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I'm specifically interested in muzzle-loading rifle artillery, so no smoothbores and no breach-loaders. The period I'm interested in is roughly 1820 - 1860, for both the army and navy.

But first I should compare to the background of the hand-held rifle, such as the Kentucky Rifle. To operate this rifle, you first must wrap the bullet in leather, then ram it down the bore (after the powder). But most problematically of all, after 3 to 4 shots the bore became so fouled with powder residue that it was too hard to ram another bullet down. You had to take the time to clean it or else use smaller shot, which does not catch the rifling grooves and therefore is as inaccurate as muskets.

So this means that the rifle was a low rate of fire weapon with only a few shots before it reverted to a musket, and therefore could not be the predominant weapon on the battlefield (until later improvements).

Therefore I'm very curious how rifled artillery dealt with these issues.

I've read about the Parrot Rifle, James Rifle, Sawyer Rifle, Brooke Rifle, Wiard Rifle, and Rodman Gun. None of it talks about any fouling problems, and has very little info on effective rates of fire in the first place. I also looked at some smoothbore predecessors just to hope to glean something, such as the Paixhans Gun and Dahlgren Gun, but did not find many clues.

I'm pretty sure all of these guns used the same black powder, so would have had the same residue fouling their bores. Would this not make it too hard to ram a large cannonball down the muzzle after a few shots? If so then the sustainable rate of fire should have been far too low to favor over the traditional smoothbore cannons.

One more thing, about how hand-held rifles solved this problem: Henri-Gustave Delvigne invented a type of bullet that could flatten when you rammed it (after it was already at the bottom of the breach). So the bullet was smaller than the bore and fit down it just fine, but then rammed to a bigger shape that then catches the rifle grooving. Then the Minie Ball came a decade later, also invented in France, that was no longer a ball but a more complex shape with an hollow cone base that expands from pressure gasses when fired, increasing its diameter to catch the rifle grooves that way.

So I did look for these things when reading about the rifled artillery, but could not find explicit mention of them. There is a picture of some special shaped artillery rounds for the Paixhans Gun, which as far as I know is not even a rifled bore, but rather a smoothbore. The James Rifle article also has a picture of a modern-looking cylindrical shell that had a lead skirt that expanded. However I couldn't find ammunition pictures and info for the other rifled artillery, or even pictures of "Hotchkiss Ammo".

Did all such rifled artillery of this era have the cylindrical ammo with expanding bases? If so that would answer the question. Was there some other method of dealing with muzzle-loading rifled artillery?

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    Can someone explain the downvotes? I'm a novice on this topic so is there something wrong with the question that I'm not seeing? Dec 8, 2022 at 14:53
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    @LarsBosteen - That's usually my cue to try to be the vote-whiperer and guess what users might have been thinking. No idea on this one though. Perhaps some folks gave up reading before paragraph 4 and thought the question was doing some weird rifle-turthering?
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 16:13
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    Is there a way to move the question up to the top? Then review prior literature & background? Move para 4 to para 1? for the short attention span that TED references? )
    – MCW
    Dec 8, 2022 at 19:05

1 Answer 1

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The answer lies in the age-old conundrum: how to muzzle-load a firearm whose bullet is supposed to tightly engage with the barrel. I'll rewind back to the 1700s and work up how rifles worked to get to your question.

The normal infantry weapon of many years was the smoothbore musket. It was rather easy to use: the ball was usually under-sized to the bore, so it would go right in. Since ammunition was not really standard, you could get balls with a looser or tighter fit. When fired, the ball would go plunk-plunk-plunk down the barrel and depart in the vague direction of the muzzle at a fairly high speed. The system could withstand a bit of variation in its use, including in what all items were loaded into the barrel, ball sizes, and so on.

A rifle was much more difficult to work with. One of the issues was how to get the tight-fitting ball down the barrel. One solution was to use a full-bore ball and whack it into the muzzle with a mallet, which formed the bullet to the rifling, then continue running it down with the ramrod, yet being very careful to stop ramming it once it meets the powder (you did not want to smash black powder). In old paintings of rifle skirmishers from the 1700s, you might see them with a mallet in their belt: then you know that they were using full-bore balls and reloading took some work.

Another solution was to use a slightly undersized ball and wrap it in a material (like greased cloth or a sabot of leather or even wood). This made the ramming process softer and faster, but the engagement of the ball to the rifling bands was not as tight.

The challenges with old rifles required someone who knew what they were doing. A cold barrel would have to be warmed in order to get balls into it. Too much powder and the soft lead bullet would strip off the bands and not get spun. Since the ball encountered a LOT of friction in the barrel compared to the smoothbore, it had a lower muzzle velocity. It was still more accurate, but the slower muzzle velocity forced the soldier to work with a pronounced ballistic path.

In the early 1800s, specifically around 1830-1850, efforts were made to get better performance out of muzzle loading rifles to the point where they could be a regular line weapon and not just a specialist weapon. Most of this work was in France. Louis-Etienne de Thouvenin figured that by putting a peg at the breech, you could drop an under-sized ball down the barrel, then use the ramrod to smash the ball on the end of the peg. The goal was to deform the ball (like into a mushroom shape) so that its soft lead would engage the rifling when fired. The peg was sized so that the powder charge would be around its base, thereby preventing the smashing process from abusing the black powder. Henri-Gustave Delvigne was also working with aerodynamically-shaped balls in addition to concepts about the loading problem, and so there was the desire for combining these attributes. Sabots - a "carriage" that would run the bullet down the barrel and then drop away - were experimented with but didn't seem to reach mass use (the exception being a sabot of greased cloth or paper, which was very commonly done).

This eventually evolved into the classic Minie bullet (named after Claude-Etienne Minie): an aerodynamic bullet with a chamber in the back, a system that was largely figured out by 1850. The bullet was under-sized to the bore, but when fired, the back of the bullet would flare and engage the rifling. This might be considered a type of driving band, which is a band that engages the rifling while the rest of the bullet/shell does not. Even if you look at a modern NATO 155 mm shell, you'll see the copper driving band that goes around it, which is the only part of the shell that engages the rifling (the body of the shell does not engage the rifling).

Taking the concept to muzzle-loading artillery, obviously one can't put in a full-bore shell and count on hammering it in - you'd be applying a lot of abuse to a shell loaded with powder and with a fuse on the front. It's going to have to be an under-bore shell that slides in, and then when fired somehow engages the rifling on its outbound journey. The answer was in a variety of sabots and driving bands, with concepts mostly similar to their hand-held counterparts:

  • Parrot Rifles used a typical-looking aerodynamic shell with a fuse on the front. The back end of the shell had a lead band around it with a small chamber formed as a result. The firing of the charge would expand the driving band out to engage the rifling. It's kind of like a Minie solution.
  • The James Rifle shell, also an aerodynamic design, had a cage on the back with lead panels. When fired, the panels would be blown outward to engage the rifling. This might be called a kind of sabot, at least in a loose definition of the term.

Some good reading about this topic in regards to small arms (but not artillery - although the concepts are similar):

The Destroying Angel: The Rifle-Musket as the First Modern Infantry Weapon (2018) ISBN 978-1719857277 by Brett Gibbons.

The English Cartridge: Pattern 1853 Rifle-Musket Ammunition (2022) ISBN 979-8645988975 by Brett Gibbons.

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    Very nice - but missing one very important point: a vastly different firing rate. Artillery with its very heavy barrels could only be fired rapidly for very short periods of time before the barrel heated up and both deformed and softened dangerously. Thus, except when the battery itself was endangered and canister being fired, artillery fired only 1 round per minute. Rifles on the other hand sought to achieve the same firing rate as muskets, at up to 7 or more rounds / minute in elite guard units. Thus artillery crews had much more time (and damp sponges!) to clear barrels between shots. Dec 8, 2022 at 17:52
  • @PieterGeerkens Can you give a link that quotes firing rates of artillery (either smoothbore and/or rifled)? I've never heard of that before. If smoothbore fired at 1 rpm, I don't see the great urgency to push that to 7 rpm for rifled. The main advantage of rifled artillery is greater ranges via increased stability and accuracy of the projectile.
    – DrZ214
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:53
  • @Smith Can you link to an example of The Stewart Rifle or its shell? I can't seem to find it online. Most search results are showcasing a handheld rifle of some sort and I cannot find any artillery by that name. By your description, it seems similar to "La Hitte system" which has its own article on wikipedia. Is that another name for the same thing? +1 answer btw.
    – DrZ214
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:55
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    @DrZ214: You misunderstand. The rate of fire difference is between artillery and small-arms, and is due to the much greater time required for an artillery barrel to radiate off its heat. In consequence artillery crews had time to thoroughly cleanse the barrel with sponge and brush between each round, while small arms infantry had to maximize firing rate. Dec 9, 2022 at 15:12
  • @PieterGeerkens There are many many considerations about this topic, and I had to limit myself - and still my answer got rather long.
    – Smith
    Dec 9, 2022 at 15:39

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