How to Choose a Rifle
To the Editors of the ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
SOME thirty years ago, a gentleman who had just returned from Europe was trying to convey an idea of the size and magnificence of St. Peter’s Church to a New-England country-clergyman, and was somewhat taken aback by the remark of the good man, that “ the Pope must require a very powerful voice to fill such a building.”
The anecdote has been brought to my mind by the unexpected position in which I am placed, as the recipient of such a multitude of letters, and from such widely separated portions of the country, elicited by my article on Rifle-Clubs in the “Atlantic” for September, that I find myself called upon to address an audience extending from Maine to Minnesota. Fortunately for me, however, the columns of the “ Atlantic ” afford facilities of communication not enjoyed by the Pope, and through that medium I crave permission to reply to inquiries which afford most gratifying proof of the wide-spread interest which is awakened in the subject.
Almost every letter contains the inquiry, “ What is the new breech-loading rifle you allude to, and where is it to be had ?” — but a large proportion of them also ask advice as to the selection of a rifle; and with such evidence of general interest in the inquiry, I have thought I could not do better than to frame my reply specially to this point.
The rifle above alluded to is not yet in the market, and probably will not be for some time to come. Only three or four samples have been manufactured, and after being subjected to every possible test short of actual service in the hands of troops, it has proved so entirely satisfactory that preparations are now making for its extensive production. Thus far it is known as the Ashcroft rifle, from the name of the proprietor, Mr. E. H. Ashcroft of Boston, the persevering energy of whose efforts to secure its introduction will probably never be appreciated as it deserves, except perhaps by those who have gone through the trial of bringing out an idea involving in its conception a great public benefit.
Lieutenant Busk, in his “ Hand-Book for Hythe,” says, “ I cannot imagine a much more helpless or hopeless position than that of an individual who, having determined to expend his ten or twenty guineas in the purchase of a rifle, and, guided only by the light of Nature, applies to a respectable gun-maker to supply his want. I never hear of an inexperienced buyer in search of a rifle without being reminded of the purchaser of a telescope, who, on asking the optician, among a multitude of other questions, whether he would be able to discern an object through it four miles off, received for reply, ‘ See an object four miles off, Sir? You can see an object four-andtwenty thousand miles off, Sir,—you can see the moon, Sir ! ' In like manner, if you naïvely inquire of a gun-maker whether a particular rifle will carry two hundred yards, the chances are he will exclaim, emphatically, ' Two hundred yards, Sir? It will carry fifteen hundred.’ And so no doubt it may. The only question is, How ? ”
The questions which have been addressed to me for a few weeks past have given me a keen appreciation of the difficulties alluded to, in which multitudes are at this moment plunged, to whom I shall be but too happy if it is in my power to extend a helping hand.
At the outset, however, it is but fair to declare my conviction that no man who has any just appreciation of the subject would attempt to choose a gun for another, any more than he would a horse, or, I had almost said, a wife; but he may laydown certain general rules which each individual must apply for himself, exercising his own taste in the details. Thus, I have elsewhere declared my own predilection for Colt’s rifle; and I hold to it notwithstanding a strong prejudice against it which very generally exists. I do not mean to assert that it is a better shooter than many others, and still less would I urge any one else to procure one because I like it, but I simply say that its performance is equal to my requirements, and that the whole construction and getting-up of the gun suit my fancy; and the fact that another man dislikes it is no reason why I should discard it.
I have known men who were continually changing their guns, and seemed satisfied only with novelties. With such a taste I have no sympathy, but, on the contrary, my feeling of attachment to a trusty weapon strengthens with my familiarity with its merits, till it becomes so near akin to affection that I should find it hard to part with one which had served me well, and was associated in my mind with adventures whose interest was derived from its successful performance.
The first piece of advice I would offer to a novice in search of a gun is, "Don’t be in a hurry.”
The demand is such that a buyer is constantly urged to close a bargain by the assurance that it may be his last chance to secure such a weapon as the one he is examining, — and great numbers of mere toys have thus been forced upon purchasers, who, if they ever practise enough to acquire a taste for shooting, will send them to the auction-room, and make another effort to procure a gun suited to their wants. Several new patterns of guns have been produced within the last year, some of which are very attractive in their appearance, and to an inexperienced person seem to possess sufficient power for any service they may ever be called upon to perform. They are well finished, compact, light, and pretty. A Government Inspector, indeed, would be apt to make discoveries of “ malleable iron,” which would cause their instant rejection, but which in reality constitutes no ground of objection to guns whose parts are not required to be interchangeable. They might be described as “ well adapted for ladies’ use, or for boys learning to shoot”; but it gave me a sickening sense of the inexperience of many a noble - hearted youth who may have entered the service from the purest motives of patriotism, when a dealer, who was exhibiting one of these parlor-weapons, with a calibre no larger than a good-sized pea, informed me that he had sold a great many to young officers, being so light that they could be carried slung upon the back almost as easily as a pistol. It is with no such kid-glove tools as these that so many of our officers have been picked off by Southern sharp-shooters. At a long range they are useless; at close quarters, which is the only situation in which an officer actually needs fire-arms, a revolver is far preferable. I know of no rifle so well adapted to an officer’s use as Colt’s carbine,— of eighteen or twenty-one inch barrel, and not less than 44/100 of an inch calibre. It may be depended upon for six hundred yards, the short barrel renders its manipulation easy in a close fight, and the value of the repeating principle at such a time can be estimated only by that of life.
In a perfectly calm atmosphere, the light guns I have alluded to will shoot very well for one or two hundred yards; but no one can conceive, till he proves it by actual trial, what an amazing difference in precision is the result of even a very slight increase of weight of ball, when the air is in motion. Even in a dead calm no satisfactory shooting can be done beyond two hundred yards with a lighter ball than half an ounce, and any one who becomes interested in rifiepractice will soon grow impatient of being confined to short ranges and calm weather. This brings us, then, to the question of calibre, which I conceive to be the first one to be decided in selecting a gun, and the decision rests upon the uses to which the gun is to be applied. If it is wanted merely for military service, nothing better than the Enfield can be procured ; but if the purchaser proposes to study the niceties of practice, and to enter into it with a keen zest, he will need a very different style of gun. A calibre large enough for a round ball of fifty to the pound, or an elongated shot of about half an ounce, is sufficient for six hundred yards; and a gun of that calibre, with a thirty-inch barrel, and a weight of about ten pounds, is better suited to the general wants of purchasers than any other size. In this part of the country it is by no means easy to find a place where shooting can be safely practised even at so long a range as five hundred yards, — which is sixty yards more than a quarter of a mile. It is always necessary to have an attendant at the target to point out the shots, and even then the shooter needs a telescope to distinguish them. For ordinary purposes, therefore, the calibre I have indicated is all-sufficient; hut if a gun is wanted for shooting up to one thousand yards, the shot should be a full ounce weight. These are points which each man must determine for himself, and, having done so, let him go to any gun-maker of established reputation, and, before giving his order, let him study and compare the different forms of stocks, till he finds what is required for his peculiar physical conformation,— and giving directions accordingly, he will probably secure a weapon whose merits he will not fully appreciate till he has attained a degree of skill which is the result only of longcontinued practice.
But never buy a gun, and least of all a rifle, without trying it; and do not be satisfied with a trial in a shop or shooting-gallery, but take it into the field ; and if you distrust yourself, get some one in whom you have confidence to try it for you. Choose a perfectly calm day. Have a rest prepared on which not only the gun may be laid, but a support may also be had for the elbows, the shooter being seated. By this means, and with the aid of globeand peek-sights, (which should always be used in trying a gun,) it may as certainly be held in the same position at every shot as if it were clamped in a machine. For your target take a sheet of cartridge-paper and draw on it a circle of a foot, and, inside of that, another of four inches in diameter. Paint the space between the rings black, and you will then have a black ring four inches wide surrounding a white four-inch bull’seye, against which your globe-sight will be much more distinctly seen than if it were black. Place the target so that when shooting you may have the sun on your back. On a very bright day, brown paper is better for a target than white. Begin shooting at one hundred yards and fire ten shots, with an exact aim at the bull’s-eye, wiping out the gun after each shot. Do not look to see where you hit, till you have fired your string often shots; for, if you do, you will be tempted to alter your aim and make allowance for the variation, whereas your object now is not to hit the bull's-eye, but to prove the shooting of the gun ; and if you find, when you get through, that all the shots are close together, you may be sure the gun shoots well, though they may be at considerable distance from the bull’s-eye. That would only prove that the line of sight was not coincident with the line of fire, which can be easily rectified by moving the forward sight to the right or left, according as the variation was on the one side or the other. Having fired your string of ten shots, take a pair of dividers, and, with a radius equal to half the distance between the two hits most distant from each other, describe a circle cutting through the centre of each of those hits. From the centre of this circle measure the distance to each of the hits, add these distances together and divide the sum by ten, and you have the average variation, which ought not to be over two inches at the utmost, and if the gun is what it ought to be, and fired by a good marksman, would probably be much less. This is a sufficient test of the precision for that distance, and the same method may be adopted for longer ranges. But if the gun shoots well at one hundred yards, its capacity for a longer range may be proved by its penetrating power. Provide a number of pieces of seasoned white-pine board, one inch thick and say two feet long by sixteen inches wide. These are to be secured parallel to each other and one inch apart by strips nailed firmly to their sides, and must be so placed that when shot at the balls may strike fairly at a right angle to their face. Try a number of shots at the distance of one hundred yards, and note carefully how many boards are penetrated at each shot. The elongated shots are sometimes turned in passing through a board so as to strike the next one sideways, which of course increases the resistance very greatly, and such shots should not be counted ; but if you find generally that the penetration of those which strike fairly is not over six inches, you may rest assured the gun cannot be relied on, except in a dead calm, for more than two hundred yards, and with anything of a breeze you will make no good shooting even at that distance. Nine inches of penetration is equal to six hundred yards, and twelve inches is good for a thousand.
A striking proof of the prevailing ignorance of scientific principles in rifle-shooting is afforded by the fact that it is still a very common practice to vary the charge of powder according to the distance to be shot. The fact is, that beyond a certain point any increase of the initial velocity of the ball is unfavorable both to range and precision, owing to the ascertained law that the ratio of increase of atmospheric resistance is four times that of the velocity, so that, after the point is reached at which they balance each other, any additional propulsive power is injurious. The proper charge of powder for any rifle is about one-seventh the weight of the ball, and the only means which should ever be adopted for increasing the range is the elevating sight.
In conclusion, I would impress upon the young rifleman the importance of always keeping his weapon in perfect order. If you have never looked through the barrel of a rifle, you can have no conception what a beautifully finished instrument it is; and when you learn that the accuracy of its shooting may be affected by a variation of the thousandth part of an inch on its interior surface, you may appreciate the necessity of guarding against the intrusion of even a speck of rust. Never suffer your rifle to be laid aside after use till it has been thoroughly cleaned, — the barrel wiped first with a wet rag, (cotton-flannel is best,) then rubbed dry, then well oiled, and then again wiped with a dry rag. In England this work may be left to a servant, but with us the servants are so rare to whom such work can be intrusted that the only safe course is to see to it yourself; and if you have a true sportsman’s love for a gun, you will not find the duty a disagreeable one.