Confederate Whitworth Sniper: Sub-MOA Hexagonal Bullets in 1860

Sir Joseph Whitworth is quite the famous name in engineering circles, credited with the development of such things as Whitworth threading (the first standardized thread pattern) and engineer’s blue. When he decided to make a rifle, he decided that he could make flat surfaces more precisely than round ones, and chose to design a rifle with a hexagonal bore and mechanically fitted bullets.

The Whitworth rifles proved to be magnificently accurate, with a British military test showing a group of 0.85 MOA at 500 yards, and under 8MOA even at 1800 yards. However, the rifles were equally expensive, and were not given further consideration for military use. Whitworth made a total of about 13,700, selling them to high level competitive marksmen and wealthy shooting enthusiasts. A small number were purchased by Confederate agents during the Civil War, and between 50 and 125 were able to evade the Union blockades to be delivered into Confederate hands. These rifles were equipped with Davidson 4-power telescopic sights, and they were put to extremely good effect by Confederate sharpshooting units. In particular, they were used to shoot at Union artillery crews, and Whitworth bullets have been found on a great many Civil War battlefields. They were not available in large numbers, but they were excellent rifles and put to use as much as possible.

Given the small number originally brought into the CSA, the number of known surviving examples is extremely low. This one, like many, was found without its scope and mount, and those parts have been replaced with period examples. As a true Confederate Whitworth, however, this is an extremely rare and historically relevant rifle!

53 Comments

  1. The making of the bullets intrigued me. The bullet obviously has to have a more be a complex shape than normal, and I wondered if that would cause issues with the ad hoc making of the bullets. From reading the below it seems that was not an issue.

    http://www.guns.com/2013/09/09/whitworth-rifle-fit-queens-confederates-video/

    One curious thing is the number of Whitworth bullets shown that seem to be simple cylinders. That may be due to the photography, or mis-identification, but I wonder if simple bullets were used in a Whitworth gun, and how much accuracy was lost by doing so.

    The report also compares the 12 inch grouping of the Whitworth at 1800 years to the 96 inch grouping at 1100 yards of the Enfield!

    • “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” [Bang!!] Guess who got nailed? Bullet molds should have come with the full rifle package, right?

      • Yes, but Whitworth ammunition usually came as pre-prepared rounds just like most rifle ammunition of the era.

        http://brettschulte.net/ACWBlog/archives/wwbullet.jpg

        the powder charge and bullet were contained in the “paper” cartridge, actually thin cardboard about like a modern business card.

        The back end was inserted into the rifle’s muzzle (thus protecting the rifling “lip’ from being marred), the paper slip behind the powder was pulled out to the side, and the whole thing rammed down with one stroke of the ramrod.

        Simple, fast, and not likely to mess things up.

        cheers

        eon

          • Probably not. Rather it would perhaps be like ramming a pre-Minie ball (or bullet) to a muzzle loading rifle, which was so slow that it could not replace smoothbore muskets in general infantry use.

          • It is worth nothing that Withworth applied his rifling to muzzle-loader rather than breech-loader. With my state-of-knowledge I am unable to determine whatever it was thinking inertia or Withworth considered making breech-loader but abandon this idea not trusting in ability to make reliable breech-loader with then available technology.
            In similar time, Royal Navy introduced breech loading naval gun, but was so disappointed with them that switched to RML guns
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rifled_muzzle_loader

          • Daweo;

            Whitworth made a 12-pounder breechloading field gun on the hexagonal bore principle;

            http://civilwarwiki.net/wiki/12_pdr._Whitworth_Breechloading_Rifle

            Not only was the shot hexagonal, so was the metallic cartridge case. One odd result of this was that since the barrel and chamber were basically identical in dimensions, by simply cutting the rimmed head and about 1″ (25mm)of case off the cartridge body, putting it in the breech and securing the breechblock, it would function as a gas check and allow the Whitworth to be muzzle-loaded just like any other rifled field piece such as the James or Parrott. Which would have been about as fast as loading it from the breech, actually.

            This could not be done with the Armstrong breechloader due to its lead-coated projectile and chamber both being slightly larger than the bore diameter;

            https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4e/RBL_7_inch_Armstrong_breech_diagram.jpg

            Interestingly, the Whitworth and Armstrong breech systems were remarkably like some used on recoilless rifles during the World War 2 period. Given the necessary “Eureka!” reaction, plus a venturi on each one and an appropriately frangible set of “blowouts” in the Whitworth cartridge case head (like the British BATs) or sides of the Armstrong chamber (as in the earlier British Burney recoilless guns), the recoilless rifle might have arrived on the battlefield a quarter-century ahead of the quick-firing gun with hydraulic recoil control.

            ACW “what if?” gamers take note.

            cheers

            eon

          • Eon;

            I doubt one could make a well-functioning recoilless gun with black powder. At the very least you would need a lot of powder and I think the burning properties of black powder would be very suboptimal for a true recoilless gun. A rocket would be a different matter, but they tend to be very inaccurate and can be dangerous for the crews.

          • EW;

            RRs use more propellant than a standard gun, anyway. The high-speed gas flow out the back has to balance the mass of the projectile going out the muzzle to achieve the recoilless effect (M x V= momentum). Roughly 30% of a recoilless gun’s powder charge launches the projectile, the other 70% provides the “counterweight” that keeps the gun from moving. And incidentally causes the horrendous blast of flame and gas behind it that creates such a large danger space for the gun crew, and advertises the gun’s position to everybody within a thousand-yard radius.

            BTW, the WW2 Panzerfaust used a blackpowder charge to launch its hollow-charge bomb, granted at relatively low velocities by modern standards.

            So the use of black powder and (probably) wooden or possibly celluloid blowouts woldn’t have been as much of a handicap as you might think.

            Oh yes, and blackpowder rockets, both Hale (spin-stabilized) and Congreve (guiding-stick stabilized) types, were used by both sides during the ACW. They were generally unpopular due to their excessive dispersion even compared to smoothbore artillery, and after the first year of the war the “rocket batteries” on both sides were converted to conventional field artillery or mountain artillery units. Which were much less dangerous to their own troops overall.

            cheers

            eon

          • “The high-speed gas flow out the back has to balance the mass of the projectile going out the muzzle to achieve the recoilless effect (M x V= momentum).”
            This is true for some recoilless rifles (like for example U.S. 57 mm M18) but not all – for example World War I Davis recoilless gun as described here: http://www.navweaps.com/Weapons/WNUS_3-15_mk12.php throws projectiles in opposite directions, thus I presume give less flash, but has another problem – how to do not hit something vital with counterweight. German Cold War-era Armbrust AT weapon is example how to solve entirely problem of flash (thus CAN be used inside building, unlike most AT recoilless rifles).
            Even if making black-powder recoilless was technically possible, I doubt if they would found it useful in 1860s.

          • Eon;

            I know recoilles guns use much more propellant than conventional guns. That’s exactly why I think a recoilles artillery piece would require a lot of powder, since BP is much less energetic than smokeless powders. High powder demand is also the reason why the Germans did no use medium or heavy recoilless anti-tank guns guns in WW2, despite having some well developed designs by mid-war.

            You are right about the Panzerfaust, and it does prove that at least a very low velocity recoilless gun using black powder was possible. It also had a disposable launch tube, so black powder fouling was not an issue. With a reloadable gun it would probably be a much bigger problem considering the large amount of powder neede, especially if the barrel was rifled.

          • >> “But surely the bullet couldn’t be rammed too hard as It had to spin down the barrel?”

            Whitworth had haxagonal section bore, with a 1:20 twist to the rifling. The bullets were a mechanical fit and load quite easily. Good accuracy was also achived with soft lead, cylindrical bullets.

      • I’ve seen that quote as:
        ‘Why, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dis….’
        No knowing if a Whitworth was involved. At least at this anecdotal level.

    • Whitworth is now often with polygonal rifling, but in fact there exist some others weapons using it, query in Wikipedia:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygonal_rifling
      name few, amongst other Lee-Metford and Arisaka rifles.
      I can add that Rikhter R-23 autocannon also have polygonal rifling (as well other peculiar solutions), so it seems to fit good with high Rate-Of-Fire (2500 rpm for R-23, which is high for that caliber and single barrel)

      • As side notes: It seems that in modern era even number for polygonal rifling is prefer (hexagonal and octagonal), did exist odd-polygonal rifling weapons (for example pentagonal or heptagonal)? How it would affect accuracy?

        • I suspect that octagon and, especially, hexagons are easier to do. Having opposite sides paralleled makes things easier to draw and check.

          The classic case iis usually thought to be honeycomb, but the interesting thing is that bees don’t make hexagons, they make offset cylinders of wax and physics makes the joining faces of each one into 6 flat lines.

    • “One curious thing is the number of Whitworth bullets shown that seem to be simple cylinders. That may be due to the photography, or mis-identification, but I wonder if simple bullets were used in a Whitworth gun, and how much accuracy was lost by doing so.”

      Interesting comment. I took a quick look at google images, and you are right – many do seem to be cylindrical, especially those with a lot of white corrosion. I’m not sure why this is, but I can speculate a little:

      1) The bullets were not really truly hexagonal, but more like a cylinder with flattened surfaces, with some rounding between the flats (i.e. the flats did not actually touch each other, with the spaces in between being still rounded). This gave a somewhat more subtle appearance to the “hexagonal” character of the bullet.

      2) It appears – and correct me I got this wrong – that the bullets were sometimes given a paper patch or covering, possibly making unfired ammunition appear more cylindrical.

      3) Perhaps the process of being fired would give them a more cylindrical appearance. If I remember correctly, original Whitworths used gain twist rifling. Maybe this would blur the lines of the projectile’s hexagonal cross section.

      None of these guesses seem very satisfying to me, however. Does anybody else know?

      Thanks,

      CG

      • According to the Wikipedia article, the Whitworth rifle had both hexagonal and cylindrical bullets, both with paper cartridges. The cylindrical bullets were upset to fit the barrel when fired, like a very long Minie ball, so they had to be made from soft lead. The hexagonal were made from a harder lead alloy and obviously had to be screwed down the barrel – although with 1/20 pitch rifling and a 33 to 39 inch barrel, this required two turns or less, and with a bit of lube it should have gone easily down a clean barrel.

        My guess is that the well-equipped sniper would carry both. When you had time or saw an opportunity to shoot a general at 800+ yards, you loaded the hexagonal ammo for the best accuracy. When in a hurry, the cylindrical was probably undersized and could be rammed down as quickly as a standard rifled musket load, but the deformable bullet had a cost in range and accuracy.

      • There’s another reason besides cost that the Whitworth rifle did not become standard issue: It got its increased performance partly by close tolerances bullet to barrel, and so was less tolerant of powder residue building up in the barrel. In a pitched battle, the Whitworth would have had to be cleaned several times as often as a standard rifled musket, which itself needed more cleaning than a smoothbore. Officers tended to see privates as too stupid to see through a recruiter’s pitch or to avoid the draft, also too stupid to be officers or even sergeants, and so not to be trusted to keep their gun clean when the sergeant was too busy to check up on them.

        And finally, it doesn’t sound like the Union used Whitworth or other sniper rifles. No surprise, they could win by numbers without the risk of adopting an immature “super weapon” technology – with the notable exception of the Monitor ironclad, where an entirely unique design was built as fast as possible and rushed into combat untested. It arrived a day late, and the designer thought of many improvements after reviewing the first few hours of battle, but it neutralized the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) and saved the wooden ships that had survived the Virginia’s first foray. OTOH, the Confederacy grasped at any straw that might compensate for their inferiority in industrial capacity and manpower, and most of those ideas failed and put the CSA even further behind.

        • The Federal gov’t was just too cheap. Most Union sharpshooters were required to buy their own rifles. By this I mean target rifles and not issue rifles like Springfields, Sharps, and Spencers. No way a private making $13 mo. could afford a WW. Even so, at least one lot of WWs, apparently captured from a blockade runner, were auctioned off in NY to private bidders instead of being put to use.

    • >> One curious thing is the number of Whitworth bullets shown that
      >> seem to be simple cylinders.

      Whitworth rifles shoot cylindrical bullets very well, infact WHitworth in his original loading instructions notes “The cylindrical form of projectile is the best for general use. It is 530 grains in weight and is wrapped with paper. In loading, the projectile should be pressed gently home, and should not be so forced down as to crush the lubricating wad or the grains of powder.”
      http://www.researchpress.co.uk/index.php/firearms/gunmakers/whitworth/loading-the-whitworth

      >> The report also compares the 12 inch grouping of the Whitworth at
      >> 1800 years to the 96 inch grouping at 1100 yards of the Enfield!

      The Whitworth did not shoot a 12 inch group at 1800 yards. It had a Figure of Merit of 11.62 feet. Thats the Mean Radius of the group; the group size will be more than twice the mean radius. Similarly the Figure of Merit of the Enfield was 8.04 feet at 11 yards; the group will be significantly larger. See ‘Measuring Accuracy’ which explains Figure of Merit and includes the original report from the Times newspaper with the Enfield / Whitowrth results.
      http://www.researchpress.co.uk/index.php/firearms/british-military-longarms/small-arms-trials/measuring-accuracy

      David

  2. Maybe a silly question, but how does one make a bullet mold for a hexagonal bullet? A hex shape would typically be broached, but that requires a through-hole. And this was long before EDM machining.

    Extrude lead at a factory through a hex die and then machine the tip and cut it to length on a lathe? Do any bullet molds exist?

      • I am also bit mystified with this part. Depending on length, the bullet might have required twist included in it; but then if it was simply straight, it would induce sealing due to small ‘interference’. Talking expensive gun 🙂

  3. I had the pleasure of firing a reproduction Whitworth several years ago, and it is no exaggeration to say that best results were obtained by cleaning, or at least swabbing, after every round. Other than that it was a joy to shoot, with relatively mild recoil and quite impressive accuracy. It certainly shot better than I did, and I am told that the originals (if in good condition) were even better.

    If you did not clean, things got fairly tight by about the third round. My understanding (and I forget what reference I saw this in) is that the original ammunition, brought through the blockade from England, actually used swaged bullets, of a somewhat harder than usual alloy.

    Interestingly, Whitworth also made and sold cannon operating under the same principle, both muzzle and breechloading. They received mixed reviews from the field, largely because the Confederacy (to whom most of them were sold) could not fabricate projectiles with enough precision to really match the barrels. When used with imported bolts and shells, they seemed to work pretty well, but with ammunition produced in the South as the blockade was tightened, there were problems.

    There were also reliability problems with the breechloading versions – the screw type closure tended to jam tight and not want to open – and this was a big enough issue that the breechloaders were often used as muzzleloaders by simply leaving the breech mechanism shut.

    CG

  4. Do you have any photos of the bullet or the cavity of a mold? Also, you mentioned a wad, what did it look like? Traditional muzzle loaders use a cloth patch that surrounds the ball. I would think that friction would have been a real problem but if they shot that good it must not have been.

  5. Simply amazing. One question/ suggestion I’d have is why there was not removable barrel plug in the back for simple reason – bore cleaning. It could have been threaded in Whitworth or some type of trapezoidal thread.(It looks CG already addressed that issue.)

    For those not familiar with Whitworth tread, it has profile peak angle 55 degrees instead of US national standard or metric thread 60 degrees. How and by which way inventor arrived that value I do not know.

    I recall seeing large coastal gun with same name(not sure if was made by same company) in Fort Moultrie SC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Moultrie
    There is located nice exhibit of naval gun development.
    One detail which got my attention was use of countersunk (flush head) screws in cradle assembly. To do this well all parts must have accurately located holes and countersinks. Again, testimony to machining capability of the time period.

  6. The original bullet for a Whitworth was indeed hexagonal with an inclined hexagonal form to fit the rifling twist, and reproduction bullet molds are still made today by Peter Dyson in England. They are expensive (US$300) and require punching the bullet out of the mold. By all accounts they don’t work the best, such bullets are best made in a factory by swaging lead wire. Whitworth shooters now and today have found that round cross-section bullets of soft lead work just as well hence they are more commonly seen.

    • “…inclined hexagonal form …”

      Does it mean that flanks of bullet were in helical form, as speculated before? If round section bullets are used, it must involve lots of fire forming and lots of force/ pressure in bore.

      • As embarrassing as this is, I can offer the following from wikipedia:

        “Two types of bullets were used in the Whitworth rifle, hexagonal and cylindrical. The cylindrical bullets had a small hollow base which would expand and grip the hexagonal sides of the barrel, which required that the bullets be made out of very soft lead. The cylindrical bullet, however, easily upsets into the hexagonal bore under the influence of the explosion of the charge of between 80 and 90 grains of fine rifle powder used for this particular firearm – recovered bullets fired from a Whitworth rifle are as hexagonal as their factory-made counterparts. The hexagonal form bullet did not need to expand to properly grip the barrel, and therefore could be made out of a harder alloy than pure lead”.

        Yes, Wikipedia. I’m going to bed now :-0

        CG

    • I would guess that a cylindrical bullet of soft lead might upset enough, at least to some extent, to take the flats and corners of the Whitworth rifling. In this case I could imagine that an unfired bullet would be cylindrical, but a fired one would have to have some degree of deformation to a hexagonal cross section for the idea to work.

      I could see where a cylindrical bullet might be easier to load in a fouled bore.

      CG

  7. To answer a few questions here:

    The WW shot almost as well with a soft lead cylindrical bullet. and each rifle came with a mold for one. WW himself said it was better for general use. The famous hex bullets were swaged and of a harder alloy. At CW battle sites many more cylindricals have been found.

    WW rifling worked with muzzle or breech loaders. The Westley Richards “Monkey Tail” was a breech loader with WWW rifling.

    We think some 250 WWs were used by the Confederacy, however some of them were match rifles made by others. See http://sharpshooters.cfspress.com/arms.html

    Joseph Whitworth was the originator of long-range shooting. He was the first to recognize that what you needed was a fast twist and a long bullet.

    The original bullets did use a paper patch, however the rifling was a straight 1 in 20 with no gain twist. Compare that to 1 in 72 for the Enfield.

    For more info see my article here:

    http://sharpshooters.cfspress.com/articles.html#sir_joseph_whitworth

  8. I used to own a ‘D’ series Whitworth very similar to this rifle but without the scope….and would pass on some observations.
    There were two types of mold available from Whitworth, and some copies of the hex molds have been made relatively recently.
    I used a hex bullet mold that was a tube type mold that had a plug in the end for the minnie type base.
    The mold matched the 1 in 20″ twist of the rifling.
    You poured the lead in the to of the mold, and used a special mold handle with a rod to push the bullet out of the mold. The bullet was quite tight and twisted as it came out.
    You wee left with a long spru that has to be manually cut off.
    Also – as an fyi – if you take the lock off, the inner surface is jewelled, and the makers name is stamped there (this is not Whitworth as he brought his locks in)

    • Of interest is that the author, Sir James Emerson Tennent, was also a shareholder of Manchester Ordnance and Rifle Company – the company he so ably promotes in his book. This caused some disquiet in the contemporary press when it came to light.

  9. capandball has a couple of videos shooting different repros (Parker Hale and Pedersoli) with hexagonal and cylindrical bullets.

  10. I have a B series which I shoot sometimes. It is a Military Match, and the sights are so fine as to make consistent aiming a chore. I swage soft lead bullets using a Dixie gun hex swage. At the bottom of this I use a thick card wad over a hexagonal felt wad and as the card acts as a scraper, have little problem with fouling. The Whitworth was tried out with hexagonal brass and even iron bullets, without difficulty in the early days.

    • A couple quotes from “The Story of The Guns” regarding fouling in the Whitworth:

      “A further consideration, not of minor importance, remained to be provided for; the inconvenience arising from the tendency of gunpowder after explosion to leave deposits, more or less hardened, encrusting the inner surface of the barrel. To prevent this from accumulating, Mr. Whitworth inserted along with every charge a proper quantity of lubricating material, introduced as a ‘wad,’ which under the force and heat of explosion is distributed over the interior of the bore, rendering the fouling residuum so loose that it is driven out by the next discharge. The most suitable composition he found to be a mixture of tallow and wax, and with this introduced between the powder and the ball a cartridge for the Whitworth rifled fowling-piece presents the appearances shown in the accompanying sketch.”

      In the referenced sketch, the “wad”, or grease cookie as we would call it, is approximately 3/16″ thick.

      “As regards the liability to getting foul during practice, General Hay, in reply to a question from the President [of the Institute of Civil Engineers], Mr. BIDDER, said that ‘every gun’ in which a certain amount of powder was exploded, would become foul. But if the bullet expanded properly, it left the gun, as it were, ‘sponged out’ after every shot. Should the bullet not expand, the gun of course would not be clean. He ventured to say that the Whitworth small-bore rifle, fired with common sporting powder, would never foul, so as to render loading difficult. If the lubrication were correct, ‘there could be no such fouling, even when the rifle was used constantly for a month. He had himself fired 100 rounds one day, 60 rounds the next, then 40 rounds, and so on, and left the gun without cleaning for ten days, when it fired as well as it did on the first day.'”

      • Very interesting info. I can imagine, if a sufficient amount of the correct lubricant/”softener” were used, that this could be the case and that sufficiently softened powder residue could be blown out with the projectile and powder gasses, preventing accumulation of fouling (both leading and powder residue) and easing loading of the next shot.

        The one problem I could venture to speculate upon would be that the bore would, under different conditions of firing over the many days elapsed, provide different interior ballistics to the projectile, reducing accuracy (which would defeat the purpose of using a rifle like a Whitworth. Was any comment made on the influence of using a “grease cake”, over the test period, on accuracy (My apologies Ben, I have not yet read all of the link you sent but I will, as it is fascinating – thanks again).

        CG

        • Those are the only two passages I remember with any real mention of fouling or the “wad” used to combat it, and I don’t remember any details being given as to whether or how often they cleaned the bores during various trials. But it’s been a while since I read it, so there might be something in there.

          • One thing that is clear from the Tennenet book, and what’s been said on this discussion, is that a large part of the issue/complaint about fouling in the Whiteworth was simple down to the fact the bullets actually fitted the barrel!

            The Enfield it was tested against used a Minnie bullet that was smaller than the bore and had an expanding skirt. It could literally be dropped down the barrel! That meant that it could be used with fouling that would stop a Whiteworth. The fact the Enfield was so inaccurate anyway meant loss of accuracy hardly mattered.

  11. Sorry to have to correct you Ian but the Whitworth rifle in the 1857 Hythe test was most definitely NOT a “sub-MOA rifle”. The shot group measurement in use at the time was the Figure of Merit or what we now call the Mean Radius. The center of the group (or Mean Point of Impact) is plotted and then the distance between the MPI and each shot is measured, added up and averaged. This number is what was used to compare the Enfield and the Whitworth. So being the 4.5 inches was a radius the actual Mean Diameter was of course 9 inches at 500 yards. But now because we averaged the radial distances, that 9 inch circle only contains approximately 50% of the shots fired. Read Tennant’s “The Story of the Guns” page 58 for the details. That said, the Enfield delivered a Figure of merit of 27 inches which paled in comparison to the Whitworth.

    As much as everyone would like to think there was a sub minute of angle muzzle loader produced 150 years ago I have to say that the documentation and the facts don’t support it.

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