A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder. Rifles get their name from the helical grooves inside the barrel which is known as rifling. Rifles have greater range and are more accurate than smoothbore firearms due to the fact that the “rifling” imparts a spin onto the projectile which aids stability and prevents tumbling. This allows the use of aerodynamically efficient pointed bullets as opposed to the balls used in smoothbore muskets.
Typically, a bullet is propelled by the contained deflagration of an explosive compound (originally black powder, later cordite, and now nitrocellulose), although other means such as compressed air are used in air rifles, which are popular for vermin control, hunting small game, formal target shooting and casual shooting (“plinking).
The very first rifles were muzzle loaders however due to the impracticalities of pushing a tight fitting projectile into barrel that would quickly clog up with grim from previous shots they were difficult to load so this led to several innovations although the easiest involved a bullet with slightly smaller than the bore of the rifle which would expand upon firing. Due to these problems the breech loader soon arrived.
From 1836, breech-loading rifles were introduced with the German Dreyse Needle gun, and followed by the French Tabatière in 1857 the British Calisher and Terry carbine made in Birmingham and later in 1864 and the more well known British Snider-Enfield. Primitive chamber-locking mechanisms were soon replaced by bolt-action mechanisms, exemplified by the Chassepot in 1866. Breech loading was to have a major impact on warfare, as breech-loading rifles can be fired at a rate many times higher than muzzle loaded rifles and significantly can be loaded from a prone rather than standing position. Firing prone is more accurate than firing from a standing position, while a prone rifleman presents a much smaller target than a standing soldier. The higher accuracy and range, combined with reduced vulnerability generally benefited the defense while making the traditional battle between lines of standing and volleying infantry men obsolete.
Picture: One of the most famous Breech loading rifles was the Martini Henry MkIV shown bellow.
Revolving Rifles were an attempt to increase the rate of fire by utilising the mechanism for revolving handguns which had already been developed. These types of rifle were unpopular however due to shards of metal being projected from around the cylinder into the users hands!
An important area of development was the way that cartridges were stored and used in the weapon. The Spencer repeating rifle was a breech-loading manually operated lever action rifle that was adopted by the United States. Over 20,000 were used during the American Civil War. It marked the first adoption of a removable magazine-fed infantry rifle by any country. The design was completed by Christopher Spencer in 1860. It used copper rimfire cartridges stored in a removable seven round tube magazine, enabling the rounds to be fired one after another. When the magazine was empty, it could be exchanged for another.
The 20th century has saw some incredible developments in firearms and was perhaps the first time hugely industrialised nations fought each other on a large scale with constantly evolving modern weapons.At the stat of World War 1 most infantrymen would be equipped with a bolt action magazine fed rifle. Common rifles of this era would be the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield and the German Mauser Kar 98 (both pictured)
As World War 1 progressed it lead to the development of Automatic and Semi-Automatic Self Loading Rifles and submachine guns for trench clearing as rifles were found to be too bulky for close quarters trench warfare.
One difference between a Self Loading Rifle and a Submachine Gun would be the ammunition choice. As Self Loading Rifles tend to use Rifle cartridges or variations thereof whereas submachine guns generally used pistol calibre cartridges such as the very common 9mm Parabellum.
The Browning Automatic Rifle(B.A.R) is probably the most famous automatic rifle of the time. It fired the .30-06 Rifle cartridge from a 20 round magazine and was designed for use as a portable light machine gun for trench clearing.
During the time between World War 1 and World War 2 there wasn’t really any major developments in Rifle design. Although experience from the great war showed that most engagements took place under 300 yards and this did influence the design somewhat. However the interwar years did see the development of the famous M1 Garand.
It was during World War 2 that the German Military developed what is considered to be the worlds first “assault rifle” the StG 44 or Sturmgewehr 44 (translated as Storm or Assault Rifle) This was a major development in firearms design and influenced future designs for years to come.
The StG 44 was chambered for the 7.92×33 Kurz(short) cartridge which was a shortend version of the standard 7.92×57 rifle cartridge used by the Kar 98. It was developed as a response to the complaints of the short range of standard machine pistols (around 100 yards), the requirement for more firepower and of the bulk of standard rifles. The StG allowed for greater engagement ranges, semi automatic ability for accurate shooting at long ranges and fully automatic for supressive fire as well as a shorter length than standard rifles.
Post World War 2
After World War 2 rifle technology has continued to evolve with improvements in ammunition, materials and technology.The 1940-60’s saw some of the most famous firearms developed whilst the world was in the grip of the cold war.The AR15 and the M16 was developed making extensive use of light materials and plastics.
The Soviet AK47 was developed and introduced just after world war 2 and the clear influence of the German STG 44 can be seen.
The FN FAL pictured below was by many considered the “right arm of the free world” as it was used extensively by NATO military forces for many years and is still in use with many countries today. It is known as the L1A1 SLR in British Army parlance and is often spoke about highly by ex-service personnel.