Weaponry and Wartime Experience


The Infantryman’s Weapons: His Rifle

During the War of 1812, Canadian militiamen used a smooth-bored, muzzle-loaded musket, usually a Brown Bess, with an extremely limited range and a level of accuracy that left much to be desired. A British of cer of the period left this description of the effectiveness of this weapon:

The soldier's musket, if it is not too badly calibrated, which is very often the case, can strike a man at a distance of 80 yards and even up to 100 yards. But a soldier has to be very unlucky even to be wounded at a distance of 150 yards, this on condition that his adversary aims well. As for firing on a man at a distance of 200 yards, you might as well aim at the moon hoping to strike it.

Moreover, the Brown Bess permitted only two shots a minute, or, occasionally, in the hands of an extremely well-trained soldier, three.

A century later, during the First World War, the descendant of the militiaman of 1812 found himself on the battlefields of Europe with a rifle that was much easier to load, with remarkably improved accuracy and considerably increased range. With its rifled barrel, the Canadian infantryman's Lee-Enfield Short Rifle (S.ML.E.) could f re at a range of over 2, 000 yards (1,830 m) at an average rate of 10 shots a minute, even 15 in the hands of a highly skilled shooter.

In fact the S.M.L.E. was not an invention in itself but the result of a series of technological innovations that emerged primarily in the second half of the 19th century. At about mid point in the century the new industrial ability to rifle gun barrels contributed to the spread of such rifles. Spiral grooves cut into the rifle bore imparted a rotating movement to the projectile that persisted throughout its trajectory, delivering both greater accuracy and greater range. The early 1850s also saw the development of the self-contained metal cartridge with a central percussion unit containing powder, bullet and bore. This invention helped to make breech loading more common during the 1860s: Gone was the lengthy and inconvenient process of forcing the bullet into the rifle's bore with a metal rod driven home with a mallet. Soon projectiles would take on a cylindro-conical shape that made them even more effective.

At this stage in its development, the rifle still contained only a single shot: Each cartridge had to be inserted manually. During the last quarter of the century a more rapidly firing rifle was developed. It had a locked breech that combined the cartridge chamber with the f ring system. Both simple and strong, the lever locking made it possible to clear, open, extract and eject the spent clip, load a new cartridge, lock the system and arm the firing pin. The subsequent appearance of the clip magazine containing several cartridges successively introduced into the breech by a spring system gave birth to the repeating rifle. Finally, during the 1890s the Swedish chemist A f ed Nobel invented cordite, a smokeless powder containing nitroglycerine, and a powerful explosive that was immediately adopted as a propellant for projectiles. This invention was the last in the list of refinements characterizing the rifle used by troopers in the First World War, a weapon that had become vastly more deadly than its predecessor of the early 19th century.