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Confederate Whitworth Sniper: Hexagonal Bullets in 1860


Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another
video on ForgottenWeapons.com. 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.

100 thoughts on “Confederate Whitworth Sniper: Hexagonal Bullets in 1860

  1. I've never seen the word "sniper" used in period literature; the term then seems to have been sharpshooter. Down the road in Knoxville there is a historical marker concerning a U.S. General killed by a sharpshooter's bullet fired from a certain tower which still exists. I did a rough measure of the distance using the odometer and got 9/10's of a mile.

  2. Now Ian, I heard that the confederates bullets were like minie balls and when they were fired they shaped into the hexagonal pattern instead of being hexagonal on the way down the bore.

  3. Amazing for the time period, that 1 could shoot a 7-inch group at 1800 yards. Speaks for the human mind and its limitless boundless innovations.

  4. the bullshit sounding aspect of this study is how on earth does someone intend for a tight group at 500 yards with iron sights ?

  5. https://youtu.be/83gGIotGXN8
    I found this very interesting since it shows many details of loading and shooting the rifle.

  6. To be honest I still rather have melted butter on my popcorn. The salty flavors are good enough but…

  7. Ohhh how i wishi could've bid on this rifle i have a regular Whit and it would've been sold to a friend with an eye on it for years!! I know they're rare but Definetly a BEAUTIFUL investment

  8. So, what are the chances that General "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance" Sedgwick was taken out by one of these weapons?
    https://civilwarhome.com/sedgwickdeath.htm

  9. You don't ever see a confederate sniper. You only hear them from a distance. Its a one in a lifetime chance.

  10. Great presentation, the Whitworth is a successful example of the use of lateral thinking in the design of this rifle. Thank you Ian.

  11. Witworth also exported a few field pieces ,,Hexagonal shells [ "bolts} and breech loaders t'boot. https://civilwarwiki.net/w/images/e/e7/12pdr_whitworth.jpg

  12. Products like this suffer from only appealing to a niche of a niche market. That can work, if that niche is willing to pay the exorbitant prices. Look at the people who buy Bugatti Veyrons and Chirons for over a million dollars.
    But armies generally don't want to pay too much per gun, since they usually need hundreds of thousands of them. Imagine the police of New York looking to buy new cars and they're being offered Ferraris… Maybe for that one officer who specializes in high-speed pursuits, but your average, donut munching cop isn't going to need something like a 458. Also, soldiers tend to lose or destroy their guns. And if that gun cost 96 dollars in 1860, that would be about 3000 dollars today. For comparison, an M4 Carbine costs about 700 dollars. Four soldiers could lose or completely destroy their M4 Carbines and you'd still have lost less money than on one Whitworth rifle. The Confederacy was running on a shoestring budget and every lost or destroyed Whitworth rifle was a small financial disaster, not to mention the highly skilled sniper.

  13. I find the English testing extremely hard to believe, I wanna see someone who could even just really distinguish a target at 1800m with a scope of that era, much less effectively use one to hit a target. At that distance, if I remember correctly, you have to account for the curvature of the earth in the shots you're taking. Just seems to good to be true. I don't necessarily doubt the rifle could do it (even though I remain skeptical of even that based off the use of black powder and the charge being rather low compared to a 100gr charge, which is generally a standard charge with something like pyrodex), I doubt a human could pull that shot off given just the scope technology. You would have to be just cannonballing rounds in. The loss in velocity, which would've occured fairly quickly, plus the weight of the projectile just doesn't add up to even being able to take an aimed shot at 1800m.

  14. It’s strange that we didn’t transition to hexaginal bullets. Imagine the accuracy of a modern rifle like this!

  15. $96 in 1860 … i.e. almost five $20 gold Liberty Head which amount to 1Oz of fine gold … You do the math, looking at the current exchange rate.

  16. The confederacy was a bit surprisingly advanced in some ways

    They had the first kill with a submarine too (though the submarine sank or something)

  17. I think I read that the US goverment after the war sold off captured Confederate weapons to a few South American countries for their military. i wonder if anything is still down there?

  18. What's really crazy is that Whitworth was an apprentice in Henry Maudsley's workshop, the inventor of the screw cutting lathe, upon which standardized threads could now be made. So many brilliant engineers got their start in Maudsley's workshop, about 1/2 of the major industrial technologies came from his apprentices in that era that gave us the groundwork for so much of the technology that came after.

    Also to nitpick precision is repeatability, accuracy is accuracy and the ability to measure to a certain closeness though you must still have repeatability, it is more important than accuracy. Most people use the word precision wrong.

  19. Some science show with 1 million + subscribers has a piece on sniper rifles, professing that they 1st appeared in WW1. HAHAHAHA. Leftist idiots…..

  20. I’m surprised that the liberal democratic asshats aren’t trying to destroy this gun. I mean anything to do with our confederacy past is being erased. I wonder what the people who actually lived through the civil war and built the monuments would think?

  21. I've watched a number of your videos while I do enjoy them is it possible you could include the ammunition in your review as well.

  22. Can you imagine the fear of the Union soldiers "hey they got one of them sharpshoo.." fucking drops dead with half his head gone "where the hell did that come " another dead.

  23. Hmmm… Now I want to make a modern version of this ala maynard carbine break action but with hexagonal cartridges. It would speed up load time and reduce fouling… Off to the drawing board!

  24. Thank you, very informative. I read that one of these rifles was solid mounted and 10 shots were fired at 1400 yards and hits were spread over 9 feet. I'm not sure what the MOA would be. However, this leads me to believe that the shot supposedly fired by an unknown confederate with what was assumed to have been a Whitworth rifle at Ft Sumter in 1861 that reportedly killed a Union soldier had to be a lucky shot ! What do you think ?

  25. hmm maybe use a sentence to explain this time angle accuracy when it takes up as much focus and vital for the people to relate.-
    or whatever… do as you like if that makes you feel elevated and talk in accuracy terms not many outside will be familiar with..

  26. Holy fucking shit I've seen one of these before in my grandfather's gun safe, he never let's anyone touch it because its been passed down for years, how much is this thing worth now a days? I need to go to Tennessee at some point to visit him and check out the rifle in person

  27. Joseph Whitworth is probably the finest mechanical engineer that ever lived – even taking in to account the genius of Eli Whitney. Sorry, America. Whitworth also invented the surface calibration plate, the planer, the Scotch yoke transmission that powers it, as well as improving remarkably existing machine tools like the lathe and making steam engines, ships engines, railway locomotives etc. Whitworth's armaments company might have gone bankrupt but his massive engineering company didn't. It was still active in WW1 (as in Armstrong-Whitworth) making parts for automobiles, tanks, ships, aircraft, machine guns etc. Whitworth should be remembered for more than just standardised threads – although the Whitworth thread form was significantly better than the US Sellers thread. It's interesting that the global dominant ISO Metric thread incorporates good features of both Whitworth and US 'Unified'/Sellers threads.

  28. As a modern day CNC Programmer I know it would be a miserable process to produce that barrel today on a huge NC lathe with carbide tooling. These days it would almost certainly be sent off to some highly specialized EDM shop.

    But back then it must've been practically unthinkable, basically have to scrape it in on a lathe with as if it were an enormous screw thread, with pre-HSS tooling, it would take hundreds of passes. My biggest question is how they were able to get a tool that long to be stable at that length, they would have to run it through the spindle and anchor it somehow on the other side and pull the tool every time you added a new part. All this with the degree of precision they accomplished, is astonishing.

  29. Sub MOA accuracy back in the 1850s? That is impressive. I've been watching a lot of britishmuzzleloaders lately, and what I learned from his channel is that the much touted accuracy from early muzzle loading rifles was about 8 MOA – which today would be considered atrociously inaccurate.

  30. In the Corps I thought being a sniper was the ultimate in shooting. However my eyesight suffered farther than the 500.
    It was iron sights in the 80s with the m16a2. I may have done it I don’t and will never know now. My son however is a designated marksman in the Corps in the same unit I served in. 3/7 29 Palms

  31. First, you said there were very few of these, and that repeat fire was difficult because of fouling. Then you said a lot of bullets have been found on battlefields?

  32. Confeds really underestimated the gun. You just hire 4 marksmen, equip with this tool and make them searching for high generals and officers. After a while – presto! You have your slavery up till XXI century and on

  33. It hurts my eyes and heart to watch the way they display this. The stand causes the cleaning rod to be bend at the front of the rifle when standing like that. Take a look at the angle on it, you can clearly see it is being bend upwards.

  34. Slipfit conicals like the whitworth and more modern types with a round configuration do expand at the base to form a gas seal. There is no patch and the lube makeup helps keep powder fouling soft so multiple very accurate shots can be made before swabbing. There still a large following of "trashcan shooters" who love sending huge chunks of lead downrange. Doc White is a genius when it comes to slipfit guns and his website is full of information and history about these guns. Being a "Dirty White Boy" is almost cultlike and finding one of docs guns for sale can be difficult, particularly the .410 and .451

  35. Whitworth standardised more than that thread pitch.

    His measuring techniques and instrumentation that he invented made mass production of anything and everything possible.

    Before he got this sorted out, making many things the same was a hit and miss affair with little or no parts replication with perfect accuracy and interchangeability – which is the essence of all mass production today!

    A very clever man.

  36. Would some kind of special bounty be put on the sharpshooter's heads when they used this weapon due to it's effectiveness?

  37. I've always wondered why the hex bullet idea was dropped. It would seem that combined with modern tech it could be a game changer again.

  38. Obviously this would be a specialty thing. But they could probably make revolvers or revolver carbines with hexagonal bullets if they wanted cheap R&D. As for semi-automatics, you would have to have a special extractor, but you could guarantee orientation of the hex shape of the bullet by the way it's loaded into the mag. While this may not be "better" than what we've developed with round bullets, think if you could use solid titanium or tungsten bullets for much better penetration without stripping the rifling which wouldn't exist. A Nickel-boron barrel or bullet jacket or combo would heavily mitigate fouling. I think it would be ideal for 6mm rounds which have already been shown to be a great mix between power and accuracy vs capacity and recoil. Barrel life would be so much better and if accuracy were at least on par, I think it would be worth it. Could be what the Army is looking for. We can only hope.

  39. I've just realised that the barrel bands are on back-to-front – the screw head SHOULD be on the left, NOT the right. I also have two rimfire scopes that look just like that one that cost me almost twenty dollars for the two. Hmmmmmm…

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