For the historians: Military rifle design

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John Spartan

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Going through my collection of 150 years of military rifles this weekend though my Napoleonic era stuff are replicas but correct dimensions. The overall length of the early 1800’s military muskets makes my 20th century stuff seem like toys.

But it got me to thinking about the design philosophy/intent of the early muskets. Was the great length to facilitate its use as a “spear” (with bayonet) or was it mainly for ballistic reasons? Or just convenient that the length took care (maybe?) of both reasons? Notice most early American “civilian” rifles are also long in barrel. Design philosophy of the times or ballistics?

Is there a “sweet spot” (velocity/accuracy vs useless friction drag) in black powder barrel length or too many variables?
 
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Hi John,
The long length of military muskets has mostly to do with their evolution from the early large matchlock muskets that were designed to be powerful sufficient to pierce armor worn by soldiers, particularly cavalry. Powder used by militaries was poor and the longer barrel used it more efficiently. Later, when the bayonet was invented, the long muskets combined the benefit of a gun with that of a pike. The early musketeers were protected from cavalry by ranks and files of pikemen. Eventually, the pikemen disappeared and military tactics developed to take advantage of the bayonet with better artillery taking over a lot of the role of protecting infantry from cavalry attack. Militaries are conservative and the long musket survived long after improvements in powder no longer required the long barrel. It was the value of the musket with the bayonet that preserved the length. Short barreled rifles were popular, particularly in the German principalities, as far back as the late 1500s. The patched bullet used powder more efficiently but of course was slower to load than a smooth bored musket. Civilian powder improved a great deal during the 1600s and most rifles were used for hunting purposes, although they were adopted by some armies mainly to arm sharpshooters protecting forts and castles. The short barrel was handy for hunting and was the most popular, however, European gunsmiths produced a few long barreled rifles well before they became popular in America. When militaries started using riflemen more in the 18th century, they all adopted the short barreled German designs. The British Baker rifle is a good example. It owes a lot to the short rifles carried by German Jaeger units. Why long barreled rifles became so popular in America is not clear. There were probably many reasons, the longer barrel might increase velocity of the ball requiring less powder and smaller caliber for the same impact. Native Americans may have influenced the design by preferring longer barreled trade guns during the 18th century and projecting that preference to rifles they eagerly desired. It may even be colonists were mostly familiar with long barreled fowlers and preferred those long barrels even when adopting rifles. There certainly were plenty of short barreled rifles in colonial America among the German immigrants but longer barrels really began to dominate in the second half of the century. I am afraid all we can do is speculate about why. Late in the 18th and during the 19th century, musket barrels were shortened but still pretty long. When expanding bullets were invented, there was no longer a need for special rifle units because all infantry could have rifles that loaded as fast as smoothbored muskets and also had a bayonet. Military muskets all over the world more or less converged on a common general design with 38-40" barrels shooting some sort of expanding bullet. Finally, breech loading combined with metallic cartridges and smoke less powder changed everything again.

dave
 

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So in the time of black powder, at first, it was muskets and pikes. The musketeers and the pikemen supported each other on the field.

Then the musketeers started to use a plug bayonet. Not as good as a pike, but the added firepower and larger, massed formations of men who could then transform their muskets into a pike, was a huge advantage. The disadvantage was one either could shoot or use the bayonet but not both in quick manner.

Then came the socket bayonet, and voila, the spear could shoot at any time and be loaded while the bayonet was used. Another huge advantage.

Meanwhile, hunters were using bows and crossbows. Then at about the end of the 1400's, apparently in the Free Imperial City of Augsburg [now part of Germany] what we call "rifling" was first introduced. A little more than 20 years later in The Imperial City of Nuremburg [also now part of Germany] the idea was improved upon, and at the same time the wheel lock was developed, also in Nuremburg.

It took a while for the idea to catch on over a large area. Rifled pieces were expensive, and took time to build. They at first were a rich fellow's hunting arm. This is why a century later, you have the fictional story of The Three Musketeers, not The Three Riflemen. As they were hunting weapons, it was found that the length of the barrel gave a shooter a better sight plane, and better shots were made. As much of Germany was not "old growth forest" but more akin to what most of us encounter in the United States today, and as a lot of hunters were mounted, shorter hunting rifles were developed, compared to longer target rifles. Germanic hunters wanted a large bore rifle that would hit hard and put the game down. Less tracking and less chance of losing the game in those thick, tangled forests (so the story goes), and perhaps the first application of ballistic impact to make up for what may have been less accurate barrels due to manufacturing skill at the time or what we'd call poor powder (just my conjecture; no reference for this). As time continued, the barrels improved but the style of the shorter barrel on the hunting rifle, what we call a Jaeger rifle, was established. The short rifles were brought over to North America by the Germanic gunsmiths, but other factors began a change. Apparently there was a great deal of "old growth forest" and accuracy was the key for the hunters in North America, BUT lead was also not in abundance and was expensive. Barrels started to lengthen and calibers reduced, as the accuracy would make up for less impact,. Even though men still moved about on horseback...., the hunters often if not always dismounted to hunt in the Eastern Woodlands. Rifles were still not using bayonets, even when riflemen were introduced into armies such as in Germany in the mid 1600's. George Washington's papers include a drawing of a collapsible pike for riflemen to carry to protect themselves from British (bayonet armed) light infantry.

Eventually rifling is introduced to military weapons for the common private, at about the middle of the 1800's, and since the musket had a bayonet, that remained BUT they called the weapon a rifled musket. It was a little while until the terminology simply referred to a private's weapon as a rifle..., and we call them that today, and they also still carry bayonets unto this very day.

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I always thought the long barrels were to allow shooting by 2 ranks of soldiers, the standing rank's barrels barrels would extend past the kneeling rank heads for safety.
Hi,
Long barreled muskets predate linear ranks by over a century. It is the barrel length plus bayonet that dictated the design not linear tactics. That is why the bayonet fitted to the Ferguson rifle was 24" long so the total length was the same as a musket and 17" bayonet. At the beginning of the 17th century (1600s) most European armies modelled themselves after the Spanish. They adopted the "tercio", a rectangular block of pikemen surrounded by roving musketeers. Although the term "rank and file" my go back to ancient Greeks and Romans, it was certainly applied to the tercio. You were assigned a rank (row) and a file (column), which determined your position in the tercio. The tercios were designed to counter cavalry and if not blown apart by artillery or exhaustion, were impervious to the horsemen. The musketeers roved shooting mounted troops and then seeking protection within the tercio to load. Tercios were arranged on the battlefield like a checker board with each supporting the others. Unless the formations were somehow blown apart by artillery or some circumstance, the battle turned into a shoving match between opposing pikemen until they were exhausted. These battles were rarely decisive and rarely "war ending" .

By the end of the century, the tercios were gone and linear formations of 2-3 ranks were adopted. This change was greatly advanced by the genius of Gustav Adolphus, the king of Sweden. Tercios were slow and unwieldy and the formations rarely offered a tactic to actually defeat an opponent except by simply overwhelming them with greater numbers. Gustav wanted speed and agility so he organized his armies into long formations of 2-4 ranks supported by light weight artillery. These could move fast, flank and surround tercios and blow them to bits. The artillery moved with the ranks and the Swedish cavalry kept opposing cavalry away. His success was noted and eventually by mid century, pikemen were on the way out and so was the tercio. Then the French invented the bayonet in the 1660s or so and now the musketeer could be his own pikeman and the speed and flexibility of linear tactics blew all the other formations away. This was the period when Turenne and the French armies dominated the continent. Eventually, by the end of the century, socket bayonets on flintlock muskets were the weapons of choice and the mobility of liner ranks created circumstances in which battles could be won and perhaps, decisive.
dave
 
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Going through my collection of 150 years of military rifles this weekend though my Napoleonic era stuff are replicas but correct dimensions. The overall length of the early 1800’s military muskets makes my 20th century stuff seem like toys.

But it got me to thinking about the design philosophy/intent of the early muskets. Was the great length to facilitate its use as a “spear” (with bayonet) or was it mainly for ballistic reasons? Or just convenient that the length took care (maybe?) of both reasons? Notice most early American “civilian” rifles are also long in barrel. Design philosophy of the times or ballistics?

Is there a “sweet spot” (velocity/accuracy vs useless friction drag) in black powder barrel length or too many variables?
I read somewhere, where the "old timers" knew that long barrels on civilian guns had no real ballistic advantage; it was just the style and common usage at the time. Don't know if that's true, but as to the bayonet's importance in 18th Century warfare, the length was certainly a factor; during the Revolution Era, bayonet charges as follow-ups to volleys were an important part of battle. The longer, the better!
 
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Hi,
Long barreled muskets predate linear ranks by over a century. It is the barrel length plus bayonet that dictated the design not linear tactics. That is why the bayonet fitted to the Ferguson rifle was 24" long so the total length was the same as a musket and 17" bayonet. At the beginning of the 17th century (1600s) most European armies modelled themselves after the Spanish. They adopted the "tercio", a rectangular block of pikemen surrounded by roving musketeers. Although the term "rank and file" my go back to ancient Greeks and Romans, it was certainly applied to the tercio. You were assigned a rank (row) and a file (column), which determined your position in the tercio. The tercios were designed to counter cavalry and if not blown apart by artillery or exhaustion, were impervious to the horsemen. The musketeers roved shooting mounted troops and then seeking protection within the tercio to load. Tercios were arranged on the battlefield like a checker board with each supporting the others. Unless the formations were somehow blown apart by artillery or some circumstance, the battle turned into a shoving match between opposing pikemen until they were exhausted. These battles were rarely decisive and rarely "war ending" .

By the end of the century, the tercios were gone and linear formations of 2-3 ranks were adopted. This change was greatly advanced by the genius of Gustav Adolphus, the king of Sweden. Tercios were slow and unwieldy and the formations rarely offered a tactic to actually defeat an opponent except by simply overwhelming them with greater numbers. Gustav wanted speed and agility so he organized his armies into long formations of 2-4 ranks supported by light weight artillery. These could move fast, flank and surround tercios and blow them to bits. The artillery moved with the ranks and the Swedish cavalry kept opposing cavalry away. His success was noted and eventually by mid century, pikemen were on the way out and so was the tercio. Then the French invented the bayonet in the 1660s or so and now the musketeer could be his own pikeman and the speed and flexibility of linear tactics blew all the other formations away. This was the period when Turenne and the French armies dominated the continent. Eventually, by the end of the century, socket bayonets on flintlock muskets were the weapons of choice and the mobility of liner ranks created circumstances in which battles could be won and perhaps, decisive.
dave
They say the bayonet came from the area of Bayonne in France; at least I've read that a million times in historical articles.
 
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Hi,
I think you are right. According to the entry for "bayonet" in Wikipedia, there was a long knife made in Bayonne, France during the 16th century that looked like the later plug bayonets during the 17th century.

dave
 
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Remington "Zouave"; Was at a swap meet recently for collectors and Re-enactors. One of the dealers had an Original Unfired Condition, with bayonet, Zouave. As we know these were not 'issued' and many of the old 1950's-early '60's N-NSA types used them for shooting because they were perfect and cheap at the time. Comparing the Original with the fine repros, there's no comparison. As nice as the repros are, the workmanship on a minty original is amazing. He had 3 grand on it, but I'm sure would take less; imagine the price of an original bayonet & scabbard alone.
 

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