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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Smokeless powder

Image of soldiers marching with rifles in World War One
The march to World War One ©
Towards the close of the 19th century a series of developments transformed the weapon carried by the footsoldier, and with it the whole character of battle. Within a generation the muzzle-loading musket was replaced by the breech-loading rifle, and the effect on the fighting man was immediate and deadly.

Infantry weapons became more accurate, and could be fired more rapidly than before, and reached out to longer ranges. Groups of determined men making skilful use of the ground became more important than the steady lines of yesteryear, and the need for concealment saw the British Army replace its traditional red coat by the less conspicuous khaki in the 1880s.

'In the 1880s the advent of smokeless powder ... helped make ammunition even smaller.'

The pace of technical change increased. A veteran of Malplaquet (1709) would have been able to use a musket on the field of Waterloo (1815) without difficulty, but a veteran of Waterloo would have regarded the rifle used at the battle of Mons (1915) with utter disbelief.

In the 1880s the advent of smokeless powder, which enabled a smaller quantity of powder to impel a bullet with even greater force, helped make ammunition even smaller. It also greatly reduced the amount of smoke on the battlefield, and made it easier for men to remain concealed when firing.

The British Army adopted the .303-inch Lee Metford rifle, which had a magazine containing eight rounds, and was loaded by drawing back and then pushing forward the weapon’s bolt. The Lee-Metford initially used black powder while a smokeless cartridge was developed, and this necessitated further changes, culminating in the adoption of the Lee-Enfield rifle. This used a similar bolt to that in the Lee-Metford, but with rifling designed at the government’s arms factory at Enfield Lock.

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