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June 21, 2010

I have a mind to acquire a rifle for hobby target shooting and I’ve been reading up on the subject.  During my move from Southern California to Washington to start my new job, I stopped in at Powell’s books in Portland, OR and was looking for a good “beginner’s guide to rifle purchasing.”  I was quite happy to elicit curled lips from the unkempt hipster bookstore employees by asking for directions to their store’s firearms section…  This is something which one simply does not do in the most enlightened looney-lefty anti-gun-nut city in our country.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a “Dummies Guide to Rifle Buyin’,” but I did find an interesting book called “American Rifle, A Biography,” by Alexander Rose.  It’s an interesting history of the development of the technology and the major innovators who drove it forward.

One thing that I thought was particularly interesting was the technological transition from muskets to rifles.  Rifles superseded muskets because they were more accurate and breech loading makes for a far more efficient gun (that is, loading bullets into the barrel from the rear–the “breech”–as opposed to driving them down the muzzle–“muzzle loaders.”).  Rifles, as their name implies, have helically grooved rifling in their barrels (as illustrated above), which imparts spin to the bullet.  This gives the projectile a more stable flight and makes rifles more accurate than smoothbore muskets.

However, I had assumed that the transition from muskets to rifles would have been an abrupt one due to the details of the technology…  A gun that relies on rifling to impart spin to the bullet is essentially swaging (deforming) the bullet–it forces the bullet through a barrel which is slightly undersized to the outer diameter of the bullet.  The outer surface of the bullet takes on the helical shape of the rifled barrel, which cause it to spin down the barrel as it is driven forward and out of it (a great slow-motion video showing this grooving on bullets is available in an earlier blog post).

So, to my mind, this process of bullet-deformation-as-it-travles-down-the-barrel could not possibly allow a muzzle-loading musket to have a rifled barrel, right?  The deformation of the bullet through a rifled barrel would surely prevent someone from loading it from the muzzle; it would require the user to awkwardly and forcibly ram it down the barrel just to load the gun, right?

Wrong!  There was actually a significant span in rifle history (which included the Civil War) in which “rifle-muskets” were quite common.  But how did gun designers get around the mental trap which I got caught in?  How do you get a bullet to “go in small,” (permitting ease of muzzle loading), but then increase its size after firing so that the rifling could impart its effect to the bullet?

They relied on clever bullet design and material selection.  Two successive designs occupied the rifle-musket barrels of this era, but the “Minié” bullet eventually dominated as the rifle-musket round of choice.  This was the round used in the “Model 1855,” which was the primary rifle of the Civil War.  A personal anecdote: when I was probably 10 years old I was on a family vacation with my folks and my parents bought a bullet for me at a Gettysburg souvenir shop–and it does indeed look exactly like that Minié bullet pictured to the right below!  Little did I know about this bullet’s background at that point, or why it had this unique shape!  The alternative bullet–designed before Minié but eventually superseded by it–was designed by one Captain Delvigne of the French army and consisted of a lead bullet which was tamped down at the breech of the rifle barrel with a ramrod, flaring it outward.

Regarding the Delvigne bullet, Alexander Rose had this to say:

“Captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne of the French Royal Guard grasped that reducing windage–the gap between the sides of the barrel and the ball–was key to raising the musket’s accuracy.  The problem here was that muskets loaded faster than rifles because their bullets slid easily down their smooth, wide barrels.  Reducing the windage would make loading only more difficult, thereby lowering the musket’s rate of fire to that of the rifle.  Delvigne’s novel solution was conceptually similar to a ship-in-a-bottle, in which the folded, flattened vessel is slipped through the narrow neck and unfurled inside.  He placed a “rebated,” or slightly smaller, chamber at the bottom of a broad but rifled barrel.  The soldier poured the powder down so that it settled into this cramped space and, after rolling down a spherical ball, used a heavy ramrod to stamp on the soft lead bullet so that it flattened and expanded its diameter.  Upon firing, the bloated ball gripped the grooves, spun, and turned the musket into a rifle.”

Though this improved accuracy, the bullet flight was still a bit erratic due to the inherently erratic method of loading: a person using a ramrod cannot flatten a Delvigne bullet with the consistency required to make this round repeatably accurate.  But then came the Minié bullet:

“Around this time several British and French inventors, working independently, had grasped that since it was the human act of flattening the ball that made it irregularly shaped, what if the projectile self-expanded to fit the rifling?…  Relying on recent scientific investigations into the nature of projectile flight, gunsmiths, sporting shooters, and ballisticians were beginning to understand that an elongated bullet was subjected to weaker air resistance than a spherical one…  The advent of these more modern-looking, if stubby, projectiles meant the end of the spherical bullet was nigh–though soldiers, tipping their hats to the past, continue to fire “rounds” today.  The first popular “cylindro-conoidal” bullets had a broadly pointed nose that rather resembled a Romanesque arch atop a short, almost hollow cylinder.  Fighting off the competition, it was Captain Claude-Étienne Minié of the French Army whose design became the standard.  Minié placed an iron plug at the hollowed bottom of the cylindrical bullet so that the combusting powder’s gas forcefully thrust it forward.  As the plug expanded, the bullet’s sides pushed outward; it gripped the rifling and began spinning.  The beauty of Minié’s design was in its ease of loading: a bullet went in one size and emerged miraculously larger.”

I think that this was a pretty clever observation and then employment of the deformation of metals to improve older, less effective technologies!

One interesting final note: private gun manufacturers during the Civil War were well into developing breech-loading guns capable of firing bullets far more rapidly than the muzzle loaders which Army troops at the time were being issued.  Being able to quickly load a bullet into the breech of a rifle is a critical design feature if you are a soldier who does not wish to die from the slow reload rate of a muzzle-loading gun (innovative Minié bullet be damned, this is life and death here!).  One might find some sympathy for the armorers of the Union and Confederacy for their being skeptical about making a risky technology leap in the middle of a war by switching their soldier’s arms over to these new and “untested” breech loading guns…  However, there were thousands of soldiers in the field who did this of their own volition, as well as generals who wrote to these new manufacturers, pleading to spend their own money to equip their units with these new guns and the benefits they imparted.  Additionally, nearly all settlers moving West were defending their families and fortunes with these new arms.  One wonders if the War could have ended sooner and with potentially less blood if the government armorers of the Union–who were being actively courted by these gun manufacturers to supply the Army with their wares–had just adopted them earlier.  Alexander Rose pretty consistently paints a picture of government armorers resisting innovation and the adoption of new gun technology.  This was sometimes for reasons as trivial as “military tradition,” or for academically concocted statistical reasons which had no real meaning on a battlefield, even while all this frivolity was endangering the lives of the soldiers.  “Good enough for government work,” eh?


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