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A Best Quality Whitworth Military Match Rifle

A Best Quality Whitworth Military Match Rifle

  • Product Code: FLA-3762-SOLD
  • Availability: Out Of Stock
  • $1.00

There is probably no muzzle loading rifle more renowned for accuracy than the Whitworth Patent Rifle. Sir Joseph Whitworth was an incredibly talented engineer who was responsible, among his many innovations and inventions, for the establishment of the first standardized thread system for screws. This is something we tend to take for granted today, but the standardization of thread count, thread pitch and screw diameter was a revolutionary idea during the mid-19th century when screws were handmade and hand cut. To this day, Whitworth Threads are still used on many products, particularly English ones. 


His reputation for being able to produce machines with tight tolerances led the Board of Ordnance to approach him in 1854 to help with the design and manufacture of the machinery that would be necessary for the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock to produce the new Pattern 1853 Enfield pattern rifle musket to very tight tolerances. This facility would be the first one in England to produce small arms on the principle of interchangeable parts, a production method that had been pioneered in America by such companies as Colt’s Patent Firearms and Robbins & Lawrence. Subsequently, the Board of Ordnance asked Whitworth to provide input to potential improvements that might be obtained in the rifling small arms barrels. To this end, Whitworth consulted prominent gunmaking engineers like Charles Lancaster (who developed the “oval bore” mechanical rifling system) and Westley Richards (who was working with an octagonal bore mechanical rifling system). Whitworth’s interest in precision machining and in the potential for improved accuracy of firearms led to his adoption of a polygonal, 6-sided, mechanical rifling system that proved to be very, very accurate. While he cannot be directly credited with the invention of the hexagonal mechanical rifling system, he can be accurately considered to have substantially improved it in such a way as to make it extremely successful. Much of his design accuracy was due to his work with the projectile, which he designed to be longer and smaller in diameter than the typical caliber of the day, but still retaining the weight of a military service type bullet. His 530-grain, .451-caliber hexagonal bullet did not depend upon the unreliable expansion of a hollow base in order to engage the rifling of the bore, but instead relied upon the tight mechanical fit of his bullet to the .451 polygonal bore. The end results were simply stunning accuracy for a muzzle-loading firearm, with one test resulting in a 12” group at 1,800 yards; a group shot at just over 1 mile with a black powder muzzle-loading rifle! For those of you who are familiar with modern, long range shooting, that is sub minute-of-angle accuracy (a minute of angle is approximately 1” per 100 yards) from a muzzle loading, black powder percussion rifle with open sights! These are the kinds of marksmanship results that are not even expected from today’s highly accurized bolt-action sniper rifles in .50BMG and .338 Lapua equipped with top-notch optics. 


Whitworth began manufacturing his revolutionary rifles in 1857 and in 1860 formed the Whitworth Rifle Company in Manchester, England. Initially, the majority of his customers were serious target shooters, who were interested in obtaining the most accurate rifle of the period. He produced the rifles in a variety of styles from cased multi-barrel sets to military style match rifles, and everything in between. In 1862 Whitworth’s company was reorganized as the Manchester Ordnance & Rifle Company. There is probably no more famous, or more desirable, variant of the Whitworth Rifle than the handful that were purchased by the Confederacy during the American Civil War and put to such devastating use against the Union Army. These guns were all “2nd Quality” Military Match Rifles, and at least some of the later deliveries were equipped with 4-power Davidson telescopic sights, while earlier deliveries used Whitworth’s conventional rear sights and “globe” front sights. Although it is unlikely that more than fifty or sixty of the rifles were imported to the South during the war, the legendary stories of their use and great accuracy have made them an iconic piece of American arms collecting history. While the Confederacy was actively attempting to acquire the extremely accurate and expensive rifles during 1861 and 1862, Major Anderson of the Confederacy noted they were to have cost as much as “…about $1,000, in the equivalent of gold, for each rifle and one thousand rounds of ammunition.”, the British military was still exploring the possibilities of the Whitworth design. 


The Board of Ordnance had already experienced good results in testing other mechanical rifling systems, as their Brunswick rifles had worked well in the past, and the oval bore design of Charles Lancaster had almost been adopted over the three groove progressive depth rifling used on the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket. The Board, however, understood that there were certainly advantages to Whitworth’s smaller bore size and tight tolerance mechanical fit projectile. Whitworth explored numerous variations of his polygonal design for the Board of Ordnance from 1858 to 1862 and produced many experimental rifles, which varied in barrel length, rate of twist, barrel material, etc. in an attempt to find the perfect combination of accuracy, handling, weight and durability. The first rifles to be produced in any quantity were officially designated the Pattern 1862 Whitworth Rifle. These rifles were all produced at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock (R.S.A.F.) with 36” iron barrels, six-sided polygonal rifling, in .451 caliber (52 bore) with a 1:20” rate of twist and were intended to look very much like the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle musket then in general use. The iron mounted rifle used the same lock as the Pattern 1860 Enfield Rifle (then in production at RSAF and among various contractors), as well as much of the same furniture, such as the buttplate, trigger guard, etc. The rifle used three barrel bands rather than the two that was standard on the 33” barreled service rifles then in production. These 1,000 rifles were utilized in various field tests and were commented upon favorably enough for the Board of Ordnance to authorize the production of 8,000 more Whitworth patent rifles for field trials. These rifles, which would become the Pattern 1863 Whitworth Rifle, had slightly shorter barrels, at 33”, due to the fact that the barrels were made of steel rather than iron, and consequently weighed more than their iron counterparts. The new Pattern 1863 Rifle also incorporated some minor improvements in the rear sight and introduced a bayonet lug on the upper barrel band to accept a bayonet based upon the Pattern 1856 saber bayonet. The reason the bayonet lug, or “bar” in English terminology, was placed on the upper barrel band rather than directly on the barrel, was the belief that it would be too difficult to adequately weld the bayonet lug directly to the steel barrel. As a result, the upper band was of the wide variety with a transverse pin through the band and stock for additional support. This pattern of barrel band had been introduced for the Pattern 1856 Type II (or Pattern 1858) “Bar on Band” series of rifles. These 8,000 rifles were produced at R.S.A.F. and were issued to a large number of regiments for field trials. In general, sixty-eight of the rifles were issued each of the regiments that received them for trial (possibly to equip the “light companies”), and field reports were to be complied regarding the rifles in service performance over the next few years. 


At least 12 regiments not in service in India were issued the new Pattern 1863 Whitworth Rifle, including the 2ndBattalion Grenadier Guards, 1st Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, 1st Battalion 3rd Foot, 2nd Battalion 5th Foot, both 1st & 2nd Battalion of the 60th Rifles and the 73rd Foot. Five additional regiments in Indian service were also issued the rifles, including the 42nd Highland Foot and 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade. In general, the reports from the field were quite similar, the rifles tended to foul badly when used in hot environments. In many cases it was difficult for the average solider to ram more than a half dozen rounds before the rifle became too fouled to load. When combined with the much higher cost per unit versus a standard P1853 Enfield rifle musket, as well as the slower rate of fire, it quickly became obvious that the P1853 was more than sufficient for the typical needs of the line infantry, and that even though the Whitworth had tremendous advantages in accuracy, it was not a practical weapon for general issue. Although the guns remained in limited experimental issue through 1867-1868 with many of the regiments testing them, they were never considered as a realistic replacement for the P1853 Enfield. 


In the end, the Whitworth design became an anachronism that proved the potential for smaller bore rifle accuracy, but at a time when the age of muzzle loader was coming to an end and the metallic cartridge breechloader was about to change the world of warfare forever. The Pattern 1863 Whitworth rifles were eventually returned to storage and eventually sold as surplus, becoming a sort of footnote in the history of 19th century British military small arms development. Although the rifles never made a significant difference in the British military, they did manage to gain iconic status in the hands of a few of Confederate sharpshooters, and at the shooting competitions at Wimbledon, ensuring that the Whitworth Rifle would never be merely a footnote to arms historians and collectors.


This Whitworth Best Quality Military Match Rifle is in about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE overall condition and is a wonderful example of the high quality work that the Whitworth shop, and other English gunmakers produced when producing exceptional target rifles. The color casehardened lock of the rifle is marked with the usual Whitworth logo, a {CROWN}/W to the rear of the hammer, and simply WHITWORTH on the lock forward of the hammer. The lock also incorporates a sliding safety forward of the hammer. The gun is engraved BEST on the triggerguard tang, indicating a “Best Quality” rifle. The rifle has a 33” browned  barrel secured to the stock with three Palmer Patent clamping barrel bands, and a screw through the tang of the breech plug. The breech is a uniquely shaped color casehardened affair. The top of the barrel, behind the rear sight is clearly engraved WHITWORTH’S PATENT. The left breech bears the usual Birmingham commercial view, proof and definitive proof marks, which are separated by a pair of 52 gauge marks, indicated .451 caliber. The left breech also bears the Whitworth serial number B678. This serial number places the production of this rifle circa 1862-1863 and the lock markings are correct for circa 1862 production. The 678 number is also present under the barrel. There are no additional marks under the barrel, other than a that serves as a mating mark. The 678 and 6 also appear in the barrel channel of the stock and the number 678 appears on the necks of both the lock screws and the breech tang screw. The rifle is equipped with a conventional, long range rear sight that has unmarked graduations, allowing the shooter to mark his distances based upon his chosen bullet weight and powder charge combination. The rifle is also equipped with an adjustable vernier tang peep sight and a windage adjustable globe front sight. The rifle has a 49” overall length, and the checkered, straight-gripped stock has a 14 1/8” length of pull. The upper barrel band is equipped with a military style sling swivel, while the front of the triggerguard plate has only a small iron eyelet to accept the swiveling hook from an English sporting style sling. The stock is made of exceptional quality, highly figured walnut, likely Italian, that has large flowing sapwood streaks distributed through the grain. This is most visible on the reverse of the butt, where the grain is quite striking. The wrist and forend are expertly and crisply checkered, and the stock has a lightly varnished finish. The lock is a very high-grade target lock, with a pivoting tumbler notch and an extremely fine and crisp trigger pull. 


As noted, the rifle remains in VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition and retains some traces of its period browned finish on the exposed surface of the barrel, which has worn,  faded and dulled resulting in a mottled brown patina over the pewter gray barrel metal. The bottom of the barrel, where it has been protected by the stock, retains about 30% of its period browned finish. The breech of the barrel retains about 40%+ of its original vivid case coloring, which has faded and dulled. The color casehardened has dulled and faded, leaving only some strong traves of vibrant color in the protected areas and some similar traces on the hammer. The barrel bands all retain about 20%-30% of their bright blued finish, which has primarily flaked and faded with much of the exposed metal developing a grayish-blue patina with some hints of plum. All of the metal remains smooth and free of pitting. There is some lightly scattered oxidized freckling present along the length of the barrel, and some small patches of lightly oxidized surface roughness present as well, most notably around the muzzle and front sight area of the rifle. The bore of the rifle is about VERY GOOD+ condition and is mostly bright, although it does show some scattered oxidation and light pitting along its entire length. It is possible that the clean to even better condition. The beauty of the mechanical rifling system is that even when a Whitworth bore is moderately or even heavily pitted, it will usually shoot better than the shooter can hold the rifle. The lock is mechanically EXCELLENT. The lock functions perfectly on all positions and remains in extremely crisp mechanical condition, with a high quality target trigger pull.  A period hex shaped jag head ramrod is in place in the channel under the barrel and is full-length with good threads at the end. The rod seems a little thin and may be a later replacement intended to serve as a cleaning rod rather than an actual ramrod. It does show some moderate pitting at the head, typical of erosive wear typical of the rod head of a muzzle loading firearm of this period. The stock remains in wonderful condition as well. It is full length, solid and free of any breaks or repairs.  The stock shows only the scattered bumps and dings from handling, use and storage and shows no abuse at all. The belly of the stock is stamped NATCHEZ forward of triggerguard. This spurious marking was added sometime in the last twenty to thirty years by a collector or dealer hoping to pass the gun off as a Confederate Whitworth, which it is not. Although the gun falls squarely in the known serial number range of  Confederate Whitworth Rifles (nominally 4XX B through 5XX C), this is not one of those guns, all of which were marked 2nd Quality on the triggerguard, rather than Best.


Overall, this is a wonderfully crisp example of a fairly rare British Whitworth Best Quality Military Match Rifle. For most arms collectors a British military Whitworth rifle or a civilian Military Match Rifle is as close as they will ever get to owning the nearly mythical Confederate Whitworth. This gun was produced in the known production serial number range of those iconic Confederate rifles and in many ways is quite similar to those arms. This is a very nice displaying example that is in excellent mechanical condition with wonderful sights and a very nice bore that will probably shoot better than you can hold the gun. These match rifles do not come up for sale often, and when they do, they often bring strong prices. This is a great opportunity to own an attractive Whitworth that will be as much at home in your collection or on the firing line, and at a very fair price.


Provenance: ex-Lewis Leigh Jr. Collection


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Tags: Whitworth, Best, Quality, Military, Match, Rifle