Confederate Whitworth Sniper: Hexagonal Bullets in 1860

NOTE: Please see this video for a correction regarding Whitworth accuracy:

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!

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Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at the James Julia Auction House taking a look at some of the guns they’re Going to be selling their upcoming fall of 2017 firearms auction. And today we have a really pretty extraordinary gun to Take a look at. This may not look like a whole lot from back there, But the history on it, and what this was mechanically Capable of doing is really impressive. This is a Confederate Whitworth sniper rifle. Now, Let me just put it this way, this rifle in British military tests Before 1860 was capable of sub minute of angle Accuracy at 500 yards. That is no mean feat At all, that’s really, really impressive. Now Whitworth … so there are Whitworth rifles and then there are Confederate Whitworth rifles. And the vast majority of what Whitworth produced had nothing to do with the Confederacy. These were the product of a man named Sir Joseph Whitworth, and he was a serious Engineering aficionado. You may recognise his name, he was the guy who Standardised the Whitworth thread which was the first standardised thread pitch pattern Adopted by the British Empire, you know, put into common standardised use. Which is An important aspect of, say, an industrial revolution, having standardised thread pitches. He also developed engineer’s blue. If you’ve done any machining you know about that Blue that you put on parts to show where … machining has happened and where it hasn’t. That was him. This guy was a seriously important figure in industrial production. And when he set his mind to doing a gun what he decided was that he could make and measure (and it’s important to recognise that both of these things go hand-in-hand, in some ways it doesn’t Matter how precise your tools actually are if you can’t measure the results to an equal level of precision), He decided he could make and measure flat surfaces much better than round ones, And his idea for a rifle was to make a hexagonal bore with flats. Instead of being a round bore that had rifling that cut into the bullet, He figured he would make, well, a polygonal barrel, He eventually standardised on hexagonal, where the bullet was also a hexagonal bullet And it exactly fitted the rifling. What that allowed him to do was very precisely Make the whole length of the barrel without imperfections, And then make a bullet that would mechanically fit the barrel.

So where a standard bullet … that rifling actually crushes Or, well it doesn’t cut, it crushes its pattern into the surface of the bullet. We can do that very well today, But in 1860, you know, 150 years ago, it was difficult to do that precisely. You’d get different rifle engagement every time you fired, Which meant your bullets weren’t always quite gonna go to the same place. What the Whitworth allowed was to make a bullet that didn’t have any rifling cutting into the bullet. It was simply spinning to match the pattern of the barrel. In total the Whitworth company made about 13,700 of these guns. And then they went bankrupt, by the end of the 1860s they were out of business. The problem was this is a fantastically accurate gun, but it’s an extremely expensive gun. In other videos I’ve talked about how good guns are always a balance of different Pros and cons, different capabilities and detriments. And the Whitworth was a total one-trick pony of a gun, It could shoot very accurately. However it was expensive, it was slow to produce, it was time-consuming, It fouled quite quickly, because you had this very close mechanical fit between the bullet and the barrel. And yet you’re shooting black powder, that black powder fouling will pretty quickly Start to cause problems trying to reload the gun. Everything about this was bad, except it’s phenomenal accuracy. … Whitworth submitted this for British military testing, and they really liked the accuracy, But because of all the other downsides this would never have been adopted by the British military as a standard arm. Well the same thing kind of applies to its Confederate use. The Confederacy was never going to adopt this thing as their standard rifle because, Jeez, they could hardly afford any guns, much less these things. One source I found said that just the rifle without packaging, without the scope, without any embellishments, Was 96 dollars in 1860. That is an extremely expensive gun, that’s 3 times, … at least 3 times the cost the Union was paying for high-tech breech-loading carbines at that point. Maybe 4 times the price, so. However … elements of the Confederacy did buy a small number of these guns, And they were actually used in the Civil War. There’s documentation that shows that there’s Correspondence that survives between Confederate arsenals and Confederate combat units talking about Whitworth rifles and their supply of ammunition, and that sort of thing. These were very specialised Sharpshooter’s rifles, and those sharpshooters, it appears, moved around quite a bit, wherever they were needed. … Spent fired Whitworth bullets have been found on a huge number of … Civil War battlefields, so. The numbers are a bit vague, … different sources suggest as few as maybe 50

Of these guns were imported, up to maybe one source says about 250 were ordered, And about half that many actually made it through the Union blockade to be delivered. In any case we’re definitely not talking about any more than 125 of these rifles, And their survival chances from all the way back to the Civil War are quite small. … I think it’s 19 of these are known to exist, or 20, or something right in that range. Very few of these survive today. So let’s take a closer look at it. I’ll show you the distinctive markings and features and what you would look for on a Whitworth rifle. Now the Whitworth was a standard percussion fired gun, and other than the hexagonal bore And the extreme precision with which it was made, it functioned just like every other muzzle loader. So you would pour powder and a wad and press a bullet down the barrel, you would affix a percussion cap here, (Put the hammer at half cock.) And then fire the rifle and rinse and repeat. We have some markings on the lock plate here, Whitworth Rifle Company, Manchester. (Obviously in England.) And then we have a crest and a W, that’s the Whitworth company crest right there. They’re a little hard to see because this rifle is, well, it’s been around for 150 years, But we have markings right here. We have a Birmingham proof mark, a couple of them. 52, that is the bore diameter, this is a 52 bore rifle, which is actually .451 inch, it’s a .45 calibre rifle. And then we have our serial number right here, That is C, as in Charlie, 544. Whitworth manufactured these guns in 1,000 unit groups, or 1,000 gun groups. They started with number 1 And they went up to number 1,000, or 999 I presume, and then they would restart with an ’A’ prefix, And then a ’B’ prefix, etc. Now all of the existing known and … confirmed and documented Confederate rifles are in the B and the C Prefix groups, and the highest known one is C, I believe, 619. So this number falls within that range. Then there’s one other marking typically found on the Confederate rifles, and that is on the bottom tang Of the rifle, this ’second quality’ marking. And that actually doesn’t have anything to do with the shooting Capability of the rifle, that has to do with the finish. Because of the cost of these guns, Most of them were sold to high-end target shooters, or hunters, or generally wealthy Customers. And so they had a very nice fit and finish, often engraving or fancy checkering. The ones that the Confederacy bought, they needed a good shooting rifle, but they needed to pay As little as possible because they didn’t have a have a lot of money to dump into this sort of thing. So they typically purchased what were called ’second quality’ guns, Which had a reduced level of exterior fit and polish – well not fit, but finish quality and polish. This scope is obviously going to raise some questions.

The Confederate rifles were fitted by the Whitworth company with 4x power Davidson scopes, Like this one. This rifle, this particular rifle, as with many of the surviving Confederate ones Was actually originally found without a scope or mounts. So, it has been refitted with a new scope and mount, those aren’t the original ones from the Confederacy. And it’s interesting that these scopes are mounted on the side of the rifle. If you do some reading online, You’ll see people suggesting that this was intended for supine shooting. Where you lay on your back. This was a style that was used in competition at the time, I did a little bit of tinkering with it myself and there is in fact a supine position where this sort of works. It’s not all that comfortable to me, but then again I haven’t done any practice of that style of shooting. Basically the two ways you can do this are either to rest the stock of the gun in your armpit, In which case you need the sights actually moved much farther back than this, or you can actually Wrap your … left hand around the back of your head to hold on to the butt plate. If you hold it that way, you have a cheek weld, a cheek rest up in this area, And that could actually work with this style of scope. That said though, you can also pretty easily get a nice sight picture with this scope As it is with a normal standing or any other traditional position. So you’ll read about people saying that, you know, Whitworth snipers could be Identified by their black eyes, you know, from getting hit in the face by the scope. I don’t think there’s much basis in reality in that, because you actually have plenty of eye relief on this And it fits better than you would expect. Now if we take a look at the muzzle, you can see the hexagonal rifling that’s in there, And it’s flared out a little bit at the crown to allow you to more easily start a bullet in the bore. Like I said, this is a .451 calibre gun, rifled barrel, and the load was a 530 grain projectile With 70 grains of black powder. So barrel length is 33 inches, And it has a 1 in 20 twist, which is a lot faster than the standard 1853 Enfield musket of the time. In addition Whitworth pointed out that you would want to use a very hard bullet. With a normal muzzle loader you want a soft bullet so that the base of the bullet can expand and Get a nice seal on the rifling. With this, the seal is a mechanical one And you don’t want the bullet to expand. In fact you want it to stay unexpanded because That will allow you to fully take advantage of the precision of the gun. So you’d use a very hard alloy when making bullets for these. Fortunately for us, the results of at least one British accuracy test have actually survived, And they put this up against an 1853 musket (which by the way was made to look downright terrible in the process),

And we have actual numbers on exactly how this rifle, well not this specific rifle, But how the Whitworth shot in competition.
[NB – see later correction video.] And the the closest range that they shot at was 500 yards, at which distance it made a 4.4 inch group. That’s 0.85 MOA. There are very few shooters who can do that reliably … without using a mechanical rest with a modern gun. Being able to do that with a black-powder muzzle loader, I keep saying this, Sorry but it really remains true, it’s an amazing feat. They then continued shooting all the way out to 1,800 yards, and the accuracy did diminish on the gun. But at 1,100 yards they were still doing a 2.5 minute group, at 1,400 yards they had a 3.78 minute group, And at 1,800 yards (at which point, by the way, they didn’t even bother to shoot the Enfield), This thing, the Whitworth, was able to put out a 7.4 minute of angle group. So it’s (OK I know this is getting annoying), but it was a remarkably accurate rifle. In order to change the scope elevation you would actually start by loosening this screw, Right there, and then we can adjust the scope on the other side There is a graduated scale on this side, and if we rotate it up you can see there’s a little index mark right there. And once this mounting screw is loose the scope can slide up and down, so what you can do is Change it to whatever elevation you want. And I believe these markings are actually in degrees. So … you would have to have figured out what angle you want for the range that you are shooting at. But once you do that, you put it wherever you want it and then tighten the screw down on the other side And that locks it into place. I think the Whitworth really goes to show you just what can be accomplished with even very early machine tools. You know, we barely have good steel at this point in history to make guns out of, Much less CAD/CAM software and CNC machine tools. And yet, here Sir Joseph was able to mass-produce a firearm capable of sub-minute of angle accuracy at 500 yards. That’s really a … it’s hard to convey how significant of a feat that is. He did really well, And these were fantastically prized rifles at the time. Of course he went out of business doing it, because even if what you’re producing Is the best thing in the world, if you can’t do it at a price point that makes it feasible, Well then it’s not gonna become a long-term successful venture, and Whitworth’s wasn’t. Now he went on to do plenty of other things, … Whitworth’s rifle may have been a one-trick pony for accuracy, But Sir Joseph Whitworth was not, he had plenty of other things to spend his time on. If you have any interest in Confederate arms, or if you’re interested in the history of sniping rifles, This is an extraordinarily rare piece and a really interesting foundational important element to a collection. So, if you’re interested in it, take a look at the description text below, you’ll find a link there To the James Julia catalogue page on this particular rifle. You can check out

All of the documentation they have with it, they’ve actually got quite a bit with it, As well as their photos and everything else. And if you’re interested, you can place a bid on it over the web, or over the phone, Or you can come here and participate live in the auction. Thanks for watching.

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