Memoir of William Ellis Metford (5)

Introduction | To India | Bullets & Telescope Sights | NRA & Small-bore Rifle | Military Breech Loaders

In 1867, Mr. Metford and his friend Capt. (now Lt.-Col.) Fosbery, V.C., went to the Paris Exhibition and exhibited to the French artillerists their respective explosive rifle bullets, for Capt. Fosbery had used one of his own design with great success, especially for finding ranges, in the Umbeyla Campaign. The Montigny Mitrailleuse had then just been produced, and Capt. Fosbery reported on it to the India Office and War Office. He was instructed by the Government to get one of these machines made in Belgium, and with Mr. Metford's assistance provided an improved barrel, with the result that its efficiency was much improved, and that it afterwards made as accurate shooting at 1,000 yards as it had before at 450.

One advantage of the ousting of the Whitworth system of deep grooving and a non-cylindrical bullet was that the difficulty of producing a satisfactory breech-loading rifle became less formidable, and before long this question was occupying Mr. Metford's attention. The Martini action, in combination with the Henry barrel, had been adopted in February, 1869, by the Small Arms Committee, who had before them the work of all the prominent rifle makers. of the day, but not Mr. Metford's. In 1870 he embarked seriously upon the problem. His very practical mind at once saw that the solid-drawn brass cartridge-case was, for strength and simplicity, far ahead of the compound rolled case adopted for the Service; and that, especially considering the needs of hot climates and other practical conditions, lubrication of bullet or cartridge was inadmissible. Every detail of the barrel and cartridge received close attention from him, and especially the form of the chamber and of the "entry" conducting the bullet from the cartridge into the rifling. The adoption of a grooving of segmental form was also found to give great advantages in preventing the accumulation of fouling. It was not long before his first experimental breech-loaders made their appearance, and at Wimbledon, in 1871, two rifles and a limited supply of home made ammunition were used. Mr. Metford was extremely anxious that his rifle should win, if possible, H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge's prize for military breech-loading rifles, a single prize of 50 pounds, and twelve competitors used these two rifles in the first stage of the competition, at 800 and 900 yards. Sir Henry Halford, who was the only one of these to shoot against ten other competitors in the final stage of ten shots at 1,000 yards, won the single prize in this stage with two points to spare, and the average score made by the rifle in the hands of the twelve who used it in the first stage was much higher than that of any other rifle.

The Metford rifle again won the Duke of Cambridge's prize in 1872, and in the same year the "Withingon" match, between teams armed with breech-loaders and muzzle-loaders, proved that, while the latter were certainly still superior, the Henry match breech-loader was quite out-classed by the Metford military rifle with match sights attached. By 1877 the rifle and ammunition had passed out of the experimental stage, and were made by makers of repute, to whom great credit is due for the good workmanship, which was an indispensable condition of the success of the rifle. From that time the record of the military rifle is an unbroken series of triumphs; and in the whole twenty-three years up to 1894, when military rifles of larger bore than .315 were no longer recognised by the National Rifle Association, the Metford rifle only four times failed to win the Duke of Cambridge's prize, while it took a preponderating share of the other prizes. The Martini-Henry, adopted so recently by the Committee on Small Arms as the best breech-loader, soon found its level, and after 1882 absolutely disappears from the long-range prize lists for the military breech-loader class. The superiority of the Metford rifle was notably shown in the matches with the military rifle between the Volunteers of Great Britain and the National Guard of the United States, in 1882 and 1883, when the American rifles proved to be decidedly inferior to the British, notably at the long ranges. In 1882 ten, and in 1883 eleven, of the British teams of twelve used the Metford rifle. Meanwhile, Mr. Metford's match rifle was always prominent in the long range competitions.

In a memorandum on the subject of his military rifles, Mr. Metford notes that the determination of the best alloy for his bullets cost him at least a year's time, and this is an example of the thoroughness with which every detail was considered. But although his own special line of work was concerned with the barrel and the cartridge, it must not be supposed that the merits of different breech actions failed to receive very close scrutiny. In 1870 he prepared for Mr. M. T. Bass, M.P., an exhaustive memorandum on the comparative merits of the Westley Richards and Martini breech actions, in which be dwelt forcibly on the weakness of the latter in leverage for extracting the cartridge. One can but feel, after reading this memorandum that the jamming of our soldiers' rifles in Egypt, a dozen years later was due to some fatal shortsightedness. Great, too, was the labour which he expended on making tables for the trajectories of his rifles. Mr. Froude gave him great help by suggesting a convenient formula on which to work, and he always-made calculation. and experiment go hand in hand. In deducing results from his experiments, he was extremely cautious, never allowing himself to be led into hasty conclusions. He possessed the rare gift of being able to criticise impartially his own work and ideas. In the summer he would sometimes fire his rifles up to their extreme ranges at Plymouth or Freshwater, against some rock in the sea, taking the distance with a theodolite, and watching through a telescope for the splash of the bullet in the water --for calm weather was essential-- seconds after pulling the trigger. Most of his experimental shooting was done in conjunction with Sir Henry Halford at Wistow. He was singularly free from any personal desire to win a high place in rifle competitions, and only once shot in the English Eight for the Elcho Shield, though in that annual match, in which his own rifles were so conspicuous, the English team constantly had the benefit of his "coaching" until about 1890, when he ceased to be a regular visitor to the National Rifle Association meetings. His great pleasure at Wimbledon was to watch the shooting and to talk with those really interested in rifles --for his great store of experience was always at their disposal.

The rapid advance in military small arms abroad, especially as regards quickness of loading, caused the appointment of a Committee to deal with the question of an improved British rifle in February, 1883. Mr. Metford designed, at the request of the Committee, the detail of the barrel of .42 bore for the rifle provisionally issued for trial at the beginning of 1887. But just at this time the question of further reduction of the calibre was raised, as a result of Continental experiments, and the outcome was the adoption of the present .303 barrel and cartridge for the Service. The fulness of Mr. Metford's knowledge enabled him at very short notice to lay down the proper proportions for the grooving, the pitch of the spiral, the shape and dimensions of the "entry," and the "clearances" to be given for the cartridge, all so satisfactorily, that though he himself verified them at much trouble and cost, and the Committee also tried them exhaustively, it was found that no modification could improve them, as regards accuracy, convenience in use, or ease of manufacture. It has to he remembered that the .303 was first used with black powder, for which his segmental grooving was almost essential, and that it was only the rapid destruction of the bore by the smokeless powder afterwards adopted, which made it advisable to return to a very obvious form of grooving which had been used by Mr. Metford twenty five years earlier. The adoption of the name Lee-Enfield for the 303 magazine rifle with the altered grooving, obscures the fact that the shape of the groove was only one of the many important but not obvious' details connected with the barrel, chamber and cartridge, which are due to Mr. Metford's skill. Far as he was from being ambitious, and utterly alien as any mercenary idea was to his mind, he felt keenly more than once, and especially in connection with the .303 rifle, the difficulty of obtaining that proper public recognition of his work for the country, which his strong sense of justice felt to be due to him.

The peculiar shape of the bullet devised and used by him in later years, with a blunt point and a long sloping shoulder, was found to cleave the air with less resistance than the older shapes, and to. make a very appreciable difference to the flatness of the trajectory at long ranges. This improvement was adapted by him for the Service rifle. For many years all the bullets used in his match and military rifles had been made on the premises of his own house, so important did he consider care in their manufacture to be. His industry was indomitable, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the labour expended by him on the one item of experiment with alloys of lead suitable for bullets. He went deeply into the subject of the gradual change of hardness which taken place in them, and thus gained a light on points that would otherwise have seemed inexplicable.

It was characteristic of Mr. Metford that he intended to have. spent a substantial part of the sum awarded him by the War Office for his services in connection with the .303 rifle, in fresh experiments, to clear up questions connected with recoil, the resistance of the air, and other matters; but, in the summer of 1892 a sharp attack of his old illness from which he did not return to his normal level of comparatively good health, put an end to such projects; and, after a few years of failing strength quietly spent, he passed away peacefully at his house at Redland, Bristol, on October 14th, 1899.

He made, in his latter years, few now friends, for he was not always equal to the exertion of social intercourse, and not many save his old friends really knew him for what he was. His kindness to the young learner, those who experienced it will never forget, and he had a sweetness and broad humanity about him such as many equally vigorous characters lack. Though devoted chiefly to scientific pursuits, ho read widely, and was keenly interested in all the matters that occupy the attention of thinking men--history, politics, science, and especially religion, for be was above all a God-fearing man. He bore the constant burden of illhealth with singular patience, and his calmness was conspicuous when, some fifteen years ago, he lost the records of half his life's gunnery work in a handbag stolen from a cab in London, and never recovered. It should be mentioned that in 1876, when closing the breech of a rifle, the cap exploded prematurely and blew off the upper part of his right thumb. He bore the pain of the healing of this with great fortitude. Cant and hypocrisy he hated, and the work of his hands was thoroughly and scrupulously finished; nor was the accuracy of his mind less well marked. His work, whether in India or at home, was worthy of wider appreciation than it received, and he left in the world of those interested in rifle-work a gap which there is none to fill.

Introduction | To India | Bullets & Telescope Sights | NRA & Small-bore Rifle | Military Breech Loaders