The Rifle That Forged the British Empire: The Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle

November 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: British EmpireUnited KingdomLee-Enfield RifleRiflesGunsMilitary

The Rifle That Forged the British Empire: The Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle

Shooting into the history book.

The Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle was developed in time for use by the British Army in its first great war in decades and was arguably the catalyst of another conflict that nearly destroyed its colonial empire. While its use as the main service rifle was short-lived, lasting just thirteen years, it was a proven weapon that earned a reputation for reliability when it was used by both sides during the American Civil War. This rifle didn't build the British Empire but it helped maintain the foundation and paved the way for future firearms development.

The Shots Heard Round the Empire

As the saying goes, the sun never set on the British Empire. And from the cool, damp British Isles was built the largest empire by landmass the world had ever known. The First British Empire (1583–1783) saw great technical innovation in naval development and small arms. It was during this time that “Brown Bess”—less commonly known as the Land Pattern Musket—was introduced.

This particular musket and its derivatives fired a .75 caliber ball and remained the British Empire's standard long gun from 1722 until 1838. It was the musket that was used during the American Revolution and in the conflicts against Napoleon Bonaparte. It was thus the weapon that helped build the Second British Empire (1783–1815) and usher in Britain's Imperial Century (1815–1914).

After more than 125 years of use, the Brown Bess was superseded by percussion cap smoothbore muskets. Many of these older flintlocks were converted for use with the new percussion system that became known as the Pattern 1839 Musket. However, a fire at the Tower of London in 1841 destroyed many muskets before these could be converted but it was clear the age of the musket was fading into history.

As the British Empire became more global, the Brown Bess continued to see use around the world. At the same time, the technical advances of the Industrial Age ushered in new methods of production and this led to the development of what would be one of the most important firearms in the history of the British Empire—the Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle.

The origins of the rifle actually go back to the earlier era of the British Empire, when the European military designers suggested that a barrel with grooves inside would improve accuracy. In 1567 these grooves were added—first to ease loading and to provide crevices for the gunpowder residue. Within a few decades, it was determined that the grooves, or rifling, could make the ball fly straighter.

For the next century, most refinements in firearms were limited to more expensive “sporting” or hunting rifles, and the common soldier was left with cruder firearms. Even the long-used Brown Bess, which served British “Red Coats” around the globe for more than 100 years were smoothbore. While the advantages of rifling were established and understood there was a long-held view in the British Army after the fall of Napoleon that “what was good enough at Waterloo is good enough now.” By the 1840s, that could no longer be accepted.

Ironically, even throughout the Napoleonic Wars, there was ample evidence that the musket was really not good enough, but British military planners were not quick to change even when the evidence suggested that there was room for improvement. Contemporary studies indicated that at the Battle of Salamanca some 8,000 enemy soldiers were wounded or killed—yet some three and a half a million cartridges had been fired. Just one shot in 437 had any effect; clearly, there was room for improvement.

The inadequacy of the smoothbore musket was further brought to attention in the trials carried out when the Pattern 1842 musket—one of the post-Brown Bess percussion cap muskets to be adopted—was tested by Captain McKerlie of the Royal Engineers in 1846. This is noted in Lt. Col. H. Bond's Treatise on Military Small Arms and Ammunition, where he noted that the testing found that the rifle “should never be opened beyond 150 yards, and certainly not exceeding 200 yards.”

As a result, many Pattern 1842 muskets were converted into rifles while the British Army adopted the Regulation Pattern 1851 Minié rifle, which was a major technological step forward yet looked only slightly different from Pattern 1842 musket. After further refinements the Pattern 1853 Rifled Musket arrived. This came to be because the original idea was to have two different sighting arrangements, one for 'ordinary' soldiers and one for rifle regiments. The term “rifle-musket” was also used as it meant that rifle was the same length as the musket it replaced.

This was done because a longer rifle was at the time thought to be necessary enable the muzzles of the second rank of soldiers to project beyond the faces of the men in the front, while also ensuring that the weapons would be long enough to be fitted with a bayonet to be of effect against cavalry. This most certainly played into the British use of squares that had proven so successful against cavalry attacks at battles such as Waterloo.

The Pattern 53 Design 

Between 1853 and 1867, some 1.5 million Pattern 53 Rifles were produced. The weapon was designed by RSAF Enfield, and it weighed 9.5 pounds unloaded and was about 55 inches in length—taller than many soldiers who carried it into battle. It featured a 39-inch barrel that had three groves with a 1:78 rifling twist. The barrel was fastened to the stock by three metal bands, which is why the rifle is still sometimes referred to as a “three band” model. The use of iron bands to retain the barrel had been common with French weapons since the middle years of the eighteenth century and is why this model is often noted for having French influences.

The rifle featured an adjustable ladder rear sight that had steps for 100 yards, which was considered the “battle sight range,” 200 yards, 300 yards, and 400 yards. For greater distances, an adjustable flip-up blade sight was graduated from 900 to 1,250 yards.

British soldiers of the era were trained to hit a target six feet by two feet with a two feet diameter bull's eye from ranges of 600 yards. Another target was used from 650 to 900 yards and it offered a three-foot bull's eye. Any man who scored seven points with 20 rounds at that range was designated a marksman!

The rifle featured cartridges that contained 68 grains of black powder and had a ball that was typically 530-grain Pritchett or Burton-Minié. The Pattern 53 Rifle has a velocity of about 850 to 900 per second.

Another French influence on this model was found in the bayonet. While British socket bayonets had relied upon a so-called “zig-zag” slot to fix them to the muzzle—which often blocked the foresight - the Pattern 53 adopted a French method that included a rotating locking ring on the socket of the bayonet. This allowed for the bayonet to be easily fitted and with a slight turn secured in a way that prevented it from detaching.

From Crimea to India 

The Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle arrived just when it was needed, and it was clear that what worked at Waterloo would not suffice in the coming conflict. Great Britain found itself drawn into war with Russia and numerous regiments shipped off to the Crimea equipped with the Pattern 1851 Minié rifle, yet many still carried the 1842 pattern smoothbore musket. The British War Department had approved the Pattern 53 just as the nation headed to war, but it wouldn't have its official baptism of fire until February 1855, more than five months after the first British troops began to arrive on the southwestern coast of the Crimean peninsula.

The Pattern 53 proved effective against infantry, cavalry and even artillery positions alike. The era of the smoothbore musket—which had been "good enough" at Waterloo—was truly a weapon whose time had passed. The age of the rifle had begun.

As the dust settled in the Crimea thousands of miles away another war was simmering and ironically the rifle that was part of technological advancement served as the catalyst in the Jewel of the Crown that was the British Empire.

The story has been told countless times; the Indian Munity began as Sepoys—the Indian soldiers serving in the Honourable East India Company—were issued with cartridges that were greased with beef tallow or lard and revolted. The truth is that there were many other factors well beyond the cartridges, but it is true that this did play a significant role in starting the rebellion that nearly destroyed the British Empire.

The Enfield Pattern 53 rifle, which had served the British Army well in Crimea, was introduced to the Indian troops serving in the East India Company. It is first worth noting that the company began based on trade, but into the early nineteenth century the unique geopolitical situation actually required that three independent armies of the company's Presidencies were formed. While these units were made of British soldiers this army was not at the time part of the British Army. British officers trained at the company's own Addiscombe Military Academy.