away. It soon proved a bore to people who could not help perceiving, that, however perfect they might become in the manual exercise, their efficiency as soldiers could hardly amount to much, when most of them had never fired a gun in their lives. And so the drillroom was quietly abandoned,—the conduct of the war was left to the Government and the army, while we looked on as mere spectators, — and the future was left to take care of itself.

We do not mourn greatly at the decay of the drill-clubs, which, in the form they assumed, were likely to be of little practical benefit; but we do most sincerely regret the decay of the spirit which led to their formation, for it was founded on the universal conviction of the fact, which exists at this moment in still stronger force, that every man ought to make himself ready for the possible contingency of his services being demanded in the field.

No man can foretell the chances and changes which are before us ; but he must be ignorant indeed of human nature and human history, who does not perceive, that, even if our success in the present contest is all that we can hope, there are issues involved in the weighty questions which must ensue before the storm subsides, which may render the preservation of our liberties dependent upon our ability to resist the attempts of factions or of ambitious and unprincipled military leaders to overturn them. We have had evidence enough, since the struggle began, (if any one doubted it before,) that selfishness and ambition are not unrepresented among us; and if such spirits are abroad, they are working for evil, and we are worse than foolish to trust to virtue and patriotism to encounter them unarmed. Do we not owe it to that fatal error, that we are in our present condition ? Were not ambition and lust of power secretly strengthening their hands for years, in the hope to spring upon us unawares, and bind us fast before we could prepare for resistance? — and can we again suffer ourselves to be caught in the same trap ?

The question implies its own answer, and the practical reply should be the immediate and universal instruction of the people in the use of arms; and to this end the readiest and most efficient means lie in the encouragement of rifle-practice, by the organization of rifle-clubs, the institution of shooting-matches for prizes, and the inculcation by all available methods of a taste for the acquirement of an art which constitutes the vital spirit of military efficiency. Wherever clubs can be formed, a course of drilling should be entered upon in connection with target-practice ; but thousands of able-bodied men throughout the country may be unable to unite with clubs or attend the drills, who may yet perfect themselves in target-shooting, and the prizes at shooting-matches should be open to all competitors and all weapons.

The volume of instructions for the Hythe School, issued from the HorseGuards, contains the following preliminary remarks : — “ The rifle is placed in the soldier’s hands for the destruction of his enemy; his own safety depends upon his efficient use of it: it cannot, therefore, be too strongly inculcated, that every man who has no defect in his eyes may be made a good shot, and that no degree of perfection he may have attained in the other parts of his drill can upon service remedy any want of proficiency in this ; in fact, all his other instructions in marching and manœuvring can do no more than place him in the best possible situation for using his Weapon with effect.”

To the assertion that “ every man who has no defect in his eyes may be made a good shot,” we beg leave to object, or at least to accept it with allowances. That every one may attain sufficient skill for ordinary military service, by which we mean according to modern requirements, we have no manner of doubt; but the experience of the great shooting-match at Wimbledon in July last proves conclusively the existence of very wide differences in the powers of men who had enjoyed equal opportunities of perfecting themselves; and we are confident that our best riflemen will sooner indorse the verdict of Frank Forester, who, after a fair statement of the obstacles to the attainment of perfection, concludes with the remark, —“It is impossible, therefore, for one-half at least, if not more, of mankind to become even fair rifle-shots, with any possible amount of practice ; but to all men who have good eyes, iron nerves, sufficient physical strength, and phlegmatic tempers, it is a certainty beyond calculation that they can become first-rate rifle-shots with sufficient practice.”1

We not only recognize this difference in the powers of different individuals, but we insist upon the importance of observing it in the military organization of the rifle corps. The men who prove by their work that they possess the skill which is the result of such a combination of moral and physical characteristics as are here enumerated should be selected for special duty, and armed with the most efficient weapons that can be procured, which, even at four times the cost of ordinary infantry muskets, would prove in the end the better economy, by rendering needless the enormous waste of ammunition which seems inseparable from the use of ordinary arms. The sharp-shooters thus selected should be armed in part with the best rifles of ordinary construction and weight, (and we are strongly inclined to believe, if allowed their own choice, they would select the common American hunting-rifle,) and a portion with the best telescope-rifles of the kind we have heretofore described. We are well aware, that, till recently, the introduction of these guns into the service has been scouted at by military men, and the experiment of sending a company of men provided with them and familiar with their use from this State was met with ridicule, which, however, has been changed to admiration by the triumphant manner in which they have vindicated the most sanguine hopes of those who were instrumental in procuring their introduction.

A letter from a member of the company says of them,— "The telescope-rifles have more than equalled our expectations. They do good service at a mile, and are certain death at half a mile.” At Edwards’s Ferry, on the 22d of October, seventy men of this company repelled a charge of fifteen hundred of the enemy and drove them from the field, with the loss of more than one hundred killed, while not one of their own men received a scratch. They lay upon the ground behind a fence, resting their guns upon the lower rail, and the enemy came in sight half a mile distant and started towards them at double-quick, loading and firing as they ran; but before they had traversed half the distance, they had learned that the whistle of every bullet was the death-knell of one, and in many instances of more than one of their number, and coming to a slight ravine, the temptation of its shelter from so fearful a storm proved irresistible, and, turning up its course, they fled in dismay, leaving their dead upon the ground in windrows. Three standard-bearers in succession fell before the fatal aim of the same rifle, and no man dared repeat the suicidal act of again displaying that ensign. We have seen a letter from an officer high in command who witnessed that action, and, after describing it, he remarks, — “ There is more chance of credit to your State in the new gun and men than in twenty drilled regiments.”

But the history of that skirmish proves the capacity of the weapon in question for the performance of more than ought ever to be asked of it. Had the troops who attempted the charge been thoroughly disciplined and accustomed to the work, they could not have been checked by so small a number, and in five minutes more the little handful of riflemen would have been riddled with bayonets. On the other hand, nothing but the confidence inspired by the consciousness of the power they wielded could have enabled such a handful to hold their ground as they did in the face of such overwhelming odds. Two companies of infantry in their rear, who were intended as a support, fired one volley and then fled.

In a close conflict so unwieldy a weapon as the telescope-rifle is of course useless, and its owner must depend upon his side-arms for defence. The same is true of artillery, and, as we said before, these riflemen are to he considered and used in service as light artillery,— requiring a sufficient support to enable them to withdraw from close action, but operating with deadly effect upon individual enemies at a distance at which cannon are serviceable only against masses, and, for the most part, require a series of trials to get the range, which may be constantly shifting. The telescope-rifle is a field-piece possessing such precision and range as no other weapon can boast, and provided with an instrument which reduces the art of aiming to a point of mathematical certainty, — and all within such a compass of size and weight that every man of a company can manage one with nearly the rapidity and with ten times the efficiency of an ordinary musket. We submit the question, whether we can afford to dispense with such advantages, — or rather, whether we are not bound to develop them to their fullest extent, by the adoption and adaptation to field-service of the weapon which combines them ? It is obvious that a corps armed with such a weapon would require a peculiar drill, and their sphere of usefulness would necessarily be limited by circumstances which would not affect ordinary infantry; but common sense would readily dictate the positions of attack or defence in which their peculiar powers would render the best service, and military science would suggest the most efficient manner of directing their operations. Such a force, however, would necessarily form but a small portion of any army; and we have dwelt upon the subject solely from the conviction that its importance is too great to allow it to be neglected, while it is yet too little known to be appreciated as it deserves.

We turn now to the ordinary riflepractice, which has come of late years to be considered in Europe almost as the one thing needful for the soldier, while with us it has been gradually sinking into disuse for a quarter of a century. When called upon to send an army into the field, we find that more than half of its members have never fired a gun, and even of those who have, not one in a hundred has had any instruction beyond what he has been able to pick up for himself, while popping at robins and squirrels with a ten-dollar Birmingham shot-gun ; and every account we receive of a skirmish with the enemy elicits exclamations of astonishment that so few are hurt on either side. It may relieve in some degree the prevalent dread of fire-arms (which is a primary cause of this general ignorance of their use) to discover that it requires no small amount of skill to hurt anybody with them; and when the fact comes to be equally appreciated, that ignorance lies at the bottom of all the unintended mischief that is done with them, it is probable that proper instruction in their use will be considered, as it ought, a necessary part of a boy’s education. It had been better for us, if this matter had been sooner attended to. Let us lose no time now.

Reader ! are you a man, having the use of your limbs and eyes, and do you know how to put a ball into a rifle and bring it. out again with a true aim ? If not, it is time you were learning. Provide yourself with a rifle and equipments, and find some one to give you the first lessons in their use, and then practise daily at target-shooting. Do not excuse yourself with the plea that you have no intention to enter the service. If the work of preparation is left only to those who mean to become soldiers, it will not be done ; but if every man proves his appreciation of its importance by taking an active interest in its promotion, the right men for soldiers will be forthcoming when they are needed, and the most important element of their military education will have been acquired; and it is not impossible that the day may come when you yourself will feel that the power you have thus obtained is worth more to you than all you learned in college. Are you too old and infirm for such service, or are you a woman, and have you the means of equipping another who is unable to do it for himself ? If so, it will not be hard to find an able-bodied young man who will gladly take charge of a rifle, on the condition that he is to be its owner at the end of six months, if he can then place ten successive shots in a circle of a foot in diameter at two hundred yards.

“ A word to the wise is enough.” The word has been uttered in trumpet-tones from the battle-fields of the South. Let us prove that we are wise, by acting at once upon its suggestions.

  1. Complete Manual for Young Sportsmen.