Baker Rifle (UK), small arms of the Napoleonic Wars

Rifles differ from flintlock muskets in that they possess a series of ridges along the barrel called Lands, separated by grooves. These gently twist as they go down the barrel and impart a spinning motion to a bullet after it has been fired, which stabilises its flight, giving longer range and greater accuracy. Rifles had been used for hunting for nearly a century, and the huntsmen had taken them off to war when they had been called up and Baker Rifle 1806created specialised troops such as Jagers, Chasseurs and Cacadores into the ranks of the infantry. American woodsmen had used them to good effect during the American War of Independence, and a British officer had developed a breech-loading mechanism. So why did it take another twenty years for the British Army to adopt a rifle? Colonel Patrick Ferguson had designed a breech-loading rifle in 1774 and submitted an order to manufacture 100 of them to arm a detachment during the American War of Independence. The rifles were used very effectively but Ferguson was wounded in 1777 and later killed, and so the main advocate for the use of these weapons was lost. General Howe had the weapons placed in storage and with the end of the war, further trials were largely abandoned. The early battles of the French Revolutionary War saw the prominent use of skirmishers and so the British Army looked to expand its units available to fight in dispersed order. It realised that at least a proportion of these troops ought to be armed with rifles and so in December 1797, Parliament authorised the formation of the 5th Battalion, 60th Regiment, to be recruited from European (mainly German) exiles who had experience with this sort of weapon. The Board of Ordnance (a separate department to the Army that looked at procuring the best weapons for the British Army but also raised and trained the artillery and looked after all the Navy's weapons) ordered some 5,000 rifled muskets from Prussia but were not very happy with the performance of these rifles as they were originally designed for hunting, were slow to reload and had to be cleaned every few shots. In addition, the rifles that were delivered were not of the same quality as those that had been tested - a number were unusable and others had a different bore size, a major logistical headache for an army on campaign. The Board therefore decided to procure an indigenous rifle, particularly as the Army was formed a new Rifle Corps.

In early 1800, the Board decided to conduct a series of trials on a number of rifle barrel designs as part of a competition to find a rifle for the British Army. The Board invited a number of leading gun makers to Woolwich on 4 February 1800 to trial their designs and while no accurate record exists of what happened (there is only an unsubstantiated account in Ezekiel Baker's Remarks on Rifle Guns), in March 1800, the Board gave Baker an order for a number of pattern rifles and barrels so they could assess a variety of designs and calibres. Ezekiel Baker was a former apprentice to Henry Nock and had worked at 24 Whitechapel Road, London for some twenty-five years. He already held Government contracts for smoothbore muskets and pistols as well as supplying the Honourable East India Company. He had become involved with Coote Manningham, who was one of those responsible for the setting up of the British Rifle Corps and this, along with his being friends with the Prince of Wales, led to the choice of his design and an order for 800 rifles. Baker's initial design was of similar dimensions as a standard infantry musket but was rejected by Manningham as being too heavy. He then provided Baker with a German Jager rifle as a pattern to follow and they then looked at the calibre. The standard infantry calibre of .75 (to simplify logistics) was accepted, as was a 32in barrel but design changes led to the barrel being shortened to 30in and the barrel diameter reduced to .653 to enable it to use cavalry carbine shot of .625 calibre and to bring the rifle's weight down to roughly the same as a 'Brown Bess'. Rifling consisted of firstly eight (for the .75 calibre rifle) and then seven (for the .625 calibre rifle) rectangular grooves with a twist that made a complete turn in ten feet and therefore a quarter turn in a 30in barrel, although some accounts state there were 3 groove and octagonal barrels as well as a three-quarter turn. The rifle had a simple folding backsight with the standard large lock mechanism (marked 'Tower' and 'G.R.' under a Crown, although later ones had 'Enfield' but these only saw service after Waterloo) having a swan-neck cock as fitted to the 'Brown Bess'. Like the German Jager rifles, it had a scrolled brass trigger guard to help ensure a firm grip and a raised cheek piece on the left-hand side of the butt. Like many rifles, it had a 'butt-trap' or patchbox where greased linen patches and tools could be stored. The lid of the patchbox was brass and hinged at the rear so it could be flipped up. The stocks were made of walnut and held the barrel with three flat, captive wedges.

The overall length of the rifle was some 45in with a weight of around 9lbs, not including the bayonet. Following the German style, the rifle could be fitted with a 24in bladed sword bayonet that attached via a metal bar just behind the muzzle. Although this weapon made the rifle quite awkward to handle, it is important to remember that as the rifle was around 12in shorter than most of the contemporary muskets then in use, a long bayonet was vital if the rifleman had to engage in close combat. It is important to remember that the Baker Rifle was not a hunting rifle, but a mass-produced military firearm that was designed to be reliable, relatively easy to load and maintain and one that was 'soldier proof'. The American Long Rifle was more graceful, had greater accuracy and was more economical in its use of both powder and ball but was easily broken and took longer to reload. After the rifle had entered service, a number of modifications were made and variations appeared.  A lighter and shorter carbine version for the cavalry was introduced and a number of volunteer associations procured their own models, including the Duke of Cumberland's Corps of Sharpshooters who ordered models with a 33in barrel in August 1803. As the war progressed, what could be termed a 'second' pattern of Baker Rifle emerged and was fitted with a 'Newland' lock that had a flat-faced ring neck cock. In 1806, a 'third' pattern was produced that included a 'pistol grip' style trigger guard and a smaller patchbox with a plain, rounded front. The lock plate was smaller, flat and had a steeped-down tail, raised semi-waterproof pan, a flat ring neck cock and even had a sliding safety bolt. With the introduction of a new pattern Short Land Pattern Flintlock Musket ('Brown Bess') in 1810 with a flat lock and ring necked cock, the Baker's lock followed suit with what turned out to be a 'fourth' pattern. It also featured a 'slit stock' - the stock had a slot cut in the underpart of the stock just over a quarter of an inch wide. This was done after Ezekiel Baker had seen reports of the ramrod jamming in the stock after the build-up of residue in the ramrod channel or when the wood warped after getting wet.

Not all the rifles issued to the British Army were Bakers. The original carbine version proved to be too long for mounted troops and so during 1803 and 1805 there were further trials to test a number of shorter models. This time, Baker faced serious competition from a number of other gun makers including Henry Nock, Thomas Gill and Durs Egg and especially as he moved away from the tried and tested quarter of a turn to a half turn. The Board of Ordnance therefore chose Egg's rifled carbine with a quarter turn the length of its 20in barrel. The demand for the Baker Rifle continued to grow beyond the original 800 weapons that were ordered. By 1810, some four battalions (two battalions from both the 95th and 60th Regiments) had been equipped, as well as several units of the King's German Legion, such as the Brunswick Oels. This was in addition tom various volunteer formations that chose to constitute themselves as rifle units and the East India Company who ordered its first consignment in 1802. Around 2000 rifles a year were made in the Birmingham and London workshops between 1804 and 1815. For that period, Birmingham alone produced some 14,695 completed rifles, 32,582 barrels and 37,338 rifle locks. Storage space became short and a number of militia units were issued with the Baker Rifle, including Shropshire (1810), Pembroke (1811) and Caernavon (1812). The rifle remained in service until the late 1830s and was gradually replaced by the Brunswick Rifle, although units in far-flung outposts of the Empire continued to use them until the early 1840s.

Bibliography

Henderson, Robert. 'Loading and Firing the British Army Baker Rifle, 1799 - 1815', located at http://www.militaryheritage.com/bakerrifle.htm, as of 23 January 2006.

Militaryheritage.com Website. Replica uniforms, equipment and firearm retail site. Currently located at http://www.militaryheritage.com/baker.htm, as of 23 January 2006.

Short Barrels and Long Bumpers Website. 'The Baker Rifle' Webpage, located at http://www.personal.usyd.edu.au/~slaw/SuesPage/baker.htm, as of 23 January 2006.

The Baker Rifle History Index Website, currently located at http://www.superaje.com/~joeh2/baker/historyindex.html, as of 23 January 2006.

'The Baker Rifle' Webpage, an article from the book Arming the Riflemen reproduced by kind permission at http://www.personal.usyd.edu.au/~slaw/SuesPage/baker2.htm, courtesy of the Royal Green jackets Association, Winchester, as of 23 January 2006.

The 95th (Rifle) Regiment of Foot Website. 'Development and Description of the Baker Rifle' Webpage, located at http://home.vicnet.net.au/~rifles95/rifle.htm, as of 23 January 2006.

The Sharpe Appreciation Society Website. 'The Baker Rifle' Webpage, currently located at http://www.southessex.co.uk/weapons/baker.htm, as of 23 January 2006.

Photo courtesy of the Militaryheritage.com Website.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Antill, P (3 February 2006) Baker Rifle, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_baker_rifle.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies