November 01, 2019
By Garry James
For the last 150 years or so, soldiers have been routinely armed with rifled arms. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when this wasn’t so. Up until the middle of the 19th century, the rifle was primarily a specialist’s tool carried by elite units. The men who composed these outfits were chosen not only for their superior marksmanship, but for their higher intelligence, their ability to improvise and superior physical condition. They were a cut above the average infantryman who was armed with the simpler, less demanding musket. Militaries, always mindful of the bottom line, were not about to trust expensive rifles with anyone but the best, nor were they willing to assume the cost of the more extensive training required to produce any more top-notch riflemen than were absolutely needed.
Generally speaking, in the formative days of military riflery the main method of engaging rifling was to use a patched ball, though there were early efforts with the British Baker rifle to actually hammer a naked bullet down the bore. This technique was discarded as being too time consuming and detrimental to good accuracy, as the user’s arm could become shaky after going through the laborious process.
Loading a patched ball took considerably longer time than charging a smoothbore with a paper cartridge. A trained infantryman could get off about three shots per minute, whereas a rifleman would be lucky to load and fire one round in that period of time. British riflemen were issued with unpatched bullets so that in a pinch they could get operational if necessary.
The goal then was to figure out some way to allow a soldier to load and fire a rifle as fast as he could a musket and still maintain superior accuracy. The obvious solution would be to load a bullet that had enough windage to allow it to be rammed down easily and somehow engage the rifling when seated or fired.
The initial entry into the expanding-bullet sweepstakes was provided in 1832 by Captain John Norton of the British 34th Regiment of Foot who began his experiments in England after serving in India. Supposedly, based on the projectiles he had seen used by Indians in blowguns, Norton came up with a cylindrical bullet with a hollow cavity that ran almost the entire length of the bullet, and which contained a powder charge. Captain Norton submitted his invention to the British Select Committee on Firearms who rejected it out of hand, commenting, “A spherical ball was the only shape of projectile adopted for military purposes.”
In the meantime, French designers were coming up with their own schemes. One, contrived by Captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne, involved a round bullet that could be expanded on a ledge above the powder chamber in the breech by several thrusts of a heavy ramrod. It worked fine and was further improved upon by Lieutenant Colonel Pontcharra who added a patched, wooden sabot beneath the ball to reduce deformation. The system, called the armes à chambre rétrécie, was adopted by the French military for use in several arms including a hefty 20mm rampart gun. The author experimented with this arrangement and found it to work quite well, though loading was still not as fast as with a smoothbore.
We now return to England where, in 1837, the Board of Ordnance had decided to retire the venerable British Baker service rifle in favor of another muzzle-loader: the Brunswick. Besides being Britain’s first percussion service arm, the Brunswick fired a patched round ball girdled by a belt that mechanically fit into a pair of rifling grooves within the barrel. Like the Baker, it was a short arm intended primarily to be issued to the 95th and 60th Rifle regiments, but some also found their way into militia, and even the Royal Navy.
The Brunswick arrangement worked OK, but wasn’t really all that much of an improvement over a plain patched round-ball. Still, it remained in service for some 20 years. Interestingly, the Russians adopted an almost carbon copy of the Brunswick, though it had more sophisticated sights and its projectile was conical with two opposing studs at the base to engage the rifling. This was the primary Russian rifle to serve in the Crimea.
Around the same time, the respected British gunsmith, William Greener, was undertaking some research of his own. His entry into the expanding bullet field involved an oval-shaped projectile with a deep, narrow chamber and a tapered cast metal plug with a flat base inserted into the cavity. The ball was easily muzzle-loaded, and when the arm discharged, the plug was driven up into the cavity where it expanded the bullet. Even though it was tested with relative success by the Board of Ordnance, it was ultimately rejected on the rather specious basis that it was a “compound projectile.”
Back across the channel, the French still hadn’t given up on rammer-expanded bullets. In 1843, Captain Louis-Étienne Thouvenin proffered his carabine à tige in which a conical bullet, previously devised by artillery Captain François Tamisier, was expanded by a central pillar which jutted out in the center of the breech. This caused less deformation of the bullet than the Delvigne, and like its predecessor, was adopted for use in some French military arms. The tige was also seen in civilian guns, including and interestingly enough, a couple of models of elegant percussion revolvers produced by noted Parisian gunmaker Jean-Louis François Devisme.
By the 1840s, the quest for the ideal muzzleloading infantry rifle was progressing in the right direction. In 1849, French Army Chef D’escadron (“Squadron Leader”) Claude-Étienne Minié, serving at the Vincennes military school, developed a bullet inspired by Captains Delvigne’s and Montgomery’s previous efforts. It had a hollow cavity that contained an iron cup in the base to help with expansion. The bullet worked and worked well, though French ordnance officials complained that often the cup was driven through the entire body of the projectile by the explosion, leaving the shooter with a lead tube stuck in the barrel. Once there, it had to be laboriously extracted by worming it out of the bore. Captain Minié modified his bullet, removing the iron cup and replacing it with a wooden one which performed more satisfactorily. Over the years, the French Minié would undergo a number of cavity changes, ultimately eliminating the expander; but that’s a story for another time.
Word of the efficacy of this new French bullet spread rapidly, and it wasn’t long before it caught the attention of the British Board of Ordnance. Previously, Arthur Wellesley, commander-in-chief and regarded as the oracle-of-all-things-military, had espoused the view that the British soldier should be equipped with the most up-to-date material, so it was not difficult for Master General of the Ordnance Marquess of Anglesey, to convince Arthur the Iron Duke to take a look at the Minié. His main stipulation was that the weight of the new bullet should match that of the current musket ball, and the cartridges should be as close to the same weight as possible. Also, the arm was to be of standard musket configuration and issued to all regiments, thus differentiating it from the unique styles carried by rifle regiments. Extensive testing was carried out using Belgian and French Minié rifles; the former was supposedly especially favored by the British and the one used as a starting point for their own rifle musket.
In 1851, it was decided to officially adopt the Minié. While the British Pattern 1851, as it was called, was supposedly based on Continental arms, it in fact adhered very much to the English style, looking almost identical to the Pattern 1842 smoothbore which it was to replace. Though slightly lighter build than the ’42, caliber was .702. The 39-inch, 1:78 twist, four-grooved barrel was secured to its full-length walnut stock by a trio of bolts or “barrel keys.” Furniture was brass and overall length was 55 inches. In place of the P42’s simple fixed rear notch, the P51 was fitted with a sophisticated ladder-style back sight graduated to 900 yards.
The Pattern 1851 was set up to take a 17-inch bladed-triangular socket bayonet which affixed to the barrel by means of a combination front sight/bayonet stud and Lovell spring catch. Interestingly enough, while the 1851 could handle the Pattern 1842 bayonet, a new pattern was authorized in 1851 with slightly different socket dimensions and an altered zig-zag channel.
P51 cartridges were carried in a double-flapped leather cartridge box fitted with tinned liners to contain cartridges/cartridge packets. It was slung on a wide, white buff-leather cross belt. (The belt for the Rifle Brigade was black, as were all the Brigade’s belting.) Percussion caps were initially carried in small lined pockets sewn into the soldier’s tunic, but when a waist belt was introduced in 1850, some units (not all) attached a small leather pouch to the belt, making the caps considerably more accessible.
The bullet style adopted for the P51 was considerably different than that of the French model. It was sugar-loaf shaped, slightly tapered and smooth, and lacked the cannelures of its Gallic forebear. Weighing some 680 grains and having thick walls surrounding the central cavity, it was fitted with a dish-shaped iron expanding plug or “culotte.” The bullet was secured base-up in its paper cartridge.
To load the rifle, the soldier bit off the rear of the packet and poured the powder charge of 2½ drams (or 68 grains) down the barrel. He then inverted the cartridge and inserted the bullet, paper and all, into the muzzle then tore off the remainder of the envelope and rammed it home. Lubrication was effected by means of grease on the portion of the cartridge that surrounded the bullet. Unfortunately, the .690-diameter of the bullet was so tight in the .702 bore that after a few rounds of loading, it became difficult, thus negating some of the Minié’s advantages. Still, accuracy was superior to the old model, and soldiers were routinely able to keep shots on targets aimed at 200 yards distant; often either farther.
One problem that appeared early on in the loading process was the fact that the tapered configuration of the bullet often resulted in rounds being loaded cocked at a slight angle, thus affecting accuracy. A second pattern bullet with parallel sides was later introduced as a replacement.
Manufactured by contractors and inspected and gauged at the Tower, production on the Pattern 1851 began apace and examples were issued to line infantry regiments and Rifle Brigade, as soon as was practicable. First seeing limited action in South Africa, the P51 was before long to experience its principal challenge, one which would give it the distinction of being the first general-issue rifle to be employed in quantity, and ever to be used in a major campaign.
Though the Crimean War officially began in 1853, British and French involvement really didn’t start until 1854. With very few exceptions, most of the Crown infantry initially landed in the Crimea carrying P51 rifled muskets. Interestingly enough, the French (who initiated the Minié) were largely equipped with smoothbores, as were Britain’s other allies, the Turks and Sardinians. While other rifles were seen in the theatre of war, they were largely carried by dedicated units. The Russian riflemen were still issued with their copies of the British Brunswick. These handsome pieces became particularly prized trophies, and many were brought back to Great Britain by officers as souvenirs, ending up gracing regimental messes.
Though it was the primary infantry arm of the British, by the time the P51 hit the Crimea, it was already basically obsolete. Very soon after its adoption, its foibles became manifest and it was decided to begin development of a new smallbore Minié longarm. This resulted in the superb British Pattern 1853 Enfield, a rifle-musket which some experts hold to be the finest example of its type ever produced. Production of this .577 caliber began as early as 1853, and numbers were finished in time to make it to the Crimea and see combat.
Faulted though it may have been, the P51 was still head and shoulders above the smoothbores it opposed in the East, and improved accuracy was duly noted by senders and receivers alike. Some remarkable Pattern 1851 shots were recorded. One of the most spectacular was recounted by Captain (later to be Colonel) Somerset John Gough-Calthorpe in his 1858 book, “Letters from Head-Quarters; Or, the Realities of the War in the Crimea” he writes, “A man of the Rifle brigade made a good shot to-day; he was on out-picket and seeing a Cossack officer on a white horse at a considerable distance, thought he might well try and knock him over. He accordingly fired and the man fell from his saddle, the horse trotting away. The distance was said to be upwards of 1,300 yards by several officers qualified to judge on the subject.”
This is a phenomenal feat using open sights, even with a modern arm. The shooter, Rifleman Hubert, later modestly corrected his superiors stating he reckoned the Cossack was probably not much more than 1,000 yards away!
While the P51 acquitted itself well in the Russian War, with the introduction of the P53, its days were numbered. Production was soon ceased and all efforts subsequently directed towards producing the newer, improved rifle musket, along with its variants. Pattern 1851s were kept in stores for a time and then sold surplus, many going to belligerents during the American Civil War. Examples of P51-style Minié bullets have been recovered from Civil War battlefields.
Some ’51s were also sold privately to individuals and commercial firms. The P51 we’re looking at on these pages has some sort of commercial designation stamped deeply into the left side of its buttstock. To date, the author has been unable to identify it, and if a reader has any insight into its origin, we would greatly appreciate learning about it.
Our evaluation arm was manufactured in 1852 and is so marked on the lock. Only some 35,000 P51s were manufactured between 1852 and 1855, with all but 1,000 of them being issued. Production numbers were low to begin with and attrition rate in British service, coupled with surplus arms being scattered throughout the globe, make it a hard arm to come by nowadays, in any condition.
While the external condition of this particular piece is quite good, as are the mechanics, the bore has seen better days. Rifling is discernable though rough and a bit thin in spots. I have to admit that I was not particularly confident that we’d see the old girl at her best when we touched her off, but I thought I’d give it a go. To add to this, the only bullet mold I was able to locate cast the tapered-style bullet, and I could not conjure up an adequate culotte, thus it had to be fired without one. Bullets weighed 740 grains — a tad on the hefty side and about 60 grains heavier than the initial bullet specs. The diameter was .690. Patches were greased with a beeswax/tallow concoction to approximate the original cartridge conditions. Powder charge was 2½ drams of Goex FFg black powder.
I fired the P51 from a bench at 50 yards to get an initial idea of where bullets would be hitting, planning to extend the range to 100 yards after I got a feel for things. I never had to make that trip downrange to post 100-yard targets. Bullets, when they didn’t keyhole, dotted all over the silhouette; not much better accuracy that I’ve achieved with my smoothbore Brit Pattern 1842 using patched round balls. Because of the rough rifling piece fouling quickly, it was necessary to scrub out the bore after every second shot or so or risk a Minié getting stuck about half way down the barrel during loading.
I tried firing the gun several ways: With and without patch, and altering the powder charge, all to no avail. In studying the original period tests and checking targets, I can see the rifle was capable of much better results than I was getting. I put my failure down to five problems: The tapered shape of the bullet; extremely thick bullet-cavity walls; excess bullet weight; lack of a culotte expander; and a rough bore. Any one of these could have been a problem. Taken together they were fated to produce poor results.
Finding a P51 in any kind of shape at all nowadays is a challenging project, and getting one with a good bore would be even tougher. Most extant specimens that come up for sale generally show some pretty hard usage. Still, I haven’t given up, and perhaps one with a decent tube will reveal itself anon.
Though an important evolutionary arm, one gets the feeling that even at the time the ’51 was considered as something of a stopgap. Before it was sealed, authorities began working on an upgrade, resulting in the aforementioned Pattern 1853, a rifle I’ve had much experience with and can attest to its superlative qualities.
Still, in the Crimea the British Pattern 1851 Minié, being the most sophisticated arm of its type to see widespread use, showed its worth, and gave solid legitimacy to the concept of a general-issue rifle and to the Minié system. The Minié’s influence would far outlast its actual period of service.
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