By Tony Pagels
This blog tells the story of a weapon purchased in 1867 specifically for the Native Mounted Police (NMP): the Westley Richards breech-loading, double-barrelled, 20 bore, Lefaucheux-action, pinfire carbine (Figure 1). This weapon possessed a number of advantages over the percussion single- and double-barrel, muzzle-loading carbines the NMP were using at the time. Yet, within two years of the weapon’s arrival in Qld only a handful had been distributed to the NMP. The government decided they were of no use to the colony and made arrangements to dispose of half of the original quantity received. What happened?
Rewinding the clock to 1859, Qld had separated from New South Wales and acquired control of the NMP, who by this time had become notorious for the brutal manner in which they dealt with Aboriginal peoples (Richards 2008). By 1861, as a result of continuing complaints concerning the activities of the NMP, the Qld Parliament appointed a Select Committee to enquire into its organisation and management, as well as the general condition of Aboriginal peoples (Qld Legislative Assembly 1861).
During the enquiry the Select Committee questioned the then Commandant, Edric Morisset, and Acting Commandant, John O’Connell Bligh, seeking suggestions to improve the efficiency of the NMP. They recommended that the most appropriate measure would be to supply all NMP personnel with a single weapon—the double-barrelled, muzzle-loading carbine currently issued to some troopers (Qld Legislative Assembly 1861:140–143, 148–150, 157, 158). Understandably, the efficiency of a force is improved if its members are all issued with the same weapon, minimising the requirement to obtain a selection of ammunition and facilitating the prompt repair or replacement of arms.
The Government took heed of the recommendation, although perhaps not in the best possible way. In late 1862 the Agents to Qld, Messrs. Mangles and Co. of London, arranged the supply of 50 double-barrelled carbines, the same as the percussion muzzle-loading weapons currently on hand.
Following this purchase the records indicate that there were no further purchases of carbines for the NMP until 1867. Through the intervening five year period, developments in small arms and ammunition capability advanced at a rapid pace. By the end of it muzzle-loaders were antiquated and breech-loaders were now employing self-contained pinfire, needle and centrefire cartridges.
It is unclear who instigated the recommendation to re-arm the NMP, but the impetus was probably determined by their continued need to be armed with modern, accurate, reliable, and quicker to reload weapons. The decision on which arm to purchase was left with the new Crown Agent, W.C. Sargeaunt. Unsure of the exact purpose for the arm, Sargeaunt sought clarification from the Qld Government Emigration Agent in London, Henry Jordan, and former Colonial Secretary, R.G.W. Herbert*, confirming the weapons were for the mounted NMP force. Sargeaunt sought further expert advice before making his final decision. A letter dated 19 June 1867 from Sargeaunt to the Qld Colonial Secretary, Robert Mackenzie, with an annexed letter from Westley Richards & Co. dated 12 November 1866, provides an explanation for his decision to replace the muzzle-loaders with the Westley Richards breech-loading, double-barrelled, 20 bore, Lefaucheux-action, pinfire carbine. The latter were more expensive, but Sargeaunt had been convinced their advantages justified the additional cost:
In your deciding upon ordering these arms to the breach loaders we think you get a greater advantage for the extra cost.First the arms if taken in warfare or meeting cannot not be turned against the force after the usual number of service rounds issued have been expended[,] 2ndly the ammunition cases can be loaded 2 or 3 times and it can also be filled with shot instead of Ball making the arm a very good “Birding Gun”[,] 3rdly the arms when on … other duty, can be loaded and unloaded as often as necessary without discharging … whereas in muzzle loaders if once loaded, then the arm must either be discharged or withdrawn at a waste, for if allowed to remain in the barrel it corrodes. (QSA846849 In letter 67/1982)
How this arm differed from the older muzzle-loading carbines requires some explanation. In 1836 Casimir Lefaucheux of France patented a breech-loading drop barrel for shotguns, along with the specifically designed pinfire cartridge.
The drop barrel meant the barrel and stock were hinged at the breech allowing the barrel to pivot downward. The cartridge could then be easily loaded and unloaded into the breech. The cartridge itself was a simple cardboard tube with a metal head. Protruding from the side of the head, however, was a pin that extended into the cartridge to a percussion cap set inside the head. With the cartridge in the closed breech, the pin remained exposed and, when struck by the falling hammer, detonated the percussion cap and powder to discharge a bullet (Carrington and Baker 2011:17; Hoyem 2005:117). Following several design improvements to the cartridge William Thomas Eley took out a patent to manufacture pinfire shotgun cartridges in April 1861 (Harding 2006:50).
The Westley Richards pinfire carbine had two barrels side by side and each barrel was 20 bore**. The pinfire carbine in modern terms is a 20 gauge shotgun with a smaller diameter barrel and less recoil than the commonly seen 12 gauge shotguns of today. Coupled with the advantages listed by Westley Richards in the quote above, the ability for the dropping breech to be loaded and unloaded while on horseback, and its reduced weight, it was a far superior weapon to the double-barrel muzzle-loaders.
Once Sargeaunt had decided on the weapon the other necessary equipment for their function was finalised. Annexed to the letter from Sargeaunt to the Colonial Secretary is an invoice dated 18 April 1867 from Westley Richards & Co. detailing the final items ordered (QSA846849 In letter 67/1982):
#1 to 10. 200 double breechloading Carbines, 25in barrel Lefaucheux action with loop for sling and cartridge extractor in tin lined cases.
#11. 200 sets patent leather police belts with brass snake furniture and twenty round cartridge pouches set in 1 case lined with tin.
# 12 &13. 2,000 rounds of best quality ball cartridges in two cases.
#14. 5000 best cartridges cases 20 gauge in steel case lined with tin.
#15. 15,000 felt wads, 15,000 cloth wads, 15,000 caps for recapping, 100 bullet moulds, 200 cartridge extractors, 10 re-capping instruments, 20 cartridge fillers, 20 cartridge turners and 12 patch cutters in steel case lined with tin.
A second invoice was attached to the file from Westley Richards &Co. dated 20 May 1867 (QSA846849 In letter 67/1982). Listed on this invoice is:
#16. 10,000 metal lined cartridge cases 20g steal [sic] case lined with tin.
J. & A.B. Freeland (Ship and Insurance Brokers and Commission Merchants of London) facilitated the transport of the carbines to Qld aboard the Salween on 25 April 1867. However, cases 12 and 13, containing the 2000 rounds of best quality ball cartridges, were included on a bill of lading that had subsequently been crossed out. Case 16, containing 10,000 metal lined 20 g cartridge cases, was listed on the bill of lading to be shipped but it is unclear if case 16 was originally included or added after cases 12 and 13 were removed (QSA846849 In letter 67/1982). Sargeaunt, in correspondence with the Colonial Secretary dated 17 June 1867, confirmed the shipping of the 200 carbines, accoutrements, and cartridge cases and specified that cases 12 and 13 were to follow on the next ship*** (QSA846849 In letter 67/1981). An explanation for this may be that the loaded cartridges were still in production and not available at the time the Salweenset sail, so they simply missed the boat and were crossed off the docket.
While the ability for arms manufacturers to supply arms in a timely manner was important, the supply of carbines could not have been expedited, as the manufacture of small arms in Britain was at capacity (QSA846849 In letter 67/1981). The first and very eagerly awaited breech-loading centrefire Snider rifles and carbines had been delivered in August 1866 (Skennerton 2003:129) and cartridge manufacturer Eley Bros, who held the patent for the production of pinfire cartridges, were busy producing 8 million Snider centrefire cartridges for the British army (Harding 2006:50,55; Temple 1977:10,19). As a result they only had the capacity to supply the components for the cartridges to the Qld authorities, who then had to arrange the production of bullets to load the 15,000 cartridge cases themselves. One can speculate that this possibly did not sit well: having purchased an expensive arm there was further delay in deploying it, and the carbines weren’t sent to the NMP until 1868 (Robinson 1997:36).
There are no records to ascertain which arm was issued to a particular trooper. However, Robinson (1997:36) identified that during 1868, of the 200 pinfire carbines received, police were issued with nine at St Helena, six at Gympie and four at Roma. The distribution of the carbines to the NMP may be further gleaned from newspapers, letters and the archaeological evidence recovered from NMP camps and activity areas.
The archaeological material recovered to date includes 19 spent 20 bore pinfire cartridge heads. These have been collected from three NMP camps: Boralga (12) near Laura on Cape York Peninsula, Eyre Creek (6) near Bedourie in the west, and Mistake Creek (1) near Clermont in central Qld. Although the paper pinfire cartridge tubes have disintegrated over time, leaving bent or distorted cartridge heads, the cartridge head survives and is generally stamped with various symbols, numbers, letters or words that can identify the manufacturer, a date range and the caliber (Barnes 2016:13). Examination of the cartridge heads from the three NMP camps reveals they all have ‘Eley Bros’ or ‘EB’ and the number ‘20’ in raised lettering on the headstamp.
Eley Bros commenced production of cartridges with the embossed headstamps ‘Eley Bros’ and ‘EB’ from 11 March 1866 until 1874 (Harding 2006:61,149). The NMP pinfire cartridge heads found to date were therefore all produced during this period. The recovered artefacts cannot tell us how many or which carbines were used to discharge the shot, only that they were present at the site. The carbines may have been issued to troopers posted to the camp or possessed by NMP troopers or non-NMP individuals visiting the sites.
Given that the pinfire carbines and cartridges had a number of advantages over the older muzzle-loading arms, it is unclear why their distribution was not continued. On 9 March 1869, less than two years after receiving the first pinfire carbines, the Clerk in Charge of Colonial Stores forwarded a letter to the Colonial Secretary, Arthur Hodgson. The letter stated that there was no use for the pinfire carbines and suggested they be forwarded to Sydney and Melbourne for disposal:
Sir, I have the honor, by your direction, to report upon certain Needle Guns, now in store, sent to the Government by the Crown Agent for the Colonies, and call attention to the fact, that with the exemption of a few we have no means of making use of them in the Colony; fifty have been marked with the broad arrow and the letters QG underneath for the intended purpose of issue to the warders and turnkeys of H.M. Gaols , Water Police and Penal Settlement; a few unnumbered have already been issued, and I would suggest that they be recalled and the branded ones sent in their place. The Gaols are at present issued with the Double Barrel’d Native Police Carbine, which are heavy to carry and fitted for horseback use with steel guard and travelling ring; they would be most useful to use for the purpose of issuing to the Native Mounted Police.
With regard to the remainder of the Needle Guns, I would respectfully suggest that as there is no market for any quantity of these articles in Queensland, that they be sent proportionately to both Sydney and Melbourne to respectable and well known Firms who would be willing to put them on commission, or perhaps take a number of them upon valuation, on their account; I do not see any other way of making use of them unless they could be returned to the Crown Agents and exchanged for a more useful weapon. (QSA846849 In letter 69/842).
Frustratingly, the letter does not explain why there was limited use for these weapons. The most probable factor affecting their future in general was the development of the Snider rifle and shotguns by 1869, which used a modern, self-contained centrefire cartridge (Hoyem 1982:37–38).
The high regard for the pinfire carbines is evident in the presentation of one of these weapons to the Commissioner of Police, David T. Seymour, in 1868 (Robinson 1997:36) and also reflected in the comments by ex Sub-Inspector Robert Arthur Johnstone in ‘Spinifex and Wattle’ published in the Queenslander on 1 October 1904. Johnstone was the officer in charge of 13 NMP troopers on George Dalrymple’s expedition to Cooktown in 1873. He described the arm as a ‘most useful and serviceable weapon’, and noted they were still in use 40 years later (at the time of the article). Johnstone also referred to the NMP troopers in 1873 as ‘armed with Snider carbines’, suggesting that the pinfire arms were simply superseded by the arrival of the first Snider carbines in May 1870.
The Westley Richards double-barrel pinfire carbines were by all accounts an ideal and superior weapon purchased specifically for the NMP. We can only speculate why they were not distributed as intended and remained unwanted by the Qld authorities.
* Interestingly, Jordan and Herbert had a turbulent working relationship, but that is another story (Lack 1965:83).
** The bore (aka ‘gauge’) refers to the diameter of the barrel (Gunther and Gunther 1935:6).
*** TheWinterthurat the end of August 1867 (Robinson 1997:36).
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