The Whitworth Rifle: A Brief Introduction (3)

Introduction | Target Shooting | Dominance Wanes

The 1865 Cambridge Cup match in Great Britain, which comprised two days shooting at 1,000 and 1,100 yards, fifteen shots at each range each day, was won by Sir Henry Halford using a Gibbs-Metford match rifle. The Times of 15 June 1865 had this to say of the rifle: “The weapon with which the prize was won, will, it is said, create some stir among those interested in small-bore and long-range shooting, being on entirely new principles.” Metford’s design utilised shallow rifling and a hardened expanding cylindrical bullet.

In the same year, 1865, the Whitworth rifle was still enjoying popularity with the top riflemen of the time. In the Elcho Shield match seven of the English team used Whitworth rifles while one, Sir Henry Halford, used a Metford. The entire Scottish Eight used Whitworth rifles. Only the Irish Eight who were competing in this event for the first time differed, using the Rigby rifle. The latter is likely to be of the form described by Captain Heaton in 1864, Rigby's extensive rebarelling program not commencing until 1866.

With the undoubted successful introduction of the Gibbs-Metford in 1865, the period to c1870 marked the demise of the Whitworth rifle. Its deeply rifled hexagonal bore and mechanically fitting bullet was to be supplanted by the Metford and later Rigby rifles, with their shallow groove rifling and hardened lead bullets. It is noteworthy that The Birmingham Daily Post of Friday, 16 July 1869, carried the following report:
“It is a subject worthy of remark that the Whitworth rifle, which carried the palm for so many years, was not used by any competitor for the Elcho Challenge Shield. The shallow grooved rifling, and hardened, expanding cylindrical bullet, manufactued by Mr. Metford, and introduced into his patent rifle in 1865, is now universally adopted, and has entirely superseded all the deep-grooved rifles with their mechanically fitting bullets. As regards the Metford rifle, it ought to be known that although Mr. Metford is the inventor of the rifle that bears his name, Mr. Gibbs, of Bristol, is the sole manufacturer of it. It is simply known as the Metford rifle, and Mr. Metford is not a manufacturer.”
Whitworth did not patent the hexagonally bored rifle, rather a complete polygonal system for barrels and projectiles and method by which it could be made. From a system lacking in uniformity and based on ‘rule of thumb’ Whitworth created a system using precision engineering that would guarantee an accurate shot and stimulated the British gun trade into a period of experimentation and development.