Firearms for a very long time were fairly simple things. A barrel of some sort with two holes. One at the front for the projectile to come out. One in the back to light the powder that sent the projectile out.
Starting from there, people would go on to add different kinds of trigger mechanisms. Matchlocks which actually used a piece of burning cord to light the fuse. Flintlocks which used sparks to light the fuse. Percussion caps and the modern trigger mechanisms of today. All showed an evolution but didn’t do much to help the main issue that a smoothbore firearm had. Range and accuracy. You could aim at a target but hitting anything more than a couple of dozen yards away was a matter of luck more than skill. This was why armies stood in long lines real close together and firing all at once became the way wars were fought. The more muskets pointed in a direction, the better the odds were one would hit a target.
That all changed with the invention of rifling. Rifling, which is adding a series of groove to the barrel of a firearm, was first done in what would be Germany in the late 15th, early 16th century tough it would not become standard until the nineteenth century. The grooves in the barrel cause the projectile to spin which greatly stabilizes the flight due to centrifugal force. With its flight more steady the projectile more often than not would go to where it was aimed greatly increasing accuracy. Suddenly a bunch of men standing in line a few yards from each other became less of a good idea. Unfortunately, it would take a bit for tactics to catch up with technology and a lot of people dies needlessly. That is a story for another time though.
The pic above shows the rifling grooves on a Civil War-era cannon, looking down the barrel you could see the spiral pattern that imparted the spin which gave the guns the greater range and accuracy.
It was expensive and hard to produce. Four gunsmiths would struggle to make 100 in six months. It cost four times what the standard musket would cost. What it was though was one of the first breech-loading rifles and it very well could have changed the face of the American Revolution.
A turn of the trigger guard would cause the breech plug to drop down, a standard British .615 caliber lead ball would be put into the barrel followed by the patch and powder. It could be loaded from a prone position, behind cover and loaded faster than a standard Brown Bess musket.
The rifle was designed by Patrick Ferguson a British officer who worked based on an earlier 1720 French design. After making improvements in the mechanism he was awarded the patent in 1776. At the start of the revolution, Ferguson gained permission to outfit 100 men in an “experimental rifle corp” to field test the weapons. At the Battle of Brandywine, the rifle served well but Ferguson himself was wounded. During his recuperation, the unit was disbanded and the rifle was used only sparingly. The cost of production proved too much and the rifle was mothballed.
Ferguson would eventually meet his end later in the war at King’s Mountain. One account of his unit at Brandywine would live on well past him. Just before he was wounded in the battle he observed a group of American officers enter a small glade. He and some of his men had taken cover at the edge. From the uniforms, he could tell that these were high-ranking men. He raised his self-named rifle placing the sites on the man in the lead. At that moment the group turned around, oblivious to the dangers lurking at the wood line. Ferguson decided to not take the shot as shooting the man in the back would not be honorable. The group of officers made it back unscathed and Ferguson would later catch a ball in his elbow and be put out of action.
Based on accounts on the day of the battle it is very probable that the man who had been in the sites of Ferguson’s rifle was General George Washington himself. Later upon hearing that it may have been, Washington Ferguson said that he did not regret his decision. A case of honor over expediency.
For almost two hundred years the flintlock firearm was the state of the art for the military around the world. First developed by Marin le Bourgeoys for King Louis XIII of France around 1610 they continued to be refined and developed until the mid-19th century when percussion caps became more the norm.
The flintlock pistol was normally used in conjunction with another weapon, sword or cutlass and would fire one shot before having to be reloaded. They ranged from six inches up to twenty and were mostly smooth bore. Effective and powerful in the short-range their greatest deficiency was that time it took to reload. For those that have never done it here are the steps:
Load the flint into the lock.
Half-cock the cock
Pour the proper amount of black powder down the muzzle
Tamp it down
Wrap the ball in a patch, usually linen or cotton
Put the ball in the muzzle
Tamp the ball and power down with the ramrod
Prime the flash pan
You are ready to fire!
Now imagine that in the middle of a fight, probably not going to happen which is why you would normally carry more than one.
Not only is the load process time-consuming, but the actual flick that makes the spark can sometimes be an issue. They wear out, and if not produced right is just plain ineffective. Of course, keeping your powder dry was a major issue. Even when it was you would have to constantly clean the powder residue from the weapon to keep it functioning. Since most of the pistols were made by hand the parts were mostly not transferable from one to another. So if something broke, you may be out of luck.
Still, though they were good weapons and were integral in not only the military but taming the new frontiers found on the American Continent.
War seems to bring out some of the strangest inventions known to man. In this case the Granatenwerfer which translates to “grenade thrower.” The device was developed for the Austro-Hungarian military by a priest and was used by the German army during WWI. It could throw a grenade further than a person, but did not have the range that mortars would have. It served as a middle ground solution that was a product of its time.
The Granatenwerfer itself weighed about 31lbs and came with a solid base plate that weighed in at 48lbs. Those weights meant that it could be easily carried by one or two people and assembled in place. It was capable of throwing a 14oz grenade to a maximum of 330 yards. With practice it could fire 4 to 5 projectiles a minute!
The grenade itself was designed to slip onto the launch tube and contained a “blank” rifle cartridge ( a normal round with the bullet removed) which it used as the propellant. A pull of a lanyard fired the unit. When the projectile exploded it could spread shrapnel over about a 30 meter radius. It could be fired effectively directly at a target, or indirectly (lobbed into trenches and such).
To the French, the Granatenwerfer round made a very distinctive warbling sound when the round was in the air. Because of this the French referred to the grenades as pigeons. That distinctive sound came into play for the Germans later in the war. Due to the short-range of the weapons it was hard to use them during full on assaults. By the time the grenades launched, the advancing Germans would have caught up to them. This put them in danger of getting into the blast range.
Knowing the enemy would likely go to ground when they fired with their distinctive sound, they would remove the explosives from the grenades. This gave them the advantage of advancing without worry of their own bombs, but also knowing the enemy would have their head down!
On December 8, 2004 US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was visiting Camp Buehring Kuwait. The 2003 invasion of Iraq had been going on for almost a year and there was a problem. The actual war had been won as the Iraqi military was defeated and rendered useless as a cohesive force. However that did not mean that the Iraqis were done fighting.
Using guerrilla and insurgent tactics the opposition forces were proving to be more than a thorn in the side of the occupation forces. Roadside bombs (IEDs), RPG teams and snipers made even carrying out every day duties deadly for the American forces. What was not helping was the fact that their primary vehicles, from the ubiquitous Humvee to the LMTV trucks were sorely under armored for this kind of warfare. So much so that troops began covering their vehicles in improvised armor whenever possible. This armor was made up of scrap metal, spent ballistic glass, Kevlar vests and even sandbags. Anything that would add to their protection.
As Rumsfeld was talking to the troops that day a soldier asked him a question:
“Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles? And why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?”
“It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, ah, you go to war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time. You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and (still) be blown up…”
An uproar occurred based on these words as many started to question the government’s commitment to their troops safety. President Bush spoke out on the subject and the contractor that provided armored Humvees was asked to increase its production. In the mean time actual Up Armor kits were developed and sold to the military to try to increase the protection. Sometimes civilian organizations would even purchase these kits and send them to the front lines.
The picture above shows a panel up Up Armor that would be bolted onto the Humvee for an extra layer of protection.
People, Places and Things from US Military History