Long Range Shooting: An Historical Perspective (4)

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

By: W.S. Curtis

It is to France that we must look for the beginnings of the trail that led, effectively, to the later developments of the 19th Century. The French were a growing military and colonial power with interests in North Africa and the Levant. During the conquest of Algeria (which despite modern sentiment was necessary for the suppression of the Algerians, as evidenced by the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816 when a combined fleet from the civilised world, including vessels from that great anti-colonial Republic, the United States of America, were forced to act in exasperation at the depredations of the Corsairs), the French found themselves at a disadvantage against the long barrelled North African Snaphances and Flintlocks used by the tribesmen which easily outranged the French service muskets of the Waterloo type. The Arabs were practising "Long Range".

The French had almost abandoned the rifle during the Napoleonic Wars. Their equivalent to the Baker was the Carabine de Versailles which was basically just a typical German Jaeger rifle. Accounts of the use of these are sparse although Colonel Peter Hawker in his JOURNAL OF A REGIMENTAL OFFICER, published in 1810, claims that the wound he sustained at Talavera in 1809, and which finished his active service career when still a Captain, was caused by a rifle ball.

The French campaigns in Algeria lasted from 1830 virtually until De Gaulle decided to abandon the place in the 1960s. The need for rifles was obvious. The Carabine de Versailles was hopelessly obsolete even assuming that there were any left in the arsenals.

As far back as 1826 Gustave Delvigne, a French Infantry Officer, was seeking a means of reducing or eliminating the windage in the smooth bore musket. In all the service arms of the period a large allowance was made for this. In the British service a ball of 14½ to the pound was used in a barrel of the diameter of 11 to the pound. This was a difference of some 50/1000 of an inch and although the paper of the cartridge took up much of it, a lot of gas escaped around the ball with a consequent loss of both velocity and accuracy. Delvigne devised a method whereby the interior of the breech was made a smaller diameter than the bore and when the ball, which was a loose fit in the barrel, came to rest on the shoulders of the constricted area, a couple of blows with the iron ramrod forced it to expand until it was a tight fit. The resultant loss of the windage enhanced the velocity of the ball but the misshapen ball had become a poor shape in ballistic terms.

At the same time he was also applying this idea to the rifle with a view to avoiding the problems of the old system, called by the French "Balle Forcée", where the patched ball was driven into the barrel and forced to take the rifling on the way down by blows from a mallet or a heavy iron ramrod. His first rifles on this system were offered to the Land Artillery and contemptuously rejected, but on 29th September 1829 his rifle with a calibre of .590 (15mm) was sent to Toulon by the order of the Minister of Marine for naval trials.

Various modifications were introduced by Poncharra, Thiery and Brunéel in which the ball was supported on the shoulder of the breech by wooden wads or sabots to prevent its being deformed too much. These systems did not last for long and gave way to the Pillar Breech designed by Thouvenin. In this a chamber was formed in the breech, not by constricting it, but by inserting a vertical pillar into the breech face around which lay the powder. The ball was similarly expanded by being crushed between the ramrod and the pillar. This system was used by other countries. For example the Prussian Model 1810 Rifle was converted to percussion with a new breech incorporating a pillar and renamed the Model 1835. In the British service the .577 Rifled Cavalry Pistol Pattern 1856 had the pillar although no other service arm was to have it and it was removed from the pistols by 1860.

The importance of the Thouvenin breech only becomes apparent when it is considered in conjunction with the Tamisier bullet for here we see a bullet that is recognisably like the American Burton which achieved such prominence in their Civil War and is used today by almost everyone who shoots the Enfield or Springfield rifles. Captain Minié applied the principle of the expanding cup to the Tamisier bullet and thus removed the need for the pillar. The finishing touch to this form of the expansive bullet came from Colonel Boxer with the boxwood (later baked clay) plug before Whitworth and Metford’s long bullets expanded themselves without the aid of plugs by the inertia of their mass.

The French rifles of this period show a sudden flowering of sights suitable for long ranges. Around 1840 a hinged bar which could be raised to the vertical was pierced with a series of holes marked for ranges up to 600 metres. However, in 1846, the Carabine Modele 1846 suddenly sprouts what must be regarded as the first modem sight. It is that seen subsequently on all our service arms from the 1851 Minié to the Long Lee Enfield, but like the 1851 Minié it has no side protection such as was introduced with our Pattern 1853.

The recorded range on the top of the 1846 sight bar is 1,000 metres or 1,100 yards, the slider moves between 200 and 900 metres and the 100 metre sight is taken with the bar laid flat. A true "Long Range" sight has now arrived.

These developments in the late 1840’s sparked off a fever of imitation, speculation and experimentation accompanied by an almost total lack of comprehension of the principles involved on the part of many of the leading rifle makers. Many of them tried putting Minié type sights on any and every rifle that they thought would sell better with them or else applied them at the whim of their equally uncomprehending customers. Two surviving examples illustrate this. The first is a Purdey finished in 1852 in half inch bore with two groove rifling for the winged sugar loaf bullet. The other is an 1852 double barrelled Lancaster Oval Bore in .53 calibre. Both have Minié type sights to 1,000 yards added to the usual range of leaves. It can be stated with complete confidence that neither could hit a barn door at 1,000 yards and probably not even the barn.

On the literary side the speculation was just as wild and the technical knowledge of the authors equally as lacking. Colonel Chesney’s OBSERVATIONS ON THE PAST AND PRESENT STATE OF FIREARMS AND THE PROBABLE EFFECTS IN WAR OF THE NEW MUSKET published in 1852 quotes THE CEYLON TIMES from early in 1852: "The Comte de Belloy and his friends used on this occasion two French rifles having four grooves taking one whole turn in two metres or 192 inches [This is actually five metres!] in the length of the barrel which is 42 inches. The ball used was of lead 0.672 inch in diameter, 1.158 in height, weighing 730 grains; and with a charge of only nine grains, it penetrated and passed beyond an inch plank at the distance of 900 yards." There is then an illustration of a cannelured Minié bullet with an iron cup. General Paixhans in CONSTITUTION MILITAIRE DE LA FRANCE (Paris 1849) describes experiments with a new rifled carbine requiring only 4½ grains instead of 9 to propel a ball nearly double the weight formerly used. It must be remembered that the term "ball" here does not mean a sphere. Ranges extended to a quoted 1,093 yards when six out of one hundred hits were made. These amazingly small charges are simply explained by realising that in the translation the term Grain has been substituted without recalculation for the French Gramme which weighs 15½ Grains and would produce the French service charges.

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