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From The Chambers's Journal, 16 April 1859

In ancient times, when the bow was the weapon used by nearly every nation, the strength, as well as the skill of the archer, was a matter of the greatest importance. Kingdoms, we are told, were sometimes allotted to that son who could draw to the full extent the bow of his father.

When we observe, even in the present age of rapid progress, the difficulty that there is to make individuals move in any but old grooves, it is not surprising that there was a great struggle before the first rude firearms were preferred to the bow and arrow as weapons of war. With the latter, men were well acquainted, and were able to use them with great skill; the former were rough in construction, and the bow-men naturally looked upon them with contempt.

It is surprising, until within the last few years, how little alteration or improvement was made in the firearms used by the army. Old systems, and the non-expansive natures of those in authority, naturally retarded progress. Many of us may remember the prejudice which existed against the introduction of the Minié rifle, and the partiality which was shown to Brown Bess. 'It did its work in the Peninsula, and you had better not make any change,' was the remark of many a veteran warrior. Brown Bess is now amongst the things which were, but are not; whilst its successor, the Minié, has also had to haul down its colours to the infallible Enfield Rifle, which may be said to wear at present the champion's belt. How long it will be before the day of the Enfield rifle is past, and 'breech-loaders' usurp its place, is amongst the mysteries of the future.

It is our present business to describe some of the wonders connected with the construction of the Enfield rifle; and we will now ask the reader to accompany us from London to the Enfield factory.

Twelve miles from the Shoreditch station of the Eastern Counties Railway, we reach a dreary-looking station, entitled 'Ordnance Factory.' Quitting the train, and crossing the rails, we at once find ourselves in a muddy lane, on each side of which are flat meadows, separated from each other by four feet wide ditches. Here the tadpoles are sentimentally reposing at the bottom of the water, as though reflecting upon that vicious state of society which requires fifteen hundred rifles to be turned out per week from the smoky buildings in that peaceful locality. A quarter of a mile of muddy lane, three hundred yards of wooden footpath, a quarter of a mile of canal bank, and we cross the bridge which leads to the Ordnance Factory, Enfield.

Producing our credentials, we are at once handed over to a major-domo, who conducts us into a vast room filled with machinery. Through this we pass, and enter a smithy, where we are introduced to the principal, who is instructed to show us all in his department, to pass us on to the next superintendent and so on through the various branches.

'And what do you call the various branches?' we naturally ask.

'There is the Bayonet, the Ramrod, the Lock, the Stock, the Furniture - that is, the brass-fittings, &c - and the Barrel.'

'And how many processes does each pass through?'

'The bayonet, about forty-eight; the ramrod, about thirty; the lock, about two hundred and twenty; the stock, twenty-four; the barrel, sixty-six.'

'Of how many parts is the Enfield rifle composed?'

'Of fifty-six.'

Three or four days at least would be required to examine thoroughly the machines and their results.

The bayonet first arrests attention; and we observe a stout little cylindrical chunk of iron, about four inches in length, which we are told is the first state of the bayonet. This is merely the iron, which is supplied from Sheffield, and which is to be educated into the deadly weapon, for the use of which the English soldier has ever been famous. Heating and hammering are the earliest ordeals to which the bayonet is subjected. Heavy hammers, swung in circles by strong arms, descend with unerring precision on the required spot. One man, with a pair of iron fingers, holds and turns the metal, while the other knocks it about. To a nervous bystander; this process is very trying; for he who holds will certainly receive the blow of the hammer on the centre of his forehead, if he does not move his head just one inch and three-fourths. The hammer approaches; the man bends back only just in time, and only just the required distance. Again he is in danger - again he escapes; and thus he has gone on, blow after blow, day after day, month after month. Talk about confidence in princes, let us see on earth more confidence than this holder places in his hammerer. We are, however, convinced that sooner or later the final catastrophe must come, and the blacksmith will be killed by his partner. It was here that we saw the water-gauge, by which the amount of iron requisite to form a bayonet is accurately tested - a tube containing a given quantity of water; into which the iron is thrust. When the water reaches the top of the gauge, the correct quantity of iron has been inserted. However irregular the iron may be in form, the right amount is sure to be thus obtained.

Our attention is now called to a curious machine behind us. This looks like some nervous infuriated monster mouth, which is armed with a row of grinders. The creature is evidently in a rabid state, for the grinders are being gnashed together with fearful rapidity, while the water runs over them. A smith boldly approaches this, holding in his hand a red-hot bar of iron, which he places between the grinders. Delight at once seizes them, for they move more rapidly than before; and instantly the bar of iron is chawed out a couple of inches longer.

The bar is then inserted in a fresh place, is again lengthened, and so on until we are shown a stick of iron not at all unlike a bayonet. A most formidable individual then measures and inspects, gauges and tests, this piece of iron; length, breadth, weight, and colour are examined. Should the bit be below or above gauge, below or above par, 'mulct so much' is the fate of the last workman. Each man thus has his responsibility, from which there is no escape, and for which there is the simple remedy, 'a fine.'

The finishing-room is entered from the smithy, and is about two hundred feet square. Wheels and men, cranks and levers, leather bands and iron, are moving apparently in the greatest confusion, but yet all is regulated with the accuracy of clock-work.

At one end of the room are a set of offices, in which the foremen carry on their duties. In front of these, and commanded by them, are avenues, down which the raw unfinished work is conveyed. Passing from hand to hand, from machine to machine, the bayonet, ramrod, or lock starts 'in the rough,' and returns complete, tested as it travels between one machine and its neighbour, and again as it arrives at its destination. Improvements are frequently being made in the various machinery, by which expensive hand-labour is saved. By means of a huge iron stamping-hammer; £1500 a year has been saved in the formation of the exterior of the lock. The filing of the trigger-guard by machinery has saved five guineas a week. If this rate of saving be continued, the Enfield rifle may soon be made for a very trifling sum.

The machine called the copying-machine is extensively used at Enfield; this was invented by an Englishman some years ago(*), for the purpose of copying the fine lines of statuary. The Americans were the first who employed it to the purpose of gun-making. It is simply that one instrument moves round an iron model, whilst another moves in exactly a similar manner over the iron or wood which is to be cut. Thus perfect similarity of form is obtained, and a particular part of one lock will fit into the similar part of any other which has been made at this manufactory.

Arrangements are made so that the portion of work which may require the greatest time may be given the greatest number of machines or workmen. Thus each portion is finished at exactly the same time, and is brought to the workman who puts them together.

The execution of the wood-work is even more wonderful than that of the iron, not that the machines are more ingenious, but the results appear more magical, on account of the rapidity with which they are obtained. During the examination of the construction of the lock, we have gradually arrived at the conclusion that the teaching of our early youth as regards the hardness of metals must have been very false.

We were formerly impressed with a belief that iron and brass were hard; this we now find was entirely a delusion. There goes a piece of brass into a machine, down comes a spike and bores a hole through it as calmly as though the brass were butter. There is another bit having bristles shaved off it far more readily than we can shave off our own bristles on a frosty morning. Here are iron, steel, and brass, in the shape of lock plates, triggers, tumblers, bridles, cocks, sight-leafs, and swivels, being stamped and cut, and scraped as though they were bits of cream-cheese. Quite a popular error it must be to consider that iron is hard - apparently nothing can be softer. So lifelike do the machines appear; and so automatically do they do their work, that we feel as the man Friday must have done when he asked the gun not to kill him; if the opportunity offered, we should much like to have a quiet talk with some of those wise machines. With these ideas we enter the stock-making department, and there we find three machines on which is stamped 'Ames, Massachusetts' - thus showing that our cousins across the Atlantic have contributed their share to the works at Enfield. From Italy, Belgium, and France, the walnut-wood is sent to Enfield in the rough, just outlined in the proper form, and ready to be handled by these machines. The first machine saws off pieces, and rounds ends and sides, pushing the stock away when the work is finished. The second rounds the ends from the muzzle-end half-way down to the stock; this is done on the copying principle. The third finishes what the second left undone, and these three machines leave very little to be done by hand as regards form. The excavations for the bedding of the lock and other parts are accomplished in a few minutes at separate machines.

The first state of the barrel is that of a slab of iron which weighs 10 1/4 pounds. This is welded and finished in a building separated from the main building. The first process causes this plate or slab to become a tube; it is then drawn out to the required length, the bore being kept hollow by means of a rod of iron; the breech-piece is welded on by means of a nervously excitable steam-hammer, which strikes a series of blows with uncommon rapidity. The boring is then proceeded with, many and various instruments being used. The outside is next turned, and any extra parts are taken off. The viewing then takes place. This is performed by a skilful workman, who places himself opposite a gas-lamp, or where there is a great light. To this he directs the barrel, so as to bring the light down the bore; he then slowly turns the tube, and is thus enabled at once to detect the slightest deviation from a straight line. Should any irregularities be discovered, the viewer taps the barrel with a hammer until the tube is perfectly true. The rifling of the barrel is then proceeded with. The proving is not the least important part of the process, although it is one which requires the least skill. The barrels are proved in a small room apart from the other buildings. The barrels, before being browned, are laid into stocks fitted for the purpose, and charged with 7 1/2 drams of powder and a bullet; the door of the room is closed, and the barrels are discharged by means of strings which are fastened to the triggers, and which can be pulled from the outside of the wall. Four drams are then discharged as before, and the barrels which have stood these proofs are considered sound. Sometimes there appears a flaw in the barrel, and then powder is added and charges fired, until the barrel is burst. We were informed that such a case had occurred some weeks previous to our visit, and it was not until 20 drams of powder had been used several times, that the desired result was obtained. Our informer stated that he had even then his doubts whether the bursting was not caused in consequence of the bullet not being quite rammed home.

The browning of the barrel is a very delicate operation, and one which must be very trying to at least one of the individuals concerned, for in a room in which the thermometer must stand at about 140 degrees, a man remains upwards of twenty minutes to superintend the drying. Here it is that the mechanic is at last affected by external circumstances. The state of the weather is, in the browning, an important matter. If it should be wet, not more than half as much work can be accomplished as though it were dry. Flaws are more likely to occur during wet than during fine dry weather, and for every flaw, somebody has to be mulcted, for all is contract-work. A very small speck upon a barrel had been detected by the sharp eyes of an the examiner; a chalk-mark against it showed that this would not be allowed to pass; and two-pence-halfpenny was the loss which the man who had imperfectly done his work would suffer for this one flaw.

Upon the ringing of a bell, from twelve to fourteen hundred men and boys turn out in the open air; they fill to the ceiling the half-dozen public houses which possess a monopoly here. Crammed in rooms, seated on benches outside, on gates, rails, &c, these fourteen hundred mechanics take their rough and ready meal. Vainly do a sturdy bar-man and his three assistants attempt, by unexampled activity, to supply the demand for 'pots of arf and arf.' Time is short; in one hour must all these thirsty Vulcans supply their dried-up juices; and around the bar, from pigeon-holes of near and far, or even outside, there is a continual cry for varieties of malt. Even the throats of these men are but mortal, and at length they cry enough; and about a quarter of an hour before the period of feeding expires, a partial silence ensues, whilst the fumes of a thousand pipes are wafted over the marshes. A bell rings, and again are the 'publics' deserted, whilst footsteps alone tell of the recent crowd - the bar-keeper having, however, a substantial memento of the recent visit.

The weapon that is at length turned out is, with its bayonet, 6 feet 1/2 inch long, and weighs 9 pounds 8 ounces. The length of the barrel is 3 feet 3 inches; its weight is 4 pounds 2 ounces; and the diameter of the bore is .577 inch. The bullet is elongated, and takes three-quarters of a turn whilst in the barrel. The general figure of the bullet is cylindrical, its a front-end rounded, and its rear-end has a conical shaped cavity formed in it. The delay which was so great a drawback when the old rifle was required to be used, is now entirely done away with. The wooden plug which is now placed in the bullet instead of the iron cup, greatly diminishes the fouling. The diameter of the bullet is .568 inch; length, 1.0625; and weight, 530 grains. The service-charge of the rifle is 2 1/2 drams, and the weight of sixty rounds of ammunition, including 75 caps, is 5 pounds 8 ounces. The rifle is sighted up to 900 yards, but its practice is good at much longer ranges. A bullet, when fired from a distance of 100 yards, would pass through twelve half-inch planks. The advance which had been made in rifled firearms placed the artillery for a time at a disadvantage; but the recent invention of Sir W. Armstrong will now place matters upon a different footing. Before any more inventions are made with either weapon, it will be necessary to fix upon the guns small telescopes, to enable the gunners to distinguish friends from enemies, before destruction is dealt out. With the aid of the Enfield rifle and the Armstrong gun, we may fairly expect to hold our own against any or all our enemies, provided that our rulers will take care neither to be caught napping nor to be lulled by false ideas of security. If England will be true to herself, she need fear no foe.

(*) Joe Bilby of 'Civil War Guns' writes:

"The stock making machine referred to as invented by an Englishman was actually the 'Blanchard lathe' invented by an American, who was, I believe, an employee of Springfield Armoury. Springfield was a pioneer of interchangeable parts for guns, although they didn't get it perfect until 1840, and Colt followed the Armoury's path. Enfield and then the London Armory company followed suit in the late 1850s, after sending a team over to observe Springfield and other arms makers in the Connecticut Valley and buy equipment - hence the 'Ames' machinery found by the writer."

Article supplied by Mike Bussey, Co.E 1st Tennessee

The above article first appeared in The Chamber's Journal, 16 April 1859 and was reprinted in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2003

Reproduced with permission from Research Press (www.researchpress.co.uk.)