William Soper’s Direct Action Breech Loader

William Soper of Reading, England designed this “Direct Action Breech Loader” and attempted to have it tested for British military adoption – but he was one day too late to have his rifle included in the tests and the Martini-Henry was ultimately adopted. The intent of Soper’s system was to have the fastest possible rate of fire for a single-shot rifle, and what he came up with is quite interesting.

A single lever just above and behind the trigger (intended to be operated by the shooter’s right thumb) operated all aspects of the action, pressing the lever down recocks the hammer, opens the breech, extracts, and ejects the empty case. All that need be done is to drop a new cartridge into the breech, and press the lever up to close the action. Soper had an assistant who was reportedly able to fire the rifle at a rate of 60 rounds/minute – very impressive for a gun designed in 1868!

Many thanks to the anonymous Dutch collector who provided me access to this rifle to bring to you!


  1. Overall, the Soper is another of the Joslyn-type “flip-open breech” system single-shots intended as conversions of existing muzzle-loading rifle-muskets to breech-loading metallic cartridge. The Krnka was another such.

    The Soper overcomplicates in quest of a higher than average rate of fire for a single-shot. It mainly proves that there was just no substitute for a repeating “magazine” rifle. I don’t buy the “60 shots in 60 seconds” bit; the hand movements to reload simply can’t be done that fast, unless the rifle is rested and all loading actions other than working the thumb lever are done left-handed. Mind you, that was what a lot of the men of the 24th Foot did over the “mealie” bags at Rorke’s Drift in 1879 with the Martini-Henry, another automatic-ejecting, self-cocking pattern.

    At least some Soper-pattern rifles were used by the British Volunteer organizations, but then they used almost anything they could get, from Alex Henry breechloaders in .577/.450 to American Remington rolling blocks in such oddities as .43 Egyptian. If there had ever been an actual call-up, the logistics situation would have been interesting to say the least.



    • Logistics hell? Sounds like the problem with the early Polish Army. Guns from a minimum of three different sources and not one uniform rifle caliber until after bashing the Bolshevik invaders in the face. But I digress and could be wrong on that account. A fast single-shot is still a single-shot. Experimenting with add-on action-actuated-cookie-tin-with-spring magazines tended to end badly due to jamming (possible operation not suited to badly timed hand movements) and poor attention to field conditions. Heck, the trapdoor Springfield could have been better with a wooden cartridge box stuck to the side of the receiver. The problem the box was supposed to solve? Soldiers having to dig into their belt pouches for ammunition after every shot took at least 5 to 10 seconds to get one round without making a mess of things (by mess I mean spilling cartridges everywhere if someone was grabbing rounds in a panic, even when lying prone). Any practical ways of holding reserve cartridges in a convenient place other than between fingers?

      • “Experimenting with add-on action-actuated-cookie-tin-with-spring magazines tended to end badly due to jamming (possible operation not suited to badly timed hand movements) and poor attention to field conditions”
        Nonetheless, it was necessary to check if that is impossible, keep in mind that time between adoption of Martini Henry (1871) and Lee-Metford (1888) was just 17 years, so it is not surprising that they extended usability time of that first; see photos: http://augfc.tumblr.com/post/111468379465/martini-henry-quickloaders-the-british-army

      • During the 11th Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) the Tsar’s army was equipped with a combination of Berdan I and II single-shot breechloaders in .42 Russian aka 10.75 x 58R (it was the original of Allin’s “Trapdoor” used on the U.S. Springfield, II was an early bolt-action), plus the Krnka Model 1867 conversion of the model 1857 muzzle-loading musket, as stated above a Joslyn-type flipover breech system, chambered for 15.42 x 40mmR.

        At the siege of Plevna (20 July- 10 Dec 1877), the Russians issued Krnka-designed “loading blocks” for each rifle. These were just what they sound like; wooden blocks with holes bored down into them, rather like the pencil holder you made in wood shop in high school, screwed to the side of the stock next to the action to hold five cartridges nose down next to the breech. The drill was to grab a around from the block and stick it in, thereby giving the rate of fire of a repeater without the expense of buying, training, and etc.

        In theory, at least.

        Plevna (now in Romania) had to be taken because it was literally the gateway to the Balkans. Nikopol, 20 miles NE of it, had fallen to the Russians before the Turks could get there to defend it. So they had to hold Plevna unless they wanted a joint Russian-Romanian army marching straight into the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

        The Tsar’s army assaulted Plevna on 30 July 1877, with a mass of about 80,000 men, one of the largest assaults seen in Europe until WW1.

        They advanced in standard formation, basically a mass. At about 1,000 yards they began taking fire from long-range single-shot rifles (American-made Peabodys for the most part) and some cannon. That lasted until they were within about 300 yards of the Turkish defensive perimeter trench lines.

        When they went to double quick-step and charge, the Turks in the trench lines opened up with Winchester Model 1866 repeaters in .44 rimfire.

        W.H.B. Smith said they had about 30,000. Other sources state maybe half that many. What mattered was that at what we would call assault rifle range, the steady massed fire of Winchester repeaters broke that charge, and the two that followed it, killing about 10,000 men and wounding about 20,000.

        The Russians and Romanians tried the same thing again on 11 Sept 1877, with about the same results. Eventually the Turks had to surrender because they were cut off and out of both food and ammunition. But by that time the war was pretty much over, and was as inconclusive as the ten that had preceded it.

        The main thing these battles did was prove to European armies in no uncertain terms that single-shot rifles, even with “loading blocks”, were no match for repeaters even in the hands of half-trained conscript troops. There was just no way to match a “proper” repeater’s rate of fire or sustained-fire capability by that method, or any other way of using a single-shot.

        Mostly, all “loading blocks” did was unbalance the rifle and give inexperienced soldiers a false sense of confidence- that evaporated rapidly when they came under fire from actual repeating magazine rifles.

        Mauser in Germany got the message loud and clear and began working on what became the Model 1871/’84 tube-magazine repeater, while France adopted the 11mm Gras-caliber Kropatschek for its marines in 1878, followed by the 8mm Lebel for the army in 1886.

        Hilariously, the U.S. Springfield Armory was still experimenting with “loading blocks” for the Trapdoor Springfield in .45-70 as late as the mid-1880s. (See “Metcalf attachment”.)

        The early Winchester lever action really wasn’t a practical military arm, simply due to lack of effective range. Although it and the Henry which preceded it in many respects were the “intermediate” or “assault” rifles of their day.

        But it did at least teach most of the experts that “loading blocks” do not make an effective repeating rifle out of a single-shot.



  2. Looking at the design, I’d speculate that loading was a left-hand “thing”, and that the breech block would flip to the left rather than right if it were otherwise.

    On a lot of these older rifles, you find yourself wondering just how much of the design was predicated on what they were used to, rather than trying to work around human ergonomics. The Swiss series of straight-pull actions, for example? Why the hell were those set up to be manipulated by the right hand, vs. keeping the rifle controlled by the firing hand, and manipulating the bolt with the left…? And, for the love of God, why were pump-action weapons only on the civilian market? One could, without too much trouble, turn a Schmidt-Rubin into a fairly workable pump-action gun, and probably at least double the rate of fire with it, were you to do so…

    It’s baffling, when you look at it. I don’t think there was ever a single standard-issue pump-action military rifle that I can think of, and I’m not at all sure that I’ve ever even heard of one being on trial, anywhere. It’s a bit of a puzzle, actually. Trick shooters were doing amazing things with pump-action guns all during the period where they were developing cartridge small arms, so why didn’t anyone ever seriously look at that feature for a general-issue rifle?

    It’s one of those things, like with the Romans: Why the hell didn’t they ever use atlatls, which were known among their enemies, for use with their javelins…? Seems a trivial thing, to take up and use, yet they didn’t…

    • “pump-action”
      But how does they compare to straight-pull bolt-action when used from prone position?
      Nonetheless, while not rifle, there existed derivative of DP machine gun, in which if you want to cycle manually, you did that like in pump-action, see 3rd photo from top:
      it was designed for airborne troops

      • Most “straight-pull” bolt actions are simply (or rather, over-complexly) conventional turn-bolt actions with the addition of a cam path system which, when the “straight-pull” handle is yanked, rotates the bolt out of lockup, pulls it back, and ejects the chambered cartridge just like any “regular” turn-bolt rifle action. I call them “faux straight-pulls” compared to the real thing, like the Mannlicher-designed Austrian Model 1885, 1886, and 1895 bolt-action service rifles, or the American Model 1895 Lee Navy, all of which locked with vertically-moving cams rather than a rotating bolt head or anything else rotating.

        It’s worth noting that such over-complex “faux straight-pulls” are rarely adopted outside of their home turf. The Schmidt-Rubin being a case in point.

        About the only virtue of these “faux straight-pull” types was that they made early experiments with gas operation a bit simpler. All that was needed was a gas port, a piston rod, and a return spring with the rod attached to the “straight-pull” gadget. Compare the early Swiss experimental Carbine Model 11 converted to gas-piston operation, which was a rather neat and tidy affair, to the hideously complicated (and just pain hideous) British “Sword Guard” alteration of the No. 1 Mk III SMLE to gas operation in 1918. To say nothing of the Australian Charlton SL “automatic rifle” of 1941, which made most Italian LMGs look simple by comparison.



    • The Romans Pila were short range shock weapons far too heavy for atlatl use. The troops who used lightweight javelins in the Roman forces were typically cavalry, so atlatls would have been useless on horseback. The foot archers and slingers all outranged atlatls, as did the staff slings often used by non specialized troops during a seige. So it was probably just deemed of little practical use. That said, it is likely that individual light troops bought their own and used them, especially during Republican times.

      • In the Roman legions, from the time of Julius Caesar up to the mid 4th Century AD, the standard weapon loadout for legionaries (heavy infantry) was;

        2 to 3 pila; Heavy and light. The heavy could be thrown about 10-12 meters, the light about 15. The heavy had a soft iron shaft from the point to halfway down the length, the light had the shaft held to the wooden butt by two pins, one metal, the other wood. In either case, the idea was that once the thrown pila stuck in a shield, the shaft would bend or fold, forcing the bearer to drop the shield to avoid tripping over the butt. One heavy and two light as usual under Marius.

        Javelins; usually two. Lighter than the light pila, one piece shaft, could be thrown about 20-25 meters. Battles with legions generally began with a hail of light javelins, followed by the light pila, then the heavy pila. By that time it was hand to hand time.

        Gladius (short sword) and pugio (dagger); one of each per man. The gladius was the famous 20-to-22-inch (50 to 55 cm) bladed short sword that was the legionary’s primary melee’ weapon. The pugio was a double-edged dagger about 10 inches (25 cm) in the blade, to be used mainly as a camp knife. The important thing to remember was that the legionary was trained to fight with sword or other weapon in the right hand, shield supported on the left arm, and in formation. Generally, things didn’t get to the point where the pugio was needed.

        This system continued up to the beginning of the 5th Century AD, when the gladius was replaced by the spatha, a somewhat longer sword with a finer point and narrower foible, very like the ancient Greek hoplite double-edged sword. Interestingly, this particular type of Greek sword never seemed to have a distinctive name, like the xiphos (short sword), kopis or falcata (single edged slashing swords not unlike the later medieval falchion). It was just “the sword”. The spatha came along because it was recognized that a thrusting sword needed more blade length to reach an enemy behind his shield, a job previously done by the heavy pilum.

        The longer sword was needed because the pila and javelins were replaced by the plumbata;


        Essentially a sort of short arrow, not much bigger than the later crossbow bolt or “quarrel”, with a barbed head, and a lead weight surrounding the middle of the wooden shaft, plus vanes (usually of leather) at the back end.

        Thrown with an overhand much like a modern hand grenade would be “pitched”, they could go considerably farther than even a light javelin (up to 40 meters or so), and inflict a crippling or killing wound due to their mass. And a legionary could carry six or seven of them, often in loops sewn inside is cloak.

        The Roman legionary was always a shock infantryman. His job was to get in there, in formation with his fellows, and smash the enemy flat. But missile weapons were almost always the opening bars of the legion’s symphony of destruction.



    • Kirk, pump-action rifles tend to have more complexity than even the “straight-pull” bolt-action rifles. The complexity in question happens to be the slide itself, which must have some means of unlocking and then operating the bolt. I haven’t seen many pump-action rifles of the late 19th Century capable of handling “enemy already in your face” bludgeoning action! Even if you converted a bolt-action weapon to pump-action, could you make it capable of handling bayonet-stabbing stress? How would you prevent soldiers from gripping the pump and accidentally emptying their rifles when bayoneting their intended victims? And just how do you expect soldiers to LOAD the thing quickly if that’s your intent? There is NO time and very little money for crafting detachable magazines in the British Empire at this point in history!

      I probably messed up, but the only pump-action weapons with bayonets so far have been shotguns. I still don’t get how one does a bayonet attack without accidentally emptying the chamber by means of the slide reciprocating…

      • Colt developed a military version of their medium frame Lightning pump-action rifle in .44-40 WCF in 1885 or so, complete with bayonet, as a potential military rifle. Only about 200 were made for a single order by one South American government, and about 20 years later most of them came back into the U.S. to be sold as surplus by Francis Bannerman & Sons in New York City.

        They were apparently in excellent condition, as most had never even been uncrated.

        Winchester’s model 1894 “musket”, complete with angular bayonet, was not even that successful. More were made as commemoratives in the 1970s and 1980s than weer made for serious use in the 1890s.

        The only rifles of this type to see extensive official military service seem to have been Model 1895 Winchesters, in either .30-40 Krag for issue to U.S. auxiliary units during the Spanish-American War of 1898, and later in 7.62 x 54R for sale to Russia during WW1. Many of the latter were never delivered due to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

        Most of the .30-40 M1895s were carbines, issued to cavalry and mounted infantry units that otherwise would have been equipped with single-shot t
        Trapdoor Springfields. Even in 1898, M1892 Krag-Jorgenson production wasn’t up to speed, and there were barely enough Krag rifles (as opposed to carbines) to equip regular infantry units.

        The Russian M1895s were almost all full-length rifles with full-length forearms, plus bayonets. They were used by Russian line infantry, again due to a shortage of the standard rifle, in this case the M1891 Mosin-Nagant. The latter was also made in this country, by Remington, for sale to the Tsar’s army but, again, a lot were never delivered after the Revolution.

        Interestingly, the U.S. units sent to the Murmansk area to protect U. S “interests” there during the Russian Civil War (1919-22) were armed with the Remington-made M1891s rather than Springfield M1903 or Enfield M1917 .30-06 rifles. The main reason was to ensure ammunition supply if things got “serious”.



    • What looks like a percussion cap nipple is actually the head of the spring-loaded firing pin.



  3. One thing I have heard of but have never seen in use, is carrying the cartridges for a single shot rifle on the rifleman’s left chest, some thing like 5 rounds, it was referred to as “Loading the Tit”.

    • In Africa and India in the 1880s through WW2, big game hunters armed with double Express rifles almost always wore “safari jackets” with six “pockets” in the left breast pocket to hold six rounds of ammunition, three complete reloads for the double rifle. Anyone who thinks “speed loading” was never done with those never was on the wrong end of an elephant or Cape buffalo stampede.

      The pockets were only on the left side, not on both left and right, as cartridges carried on the right could have been dented or even bent by the side of the double rifle’s stock in recoil.

      After the war, the “pockets” largely disappeared, as magazine rifles in the new high-velocity “small bore” (under .500in) were superseding the old doubles.

      By 1970, according to Peter Capstick, the “pockets” were an instant spotting sign for any American on a “once in a lifetime” dream safari vacation, wearing a brand-new $250 “safari jacket” from Sak’s Fifth Avenue in New York City and with a brand new Winchester .458 or Weatherby .460 bolt-action rifle, which he had never fired.

      The rifles often had up to 14x telescopic sights, which of course were essentially useless in African big game hunting. Rather like the cartridge pockets on the $250 jacket, which were on both sides because American jacket makers just didn’t know any better, and neither did Sak’s Fifth Avenue’s customers for the most part.

      A serious safari leader’s rifle in the new calibers could almost always be spotted by three things;

      1. No scope; iron sight were used for fast pickup and swing in close-range (under 100 meter) “engagements”.

      2. A metal box magazine extension below the stock, allowing the Magnum Mauser or similar action that normally held two or at most three rounds in the usual “flush” magazine to hold five or even six rounds of .375 H&H, .416 Rigby, .425 Westly-Richards, .458 Winchester Magnum, or etc.

      3. Clip loading guides on top. Experienced “professional hunters” used stripper clips to load with for maximum speed in reloading. The loaded clips were usually carried in threes, one in the left breast pocket, the other two in the left front waist pocket of the jacket.

      (The flask went in the right front waist pocket.)

      Contrary to Hollywood, safari leaders rarely carried handguns. Other than the problems with the law if you weren’t a licensed game protector, they weren’t really needed. In times like the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya, the rifle was just as effective on “bandits” as it was on the Big Five, if not more so. (Besides, the Mau Mau rarely left the Aberdares Forest, and very little “commercial” hunting was done there, anyway.)

      And there wssn’t much point in trying to use a pistol, even a .44 Magnum, on the big game animals. As Capstick said, the objective was to bring the animal down, not just annoy it enough to stomp you into the veldt.



  4. What cartridge? I’m amazed that the black powder fouling wouldn’t make a 60 round speed test impractical.

    Come to think of it, isn’t the SMLE ‘mad minute’ record supposed to be 38 rounds? But of course that was 38 HITS on a pretty distant target.

    • The “speed test” was mainly a test of volley-fire capability. Meaning, not only could the soldier fire repeatedly with reasonable accuracy, but would the rifle stand up to the punishment?

      Remember, at this time, “machine gun” was spelled “Gatling”, “Gardner”, or “Nordenfelt”, and was hand-cranked. Massed fire was still a job for the infantry, firing in ranks, by the numbers.

      Actual aiming was secondary. After about two volleys there would be enough black powder smoke (which is actually white, which seems to surprise some people) to make even seeing a target impossible.

      Infantry officers blessed breezes, not so much for comfort as for blowing away the smoke so they at least could still use their binoculars to see what the other fellow was getting up to.

      NB; Again contrary to Hollywood, few officers in the British or any army used spyglasses in the 19th Century. The first battlefield telescope or hand-held “spyglass” was invented in 1608 by Hans Lippershey, a Dutch spectacle-maker.

      On October 2 of that year, he presented it to his patron, Prince Maurice of Nassau, the foremost military reformer of his time, who awarded Lippershey a prize of 900 florins on condition that he make the device “bi-ocular”, so both eyes could be used to observe the enemy.

      Lippershey delivered the first pair of “binoculars”, complete with adjustable focus by a center wheel, a week later. No, binoculars have not changed substantially in over 400 years.

      (Connections by James Burke, p.134-135.)



  5. I have two soper rifles one both in 577 450 one is a civilian version one a military version
    I had to purchase both of them however

    The assistant mentioned was John Warrick ( who actually designed it and was the shooter recorded for the 60 rounds in a minute ( not sure if he had an assistant slotting the cartridges in).

    I am fortunate in that I married John Warricks great grand daughter

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