Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rifling: History

The inventor of a rifled barrel is alleged to be one of two inventors, both of them German-speaking. According to The Gun and its Development, one was Gaspard Kollner of Vienna, sometime in the 15th century, others allege that his grooves were straight in nature and the first spiral grooves came from Augustus Kotter of Nuremberg in 1520. Regardless, a lot of the early rifling development came from German speaking areas. The Germans already had a history of manufacturing crossbows that would spin their bolts in flight (either by shaping the arrow head, arranging the feathers of the arrow slightly off center, or by passing the arrow through a tube with grooves in it to impart spin), so they were aware of the basics of rifling and its benefits, even before they started manufacturing firearms. So while the British military took until the 1850s to start issuing rifles to their forces (British troops used the venerable Brown Bess smoothbore musket for a very long time), the forces of the Landgraf of Hesse were already using rifled weapons by 1631 and Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, had several troops using rifled arquebuses by 1640. In the early days, most infantry commanders of other countries did not like rifling because it was harder to clean gunpowder recidue which got into the grooves.

During the American war of Independence, British troops found to their peril that American militias using their trusty Kentucky long rifles had much more deadlier aim that the Brown Bess. The Kentucky rifles actually originated in the Pennsylvania area (hence, they are also called Pennsylvania rifles) and were copies of German Jaeger (a German word meaning "hunter") rifles, whose designs were brought over to America by German immigrants. Some British units such as the Hessians, also had rifles like the Americans. The Hessians were German mercenaries from Hesse and some of them were equipped with their own Jaeger rifles as well. The Ferguson rifle was also briefly used by British forces during the American revolution. The British also issued some Baker rifles in the early 1800s to select troops alone. The Baker rifles were also based on the Jaeger rifle and its inventor, Ezekiel Baker, was handed a Jaeger rifle and asked to clone it! It was alleged that the Duke of Wellington was the one that prevented rifles from being adopted earlier by the British. After he'd won the battle of Waterloo, he obstinately refused to consider any new small-arms technology. It must be noted that the Enfield rifle was issued to British troops shortly after his death.

The Kentucky/Pennsylvania rifle and the Baker rifle are both based on the Jaeger rifle and hence share many of its characteristics. The rifles were all muzzleloaders since these were cheaper to manufacture. The bullets were a size smaller than the barrel diameter, but they were wrapped in plenty of cloth wadding to provide a tight fit in the barrel. The rifle barrels had 7 to 8 spiral grooves cut into them and the barrels were between 30-36 inches in length, depending upon model. American Kentucky rifles had longer barrels from 36 to 48 inches or so. Overall length of the rifle was around 45 to 50 inches or so, except for the Kentucky rifles, which could be as long as 60-65 inches long. In general, gunsmiths made the rifles not exceed the height of the chin of the customer, so that he could see inside the barrel while loading it. The stock of the rifle was usually made of walnut or curly maple, since these woods tends not to warp as much in different weather conditions, thereby maintaining accuracy. As an extra bonus, these woods also have a beautiful appearance and are pretty durable in nature. A distinct feature of these rifles was that on the side of the wooden stock was attached a built-in metal patch box, sometimes carved with beautiful scroll work. The lid of this patch box was usually hinged in the back and was about 6-7 inches long. Inside here would be stored greased cloth patches to wrap bullets in before inserting them into the rifle. The patch box was also used to store cleaning tools for the rifle. Other distinct features were a brass trigger guard with scrolling for better grip and a raised metal cheek-rest on the wooden stock to better facilitate aiming. Typical firing mechanism was flintlock, which was state-of-the-art at that time. Since making the flintlock mechanism needed some really specialized technical skills (such as spring making and metallurgy) not usually available on the American frontier, American gunsmiths often imported the firing mechanisms in bulk from English gunsmiths and attached them to their rifles. These weapons were accurate to at least 400-500 yards or so, though there are documented instances of skilled marksmen hitting their targets at a range of 800 yards.

(Click image to enlarge)
The above image is an example of a beautiful Jaeger rifle. Note its distinctive long patch box (A) which is embedded into side of the the stock of the rifle. The hinge of the patch box is located roughly where the letter A is on the figure and the lid of the patch box has a beautiful carved brass inlay (shaped as <==>) attached to it. The heel plate of this rifle is also brass. The elaborate trigger guard (B) is also made of brass and is shaped to provide a comfortable grip to the user. The firing mechanism (C) is a flintlock as is typical of weapons of this type. The firing mechanism is antique blued to prevent rusting. The wooden stock is made of fine European walnut, characterized by the dark black streaks in the deep brown wood. The wooden stock and the firing mechanism are covered with elaborate carvings and etchings, which characterizes a fine rifle of this type. While this is a presentation quality weapon, it is still capable of deadly accurate shooting as well and is made to last for years.

The next image below is a Baker rifle

public domain image courtesy of wikipedia.com

As this is a British military rifle, it doesn't have the elaborate carvings and scroll-work of the presentation quality jaeger rifle. This saves on cost of manufacturing the weapon. However, you can still see its jaeger heritage in the design by noting the distinctive patch box on the side, the elaborate trigger guard and the antique blued flintlock mechanism. The wood is English walnut which has the same hardness, durability and resistance to weather as European walnut, but only lacks the rich reddish brown color of European walnut. Note the distinct black streaks in the brown wood that are characteristics of walnut wood.

The last example we have here is an American Kentucky long rifle (or Pennsylvania rifle):

Image courtesy the State Museum of Pennsylvania. Click on image to enlarge.

Though some of these weapons were customized works of art, this particular specimen is more utilitarian because a typical American backwoodsman traditionally cared more for the durability and functionality of the weapon than for beautiful engravings and inlays. You can see its jaeger heritage by the brass patch box in the stock, the distinct brass trigger guard and its flintlock firing mechanism. This particular specimen has a stock made of curly maple wood, since this wood was far more commonly available in North America than walnut. This wood has similar qualities to walnut and is also very durable, weather resistant and beautiful.


  1. Image for the Pennsylvania Rifle is missing.
    Great instructive blog you got here, i'm totally hooked to it !

    1. Fixed the missing image. Thank you for reporting it and thank you also for your kind words of encouragement.