Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Baker Rifle

The wars in the colonies, specifically the French and Indian War (otherwise known as the Seven Years War) and the American Revolution, significantly altered British military tactics.  Britain was a superpower in the 18th century.  It's navy ruled the seas and its infantry was feared by Europeans and the colonists alike.   British firepower, perfected in linear tactics, controlled the field.   Infantry presented itself in open fields, marched within 100 yards of each other and unleashed volley after volley directly into each other's ranks from smoothbore flintlock muskets.  When one side was significantly weakened, the stronger launched a bayonet charge causing the weaker unit to either flee the field or suffer at the end of a the nearly  two foot long triangular spike bayonet.   In the eighteenth century, the British officers were masters of  linear tactics performed by magnificently disciplined troops.   It was unheard of to fight in the winter and ungentlemanly to target officers.  The American wars changed all of that.

Native Americans, first employed by the French, knew nothing of linear tactics.  Rather, native Americans utilized concealment, ambush and fear to fight their battles.  The Canadian French adopted the tactics of their native American allies in the French and Indian War.  British General Edward Braddock's disastrous 1755 campaign on Fort Dusquesne educated British officers as to these new tactics.  The British expedition suffered a crushing defeat in which ambush and concealment soundly defeated linear tactics.  While British regulars and colonial militia tried to form up and fire volleys in ranks, native Americans and Frenchmen, firing from behind cover, decimated the British ranks and targeted and killed officers, including General Braddock.

Ambush and concealment carried forth into the American Revolution.   At Lexington and Concord, American militia melted when facing British linear assault.  However, the British suffered stinging losses on the return to Boston from the same militia who executed ambush along the march route and peppered the British from concealed positions.   The weapon of choice of many a militiaman was  the Pennsylvania rifle.

Hunting rifles existed for years prior to the American Revolution and were used by traditional European huntsmen such as chasseurs and jagers.    Grooves cut in the weapon's barrel spun the ball as it traveled and increased distance and accuracy.  The British reaction to American tactics was to create light infantry units -- troops trained to move fast and fight independently, often in units of two.  While not armed with rifles, British light infantry were the seed of the rifle regiments formed in the early 19th century.  These elite regiments wore the green jackets harkening back to those worn by chasseurs and  jagers,  were trained in the tactics of light infantry and were armed, when possible, with the Baker rifles.  British rifle regiments,  the 95th Regiment of Foot (the Rifles) and the 60th Regiment of Foot (the Loyal Americans --the unit was originally intended to be recruited from loyal colonists), served with particular distinction during the Napoleonic Wars.  Bernard Cornwell fans know well that his intriguing fictional character, Richard Sharpe, rose from the ranks to hold a commission in the 95th (a feat which actually did occur from time to time, but not very often).

Ezekiel Baker developed his rifle in the early 19th century in response to a call from the British government  for a weapon with which to arm its riflemen.  Baker beat out stiff competition from very qualified gunsmiths,  including Henry Nock, and won the contract in February of 1800.   Over 22,000  Baker rifle were manufactured over the long lifespan of the weapon.  It  served until 1837 at which time it was replaced by the Brunswick rifle.

             Photo source:  web.science.mq.edu.au

The first thing noticeable about the Baker when compared to the standard British Napoleonic era longarm, the smoothbore Brown Bess, is its length.   The .75 calibre Bess stands a good nine inches taller than the Baker.  However, even with its shorter barrel, the .625 calibre  Baker is greatly outclasses its smoothbore cousin in accuracy and effective range, making it more suitable for harassing fire and sniping. The downside of the Baker, and other early rifles, is the increased loading time. Because of the need for the round to fit tight against the grooves of the barrel, it took some force to ram the round down the barrel.   Often, a cloth patch was used to ensure a snug fit--hence the patch box incorporated into the rifles stock (one easy way to spot any 18th and 19th  century rifle is by the patch box cover on the stock).    Repeated firing compounded the situation, as fouling of the barrel made for a tighter fit.  For assistance in loading, rifleman were issued mallets with which to pound the ball down the barrel.   An average rifleman got off two rounds per minute.  The average soldier armed with a smoothbore musket fired around 3 rounds per minute.    The smoothbore sacrifices accuracy and range for speed of firing.  A smoothbore musket, such as the Brown Bess, is somewhat accurate up to 100 yards.  The Baker is accurate up to 200 yards.  For close defense the rifleman was issue a sword bayonet, rather than the standard triangular bayonet.

I do not and have not owned a Baker rifle.  Maybe one day I will.