The Enfield Rifle

Source: The Times (London), Saturday, 4 February 1860

In the first article on this weapon we traced the manufacture of the most important portion, the barrel, up to its final completion, when the gauge is placed in its muzzle, and proves such a perfect mechanical fit that it remains bobbing up and down, according as the column of air in the tube yields or expands beneath the pressure. Will Birmingham, where all the anvils are now resounding with the manufacture of rifles for the Volunteer Corps, turn out a weapon as perfect in its gauge as that of Enfield? We can only hope so, for, if not, the Volunteers will be but poorly off when they come to be supplied with ammunition, made by the Government with the same care as to size as the barrel itself, and which should fit with almost the same nicety as the gauge we have mentioned. At Enfield everything is done by machinery, as we have already pointed out, and so each portion of the lock, stock, bayonet, and fittings of the gun is manufactured by the same kind of labour-saving machines as those employed upon the barrel. The part of the works devoted to this portion of the manufacture is filled with a peculiar and most ingenious modification of the pile-driving machine, where the weights are wound up by steam, and are ready for dropping again and again at the precise time required by the workmen in each stage. These weights punch out the hammers, lock-plates, springs, triggers, bands, and, in fact, every part of the gun or its fittings which is made either of iron or steel. After being thus roughly formed they are turned down to their exact size, according to gauge, and then case-hardened. This latter process is done by heating the parts to a dull red in a mixture of bone-dust (animal charcoal, in fact), so that the outside of the metal has all the hardness of the finest steel, while the centre retains the strength and toughness of wrought iron. The bayonet is, of course, manufactured at Enfield, with the other parts of the complete weapon, and nearly all the 68 processes which this piece undergoes are very interesting. Take it for all in all, no troops in the world are armed with such a strong, well-tempered, and efficient steel instrument of destruction as the bayonet which is issued to our troops. It is very much to be wished that the cavalry sabre at all approached it in either temper or strength, or that it had never been superseded by the cumbrous and inefficient sword-bayonet, which is only a bad and very heavy sword when off the rifle, and neither a sword nor a bayonet when on it. When the bayonets are first beaten out at Enfield they are as brittle as glass; they are then annealed in a slow fire, and become as soft as lead. While in this state they are subjected to the last chief process, that of tempering, which gives them that immense strength and spring which is found in no other weapon. The tempering is done by immersing all the blades in a bath of molten lead, which heats them to a dull red tint, when they are withdrawn and plunged into linseed oil, becoming then so hard again that the file makes no impression whatever. They are then again heated to a low temperature, and this perfects them as steel. A man then tests them as to their strength by striking them with the handles downwards over the edge of an anvil with all his force, after which they are forcibly bent backwards and forwards in a machine, and finally gauged. Those which have yielded under these ordeals, even to the very slightest degree, are rejected; the rest pass on to the grinding shop, where they are polished and finished off bright and keen as razors. The cost of each of these bayonets to the Government, even including interest and wear and tear of plant, is only 3s. 6d. They could scarcely be made elsewhere at any price whatever. In making the stocks of the rifles the machinery employed is about the best and simplest that has ever been devised, and from the time that the rough beam of walnut-wood enters the row of machines at one end of the finishing-room till it comes forth at the other end a perfect stock, complete even to the most minute receptacles for the lock-work, the process occupies not quite 20 minutes. If there is any part of the manufacture in which a saving of time and labour might possibly be effected, it would certainly be in the gauging. Not only is every portion gauged in every process, but when all is done each is gauged and regauged again by half-a-dozen independent measurers one after the other. The result of all this is, that the very perfection of a mechanical fit is insured, and all parts, whether of stock, lock, or barrel, are interchangeable among all the Enfield rifles in the service. For the sake of this advantage alone, and exclusive of the undoubted superiority of manufacture, it would be well worth the while of Volunteer Corps to pay even a higher price in order to secure the Government rifle. The cost of each one to the Government is 2l. 5s., and they are produced at Enfield at the rate of 2,000 a-week. A perfect musket and bayonet are turned out there every two minutes, though from the time the processes commence with a single musket until it is finished, proved, and passed to store requires a period of seven weeks – of which, however, no less than four are occupied in “browning” the barrel. As with the manufacture of the Armstrong gun so with the Enfield, its rate of production is capable, at a short notice, of being extended to an almost unlimited amount by merely increasing the machinery employed in its manufacture. It swallowed up very much more than 200,000l. to enable the Enfield works to produce the number they at present do weekly. Less than 80,000l. expended in increasing the plant would now, however, give the existing factory the means of turning out 5,000 rifles a-week, while 80,000l. in addition to this again would suffice for the production of nearly 10,000.

The weak point of the Enfield rifle is exactly that part which ought to be the very best and strongest of the whole – viz., the barrel. This, from important considerations as to lightness, and from the softness of the wrought metal itself, is too thin and too yielding to be subjected with safety to the rude chances of a campaign, unless the soldier is taught to be particularly cautious as to its use. A very trifling injury as compared with that to which all other barrels are subjected with impunity is enough to dint and injure that of the Enfield to the most serious extent. Our readers must remember the large number of Enfield rifles which during the late campaigns in India were found to be inefficient from becoming suddenly too small at the muzzle to admit of the bullets entering. It was afterwards found that in some cases these defects arose from so slight a cause as the unequal thickness of the paper in which the bullet end of the cartridge is enclosed. This, however, was only the case in a few instances, the great source of injury, it was supposed, being the rough manner in which the soldiers “fixed bayonets” over the muzzle, or the careless manner in which the piece was handled with the bayonet on, – an almost imperceptible knock under such circumstances sufficing to dint the muzzle and prevent the entry of the bullet. Unless the most rigid caution is used, how much more likely are these injuries to occur among the weapons of Volunteer Corps, the muzzles of which, instead of carrying a 13-oz. bayonet, are all hampered with the so-called sword bayonet, weighing some three and a-half pounds! This latter cumbrous appendage, in addition to its thousand other disadvantages, has, when fixed in firing, a most serious effect on the accuracy of the bullet itself, over which it exercises nearly three times the amount of adverse influence that is attributed to the bayonet in the same position.

Two remedies have been proposed for doing away with this deficiency in strength of the Enfield barrel.

One method is to make it entirely of Whitworth’s homogeneous iron, and the other is a plan of Mr. Burton’s to make the barrel of steel. Each change would be a great improvement, the latter perhaps the greatest if there did not exist such difficulties in the way of welding on the “cone seat” after the barrel has been rough-made. Another mode of improving the barrel, by which all experience shows that an increase of range, and therefore of accuracy, could be gained, would be to alter the pitch or turn of the rifling. All firearms are rifled in order to insure a regular and steady flight of the projectile by giving it rotation round its axis of progression. The Enfield has only half a turn in the pitch of the rifling in the length of the whole barrel, and this, it is generally believed, might be increased to one complete turn with the most favourable results. In the course of the many valuable experiments which Mr. Whitworth made as to the best pitch of rifling in order, in order to try the effect on the bullet of extreme velocity of rotation in the barrel he actually made one with one complete turn in the inch, – in fact, the inside of the barrel was a perfect screw. Yet this barrel, charged with 25 grains of powder, fired a perfectly fitting ball of lead and tin through seven inches of elm planks. The same gentleman, with a 24-pounder howitzer, having a hexagon bore, and, of course, a hexagon projectile on his own plan, fired with low charges shells of 10 diameters in length. With projectiles of a greater length than that of the common Enfield ball fired from the Enfield rifle, the bullet, no matter what its shape, always turns over within six feet from the muzzle of the piece, the rotatory force given by the slow turn in the barrel being insufficient to keep the conical ball point foremost. Mr. Whitworth proposes that all military barrels should be rifled with one turn in 20 inches, and even those most opposed to adopting so rapid a pitch consider that the present pitch of the Enfield might be increased with great advantage. The Whitworth rifle, on the principle of the hexagon bore and hexagon shot, and with the increased pitch we have mentioned, has in all Government trials that have yet been attempted beaten the Enfield both in accuracy and range, and of course, therefore, in penetration. It may, under these circumstances, be asked, why then is it that the Government have not adopted it and commenced its manufacture, especially as the present machinery at Enfield could be altered to suit the new plan of boring at a cost of not more than 50l. or l00l.? On this point we are free to confess that we see no valid reason whatever why the Government have not adopted it. The excuses urged against the adoption are, first, that the Government having so lately incurred the expense of altering all the weapons in the army, from the “brown bess” to the Minie, and from the Minie to the Enfield, are not now prepared to meet the cost of altering them again, especially as during the next two or three months a breech-loading plan is likely to be adopted, which it is said may exercise a most important influence on the form and nature of the barrel to which it is applied.