Scarce Westley Richard Monkey Tail Military Match Rifle
- Product Code: FLA-3232-SOLD
- Availability: Out Of Stock
Very few names in English gunmaking are associated with the level of quality, craftsmanship and innovation as that of Westley Richards. The firm was established by Westley Richards’ father, William Westley Richards, in Birmingham in 1812. Westley Richards was born in 1814 and joined the family business in 1840, making it “Westley Richards & Co”. Sometime in 1859 or 1860 the “& Co” was officially dropped from the name until 1873, a year after Richards’ retirement, when the business became Westley Richards & Co LTD, which remains in business to this day as a manufacturer of high grade sporting arms. During the lifetimes of the two Richards, they received numerous English patents for firearms designs. Author and firearms researcher DeWitt Bailey may have said it best of Westley Richards when he noted: “The Westley Richards firm certainly enjoyed the highest reputation of any Birmingham maker with the “sporting gentry”, and were the only Birmingham manufacturers to seriously compete with the “Best London” makers in the field of sporting guns and rifles.” In addition to their 82 High Street manufacturing location in Birmingham, the Richards’ maintained a London retail location at 170 New Bond Street from 1815 through 1871, to better serve their upper class clientele. Among the numerous patents that Westley Richards held, his #633 (March 25, 1858) for a breech loading percussion rifle design, was probably the most important. This patent covered his famous “Monkey-Tail” breechloading system. This simple and elegant design allowed the advantages of a breechloading rifle to be applied to traditional muzzle loading, cap lock designs. The system received its nickname from the shape of the breech lever, which resembled a monkey’s tail when the breech was opened for loading. The locking system utilized a sliding plunger that was actuated by the pressure of the cartridge being fired, moving backwards and locking the breech so it could not open until the pressure subsided. As a double safety, the hammer was machined in such a way that the breech could only be opened when the hammer nose was resting on the cone (nipple). Placing the gun on half-cock or full-cock prevented the action from being opened unintentionally. Richards was also innovative in advancing the science of rifling, and appears to have developed the concept of polygonal rifling simultaneously with (or possibly just prior to) Sir Joseph Whitworth. As Whitworth had no facilities to manufacture arms during his early days (prior to the establishment of the Whitworth Rifle Company), he relied upon Richards to produce his early guns. As such, it comes as no surprise that both men should experiment with polygonal rifling at the same time. While Whitworth’s approach utilized a hexagonal bore (6-sided) with a tightly fit hexagonal bullet, the Richards design used a slightly undersized projectile that “auto centered” it the octagonal (8-sided) bore when fired. The Whitworth system of rifling had hard angels and 6 crisp sides, while the Richards rifling was contoured with 8 deep beveled grooves that were much deeper (by about 3/10 of an inch) than the actual bore diameter. While the Whitworth guns were true 52-Bore (.451 caliber), the Richards variant was 52-Bore (.451”) with grooves that averaged around .480”, and relied on the previously mentioned “auto centering” theory rather than the Whitworth’s tight mechanical fit. Both rifling systems utilized the relatively fast 1:20” rate of twist, nearly twice as fast as most elongated ball rifling designs of the day. Interestingly, Richards never patented his rifling system, although Whitworth certainly patented his. Most of the Westley Richards guns manufactured with his octagonal rifling were marked “Whitworth’s Patent” on the barrel, even though the design concept was not covered by Whitworth’s patent, nor was Whitworth due any royalties. The marking might well have been as much a marketing scheme to capitalize on the reputation for accuracy of Whitworth’s rifling as a “tip of the hat” to Richards’ friend and early manufacturing client. The accuracy of Richards rifles was quickly established by their performance at the NRA matches held at Woolwich. From 1860 through the mid-1880s, the Westley Richards “Monkey Tail” match rifles with 36” or 39” barrels always lead the pack for accuracy in the breechloading rifle competitions. Like most English gunsmiths, Richards hoped most fervently to obtain a major contract from the War Department for one of his designs. His “monkey tail” system eventually earned him the desired contract, but primarily for cavalry carbines, and not rifles. Although the Westley Richards system was tested by the Small Arms Committee several times (starting in 1859 and continuing through the mid-1860s), it was not until 1866 that a major order from the military was forthcoming. One specific advantage to his design noted by the committee was that the Westley Richards breechloader with its unique rifling could utilize a projectile that was hardened, instead of the soft lead needed to use in a muzzle loader that relied upon the expansion of the bullet to achieve a tight mechanical fit on firing. The hardened projectile allowed the bullet to achieve much greater penetration than its soft lead competitor. The Westley Richards design tested well enough for an initial order of 100 39” breechloading military rifles to be placed by the War Department for further field evaluations in 1860, but no further orders were placed until the following year. In April of 1861 2,000 of the carbines with 19” barrels were ordered for field trials by the 10th & 18th Hussars, and the 6th Dragoon Guards. Unfortunately, the guns were made under four different “sealed patterns’ and ended up being delivered with at least three different rear sight graduations (400, 700 & 800 yards) and two different chamber dimensions! After working through the issues in the field and determining that a slightly tighter bore size of about .448” was appropriate, the Richards achieved his goal and allowed the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF, better known simply as “Enfield”) to produced 20,000 of his “monkey tail” carbines with 20” barrels, under license. In the end 19,000 of the carbines were produced at RSAF and these very accurate, percussion breech loading carbines saw major use among British Yeomanry cavalry units, as well as with colonial cavalry in Australia and South Africa. The popularity of the system in South Africa resulted in some 18,000 or so additional metallic cartridge carbines with 25” barrels being exported to that country between 1872 and 1885. There they saw significant service in both Boer Wars and were highly prized for their long-range effectiveness and accuracy against more modern rifle designs. In South Africa, in particular, the Westley Richards carbines saw heavy use until the beginning of the 20th century. The only other British military breechloading rifle order Richards obtained was in 1864 for 2,000 36” military rifles with bayonets for use by the Montreal Garrison during the Fenian Uprising in Canada. In all Richards appears to have manufactured (or licensed the manufacturing of) about 61,000 “Monkey Tails’ of all varieties. Of those, 19,000 were manufactured at Enfield, leaving Richards to produce about 42,000. Another 11,500 of the guns were produced on contract for Portugal, in rifle, various carbine and even pistol variations. The most prized of the Westley Richards “Monkey Tails’ were his Military Match and Prize Rifles. Richards produced 1,500 of these extremely well made and accurate rifles between 1858 and 1869. They were manufactured with both 36” and 39” barrels, with the 39” gun being produced in very limited quantities. These “Match & Prize Rifles’ were the guns that consistently won the breechloading rifle competitions at Woolwich from their inception until the 1886 rule change that required breechloading rifles to utilized “fixed” or internally primed ammunition, which eliminated the percussion guns from completion. Of these highly prized and desirable guns (numbered individually from 1 to 1500), less than 50 are known to have survived to today. Most of the above research regarding the “monkey tail” (and especially the production figures) is derived from the work of Robbie Betteridge, from a paper he delivered to Great Britain’s Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association.
Offered here is one of the very scarce Westley Richards Monkey-Tail Breechloading Short Rifles. The gun is in about VERY GOOD condition, and is an extreme oddity in the world of Westley Richards Monkey Tail rifles due to its very unique 33” barrel length. From a practical standpoint, the rifle appears to be Military Match & Prize rifle, but those arms were only produced (to my knowledge) with 36” and 39” barrels. The only examples of Westley Richards percussion rifles with 33” barrels that I am aware of are the 8,000 Portuguese contract “Hunter” (Jaeger) rifles that Richards produced circa 1866-1867. Those rifles differ from this example in a number of features, including the pattern of rear sight, as well as the use of a single barrel band with a bayonet lug on the Portuguese variant. This rifle appears to be serial numbered in the Military Match & Prize rifle serial number range, particularly when its manufacturing date of 1862 is taken into account. A quick review of examples I have owned or observed shows that #323 was dated 1860 and #710 was dated 1861. This example is #813 and is dated 1862, conforming to the serial number and date sequence of known Westley Richards Military Match & Prize Rifles. I do know that a handful of his rifles were produced for British Naval Trials during this period, and it is entirely possible that his may be one of those trials rifles, although it is void of any type of British Board of Ordnance markings. For lack of a better description, I will refer to it as a Military Match & Prize Short Rifle until a better identification can be uncovered. The lock of the rifle is clearly marked in a single line, forward of the lock: WESTLEY RICHARDS & Co and with the date 1862 within a triangle to the rear of the lock. The top of the “monkey tail” is engraved WESTLEY RICHARDS / PATENT. The serial number 813 is stamped in two locations on the underside of the lever. The left side of the breech is marked with the aforementioned serial number, two Birmingham commercial View and Definitive Proof marks and a pair of 52 bore gauge marks, indicating the gun is nominally .451 caliber. The top of the breech is marked .449 and .493, indicating the exact measurements of the barrel diameter between the lands and the grooves. The top of the barrel is engraved, just behind the rear sight, WHITWORTH PATENT. The upper edge of the left side of the breech block is marked: 2 “ DRS CARTRIDGES, indicating that a charge of 2 “ Drams of black powder was the appropriate load for the rifle. One Dram Avoirdupois measurement of black powder is roughly equivalent to 27.34 grains, so a charge of 2 “ Drams is approximately 68.35 grains of black powder. If I working up a load for this rifle I would certainly start about 20%-25% below that level and slowly work up to the 68 grain vicinity.
The rifle is in a military-style musket configuration with a shorter, “rifle length” barrel of 33”, which is secured to the stock with three Palmer patent clamping barrel bands in the traditional locations. The gun is stocked to within 1” of the muzzle in the style of a Kerr or Whitworth military pattern rifle, both of which utilized three barrel bands and shorter than standard barrel lengths. The forend is tipped with an iron nose cap. The rifle has no provision to accept a bayonet of either the socket or saber variety. The rifle is slightly longer than 48” in overall length, and is entirely iron mounted. The rifle has the typical Westley Richards octagonal rifling, and as mentioned above has a .449” land to land diameter and a groove depth of .493”. The rear sight is a precision machined medium-based ladder sight, similar to that found on the P-1861 Enfield Artillery Carbine, which was itself a reduced length version of the rifle and rifle musket sight. The sight has the graduations engraved on the reverse (under) side of the ladder, and the base reversed from the usual Enfield configuration. The reversed base is often encountered on other precision English target rifles of the period, such as those produced by Whitworth and Kerr. The front sight is also precision machined, with a fine blade that is dovetailed into a raised oval base, with the blade being drift adjustable for windage. The rifle remains fairly crisp and sharp throughout, although it shows use, and unfortunately the evidence of some poor storage over time. The rifle retains none of its original finish, but has a deep, untouched plum-brown patina throughout. The barrel is mostly smooth forward of the rear sight, but shows light to moderate pitting evenly distributed around the breech block and forward towards the sight base. The balance of the barrels shows only some moderately scattered pinpricking, mixed with a few areas of light pitting along the barrel to stock juncture and a few areas of minor surface oxidation and light roughness. All three of the Palmer patent clamping barrel bands retain their original screw keepers at their ends. The upper band also retains its original military style sling swivel, while the lower swivel is mounted on the bow of the triggerguard in the fashion of a military musket. The buttplate has a grayish brown, lightly oxidized patina and shows evenly distributed moderate pitting, consistent with the buttplate having been somewhere damp for an extended period of time. The butt trap cover in the buttplate opens easily and reveals an empty compartment that originally contained a brass cleaning jag that screwed onto the cleaning rod, and a chamber cleaning tool. The original cleaning rod / ramrod is in place under the barrel in the stock channel. The rod is full length and retains good threads at the end. It has a small, recessed tulip shaped head and swelled shank with a sharp shoulder which secures it against a notch in the forend cap. The style is similar to a Type I P-1853 swelled rod with the first style head. What appears to be the original precision cone (nipple) is present in the cone seat. The gun is in mechanically EXCELLENT condition and functions perfectly in every way. The “monkey-tail” opens and closes smoothly and the breech-locking plunger (which is often damaged) moves freely. The hammer crisply locks into both half-cock and full cock positions, and the trigger release is crisp and clean, as one would expect from a military match rifle. The bore of the rifle rates about VERY FINE+ and is bright and sharp with crisp Richards style octagonal rifling. The bore shows only some lightly accumulated dirt and grit (which should clean easily) and some very lightly scattered pitting deep in the extended grooves. There is no doubt that with the correct ammunition, this rifle would still be a tack driver. The appropriateness of the ammunition is an interesting subject, as an example that I sold a few years ago was accompanied by its original wooden case for the rifle that retained its original label regarding that subject inside the lid. That label read:
Messrs. Westley Richards and Co. will not be accountable for any Cartridges made for their Patent Beech Loading Rifles unless manufactured by themselves. Each package of Ten Cartridges is closed up by a label having their name. A well-made Cartridge is absolutely necessary to secure good shooting, and also to prevent the escape of gas after explosion. Should an escape of gas at any time take place, it will be easily observed, as it will discolor the gun-metal plunger that goes into the barrel at the back of the Cartridge, and also foul the block and underneath part of the lever on which the block is fixed. It is advisable to attend to the above directions, and should any escape of gas ever take place, either from the blowing of the gun-metal plunger or other injury, it is better to suspend shooting and have a new plunger fit. It is also necessary that good Caps should be used, in order to insure ignition through the Cartridge Paper. Messrs. Westley Richards & Co. will not be answerable for any Caps unless they are of their own make.
The stock of the rifle is also in VERY GOOD condition. The stock is free of any breaks or repairs, and is full length and solid. There is a barely noticeable surface grain crack running in an angled path along the grain from the left rear of the wide part of the monkey tail lever to the rear most of lock mounting screws on the flat opposite the lock. This is the only real defect to the stock worth noting. Otherwise, the stock shows only the usual array of scattered bumps, dings, bruises and mars from handling and use that one would expect from a 19th century military pattern target rifle that appears to have seen serious use.
Overall this is a very solid and affordable example of a very scarce Westley Richards Monkey Tail Military Match & Prize Short Rifle. The gun is 100% complete, correct and original in every way and is a very attractive rifle. It would be a very nice addition to any advanced collection of English arms, especially one that focuses on percussion target and/or percussion breechloaders and Volunteer rifles. For the more adventurous black powder collectors and shooters out there, this a rifle that will probably win you a trophy or two, should you choose to shoot it in competition! The rifle is the perfect mix of well sued exterior with a fine bore that will make you less nervous about taking it to the firing line than you would be with a minty example. Of course the research and work to produce appropriate cartridges might be a little daunting and take quite a bit of time! With less than 50 of these fine arms known to have survived, this is rare opportunity to add a top notch English polygon-bore military target rifle to your collection, without having to pay the upper 4 to 5-figure plus price for a Whitworth!SOLD