By Tony Pagels
‘The Unwanted Arm’ blog post detailed the introduction of the Westley Richards double-barrelled, breech loading, 20g pinfire carbines purchased in 1867 to replace the antiquated percussion cap, muzzle-loading carbines issued to the Native Mounted Police (NMP). The weapon that superseded the Westley Richards pinfire carbines was the Snider artillery carbine (Figure 1), a single barrel, breech loading arm that used .577 calibre self-contained cartridge ammunition.
The Snider was named after its American inventor, Jacob Snider Jnr, who first patented his hinged-block breech loading mechanism in 1862 (Skennerton 2003:9; see Figure 2). The Snider action converted the British Army Pattern 1853 Enfield muzzle-loading rifled muskets to a breech-loading arm, and was intended to be a ‘stop-gap’ until a purpose-built weapon was introduced (Skennerton 2003:43, 133).
The process resulted in an arms race between the best available weapons at the time.
A comprehensive understanding of the initiation, ongoing development and success of the Snider rifle and its variations can be obtained in the book by I. Skennerton (Australian Service Longarms and .577 Snider-Enfield Rifles and Carbines British Service Longarms 1866-c.1880), a thesis by T. Heptinstall (From Snider-Enfield to Martini-Henry), and the magazine Lee-Metford: An Historical and Technical Overview of the Development of British Military Rifles from 1866 to 1895, as well as numerous other works.
The use of breech-loading weapons was nothing new in Europe, since they had been used successfully by the Prussian army in 1848 (Purdon 1990:3). During the Crimean War, 1853–1856, British forces used muzzle-loading arms, but on recognising the benefits of breech-loading weapons, and spurred by the French decision to issue breech-loaders to their troops (Skennerton 2003:42), a Committee was established in 1864 to find a better replacement (Purdon 1990:3).
The Ordnance Select Committee recommended a two-phase approach: firstly, determine the quickest and cheapest way to convert the existing Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled muskets and, secondly, conduct a thorough investigation to determine what would be the perfect arm for use by the infantry (Skennerton 2003:43).
A competition was planned to find the best conversion (Heptinstall 2016:20) and was advertised on 24 August 1864. Like every competition there were conditions: the cost of the conversion was not to exceed £1 per arm, and the converted arm should not be inferior to the Enfield rifle (Skennerton 2003:45). And the prize? On offer was £5000 to the winning entry (Heptinstall 2016:20).
The response was extraordinary: 47 entries were submitted even before the competition commenced (Skennerton 2003:45). However, in a turn of events reminiscent of the 1000 m speed skating event at the 2002 Winter Olympics won by Steven Bradbury, the opposition rapidly fell away. For many reasons, of the 47 initial bids only nine were selected for testing. Before the trials started the withdrawal of a competitor—the Dixon rifle—cut the field to eight.
The Committee also preferred a weapon that utilised a self-contained cartridge, as the firing and reloading process was quicker when a percussion cap was not required (Heptinstall 2016:20). The design of the remaining eight weapons comprised five using the percussion cap: Green’s, Montgomery Storm, Shepard’s (b) and Westley Richards. Three designs used the preferred self-contained cartridge: Joslyn, Shepard’s (a) and Snider (Heptinstall 2016:20).
The Joslyn rifle was to arrive from America but, due to permit issues, failed to start. The testing commenced in February 1865 with an inspection of the weapons and the ammunition, resulting in the elimination of the two Shepard’s arms as the ammunition fell apart when handled, rendering them too dangerous to load (Heptinstall 2016:22).
A series of tests was conducted to compare the capabilities of the Pattern 1853 Enfield against the remaining competitors. The first test timed how long it took to fire 20 shots at a target placed at 100 yards. As expected, the muzzle-loading Pattern 1853 Enfield took considerably longer to perform the task, and double the length of time required by the breech-loading opposition (Skennerton 2003:53). The Green’s arm was quickest, and the Snider finished third (Heptinstall 2016:23). The weapons were not cleaned following this test and left exposed to the weather for three nights (Skennerton 2003:53).
The next event was to determine the accuracy of the unclean and weathered arms by measuring the mean deviation of 200 shots fired at a target placed at 500 yards. It was a disappointing display: no weapon was able to better the Enfield. The Westley Richards arm performed the best of the opposition, with a deviation of 1.81 ft, and the Snider’s performance was described—at best—as ‘dismal’ at 5 ft. (Heptinstall 2016:24). Clearly, a weapon was useless if the enemy could not be shot even in ideal conditions, let alone during the heat of battle.
The competition continued with a penetration test conducted by firing into planks of wood located at 500 and 800 yards. The Westley Richards arm was proving difficult to beat, penetrating 16¾ planks, and the Snider again performed poorly, finishing second last at 11 planks (Skennerton 2003:56). It had not gone unnoticed that results were indicative of more than just the performance of the converted breech mechanisms; the design of the ammunition was also impeding the performance of the arms, in particular the Snider weapon. The Westley Richards ammunition used a heavier powder charge and the bullets were hardened, while the cartridge design and an inadequate amount of powder attributed to the poor performance of the converted Snider weapon (Skennerton 2003:56).
The Snider was trailing the field but still not written off; it proved to have the most robust stock, not removing any wood in the conversion, the breech was easy to operate and was the preferred system should the ammunition be improved (Skennerton 2003:56; see Figure 3). It was, however, the Montgomery Storm that was selected. This was the best of the capping breech-loaders and the Ordnance Select Committee approved the Pattern 1853 Enfield’s for conversion on 16 September 1865 (Skennerton 2013:58).
Meanwhile, Colonel Edward Mounier Boxer, Superintendent of the Royal Laboratories at Woolwich, had been working to improve the Snider ammunition and on 9 October 1865 announced he had succeeded in making a cartridge for the Snider-converted rifle that was capable of outperforming the Pattern 1853 Enfield in accuracy at 500 yards, a feat that had never previously been achieved (Temple 1977:10). The ammunition became known by the name of its the inventor as the Pattern 1 ‘Boxer Cartridge’ (Figure 4).
By using rolled sheet brass as the cartridge case and altering the design of the bullet, Colonel Boxer had overcome the inaccuracy and imperfections of the cartridge used in the Snider conversions during the trials (Temple 1997:10). Further refinements resulted in the Pattern No. 2 that was used in later trials and became the basis for future Boxer Cartridge designs (Temple 1977:39).
The Snider conversion was now back in the race.
As fate would have it, Snider Jnr received further good news: the ammunition for the Montgomery Storm used an animal skin casing, which proved too costly and difficult to source. The Montgomery Storm, despite its first class performance at the competition, still required a percussion cap, and the Committee decided to scrap it in favour of a conversion using a self-contained cartridge (Heptinstall 2016:29).
A further round of competition between the Snider-converted Enfields, using the improved Pattern 1 Boxer cartridge and the Pattern 1853 Enfields, was organised. Should the second round of competition be favourable, the blue ribbon would belong to Snider Jnr. The trial commenced in February 1866 (Skennerton 2016:31). Reports stated that the operation of the Snider breech was straightforward and after firing 1000 rounds, without cleaning, the Snider’s accuracy and reloading were unaffected (Heptinstall 2016:30). Such a resounding endorsement culminated in the Ordnance Select Committee officially recommending the adoption of the Snider conversion in May 1866 (Heptinstall 2016:31).
The Snider-converted Enfield had won the competition and the Snider-Enfield MkI, as it was known, was adopted for the service of British troops on 18 September 1866 (Skennerton 2016:133). The modified Boxer cartridge Pattern II was approved for service in December of that year (Temple 1997:44). The Snider-Enfield MkI marked the beginning of a new era in centrefire breech-loading weapons for the British army.
What about the £5000 winner’s cheque?
Well, any good competition would not be complete without a protest. The inventor of the Snider action, Mr Jacob Snider Jnr, was informed his patent had no legal standing with the Crown and, as the weapon could still fail (not unlike the Montgomery Storm), the War Office Solicitor, Mr Clode, refused to pay the £5000. Snider Jnr was desperate for money, pursued by creditors, tired of legal wrangling and bedridden as a result of a stroke. He accepted £1000 compensation for his efforts from the War Department, because, if he refused, he was going to receive nothing. In September 1866 the money was received and distributed to Snider’s creditors and on 30 October 1866 he died, aged 56, without the accolades that followed with the success of his invention (Purdon 1990:25–26).
For the next four years improvements and modifications continued to be made to the Snider rifle and the Boxer cartridges. The modifications to the cartridge design—identified as Pattern Mk1 through to Mk IX—plus blank and buckshot cartridges, provided a greater range of choice in ammunition (Temple 1977:39−58). The Snider action was also modified and improved—designated as MkI, MkI*, MkII, and MkII** (Skennerton 2003:132−136). The production of Snider-Enfields in a variety of lengths and with a range of design features made the weapon suitable for the infantry, artillery, cavalry, navy, prison wardens and police (Skennerton 2003:132−181).
And what about the stop-gap weapon (the cheap and quick conversion for the Pattern 1853 Enfields)? The conversion of suitable Enfields continued until 1869. At this time the supply of serviceable muzzle-loaders had become exhausted and production commenced with an all-new Snider MkIII pattern weapon (Purdon 1990:9).
Following the fiasco of the pinfire carbines, in 1870 the Qld authorities purchased their first 50 Snider artillery carbines, as used by the English artillery, and 25,000 rounds of ammunition from Robert Kellet (Stock, Station and General Commission Agent, Wool Broker and Auctioneer) (Robinson 1997:41). However, unlike its predecessor, the Westley Richard arms, further purchases of the Snider artillery carbines followed, and it continued to serve the NMP until the end of the century.
Heptinstall, T. 2016 From Snider-Enfield, to Martini-Henry, to the Magazine Lee-Metford: An Historical and Technical Overview of the Development of British Military Rifles from 1866 to 1895. Unpublished MA thesis, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield..
Purdon, C.J. 1990 Jacob Snider’s Action & E.M. Boxer’s Cartridge: The Snider-Enfield Rifle. Historical Arm Series 24. Bloomfield: Museum Restoration Service.
Robinson, J. 1997 Arms in the Service of Queensland. Kedron: J.S. Robinson.
Skennerton, I. 2003.577 Snider-Enfield Rifles and Carbines: British Service Longarms 1866–c.1880. Labrador: I.D. Skennerton.
Temple, B.A. 1977 The Boxer Cartridge in the British Service. Wynnum Central: B.A. Temple.