Many of the reminiscences and memoirs from the men of Wellington’s armies make mention and comment at some time of the unreliability of their personal firearms, but it is not until one reads the considered words of an expert of the period that one begins to realise just how very primitive the muskets and rifles of 1815 were, compared to their modern counterparts.
A well established and acknowledged authority on these matters in Wellington’s day was the London Gunmaker Ezekiel Baker, whose shop and workshops were at NO.24 Whitechapel Road, close by the Tower of London.
Baker at the trials organised by The Honorable Board of Ordnance at Wollwich in 1800, put forward the Baker Rifle that was judged to be the best of those tested and was subsequently adopted as the official arm for the Rifle Regiments of the British army for the next thirty years or so, gaining quite a reputation.
In addition to this notable achievement, Ezekiel Baker was also responsible for a number of detailed improvements to Muskets, Rifles and Fowling Pieces during his lifetime. His "Remarks on Rifle Guns and Fowling Pieces" became a standard work of reference, and in 30 years ran through eleven editions.
It is from the 11th Edition of 1835 that the following extracts have been taken. They show very clearly just what an awkward and difficult weapon the Soldier had to deal with, and how very necessary all that drill and discipline were.
Here is what the inventor has to say about loading the Baker Rifle.
“After you have loaded the piece with powder, then put the greased patch of leather, calico, or soft rag, provided for that purpose, on the end of the barrel, as near the centre as possible; place the ball upon it with the centre or castable, where it is cut off from the moulds, downwards, as generally there is a small hole or cavity in it which would gather air in its flight; but if this plan be adopted, and the smooth side always kept upwards in the barrel, it will not be so liable to be obstructed in its passage through the atmosphere.
Great care should also be taken that the ball is in the middle of the patch of leather or greased rag, before it is rammed down the barrel: if it is more to one side than the other, it will give the ball an inclination, and throw it from the straight line on its leaving the barrel.
Both sides of the patch should be greased; in which case there can be no mistake, however hurried you may be in loading. I have tried varios ways of loading rifles at the breech. By means of screws placed in different positions; but after a few rounds of firing, the screws have become so clogged by the filth from the powder working round them, as to become very difficult to move, and will in time be eaten away with rust, which would render them dangerous to use. None answer the general purpose better than those loaded at the muzzle, with the patches as above mentioned: by which method the grooves of the rifle become air-tight: the filth from the powder is carried down upon the charge, and is consequently thrown out by the explosion: and the barrel is preserved clean, much more so, indeed, with the quarter turn, than it would with the whole one, or three-quarter turn. In the rifle, I have occasionally fired naked balls without patches, that have filled up the grooves; but after a few rounds firing I have found it very difficult to load: and consequently, the patch is by far the most advantageous method.
A ball should never be forced down too hard, nor yet should it be too easy; I never found them to go so true, as when properly fitted. The ball with its patch should fit air-tight, or it will not have the desired effect. Let the rifle be ever so well cut, if the ball does not fit, it will not answer the intended purpose. I do not mean that the ball should fit so tight as to require a wooden mallet to drive it in the nose end of the barrel. When the 95th rifle regiment was raised by the Government, which is now called the Rifle Brigades, I supplied them with a few hundreds of small wooden mallets to drive in the ball: but they found them very inconvenient, and very soon dispensed with them: in addition to which they became a serious incumbrance to the men, and have for some years past been entirely abandoned. The loading is indeed performed equally well without them, as a man’s strength is always found sufficient to make the ball enter, when it fits as it ought to; but if, in any case, more strength should be required, I would certainly prefer wooden mallets to the rammer head, or anything hard being made use of. I have seen many an excellent rifle barrel much injured by being bruised and cut at the nose end by the rammer head, and which has consequently much impeded their accuracy of shooting.
I have fired balls of various shapes, but none answers so well as the round ones, the rounder the better; as all parts will have a more equal bearing on the rifle. I have very little opinion of balls for loading rifles having leather or any other substance placed on them as a substitute for a patch, particularly for long ranges: for in their flight they gather the air, and make a noise similar to a humming-top, which most certainly impedes their progress, and necessarily alters or changes the direction.
A barrel, from frequent using and cleansing, will sometimes become too wide for the ball which first fitted it: in this case, a double or treble patch should be added, according to circumstances: by which means the ball will be made to fit. ————. Be careful that the ball is rammed home to the powder, and with as little bruising as possible.
Every rifleman should mark his rammer at the muzzle end of the barrel, when loaded, which will show him when the ball is close down on the powder. After firing a few rounds, the filth from the powder will clog at the bottom of the barrel, and prevent the ball from going close on the powder: in this case a little pressing with the rammer will be required to get the ball into its right place. More accidents happen from a neglect of this precaution than can be imagined: if the ball be not rammed close on the powder, the intervening air will frequently cause the barrel to burst: not, I confess, that there is so much danger with rifle barrels as with fowling-pieces, the former being made much stronger.”
There follows a lot more detailed advice on ramming down the ball.
Next, Baker mentions a possible difficulty that must have happened quite frequently under battle conditions:
“At all times care should be taken that the hammer is shut down upon the pan before the ball is rammed down, or the air that the ball forces before it will blow all the powder out of the touch-hole. If this should occur, the ball must be drawn out with a screw turned onto the end of the rammer, provided for this purpose.”
Detailed advice is also given on cleaning the rifle.
“If it is sponged out often while firing, it will be all the better, should there be time, as a rifle cannot be kept too clean. After firing ten or twelve rounds, I have found the ball ramable from the point intended; and sponging out the barrel will have the effect of preventing such an accurrence. ——– It may happen that water, at such times, cannot be got; if the man can make urine, and apply it in the same kind of way, it will have the same effect.”
Further remarks are made on the care of the lock mechanism, and the need for properly cut· and good quality flints, for, as Baker says" no situation can be so galling, no vexation can equal that of a brave fellow filling up the ranks merely to be fired at, and at the same time disabled (by the failure of his flint) from doing his duty.
At this point, a foot-note states:
“this was particularIy exemplified in the British Army at the memorable battle of Waterloo, as well as several other actions in which British troops were engaged.”
PRESENTING AND TAKING AIM
“No noise or conversation should take place whilst anyone is presenting or taking aim, as it will arrest the attention. The rifle should be held firm in hand, in all positions, in presenting to fire, as a great deal depends on the true flight and strength of the ball, by the rifle being kept tight to the shoulder while firing.
I have found, by experience, that the swell of wood underneath the stock, similar to a pistol, has a much better purchase to the trigger-hand than the steel or brass scroll- guard, which is usually attahced to guns of every description: it prevents the piece from recoiling, and by holding it firm to the shoulder, gives a precision to the sight, which is peculiarly advantageous, as well to riflemen and sportsmen in general. This improvement was considered so great that the 10th regiment of Hussars have had all their rifles constructed on this principle for the last eighteen years, and have found them to answer in every respect so well, that I have been employed to re-stock them within the last three years.
In laying on the belly, it will be found difficult for the left had to grasp the stock forward; in that case, the sling or belt should be pulled firmly back, to keep the rifle steady whilst firing. To fire off-hand without a rest, the right foot should be behind the left about sixteen inches, the left knee upright (and not bent, as the position of most figures are generally drawn), the right elbow down towards the body, the butt of the rifle in the hollow of the shoulder, the body easily bent forwards, so that the right eye comes over the great toe of the left foot. I have seen some positions of riflemen with part of the butt of the rifle appearing above the shoulder, and the remaining part of the butt upon the joint of the arm, instead of the hollow of the shoulder.
After firing a few rounds it becomes very unpleasant to the arm to receive the recoil of the rifle, instead of the shoulder. This is one reason that complaint is so often made of guns recoiling. Everyone that is in the habit of shooting endeavours to put the butt in the hollow of the shoulder, to bring it to near the centre of his body as possible, in order to prevent shooting across, which is often imperceptibly done, and which excites the wonder of the practitioner that he is so far from striking the object he aims at: this has frequently occurred to me, particularly when in a hurry to fire. I have found quarter-face the strongest position, as a piece cannot be held to firm in hand whilst presenting and firing; and, besides, the man is less exposed to his enemy in that situation than in full face.
If the body is more bent, the man will neither stand so easily nor so steady. The left hand, when presenting, should be forward on the swell of the stock, so as to keep the piece from dropping at the fore end, which is the case with all rifle pieces, and muskets in particular, after firing a few rounds: both pieces being heavy forwards, the left hand should be forward up the stock as far as it can be extended, so as to preserve a proper equilibrium. If the left hand is placed against the guard or handle that is in the gun in the same position that is generally used in fowling-pieces, they will depress at the fore end, and throw the ball down; the sling under the elbow will keep it form and steady to the shoulder.
In presenting and taking aim, it is far more preferable to open both eyes, as the object is sooner attained, as the sight more" perfect:it also prevents the blinking which is a general case in shutting one eye. This may be difficult to many at first; but “Practice makes perfect”: and when it is once accomplished. The advantage will be sufficiently evident. From my former pbservations many persons have tried the experiment. and have since declared. that. having accustomed themselves to keep both eyes open in taking aim they are satisfied that this method is the best. and that in every instance it had the desired effect. By this means he will quarter his piece. which will show him when his head is too far over the centre of the stock. The cheek should be pressed on the stock very hard at all times. or a man will deceive himself. for his eye should be as a fixture on the stock every time he takes aim.
In taking aim he should place the muzzle of the rifle to the lowest part of the object he means to strike. then raise it gradually till he gets full view of the object. In bringing up the rifle. the fore finger must be kept light on the trigger; and when up to the point intended. he should draw the front sight into the notch of the back sight with his eye.
He should hold his breath. and pull gradually without any snatching or starting. as that will materially alter the direction of the rifle. It occasionally happens that he may hold his breath so long as to cause trembling; in that case. the rifle should be taken down, he should breathe freely. and aim again; as it is impossible to fire so true as at the first sight. It is a more certain way to bring the muzzle of the rifle up than down. where that object can be attained. In bringing the rifle up to the point intended. the cheek should be as a fixture on the stock. that. when brought to the point. it requires no alteration: but when the muzzle is brought down. it will require the face to be pressed on the stock; in that case. the point will be lost. and the man much deceived. After the trigger is pulled. let the rifle be kept firm to the shoulder. till the ball strikes the target at one hundred yards: this will be known by hearing the ball strike or hit; and that will prevent any starting or throwing back the head. as is often the case in firing.
The best sportsmen recommend all learners invariably to fire at birds without shot for some time; The same practice should be adopted with the rifle. A rifleman should for some time pull the trigger. with only a wooden driver in the cock. till he can accomplish this without starting. or shaking the muzzle of his rifle. or blinking; and by so doing. it will give him confidence. as greater command of his rifle. He should then put a little loose powder in the barrel and pan of the lock. and fire it off repeatedly: this practice would be of essential service in taking off that starting or trembling which all young practitioners universally experience.”
SOME GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ON SIGHTS
“Some people fancy the folding elevating sights most eligible; but I confess that I have little opinion of their practical utility. as the joints of the sights will work loose fro~ wear. so that there will be little dependance in the truth of them. The sight for the greatest range may be up. when a shot at a shorter distance may offer: in this case the man. not perceiving it. would be much deceived in taking his aim; and will require the face to be removed from its stationary place on the stock. to enable the eye to pass over it: thus he will be doubly deceived, as he will have no rest for his cheek. I have found it a more certain way to make allowance in the elevation. rather than to move the face from its stationary place off the stock. to allow the eye to pass over the folding elevating sights. for three hundred yards range. In trying guns. I have frequently been deceived by folding elevating sights; for which reason I rely always on one sight. and consider that much more to be depen ded upon at all distances. Its shape on the top should represent a sphere of a circle. with a small notch in the centre. so as to admit of the light on each side of the front sight. which forms itself to the eye better than any sight I have ever yet tried.
The back sight should not stand too near the lock; as it will be liable to be filled with filth from the smoke of the lock. which will be a great denial to taking a true sight through the small notch. The sight cannot to too much simplified. as the object is more easily obtained; if a man cannot measure his distance with his eye, all the folding, elevating, or telegraphic sights, so wonderfully eulogised, will never realise his expectations.——- One of the principle sciences in shooting is, for a man to measure His distance correctly before he shoots; and if he cannot do this, all the sights that can be added will never make him a good shot with a rifle, or indeed, with any other piece.”
Baker’s book contains much more advice on the care of the rifle, the best positions for aiming, the optimum performance of the Baker Rifle, the best type of ball, powder etc, but I hope that these short extracts have shown something of the problems besetting the soldier on active service.
If only it had been possible to devote enough time to training the 19th century soldier in the skilled use of the simple by accurate and deadly Long Bow, the outcome of the battles of the Napoleonic wars in the Peninsular and in France might have been very different! Henry V’s lads at Agincourt could not only have several arrows in the air at the same time, but each of them was accurate at 300 yds and could go through an inch of oak plank.