In all these attempts to advance the art of ordnance, it was the state of art of barrel stock that was inadequate, and advances in the subject of metallurgy passed from the mechanic and gun maker to that of the iron and steel maker.

 Rivalry is considered the greatest stimulant to the advancement of successful design and technological advances.  This was evident in the efforts of Sir Joseph Whitworth versus those of Sir William Armstrong.                        

 What collector or arms student has not heard of Sir Joseph Whitworth?  And what do they really know about him?  Perhaps only that he was associated with bolts and nuts and an hexagonal bore rifle.

Born at Stockport (near Manchester) in 1803 on 21 December, Whitworth was educated at a school run by his father.  At age 14 he undertook employment with his uncle, a cotton spinner in Derbyshire, where, in the ensuing four years, he learnt to run and repair the machinery associated with the trade.  Subsequently, he served in the engineering establishments of such able masters as Maudslay, Clement and Holtzappfel, where he gained practical knowledge of machinery.

The year 1833 saw his commencing his own business in Manchester, manufacturing engineering tools and devoting his energies to the goal of greater accuracy in measuring with precision and the achievement of true plane surfaces.  His measuring precision was down to one ten thousandth part of an inch, taken at a temperature of 62 Fahrenheit as a standard.  He wrote papers on mechanical subjects, and a new era was born in the history of mechanical science, with degrees of accuracy becoming possible in engineering practice that had hitherto been considered unobtainable.

Whitworth saw that there was an urgent need to establish a uniform system of screw threads and this engaged his attention.  At that time, almost every engineer espoused an idiosyncratic thread form and pitch, thus preventing the product of one establishment from being used in or repairing the product of another.  While producing a uniform system of pitches and adopting the most suitable threadform for his system, many of the sizes Whitworth used were adopted directly from existing practice.  In recognition of this important work of standardisation, his name was adopted for the system.  Most people recognise the Whitworth name as being associated with the thread system that is now being superseded by the metric system (which is based on divisions of a metre and a 60 thread angle).  The Whitworth system uses divisions of an inch and a 55 thread angle.

During the course of 1853 Whitworth visited the USA.  While there he inspected Springfield Armory, amongst other establishments, and reported on the use of machinery in the manufacture of firearms.   An approach was made by Lord Hardinge, Master General of Ordnance, in 1854, for Whitworth to investigate the manufacture of the Enfield Rifle and its performance, which had not reached the expectations of the Board of Ordnance.

Another request by Lord Hardinge, to supply a set of machines to manufacture the Enfield rifle, though lucrative, was deferred until he had established the real cause of the unsatisfactory performance of the rifle.  This, he was convinced, lay in the method of manufacture of the barrel.

The Lords of the Treasury agreed, in May 1854, to build a shooting range in Manchester 500 yards long, 16 feet wide and 20 feet high, a mobile target, shooting rest and screens, to identify the flight of the projectiles.  Two military officers were detailed to assist the experiments, and an association was formed with Mr. Westley Richards for his gun making experience.

The making of the barrel was considered of the utmost importance, and we quote from the text of J.E.Tennet:

“For this purpose it occurred to him to construct a rifled barrel, cast in longitudinal segments, in each of which, the line of junction was to follow the course of the spiral. These, when placed together, so as to form a barrel of a spiral polygonal shape internally, were to be secured externally by hoops of wrought iron or steel, applied in one or more layers. From this design a barrel about 13 inches long, made to musket size as to bore, was found to shoot with such accuracy, as to excel all others tried in competition with it. This idea was developed in barrels of all sizes up to the heaviest guns.”

Having settled on a six-sided, double triangle form as having the most strength, the application to patent Hexagonal Rifling was lodged in the same year, 1854.

The Board of Ordnance had fixed the weight of the rifled musket, the weight of its charge and projectile relevant to the load limit for a soldier to carry as well as the amount of recoil to be sustained.  Improvement in performance was constricted by these parameters. For an increase of range and penetration, indications were favouring a decrease in the diameter of the projectile.

 As Whitworth experimented with rates of twist, it was to no avail that the centre of gravity was positioned towards the front portion of the projectile when tied to the existing rate of twist.  An inadequate rate of rotation produced by the twist of one turn in 78 inches was dispensed with in favour of a rate of one turn in 20 inches, after experiments ranging from 78 to 5 inches.

 Meanwhile, the Board, requiring such a quantity of rifles as could only be provided by the Birmingham trade over a period of 20 years, had proceeded to obtain American made machinery for stock making from the Ames company, steel working machines from several sources, including those purchased from Robbins & Lawrence in 1851, to equip the new factory at Enfield Lock. Subsequently further machines were sourced from Greenwood & Batley of Leeds.                                       

 Into this scene came James Henry Burton, formerly of Harpers Ferry Armory, and consultant to the Ames Stockmaking company.  Burton was engaged to install and oversee the operation of the new facility.  He moved with his family to Enfield in England in 1855.

Returning now to the results of Whitworth’s experiments, he found that by using a round conical projectile in his hexagonal bore, a much improved result occurred when the bore was reduced to .450.  This was even further improved by the introduction of an hexagonal projectile, which was a mechanical fit in the bore. It did not need to be upset to fill the bore, thus obviating any loss from gas escape by an imperfect upset of a circular projectile.

This hexagonal design was incapable of stripping the rifling due to its mechanical fit.  By using a composition of 10% tin and 90% lead in the projectile, this optimum alloy of metal was used over a charge of 2.5 drachms of black powder to give 15% greater penetration at the target.  Thus a bore of .451, a charge of 70 grains of black powder, and a projectile of 530 grains weight became the optimum specifications to fit the Board’s criteria. There remained only to fit a lubricating wad (wax & tallow) between the powder and projectile to soften the fouling so that it could be blown out at the next discharge.  All of this was made available in the existing kind of paper cartridge, encased in a tear off cover with a tape tag.   This tear-off idea is still in use by tobacco manufacturers in their cigarette packs.

Once again we will quote from J.E. Tennett:

 “The Whitworth Rifle was first formally tried in competition with the best Enfield muskets at Hythe in April 1857 in the presence of the Minister of War, and a large assemblage of the most experienced officers, including amongst others the  Superintendent of the Enfield factory, and General Hay, the chief of the School of Musketry for the Army.  The success was surprising; in range and best figure of merit obtained by any rifle at home or abroad, was 27; that is to say the best shooting had given an average of shots within a circle of twenty seven inches radius at 500 yards distance; but the Whitworth lodged an average of shots within a mean radius of four inches and a half from the same distance; thus obtaining a figure of merit of 4.5.  At 800 yards its superiority was as 1 to 4, a proportion that it maintained at 1,000 yards and upwards.  At 1,400 yards the Enfield shot so wildly that records ceased to be kept; and at 1,800 yards the trials with it ceased altogether, whilst the Whitworth continued to exhibit its accuracy as before.

“The chief of the Government School of Musketry at Hythe, General Hay, than whom from his official responsibilities no authority could be more impartial, when called on in 1860, by the President of the Institute of Civil Engineers, to state his opinion of the merits of the Whitworth rifle, placed on record his judgment, in the following words, extracted from the printed proceedings:

‘As to the merits of the Enfield and Whitworth rifles, that is a matter upon which any man who has carefully considered the subject is competent to come to a conclusion.  The small bore would of course, in accurate shooting, beat the large bore.  There is a peculiarity about the Whitworth small bore rifles, which no other similar arms have yet exhibited; they not only give greater accuracy of firing but triple power of penetration.  For special purposes any description of bullet can be used in them from lead to steel.  The Whitworth rifle, with a bullet composed of one tenth of tin, penetrated through 35 planks whereas the Enfield rifle (with which a soft bullet is necessary) only penetrated 12 planks.’”

Due to the greater efficiency of the action of the Whitworth rifle concern was felt as to the wear entailed on the metals currently in use in small arms.  Also the longer paper cartridge would not stand up to service conditions.  Therefore only limited issue to marksmen was recommended.

Into the scene now intrudes the self-contained metallic cartridge which put paid to the value of the ever hopeful but ever leaky capping breech loaders.  With the quantity of pattern 1853 Enfield rifled muskets on hand, the most pressing need was for an economical way to convert them to breech loading.  This new trend overshadowed Whitworth’s muzzle loading rifle concept. The lessons learned concerning a smaller bore were not forgotten, however, and were applied to the next new breech loading rifle adopted, the Martini Henry Rifle in 450 calibre.

Mr Whitworth was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and the degree of L.L.D. was conferred upon him by the Senate of Trinity College Dublin.  Not to be outdone, a degree of D.L.C. was conferred on him by the University of Oxford.

The Exposition Universelle of Paris in 1867 saw a fine collection of Whitworth’s engineering tools, rifled ordnance and projectiles being allotted a Grand Prix. The French Emperor, on witnessing a trial of one of his field guns at Chalons, conferred on him the Legion of Honour.  On the founding of the Whitworth Scholarships in 1869, he was created a baronet for his assistance and encouragement to young students of mechanical and engineering science.

Sir Joseph Whitworth stands high among the great engineers and inventors of the 19th century through his vigour, perseverance, and skill.  Many of his principles and practices remain unchallenged in the 21st century.  Sir Joseph Whitworth died in January 1887 at the age of 83, sorely missed.

 It is now pertinent to examine the life and activities of Sir William George Armstrong.  Born on the 26th of November 1810 in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne and educated at a school in Bishop Auckland (near Durham, Shropshire), he grew up to choose the profession of solicitor, joining the firm of Donkin, Stable and Armstrong, from the years 1833 till 1847.

Having a side interest in engineering, Armstrong was involved in the design and building of a rotary water motor in 1839, and he published several papers during 1842 on the subject of` “The Electricity of Effluent Steam”, this being a discourse on static electricity. This resulted in his being elected to the Royal Society of Engineers. The Elswick Engineering Works was established in 1847 in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, with a share capital of 22,500, to build hydraulic cranes. By 1850 the company was building, besides cranes, hoists, turntables, capstans and dock gates. Attention soon turned to gun making and the building of cannon barrels.

Reports from the battle of Inkerman in the Crimean war of 1854-1856 highlighted inadequacies of the artillery in use.  Only the range and accuracy of two eighteen pounder naval guns brought ashore from the squadron at anchor were able to silence Russian counter fire with greater numbers of guns with superior range. Perhaps the charge of the Light Brigade could have been avoided.  All of which made the point that field artillery needed much greater range and accuracy within their weight limitations

The Elswick Ordnance Works was established in 1859 with William Armstrong as supervisor (and in this company he had no financial interest) to develop the methods of producing superior cannon barrels.  The first gun built on the design of a reinforced breech was loaded with an elongated projectile of lead instead of a round ball and other types. This was an experimental three pounder, which being regarded as inadequate, was bored up to a five pounder. As a result of the experience gained, the War Department requested another to be made as an eighteen pounder.  This exceeded the expectations of the Royal Artillery Committee. A further twelve pounder and two eighteen pounders were then produced for field trials.

Field carriages were also to receive Armstrong’s attention, which resulted in the provision of an improved elevating screw as well as a horizontal screw which allowed a fine adjustment to the lay of the barrel. Complementing these improvements, a recoil slide was fitted on an inclined plane to absorb recoil. After the discharge the slide returned by the force of gravity to its original position.

The Armstrong 32 pounder, using 5 pounds of black gunpowder, would throw a projectile five miles with a mean lateral deviation of 28 inches compared with 325 inches for a service gun.  In simple terms the Armstrong gun could hit a 30 inch target at 1,000 yards, while a service gun could only occasionally hit a hay stack. The rifling of the barrels was multi-grooved and in a spiral form (like Sako micro grooves) going from 8 grooves in a 3 pounder to 38 in a 9 pounder and 78 in a 100 pounder of 7 inch bore.        

 The main departures from standard practice of barrel making were firstly to produce an inner tube of steel with longitudinal strength.  Onto this tube were shrunk circular wrought iron bands made up by the forge welding of bars with a fibrous quality twisted like threads in rope and similar to the development of Damascus small bore barrels.  The idea was not originally Armstrong’s, merely an application of an idea claimed by Captain Blakeley, who quoted the ideas of Longridge and Mallet.  Another application of this idea was used by the French for the manufacture of tyres for railway wheels.   

 The second departure was into breech loading, again not an original idea from Armstrong, as the Chinese were known to use it, and every European nation seems to have tried it at some time.  Even cannon on the Mary Rose, of Henry VIII’s time, were breech loading, and over 10 patents had been recorded in England in the previous century.  It was the development and application of the idea to accommodate elongated projectiles that was of importance.  However, a projectile of lead was found to be impractical, as it was likely to suffer distortion in storage and handling.  Thus a compromise was reached by using a bullet of iron coated in lead.


Advantages for the system included:

1.        avoidance of accident from improper loading procedure
        speed of reloading especially in cramped naval conditions; 
        ease of concealment in field situations; 
        reduced exposure to enemy sharp shooters for the gun team; 
        increased ability to clean and service the piece.
        facility for inspection of the bore.


Mr. Westley Richards was to state,  “The good qualities of muzzle loading guns are also contained in breech loading guns.  Though the system was not perfect in its construction, the advance was such that it confers a great advantage to our forces.”


The design of the Armstrong breech loading system was unique in that it consisted of a powerful hollow screw as a back up to a vertical sliding vent piece with a mitred face to match a mitre at the rear of the barrel.  This screw, being hollow, allowed the projectile and its wad to pass into the breech ahead of the charge. The vent piece containing the touchhole was intended to be replaceable, as wear in the touchhole of solid cannon needed to be plugged and rebored regularly.  Two vent pieces were supplied with each cannon.        The main engineering objection to the system (as stated by Captain Blakeley) was  “ . . . as the vent piece is primarily a valve, the  principle of valves is that pressure should render it tighter, whereas in the Armstrong system it forces it looser with resultant escape of some gas.  The hollow screw does not support the centre of the vent piece and may swell and seize in the slot rendering the gun unserviceable.”

 With the application of elongated shot, it was desired to retain the properties of Shrapnel and canister effects.  This was accomplished with a design of segmented shell, which was composed of 42 segment shaped pieces of cast iron, arranged about a cylindrical cavity, the centre of which contained the bursting charge and fuse.  The exterior was coated in lead by placing the shell assembly in a mould and pouring in molten lead, which percolated among the segments. The central cavity was maintained by a removable steel core.  It had great strength in a forward impact while having little resistance to a bursting charge.  This charge was inserted from the nose and was confined by the time fuse screwed into the apex.  On a closed test of this design of shell, 106 pieces of cast iron, 99 pieces of lead, and 12 pieces of fuse were recovered.

In 1863 the Elswick Ordnance Works was merged with the Elswick Engineering Works and William Armstrong resigned his position.  The War Office became disenchanted with breech loading, as wear on the breech seal caused escaping gas, and this happened all too rapidly on campaigns where field replacement was not a viable option.  So a reversion was made to the muzzle loading system. By 1880, developments in improved breech sealing on the Continent and the advances of the Elswick Works forced the War Office to re-examine their decision.  This was in light of the service of the Elswick product as supplied to the Colonies and the use of steel wire as reinforcing for the breech.

William Armstrong was raised to the peerage and became a lord in 1887.  In the years from 1873 to 1897 he wrote books and professional papers. 

The Elswick company was restructured in 1897 as Sir W.G. Armstrong–Mitchell & Co. at this time with a capital of 2,000,000 and continued the manufacture of warships while the Mitchell yard concentrated on mercantile construction and some cruisers as needed.  The year 1897 saw the purchase of the Whitworth Works at Manchester to make armour plate, capital now exceeding 4,000,000.  This year also saw the erection of a new naval slipway at the Walker Yards for the building of larger war ships.

Sir William Armstrong passed away at the turn of the millennium in 1900. After WWI, all armaments factories experienced a slump and in 1927 the Elswick and Openshaw works were sold to a newly established company, Vickers Armstrong Ltd., while the Sir W. G. Armstrong–Whitworth Ltd. became Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co. with a capital of 180,000.  By 1929 the title had changed again to Armstrong–Whitworth Securities Co.  Finally in 1937 the Admiralty secured the Scottish Works and the company went into liquidation.