Whitworth Rifle

Probably the first military sniper rifle, and one that was created pretty much by accident.

My reproduction is the standard Euroarms/Pedersoli model, as sold by Navy Arms and others. 451 caliber. Well made, with good workmanship, as are most of the better Italian black powder reproductions. The Whitworth is renowned for being the most accurate military muzzle loading military rifle made, and is most often remembered for it's unique rifling. Instead of a round barrel with grooves cut, Whitworth made the inside of the barrel with a hexagonal twist, and a hex shaped bullet to match.

Interesting note: while most of the rifle is manufactured by Pedersoli, the barrel itself comes from Parker-Hale.

This rifle thrives on a 540 grain bullet, and 80 grains of FF. Has a fairly hefty recoil, as one would expect from a 500 grain bullet, and speaks with a deep, bellowing boom when it goes off. This rifle is beautifully balanced. Sits on the shoulder very well, with excellent sights. All rifles have a distinct feel. This one feels like it's going to hit the target. Despite the very long (36") barrel, shouldering this rifle is not awkward. Like two of my other favorite shoulder arms, the Springfield M1A and Winchester 52D, this one just feels right.

Accuracy? Quite good, though I don't have any patterns at distance to back this up yet. If you go to any of the Friendship shoots, you'll see quite a few Whitworths in the long range marksmanship contests. Note: I am in the process of upgrading this rifle with a side mounted scope. Photos soon to follow.

Not pictured, but essential if you're going to own one of these, is a proper bullet mold that can accurately reproduce the original bullet. I have the Romano mold, though another is being made in the UK. The alternative is to swage a 50 cal bullet down with a swaging tool that is also available.

The bullets out of the Romano mold, which reproduce the originals nicely, fit a little too perfectly. The primary reason that the Whitworth remained a sniper rifle instead of becoming standard issue to troops is the problems encountered in loading the second or third shot. It's a tight fit, and even after swabbing the barrel out and greasing the bullet, loading the second shot can be quite a pain. The problem can be found in the hex shaped barrel. Standard swabs don't reach into the corners, and residue can accumulate there, hampering the load of the second shot. I'm glad they supplied a metal ramrod, more than once I've had to butt the ramrod against a tree to persuade a balky bullet to seat fully. Too slow a rate of fire to be used in close combat, when the greater accuracy would be irrelevant.

And a note on the slow loading of the second shot... I have found that to effectively swab out the Whitworth's bore, it helps to take a 65 caliber swab, and trim the sides to match the hex shape of the Whitworth's bore. With this, I have found that the barrel can be swabbed to where the next shot loads fairly easily, although it takes a few swabs to get it right, and care should be exercised to keep the swab clean or fouling gets left in the corners of the bore.

Brief history of the Whitworth rifle:

Joseph Whitworth was one of the UK's most outstanding engineers, at a time when British engineers were the best in the world. From the nation that produced such giants as Watt, Maudsley, Brunel, and Stephenson, that is no small praise. Amongst Whitworth's many achievements were bringing a standardised thread system to manufacturing, at a time when screw threads were whatever the shop turned out.

In 1853, the British government asked him to set up a rifle factory. In the process of doing so, Whitworth decided that the existing Enfield rifle was not as precise, as powerful, or as accurate as it could be. And so it was that he brought his prowess in plane engineering, i.e. the science of working with flat surfaces, to the rifle, and created a bore made of flat planes. Why? They can be machined very precisely, and the bullets to fit them can become correspondingy precise. The hexagonal shape of the barrel and bullet also allowed a slightly harder lead to be used, as the bullet did not have to deform to engage the rifling.

Whitworth made one additional modification, one that was to forever change long range marksmanship. He created a bullet that was long and narrow, which remained stable in flight. The short, squat conical bullets in use at the time were a mild derivative of the original round ball, and tended to lose stability easily. The long Whitworth round was the ancestor of practically every high power bullet made today.

Whitworth also engineered the barrel with a 1 in 20 twist, quite a bit tighter than the typical 1 in 30-32 of rifles of that day. The extra spin further stabilized the bullet in flight. The end result was a bullet that resisted ballistic decay far better than any previous military rifle, boasting accuracy that matched custom built target rifles.

What makes the Whitworth unique is not it's accuracy, there were civilian rifles capable of the same distance and accuracy. It's weight and ruggedness is what set it apart. While most long range civilian rifles featured massive barrels and usually weighed in the 20 to 30 pound range, the Whitworth was a slim 9 pounds. As it was designed as an infantry longarm, it was rugged enough for battlefield conditions. For the first time in warfare, a long range rifle was now available, rugged enough to withstand the rigors of combat.

However, engineering excellence does not always match up with practical reality in the field. And in the 1850's, black powder residue was the practical reality that Whitworth's flat plane barrel ran up against. Put simply, the rifle was difficult to reload after the first shot - standard swabs just didn't reach into the edges of the hex barrel, where remaining residue would hamper loading of the bullet. And this posed a problem for deplying the new rifle

Most armies, especially the British Army, fired their rifles in volleys. Aimed fire was not in the standard order of battle, volley fire from a group of soldiers in effect turned them into an enormous shotgun. Used as such, a rapid reload was deemed more critical than an accurate shot. So it was that the British army did not adopt the Whitworth rifle. it did not fit in with their order of battle. This situation closely parallels another revolutionary weapon created in Britain seventy years earlier, but not used due to the battlefield tactics of the British Army: the breechloading Ferguson rifle.

However, while the British Army may not have seen the need for accurate fire, despite the rather painful lesson they were taught in the 1780's by Colonial marksmen and their Kentucky rifles, other armies did find a use for a highly accurate, battle rugged rifle. Armies that were looking for any advantage they might have over an opposing force that was superior in both troops and artillery.

That army was the Confederate Army in the US Civil War. It is believed that the Confederates purchased 250 Whitworth rifles, which the British were only too eager to sell. They were using the US Civil War, much as the Germans and Soviets used the Spanish Civil War, to test out their new weapons in actual battle. How many actually made it past the blocade and to their army is not know, but the number is thought to be fairly low, anywhere from 20 to 150. I suspect the larger number is more accurate, given the number of Whitworth bullets found on battlefields. However many were actually distributed, they quickly proved their worth and became a feared weapon on the battlefield. Whitworth bullets, quite distinctive in appearance, have been found on several major battlefields.

Initially, the Confederates put together sharpshooter units that accompanied the regular troops. As the war progressed, and the Union's greater number of artillery pieces played a large role in the battles, the Confederates would send out Whitworth sharpshooters to harass the Union batteries. In this role, they were said to have been extremely effective. Thus, out of battlefield desperation, the modern military sniper was born.

The Whitworth rifle was the instrument of one of the most remembered acts of black powder sniping. On May 9, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union General John Sedgwick was chiding some of his troops for lying down in a ditch to avoid Confederate snipers at a range of around 800 to 1000 yards. So the story goes - the general allowed that they 'couldn't hit an elephant at this range'. Sgt. E. R Grace of the 4th Georgia Infantry scored a head shot a few moments later, with his Whitworth rifle. As a result, the Union attack was delayed, and General Robert E. Lee won the battle.

Earlier during the war, the Whitworth was responsible for another high ranking death. On Sept 19, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamagua, an unnamed Confederate sniper mortally wounded Union General William Lytle, who was leading a charge at the time.

Whitworth was also to design a cannon with the same flat plane bore and elongated shell, that boasted an effective range of six miles.

Note: I am in the process of adding a reproduction scope. More on this when I'm finished.

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