One of the first breech-loading weapons that saw military service was the Ferguson rifle. This was designed by Captain Patrick Ferguson of the 70th Regiment (Surrey Regiment). In March 1776 he took out a patent in London for a flintlock screw-plug breech-loading rifle. Ferguson acknowledged his debt to Chaumette but incorporated in his design certain modifications that were intended to overcome the fouling problem that had bedeviled the design up to that point. He introduced a smooth section cut across the threads that faced the chamber when the weapon was loaded and closed, he had vertical grooves cut into the threads, and he had a small reservoir behind the breech plug.
The system operated in a very simple, soldier-proof fashion, in that one turn of the trigger guard opened the mechanism to the full extent. The soldier then put a ball into the hole on top of the rifle and let gravity feed it to the forward part of the chamber. He then poured powder in to charge the weapon and simply rewound the trigger guard to close the weapon. He could then brush any surplus powder left on top of the breech directly into the pan or, if it was windy or there was no surplus, could charge the pan, cock, and fire.
The Ferguson rifle was a remarkable piece of engineering in that the matched screw threads of the male (the rotating plug) and the female (the breech hole) were mated exceptionally well, making the action extremely smooth to operate. The example (by Durs Egg) held in the Weapons Collection of the Small Arms School Corps (at the School of Land Warfare on the outskirts of Warminster, Wiltshire, England) is still operable, and even fireable, and the rotating lever action functions perfectly.
The weapon was a rifleman’s dream at the time, being easy to load and fire and relatively easy to clean and maintain. It also has a pleasing balance. It was a weapon that would have made the British Army, had it adopted it wholesale, the leading force in rifle use and would have served the army far better than the rag-tag of weapons that were used in its stead.
The rifled arm as a military weapon did not truly come into use until the eighteenth century. However, the Landgraf of Hesse had a troop of riflemen in 1631, and ten years later Maximilian of Bavaria had several troops armed with rifled arquebuses. Louis XIII armed his bodyguard with rifles, and later ordered that two men from every light cavalry regiment should be so armed. These men were later formed into a regiment of carbineers, but the first issue carbine did not appear until 1793. The English learned the value of the rifle when it was used against them in the American War of Independence; they hired Continental Jäger to take on the American backwoodsmen, whose accuracy was streets ahead of the musket armed infantry of the line.
There are other examples of small rifle armed units in the eighteenth century, such as the Austrian chasseurs, sharpshooters, and skirmishers who were issued with a rifle in 1759. Austrian border guard sharpshooters were issued with special over-and-under rifles in 1768, with a smoothbore lower barrel and a rifled upper barrel for firing patched ball. The rifle was fired resting on the hook of a long pike, which served as a protection if the riflemen were attacked. The Russians issued a similar weapon between 1776 and 1796.
As far as the British Army was concerned, it received its first firearms in 1471, when the hand cannon was introduced. This was followed by the matchlock, which remained in use (only a few wheel locks were ever issued on the grounds of cost and complication) until the reign of James I (1603–1626), when some flintlocks were issued to the leading regiments. Muskets came into general use in the reign of William III; from these muskets developed the “Brown Bess” weapon, which served the British Army for over 100 years.
Brown Bess fired a ball two sizes smaller than its caliber, to allow for easy loading, but range and accuracy were laughable. Greener commented that “the immense escape of explosive matter past the ball prevented the possibility of any velocity worthy of the name being given to the ball, and the range is the most contemptible of any gun I know: 120 yards is the average distance at which the balls strike the ground when fired horizontally at five feet above the level.”
Rifles were issued to the British Army as early as 1800, but in such small numbers as to be ineffective. The 95th Foot, the Rifle Brigade, was the first regiment to have this new weapon, which it used, it seems, without being officially noticed by the British War Office, until the Brunswick rifle was introduced in 1835.