Long-Range Rifle Fire (2)

Introduction | Minie to Martini | Long Range Skills

In the quarter of a century between 1825 and 1850 men, generally Frenchmen, went to work to invent a military rifle which should combine accuracy of shooting with ease and rapidity in loading. The names of the inventors, the dates, methods, and reasons of the failure of each speciality (are they not written in the Hythe text-book?), make a story as dull as any other about still-born inventions. At last, in 1847, Captain Minié, of the School of Vincennes, hit upon the right thing, and gave his name to a system. This, as almost everybody knows, was an elongated bullet which went easily down the barrel when loading, but was made through self-expansion to fit the grooves tightly at the moment of firing. Our own "Minié" rifle of 1851, and then our "Enfield rifle," pattern 1853, though improved again and again both in barrel and ammunition, were on the lines of Captain Minié's principle. In 1855 the "Enfield" took the place of the smooth-bore musket as the general arm of the infantry of the line, and the place of the "Brunswick" in our rifle regiments. Here, then, we may date the beginning of long-range rifle-fire. It was applied with good effect in India during the Mutiny, and afterwards in the hill fights with the frontier tribes. Presently, with the introduction of small-bores, the range grew longer. A short time ago there was a sort of controversy in the Times as to the credit due on the one hand to the first inventor, and on the other to the later improvers, of small-bore rifles and ammunition. Apparently the question lies in a nutshell. When the body of the pack is going on hard, all honour to the two or three hounds who are racing for the lead; but none the less does the observant master, particularly if he carries the horn himself, make a note in his mind, and possibly in his diary, of the grand point made ten minutes back; if it had not been for that capital hit at the cross-roads, a brilliant run would have been lost altogether. That, about 1857, Sir Joseph (then Mr.) Whitworth, not at that time a gunmaker, showed a line to the riflemakers of the world is beyond dispute. Anyhow, all who had any pretension to note followed him in his rapid twist and in the .450-inch bore. It is equally true that since that date several leading gunmakers, in developing their particular systems under the same general prin-ciple, have vastly improved the shooting of the small-bore rifle and made themselves names more or less famous. It is generally difficult to count, with any degree of exactness, the points made on the one hand by an inventor, and on the other hand by those who may have improved on the invention; but as between Sir Joseph Whitworth who once led the van, and those who have since followed in his wake, the long-range honours appear to lookers-on to be pretty evenly divided.

Just at present there is very little to choose between the different patterns of rifle carried by the several armies of the chief European Powers - perhaps the Russian "Berdan" is, if anything, slightly in front of the rest - but, if one may hazard an opinion about the future, there will before very long be a considerable and general increase in the reach and accuracy of long-range rifle-fire. Whether our own service rifle is to be replaced by the .40-inch bore, designed at Enfield, appears to be still uncertain. Between the respective merits of the two patterns-namely, the "Martini-Henry" and the "Martini-Enfield" - some comparison was made in the Saturday Review of the 16th of February of last year. It is certainly unfortunate that the new Martini-Enfield, though it has a lighter bullet, has a heavier barrel than the Martini-Henry. Any one who is used to carrying a gun knows that a little extra weight is highly objectionable, and every one used to soldiers knows how strongly as well as rightly all ranks would object to one unnecessary ounce. If the designer of the Martini-Enfield could, without losing any of its hitting power, make the arm a little lighter instead of a little heavier than the service rifle, he would (as they say at Lord's) score grandly to the "on" and to the "off" in one over. As the case stands now, the Martini-Enfield has been so long in emerging from the experimental stage, and there has been so much discussion about the extra weight of metal, that people begin to wonder whether the new rifle will ever get off the stocks at all. Lately, as everybody thought, we were within an ace of having to cross a consider-able, river, and, if our troops are ever to have a better rifle, it would be just as well to get the .40-bore question settled and the proverbial swap made before we are actually in the ford and on the point of swimming. To give our infantry a rifle which, as regards hitting power, is as superior to the English "Martini-Henry" and to the Russian "Berdan" as those rifles are to the Snider seems to be a point worth securing in a match which, sooner or later, is pretty certain to be played. In war, as in sport, there is a good deal of truth in the old adage, "A match well made is already half won." There is, of course, the question of quickness of firing as well as that of long-range with accuracy, and, no doubt, at this very moment all military Europe is looking this way and that way for a perfect magazine action; but when-ever it drops from the clouds or turns up from America or else-where, it will be time enough to adopt it. In the meantime, let us decide, if we can, upon our barrel of the future. Hereafter, if desired, it can be combined as easily as any other barrel with a magazine action.

In all probability the new .40-inch bore Martini-Enfield gives results as good as can be obtained under the present condition of science; for, so long as the shoulders of men, the winds of heaven, vile saltpetre, and so forth remain what they are, power to range with becoming accuracy must be limited by the considerations of recoil, length of bullet, fouling, and so on; and, again, given by supposition unlimited range, the power to apply fire with useful effect is practically limited by the ordinary scope of man's eyesight and by the natural features of the battle-ground.

Source: The Saturday Review, 4 July 1885