Baker rifle, in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Cat.No. 1884.27.39.
The so-called ‘Baker’ rifle is, in fact, the Pattern 1800 Infantry Rifle, but referred to since Victorian times as the Baker Rifle. This infantry rifle was used by the British Army throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The Baker Rifle had the distinction of the longest service by any rifle in the British Army. The rifle placed in their hands by its inventor, Ezekiel Baker, ‘…was a superbly designed weapon, both robust and practical.’ (Urban, 2004). The Baker Rifle, which was a muzzle-loading flintlock, was the first British rifle to be used. Issued to the Rifle Brigade in 1800 it remained in use until 1838. There is mention of it being used by troops engaged in the so-called ‘Kaffir’ Wars of 1851, and records of its distribution as late as 1841.
Detail of 1884.27.39
The Baker Rifle in the Pitt Rivers Museum
The displayed rifle in the Gun Case has a label that states the weapon is a Baker Rifle of circa 1800 that was issued to specialist rifle regiments at the beginning of the 19 th century. Further stating that, with the technology of the day, it was too costly for general army issue. Furthermore, it was the first British military firearm to be rifled. It has an Accession Number of 1884.27.39. The rifle was donated by Augustus Henry Lane Fox in 1884 (and therefore part of the Founding Collection) but was collected prior to 1874. It was originally displayed in Bethnal Green and Kensington Museums (V&A).
Stamped on the silver coloured metal lock of the rifle is ‘Tower’ and ‘GR with crown’. Also on the lock is a lock proof mark of a crown over an arrow or chevron pointing downwards. On the brass butt tang is stamped ’14/9″CRR’. The weapon is noted as being 1165 mm in length. As will be shown later the rifle on display is, in fact, an 1806 Tower Pattern Infantry Rifle (made after 1806) and possibly issued to the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) who were formed in 1817, dressed in green, and supplied with a rifle that also used a sword bayonet. Regimental marks were often stamped on the butt tangs of rifles.
Stamped on the barrel (see illustration) is a set of proof marks. The crown and GR always appears uppermost to the crown and crossed sceptres symbol. The symbols combined on the barrel of this Baker Rifle indicate that these are Georgian Government proofs from 1815 to 1830 (Bailey, 1986). The barrel is government manufactured. If the barrel had been made privately, and only proofed by the Ordinance proof house, the crown and sceptres would be stamped twice. This proof mark sequence always occurs in conjunction on rifles made and proofed by the government ordnance. This also shows that, by its proof marks, this rifle was made after 1815 and before it was supplied to the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) circa 1817.
The Origin of the Baker Rifle
The first breech-loading rifle made for the army use was the Ferguson rifle designed in 1774. Rifles had been employed by some units of militia in a number of actions with noted success. The Board of Ordnance had bought, in 1796, some rifles from the famous gunmaker Durs Egg. This weapon looked like a musket and had a 39 inch barrel with 0.704 inch bore. It was this fact that came to the notice of the British Board of Ordnance. The late 18 th century Board of Ordnance was a separate department to the British Army that researched procurement of the best weapons, and established in offices in Horse Guards. They had the overall responsibility of determining which weapons regiments used, as well as naval artillery requirements. As such the Board was a scientific and professional organisation. It was their intention to obtain the best rifle to equip an elite and specially trained rifle corps as well as already existing rifle units such as the 5th Battalion of the 60th Regiment of Foot.
In January of 1800 Colonel Coote Manningham received a letter, from the Adjutant General of the Army, which informed him that the Duke of York intended to give him command of a Corps of detachments from 14 Regiments of the Line. This was for the express ‘…purpose of its being instructed in the use of the Rifle and in the System of Exercise adopted by soldiers so armed.’ (WO 3/21 cited in Blackmore, 1994). This Corps of Riflemen, at Woolwich, as Manningham was informed was not a distinct or permanent unit but was a ‘…Corps of Experiment and Instruction.’ (WO 3/32 cited in Blackmore, 1994).
During the first week of February a series of rifle experiments were conducted at Woolwich near London. Apart from the words of Ezekiel Baker, and the recorded travel expenses of the Master Furbisher, no report of the rifle tests exists. The trials of many submissions resulted in Ezekiel Baker’s barrel being adopted as the first issue British rifle. As Baker himself opined ‘In the year 1800 the principal gun makers in England were directed by the Honourable Board of Ordnance to procure the best rifle possible, for the use of a rifle corps (the 95 th Regiment) raised by the government. Among those who were selected on this occasion, I was desired to attend: and a committee of field officers was appointed for the purpose of examining, and reporting according to their judgement. There were also many rifles from America and various parts of the continent produced at the same time. These were all tried at Woolwich; when my barrel, having only an quarter of a turn in the rifle, was approved by the committee.’ (Baker, 1823). The initial design was not innovative but reflected the better features of continental examples. Baker’s first two submissions were rejected by Manningham because they were of musket size and bore and believed too cumbersome, but the third model was approved and this eventually became the first rifle pattern adopted by the British army. As Baker himself said ‘When the 95 th Regiment was first raised, I made some rifles of equal dimensions of the muskets, in order that they might be supplied with ammunition, if necessarily supplied, from any infantry regiment that might be near them. They were, however, strongly objected to by the Commanding Officer, Colonel Manningham, as well as all the officers of the Regiment, as requiring too much exertion, and harassing the men from their excessive weight. They were consequently immediately relinquished, and twenty to the pound substituted.’ (Baker, 1823).
It seems that Manningham, the father of the thinking rifleman, had a vital role in the decision making process of the Board. It was Manningham who provided Baker with a German Jaeger rifle with the recommendation that he copy it. The final selection therefore of Baker’s pattern was one with the Jaeger barrel of 30 inches length. The rifle commissioned by the Board had also a ‘carbine bore’ of 0.625 inches with a quarter turn seven groove rifling. The rifle did indeed resemble the German Jaeger model, as well as other continental rifles, but the real innovation given the rifle was Baker’s quarter turn rifling which was claimed to give greater accuracy. Selection of Ezekiel Baker’s third rifle pattern to be the weapon of choice for the new Rifle Corps was a process lasting two years.
In October 1800 another matter was concluded after much argument. The elite Corps of Riflemen was officially established on August 25 th with their accoutrements and distinctive green uniforms approved and authorised for eight companies, and they were equipped throughout with the Baker Rifle. In March the Board of Ordnance had provided Ezekiel Baker with a request for his pattern barrels and rifles. This first batch was for 800, especially for the 95 th Regiment of Foot, and were ordered from gunsmiths in London and Birmingham. This Board of Ordnance manufacturing system established a network of contracts for barrels and locks from gun-makers Egg, Nock, Baker, Pritchett, Brander, Wilkes, Bennett, Harrison and Thompson. The first rifles cost 36 shillings for those with patch boxes in the butt and 32 shillings for those without.
Ezekiel Baker and his Rifle
Ezekiel Baker originally served his apprenticeship with the gun-maker Henry Nock and subsequently worked for this master. However, in 1794, Baker became gun contractor to the British Board of Ordnance. Established in a small workshop in the London Minories he was employed on producing locks and barrels. For a while Baker was in partnership with a lock maker called James Negus. Baker also had government contracts for smooth bore muskets and pistols and supplied the Honourable East India Company.
The specimen rifle made to his specifications and submitted for experiment was chosen in 1800 for the then newly raising Rifle Corps. It was afterwards that he wrote and published his ‘Remarks on Rifle Guns.’ Indeed, as is known Baker ‘…demonstrated his inventions superiority in competitive trials organised by the Board of Ordnance.’ (Urban, 2004). Further to this, for what eventually became seen as the essence of the Baker Rifle, it ‘…was also remarked, that the barrel was less liable to foul from frequent firing, than the whole, the three-quarters, or half-turns in angles of the rifle, which was considered of great advantage to the corps, particularly when engaged, as they would not require so often sponging out as the greater angles would and yet possess every advantage of the other rifle in point of accuracy and strength of shooting at three hundred yards distance. For all these reasons the committee gave mine a preference, and recommended to the Honourable Board of Ordnance to have their rifles made upon a similar construction.’ (Baker, 1823). From this it can be seen that the rifling twist rate had only one quarter of a turn in the rifle. Such rifling endowed a far more rapid spin to the round lead ball and, in theory, imparted greater accuracy. The barrel of Baker’s rifle was only 30 inches in length and therefore one turn in 120 inches. As elements of continental rifles had been incorporated into the pattern it was, as Baker himself pointed out, only the innovative rifling system that he claimed as his own. Bakers main improvements were to reduce barrel length and overall size and weight, and also to reduce the rifle bore to a standard for the time of 0.625 inches.
In 1805 Ezekiel Baker established his own production facilities at 24 Whitechapel Road in London. On one side there was Size Yard and at the rear a large warehouse which he converted into a factory and his own proof-house. Baker had come to the attention of the Prince of Wales and this Royal patron, as Colonel of the 10th Dragoons arranged the adoption of Baker’s cavalry rifle for that Regiment. Soon Baker was appointed court gun maker. Further encouragement by the Prince of Wales led to Baker establishing his own proof house whereby he subjected his guns to his special ‘Fire, Water and Target’ proof and special proof mark stamps. Ezekiel Baker’s private shop and factory developed into a rival to the other gun-makers proof house.
Ezekiel Baker was responsible for improvements in firearms that included bayonet design and fitting, pistol grips, special locks, barrel rammers. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures gave him three silver medals for his developments in safety locks and his bullet moulds. Not only had Baker’s rifle shown its improved and reliable accuracy it had also ‘…managed to overcome the prejudice against such weapons by being robust enough for field service.’ (Urban, 2004).
The Development of the Baker Rifle
As the Baker Rifle was, under the terms of the Government contract, made in many gunsmith shops in London and Birmingham, it is not surprising that there are subtle variations to be seen between individual weapons. In addition the rifle was subject to certain modifications throughout its life as a service rifle.
The progress of the Napoleonic War led to changes in the Baker Rifle. A Second Pattern was fitted with the ‘Newland’ lock and a Third Pattern appeared in 1806 with a pistol grip trigger guard. In addition it had a four and a half inch butt box (or patch box) with a characteristic rounded plain front. This is the type displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum gun case. Also notable in the Pattern 3 was the 5 inch long flat lock plate, a raised semi-waterproof pan, a sturdy safety bolt, and a flat ring neck cock. By 1809 riflemen were equipped with the Third Pattern introduced in 1806, which by 1823 had become standard issue. As with the Pitt Rivers example the furniture (e.g., butt tang, escutcheon, side plate, trigger guard) of the rifle was made of brass. A sling was fastened to the rifle and it was sighted for 200 yards.
However, Baker Rifle quality varied. This depended on the type of flintlock fitted, on whether they were made in Birmingham or London, but nonetheless service reliability ensured production until 1838. Most of the rifles made between 1800 and 1815 were produced under the Tower of London System, not by Ezekiel Baker. The System meant that Baker subcontracted out production to some 20 or more gunsmiths. For the period 1805-1815 Baker made only 712 rifles. A number of variations included the 1801 Pattern West India Rifle (a simplified version minus a butt box); the 1809 Pattern with its 0.75 inch musket calibre; and 1800/15 Pattern Rifle that had been altered to accept a socket bayonet instead of the usual sword-bayonet.
Between 1805 and 1808 the Board of Ordnance took into its stores some 10,078 English made Baker rifles. This had increased to 14,000 by the end of the Napoleonic War. It was from 1813 that the Baker cavalry carbine had been issued to the 10 th Light Dragoons, whereas a cavalry carbine made by Ezekiel Baker was issued to the Life Guards in 1801. An average of 2,000 Baker Rifles of various patterns were produced in London and Birmingham gun shops between 1804 and 1815. Of these Birmingham supplied 14,615 complete rifles plus 32,582 barrels and 37,338 rifle locks.
The Baker Rifle and its pattern variations was in service with the British Army between 1801 and 1838. The weapon was a standard rifle with a calibre (ammunition size) of 0.625 inches (15.9 mm) or ‘carbine bore’. It weighed about nine pounds (4.08 kg). Designed between 1798 and 1800 it was 43 and three quarter inches in total length (1162 mm) but the camouflage browned barrel was only some 30 inches (762 mm) long. The Pitt Rivers Baker Rifle measures 1165 mm in total length. Muzzle-loaded, it fired by flintlock ignition a lead ball of 0.615 inches diameter (hence the need for greased linen or leather patches), but later ammunition supplied was ball cartridge. Ignition was provided by a TOWER marked lock (firing mechanism) which was also marked with a crown over GR forward of the lock. A proficient rifleman could achieve a rate of three rounds per minute, and a semi-skilled man could be credited with two rounds per minute. Baker rifles, like Brown Bess muskets, were fully stocked with the wood extending the length of the barrel.
The Baker Rifle stocks were made from English walnut and comprised two class types. Earlier versions have large and two compartment butt box. The second type of stock is not drilled but slit to accommodate a housing for the rammer, and has a smaller butt box. The Pitt Rivers Museum Baker Rifle is of this second type. The butt box of the second type was covered by a 4 and a half inch brass plate or lid. This covered a single compartment for the tools required for regular and essential maintenance. This feature also suggests that in the later version the butt box was no longer a patch box but could contain the new integral ball cartridge.
Rifle Corps officers permitted their men to load their rifles after their own fashion or preference. This allowed on the condition that they could demonstrate it was accurate to set standards. Live ammunition was used in practise and riflemen could achieve ranges of 150 to 200 yards firing twice a minute. This is a previously unknown level of accuracy compared to the standard issue musket’s unreliability beyond 75 yards. Rifle accuracy was required in order to strike an enemy soldier, at a distance greater than that of the enemy musket, somewhere about his person. Certainly with the intention of rendering him hors de combat, if not dead or mortally wounded. The rifleman, who could accurately shoot birds and rabbits for food at some range were naturally expected to shoot moving French, or other troops, with a good measure of accuracy and regularity. For this purpose the Baker Rifle had brazed to its barrel two sights, front and rear. The rear sight consisted of a block situated 7 inches forward of the breach and which was cut with a V notch. The front sight was made from an iron blade on a thin rectangular base. The front sight of the Pitt Rivers Museum example appears to be made of brass. The barrel shows the camouflage browning that was intended to prevent glare from exposing the positions of sharpshooter riflemen.
Following the German style the Baker Rifle was designed to accept a sword-bayonet of some 24 inches long. Therefore the first bayonet for the Baker Rifle was a single-edged flat sword of 23 inches length. It was brass handled with a knuckle bow and clipped onto a muzzle bar. It weighed 2 pounds and, as later reports confirmed, created difficulties of for firing when it was attached to the rifle muzzle. Production of the sword-bayonets was contracted out to the Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osbourne. The sword-bayonet was a feature of the rifle during the Peninsular War but was replaced after 1815 with a lighter socket bayonet. Contemporary diaries and letters of riflemen suggest that they liked their little sword even though it was rarely used for hand to hand fighting for various reasons. The sword-bayonet was a weapon of last resort, it was too short to be effective, especially as riflemen by definition were sharpshooters. The sword bayonet was, however, very useful for chopping wood, digging holes, cutting and toasting meat, and many other tasks.
The sword-bayonet became an inevitable concomitant of the Baker Rifle’s development. It continued unmodified until 1815 with the length of the sword-bayonet conceived as a rifle and sword to parallel the musket and bayonet concept. The Pitt Rivers Museum sword-bayonet (Accession Number 1884.28.43) is stated to belong to the Baker Rifle displayed (1884.27.39). Although it is not displayed, the weapon is described as a sword-bayonet, straight and flat, single-edged, brass handle and cross-guard forming a bow guard, plate from guard over with spring and button. It states it was made in Birmingham in 1801 although the Baker Rifle on display was made after 1806.
The Baker Rifle, the British Army, and Other Units
Skirmishers were a feature of the early battles fought during the French Revolution. Accordingly, the British Army considered expanding those of its units able to fight in dispersed order. It followed that such units would need to be supplied with a rifle.
Riflemen of the 60th and 95th. Source: public domain.
The Baker Rifle was initially issued to Manningham’s Experimental Corps of Riflemen in 1800. The demand for more Baker Rifles soon outgrew the initial order for 800 to equip the single battalion of the 95th Regiment of Foot. An additional two battalions each for both the 60th and the 95th Regiments had Baker Rifles by 1806-1810. The Baker Rifle was supplied officially only to rifle regiments, their use restricted to those units considered to be elite units. These included the 5th Battalion of the 60th , and rifle companies of the 6th and 7th Battalions of the 60th Regiment of Foot. Rifles were issued to the 3 battalions comprising the 95th Regiment of Foot (which served between 1808 and 1814 in the Peninsular War under Wellington). Baker Rifles were used by the 3rd Battalion of the 95th in the War of 1812 as well as at the Battle of New Orleans. Again by the 95th who stood their ground at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Rifleman and his equipment during Peninsular War. Source: public domain.
The Baker Rifle was also distributed to the Light Troops of the King’s German Legion when they formed in 1804. Other German units such as the Brunswick Oels received Baker Rifles, as did the Portuguese Cacadores. Volunteer Units also, as did the Honourable East India Company in receiving its first order in 1802. Variants of the Baker Rifle (in its carbine pattern) were issued to the 10th Hussars. After the end of the Napoleonic War Baker Rifles were issued to other light regiments of foot. The 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers were using Baker Rifles when stationed in Australia between 1833 and 1840. Indeed, the Baker Rifle was eventually used in many countries during the first half of the 19th century, including by Mexican troops at the Battle of the Alamo.
As far as the rifle regiments were concerned their recruits were chosen for their qualities. Most riflemen could read and write and surviving diaries and letters bear testament to this. In addition, each rifleman carried a bag for tools containing a ball puller, worm, tommy bar and turns-screw, as well as spare flints and greased patches if required. It is notable, compared to the structure of other Line Regiments, that rifle officers often dined with their men and thus came to know them well. In the field Skirmisher riflemen using Baker Rifles often faced their opponents in pairs. More experienced riflemen had trained and practised in techniques to enable them to shoot running soldiers. This was aided in the field by their ability to practice shoot and hunt rabbits and birds. Riflemen also used specially made moving targets to increase their proficiency in hitting moving soldiers at range. Whereas the Baker Rifle could achieve an average accuracy of 1 in 20 shots hitting the target, in the field this compared to 1 in 200 for the musket.
Designed as a soldier-proof military weapon for ease of mass-production, the Baker Rifle proved to be a very successful and long-serving gun. It was eventually issued to units across large geographical distances – as the Pitt Rivers Museum Baker Rifle indicates it may have seen service in the Ceylon Rifle Regiment some time after 1815, after being made some time after 1806.
There were basic requirements that needed to be met by this rifle. These were: (1) it accepted an existing and established military calibre ball; (2) its rate of fire was reasonably fast for battlefield conditions; (3) it was generally accurate in battle up to (and frequently beyond) 150 yards, and (4) it was robust enough to withstand the rigours of battle and campaigning military service. The accuracy of the Baker Rifle can be attested by the actions of one Rifleman Plunkett of the 1st Battalion of the 95th Regiment. During the retreat to Corunna Plunkett shot through the head and killed the French General Colbert at an estimated range of 600 yards. On denying it was a lucky shot he thereupon shot an aide-de-camp going to Colbert’s assistance.
Even though it is thought that the friendship of the Prince of Wales aided Baker’s success with his Infantry Pattern Rifle now named after him, nonetheless the gun had much to recommend it. The Baker Rifle was a major improvement on the smoothbore musket nicknamed the Brown Bess, which had become standardised as the army’s flintlock firearm for over a century. Compared to the 57 inches long Brown Bess the specialist issue , relatively short Baker Rifle proved to be an innovative and handy weapon.
From the time of its 1800 introduction the lock of the Baker Rifle underwent several improvements until the end of the Napoleonic War. This was in common with most other arms of the period. The advantages of the Baker Rifle over its rivals was that it was simple to reload and was less likely to foul after about 25 shots. The Baker Rifle was also sighted along its shorter barrel which ostensibly allowed for greater accuracy over longer ranges.
Recently a series of novels and television series telling of the exploits of a fictional 95th Regiment Officer – one Richard Sharpe – and his riflemen companions during the Peninsular War, has popularised the history of the Baker Rifle and the 95th Regiment of Foot under Lord Wellington. The rifle carried by these men in the television series is a replica of the 1806 Third Pattern Baker rifle. It is identifiable by its later pattern butt box with rounded brass plate front. As such the replica is almost identical, if not identical, with the Baker Rifle displayed in the gun case of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
This article was originally printed online as part of ‘The Other Within’ project of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Spring 2008. I am grateful to the museum for allowing me to reprint my article in its present format.
References, Sources, and Further Reading
Baker, E. Remarks on Rifle Guns. 8 th ed. London, 1823.
Bailey, D. W. British Military Longarms, 1715-1865. London (1986)
Blackmore, H. L. British Military Firearms 1650-1850. Greenhill, 1994
Haythornthwaite, P J. & Hooke, C. British Rifleman, Osprey, 2002.
Arming the Rifleman. Regimental HQ. Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, 2000.
Peterson, H. L. ‘Encyclopaedia of Firearms’, The Connoisseur, London, 1964.
Urban, M. The Rifles. Faber & Faber, London, 2004.