Long Range Shooting: An Historical Perspective (2)

Introduction | Historical & Literary References | Mechanically Fitting Projectiles |
Developments in France | Long Range Shooting

By: W.S. Curtis

The main push behind early gunnery came from the "Great Guns", siege pieces and pieces of position for the defence of places. Range was not a great object in itself, rather more a matter of hurling large projectiles. Light artillery for the field and the use of anti-personnel case-shot merely extended the range enough to avoid the galling fire of infantry. All this was to change dramatically in the 19th Century when small arms suddenly rivaled artillery in range, but we will deal with that later.

The author’s main interest these days is in small arms and so, from this point, artillery will not be referred to again except in so far as it affects small arms.

It was obvious to the early shooters that the matchlock muskets would throw their balls to a great distance. To borrow an expression from the Great Gunners, the "Random" or "Utmost Random" range was very great but the term "Random" is a good description. Random they most certainly were, so we come to another vital part of the equation of long range – "Accuracy". It is no good firing at 1,000 yards if there is not the remotest chance of hitting anything intended to be hit.

Enter rifling. All sorts of reasons have been advanced for the invention of rifling. Spinning the ball in a similar manner to the way the flights, when set at an angle, spin an arrow. Cutting grooves in the barrel to catch the powder fouling, initially without spiral and afterwards spiraled to increase the amount of available groove, are but two of the theories. At this distance in time, it is impossible to say precisely, although the arrow theory seems to have a good claim simply because it makes sense.

Rifling is said to have originated in Augsburg around the year 1498 and certainly target practice with the arquebus was common by then. In the early 16th Century there are references to banning grooved barrels because they were unfair. Students of the duel will recognise this problem arising three hundred years later.

By the 17th Century rifles, both breech and muzzle loading, were in fairly common use. During the English Civil War (1640s) there are a number of accounts of sniping by game keepers or park wardens said to have been using rifles. We can assume that ranges to the order of 250 or 300 yards were achieved.

In Europe the hunting rifle was well established and the Schutzenfest was a feature of the recreational scene amongst the Germanic States. This festival almost certainly predates gunpowder and a specimen of a painted iron target dated to 1413 exists from the Free German City of Esslingen. It bears projectile marks but the nature of the projectiles can only be guessed at.

Thus, by the beginning of the 18th Century we have the riflemen established as persons able to shoot accurately at, by the standards of the day, long range.

During the 18th Century the application of scientific theory based upon observation and experiment expanded rapidly from its 17th Century beginnings. There were a number of treatises of earlier dates, notably that of Nicholas Tartaglia in 1537, followed by Leonard and Thomas Digges in 1571, Diego Ufano in 1614, Robert Norton in 1628 and William Eldred in 1646. These all concerned themselves with artillery and the application of pure mathematics. A good example of the type is John Gray’s A TREATISE OF GUNNERY published in 1731 which is a perfect example of refined mathematics and quite incomprehensible to this writer (who makes no claim to any mathematical ability anyway).

Whilst these elegant exercises in mathematics were being worked out there were still the remnants of medieval belief best characterised by the Bavarian philosopher Herman Moritz, who claimed, in 1522, that as gunpowder was manifestly a devilish product, the balls flew through the air, hither and yon, impelled by a small demon who sat astride them. It was equally self evident that if the ball was spinning rapidly, not even a demon could stay on it and thus it flew straight.

The great Sir Isaac Newton, in the late 17th Century, led the way into the theory of modern physics but it was Benjamin Robins starting in 1727, who was the first true experimentalist combining observation with theory and who became justly known as the Father of Modern Ballistics. His work on the resistance of the air opened up an entirely new field of research. Hitherto the effects of the air were thought to be so inconsiderable on the movements of a dense object that they were ignored. Indeed, John Gray, in his TREATISE of 1731 stated: — "Tis true indeed the resistance of the air is more sensible, but in solid bodies of heavy metal it is also so very inconsiderable that the error occasioned thereby may be neglected." Later, in the same treatise, he permits himself to speculate along the lines subsequently proved by Robins but without imparting any sense of conviction.

Benjamin Robins was a brilliant man who grasped all the fundamentals of ballistics at the same time. During the course of his experiments on the subject of the resistance of the air at various velocities he noted that the smooth bored muskets he was using showed wild deviations in accuracy. This led to his trials with rifle barrels, the results of which were published in the paper read before The Royal Society on 2nd July 1747. Many people are aware of the most famous extract from this in which he forecasts that the first State to adopt the rifle generally will acquire a superiority unequalled since the invention of gunpowder.

Robins tried his hand at small arms ranges then far beyond anything normally attempted. To quote: "…small rifled barrel piece carrying a leaden ball of near half an ounce weight. For this piece, charged with one drachm [This is the Apothecaries’ Measure of 60 grains.] of powder, ranged about 550 yards, at an angle of twelve degrees, with sufficient regularity…" and again "..a rifled barrel piece, loaded at the breech in the English manner. For here the rifles being indented very deep, and the bullet being so large as to fill them up compleatly; I found, that, though it flew with a sufficient exactness to the distance of four or five hundred yards…"

Although he was quoting from the findings of the Bavarian, Leutmann, in the 1720’s, Robins postulated the advantages of increasing sectional density and reducing air resistance by the use of an egg shaped projectile. In fact it was nearly a century before these ideas were fully developed and the round ball reigned supreme until the early years of Queen Victoria.

The round ball, however well formed and at whatever velocity it is launched will never be any sort of use beyond four hundred yards. This distance can, therefore, be taken as "Long Range" for small arms up to the 1840s.

On the analogy of the cannon shooting its great heavy ball much further than any small arm, we find that the logical approach was adopted and a class of small(ish) arm appeared throughout the round ball period. This was the wall piece. Generally, in the British Service this was a smooth bore of one inch calibre with a 54 inch barrel which weighed 35 pounds. The ball was nine tenths of inch (giving a windage of one tenth of an inch) and weighed about 1150 grains using a charge of ten drams (275 grains). The accurate range of these was unlikely to have been more than 400 yards although Colonel Mark Beaufoy, [Note that this author has been erroneously referred to in the past as Henry Beaufoy and also Beaufroy] the author of SCLOPPETARIA (1808) mentions on pages 80 and 81 that Swiss wall pieces at half a mile strike an object the size of a man’s hat. It must be assumed that these were rifled. In his words "Who, five years ago, when rifles were just coming into notice, would have credited the assertion, one telling him that, with practice, 300 yards would be an almost certain distance?"

Ezekiel Baker in his REMARKS ON RIFLE GUNS, Third Edition of 1806 (and later editions) stated - "I have found two hundred yards the greatest range I could fire at to any certainty. At three hundred yards I have fired very well at times when the wind has been calm. At four and five hundred yards I have frequently fired, and I have some times struck the object...."

That unusual man, Colonel George Hanger, Baron Coleraine, who despite his unfortunate later life, had been a capable military man, said in his book TO ALL SPORTSMEN AND PARTICULARLY TO FARMERS AND GAMEKEEPERS (1814) that in the American War, during the 1770’s, a prone rifleman shot the horse of Colonel Tarleton’s bugler at 400 yards. He spoke of the need to be able to hit troops in line at 600 yards. He advocated a heavy barrel, a small bore with one turn in the rifling and a large charge.

Finally, before leaving the subject of what constitutes "Long Range" in the days of the round ball, we will look at the regulations of The Duke of Cumberland’s Sharp Shooters taken from HELPS AND HINTS HOW TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY, written in 1835 by Baron de Berenger. There were four classifications for the qualified shot. To achieve the Fourth Class, 50 yards, on a 30 inch target, five hits out of six shots taken off-hand carried the right to wear a black silk cockade. For the Third Class, as the Fourth, but at 100 yards, and a green centre for the cockade. The Second Class fired at 150 yards with three shots off-hand and three from a rest for an all green cockade. To attain the First Class, and still on the same thirty inch target, six shots were taken at 200 yards, but all from a rest. The all green cockade now sports a bronze skull and crossbones badge and the holders of this honour continued their shooting at ranges of up to three hundred yards.

This, then, was the limit of long range until we enter the percussion era.

Introduction | Historical & Literary References | Mechanically Fitting Projectiles |
Developments in France | Long Range Shooting