Carbines of the Force 1873 to 1920

RCMP October, 1961

Carbines of the Force 1873 to 1920 p.69-74

By Cpl. S. J. Kirby

To ascertain anything of the Snider carbine issued to the NWMP in 1873, one must delve into the history of shoulder arms of the British army. In 1852 the first official army rifle to bear the name Enfield, came into use. Manufactured at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock in Middlesex, England, it was a nine pound muzzle loading rifle of .577 calibre with three lands and grooves making one complete turn in six feet six inches.

While it is a fairly easy matter to load and seat a ball on the charge in a smooth bore weapon, the rifled firearm presents a different problem because the ball or bullet must fit tightly into the rifling; and, it requires a lot of force to do this when the weapon becomes fouled. To facilitate loading some people used mallets but this was not too practical for the military. Thus the “Pritchett” bullet, with its smaller outside diameter of .568 inches, came into existence.

This was a hollow base bullet which, when fired, its base expanded to fill the lands and grooves. Later used was a .55 inch diameter bullet with a hollow base, into which was fitted a wooden plug. On firing, the wooden plug was driven forward causing the bullet to expand and fill the rifling. This bullet was similar in principal to the famous “Minieball” used in the U.S. Civil War.

In the year 1864 the British Government appointed a committee to consider whether or not a breech-loading rifle should be adopted for use by the armed forces. The committee recommended that a breech-loader be immediately adopted but in order to have time to study the designs and problems of this new type of firearm there should be an interim period in which the existing stocks of Enfield rifles should be converted to breech-loaders. To implement this recommendation, the Government solicited ideas from gunsmiths and inventors.

As expected, there was a certain amount of opposition to the introduction of breech-loaders into the armed forces. Military men feared that the ease of loading would cause troops to waste ammunition by firing too rapidly and without taking proper aim. Even today, some military minds frown on the use of automatic rifles, feeling that they cause a waste of ammunition and create too big a problem in logistics. However, in the 1860s, the opposition was insufficient to stop the testing at Woolwich Arsenal, where some 50 different breech-loading systems were being tried out.

As a result of these tests, the system recommended was one submitted by Jacob Snider, an American, and his breech-loading mechanism was officially adopted by the British Government in 1867.

The breech action of this rifle belongs to the laterally-swinging block class, and was especially advantageous when fitted to the existing stocks of Enfield muzzle-loaders as it did not weaken the stock by cutting away too much wood. This system contained a block hinged on the right side which was opened by lifting up, thus allowing the cartridge to be loaded into the chamber. In order to extract the cartridge, the block was raised and drawn to the rear, compressing a spring which returned it to the closing position. Ejection was made by turning the weapon upside down.

In later models of the Snider, the block was held in the closed position by a

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spring catch on the left side. A firing-pin passed diagonally through this block with one end resting against the primer and the other exposed to the hammer. The lock mechanism, hammer and trigger and springs, were those used in the original percussion cap muzzle-loading Enfield rifle. A feature found in the British army Snider, and missing in most of its imitations, was an iron shoe which backed the breech-block and gave protection to the shooter in case of a blow-back from a faulty cartridge.

It is of interest to note that a large sum of money was paid to Mr. Snider for his patent by the British Government which, at that time, had a similar action on a flint-lock rifle among its collection in the Tower of London, dating from the 17th century.

It is of interest to note that a large sum of money was paid to Mr. Snider for his patent by the British Government which, at that time, had a similar action on a flint-lock rifle among its collection in the Tower of London, dating from the 17th century.

During the trials of the breech-loaders, consideration was also given to the type of cartridge to be used with the new rifle. Fixed ammunition, then in existence, had various types of paper or linen cases which were unsatisfactory, due to the lack of obturation at the breech. The hot gases often split the case and blew back into the shooter’s face.

In 1866, the British Government adopted the first fixed ammunition of the centre-fire type. This cartridge was developed by Colonel Boxer, who, at the time, was Superintendent of the Royal Laboratories, and the primer still bears his name.

The case or body of the cartridge was made of thin brass sheeting glued to brown paper and rolled into a cylinder. To the head was riveted an iron washer which acted as a rim. The bullets in the first cartridges had both a hollow nose and base. The base was filled with a clay plug which acted in the manner of the wooden plug previously described. This hollow nose was designed to give the projectile a greater length for the same weight, rather than for a wounding effect. The longer bullets had more surface area to engage in the rifling, and stripping was minimized, an important factor with the soft lead bullets used in those days.

The official name given to the new army rifle was the “Snider-Enfield.” During the time that the Enfield rifles were being converted to breech-loaders, the Enfield carbines of the cavalry and the Whitworth carbines of the artillery

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were also handed in for conversion. The converted Enfield carbines were the ones forwarded from England in the Fall of 1873 and issued early the following year to the NWMP.

The next carbine issued to the Force was the Winchester Model 1876. Fifty of these were purchased on a trial basis in 1878. A second lot of 50 was received in the year 1880, and by December both “A” and “F” Divisions were armed with these new repeating rifles. These divisions, with a total strength of 102, officers and men, patrolled the country in which the Sioux, newly arrived from the States and the Custer massacre, were living.

Certain defects, noted in the early Model 1876, were brought to the attention of the manufacturer. Chief among these was the securing of the rear sight by the use of two screws. This provided a means of differentiating the NWMP carbine from the normal commercial 1876 mode. While this carbine was not entirely taken out of service until shortly before World War I, it was never completely satisfactory. It was the last of the toggle-link actions manufactured by the Winchester Company on the Volcanic and Henry patents. Complaints were frequent and dealt mostly with the accuracy and ease with which the barrels became pitted. The strength of the weapon, at the small of the stock, was another recognized weakness. While there is no doubt that the weakness of certain of the component parts was an inherent feature of the Model 1876, the accuracy of the weapon provided cause for debate. In his report to the Commissioner in December 1888, Supt. A. Bowen Perry stated: “. . . . The men took a great interest in the shooting and a number of them carried off valuable prizes at the annual meeting of the Rifle Association of this place.” (Prince Albert)

During the same year, Supt. R. Burton Deane mentioned in his report that good shooting was done with the Winchester carbine. In describing the marksmanship, he spoke of methods then used by members of the Force to supplement their diets, methods which today would be frowned upon by various Provincial Game departments. Superintendent Deane stated: “ . . . . . Target practice is now going on and will continue as long as the

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weather permits. The men have just returned from outpost duty and have had a good deal of practice during the Summer and many of them are excellent shots. A man who can kill a prairie chicken or a goose with a bullet at an unknown range does not require to expend much ammunition at a target.”

From what was gleaned out of various reports, it appears that the Winchester, if kept in fair condition, would render good service. However, both the front and rear sights were exposed to knocks and blows. The Commissioner’s annual reports to Ottawa continually mentioned bent front and loose rear sights, defects easily corrected by an armourer. However, great distances precluded frequent contact with Headquarters and access to the armourer’s shop.

Badly pitted barrels were another source of complaint; this however could not be blamed completely on the weapons or on poor cleaning, as black powder and corrosive primers were used. It was not until 1886, Commissioner Herchmer mentioned in his annual report, that the Force was now completely armed with Winchester carbines.

Although withdrawn from service, the Snider was not completely dispensed with by the Force. Some, retained in the Q.M. stores at various divisional points, were issued in cases of emergencies to special constables, Indian scouts and others.

While the NWMP were using the Winchester repeating carbines the Canadian and British armies, together with other major armies, were using single shot weapons.

In 1871 the British army adopted a new single shot rifle, the Martini-Henry which was also taken into service by Canada. This weapon was of the falling-block type and of .45 calibre. Not until December 1888 did the repeating rifle come into use by the British. Called “magazine rifle March I,” it was the forerunner of the now famous Lee-Enfield. This weapon soon came to the attention of the Force, and in December 1889 the

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Commissioner requested in his annual report to Ottawa that: “ . . . . . a limited number, say 20, of the new British cavalry carbine be procured, with a sufficient supply of ammunition, and if after a careful trial they are found suitable, 200 be obtained and later on the whole Force could be rearmed as required.”

In view of the communications that existed in the 1880s, plus the lack of technical books and magazines, it was easy to imagine the difficulty experienced in keeping abreast of arms’ development. The fact that the Force was so informed indicated its anxiety to procure newer and better arms.

Although the new rifle was adopted by the British army, it was not until September 1894 that a carbine form was manufactured. It was called “Lee-Metford Magazine Carbine, Mark I.” in 1895 the first issue of 200 was made to the NWMP. Later on, the “Lee-Enfield Carbines Mark I and Mark I Star” were brought into service. The major difference between the Metford and Enfield carbines was in the system of rifling, the former having seven lands and grooves, and the latter only five, which were .001 inches deeper. The Metford also had a ring attached to the left side of the butt socket and a holding bar inletted into the right side of the stock, one and a half to two inches from the butt.

A number of the Ross rifles were purchased in the early 1900s for distribution to the Force, but were never issued. On being tested at “Depot” Division, the bolt of one whipped back, causing a man to lose the sight of an eye. The rifles remained in the Q.M. stores and were later destroyed by a fire which swept through the building.

The last Winchester was withdrawn from service in 1912, and in 1920 the Lee-Enfields were taken into stores and shoulder-arms never again became a general issue.

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