Through the kindness of a friend, I have been able to get some information as to the vexed question of the Minie ball, which militates against some of the claims of the French captain, if invention be one. The character of the friend through whom I have been put in correspondence with the gentleman named below, I feel to be a sufficient guarantee for the truthfulness of the statements which I here subjoin.
Mr. Stanton, a proprietor of collieries at Newcastle-on-Tyne, conceived the idea that if a bullet were made to receive the projectile force in the interior of the bullet, but beyond the centre of gravity, it would continue its flight without deviation. Having satisfied himself of the truth of this theory, he sent the mould to the Board of Ordnance on the 20th of January, 1797, and received a reply the following month, stating that upon trial it was found to be less accurate in its flight and less powerful in its penetration than the round bullet then in use. They also informed Mr. Stanton that there were some conical balls in the repository which had been deposited there by the late Lieutenant-General Parker, and which, having more solidity, were superior to those sent by Mr. Stanton, thus proving that the idea of a conical expanding ball is of very ancient date. The mould sent to the Ordnance by Mr. Stanton was taken from a wooden model, of which the accompanying is an exact diagram, and which is in the possession of Mr. Stanton, solicitor, at Newcastle, the son of the originator. Evidence is afforded that Mr. Boyd a banker, and Mr. Stanton, sen., both tried the ball with very different success to that obtained at Woolwich; but this need excite no astonishment, as every sportsman is aware of the wonderful difference in the accuracy with which smooth-bored fire-arms carry balls, and for which no satisfactory reason has ever been advanced. Mr. Kell was subsequently present when his friend Mr. Stanton, jun., had balls made on his father's principle for a pair of Wogden's pistols thirty years ago; the result is reported as satisfactory.
In 1829, Mr. Kell conceived the idea of applying the principle to rifles, for which purpose he had a mould made by Mr. Thomas Bulcraig. Mr. Kell altered the original ball in two points; he made the sides stronger, and he formed the front of the ball conoidical instead of hemispherical. I have the ball made from that mould now lying before me, and it is precisely the same as the Minie ball without the iron cup, which we have shown in the preceding pages is totally unnecessary. This ball has been constantly in use by Mr. Kell and others until the present day; it is the first application of a conical expanding ball to rifles that I can find on record, and whatever credit is due to the person who transferred the expanding ball from a smooth bore wherein it was useless, to a rifle wherein it is now proved to be invaluable, belongs, as far as I can trace the application back, to Mr. Kell, A.D. 1829.
In 1830, Mr. Kell employed Mr. Greener, then a gunmaker at Newcastle, to make him a mould for a double pea rifle, and he left in Mr. Greener's hands one of the balls made for the Wogden pistol, and one of those made by Mr. Bulcraig, to assist him in so doing. It appears that Mr. Greener must have been satisfied with the success attending Mr. Kell's application of the conical ball to a rifle, for some years after, in August, 1836, he applied to the Ordnance for permission to have a trial of the conical ball made; this was granted, and the experiment was conducted under Major Walcott of the Royal Artillery, on the sands near Tynemouth Castle, the firing party consisting of a company of the 60th Rifles. Mr. Greener having failed to bring a target, to test the superior penetrating power of his balls, the ordinary Artillery target was used. Mr. Greener's ball had a conical plug of lead in the hollow, for the purpose of producing the expansion when driven home by the force of the powder. After firing several rounds at two hundred yards, only one ball of Mr. Greener's, which had struck the target, was found to have the plug driven home, the others had all lost their plugs. The same effect was produced when firing into a sand-bank. A trial was then made at 350 yards; the spherical balls and the conical balls both went home to the target, but only one of the latter penetrated.
The objections pointed out to the conical ball were: the frequent loss of the plug, by which its weight was diminished; the inconvenience of having a hall composed of two separate parts; the difficulty of loading if the plug was not placed accurately in the centre; and the danger of the plug losing its place in consequence of being put in loosely, especially when carried about for any length of time in a cartridge.—Mr. Greener loaded the rifles during the trial with the ball and powder separate, not in cartridge.—The advantage admitted was, merely, rapidity of loading if the plug was fairly placed: no superiority of range appears to have been produced over the rifles used by the 60th Regiment. Mr. Greener solicited another trial, but after the report of Major Walcott, the Select Committee considering the ball "useless and chimerical," no further trial was accorded. The conical ball question was thus once more doomed to oblivion.
In process of time the fabulous ranges of the "Carabine a Tige" were heard of, and when it was ascertained that the French riflemen potted the gunners on the ramparts of Rome with such rapidity that they could not stand to their guns before a rifle nearly a mile distant, the cone shape once more turned up, and Captain Minie came forward as the champion of the old expanding ball. The toscin of war was sounded in the East; the public were crying aloud for British arms to be put upon an equality with those of foreign armies; the veterans who had earned their laurels under poor old "Brown Bess" stuck faithfully to her in her death-struggle, and dropped a tear over the triumph of new-fangled notions.
In the middle of last century Lieutenant-General Parker's ball was thrown aside; at the end of the century, Mr. Stanton's shared the same fate; Mr. Greener's followed in 1836 with equal ill success; Captain Minie's had a short reign, and was in turn superseded by the more solid and superior ball now in use, and for which the country is indebted to the experimental perseverance of Mr. Pritchett; and if ever things obtain their right names, the weapon of the British army will be called the Pritchett ball and not the Minie rifle; but as the world persists in calling the Missouri the Mississippi, I suppose the British public will behave equally shabbily by Mr. Pritchett. The reader will judge for himself of the respective credit due to the various persons through whose ingenuity we have at length succeeded in obtaining the present efficient ball, the wounds from which are more frightful than pen can portray.
There is, however, one lesson which we should learn from the great opposition there has been to the introduction of the conical ball, and that is, the advantage of remodelling the department to which such inventions are referred. The foregoing remarks appear to me conclusive evidence that the testing of fire-arms should not be left to age and experience alone. Prejudice is all but inseparable from age—young and fresh blood is a powerful auxiliary. What I would suggest is, that there should be a special examination to qualify officers of the engineers and artillery to sit in judgment on so important a subject as arms and missiles; and I would then propose that two officers of the former corps, and five of the latter, be selected from those below the rank of field-officer, to form a separate and junior Board, and that each Board should send in its own report. The method of selection which I would suggest is by ballot or vote of those Officers of the same rank in their respective corps; for I feel sure that those who live most together are the best acquainted with one another's talents. If two Boards are objectionable, form one Board, of which one-half shall be of the junior rank; and if they be equally divided in opinion, let the higher authority appoint an umpire and order a second trial.
Remember how long the now all-but-forgotten "Brown Bess" kept the field against the adversary which has since proved her immeasurable superior; and let the future prove that past experience has not been entirely thrown away. Trials may be troublesome, but officers are paid for taking trouble; and the ingenuity of inventors will always be quickened in proportion to the conviction that their inventions will receive a full and unprejudiced trial; and that, if their first shot at the target of Success be an outside ringer, they will not be denied a chance of throwing another in the Bull's-eye.
Since the foregoing remarks went to press, it appears that the Pritchett ball has been found wanting, both in England and in the Crimea; its flight is said to be irregular, and the deposit of lead in the barrel so great that after thirty rounds the charge cannot be got down. If this be so, it is only one more proof of the necessity for some improvement in the Board appointed to judge of and superintend warlike missiles.
When Mr. Pritchett had perfected his ball, it was tried in the three-groove rifle, for which it was intended, with the most satisfactory results, and was fired an indefinite number of times without the slightest difficulty. It appears, however, that this successful trial was not sufficient to satisfy the new-born zeal of the authorities. Accordingly, a conclave of gunmakers was consulted previous to the order for manufacturing being sent to Enfield; but with a depth of wisdom far beyond human penetration, they never asked the opinion of Mr. Pritchett, who had made the rifle which had carried the ball so satisfactorily.
The wise men decided that it would be an improvement if the grooves were deepened—a strange decision, when all the experience of the day tends to prove that the shallower the groove the better. Down went the order; the improved rifles were made as fast as possible, and in the month of March they went to the seat of war. May is hardly passed by, and the sad fact discovered in the Crimea is echoed back on our shores, that after thirty rounds the soldiers may right about face or trust to cold steel. I think my youngest boy—if I had one—would have suggested testing the improvement before indulging the army with the weapon. Perhaps the authorities went on the principle that a rifle is a rifle, and a ball is a ball, and therefore that it must be all right. It might as well be said a chancellor is a chancellor, and a black dose is a black dose; therefore, because an able Aesculapius had prescribed a draught which had proved eminently useful to bilious Benjamin, it must agree equally well with lymphatic William.—Never mind, my dear John Bull, sixpence more in the pound Income-tax will remedy the little oversight.
Three years have elapsed since these observations were penned, and behold a giant competitor has entered the field, threatening utter annihilation to the three-groove (or Enfield) rifle and the Pritchett ball. Mr. Whitworth (whose mechanical powers have realized an accuracy almost fabulous), after a long course of experiments made at the Government's expence, has produced a rifle with an hexagonal box and ball, the correctness of which, at 1100 yards, has proved nearly equal to that of the Enfield at 500 yards, and possessing a penetrating power of wonderful superiority; the Enfield rifle ball scarcely penetrated 13 half-inch Elm planks. Whitworth's hexagonal ball penetrated 33, and buried itself in the solid block of wood behind. It remains to be seen whether this formidable weapon can be made at such a price as to render it available for military purposes. The hexagonal bore is not a new invention, some of the Russians having used it in the late Baltic campaign; but it is doubtless Mr. Whitworth's wonderful accuracy of construction that is destined to give it celebrity, by arming it with a power and correctness it wanted before.[CQ] An explosive ball has also been introduced by Colonel Jacob of Eastern celebrity, which from its greater flight will prove, when perfected, a more deadly arm than the old spherical explosive ball invented and forgotten years ago. With the daily improvements in science, we may soon expect to see Colonel Jacob's in general use, unless the same principle applied to Whitworth's hexagonal ball should be found preferable.
* * * * *
To those who are amateurs of the rifle, I would recommend a pamphlet, written by Chapman, and published in New York; it is chiefly intended for those who delight in the infantine or octogenarian amusement of peppering a target, but it also contains many points of interest. Among other subjects discussed are the following:—The quantity of twist requisite in a rifle barrel—the gaining twist, as opposed to Mr. Greener, and the decreasing twist—the size of ball best suited to different distances—the swedge, by which a ball, being cast rather larger than requisite, is compressed into a more solid mass—the powder to use, decreasing in size of the grain in proportion to the diminishing length of barrel—the loading muzzle, by which the lips of the grooves are preserved as sharp as a razor, &c. The pamphlet can easily be procured through Messrs. Appleton, of New York and London.
[Footnote CP: The miles of distance may not be quite exact, but the miles of wire may be depended upon.]
[Footnote CQ: The trial between the Enfield and the Whitworth rifles cannot be yet considered conclusive, as there was a difference in the bore of the rifles, and also Mr. Whitworth used a different kind of ball for penetration to that used for long range.]