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 hand made and hand cut. His reputation for being able to produce machines with tight tolerances lead 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 P-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 lead 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 6-sided mechanical rifling system, he can be accurately considered to have substantially improved it in such as 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, yet 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. While it is unlikely that more than 50 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 reach 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 3-roove progressive depth rifling used on the P-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, 6 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 3-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 authorized 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 P-1863 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 (“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 P-1856 Type II (or P-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, 68 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 P-1863 Whitworth Rifle, including the 2nd Battalion 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 P-1853 Enfield rifle musket, as well as the slower rate of fire, it quickly became obvious that the P-1853 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 a potential replacement for the P-1853 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. While 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, insuring that the Whitworth Rifle would never be merely a footnote to arms historians and collectors.
This Whitworth Match Rifle is in about 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 case hardened 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 rifle has a 33” blued barrel secured to the stock with 3 Palmer Patent clamping barrel bands, and a screw through the tang of the breech plug. The breech is a uniquely shaped case hardened affair with a large relived cone seat (bolster) that resembles an espalier or spauldor from a knight’s suit of armor. The breech tang is surrounded by a metal plate on the top of the stock, which is engraved with vines in a loose scroll pattern. The bolster is similar to those used on Westley Richards’ percussion target rifles and his “monkey tail” series of breech loading percussion carbines and rifles. The metal plate is essentially the size and shape of the “monkey tail breech block, and suggest that the stock may have originally been cut to accommodate a “monkey tail” action. The top of the barrel, behind the rear sight is marked WHITWORTH’S PATENT, but is almost imperceptible. This appears to be from the barrel being polished prior to being finished (or refinished). This will be discussed in some further detail in a moment. 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 C673. This number is also present under the barrel. There are no additional marks under the barrel, and the only additional marks inside the lock are the letter H. The rifle is equipped with a conventional, long range rear sight that is graduated to 1,200 yards on the right side, and in inches from 1” to 4” on the left, which probably has something to do with bullet drop, or may be a scale used for estimating distance. The front sight is a somewhat complicated affair that is adjustable for windage. The rifle has a 49 ½” overall length, and the checkered, pistol gripped stock has a 14” 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 dark splotches of sapwood distributed through the grain. 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. The rifle is in about FINE condition and retains strong traces of its period blue finish on the exposed surface of the barrel, which has faded and dulled to blend with a smooth, plum-brown patina. The bottom of the barrel, where it has been protected by the stock, retains about 80% of its period rust blued finish. The finish on the barrel of the gun is a conundrum. It appears to be completely original and period, HOWEVER, the fact that the breech markings are light and the barrel marking is almost polished out suggest the barrel was refinished at some point in time. If it was refinished, it was almost certainly done in the 19th century, as there is no indication that it is in any way a modern finish. The breech of the barrel retains about 60%+ vivid case coloring, which appears absolutely original. The case hardened colors show some dulling and fading, but are still relatively vibrant. The lock retains about 70%+ vivid case hardened colors, with even more of the lovely vibrancy visible on the breech. The barrel bands all retain about 20%-30% of their blued finish, which has faded and oxidized, blending with a plum brown patina. 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 light surface oxidation present as well, most notably around the muzzle and front sight area of the rifle. The bore of the rifle is about VERY FINE condition and is bright and shiny with only some very lightly scattered pinpricking and minor oxidation along its entire length. The bore will probably clean to even better, and the beauty of the mechanical rifling is that even when a Whitworth bore is 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 very crisp mechanical condition, with a high quality target trigger pull. The original military style ramrod is in place in the channel under the barrel and is full-length with good threads at the end. 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.
As mentioned earlier, the configuration and finish of the rifle is a typical of most Whitworth assembled arms. After consulting with William Curtis in the UK, who has been leading the Whitworth Research Project for about 50 years, some theories about the origin of the gun can be formed. According to Mr. Curtis, this rifle was a new Whitworth rifle number in their database, which contains over 600 known Whitworth rifles. The serial number suggests that the barrel was manufactured in late 1862 or early 1863. What is unusual is that the balance of the gun bears no serial numbers, as is typical of Whitworth assembled arms. Mr. Curtis feels that the this barrel was probably part of a small lot of barrels put up for an expected American contract (either CS or US) that never materialized and the barrels remained unused and were eventually sold as surplus when Whitworth closed his company. The Whitworth Rifle Company operated in Manchester from 1860-1862, when it became the Manchester Ordnance & Rifle Company, and finally became the Whitworth Company LTD in 1865, closing in 1870. The first two incarnations of the gun company were located separately from Whitworth’s machine tool company, and were at 51 Sacksville Street in Manchester. In 1865, the final version of the arms company relocated to 44 Chorlton Street, where Whitworth also maintained his machine tool company. From 1865 to 1870 both manufacturing and sales were slow, leading to the closing of the business. Apparently, Whitworth did sell a few rifles after 1870, but these appear to be left over stock, or guns made from spare parts, put up by other makers. It is my belief that this target rifle was assembled c1870 from left over parts, and was most likely assembled by Westley Richards. The rifle appears to have been stocked in a stock that was originally rough cut to accept a Westley Richards “monkey tail” action, and clearly has a Westley Richards pattern breech and percussion cone seat. The engraved metal plate at the wrist is the way this cut out was covered. The fact that the barrel markings are weak suggests to me that the barrel was polished by Richards shop prior to being blued. This was probably because the barrel was about 7 years old at the time of assembly and was likely unfinished, in the white, and had lightly oxidized, requiring polishing prior to finishing. The lack of the usual Whitworth serial numbers on each part is proof to me that Whitworth’s shop did not assemble the gun. The upper band is one of the “bar on band” type bands with a hole for a steady pin. The hole was filled prior to finishing, and is barely visible from the exterior, but is visible on the interior of the band. This is another indication of using leftover “parts on hand”. I believe that the finish on the rifle is all original and period, circa 1870 when Westley Richards assembled it. According to Mr. Curtis, a handful of non-standard Whitworth rifles are known that all have provenance to New Zealand. This suggests that a small number of these rifles may have been put of for an order to New Zealand circa 1870, but there is no indication that this was any type of military order. No matter who ordered the rifle or why it was built, it is a very high quality and very attractive Whitworth target rifle with a wonderful bore.
Overall this is a wonderfully crisp example of a fairly rare British Whitworth Military Match Rifle. For most 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 is a wonderful displaying example that is in excellent mechanical condition with a wonderful bore that will probably shoot better than you can hold the gun. These military rifles don’t come up for sale often, and when they do, they often bring strong prices. This is a wonderful opportunity to own a really gorgeous Whitworth that will be as much at home in your collection or on the firing line, and at a very fair price.