This book focuses on the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a period that saw the rifle first begin to gain a reputation as a potent military weapon, the appearance of the first standardised rifles, the development of the percussion rifle, and eventually the production of rifles that were convenient enough to replace the smoothbore musket as the main infantry weapon.
The chapter on the development of the rifle is split into two parts – first looking at the flintlock rifles and then at the percussion rifles, each section being further subdivided by country.
The ‘Use’ chapter is also organised by country, then subdivided into training, ammo and tactics sections.
The ‘Impact’ chapter includes an examination of the historical record, looking both at what we know about the performance of these rifles, and their impact in battle, and the results of a modern ‘shoot-off’ between a surviving rifle and a high quality reproduction smoothbore musket.
I was surprised how little time was spent on target practice, which would seem to be the key skill for anyone armed with a more accurate weapon. However even in the reformed Prussian army enough powder was provided for only 60-80 shots per soldier per year, rising to 140-160 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but even this is less than a shot every other day!
In most cases we get very clear explanations of how these weapons worked, ranging from full diagrams of the firing mechanism to the different methods chosen to load and fire the rifles. This wasn’t at all straightforward, with the Austrian drill involving twenty-one steps to get from loading to firing (admittedly one of those stages is ‘prepare’)!
I would have liked a clearer explanation of exactly how the tube lock system worked – it isn’t exactly clear from the otherwise excellent diagram that the tube was inserted sideways into a hole in the side of the rifle, and at first I didn’t realise that the example in question was a muzzle loading gun, as we had already looked at some examples of breach loaders. The explanation of what a ‘patched ball’ was and why it was used should probably have been placed earlier in the text as well, although when it comes (during the section of US army rifle ammo) it is very clear
These are only very minor quibbles though. In general the book is a treasure trove of information, filled with little snippets I hadn’t seen before. This includes a fascinating section showing exactly how normal round bullets and the earlier conical bullets were loaded into French rifles – in both cases using ramrods to physically hammer the bullet into place, but with the conical bullet using a carefully shaped ramrod that left the tip of the bullet intact and squashed the base to seal the barrel.
This is one of those books that pack a deal of information into its pages. The informative text is supported by an excellent selection of photographs, with just about every rifle, type of ammo and piece of supporting equipment mentioned in the text illustrated by a modern photograph. Overall this is a very useful account of these surprisingly varied weapons, how they developed and how they were used.
Development – the evolving rifle
Use – The military art of the rifleman
Impact – the early rifles’ performance
Author: Balaza Nemeth