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Ferguson Rifle History

The 1st breech loading rifle in history, mass produced.

The Ferguson was the first breech loading rifle to be adopted officially by the British Army, and, but for the death of its inventor, might have replaced Brown Bess.

Brown BessBrown Bess Long Land Service Musket


    The most successful 18th century breech-loader was the Ferguson rifle. This was the invention of a remarkable British officer, Major Patrick Ferguson, born in 1744. Ferguson was one of the able and highly dedicated military officers who did much to expand the British colonial empire around the world. At the age of 14 he was serving with a Scotch regiment in Germany as a bugler. He returned to England in 1762 due to ill heath but six years later he was off on another campaign to the British West Indies with the 70th Infantry Regiment. In 1774 he was again invalided home to England. A skilled marksman and with extensive military service, he was keenly aware of the needs of the soldier in the field. As a member of the Scotch aristocracy he had funds for experiments and contacts which allowed him access to the highest levels of the British Government. Ferguson was aware of the many difficulties in the previous breech loading experiments and felt that a system invented by a Frenchman, LaChaumette, offered the best promise of success. LaChaumette had invented his breech-loader in 1704 and had had limited success in having his gun issued to French Dragoons and naval units. He fled to England in 1721 to escape religious persecution in France. LaChaumette obtained British patents on his gun and made up at least one for King George I during the 1720’s.
    Fifty years later Patrick Ferguson seriously studied this early mechanism and made substantial improvements which led to the creation of the most advanced 18th century military rifle. Ferguson modified the design of the breech block so that when the breech was closed, it formed a flat breech face at the rear of the barrel, minimizing the build up of fouling. He also modified the design of the screw threads and provided recesses at critical places around the breech plug where fouling could accumulate rather than remaining on the threads and making the action very difficult to operate.
     The Ferguson rifle is shown in a 19th century illustration. The barrel had an enlarged section at the breech with a large vertical hole, which intersected the axis of the barrel. A multi-lead thread was cut into this vertical hole and a close fitting breech block was machined with a matching thread. The breech block was rigidly attached to the forward section of the trigger guard and an operating handle was riveted to the trigger guard extension. The design had many advantages. The fast pitch thread dropped the breech block to a fully open position with one turn. The long tang on the trigger guard gave excellent leverage to overcome the friction due to powder build up in the mechanism. The close fitting thread gave excellent gas sealing in comparison with the other crude systems of the 18th century.
    The loading procedure was quite simple. The soldier spun the trigger guard lever one complete turn, dropping the breech block to its lowest position. He pointed the muzzle of the rifle downward and dropped a naked lead ball in the breech. The ball rolled forward in the chamber until stopped by the rifling. A measured loose powder charge was poured in the breech and the trigger guard lever rotated one turn in a counterclockwise direction to close and seal the breech. A small amount of powder was poured in the pan and the frizzen snapped shut. The final operation was to cock the hammer, and the rifle was ready to fire. This was a far simpler loading procedure than for a standard musket, since no handling of the ramrod or ramming the charge the full length of the barrel was required.
    The British military authorities were highly skeptical of the “newfangled invention”, but the gifted Patrick Ferguson gave a breathtakingly successful demonstration in the rain that swept away all official doubts. On April 27, 1776, he set up a target in the marshes near Woolwich Arsenal at the very respectable range of 200 yards. In addition to the hard rain there was a high wind, a combination which made the standard military musket almost useless. Ferguson started continuous firing at the rate of four shots per minute.... an unheard of rate for a military rifle. He performed a second demonstration at six shots per minute and then performed a “walking fire” demonstration, firing at a steady rate of four shots per minute while marching toward the target. His rifle was carefully made kind fitted with sights. Ferguson was an excellent Marksman and missed the target only three times during the entire demonstration.
    British officialdom was very impressed and ordered production of 100 rifles of Ferguson’s design and asked the inventor to personally supervise production.  They were finished in September 1776.  During the following winter a special regiment of 100 riflemen (Light Company) was raised and in March 1777 they sailed for America to fight in the Revolution.  In a minor engagement with the American forces at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania,  Ferguson and his green uniformed Light Company led a diversionary attack at Brandywine Creek on 11th September 1777.   There, unfortunately, the first engagement of the Ferguson Rifle turned out to be its last, though not from any defect in the weapon. Captain Ferguson was struck in the right arm and seriously wounded.  Without his strong leadership, the Light Company (having lost 40, killed and wounded) was split up after the battle and the men dispersed to their former regiments. The rifle company was disbanded and the men returned to their original units.  Their rifles were removed and subsequently vanished; very few have ever been seen since. Although other Ferguson breech loading rifles were made for the East India Company and for private purchasers, very few survived to the present day.
    The incredible will and tenacity of Ferguson continued to show itself.  His right arm never fully recovered from the wound, but he taught himself to write and to shoot left handed and rose in the British service until by 1780 he was Inspector General of Militia in Georgia and the Carolinas.  His career ended at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780 when the British became heavily engaged with skilled American backwoods troops armed with flintlock rifles.  General Ferguson, on horseback, was too conspicuous a target to survive and was picked off by American sharpshooters.

Ferguson Rifle Specs
Bore: .607 cal., groves, 21/32"
Grove to Grove:  .645
Number of Lands: 
Twist of Rifling:  Right 1/56"
Depth of Rifling:  .038
Width of Lands:  1/8" 
Width of Grooves:  1/8" 
Depth of Grooves:  1/32" full 
Length (w/o bayonet):49-7/8" 
Length (w/bayonet): 75 1/4 " 
Bayonet Lug:  Bottom center 
Bayonet Blade:  24 -11/16" 
Bayonet Socket:  4 -1/4" 
Length of Lockplate:5-1/4"
Weight: 7 lbs. 3 ozs.
Barrel Length: 34 -1/16" 
Foresight: V-Notch 
Action:  Screw breech
Feed System: None 
Muzzle Velocity (Est.)228m/sec (750ft/sec) 
Bullet Weight: 29.11g(450gr) 
Stock: Walnut 
Length of Stock:  44 5/8 " 
Stock Width: 1-13/16" at breech 
Width at Breech:  1 -11/32" 
Width at Muzzle:  13/16"

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Screw Breech Action
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