Early breechloaders and production technology


The line infantry combat of the late 18th century had - aside from skirmishers - two lines of three (British: two) ranks depth opposing each other and unleashing salvoes at each other with smoothbore muskets. The disciplined salvoes would degrade into uncoordinated single individual shots quickly as losses and fear break the discipline. The rate of fire of the best-drilled troops was 3 rounds per minute, but 2 rpm was more usual.
The muskets were not accurate at all, and even lacked real sights because sights were largely superfluous anyway. Even a large target such as a line formation of men would be hit by a few per cent of the men at 300 m distance, with salvoes fired much earlier than at 200 m distance being rare due to their inaccuracy.
_ _ _ _ _

Now imagine a breechloading (quick-loading) rifle such as the Ferguson rifle was introduced en masse.
The rate of fire would have been increased by a factor of two at the minimum. 
The lethality of aim would be multiplied by a factor of more than two at more than 100 m, and still be substantially better at less than 100 m.
As a consequence, the first salvo might have been unleashed at 400 m already, and at a stead 4 kph pace this would expose the advancing hostile line to three minutes of lethal and demoralising fire before they would commence firing at 200 m distance.
The riflemen would also have been able to reload and shoot while lying, allowing for a two rank deep formation of lying and kneeling riflemen. This would have reduced the target silhouette by about a third compared to the standing three rank line. A third rank would not be advisable because the blackpowder smoke would have blinded the riflemen if they stood in a too dense formation.

Such breechloading rifles would have yielded at least two firepower multipliers greater than four and a survivability multiplier and in addition to this the skirmishing would have been vastly superior and Lanchester's equations point out that the effect on the casualties taken would be even greater than the basic firepower and survivability multipliers.

So why wasn't such a rifle introduced en masse earlier?
No doubt the basic idea of a screw breech was known long before the Ferguson rifle!
(Actually, one such rifle dates back to 1667.)

For an answer, let's look at an even greater and even older marvel of firearms history:

That's merely anecdotal evidence, but it's nevertheless extremely likely that the (in)efficiency of production (thread cutting for the Ferguson rifle, intricate parts in the Lorenzoni pistol) was the culprit. That's also why matchlock firearms were much more affordable than wheellock firearms. The unreliable yet also cheap flintlocks firearms later replaced both, after a series of short-lived interim solutions.

Let's assume an ahistorical scenario: A 17th or 18th century prince had a genius of the kind of Leonardo da Vinci on hand and commissioned him to devise a manufactory for the cost-efficient quantity production of screws, rifled barrels and flintlocks. A decade later, an army depot would be filled with 25,000 screw breechloading rifles and copper engraving plates for rapid education on a new set of drills and tactics.
In preparation to a war the entire army would be retrained during a summer, producing a field army of 30,000* with vastly superior firepower ready for the beginning of the next campaign season in spring.
The result would have been an unbeatable army, and the dominance of its infantry firepower might have eliminated battlefield (shock) cavalry much sooner than historically and generations would have been deceived into thinking of artillery as rather unimportant in battles.

Real quantity production even with exchangeable (instead of laboriously fitted) parts became important only during the mid-19th century. The huge importance of this development is largely hidden to those interested in firearms history because the percussion caps, the Minié ball, the Dreyse needle rifle and metallic cartridge cases revolutionised firearms at about the same time.

A cheap thread cutting manufactory process devised and implemented in the early 18th century could drastically have changed Europe's or India's history.


*: Larger armies were unhandy, since they would take too long marching on a single road from one bivouac to another. That's why later on Napoleonic corps were roughly of this size and armies of 20,000 to 30,000 men were more common than all larger ones in military history. 

P.S.: Breechloading also offered advantages regarding cleaning the barrel of all the foul from burnt blackpowder. You can pull some cloth on a cord or small chain through the barrel to clean it, as with modern rifles. The Ferguson rifle wasn't quite optimised for this yet (nor had proper iron sights). 

Edit April 2016: I should have mentioned that the flintlock technology didn't really allow to exploit the full rate of fire of such small arms becuase the flintstones became unreliable quickly, after a few shots. A return to the pyrite-based and much more expensive hwelllock might have been advisable for these two firearms, but that would have increased the price even further.


  1. "The result would have been an unbeatable army, and the dominance of its infantry firepower might have eliminated battlefield (shock) cavalry much sooner than historically and generations would have been deceived into thinking of artillery as rather unimportant in battles."

    There you are overoptimistic IMHO in respect to cavalry attacks. A twice as high rate of fire would not have made the difference. Cav was already dead against good infanty, after mistakes of the infantry it does not really matter whether the infanty has breachloaders or muzzle loaders.

    Artillery did NOT become weaker because of higher rate of fire of the rifles, but due to the longer range of the Minie rifles the canisters of 6 pounder guns, the most important weapon against infantry, became useless, therefore, most of the guns. Here "Geschichte der preussischen Feldartillerie" by Müller (1873) discusses the evolution. The switch to (more) 12 pounders and/or shrapnels compensated for this.

    1. I know this thing about range, but I'm pretty sure it's a myth. The range of 8pdr and 12pdr smoothbore pieces of the 18th century was well in excess of 1,000 m already, and msot shots fired were solid ball.
      I suppose nobody would consider the Chassepot's 400-410 m/s muzzle velocity with heavy ball as more than a harassment option past 500 m today.
      Artillery was difficult to move, difficult to site well and then depended on having enough time to justify its expenses in a field battle. Infantry with about CW-like accuracy and twice the rate of fire would have left little to do for artillery, and lying/prone two rank lines would have been a much smaller target to bouncing cannonballs.

      About the cavalry thing; cavalry's main activity in battle during the 18th century was mounted skirmishing with carbines, and that would have been impossible against an army with Fergusons.

  2. SO: The argument Ulanspiegel put forward was that rifle-armed infantry could outrange artillery's primary infantry killer, which is purported to be canister. Not that they outrange artillery firing solid shot. It is a holdover from writings on the American Civil War, where a couple instances were taken as a "new rule," as writings on the ACW are so wont to do. I would argue that the standard munition is solid shot (ball) and that's true against infantry as well; since only infantry caught by surprise or ordered into an attack would advance within canister range - and I haven't heard of that being as much as 400m.

    There is, in either Grossman's "On Killing" or Keegan's "Face of Battle," an account of Prussian musketry tests. Here, companies were lined up against a large wooden plank target intended to represent an infantry unit in line formation at X, Y, Z distances and engaged. The hit proportion was substantially higher even at range than is commonly accredited, so the issue is less the weapon's technical limitations as a smoothbore and more the operational limitations. Obviously it's not as accurate as a rifle; that's not the question, it's moreso the maximum effective range being determined by shooter (rather than his weapon) and battlefield conditions. At a certain point people stop carefully loading their wounds with attention paid to wadding to minimize windage, people stop having distinct targets to aim at in the first place, etc, etc.

  3. I had previously considered doing a post on 19th century firearms, and the evolution of projectile and powder charge. For breach loading rifles, a chronological list goes like so: Hall rifle (1811), Delvigne rifle (1826), Dreyse needle gun (1836), Kammerlader rifle (1842), Sharps rifle (1848), Minie rifle (1949), Lorenz rifle (1854), Calisher and Terry carbine (1855), Colt revolving rifle (1855), Merrill carbine (1858), Chassepot rifle (1866).

    Anyway, I don't think that arming the main line of infantry with breach loaders would have influenced major battles by very much. Alot of soldiers weren't actually firing their weapons at the enemy, even though their lives were often in danger: This was particularly evident at the battle of gettysburg, where multiple close range volleys only brought down small numbers of men. When white europeans fought other white europeans in close order formations, many became reluctant to pull the trigger at what they saw as a fellow man. You should read dave grossmans book on killing.

  4. Sven,

    round balls were not able to kill enough at 1000m, therefore cavalry was often positioned within the range of enemy guns.

    The real killer against infantry and cavalry were canisters. Therefore, the effective range of the heavy canister ball was the range limit that was discussed as relevant: for a 6 pounder the maximum canister range was 200-250m due to the small number of balls in the canister. A group of men with Minie rifles could kill/decimate the guun crews at 300m range making 6pounders worthless after 1840.

    The style of cav attacks changed after 1860 because of the dramatically increased range of artillery grenades which would now kill the waiting cavalry in large numbers.

    BTW Ferguson rifles were too fragile for large scale use.

    And last but not least, the closed formations in the 18th/19th century allowed supervision of the soldiers, many of them would have deserted. Too many rifle men without change of attitude/morale would only give more deserters (with rifles). There were more than techological changes after 1840 that allowed the battles of 1866or 1870/71. :-)

    The rifle units were effective, because the men were trained to aim and were able to estimate ranges. Often theses units were still equipped with smoothbore muskets but still effective.


  5. "I know this thing about range, but I'm pretty sure it's a myth. The range of 8pdr and 12pdr smoothbore pieces of the 18th century was well in excess of 1,000 m already, and msot shots fired were solid ball."

    A competend battery CO knew that a solid ball would kill on average only 1 enemy soldier even when fired against close formations at 800m. It was usully considered a waste to do so due to the limited supply of rounds.

    And the enemy put of course their formations in the maximum range of guns, because he knew this limitation, too, and considered the losses as acceptable.

    The game changer were grenades/shrapnels with good primers fired by rifled cannon/howitzers. Again Müller (1873) gives a very good discussion and he explaines the reasons behind the critical decisions.


    1. *sigh*
      So we're talking artillery in a rifle production technology topic then.

      source "Waffen der Kabinettskriege":
      Cannister most effective outt o 350 m, useful out to 500 m
      Field artilelry cannons with 18 calibre barrels reached out to 1,800 m.
      Solid, ricochetting (bouncing) shot had 25% probability of hit on a single 25x1.9 m target at 1,000 m range, but the ball impacted up to seven times, so multiple successive lines could be hit. Ball was utterly devastating to Revolutionary armies' and Napoleonic armies' combat column formations.
      The true artillery were 6pdr to 12 pdr cannons + howitzers, while 3pdr and 4pdr cannons were regimental artillery, accompanying the infantry instead of serving as stationary or even massed batteries.

      6pdr cannons were affordable (35% of cost of a 12pdr considering the horses required) and thus the most numerous, but far from representing field artillery as a whole.

      The Minié ball's ability to hit group targets at maximum cannister range was likely decisive against the light infantry-accompanying regimental artillery, but not all that relevant against the guns that actually dominated battlefields with massed batteries when employed well (by reducing, demoralising even distant line formations and ruining column formations).
      Now from other sources; I know "On killing" and the Austrian 1866 battle experiences and so on, but they have no parallels in inter-religious Indian wars or in nationalism-driven wars of Europe.

      Furthermore, if you know as a prince that your infantryman may be 4x as powerful as a Prussian fusilier you'd be motivated to treat and especially pay him accordingly, producing the required level of loyalty and utility.

      Last but not least, whatever percentage of men avoided killing, this sure affected musket-armed troops a lot as well. So it's not really a factor for the relation of firepower. If anything, the less vulnerable Ferguson riflemen would be less under stress than standing musketeers.