More on Whitworth and his Rifle

Yesterday’s post on Civil War Sharpshooters was meant to be a shallow overview, but one thing leads to another, and so this morning’s scheduled post was thrown back into the sea so we can have some further discussion of this subject, and especially of the English rifle used to such great effect by the Confederates, the Whitworth.

Fred Ray, whom we cited in that post, commented and included a couple of links that may be of interest. First, he has traced the English word “sharpshooter” back to 1795.

I think the question is settled, at least as far as any reference to Christian Sharps is concerned.

Also check out my articles on the web site for my book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, which deals with Confederate sharpshooters. There’s much more to them than Pat Cleburne! Couple of articles there on the killing of Gen. John ” Couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” Sedgwick and one on Joseph Whitworth and his rifles.

Fred’s Whitworth article is this one. It’s well researched and was a good read.

Among the things we didn’t know about Whitworth were that he invented scraping for a flat surface; invented an early caliber, and was instrumental in standardization of threads and fasteners in Britain.

Because one good article deserves another, here’s the section on the Whitworth from Fuller & Steuart’s Firearms of the Confederacy. The Whitworth was not the only English rifle used by sharpshooters in gray, as they also made good use of Enfield and Kerr rifles, but the Whitworth is the one that has captured the imagination of historians, collectors and reenactors.

This rifle is of particular interest to students of Confederate arms, as it is believed to be the only one of the imported arms that was used exclusively by the South who used them in small numbers for arming sharpshooters. They were an accurate and powerful weapon — good for a range of half a mile and were responsible for the taking off of many a federal officer.


Note: all of these illustrations are pulled from the web, not from the book quoted. This Confederate Whitworth has a replaced lock, but is for sale for a LOT of money.


The specimen shown is marked on the lock plate Whitworth Rifle Company, Manchester and on top of the barrel Whitworth Patent.

This is a Whitworth lock; it’s not from a sharpshooter’s rifle, but from a target rifle sold by James Julia. Hammer price was $10,300 in 2014,

This is the barrel marking referenced in the text, also from the Julia target rifle.

Length of barrel, 33 inches. Total length of arm, 49 inches. The bore is hexagonal. Caliber .45, using an elongated bullet weighing 530 grains.  the twist is one in twenty inches. The arm is an exceptionally well-made piece — iron mounted throughout and besides the regular site equipment, is provided with attachments for a telescope site to be mounted on the left side of the gun. The stock is nicely checkered and the arm has all of the characteristics of the highest type sporting piece. All parts bear the serial number 554.

From the Julia target gun, period “globe” or aperture sights.

In the year 1852 when the British ordnance department conducted extensive experiments to test the comparative merits of various rifles submitted to the government they found a wide variation in the accuracy updatable. Whitworth, one of the leading technicians of the day, was commissioned to make exhaustive experiments at the cost of the Government in order to discover the best form of rifling.

This gentleman had devoted a great deal of time and study to the design and manufacture of cannon and had adopted the polygonal bore as giving the best results and decided to use this type of rifling for his small arms. The advantage of the elongated bullet had long been demonstrated but in attempting to use it in connection with the polygonal bore considerable trouble was experienced from the ball “capsizing” or “turning over”.  He became convinced that this action was due to the slow spiral and eventually after testing every graduation from one turn in seventy-eight inches to one turn in five inches found the necessary rotation to impart the required steadiness to the ball and cause it to maintain a flight parallel to its axis was best obtained at a pitch of one turn in twenty inches.

On tests before the Minister of War and many distinguished officers the Whitworth rifle of .45 caliber beat the Enfield of government factories by three to one. The mean deviation at 500 yards was four and one-half while the recorded best of any rifle previously tried was twenty-seven.

The rifle was never adopted into the Government service but 40 of them were made for the competitive shoot of 1860 for the Queen’s prize at the meeting of the [British] National Rifle Association. Plate XXIII shows an enlarged view of the bore of this arm and the machine made bullet used with it.

While the original bullet for the Whitworth rifle was hexagonal to fit the rifle bore, those used by the Confederates were for the most part cylindrical.

This is characteristic Whitworth hexagonal rifling. Also from the Julia gun.

He notes that “20 or 30” of these rifles were slipped through the blockade, and divided equally between Eastern and Western rebel forces, but Bilby thinks that a much greater number of the Whitworths must have been on hand — probably hundreds.

Fuller & Steuart also reproduce this period article:

The Richmond Daily Examiner of November 10, 1863, says:

We have a wonderful gun in our army, the Whitworth rifle. it kills it 2000 yards, more than a mile. It is no bigger than the Mississippi rifle. [US Rifle M1841 -Ed.] With a few of these rifles Longstreet shot across the Tennessee River, killing the Yankees and completely blocking the river road.

They go on to reproduce some combat tales of the rifle in action.

Sergeant Grace of the Fourth Georgia killed General Sedgwick of the Union Army with a Whitworth rifle at a range of 800 yards.

Sergeant Grace used a globe sight. Most of the Whitworths were equipped with telescope sights, but these were easily lost.

Whitworth rifles are said to have done terrible execution at Fort Wagner, Charleston.

General Cleburne, writing in 1863, said: “The fire of five Whitworth rifles appeared to do good service. Mounted men were struck it distances ranging from 700 to 1300 yards.”

Twenty men of Company F, Eighth North Carolina Regiment, were armed with Whitworth rifles with globe sights at Morris Island. South Carolina sharpshooters also had Whitworths and General Lytle is said to have been killed at Chickamauga with a bullet from a Whitworth rifle.

This is one type of False Muzzle, from another target gun (this one a Maine gun for sale by Joe Salter). It was used to ensure the bullet was started right, aligned with the bore. A False Muzzle was usually part of a target gun’s standard accessoried.

One of the great Whitworth mysteries remaining is: why did the Union never buy any? Both armies bought plenty of Enfields from Britain. But if the Union bought even a single Whitworth, no trace of the transaction has been found.


We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out Fred Ray’s book on Confederate States sharpshooters. You can probably find it at your favorite online bookstore, but the promotional website has more information…

…and you can buy it there. (We did, hard and soft cover editions).  There seems to be more useful information on the website in terms of an errata page, and more of Fred’s articles, that extend his work, and are free to read for those of who who can’t explain to Mama $30 on another book. (“What’s wrong with reading the books you already have?” <– one downside to making an important choice based on pulchritude alone, in the bloom of youth).

Update II

We let this go live without images, in the interests of speed, but Holy-Wall-o-Text, Batman, so we’ve added some illustrations to ease the barrage on your eyes. Apologies to early readers.

16 thoughts on “More on Whitworth and his Rifle

  1. JAFO

    “one downside to making an important choice based on pulchritude alone, in the bloom of youth”

    Been there and done that, no T-shirt. Young men can be relied on to think with the wrong head, and older men are not immune.

    Whitworth fasteners persisted into the 1970s. Whitworth wrenches are sized according to the bolt diameter, not the head size, and are not interchangeable with SAE wrenches. An old friend had a vintage MG, and carried a set.

    More on Brit fasteners.

    1. LSWCHP

      Another hand up here for youthful pulchritude regrets. If only I’d been able to see into the future…

  2. Sixgunner

    Your mention of the false muzzle, without the accompanying (since added) pictures, brought to mind “The Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle” by Ned Roberts. Since you ran down the origins of “sharpshooter”, I’m curious as to the origin of “string” in conjunction with a series of shots. Roberts talks about measuring groups with a string (although how they did it slips my mind) so now my curiosity is piqued. Would that practice have given rise to the term “shot string” or “string of shots”?

    Another question as to the Whitworth rifle. They were used with cylindrical projectiles,not just the hexagonal ones which were actually machine made, I believe. Did they patch the cylindrical ones, or how were they loaded? It would appear to me that a cylinder in that type of bore would allow a great deal of gas to bypass the projectile, unless they used a wad underneath the projectile to seal the bore and some kind of patch to engage the “rifling” and induce the cylinder to spin.

    1. Fred Ray

      The WW hex bullets were swaged rather than machined, and were made from a hard alloy. The cylindrical ones were cast from soft lead, and every WW came with a mould for them so you could cast your own. When fired the soft lead would “upset” and fill the bore, sealing it. These are the ones you find on the CW battlefields. Most WW rifles had a dual sighting system — one side of the sight ladder was marked “H” for hex bullets and the other “C” for cylindrical ones, as they had slightly different flight characteristics.

      Friend of mine has a hex-bore WW and says it’s kind of strange to load a cylindrical bullet and then see a hex-shaped hole in the target.

      1. Sixgunner

        Thank you, sir. I’d forgotten the power of powder to “bump up” a soft lead projectile. That period of time was fascinating in the firearms world. They tried all kinds of things, including belted balls. THAT would be a real problem to deal with, trying to reload under pressure and not quite getting the belt to fit into the corresponding rifling groove in the barrel. Now I’m REALLY curious as to how or if they lubed the cast slugs or not for the Whitworth. Soft lead, powder fouling, unlubed – that seems like a recipe for inaccuracy and leading. But on the other hand, would lubing them keep them from bumping up properly?

        1. Fred Ray

          They were not lubed but some were paper patched, some were not. Soft lead is somewhat self-lubricating and will upset with no help. Here’s a post I did some time ago that shows a cutaway of a WW cartridge. You’ll see that it has a tab at the bottom. Just put it over the muzzle, pull the tab and use the ramrod to push everything down the bore. There is a small wad but it’s mainly there to keep everything in place. The modern ones do have some lube on the wad, don’t know about the old ones.

          BTW black powder lube is to keep the fouling soft, not lube the bore in the modern sense.

    2. Sommerbiwak

      I always thought that “string of shots” was the same as a “line” “row” “series” etc. and for whatever reason people agreed on “string”. I can be wrong of course. Not a linguist.

      1. Sixgunner

        I’d never thought about it much until I read Robert’s book on the Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle. Then his description of using a string to measure the shots on a target started working at my imagination and has made me curious, unfortunately I’ve few reference works to work with down here. It’s been a few years, need to read the book again. They were getting some amazing groupings, especially considering the use of iron sights and muzzle loading each shot. There are a LOT of folks today who can’t shoot that well with a scoped rifle, much less iron sights and fixed ammunition. What they could do with the “primitive” rifles of the time is impressive indeed. Now to look up and see if Roberts wrote anything about the Whitworth. It’s been too long since I read it for me to recall.

  3. staghounds

    You may mean caliPer, not caliBer.

    String- put a peg in each bullet hole and run a string around them. A very rough measure of group circumference.

    Whitworth was more right about twist, bore and bullet weight than about rifling. Most of the .451 muzzle loaders are not much less accurate than a hex bore Whitworth. Most of the military black powder cartridges were around 45-80-500.

  4. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    Whitworth was a fascinating man, and basically “father of the machine tool industry” in the UK.

    He not only developed scraping for flat surfaces, he also derived how you could scrape three surfaces, using each in turn as a reference for the other two, and end up with a truly flat surface. Think about how you’re going to scrape a surface ‘flat’ the first time? Right now, on machine tools, when you want to “scrape in” a machine like a lathe, mill, etc, you use a reference edge (called “camelbacks” sometimes because of their humped backs to stiffen them) and you scrape to those references.

    But when you’re starting down this road and you don’t have anything that’s truly flat? Well now, that’s going to take some work.

  5. Fred Ray

    BTW if you’re interested check out my article on the death of General Sedgwick at Spotsylvania. Among other things I do a whodunnit about possible shooters.

    When we’re talking about WWs keep in mind that several people made licensed copies of WW’s rifling. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see a beautiful Thomas Turner with WW rifling.

    And…a very cool WW double rifle!

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