|The snider is a single shot breech loader, derived from the muzzle loading Enfield
rifle. The cartridge is a center fire initiated by a spring tensioned firing pin
that enters the block at an angle of 45 degrees and is struck by the original cap
hammer. The cartridge is extracted by an extractor on the block which could be drawn
back about .5in to facilitate the removal of the empty case. It was not, as is
often suggested, a temporary stop gap toward modern fire arm development but an
extremely important step in firearm history. To understand it fully, it is necessary
to start a little earlier.
It was clear from the earliest days of rifling that the best way to load a Rifled arm was from the breech end. Although easy to decide in theory, this was remarkably difficult to achieve in practice with the relatively low level of technology then existing. The obvious answer seemed to be some sort of loading aperture at the breech end fitted with a screw plug, and it is likely that most early breech-loading small arms made used of this type of device in one form or another. The production of efficient screw plugs by hand was a slow and complex business and therefore very costly making it impossible to produce arms thus equipped in the quantities necessary for military use. It was however practical to produce them for sporting purposes because in the early days at least, Sporting rights were jealously guarded by landowners who could afford to pay relatively high prices for their guns. Even the best of these arms was still slow to load although this did not much matter in circumstances- where one or two accurate shots were far more important than speed. Also, rifles used for shooting deer or similar game were carefully handled and regularly cleaned, which did much to avoid damage, particularly by the corrosion caused from black powder use. Any screw plug necessarily formed a part of the actual breech and was, therefore, subject to the explosion, which inevitably had an adverse effect on it after a certain period of use.
A detachable screw plug could sometimes be difficult to replace, so the next modification was to have a vertical plug with its bottom end attached to the trigger guard. This could be turned to unscrew the plug, a stop device being incorporated to prevent it coming completely out of he breech. The earliest of these may have been developed in England by Chaumette, a French Protestant who arrived as a refugee in 1721, but arms of this type did not achieve any real popularity until Captain Ferguson developed an improved version in 1774. In this rifle, the plug had several channels cut transversely across its threads, which helped to loosen the inevitable fouling and keep the mechanism in working order.
This proved sufficiently acceptable for a rifle company armed with it to be formed under Ferguson's command and sent to America, where it took part in the successful attack on Brandywine Hill on 11 September 1777. Ferguson was badly wounded and in his absence, his company was disbanded. When he returned he was given command of a battalion of Loyalist Militia, at the head of which he was killed at King's Mountain, South Carolina on 7 October 1780. This innovative concept died with him. I believe, that but for his death, breechloading flintlock rifles would have found their way into the British Army before the Napoleonic Wars.
It is difficult now to assess the true value of Ferguson's rifle under active service conditions. One weapon, which came from the collection of Admiral Hood and is believed to have been picked up on the field of Brandywine, was tested extensively some years ago by its previous owner, a well-known American weapons expert. He reported that even with good modern powder he had never got off more than half-a-dozen rounds without having to strip the whole thing down and remove the heavy fouling which rapidly clogged the plug, transverse slots not with-standing. His report, however, did not indicate how long it took to do this. It is an expert opinion however, and worthy of consideration. Ferguson's rifles were made by the London gunmaker Durs Egg, who in 1784 produced a breech mechanism of his own. This consisted of a separate breech, hinged at the rear so that the front end could be tipped up for loading. It was then returned to its proper place as an extension of the rear end of the barrel and clamped into position by a lever before being fired in the usual way by its flintlock. This breech, which was applied to a smoothbore cavalry carbine, was not a success, due mainly to the escape of gases between it and the end of the barrel, but is of some importance because it may have inspired the American maker Colonel John H. Hall, who produced a very similar device some 25 years later. Apart from this, the breechloader fell largely into disuse; most countries using rifles continued with muzzle-loaders, while seeking better ways of expanding the bullet into the rifling.
One of the many problems in con-structing an effective breechloader was that of arranging for the direct application of fire to the charge by means of the flintlock and touch-hole, but once the percussion system, (the fulminated mercury caps with which you are no doubt familiar) proved successful, this difficulty could largely be overcome. the first country to take the bold step of going over to a breechloader for military purposes was Prussia. As early as 1838, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, a former employee of Pauly, had produced a reasonably successful prototype that was formally approved for service two years later. Production began in 1841, the first model being in consequence known as M.41, but no issues were made to the Prussian Army until 1848, by which time adequate supplies had been manufactured. Production continued until 1869; there were several types, all sufficiently similar for one description to do for all. It was a fairly massive, solid arm, 56in long and weighing about 91b and its breech mechanism consisted of an enormous bolt, the lever of which stuck up at about 10 degrees from the vertical when closed. The bolt contained an inner sleeve with the firing pin and spring; this had first to be drawn back by means of a thumbpiece before the breech could be opened which was done by turning the bolt lever vertically and pulling it back, revealing the chamber. Once the cartridge was in place the breech was closed and the inner sleeve pushed forward until caught by a spring, leaving the rear of the striker protruding from the back end. The barrel of the rifle was 38in long, of .607in caliber, and rifled with four grooves.
The main point of interest of the weapon was its cartridge. The bullet, nearly .08in (2mm) less in diameter than the bore, was held in a sabot of compressed paper, the percussion patch being fastened to the bullets base, while the powder
was in a paper tube behind this. So that the striker might pass through the charge to reach the cap, it was made in the shape of a long, slim needle, hence the common name of needle-gun generally applied to arms of this type. The weapon was by no means perfect. The breech mechanism leaked badly, and although the hollow front end of the bolt fitted over the rear end of the chamber,and thus diverted the burning gases forward the effect was still alarming. The needle too, was inevitably fragile and being always at the very heart of the explosion it soon corroded. It was however simply and speedily re-placed and every soldier carried spares in his pouch. The paper sabot was of dubious value: in theory it imparted sufficient spin to the bullet on its way up the barrel and fell away at the muzzle but this was not always the case. This defect, combined with the leakage of gas, had a grave effect on accuracy and the arm's effective range probably did not much exceed 300 yds in spite of a highly complex backsight.
Despite the relative secrecy surrounding the needle-gun. the British government soon obtained a specimen and by 1850 a small number probably not more than six had been made at Enfield. These were exhaustively tested in the long series of trials which led finally to the adoption of the Minie, the needle-guns being conclusively rejected along with one or two other breechloaders. It was clear that no one had any objections to the principle of breech-loading, which it was generally felt was bound to come, but nothing sufficiently effective had been produced for trials.
Although breechloading arms were rejected for general issue, it was felt that cavalry had a special need for them. The rapid developments in firearms had put them at a grave disadvantage when opposed to infantry, and although they continued to proclaim the merits of lance and saber it was clear that their survival depended on their acceptance of the need for effective firearms. It was difficult to shoot straight from a quiet horse and virtually impossible to Reload a muzzleloader while controlling a restive mount: hence the cavalry's obvious need for breechloader. Tests began in 1853 and continued almost until the general adoption of a breechloader by the British Army 13 years later, Before describing the various weapons tested, it must be explained that they all came into the category generally known as capping breechloaders: that is they took a made-up cartridge of powder and bullet in some combustible material, fired by a separate percussion cap, in the same way as a muzzle-loader.
The first capping breechloader to be tested was Leetch's carbine in which the chamber was swung out sideways and loaded with a paper cartridge before being replaced and held in position by hinged handle. This leaked burning gas and had the additional disadvan-tage that if the weapon was carried muzzle-downward on a carbine belt the cartridge was liable to slip for-ward, jamming the mechanism until it could be forced back by the cleaning rod. Next came the American Sharps: its breech mechanism was a vertical sliding block working in grooves in the receiver by means of a lever which also acted as a trigger guard. The Sharps leaked some gas, but had the advantage of a dual means of ignition; it took the ordinary percussion cap and was also fitted with a tape primer. This took rolls of caps very like those that used to be found in children's toy pistols, a fresh one being pushed over the nipple when the hammer was cocked: thus, a mounted man did not have to fumble with relatively small caps to prime. Over the years 1000 Sharps carbines were ordered by the British and some cavalry regiments used them in India towards the end of the Mutiny. Although generally reliable, it was found in practice that the tape primer system was not equally so world-wide (an essential for British soldiers) because the tape became soggy in damp weather and very brittle in the heat. In another American arm, Green's carbine, the barrel was unlocked from the breech by giving it a twist; it could then be swung out sideways to reload. Green's carbine was in many ways one of the best, being gas-tight and having a tape primer like the Sharps, but because of ignition difficulties the cartridge had to be made in very thin material which made it too flimsy for service use. Then there was Terry's carbine, with a type of bolt action and Princes in which the whole barrel was moved forward by a lever to expose the breech.
The most successful carbine was that submitted by Westley Richards. Its breech consisted of a plunger attached to a long handle which, when the breech was closed, lay along the top of the butt and was raised to open it, thus earning The nickname of the monkey-tail from its distinctive silhouette. The real merit of the arm lay in its cartridge, which incorporated a stout greased wad in its base. When the round was fired the backward pressure of the gases caused the wad to expand against the plunger, making a good gas-tight seal. When the next round was loaded the wad was pushed into the chamber and blown out ahead of the next bullet, thus helping to keep the bore clean. Westley Richards' car-bine was never a general issue in the regular cavalry but remained in service with the Yeomanry until 1881. It was also popular with more-or-less irregular corps around the world and was used in New Zealand in the later stages of the Maori Wars. A rifle version was also made and was tried out by several British battalions but it was never officially approved or adopted for service.
The American Civil War led to rapid developments in weapons, particularly on the part of the Union which had an incomparably greater manufacturing capacity, and from 1861 onward reliable breech loading firearms became increasingly common. Because North America was a fairly remote place in those days, the nations of Europe were not particularly perturbed by developments there, but in 1864 they were severely shaken by an event nearer home, the sharp and decisive defeat of the Danes by the Prussians. There were several different reasons for the Prussians' success, but the most obvious to military minds was their possession of a breech loading rifle, and most major powers hastened to rearm themselves with similar weapons.
The British set up a committee in the summer of 1864 After listening to many views, particularly those of British officers who had been present as observers at much of the fighting in North America, it unanimously concluded that a breech loading rifle was essential The advantages were obvious: a tight bullet could be loaded quickly and easily using a waterproof cartridge with a factory measured charge: it could be handled in the prone position: it facilitated cleaning and inspection: and it was impossible to put more than one charge into it, an event By no means unknown with the muzzle-loader in the excitement of battle. The only obvious disadvantage was that the soldier would fire away his ammunition too quickly, but it was generally felt that this could be avoided by proper training. It is, however, note-worthy that when a breechloader was proposed another committee was set up to consider the question of the supply of ammunition to infantry on the battlefield.
It was generally agreed that any arm adopted should be simple, robust and reasonably accurate, although pinpoint accuracy at long ranges was not considered essential. At ranges up to about 300yds the soldier had to be able to hit his enemy - but whether in the head or the ankle was relatively unimportant. At longer ranges most fire was collective and if the bullet fell within the cone of fire of the unit that was considered adequate. This may sound heretical to the target shooter but it was nevertheless true, and largely remains so, even today.
In August 1864 all leading British gunmakers were invited to submit mechanisms for converting the existing Enfield series to breechloading: this was considered the cheapest and quickest way of putting an effective breechloader into the hands of the soldiers. Only two broad condition were laid down: the cost of conversion must not exceed one pound sterling per weapon and the conversion should not be inferior it accuracy to the original muzzle loader. Some such invitation must have been anticipated, for the gun makers were given very little time. By 4 October 1864 a sub-committee had assembled to make a preliminary inspection of the various arms submitted, in which task they were ably assisted by the Chief Inspector of Small Arms, a gentleman with the unusually appropriate last name of Gunner. The proceedings list the names of 45 individuals who submitted mechanisms of various types. Most were quickly eliminated, leaving a short list of six for serious consideration. Each finalist was sent six carefully selected Enfield rifles with the request that they be converted and returned within six months, with 1000 rounds of ammunition.
The rifles were duly returned, and it is notable that only one of the new arms, that submitted by Snider, was intended to fire a self-contained cartridge: all the rest were capping breechloaders. There had always been a strong prejudice against cartridges incorporating a cap on the grounds that they were unduly sensitive And would explode if hit by a bullet and although the American Civil War had shown this to be incorrect the sentiment lingered. Tests were begun and in March 186 the committee presented Its first progress report. In a sense the results were disappointing, for none of the converted weapons complied with the required standard of accuracy. Nevertheless the committee was opti-mistic, distinctly favoring the Snider, which brings us to the subject of your enquirey.
Written descriptions of mechanisms tend to be mildly confusing, but here goes. In the original Snider, about 2.5in of the upper part of the barrel at the breech end were cut away, leaving a semi-circular trough. The part of the barrel immediately in front was bored out slightly to form a chamber, a countersink was made to take the rim of the cartridge, and the trough itself was filled by a breech block hinged on the right-hand side. Through this block passed the striker, which was activated by the original Enfield hammer.
The lack of accuracy of the original Snider conversion was attributed by the sub-committee partly to rather poor quality cartridges, but chiefly to the fact that the edge of the trough had to be raised to red heat in order to attach the block: this was considered certain to have an adverse effect on the breech end of the barrel. Snider himself was well aware of this defect and had already produced a simple and perfectly practicable de-vice which convinced the sub-committee that the difficulties could be overcome. This device, incorporated into all but the very earliest experimental rifles was known as a shoe. It was a trough-shaped piece of metal with the kind of breech block already described. Instead of the barrel being mutilated to form the trough it was simply cut down by the necessary 2.5in or so and the end threaded and screwed into the shoe. The whole was designed to fit into the stock of the standard Enfield with an absolute minimum of alteration. A simple spring stud was included to prevent accidental open-ing of the block.
The stage at which Snider's original cutaway breech was abandoned, and the shoe taken into use is no-where specifically stated in the numerous army records, but certain deductions are possible. The sub-committee commented on the problems of heating the breech to fix the hinge as early as March 1865, stating at the same time that Snider had detailed plans to do away with the need for this. In view of their clearly stated preference for his breech, even at that early stage, it seems certain that the inventor would have had every incentive to produce his improved mechanism as soon as possi-ble. Records show that it was patented on 5 September 1865 (British Patent number 2275), which means that it must have been in limited production for a period before that time.
The first specific mention came from the Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory in a letter of 30 April 1866, referred to in the Minute Book of the Ordnance Select Com-mittee. It mentioned "shoes for six naval rifles": as no explanation was given it is clear that the term was a familiar one. Earlier minutes refer to "two more rifles ready from Enfield 21.4.66": these presumably are "shoe" rifles as opposed to the original six conversions submitted by Snider in the previous October. It seems virtually certain that only the elementary tests were conducted with the original rifles and that few, if any, were made thereafter, all subsequent tests being conducted with rifles of the "shoe" variety.
The first official test made at Hythe took place on 18 April 1866. Although reference is made to it in Musketry School documents, the actual report does not appear in the Trials Books, although it is printed in full in the minutes of the Ordnance Select Committee. The ammunition, made by the Royal Laboratory, was of Pottet type. Two different kinds were used, one with a calico case soaked in beeswax and then black-leaded, the other with a case of varnished brown paper. These were apparently external differences only, since no further distinction seems to have been drawn between the two types of cartridge employed. Two rifles, received from Enfleld in February and which were identified as H3 and H4, were used. The com-parative figures for accuracy and elevation were encouraging.
Penetration of the usual water-soaked planks was somewhat poorer; the Snider only achieved 10+ as against 12+ by the Enfield. A cryptic comment on this suggested that the Snider's poor penetration was due to the shape of the bullet, the nose of which collapsed on impact. Rapidity tests were - for rate of fire only ' without much regard to accuracy, and here the Snider came out well, firing twelve rounds in one minute to just under four by the muzzle-loader, a superiority of just over three to one.
Three hundred rounds were fired successively without cleaning, with no adverse effect on accuracy. One batch of cartridges was left under water for an hour but still functioned satisfactorily. The only mildly adverse comment was that the ramrod tended to be shaken out by vibration, presumably in the rapidity trials, but this was easily adjusted. General Hay stated in his report of the trials that to date 1500 rounds had been fired with no misfires and no difficulties over extraction.
Two more rifles, marked H1 and M5, arrived at Hythe from Enfield on 21 April 1866. They appear to have been identical with the two tested earlier, except that steps had been taken to hold the ramrod more firmly. These two rifles, together with those of the earlier trial, were then ex-haustively re-tested. The accuracy results were marginally inferior to those of the earlier trial because of bad weather, but the report made it clear that "the superiority of the breechloader over the Enfield is still very marked".
Two rifles, H1 and H3, were then fired for four days at the rate of 250 rounds per day. They were not cleaned in any way during this period, and at night were left under an open shed. Strangely enough, the shooting actu-ally got better as the test continued, but this was thought to have been due to a considerable improvement in the weather towards the end of the four-day period. Two rifles were then tested for rapidity of fire; 20 rounds were laid out ready at hand for each firer and no attention was paid to accuracy. The firers were Sergeant McCanlis and Gunner Alderton, and both achieved an identical average of 15 rounds a minute. Three types of cartridge were em-ployed in these trials, although as far as can be ascertained from the reports the differences between them were confined to the bodies, which were covered with brown paper, calico and white paper respectively.
These all underwent rigorous tests; some were first distorted by heavy blows, but all were found to function perfectly, the cases being restored to their original shape by the force of the explosion. Twenty rounds of each type were then placed in a barrel of wet sawdust. Five of each type were withdrawn after 48 hours, a further five after 66 hours, five after 114 hours and the remainder after 138 hours. There were no misfires, although it was noticed that after 114 hours the strength of the powder was much diminished. Thirty rounds of each type were soaked under water from a hose to simulate heavy rain: they were left for the night in an open shed and sprayed with water again next morning before test firing. No loss of accuracy was ob-served. The report, dated 11 May 1866, noted that by then more than 5,500 rounds bad been fired with only one misfire.
A manuscript note on the back of the original report, written by an unknown hand which may well have been that of General Hay himself. suggested that negotiations ought to be entered into with Mr. Snider, which reinforced the generally favorable tone of the report itself.
On 23 May 1866 the Adjutant General wrote to the committee to inform it that His Royal Highness the Field-Marshal Commanding in Chief considered the report of 18 April 1866 valuable and felt that conversion should proceed. The Superintendent at Enfield was ordered to convert 20,000 Pattern 1853 Enfields. (Financially prudent as ever, the committee inquired as to the value of used cartridge cases per thousand if returned to store for reloading: the reply was four shillings and eleven pence.) The Duke of Cambridge's decision may have been influenced by a report which reached London from Paris at about this time, stating, apparentl on good authority, that the French government had ordered 500 Chassepot breechloading rifles for trials at Chalons. The sharp and savage defeat inflicted by the Prus-sians on the Austrians that summer, largely through the superiority of the needle-gun, must also have increased the desire not to be left behind. A new star, powerful and belligerent, was rising in Europe and the major powers looked anxiously to their state of military preparedness.
A further report, dated 18 June 1866, did much to confirm the findings at Hythe and gave assurance to the authorities that their decision to start conversion had been the right one. This test was conducted by the Royal Navy at HMS Excellent: the firers were a corporal and three privates of the Royal Marine Light Infantry.
Firing was conducted at 300yds and the accuracy of the converted rifle was assessed at about one and a half times that of its parent muzzle-loader. Careful aim was taken for each shot. Three different types of cartridge were again used, apparently identical with those employed in the second trial at Hythe and again they did not vary significantly in performance or dura-bility, although the latter quality was particularly severely tested. Among other ordeals ten of the brown paper cartridges and five each of the other types were placed loose in a Marine's pouch while he went about his normal duties (including some doub-ling) for a month: at the end of this time the rounds, although dented, all fired perfectly. Several rounds were deliberately slit in various places, both longitudinally and circumferentially but this appeared to have no adverse effect. The rifles were also tested with charges of up to 4 drams, no less than five bullets having pre-viously been loaded into them. Even this severe strain was successfully endured without mishap.
The only casualty during the trial was a loaded chamber indicator invented by the Superintendent at the Royal Small Arms Factory. Intended to tell the soldier at a glance if he had a round in the chamber. A brass stud was placed in a hole drilled in the chamber, so designed that when the top end was flush with the surface of the breech, the lower end, rounded off to prevent it catching, protruded into the chamber. When a cartridge was loaded this lower end was forced up against a spring, causing the top of the stud to stand proud of the top of the breech. Unfortunately the lubri-cant from the bullets quickly scraped off against the lower protrusion: after 300 rounds this clogged the whole mechanism and caused the stud to remain up even when there was no round in the chamber. The idea was therefore abandoned. A note on the trial commented that 11,000 rounds had by then been fired from six test rifles with only three misfires, all apparently caused byfaulty caps.
Although this result was encouraging, it had no effect upon affairs because the committee, doubtless influenced by the Duke of Cambridge's comments, had already recommen-ded the adoption of the Snider on 23 May 1866. The Commander in Chief concurred on July 5: the Superintendent at Enfleld requested a sealed pattern on 29 August: and by August draft contracts for conversion had been approved. The Mark I Snider was officially approved on 18 September 1866, the Mark I cartridge having preceded it by nearly a month. News of the success of the early tests obviously spread quickly. In the fall of 1865 the Canadian government had grounds for believing that an attack on their country by the Fenian Brotherhood was imminent.
The end of the American Civil War had left many demobilized soldiers at a loose end. Many were Irish and it did not prove difficult for Fenian agitators to persuade them that an invasion of Canada would be a blow for Irish liberty. In March 1866 a mass meeting of Fenians was held in New York and the report of its proceedings was so threatening that theCanadian government appealed to the British government for breech-loading arms,by which they can only have meant Sniders. The first batch of 30,000 was dispatched to Canada early in 1867 and many more were purchased later, but the Fenian incursion was made in May 1866, so the Sniders arrived too late. The attack was, in any case, swiftly repulsed by the Canadian militia. All continued to go well until 23 November 1866, when General Hay reported to the Ordnance Select Com-mittee the following observations:
"The shooting (of the Sniders) has been most wild; many shots fall short of the target and others go no one knows where. The markers in the Butt state that they hear the report from the firing point but can hear nothing of the bullet." This report naturally caused some consternation. Hay continued to test the rifles and soon concluded that the fault lay with the Mark I ammunition. A supply of the new Mark II was hastily dispatched to Hythe. The situation began to improve, although Hay complained that the trajectory was still higher than that of the parent Enfleld and that the long rifle shot worse than the short.
By this stage it was clear to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of ballistics, that the real problem lay in finding a bullet which would per-form equally well in a 33in barrel and with a sharp twist of 1 in 48 and in a 39in barrel with a slow twist of 1 in 78. Colonel Boxer, Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory, again went to his bench, and within a few weeks produced a Mark III cartridge which differed from its predecessor chiefly in the fact that the Bullet weight had been reduced from 525 grains to 480 grains, with a corresponding decrease in length. This did the trick; by 1867, Hay was able to report that the shooting of the Snider was equal to that of the Enfield at 600yds and somewhat better at 800yds, a fact which must have been greeted with relief by all concerned. Even so, this was not the end of the cartridge problem: new Marks continued to appear until the Mark IX, the last of the ball series, which was approved in 1871.
Other conversions were undertaken. The first weapons ordered for ser-vice conversions (other than the standard 39in. barreled Infantry rifles) were the Sappers and Miners Lancaster carbines, of which there were very few. The next were the 21in. barreled 1862 Pattern cavalry carbines, incorpor-ating other modifications, notably cutting down to half-stock and the provision of a leather protector over the backsight. Large-scale conversion of the short rifles also began in March 1867; the overall work went so well that by the end of April more than 136,000 arms of the various types had been altered to breechloaders and no less than 11 million rounds of ammunition had been manufactured. The last conversion was a special one: A quantity of long Enfields were cut down to 27in barrels and modified with Snider breech mechanism for the Royal Irish Constabulary.
As many of the earliest Enfield rifles had seen hard service in the Crimean War orthe Indian Mutiny, they were not generally considered to be worth converting; thus, most, if not all, Snider-Enfields are likely to be of 1859 manufacture or later. The dates on lock plates were not changed so all conversions should bear the original date of their manufacture as muzzle-loaders. Various improvements were, of course, made to the Snider conver-sion in the period. Major ones were noted by changes of Mark: minor improvements by the addition of stars, the final grade being given the designation of Snider Enfield MMII.
By 1868 the supply of serviceable Enfields suitable for conversion to breechloading had begun to reach a dangerously low level. By the end of that year the manufacture of new Sniders, as opposed to conversions, had begun, the change being notified in the List of Changes of 13 January 1869. The only obvious, external, differ-ence in appearance in these new weapons was the incorporation of a much safer locking device, of a type originally produced by Enfleld In February 1867, on the breechblock. A steel bolt .375in in diameter protruded .125in from the rear of the breechblock and fitted into a socket at the back of the shoe, being kept in place by a spring. Pressure on a catch incorporated into the thumbpiece withdrew this bolt into the block and thus allowed the breech to be opened in the normal way. The lower side of the bolt was slanted almost down to the level of the rear face of the block, so that it did not catch on the rear edge of the shoe and thus prevent the breech from being snapped closed. In the new arms, the nose of the hammer was made flat. In the converted weapons, the recess in the nose had tended to lock over the nipple and thus help to hold the breech-block closed, but with the new safety bolt this was no longer necessary.
The other, if less immediately obvious, innovation was the provision of a five-grooved steel barrel in place of the three-grooved iron one. Experiments on these lines had been carried on for some years: as early as 4 March 1867, the Superintendent of the Royal Small Arms Factory had reported very favorably on five-grooved steel barrels in conjunction with the Snider breech. All barrels of the new pattern Sniders were stamped STEEL on the left-hand side, just below thebacksight: in conjunction with the thumb catch and hammer, this makes them readily identifiable.
These purpose-built Sniders were all classi-fied Mark III and aremarked as such on the breech. In theory they should all bear the date 1869 or later, but they are often found with earlier dates, suggesting that new barrels and shoes were put on to serviceable stocks and locks as an economy measure. A few three-grooved Mark II's are also to be found. The original Enfleld bayonets, socket bayonet for the long rifle and sword bayonet for the short, continued in use with the Snider. The Royal Navy used a cutlass pattern. A spear-pointed "Elcho" bayonet remained in service for only a short time before it was withdrawn. It is interesting to note that the same meeting which recommended the adoption of the Snider in May 1866 also came to a conclusion on the long-term consideration of what may be classed as a permanent breechloader, as opposed to the temporary expedient of the Snider. On June 21 a circular letter was sent to all leading gunsmiths asking for their proposals for a long arm breech-loading rifle.
Muzzle-loading tests, particularly with the Whitworth, had demonstrated very clearly the advan-tages of a reduced caliber, so the committee stipulated that the bore of any weapon submitted was to be .45in. In spite of the progress made with ammunition, the committee, even at that late stage, did not specify that the rifle concerned was to fire a self-contained cartridge, but contented themselves with stating that they would prefer it. This drew sharp comment from General Hay, who attended this meeting. He strongly favored a self -contained cartridge which was, in his opinion. "half the battle". He also made the interesting remark that he had been experimenting with a breechloader of his own devising, though whether a modified Snider or some new concept was not stated. He admitted that the problem was primarily one of providing a suitable cartridge, which in view of the troubles still to be encountered was a remarkably shrewd comment."The figure of merit", often referred to by its alternative description of "mean radial deviation", is an expression met with so frequently in rifle tests that it should explained.
In order to ascertain the "figure of merit" of a rifle it is first necessary to fire a group of shots with it at a rectangular target, taking the same aim each time. Then the mean point of impact, i.e. the mathematical center of the group, is established. This is done by measuring the horizontal distance of each shot from the left-hand edge of the target, taking the average of these measure-merits and drawing a vertical line at this average distance from the left-hand edge: the mean point of impact will be somewhere on this line. The process is now repeated, this time measuring and averaging the dist-ance of each shot from the bottom of the target, and a horizontal line is drawn at this average distance from the bottom of the target. The point of intersection of the two lines will be the mean point of impact, or MPI. The individual deviation, i.e., the exact distance of each shot from the MPI, is now measured and averaged. The result is the figure of merit, or mean radial deviation. If shots have missed the target, their notional individual deviation is taken as half the diagonal measurement of the target. When all shots are on the target the figure of merit can be established with absolute accuracy.
When misses are allowed for, as described above, the figure's accuracy is necessarily reduced. A circle with its radius equal to the figure of merit and with its center on the MPI will usually include 50 per cent of the shots fired, provided the group is a reasonably consistent one Two or three wild shots in an other-wise close group will naturally in-crease the size of the figure of merit, in which case a greater percentage of shots will be inside the larger circle which results. The figure of merit must not be confused with the more modern concept of grouping capacity. In order to establish this, it is necessary to draw the smallest possible circle that will encompass all the shots in a group; the grouping capacity is expressed as the diameter of this circle. The figure of merit for the Snider at 300, 500, 800 and 1000 yds is listed as 0.55ft, 0.97ft, 3.32ft and 5.37ft. This compares favorably with 1.06ft, 1.57ft, 3.93ft and 7.92ft for the P1853 Enfield at the same ranges.
It is noted that General Hay came sooner or later in most of his reports to the subject of the "angle of elevation". This dictated what the trajectory of the weapon, i.e., the actual path followed by the bullet from muzzle to target, would be. It is very easy, when considering rifle fire in the Nineteenth Century, to equate it range for range with modern weapons, but this gives a very wrong picture. Even after making the ob-vious allowance for the difference in rate of fire, it is very difficult to compare the two because of the difference in trajectory. It is only by consideration of this important point that the force of General Hay's arguments becomes apparent.
At ranges up to 500yds the trajectory of a modern service rifle almost coincides with the line of sight: at 800yds it barely rises, even at its highest point, above the head of a standing man. Assum-ing the ground to be reasonably level between firer and target, this means that virtually the whole of the space between them is swept by effective fire (the beaten zone)- but in the days of the Snider, this was certainly not the case. Its heavy lead bullet, short, round-nosed is not particularly well shaped by modem standards. It had a muzzle velocity of about 1100ft per second, so that in order to fire it to ranges much over 200yds it was necessary to elevate the rifle very considerably.
The following is difficult to explain without the use of charts but there are a couple of ballistic terms that are important. "First Catch" is the point on the bullet's trajectory where it is low enough to strike a mans head, and "First Graze" is the point where it first strikes the ground. The area between the two is the "dangerous space" or "Beaten Zone". First graze is constant, but first catch obviously varies between mounted men and those on foot, so that the dangerous space for the two categories varies. Ricochets, i.e. bullets that may go on after first graze, are ignored. It must be noted when applying these concepts, that the trajectory of the bullet was not in the form of an even curve from muzzle to target. The bullet reached its highest point at somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of the distance: thus, its "angle of descent" was appreciably sharper than its "angle of ascent".
Up to 200yds the Snider's bullet remained at killing level throughout for standing infantry and up to 300yds for cavalry. Beyond those ranges there was an area, increasing rapidly in size as the range lengthened, in which the bullet was far above head level and there-fore harmless. It was for this reason that concern was expressed by General Hay at any need to increase initial elevation, for even a few extra minutes could make a significant reduction in the dangerous space. It was for this reason, too, that so much time was spent teaching the soldier to judge distance. The natural error of individuals, up or down, obviously pushed their dan-gerous space back or forward of the mean: for example, when a company was firing, the dangerous space of its collective individual trajectories was obviously longer than that of any one individual. It must also be borne in mind that targets often consisted of large bodies of troops: when these were advancing in deep columns or in successive lines, bullets which passed over the heads of the front ranks could cause casualties amongst men farther back. It was generally considered desirable to underestimate the range initially, because the strike of bullets falling short could often be seen and the range adjusted accordingly. Also, bullets falling short often went on by ricochet and inflicted casualties.
One of the few battles at which the performance of the Snider was well re-corded was at Arogi during Napier's Abyssinian campaign of 1868. Partly because of a tactical misappreciation on the part of the force commander, a depleted battalio of the 4th (Kings Own) Regiment, probably not more than 300 to 400 rifles strong, found itself receiving the attack of some 7,000 charging warriors. This was the first occasion on which the Snider was used in action and the results were instructive - perhaps horribly so. In an earlier book on the subject 'The March To Magdala" the author wrote: "In the centre, near the colours, Colonel Cameron also watched intently, gauging the range and speed of movement of the enemy. He was an experienced soldier who knew his business and he wanted the first blast of musketry to be a devastating one, so that although the Snider was effective at five hundred yards he waited resolutely. W7hen the approaching line was some two hundred and fifty yards away he judged the time ripe. He took a firmer grip on his reins, cast a final look left and right along the line of intent, bearded faces and in a clear, unhurried voice gave the order to fire. Three hundred blue barrels came up together and three hundred hammers clicked back to full cock. The first burst of fire ran down the line with a noise like a great tearing of canvas and a wide gap appeared abruptly in the centre of the Abyssinian line as the storm of fire hit it",
The first fire did not stop the charging Abyssinians who came on gallantly apparently (and perhaps understand-ably) convinced that a thin skirmish-ing line could not stop them. They were mistaken "The British were firing independently and by the time the more deliberate shots had fired their first rounds the quicker were ready with their second. The fire was therefore continuous: six or eight rounds a minute were quite possible with the Snider, so that the line was probably producing thirty or forty well-aimed shots each second. Not a lot, to be sure, by modern standards, but remarkable then. With the possible exception of some of the foreign observers, no one Present had previously seen breechloaders in action, and to men accustomed to volleys the fire was frightening in its intensity."
One interesting fact that emerges is that the commanding officer was clearly familiar with the trajectory tables, for he deliberately held his fire until the charging enemy were in a dangerous space which extended right up to the muzzles of the rifles. Not for him the slow, lobbed bullet at half a mile, but the devastating punch at point-blank range.
The Snider also proved its value during Garnet Wolseley's campaign in Ashanti in 1873-74, where a small force of three British battalions, indifferently supported by a rabble of levies, inflicted a series of sharp defeats on a numerous and warlike enemy. One of the British units, the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, was a rifle regiment and was thus already armed with the two-band Snider but the others, the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 42nd Black Watch, had the standard long infantry model. On arrival on the Gold Coast these were at once changed for the shorter weapons. Wolseley's sensible theory that the long model was too unwieldy for use in the thick forest had an interesting modern parallel in the introduction of the short Number Five rifle to replace the Number Four in the Far East in1944.
One of the minor disadvantages of the Snider was that the penetrative capacity of its bullet was relatively poor. A .25 in. plate of wrought iron would stop it at 100 yds. So, for that matter, would six in. of dry timber or a sandbag. This was due to the shape of the bullet; in particular to the plug (or hollow in some Marks) in the front of the bullet, which caused the nose to collapse very easily. But although this adversely affected penetration, it virtually converted the bullet to what later became known as a dum-dum, and the wounds it inflicted were terrible. After the battle of Arogi many Abyssinian wounded were brought into the British camp, where the surgeons attached to the force were able to combine humanity with first-class practical experience. All ac-counts agree on the severity of the wounds inflicted. Kipling probably summed it up accurately when he described the victim of a Snider as having " . . a round blue hole in his forehead, and the back blown out of his head".
The Ashanti War of 1873-74 was the last major campaign in which the British Army used the Snider, but the rifle saw a great deal more service in the hands of the Indian Army. In accordance with the post-Mutiny policy of keeping the native Indian Army one step behind the British as far as its arms were concerned, the Snider was issued in India only when the Martini-Henry had come into general use in the British Army, by around 1877. When the Lee-Metford was introduced some of the Indian regiments were re-armed with the Martini, but according to the Musketry reports a few units still had the Snider as late as 1893, so that its active military life spanned well over a quarter of a century. In a less active role, the Royal Irish Constabulary retained it until the turn of the century, as did some regiments of Artillery Militia. Thus, the Snider hardly warrants the description of "temporary" so often applied to it.
A great many obsolete Sniders were sold and specimens are still to be found in parts of Northeast Africa, the middle east and elsewhere. The supply of cartridges for these weapons must have presented a problem, if you come across one it is possible to manufacture a reasonably adequate round for the rifle by modifying a 28-bore shotgun cartridge.
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