British officers also always outranked Indians, no matter how long their service. Indian soldiers were recruited, first from mercenaries and low-caste volunteers, but over time the Bengal Army became largely high-caste Hindus and landowning Muslims.
Here is where the issue of the cartridges became an issue. The “cartridge” at the time was not brass as we know it to be today, but was rather paper-wrapped powder and projectile. The British military drills of the time required the soldiers to bite to open the cartridge, then pour the gunpowder contained down the barrel and finally ram the cartridge with the bullet down the barrel. After setting the sights and adding a percussion cap the rifle was ready to be fired. The Instruction of Musketry at the time suggested that if the grease had melted away that the bullet should be wetted in the mouth so that the saliva would act as the grease.
For those high-caste Hindus, this was seen as an outrage as the rumors that the bullets were greased with beef fat, and for the Muslims, it was as bad that the bullets might be tainted with pig fat! Many Sepoys protested and suggested that an acceptable greasing agent such as ghee or vegetable oil be used instead. There were also suggestions that the cartridges could be opened with their hands—instead of biting them—but this was rejected as being impractical.
There is also the long-held story that a lower caste laborer at Dum-Dum arsenal taunted a high-caste Sepoy—with the former telling the latter that he had lost caste by biting the cartridge. Numerous accounts have noted that the factory wasn't even producing cartridges yet. There were other factors that go beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that while the rifle and its cartridges were a factor it was not the sole reason for the great uprising.
A more important point is that the Enfield Pattern 53 was used by both sides—those who mutinied and those who put down the mutiny. However, it has been noted that as many mutineers refused to use the rifle they instead relied on the old Brown Bess. Had the Sepoys accepted the Pattern 53 in greater numbers and then mutinied it could have been a very different conflict and perhaps could have truly been India's War of Independence.
India would not be the last time that the Pattern 53 was used by opposing sides, and just two years after the Indian Mutiny was finally ended the American Civil War ignited. The Enfield Pattern 53 was the second most widely used infantry weapon in the war—surpassed only by the Springfield Model 1861 Rifled Muskets.
Just as the British were unprepared at the start of the Crimean War neither were the two sides in America. It would be a grand understatement to suggest either side was slightly unprepared. Before the outset of war, the Springfield Armory was only producing 10,000 rifles per year. This figure jumped to 300,000 by 1864 but even that was unable to keep up with the rifles that were needed to equip the North.
The Confederates imported more Enfield Pattern 53 rifles from 1861 through 1865 than any other small arm, and this included purchases from private contractors and gun runners. According to some estimates as many as 900,000 Pattern 53s were imported to America. The rifle is noteworthy for seeing service in every major engagement from the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862 through the final battles of the war. By the end of the conflict, nearly 75 percent of the Confederate forces had obtained the rifle.
While the Pattern 53 ushered in the era of the rifle it was to be short-lived as breech-loading technology was developed. Just as many muskets were converted to rifles, the Pattern 53 was converted to a breech-loading firearm as the .577 Snider-Enfield, which utilized a new Boxer cartridge that replaced the paper and powder with a metal cased cartridge.
The Snider-Enfield was to prove more accurate than the Pattern 53, and a trained soldier could fire up to 10 aimed rounds per minute with the breech-loader compared to only three from the muzzle loading rifle. From 1866 many Enfields were converted but new Snider-Enfields were made as well. Its use in the British Army was even shorter-lived than the Pattern 53 as it was superseded by the Martini-Henry in 1871. Despite this fact, the Snider-Enfield remained in use with second-line troops until 1901.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This article is being republished due to reader interest.