RIFLE. The history of the rifle is a combination of technology, ideology, and the changing nature of war and military tactics. The first rifle barrels appeared during the sixteenth century. A spiraled groove allowed the bullet more accuracy and to travel farther than a bullet fired from a smooth barrel, as was characteristic of the musket. Until 1776 and the development of the Ferguson rifle, the first successful breech-loader, the rifle was loaded from the muzzle end, ramming the powder wadding and bullet down the barrel. Scottish soldier Patrick Ferguson's weapon changed the process of loading.
The eighteenth century gave rise to other significant changes. Through use of the rifle, control of battlefields was transferred from generals to smaller units, which could react on their own initiative. By the 1740s, the Germanic states enlisted game hunters who used rifles that later developed into the famous long rifle. These were accurate to 200 yards, far beyond the traditional musket,
which had to be fired from tight and coordinated military formations. In the rebel colonies of North America, German gunsmiths modified the long rifle, which they called the "Jaeger," into the accurate "Kentucky" or "Pennsylvania" rifle. Combined with the individualistic ethos in American culture, this weapon contributed to the legend of the minutemen—citizen sharpshooters who could answer the call for military assistance in a minute. Their contribution to the American Revolution is still being argued by historians. The musket was the basic weapon for the U.S. army until the War of 1812; the rifle was the weapon of special companies. Rifle ammunition was inadequate until Captain Claude-tienne Minié invented the "Minié ball" in 1849. It was a bullet of modern conical form, with a hollow base and an iron cup in the base for use in muzzle-loading rifles. The first official military weapon was the U.S. Model 1803, manufactured at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Warfare changed in the nineteenth century. Napoleon relied upon the musket as the prime weapon for his light infantry. He thought the volume of firepower supported by artillery would give him a psychological advantage. Learning from their experience in the American Revolution, the British used the rifle with great success. Technology supported the growth of democratic ideology, in which every man served in the military since every man was a part of the state. The rifle was foremost in the development of the democratic citizen-army, because every man could have one. Weapons took control of events and tactics. Firepower became massive and accurate.
Another significant factor in the history of the rifle was the American Civil War. Several types of breech-loading rifles, along with repeating rifles, were used in the conflict. The firepower increased as armies were enlarged to match the emerging doctrine of total war. The Model 1861 Springfield rifle, with a range of a thousand yards, was standard issue for the Union troops, and in the beginning the Confederacy was equally well equipped. Tactical considerations changed slowly, but the rifle proved itself an effective defensive weapon. Urged by a more aggressive doctrine of combat, the Confederacy suffered great losses and ultimately could not survive. Indeed the Rebel cause was lost to the superior impact of the Union rifle. The rifle, therefore, changed the role of artillery and ultimately reduced the cavalry charge to a romantic memory. Accurate rifle fire greatly damaged the traditional reliance on close military formations and allowed a less structured battlefield with initiative resting with smaller units.
Improvements to the rifle continued after the Civil War. The U.S. Rifle, Model 1873 was used in the Indian Wars (1869–1878), then the Krag-Jorgensen replaced it in 1892. Refinements in cartridges, loading systems, and general design created the need for an improved bolt-action. The invention of smokeless powder in the 1880s also gave more power to the bullet's projection. Eventually the U.S. Rifle, Model 1903 became the standard issue. With only slight modifications, the 1903 rifle was the standard until World War II. It was followed by the semi-automatic M1 Garland rifle. Its magazine held eight shots, and the weapon was used until 1957.
After the middle of the twentieth century, increased firepower from the individual rifle was the hallmark. The M14 rifle, with a 7.62-milimeter caliber bullet, replaced the M1. The M14 had a twenty-round magazine with the capacity for fully automatic fire. During the Vietnam War the AR-15 became the basic weapon with a 5.56-mm cartridge. After alleged issues of jamming were solved and other ammunition improvements were made, the weapon became the U.S. Rifle M16 Al in 1967. Despite air power, atomic weapons, and other military developments, an infantry equipped with some type of rifle remained essential to national defense and military posture into the twenty-first century.
Kindig, Joe. Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in Its Golden Age. Wilmington, Del.: G. N. Hyatt, 1960.
Smith, Graham, ed. Military Small Arms. London: Salamander Books, 1994. Impressive photographs.
ri·fle1 / ˈrīfəl/ • n. a gun, esp. one fired from shoulder level, having a long spirally grooved barrel intended to make a bullet spin and thereby have greater accuracy over a long distance. ∎ (rifles) troops armed with rifles. • v. 1. [tr.] [usu. as adj.] (rifled) make spiral grooves in (a gun or its barrel or bore) to make a bullet spin and thereby have greater accuracy over a long distance: a line of replacement rifled barrels. 2. [tr.] hit, throw, or kick (a ball or puck) hard and straight: he rifled a hard, rising shot from just inside the blue line.ri·fle2 • v. [intr.] search through something in a hurried way in order to find or steal something: she rifled through the cassette tapes | [tr.] they rifled the house for money. ∎ [tr.] steal: the lieutenant's servant rifled the dead man's possessions.