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Extremely Rare Experimental William Greener Breechloading Percussion Rifle

Extremely Rare Experimental William Greener Breechloading Percussion Rifle

  • Product Code: FLA-4003
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $3,500.00

William Greener (1806-1869) was born in Felling, near Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England. He would become a leading English gunmaker and inventor during his lifetime and was the father of William Wellington Greener who would go on to develop an advanced breechloading shotgun action and would become one of the best-known English gunmakers of his time.


William Greener’s inventions were not limited just to improvements in firearms but included an electric lamp which he patented in 1846, receiving British patent 11076/1846. This invention predated a similar invention by Thomas Edison by more than three decades. Greener also improved the design of miner’s safety lamps, invented a system for simultaneously opening and closing four railway gates at railway crossings and received a Gold Medal at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition for the invention of a and advanced harpoon gun and also displayed a self-righting lifeboat of his design.


However, it was his firearms inventions and the quality of his gun making that pertain here. In 1835 Greener invented an expanding base conical firearms projectile for use in muzzleloading rifled arms. This was a direct predecessor of the well-known Minié pattern projectile and also established the early diameter versus length ratio of such projectiles of the diameter being two-thirds of the length. This ratio provided significant improvements in the long-term stability of the projectile in flight, particularly when compared to a round ball. Greener also invented a percussion ignition system for cannons. In addition to inventing, improving, and manufacturing firearms, Greener wrote on the subject as well. He authored The Gun in 1835, The Science of Gunnery in 1841, Gunnery in 1858 in that year and a number of smaller pamphlets about firearms and the gunmaking trade. One in particular that had a direct effect on English law was his 1845 tract The Proof House, the Band of the Gun Trade. His work to reform the proof laws and the quality of the work done at the Birmingham proof house directly impacted the writing and passage of the British Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1855.


Greener had originally worked in his home region of Newcastle-upon-Tyne at 29 Collingwood Street from 1829-1834. He then moved to 60 Pilgrim Street and eventually relocated to the thriving gunmaking center of Birmingham in 1844. There he took premises at Aston New Town. While many contemporary authors have concluded that Greener was violently opposed to the concept of breechloading firearms, this is somewhat disingenuous. Greener had established his understanding of the physical and mechanical principles that were essential to the production of effective, powerful, and accurate rifled arms in his 1841 book The Science of Gunnery. His opposition to the breechloading concept was based more upon the inherent limitations that were placed upon the efficiency of the available mid-19th century designs, rather than upon the benefits that such a firearm would have, were it able to be as mechanically solid and efficient as a muzzleloading design. In Gunnery in 1858 Being a Treatise on Rifles, Cannon and Sporting Arms Greener says the following about breechloading arms:


“The production of a perfect breech-loading small is as difficult as the production of a perfect breech-loading cannon, and that is so problematic as to amount, in my humble opinion, to nearly an impossibility. All experience taches that a perfectly sound base of projection is the gun is indispensable, if good direction and velocity are required; without which there can be no good shooting. If this be a law, how can it be obtained where soundness is absent? Joints, slides, and their attendants, are all incompatible with soundness: the two cannot exist together; and hence no breech-loader can give the same results as a solid constructed gun barrel, unsoundness and absorption of power being always found to go hand in hand together. 


I have had considerable experience in breech-loading guns, having obtained one or two patents; and very careful attention to the subject has satisfied me the question was sufficiently ventilated soon after the adoption of gunnery, and that it was exhausted by many hundreds of inventors as ingenious as those of the present day; the result being in all cases a total failure.” (pp. 404-405)


Greener’s reference in the above to “having obtained one or two patents” certainly refers to his 21 December 1854 patent, #2693/1854 for “Improvements in repeating military rifles, carbines and pistols and in cartridges to be used therewith.” According to Taylerson, et al in The Revolver 1818-1865 “this was William Greener’s only excursion into the field of patents for revolving arms, and protected a solid-framed, gas-seal revolving rifle. The barrel slid to-and-fro in a stock-tube, and mated with stout cones protruding at the mouth of each chamber; a crank on the side of the stock moved the barrel, and not mention was made in the Complete Specification as whether the cylinder was to be mechanically rotated, or turned by hand.”


This description of an action that was based upon the movement of the barrel forward and backwards allowed the barrel to engage a chamber protrusion in order achieve a gas seal directly relates to the experimental Greener rifle offered for sale here.


This is perhaps the only known example of a William Greener breechloading percussion rifle that has at least a part of the design protected by British Patent #2693/1854. The gun is almost certainly an experimental or very low production trials type rifle, and no amount of research has been able to find any similar Greener rifle or even a reference to this variant of design. The gun operates upon the concept of a tip up chamber into which a paper cartridge can be inserted. The tilting chamber action utilizes the front-loading concept that has been used quite successfully by John Hall and likely contemporaneously by Edward Lindner. The operation of the action was performed by first rotating a locking ring with an eccentric cut, similar to that found on the locking ring of a socket bayonet. The ring was located at the junction between the barrel and breechblock and by rotating it about a quarter turn clockwise, it unlocked these two components. Pushing a ring lever under the action of the gun forward then performed two actions. First it slid the barrel and forend forward slightly to disengage the barrel’s hood from the extended chamber mouth of the breech block. This action was almost certainly covered under Patent #2693/1854 and is described by Taylerson as the barrel sliding “to-and-fro”. The other action was the release of the spring-loaded pivoting breechblock which allowed the muzzle end to lift upward and expose it for loading. After inserting a paper cartridge, the camber would be pushed closed, and the ring lever pulled backwards. This action slid the barrel’s collar over the extended chamber mouth to affect the gas seal. Then the locking ring would be rotated counterclockwise to lock the breech and barrel together again. At this point the operation of the gun was like any percussion rifle. Placing the hammer on half cock the percussion cap could be placed on the cone, and when the hammer was cocked and the trigger was pulled, the rifle was fired. No patent regarding the tilting breech could be found under Greener’s name, and this is not truly surprising as the breechblock system is so similar to Edward Lindner’s design that was being pursued nearly simultaneously. Lindner had receieved British Patent #2297/1854 on 28 October 1854 protecting his repeating revolving rifle design. On 6 May 1856, Lindner patented his tilting breech block design in the United States as Patent #14,819 and subsequently received British Patent #1415/1856 that same year to protect the design there. This suggests that either Greener did not pursue patent protection for his tilting breech or was aware of Lindner’s work and did not pursue receiving a patent for that component of the design, as the gas seal system was already protected. It is also possible Greener simply abandoned the design concept, since he wrote some three years later that he felt that an efficient and effective breechloading design that was as effective as a muzzleloading design was “so problematic as to amount, in my humble opinion, to nearly an impossibility.”


The Experimental Greener Breechloading Rifle here operates based upon the principles described above. The gun marked with three lines of engraving on the top of the breechblock that reads:






The back action percussion lock is stamped simply W. GREENER, and the underside of the breechblock shows a pair post-1813 Birmingham commercial proof marks.

With the exception of the rather unique breechloading mechanism the gun is otherwise a rather non-descript mid-19thcentury percussion sporting rifle. As noted, it is equipped with back action percussion lock, which is operated by a single trigger. The furniture is of iron and the triggerguard has a semi-scroll shaped extended tang with a skeletonized rudimentary pistol grip. The sights are a simple fixed notch rear dovetailed into the rear of the barrel and a pinched blade front sight dovetailed in place near the muzzle. The bore is rifled with three broad grooves that are slightly narrower than the lands and with a relatively slow rate of twist. Greener was quite the expert on the effects of rifling upon a projectile, both in terms of the way in which it imparted spin and in terms of the amount of friction that is applied to the projectile, which reduced the muzzle velocity and energy of the bullet. He was a proponent of relatively shallow, slow twist rifling as it resulted in the least amount of energy loss due to friction against the projectile. 


The rifle is 42” in overall length with a 23 ¾” round barrel that is secured to the forend with two iron keys or wedges. The bore is nominally .58 caliber or 24-Bore in the English system. The pivoting chamber is 2 ¾” in length with a nominally .64 caliber (about 18-Bore) chamber mouth. This allowed the loading of an over bore sized projectile and certainly helped insure a tight projectile to bore fit and higher chamber pressures to create higher velocities, as the oversized projectile was swaged to bore size by the act of firing the gun. A .45” long projecting flange engages the nominally 5” long hood of the barrel when the action is closed. The wedge-retained forend is 21 7/16” in length and the butt of the gun has a slightly curved shotgun profile as might be found on a fowler of the period.


The gun remains in about VERY GOOD condition. It retains traces of finish on the metal. The breechblock appears to have been color casehardened and retains some traces of mottling and bluish coloration mixed with freckled oxidation, discoloration and some light pitting. The barrel is moderately oxidized with a mostly rich plum patina and showing some traces of blue in protected areas. Like the breech block the barrel shows freckled oxidation and discoloration here and there and all of the metal, the receiver in particular shows some scattered pinpricking and some lesser areas lightly scattered pitting. The action of the rifle remains functional, and the breech system works as it should. The internal spring that opens the pivoting breech appears to be weak or possibly broken, so the breech only lifts slightly when the ring lever is pushed forward and must be tilted to the full extent of its upright position manually. The ring lever shows an old, brazed repair where it was cracked or otherwise damaged. The breech locking in ring rotates smoothly and functions as it should. The firing mechanism of the rifle also works as it should. The bore of the rifle shows scattered light to moderate pitting and retains strong rifling. The bore is moderately oxidized with patches of darker discoloration present. The wood is in about VERY GOOD condition as well and shows wear and use with scattered bumps, dings and surface mars. The forend shows some more moderate wear and some small grain cracks and minor loss around the wedge holes, and the wedges are somewhat loose and sometimes want to slide out of position. The butt shows similar wear and remains complete and solid, free of any breaks or repairs.


Overall, this is a really intriguing and rather interesting example of a potentially one of a kind, proof of concept or patent sample breechloading percussion rifle by William Greener. As noted, extensive research has revealed no mention of a single shot version of his breechloading gas seal rifle design and no similar rifles by Greener have been located. This would be a fine addition to any collection early breechloading arms, particularly if you have an interest in English arms of the mid-19th century or William Greener’s work. This is a rifle that is worthy of significant additional research and is quite probably deserving of being part of a museum collection that focuses on the development of firearms technology.


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Tags: Extremely, Rare, Experimental, William, Greener, Breechloading, Percussion, Rifle