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"This Barbarous Weapon"
The career of the Ferguson rifle: How was it developed, and why did it not survive its inventor?
Editor's Note: More than 25 years ago, Lance Klein first encountered the innovative technology of Patrick Ferguson's screw-breech patent. Klein has organized years of research into the first book-length biography of Ferguson since 1888: Major Ferguson's Revolutionary Invention: Patrick Ferguson and his Rifle Then and Now. "This Barbarous Weapon" is based on portions of his book.
"This Barbarous Weapon", the Ferguson Rifle
June 1, 1776
London, EnglandThe Annual Register [recorded for June 1, 1776] reads: "Some experiments were tried at Woolwich...with a rifle gun upon a new construction by Captain Ferguson of the 70th Regiment, when that gentleman, under the disadvantages of a heavy rain and a high wind, performed things, none of which have ever before been accomplished with any other small arms..."
At the beginning of the American Revolution, then captain Patrick Ferguson demonstrated for the British army this rapid-fire breech-loading rifle. During the Revolutionary War Ferguson commanded the only British soldiers using his patented rifle. Four years after his demonstration, he died with his men in one of the war's strangest battles.
Ferguson intended his patent to solve the most significant military-mechanical problems of his day. Since his technology was a significant improvement over that of any other infantry weapon of the muzzleloading era, why did it vanish with such slight impact?
Why were breech-loading long arms marginal weapons until the 1840s?
Ferguson's screw breech was a radical departure from the status quo. To understand how extreme it was, you must recognize tactics of eighteenth-century [musket] warfare as a function of European society and culture.
Ferguson's breech-loading rifle matures
The story begins with Ferguson's service in Germany and Flanders at the end of the Seven Years' War. He had come into contact with a few of Britain's German allies who were armed with clumsy rifles. He learned the value of light infantry for counterinsurgency, and the advantages of aimed fire, fighting nasty little wars in Britain's Caribbean colonies during the late 1760s and early 1770s.
Close-up of Enlisted Man's Ferguson Rifle disassembled, showing inletting for flintlock.
While in the West Indies, he had rifles made to his specifications in England for use against Black Carib insurgents. A breechloader on John Warsop's system was the best. Using a separate wrench, its vertical plug could be unscrewed perpendicularly from the bottom of the barrel, exposing the chamber for loading. The rifle shot well and accurately. Its oversized ball completely sealed the rifled bore. However, because it loaded from the bottom, it was slow and complicated to use.
"Durs" Egg, a Swiss-born London gunmaker, had made several rifles for Ferguson in 1770 on Warsop's system. On these, though, the plugs were attached rigidly to each rifle's trigger guard. This assembly became the plug wrench, rather than using a separate wrench as Ferguson had done in the West Indies. Although a substantial improvement over a separate wrench, the trigger guard required twelve turns to completely uncover the chamber. And the threads of the long plug fouled badly. Fewer than ten accurate shots were possible before cleaning the breech was necessary.
Returning to Britain in 1774, Ferguson sought to correct these defects by using a multiple-start, one-pitch breech and plug. Instead of turning a single-start threaded plug twelve times, he would turn a ten- or twelve-start threaded plug once. A problem was finding gunmakers who were able to make a tight multistart, one-pitch thread in 1775.
A design refinement was that his breech plug's threads were interrupted with vertical slots. Fouling that would collect on the threads would be forced into these cavities, then fall off the threads upon opening the action. Fouling that did not fall off was accessible to be wiped off.
Ferguson's military rifle prototype was 50 inches long, weighed 7 1/2 pounds, and had a movable rear sight to accommodate ranges from 100 to 500 yards. Its 34-inch barrel was short for an infantry long arm. It had a breech plug that passed perpendicularly through the barrel's breech and opened on a smoothly-moving screw thread by a single rotation of the trigger guard. When the breech plug was lowered, the barrel's breech was exposed, into which a round ball could be inserted. With the muzzle pointed downward, the ball rolled to the front of the chamber and was retained by the rifling's lands. It required no wadding or patch, nor was a prepared cartridge necessary. A powder charge poured directly from powder flask into the opening behind the bullet filled the chamber. A single complete reverse turn of the trigger guard caused the breech plug to rise, closing the opening at the top of the barrel and ejecting any surplus powder. With flashpan primed, the rifle was ready to fire.
That part of the barrel acts as receiver (A) with vertical breech (B) [plug] are heat treated, case hardened steel. The Ferguson breech is different from any other. Loading though the breech's 7/8-inch vertical opening (C), the sphere rolls forward until stopped by a lip, or venturi shoulder radius, or taper, or by its engaging the barrel's rifling. Projectiles seal the barrel from windage - that is, from propulsion gases blowing ahead of the ball on its way out of the muzzle - an unfortunate but normal occurrence when loading from the muzzle. The vertical breech does not - repeat, does not - serve the same purpose as does a cartridge rifle's breech bolt. There is no stress or pressure from ignition [that threatens] to blow the breech bolt from the mechanism. There is no brass gasket that must be precisely supported. The breech must deal with imperfect gas seals at its top and bottom. Long term, this is a wear resistance problem, not a strength problem. (Taken from Ferguson's book circa 1888.)
Politics and infantry tactics
Ferguson apparently used his own resources to develop his rifle. More than 200 years after the event, I am struck by how deeply and fundamentally his concept of aimed rifle fire conflicted with existing British infantry tactics, and with general European infantry theory.
Until the success of France's Revolutionary armies, the eighteenth-century model for battlefield effectiveness was the Prussian army of Frederick the Great. Infantry tactics tended toward linear movement and battles. For command control of a long line of infantry, or a mixed force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, soldiers must function essentially as one complex "soldier" following one set of instructions from one overall commander.
Control by one commander was essential for eighteenth-century warfare. Europe was an autocratic continent, each monarchy having a social hierarchy of varying rigidity. Private soldiers - infantry - were among those near the bottom of the social pyramid, and were frequently referred to as "cattle," or "the mob," or other dehumanizing terms. Their function was to obey. Part of the reason for demanding obedience stemmed from the social hierarchy in which they existed. And part of the reason was tactics forced on commanders by weaponry of the time.
The quick-fire connection
Originally implemented in the Prussian army, the practice of firing five times a minute became the mantra for training infantry throughout eighteenth-century Europe. The English-speaking world knew the tactic as "quick-fire." Prior to quick-fire, conventional loading by massed infantry was a complex dance-like drill. The specific sequence for accomplishing loading and priming weapons varied among European infantry. Regardless, infantry loaded while standing erect in closely packed ranks or columns to obtain better results from their military muskets. Were they to fire at will - that is, without officers keeping a unit's movements synchronized - individual infantrymen would interfere with movements of their neighbors. A chaotic, severe reduction of firepower and control of the mass of infantry would result.
To implement quick-fire the drill was changed and simplified in the interest of speed; five rounds a minute was presumed to mean success on the battlefield. Infantry dispensed with ramming the charge properly down the barrel. Instead, the soldier rapped his musket's butt on the ground, using the inertia of the severely undersized ball to seat itself sufficiently to be safe and functional. Powder from the main charge dribbled through the vent from the barrel's breech into the lock's pan. This reloading process reduced time needed to reload, achieving the magical five rounds per minute, at least for a short time, on the battlefield.
Emphasis on speed meant that divisions were now required to deliver fire as quickly as possible - in succession. To accomplish this staccato, nearly continuous effect, the colonel commanding, who had controlled his battalion as one single entity, no longer controlled exactly when each division was to fire. Authority to designate when to fire was transferred to the officer commanding the division. The first effect was intentional - a dramatic increase in the rate of fire which quick-fire advocates believed would inflict proportionately higher casualties. The second effect, though significant, was not immediately obvious. Forcing men to increase their reloading speed with the new streamlined drill, then to present their muskets as quickly as possible, caused a chaotic, severe reduction of control of infantry.
When using quick-fire techniques, after several volleys, order within units began to blur. Continuous noise caused soldiers to not hear their officer's commands. Black powder smoke from increased volume of fire obscured the battlefield. A division or platoon might fire a second or two early. Reloading as fast as they could, men would fire as soon as they were ready. Firing, which had begun as controlled, ordered volleys, metamorphosed into disorganized, uncontrolled individual fire. When this happened, officers had lost control. They were no longer able to stop the firing and resume the advance. The action became a prolonged firefight using inaccurate firearms.
While the mantra "five rounds per minute" was generally accepted, many tacticians questioned whether quick-fire could be maintained were a firefight to last more than one or two minutes. Although a veteran infantryman might be able to fire as many as five rounds in the first minute of a firefight, his rate quickly decreased to about three per minute. He could maintain three rounds per minute for only about eight minutes. The musket's barrel would become too hot for him to load using the manual of arms drill.
In this era of massed volleys, an individual soldier did not aim his musket, because to aim properly, the soldier must always choose the moment to discharge his weapon. Volley firing - that is, commander-controlled firing - meant that an officer determined the exact moment to fire for the mass or unit of soldiers he commanded. The likelihood that any soldier would have his musket accurately aimed at the command to fire was essentially zero. Soldiers along the firing line "leveled" their muskets before each volley by pointing them at the same general height or attitude, such as the middle of the enemies' bodies.
Confirming Ferguson's Theory
Ferguson ordered a dozen prototypes of his rifle in military configuration. They were stocked like conventional muskets and equipped with special bayonets. When the rifles were ready, Ferguson fetched them personally from London to Aberdeenshire. He and his servant tested these prototypes for the two problems Ferguson had been determined to solve - ease and speed of loading.
His tests showed these prototypes to reload more rapidly than any other rifle. Soon both men could fire more aimed shots than the best drilled regular infantry could shoot from smoothbore muskets using quick-fire. The prototypes were easy to reload while lying flat on the ground - prone reloading being notoriously difficult with conventional muzzleloaders - for at least twenty-four rounds after a complete cleaning.
Ferguson recruited ten local militiamen and trained them to handle his rifles. Including his servant, the twelve-man squad could fire more than 70 aimed shots per minute, exceeding quick-fire's five rounds per minute per person. These practical tests resolved Ferguson's doubts about his rifle's reliability and its usefulness in war.
So obvious were the virtues of Ferguson's rifle that the War Office and the Board of Ordnance invited him to demonstrate his rifle to a gathering of senior officers the summer of 1776.
On June 1, 1776, rain fell thick and hard at Woolwich Arsenal, England. Beneath tarpaulins several members of the British War Office and Cabinet huddled for protection on the shooting range. Just before the demonstration General Hervey commented to Ferguson, "Bad day for your show." Ferguson, confident or cocky, replied, "On the contrary, sir, a splendid day to show you what I have in mind."
That afternoon officers examined Ferguson's breech-loading rifles, the Enlisted Man's Rifle having its parts spread about on a table.
The principle of Ferguson's design, a perpendicular, vertically plugged, breech-loaded firearm, was not original. John Willmore's similar mechanism came late in the seventeenth century. A French Huguenot living in Britain, Isaac de la Chaumette, patented a similar system in 1704. In 1720, John Warsop made a flintlock breech plug design to which Ferguson's patent owed much. Warsop's single-start screw required between four and twelve turns to open or close. It needed to have its plug removed because the plug did not pierce the top of the receiver.
Ferguson's key improvements were completely piercing the breech from top to bottom; one turn to open or close; and the no-loss feature. The breech plug could not be accidentally removed or dropped in heat of combat. The barrel of the disassembled .68-caliber Enlisted Man's Rifle had twelve-groove rifling. The assembled Officer's [sporting] Model, also on the table, was even lighter and more graceful, with a thirty-inch barrel equipped with an integral, retractable bayonet.
The War Office assured Ferguson that adoption of his rifle by the British army was only a matter of time. Contracts to manufacture military rifles using his applied-for patent were let immediately. Orders for the first 300 rifles were placed in the summer of 1776. On December 2, 1776, English Patent number 1139 was issued to Patrick Ferguson covering "improvements in design of firearms." But instead of the wholesale re-equipping of infantry with Ferguson's rifles, General Sir William Howe, commander of British forces in North America, received orders authorizing only a single small corps to be armed with the new rifle. Ferguson would command this corps upon his arrival in Philadelphia.
Howe's staff created a table for a mixed corps' organization consisting of infantry and dragoons to combat the rebellion in America. However, problems during manufacture of the breech-loading rifle delayed Ferguson's departure from Britain. He arrived in New York City rather than Philadelphia with orders for his special corps, May 25, 1777.
To senior staff in America, Howe openly acknowledged the value of Ferguson's screw-breech rifle and his ability as a commander. Despite their performance, Howe made no reference to Ferguson or his breech-loading rifle in his official reports to the War Office. While Ferguson was recovering from the severe wound incurred at Brandywine, Howe disbanded his unit. Rangers returned to their old regiments, and "this barbarous weapon" - presumably all of the 100 rifles - were stored in a cellar in New York. Rangers were re-issued Short Land Pattern Muskets - the 2nd Model Brown Bess.
Before the American Revolution ended in 1783, the progress of Britain's war effort, including what led to King's Mountain, raised questions, some of them by General Washington. The common denominators among them was General Sir William Howe and his political associates.
As early as 1781, a prominent Englishman, Joseph Galloway, accused Howe of "losing the war on purpose." He charged that Howe, a member of Britain's Whig Party, had been an American sympathizer for years. When Howe had stood for Parliament in Nottingham in 1775, he said he would never fight against the Americans. But when the King ordered him to Boston, Howe could not refuse.
For years Americans had wondered why every time Howe had the Continental army nearly beaten, he refused victory. Squandered opportunities included: Long Island, where he had to issue repeatedly his order to halt his troops, preventing them from storming Brooklyn Heights; White Plains; Chatterton's Hill; Brandywine, where he could have followed up and destroyed Washington's army; and Valley Forge, when the Americans were sick, nearly helpless, and low on rations and ammunition. After Long Island, American General Israel Putnam said, "General Howe is either our friend or no general."
By Howe's own admission, he may have had political reasons for ordering Ferguson's breech-loading rifles into storage after their excellent performance at Brandywine. Political reasons caused him and other like-minded people to make sure that only 200 or so Ferguson rifles were produced. And political reasons caused him to ensure that his successor, General Sir Henry Clinton, would be reluctant to release more than 40 rifles from storage in a New York cellar.
What other factors contributed to blocking the career of the Ferguson rifle? I suggest the conservatism and parsimony of both the War Office and a Parliament reluctant to scrap existing weapons whose service life was approximately 50 years or 25,000 discharges.
Historians Howard L. Blackmore and James D. Forman believe that at the time of its manufacture, a Ferguson Enlisted Man's Rifle with bayonet was cost £4. This was 17 shillings more than manufacturing costs for muzzleloading rifles being produced for Britain's German mercenaries, and just over £2 more than the cost of a 2nd Model Brown Bess. According to Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry, technology for replicating the multistart screw thread for Ferguson's breech was available as early as 1763.
Matthew C. Switlik, director of museums for Monroe County, Michigan, made a Ferguson-type breech-loader with steel receiver and brass vertical breech plug in the early 1970s. He believes that gunmakers of the era needed an additional one- to one-and-one-half working days to manufacture a Ferguson production rifle compared with a Brown Bess.
In Britain, which then led the world in gunmaking skill, there was not enough production capacity to manufacture the close-tolerance multistart thread required for the breech mechanism. While at least 50,000 rifles would have been required to completely re-arm British forces, the capacity of the gunmakers in Britain to produce the multistart thread was probably less than 1000 per year.
While Ferguson's rifles were praised by all who examined them, I believe they were too far ahead of their time in construction details. Therefore, the Ferguson Rifle probably was not practical mechanically when invented, or for years to come.
Ferguson's rifle was the first standard military weapon capable of delivering accurate, aimed fire. For accuracy, it was at least equal to the more delicate, less powerful, and completely non-standardized Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle. It could deliver at least three shots for every shot fired by any other rifle, perhaps six times as many rounds as the usual American rifle of the Revolutionary War.
Part Two: Successful Machines:
Why Hall, Sharps, and Westley Richards Breech-loaders Were, and Ferguson's Was Not
Nearly all long arms before fixed metallic cartridges loaded from the muzzle. However, there were a few successful pre-fixed-cartridge breech loaders. While Ferguson's breech-loader was the eighteenth-century precursor, there were nineteenth-century breech-loading weapons that were successful and significant military technology. These include breechloaders by Hall, Sharps, and Westley Richards. From a manufacturing and political point of view, why did these succeed while Ferguson's breech-loader did not?
Successful production - that's the key. The most innovative idea in the world is useless unless it gets off the drawing board and into the hands of those who will use it to advantage.
Success is a chain
Except for being reloadable by way of [paper] cartridges, none of the subsequent breech-loaders is demonstrably superior to Ferguson's. I can make a convincing case for Ferguson's screw breech being at least marginally superior to any of them. Since Ferguson's breechloader failed and the others succeeded, intrinsic merit of the machines was not the factor for success or failure. One important factor was availability of industrial technology appropriate to solve the manufacturing problem.
In the eighteenth century, advances in steel technology and production centering in Sheffield led to the use of carbon steel (correctly termed crucible steel) in gunmaking. For three-quarters of a century, England had a monopoly on the manufacture of high quality steel.
Another link in the chain
But crucible steel, whose quality allowed a handful of British gunmakers to build a few hundred Ferguson rifles, was clearly not all that was needed for the rifle's success. The next link is the mechanization of industry, which began in England's textile industry. The British Industrial Revolution ran for a century, from about 1770 to 1870, the breakaway period of growth being about 1760-1770. Thus, the mechanization of British industry blossomed at the time Patrick Ferguson was developing his screw-breech rifle. The technology for machine production was being created as he conceived his breech. Unfortunately, this technology did not filter into gun manufacture anywhere in the world until Eli Whitney introduced the American System for making muskets in the 1790s. It was not until a generation later that John H. Hall induced the United States Government to produce his breech-loading muskets and rifles at Harpers Ferry Armory by machine. In Britain, it took American industrialist Samuel Colt to show how to really churn out product when he built his London factory for making percussion revolvers in the 1850s. But by then, Ferguson's screw-breech rifle was no longer revolutionary. Ferguson's screw breech was able, at last, to be manufactured as a commodity. But then no army, government, or frontiersman wanted it.
It was no accident that the first successful mass-produced, breech-loading long gun was made in the United States. Here, a method of manufacturing was created that would become a juggernaut - the American System.
There was no substantive improvement in designed-in reliability or durability from Ferguson's screw breech through Westley Richards' Monkey Tail (which was essentially the last step in the progression to cartridge firearms). Improvements proceeded from manufacturing technology. Although Ferguson's breechloader was a good one, neither the machinery to mass produce it nor the proper mindset within ordnance procurement existed.
John B. Lundstrom, of the Milwaukee Public Museum, told me that in autumn 1996, the museum's Ferguson Rifle was disassembled for the first time--by Jess Melot, on behalf of Philip Edwards. Proof markings found beneath the barrel confirmed their specimen as one of the original Fergusons circa 1776-1777. Lundstrom referred to the rifle as "one of the original hundred." When taking measurements on its breech, he discovered the vertical plug is tapered .100 inch from bottom to top - a Morse taper. The taper makes unlocking and locking of the breech easy when the rifle has been fired enough to cause severe build-up of powder residues. First unlocking rotation breaks the snug lock-up of screw breech. This changes screw engagement from nearly gas tight to very loose with only a few degrees of rotation. This is recognition that Ferguson's breech need be tight only when locked, that a sloppy running fit is advantageous for reliably quick reloads. Since this feature is not mentioned in his patent, was this desirable addition Ferguson's, or Durs Egg's?
Enlisted Man's rifles prevented breech plug loss by requiring additional rotations of the assembly to have it drop free. Later came trigger blade interlocking with trigger guard as on the Officer's [sporting] Model.
Dimensions of Narragansett's replica Ferguson rifles are based upon rifles in the Milwaukee Public Museum and the museum at the Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, New Jersey. Groove diameter of these barrels is .645 inch. Ball diameter is .648 inch. Since both rifles have identical internal dimensions, there was a change from prototype to production.
Researchers dispute the number of manufacturers and the number of rifles each one produced. There may have been only four manufacturers commissioned to make twenty-five rifles each, as actual production prototypes.
The Narragansett Armes Ferguson and the NMLRA
Phil Edwards, owner of Narragansett Armes, and Terry McClain, production manager, have graciously donated one of their company's reproduction Ferguson rifles to the NMLRA. Phil explained that his donation was motivated by a realization that the success of his company (and of most others that produce goods for black powder shooters) is based on activities promoted principally by the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association. Phil and Terry believe in giving back to the force that makes everything possible, and they hope that other manufacturers and suppliers will make similar donations in recognition of their indebtedness to the selfless promotion of our sport by the NMLRA.
John Miller, EVP, has announced that the generous donation by Narragansett Armes will be used as the basis for a capital fund-raiser for the NMLRA. The Organization will raffle off the Ferguson rifle by selling one thousand tickets at ten dollars each strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. No additional tickets will be printed or sold; when the thousand tickets are gone, some very fortunate person will receive a new Narragansett Armes Ferguson rifle. Tickets can be obtained by sending ten dollars per ticket (check, money order, credit card accepted) to NMLRA, c/o John Miller, PO Box 67, Friendship, IN 47021. The first one thousand tickets sold will be filled out and the ticket stub and a photocopy of the completed ticket will be sent by return mail. All monies received after the one thousand tickets are sold will be returned.