The story of the Whitworth rifle

It is without question that the most feared rifle of the American Civil War was the Britishmade Whitworth rifle imported by the Confederacy and delivered by fearless blockade runners thru the blockade of the U.S. Navy. But what made this rifle so special? Why was it necessary sometimes to deploy entire artillery batteries to silence one single Whitworth sharpshooter?

The history of this beautiful rifle began in 1854 when Lord Harding, Commander in Chief of the British Army asked Sir Joseph Whitworth to do a full detailed research on bore rifling. Whitworth was a well-known successful engineer, but had never designed a rifle before, so he was not overwhelmed by preconceptions. He was free to investigate the matter in his own way.

He played with the rifling twist of the .577 rifle muskets and realized that bullets longer than 2-3 caliber length have a better stability if the rifling twist is faster. He used 1:25” spiral for the .577 bores, but also noticed that the increased weight of the bullet needed an increased charge as well to have a flat trajectory. To keep the original powder load and bullet weight he reduced the bore caliber to .45, and designed a 1:20” twist hexagonal – polygon – rifling to achieve maximum performance.

The hexagonal rifling needs a mechanicallyfitting bullet and that is exactly what Whitworth designed. His bullet matched the bore completely and it was able to reach higher velocities as the chance of the bullet jumping the rifling” was minimal.

The comparative tests of 1857-58 proved that the small bore military rifle is clearly superior compared to the standard issue Enfield rifle muskets.

Distance (yards) Average group size (feet)
.577 Enfield .451 Whitworth
300 0,79 0,33
500 1,6 0,68
800 4,17 1,46
1000 No hits 2,18
1200 No hits 3,91

The production of the new rifle started in 1857 within England with a revolutionary barrelmaking method. The barrel was made of high quality cast steel and it was compressed in a fluid state. The internal stresses added to the bore during the compression process proved helpful in absorbing the stress of increased loads, lengthening the lifetime of the barrel.

The Whitworth ammunition

The mechanicallyfitting bullet had some heritage in the British military art. The belted bullet of the Brunswick rifle acted the same way, but the Whitworth theory was far superior. The long bullet had an excellent sectional density and BC compared to other contemporary designs. The paperwrapped lead slug had a tight fit in the bore and sealed the powder gases well.

Although the original bullet was hexagonal, the C.S. Army preferred to use standard paperwrapped cylindrical bullets. The original Whitworth bullets were not cast but pressed. We know about quite a few hexagonal molds, some of them made from a piece cut from the barrel.

The standard load of the rifle was between 70-85 grains fine British powder that propelled the 530 grain bullet. Fouling could be a problem, however. The residue could accumulate in the corner of the rifling causing the bullet to be hard to ram down. To avoid this problem each rifle was delivered with a scraper included.

The sights of the Whitworth rifle

The Whitworth rifle was equipped with modified military iron sights, but many of them were also equipped with high precision globe sights or with a side mounted Davidson scope. The side mounted scope allowed the use of the standard iron sights in times of need, when long range accuracy was less important when compared to the possibility of fast aiming.

Civil War use

The most common type of Confederate Whitworth rifle was a 33” barrel rifle, featuring an Enfield pattern stock with two iron barrel bands, iron sights and Enfield pattern lock. It is not clear how many Whitworth rifles reached the Confederate shores, and sometimes it is also a hard task to differentiate the Whitworth armed sharpshooters from other snipers of the C.S. Army armed with similar small bore rifles like the Kerr. We know about cca. (?) 5700 Whitworth rifles manufactured by different British companies. If you are lucky to find an original, here is a little help to identify its production period:

Time frame serial numbers

1857 – mid 1860: 1-1000

mid 1860 – late 1861 B1-B999

late 1861 – mid 1862 C1-C999

spring 1862 – early 1863 D1-D999

early 1863 – mid 1864 E1-E999

mid 1864-1865 F1-F700

How many rifles reached the CS troops? No one knows. Maybe a few tens, maybe a few hundreds. But one thing is certain. The Whitwortharmed snipers, operating in small teams or pairs often created heavy losses on distant artillery troops, officers, or regular enemy soldiers. We have records of many Whitworth kills at well over 1500 yards.

According to Joan Anderson Morrow, there is a possibility that the Whitworth was used by Union troops as well. This statement is based on an advertisement that appeared in the New York Tribune on March 12, 1862, offering 50 Whitworth rifles for sale with 15000 cartridges.

And to finish this short essay, here are some photos of our new Whitworth rifle replica, ready to hit the market in early 2016.