Research Press

Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Associated History

Main Menu

Research Press

Source: The Times (London), Thursday, 2 February 1860

Some three or four years ago many of our engineers, manufacturers, and scientific men were deluded into going over to New York in the expectation of there seeing an industrial exhibition. Among others so misled was Mr. Whitworth, who, like all the rest, finding nothing worth looking at in the exhibition itself, tried to recompense himself for his visit by inspecting those manufactories which most abounded in the labour-saving machines which are used more or less extensively throughout the States: The two great centres for machinery of this description were at the United States’ arsenals at Springfield and, Harpers Ferry, and these accordingly Mr. Whitworth visited, saw the various processes there pursued of making small arms in thousands by machinery, and reported to our own Government strongly in favour both of the plan of the Government making its own weapons, and the means by which it could best be accomplished. The War-office, on receiving this report, adopted it forthwith, and, to their infinite credit, at once took a step which at the time even the most strenuous friends of progress in their secret souls scarcely approved. They sent out a commission, of which Mr. Anderson, now the chief superintendent of the Armstrong Gun Factory at Woolwich, was at the head, to make further inquiries into the subject of Mr. Whitworth’s report, and with power not only to order machines in America, but to engage American engineers to superintend them. This was the commencement of the now famous Enfield factory, and this is the first instance in which the English Government have ever had to send abroad either for machinery or men to work or make it. To their praise be it said they at once overstepped the formidable though narrow boundaries of national prejudice, and looked only for that market in which what they wanted could be best and easiest obtained. For a short time several of the new machines were erected and worked at Woolwich; but, when “Brown Bees” was no longer paramount in the service, it was determined to create an immense establishment for the manufacture of rifled small arms, apart and in itself distinct from the operations carried forward at the arsenal. A small shop, if we may so term it, for the manufacture of gun-stocks had always existed at Enfield, and this led the Government to turn their eyes in that direction, and once the place was seen, their gaze was, so to speak, fascinated. It was not at all the beauty of the spot which induced the Government to select it, for, in truth, a flatter or more dreary-looking waste, save Aldershot, was never seen. It was certainly not its salubrity, inasmuch as the whole country is eminently damp and unhealthy; neither was it either its convenience of access or its vicinage to skilled labour, for in both these requisites it was and still is singularly deficient as compared with other neighbourhoods. The reason why the Government selected it was, entirely independent of all these considerations of fitness, and due only to the simple fact that near the shop before alluded to was a canal which turned a waterwheel exerting some 20 or 25 horse-power. The idea of economizing and bringing into play this little waterwheel (which has now ten times its power of steam machinery to assist it) settled the whole affair. Foundations were laid and buildings commenced forthwith, and factories the size of little villages sprang up with more than the rapidity of colonial enterprise. Already the nucleus of a small town is fast gathering round the works. Hucksters’ shops, workmen’s houses, and small hotels are dotted here and there; and as it becomes easy now to calculate when, according to the natural course of things, “Ordnance Enfield,” as it is called, will some day become a town clamorous for corporate rights and the privileges attaching to its own M.P. And all these changes will be due to an old waterwheel which the Government could have got anywhere, and that, too, without the drawbacks attendant upon a superabundant supply of the pure element which turns it, and which occasionally hides the face of the surrounding country at Enfield, and places the floors of cottages and houses some inches under water. However, we suppose we must not quarrel with any cause which produces an effect so perfect in itself, so economical in its work, and so admirably managed, as the factory at Enfield undoubtedly is. It used to be a general remark, and one pretty generally believed, that Government could never compete advantageously with private manufacturers, and, to do them justice, the Government occasionally gave great force to the observation by rashly entering into contests with the trade on most unequal terms. At Enfield, however, they have discarded the usual routine. There is no costly system of supervision; on the contrary, everybody connected with the place is rather underpaid. The Government only seek there to make their own weapons, and intrusts all the means and appliances to the hands of private engineers of acknowledged, though unofficial, capacity. Mr. Burton, an American gentleman, is the working and real head of the factory, and to his untiring skill and diligence its singular excellence is due.

With such tokens of military ardour as now so extensively prevail throughout the kingdom the Enfield rifle is likely to become not only a household word, but almost a household weapon. At such a time, therefore, some account of the manufacture and peculiarities of this most effective, but most easily injured weapon, may be of interest, and, if it does not make our young volunteers good marksmen, it will at least put them on their guard against such careless treatment of their pieces as may put it out of their power ever to hit anything with them smaller than a haystack.

The first thing that strikes a visitor on entering the forges at Enfield where the barrels are made is the apparent rudeness and inadequacy of the machinery to its purpose. It may be urged that it makes the barrels very well, but the same excuse might be advanced for non-improvement in every stage of manufacture, and we are sure that among the clear-headed American mechanists now at the works are many who could at a day’s notice devise a far better apparatus for working up the iron of the barrels than that now in use. The materials for the barrels are brought to the factory in short square slabs of wrought iron (with the fibre of the metal crossing and recrossing at right angles), each some 12 inches long by 4 broad, and half an inch thick. These are heated and bent into a short tube, having somewhat the appearance of a rough and ill-made draining tile, and in this state are again heated to a bright white, and passed between iron rollers of the first gauge, which weld up the joining down the middle, and, by compression, lengthen the tube about 2½ or 3 inches more. It is again heated, and again passed between rollers of a smaller gauge, which lengthens it still further; and so on, again and again, until the operation has been repeated through 13 different gauges, when the rolling is complete, and the barrel – after some two hours’ manufacture – emerges at last a slender rough iron tube about four feet long, and having a hole down the centre the size of a large pea. The muzzles are then cut off, the “butts,” or ends, as they are termed, made up, and the process of welding on the “cone-seat,” or nipple for the cap, commences. This latter is a difficult operation, and one which requires no little quickness, care, and skill on the part of the workman. To insure rapidity of striking while the metals are red-hot, the breech of the barrel with the cone-seat is placed in a steel die under a small hammer worked by steam, which strikes at the rate of 400 blows a-minute, and under which, amid a terrific din, the metals are crushed together, with more than the strength of one piece.

This completes the forgings, and the barrels are passed from the smithy to the boring-shops, where the operation of boring (exclusive of rifling) is repeated no less than five distinct times. The barrels are for this purpose laid in horizontal machines, and the first sized borer is drawn up through them, not forced down, as, from the bend of the boring bit in forcing it through, it was found difficult to secure strict accuracy. The second boring at swift speed is then continued, and the third at slow speed, by which time the barrel is finished to within some two or three thousandths of an inch of its proper diameter, when the exterior is turned down also to its service size. The operation, if such it may be called, of straightening the barrel is then gone through after the screw-hole for the breech-piece has been bored. This straightening is one of the roughest and most unsatisfactory portions of the whole process of manufacture. From the very fine soft nature of the iron used in the construction of the barrel, and the extreme thinness of the metal itself, the least violence or concussion is apt either to bend the barrel outright, or else to put such a dint in its side as effectually makes an end of its good shooting. Thus, in the processes which we have already described, in spite of the utmost care, the barrel is supposed to have deviated from its true line sufficiently to require considerable rectification. This rectification is done, therefore, not by machinery, but by hand, a workman looking through the barrel and giving it a tap here and a tap there with a hammer, wherever it seems to him to require it. In defence of this apparently very rude method, which seems so astounding in connexion with a bore that must be accurate to the thousandth part of an inch, the managers of the works point to the results achieved, and say that out of some 2,000 weapons made weekly the gauge of all is accurate to a half-hair breadth. This undoubtedly is true, but it is nevertheless very far from proving that such mathematical exactness is brought about by a man simply looking through the barrel and giving it a knock now and a knock then whenever he fancies he by sight detects an inequality in it. Most practical mechanics are of opinion that the process either does no good to the barrel at all, or that its result, if worth anything, would be better and more easily accomplished by machinery.

An immense variety of milling and grinding stages are next gone through, which merely relate to the exterior of the barrel, and with which, of course, we need not trouble ourselves here. A detailed account of the whole manufacture would be out of the question, as our readers may easily imagine, when we say that the barrel undergoes no less than 66 distinct processes, and the whole rifle upwards of 700 ere it is completed. The barrel, then, having so far advanced in its progress towards completion as to be bored for the fourth time, it undergoes its first proof test of nearly one ounce of powder and one ball. Not one per cent. of the barrels yield under this trial, which has sometimes, in the case of doubtful barrels, or those which it was wished to burst, been carried to as high a charge as 2½ oz. of powder and 17 balls – the whole barrel full, in fact – before the metal ripped. After this the nipple-screw and nipple, with the “tang” or tongue which fastens the barrel to the stock, are made, though not a single piece is put together till the whole musket is complete to its minutest detail. Before the barrel leaves the boring-room it is again, bored out for the fifth time, and, having been polished by machinery inside and outside till it shines as bright as silver, it at last reaches its 56th stage of manufacture, and is taken to the finishing shop.

With the exception, perhaps, of the Laboratory at Woolwich, it would be difficult to name any factory room in the kingdom, not even excepting our largest cotton mills, which at the first glance presents such a bewildering scene of active, never-ceasing industry. Let our readers imagine, if they can, a single room more than an acre in extent, lofty and well lit, in which some thousand men and boys are incessantly employed in superintending machinery. The ear is pained by the hum of flywheels, which revolve in thousands till the eye is giddy with their whirl. Miles of shafting are spinning round mistily with a monotonous hum, the room is almost darkened and the view completely obscured by some 50,000 or 60,000 feet of broad flapping lathe-bands, which are driving no less than 600 distinct machines, all going together on their own allotted tasks, with a tremulous rapidity and ease that seem to swallow up the work like magic, and the first sight of which is inexpressibly astonishing to the spectator. It takes some minutes before the visitor can subdue the overwhelming feeling of surprise which this scene of activity always excites, no matter how often entered on. Following the barrel, then, but with care, into this maze of lathe-bands, we see the process of rifling first commenced. The rifling in the Enfield barrel consists of three broad shallow grooves, with a pitch of half a turn in the length of the barrel of three feet six inches. The depth of the rifling is 0.005 at the muzzle, and 0.013 at the breech, the width of each groove being 3-16ths of an inch. There are 16 rifling machines at Enfield, each of which turns out 26 barrels a-day, though, of course, the grooves are made separately, and after the same fashion as in the boring – viz., drawn through the gun from the muzzle to the breech. Looking at the light through a newly-rifled barrel has an extraordinary effect, the rings of reflected rays showing like bars of black and white metal alternately; and by the aid of these, as it is said, the workmen are able to distinguish whether or not the tube is perfectly accurate.

After the rifling it is again proved with half an ounce of powder and a single ball; then it is retouched, sighted, trimmed-off, milled, levelled, browned, and gauged, coming out in the gauge-room at last a finished barrel, made to such perfection of accuracy that the steel gauge of 577 thousandths of an inch passes freely through, while that of 580 sticks firm in the muzzle. Browning, as we have said, is the last operation which the gun undergoes, and this merely ornamental process occupies a week more than the whole manufacture of the gun itself-namely, four weeks. The time thus bestowed, however, is not without its value, inasmuch as after the “browning” is completed, though not till then, the gaugers are enabled to detect the slightest imperfect welding or least perceptible flaw of manufacture, when the piece is instantly rejected, and the workman under whose hands the flaw took place fined 3s., no matter whether the imperfection is discovered at the very commencement of the process or when all is finished. The barrels thus flawed, we regret to say, are sold as old iron, but still in the form of finished barrels, and so doubtless find their way back again into the market as proved pieces. That this latter arrangement of selling the barrels complete, though as old iron, nothing can be more objectionable, and we are sure the War-office only require to have their attention drawn to the matter to secure for the future that all such pieces, before they are sold, shall be bent and flattened in such a manner as to be totally useless, at least for gun barrels, ever after.

But, as we intimated at the commencement of this article, the long processes by which the Enfield is brought to completion cannot easily be disposed of in a notice like the present. We defer, then, to a future occasion our description of the other portions of the manufacture and the peculiar weaknesses which render this weapon above all others so liable on slight occasions to irreparable injury.


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.