The Whitworth Rifle
was a single-shot
Single-shot firearms are firearms that hold only a single round of ammunition, and must be reloaded after each shot. The history of firearms began with single-shot designs, and many centuries passed before multi-shot designs became commonplace...
muzzle-loaded rifle used in the last half of the 19th century.
The Whitworth rifle was designed by Sir Joseph Whitworth
Sir Joseph Whitworth, 1st Baronet was an English engineer, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist. In 1841, he devised the British Standard Whitworth system, which created an accepted standard for screw threads...
, a prominent British engineer and entrepreneur. Whitworth had experimented with cannons using twisted hexagonal barrels instead of traditional round rifled barrels, which was patented in 1854. The hexagonal shape of the barrel and bullet meant that the projectile did not have to bite into grooves as was done with conventional rifling. In 1856, this concept was demonstrated in a series of experiments using brass howitzers.
Whitworth believed that the same type of system could be used to create a more accurate rifle to replace the Pattern 1853 Enfield
The Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle-Musket was a .577 calibre Minié-type muzzle-loading rifle-musket, used by the British Empire from 1853 to 1867, after which many Enfield 1853 Rifle-Muskets were converted to the cartridge-loaded Snider-Enfield rifle.-History &...
, which had shown some weaknesses during the recent Crimean War
The Crimean War was a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining...
. Trials were held in 1857 to compare Whitworth's design against the Enfield. The Whitworth rifle outperformed the Enfield at a rate of about three to one in the trials, which tested the accuracy and range of both weapons. Notably, the Whitworth rifle was able to hit the target at a range of 2,000 yards, where the Enfield was only able to hit the same target at a range of 1,400 yards.
While the trials were generally a success for the Whitworth rifle, the British government ultimately rejected the design because the Whitworth's barrel was much more prone to fouling than the Enfield, and the Whitworth rifle also cost approximately four times as much to manufacture. The Whitworth Rifle Company was able to sell the weapon to the French army, and also to the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.
Design and features
While the barrel design of the Whitworth rifle was innovative, the rest of the rifle was similar to other rifles and rifle-muskets used at the time. The rifle was muzzle loaded, and used a percussion lock firing mechanism. The lock mechanism was very similar to that used on the Enfield rifle-musket.
Whitworth chose to use a longer and more slender bullet than was common at the time, which resulted in a bore diameter of .451 caliber, significantly smaller than the Enfield's .577 caliber bore. Whitworth's bullets were more stable at longer ranges than the shorter and larger diameter bullets found in other rifles of the time. Whitworth also engineered the barrel with a 1 in 20 twist, quite a bit tighter than the typical 1 in 30–32 of rifles of that day. The extra spin further stabilized the bullet in flight.
The Whitworth rifle weighed 9 pounds. Other long range rifles of the period tended to have much larger and heavier barrels, which made them too heavy for standard infantry use.
Whitworth rifles, being used by sharpshooters, were usually rested against a tree or log while fired to increase their accuracy. Some sharpshooters carried their own forked rests for the rifle, so that a suitable rest was always available.
In 1860, the British National Rifle Association held its first annual meeting at Wimbledon. Queen Victoria fired the first shot from a Whitworth rifle on a machine rest at 400 yards, and struck the bull's-eye 1-1/4 inch from its center.
Britain was officially neutral during the American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...
. However, private arms manufacturers were not required to remain neutral, and the Whitworth Rifle Company was more than willing to sell their rifle to the Confederacy. The Confederate soldiers that used these rifles were referred to as Whitworth Sharpshooters
Whitworth Sharpshooters were the Confederates' answer to the Union sharpshooter regiments and used the English Whitworth rifle. These men accompanied regular infantrymen- their occupation was usually eliminating Union artillery gun crews.-The rifle:...
. They accompanied regular infantrymen, and were usually used to eliminate Union artillery gun crews.
According to popular accounts, on May 9, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union General John Sedgwick was chiding some of his troops for lying down in a ditch to avoid Confederate sharpshooters at a range of around 800 to 1000 yards. Shots from Confederate Whitworth rifles, easily identifiable due to the shrill whistling noises their hexagonal bullets made in flight, caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick strode around in the open and was quoted as saying, "What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Although ashamed, his men continued to flinch and he repeated, "I'm ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Just seconds later he fell forward with a bullet hole below his left eye. At least five confederate soldiers would later claim that they had fired the fatal shot.
Earlier during the war, the Whitworth was responsible for another high-ranking death. On Sept 19, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga, an unnamed Confederate sharpshooter mortally wounded Union General William Lytle, who was leading a charge at the time.
Whitworth rifles were made with barrel lengths of 33, 36, and 39 inches, giving the weapon an overall length of 49, 52, and 55 inches respectively. The barrel was attached to the stock using two or three barrel bands, depending on the barrel's length.
Two types of bullets were used in the Whitworth rifle, hexagonal and cylindrical. The cylindrical bullets had a small hollow base which would expand and grip the hexagonal sides of the barrel, which required that the bullets be made out of very soft lead. The cylindrical bullet, however, easily upsets into the hexagonal bore under the influence of the explosion of the charge of between 80 and 90 grains of fine rifle powder used for this particular firearm - recovered bullets fired from a Whitworth rifle are as hexagonal as their factory-made counterparts. The hexagonal form bullet did not need to expand to properly grip the barrel, and therefore could be made out of a harder alloy than pure lead.
The sights used on Whitworth rifles varied. Some used Enfield type flip up sights that were graduated to 1,200 yards in 100 yard increments. Others used a sliding blade sight with an adjustment for windage. Some had simple fixed front sights, while others used a post and globe front sight. A small number of Whitworth rifles were equipped with a four power telescopic sight, designed by Colonel Davidson which, unlike modern rifle scopes, was attached to the left side of the weapon instead of the top. While the telescopic sight was very advanced for its time, it had a reputation for leaving the user with a black eye due to the rifle's fairly substantial recoil.
The typical Confederate rifle in the U.S. Civil war had a barrel length of 33 inches, open sights with the front blade being adjustable for windage, and a stock which extended to within a short distance of the muzzle, giving the rifle a snub-nosed appearance.
Modern reproductions of Whitworth rifles are manufactured by companies such as Parker Hale, Pedersoli, and Euro Arms. These rifles are used by Civil War re-enactors and those who have an interest in 19th century weapons.