The Ferguson Rifle.

The first breechloading rifle to be adopted by any military. Technically interesting, but never adopted. My experience with this reproduction has been interesting. It's a balky shooter if you handle it like the expensive reproduction that it is. On a battlefield, it might have been a different story. And then again, it might not have.

The Reproduction.

My example of the Ferguson rifle was built by Narragansett Arms of Indianapolis, #219 of a run of 250. It's quite well done, though for the hefty price, it darn well better be. Nicely finished, all the correct proof marks. The only faults I could find were a rough trigger pull and a somewhat flimsy ramrod. (cleaning rod? This rifle doesn't need a ramrod) Shoots a 65 caliber round ball. And comes with a rather long and extremely nasty looking bayonet.

Operating the Ferguson.

Loading is, as one may imagine, quite rapid. No careful measuring of powder, and especially no ramming of the ball down the barrel. To anyone who has fired a lot of black powder rifles, loading the Ferguson seems, well, a bit incomplete. You get this nagging feeling that you've forgotten something. You have - no ramming the bullet down the barrel!

Firing it produces a hefty crack, and recoil consistent with a 65 caliber round ball, which is to say it kicks, but not painfully so. It does blow powder and reside both up and down, out the screw threads, you can feel a puff of breeze on your forehead when the charge goes off. The first shot out of a clean Ferguson almost always goes without a hitch. Then, you experience the rapid reload, which seems even quicker after you've fired a shot. One twist of the handle, and the breech is open. Push a greased bullet into the breech. Pour powder in until the chamber looks full - the breech plug will knock out any excess. Twist the handle back. Prime the tray, cock, and let fly. With practice, a reload can be done reliably in 8 to 9 seconds. (Legend has it that Simon Kenton could reload his Kentucky rifle in 12 seconds) You can load it while lying down, though it isn't quite as quick. Nor as hazardous during a battle, but that's another matter entirely...

You also begin to experience the shortcomings. Up to the third shot, things go quite smoothly and rapidly - no swabbing the bore, no ramming a bullet down a freshly fired barrel. About the third shot, the screw mechanism begins to clog up. By the fourth shot, the screw breech no longer opens. You'll need to dribble a bit of water on the breech threads to free it up. This happens, no matter how much grease you put on the threads. Fergie has a sensitive touch hole - if you don't clean it after every shot, it will begin to either misfire or hang fire after the 2nd or 3rd shot, and I've noticed that this rifle has some very lengthy hang fires. Click, whoosh, oops, nothing, darn it... start to lower the rifle and BAM! Exercise extreme caution with misfires, it can still go off. So it loads quickly, but if you take full advantage of that fast load, normal black powder maintenance will stop you after a few shots. There is also the flintlock mechanism, and the tray in need of priming. Very easy to get this wrong, especially if you are in a hurry. You can dump 3F powder in the tray and get rid of the 2nd flask, but you usually get slow ignition. Dump in too much, and you get the normal flintlock slow fire: click, sssssssss, pow!

Accuracy hasn't been gauged, as this was delivered with a rough trigger pull. That's being worked on. I've heard from another Ferguson owner who put it to a serious test, and results were not that good, 3-4" pattern at 100 yards. Not quite up to Whitworth standards.

Cleaning the Ferguson: very tedious, because powder residue gets blown everywhere. It comes out the top of the breech, and the bottom as well. Disassemble the rifle completely for cleaning. Don't just swab out the barrel and action, this rifle blows powder residue everywhere. A toothbrush is recommended for cleaning the breech threads, which must be cleaned as powder residue accumulates there. One of the reasons I don't shoot this one very much, is the hour or so you'll spend cleaning it afterward.

Close up of the screw breech action opened. One turn of the handle on the trigger guard fully opens the breech for reloading.

Owning this very faithful reproduction has been an education in why this rifle was such an advancement. It could be reloaded rapidly, and reloaded while lying down. However, it was still subject to many black powder limitations. The figure of seven to eight shots per minute is strictly theoretical - after three or four, you have to stop and clean the action - a most interesting discovery, and one the history books do not record. I've seen only the briefest mention of power fouling in Ferguson history, and it is mentioned only to explain the vertical grooves cut in the threads. (which don't do much for the fouling, by the way)

However, that is from the perspective of a person holding an expensive reproduction rifle. On the battlefield, back in the 1700's, it might have been a different story. If you forget about the concern for corroding an expensive reproduction, you might splash a little water on the action every 2nd or 3rd shot, and keep it from freezing up. Attach a pick to your priming flask, and give the touchhole a quick swat as you prime. Not quite trouble free, but still way ahead of the muzzle loaders. Eventually, prolonged exposure to acid (black power residue + water = sulfuric acid, which is why I don't do this - I use powder solvent) may have rendered the rifles inoperable. But, we'll never know. The rifles were taken out of use after one battle, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, no operating manual for a Ferguson is known to exist.

Brief history of the Ferguson.

The brainchild of Major Patrick Ferguson. Breechloaders had been built prior to Ferguson, most notably the rifles made by Chaumette, but they were delicate affairs, unsuited to the rigors of military requirements. Ferguson took an existing idea: the screw breech, and built it into a practical military firearm, or at least as practical as technology of the time (1770's) would permit.

His major innovation was to incorporate the screw breech into the trigger guard, with a handle that didn't detach and become lost, and stayed out of the way when not being used. Screw breech rifles of the time usually had a detachable handle that protruded from the side of the rifle. This alteration made the rifle into a practical weapon that could be operated in the field without fear of losing parts.

Ferguson added another refinement, one that stretched the limits of 18th century metalworking: he used a multistart tapered screw for the breech plug. Multiple threads allowed more movement per turn, which allowed the breech to be completely opened with one turn of the handle. By adding a gentle, inward taper on the plug, it would loosen up very quickly after a slight rotation, yet be tight enough when locked to maintain a good gas seal. These were features not found on any previous breechloader. Nor were they simple tasks, given the machine tools of the time. Machining out a screw with multiple threads, adding a taper, and then machining the same multithread taper into the breech itself was quite a feat in the late 1700's.

One hundred military Ferguson rifles were produced, and then shipped to the colonies along with a detachment that Ferguson had trained and led. They engaged in their one and only action at the Battle of Brandywine, one of the bloodiest clashes in the war. Ferguson's detachment was said to have been fairly effective. As there were 100 Ferguson equipped soldiers among the over 30,000 soldiers involved in the battle, they could hardly have had much effect, one way or another. In this battle, Ferguson was wounded. While recuperating, his unit was disbanded, and the rifles put away. The soldiers were issued standard Brown Bess rifles.

Upon recovery, Ferguson was assigned duty in the South, where he was said to have encouraged the destruction of civilian property by his troops, as a way to deprive the enemy of a means to survive. He met his end at the Battle of King's Mountain, Surrounded, he refused to surrender and was shot off of his horse. His cruelty to the locals hadn't exactly made him any friends, either.

And the 100 Ferguson rifles? Only two are known to exist today. What happened to the rest is a matter of some conjecture. Some sources indicate that the rifles were burned because spare parts were not available. Some hint that a cache of priceless rifles may still be buried somewhere in New York. While the Ferguson Rifle was produced in a civilian form in greater numbers, many of which still survive today, the military rifles made for Ferguson's detachment have vanished, save the two in museums.

Shortly before the Battle of Brandywine, Ferguson and a few troops were scouting, and encountered a couple of Colonial officers on horseback. The officers turned and rode away, and Ferguson held his fire, unwilling to shoot them in the back. One of the officers was General George Washington.

So why did the British not use the Ferguson? There have been hints that General Howe had them packed away as he secretly sympathized with the colonists, and had made statements to that effect earlier. However, Howe was Ferguson's sponsor, and was responsible for the detachment and rifles being built and brought to the colonies.

The most likely explanation is much simpler: armies of the time, especially successful ones, tend to be very conservative in equipment. What already works is kept in use, until an enemy comes up with something better. The Ferguson rifle cost upwards of three times as much to produce as the Brown Bess, and the British Army already had a full compliment of those, with a good deal of service life left. Care to go to the House of Commons in 1776 and ask for that sort of money? To replace perfectly good rifles? My dear General, have you taken leave of your senses?

My experience with this reproduction has shown that it wasn't quite the breakthrough that some have made it out to be. However, many of the drawbacks can be addressed, at least partially. So was it the super rifle that was abandoned? Perhaps. And, perhaps not. The idea was not unique, and was to come up again in military form.

The breechloader reappeared in the US Civil War in limited use, as the Sharps carbine. However, it did not become truly practical until a way to control the fouling was found. And found it was, with the metallic cartridge, which contained the fouling within the barrel, and away from the breechloading mechanism. When the metallic cartridge became available, most major armies began widespread adoption of the breechloading rifle, so one can safely assume that the fouling problem was a prime reason that armies did not use the breechloader sooner. Of course, the metallic cartridge could be loaded only through the breech, so the cartridge itself may have had as much to do with the demise of the muzzle loader, as the convenience and speed of breechloading. In any case, muzzle loading rifles did not lose favor with the major armies until the advent of the metallic cartridge.

I also feel that the Ferguson lacked the tactics to put it to full advantage. Rapid fire weapons work best when used in conjunction with mobility, where a small, rapid firing, fast moving force without benefit of fortification can be as effective as a larger conventional force. Such an employment would have been a radical departure from established 18th century tactics, where warfare was generally large army on large army, in a fairly static setting. Mobile warfare would have to wait until the US Civil War, when General John Hunt Morgan equipped fast cavalry with rapid fire Colt revolvers, and employed hit and run tactics to cut the Union supply lines in a manner far out of porportion to the actual size of his forces. The lesson was to be forgotten for another 78 years, until Heinz Guderian studied Morgan's actions carefully, and employed the same tactics in the Ardennes forest in 1940, with similar results. Get behind their fortifications, and cut off their supplies, and the army becomes ineffective. George Patton studied Morgan and Guderian, and did the same in France in 1944, going the other way.

Had the British thought to combine the Ferguson rifle with fast cavalry, lightning warfare could have been conceived in the late 1700's, to deadly effect. What could that have done in the Napoleanic wars? Where the wide open countryside of France proved ideal mobile warfare terrain for Guderian in 1940, and Patton in 1944? We will never know, that scenario was quietly locked in a cellar in New York, in 1778.

This concept must be tempered with the battlefield situation of that period. The decidedly low tech armies of the late 1700's were not nearly as dependent upon supply lines as were those of 1860 or 1940. They tended to live off the land more, and their weapons did not consume ammunition at such a rate as to run out quickly. Put simply, in 1778, there were no railroads to disrupt, and no armies dependent upon the rapid railway transfer of supplies to cut off. So to a degree, the Ferguson was a weapon looking for circumstances that had not yet occurred. However, one must also remember that one of Napolean's greatest achievments was a sophisticated supply system to keep his large armies fed and equipped. A system that could have been disrupted by a small, fast moving, rapid firing force... so the idea of lightning warfare against Napolean is still an interesting possibility.

The bottom line appears to be that the Ferguson rifle was just too far ahead of its time to justify large scale employment. It's rapid fire capability, substantially faster than the typical rifle or smoothbore musket of the day, lacked the tactics to use it to full advantage. Those tactics lacked the situation to justify their employment. The cost of manufacture was substantially higher than conventional rifles, and could be made only by the most expert metalworkers, people who were in short supply, and would have been taken off of other critical tasks. It was also in the possession of a nation that already had a successful military, and saw little reason to make a radical and expensive departure from a known successful method. Had the Ferguson been invented by the colonists, who were already doing well with new and unconventional tactics, it might have been put to more effective use.

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