By: Matthew Dye
The Baker Rifle was an effective, dependable, and easy-to-produce weapon. It has a long and illustrious career serving in many battles and skirmishes through the Peninsular War of the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the American Indian Wars, and the Texas Revolution.
The First Military Rifle
The Pattern 1800 Infantry Rifle was a flintlock rifle nicknamed in honor of its creator, Ezekiel Baker, a master gunsmith from Whitechapel, England. It was created in 1799 and has the honor of being the first military-made rifle, meaning it was designed specifically for military usage, rather than special units simply using civilian hunting rifles – as they did during the American Revolution.
The Baker Rifle was designed to be “soldier-proof,” built so it could take a beating during long marches and in the course of battle, when it would be hit with bullets, sabers, and bayonets, or be used as a club. It was crafted with a lock that was quite durable compared to the ornately crafted locks of civilian rifles.
The Baker Rifle was put into mass production in 1800, and by 1801, was taking lives on battlefields all across the world. Up to this time, troops such as the German Jäger (“Jäger” meaning “hunter”) infantrymen were self-supplied and used their personal hunting rifles, not standard issue firearms, in battle.
Rogers’ Rangers, a company of British Colonists that used guerrilla warfare and were armed with personal hunting rifles (typically the Kentucky Long Rifle), inspired the British to create their own rifle and rifleman group. The Rangers fought during the French and Indian War from 1754-1766, and their rifles often broke or malfunctioned during the rigors of combat – mostly broken stocks or locks from one-on-one combat. It was difficult, too, for the quartermasters to supply the different calibers of ammunition the soldiers needed.
All other weapons during this period were smoothbore muskets or carbines. Rifles were regarded as something for civilized gentlemen and hunters to own because of the cost of production and slow reload speed. Despite this mindset, the American Revolution showed the British the damage a group of trained soldiers could do with rifles, and the Brits created the Experimental Corps of Riflemen, designated as skirmisher units, to help stop the marching feet of Emperor Napoleon’s army across Europe.
Rifle Features and Variations
The Baker Rifle went through different variations under the Tower of London program, which the crown used to produce a constant supply or arms by many different approved gunsmiths using the same blueprints. Some of the variations of the Baker were shorter or had minor changes to the lock and grip. The East India variant, for instance, didn’t have a butt-trap compartment.
The Baker was a muzzle-loading rifle weighing 9 pounds, with a browned, camouflaged barrel that featured 7 rectangular grooves measuring the length of the 30-inch barrel. The overall length of the firearm was 43.75 inches, 12 inches shorter than the Brown Bess, the standard musket issued by the British military from 1722 to 1838. This musket weighed-in at 10.5 pounds, with a barrel length of 42 inches, and an overall length of 58.5, shooting a 0.69-inch-diamter musket ball.
The trigger guard of the Baker featured an elegant brass scroll to provide a sturdy grip. The stock of the rifle was made from English Walnut that extended the length of the barrel. The butt of the rifle featured a raised cheek-piece on the left-hand side and had a butt-trap covered with a 4.5-inch brass cover containing a single or double compartment for carrying cleaning supplies and/or patches. The ramrod housing was slit into the stock and secured with two brass holders. At the end of the barrel was a metal lock bar that would accommodate a single-edge, 24-inch sword bayonet.
The Baker Rifle had other interesting features, including a front sight made from an iron blade on a thin, rectangular base that could be used to aim up to 200 yards. The ammunition of the Baker Rifle was a 0.615-inch-diamter lead ball, (carbine bore and fine powder). Usually, riflemen would carry two different types of powder. One horn or cartridge would hold coarse or standard-issue powder to be used in line formation or for general use; it would typically fire dirtier and not be as pure as the fine powder. The other horn would hold a cleaner, fine powder, along with a patch that would propel the bullet farther and more accurately.
What made the Baker Rifle so deadly was the patch, which would grip the grooves inside the barrel and spin the bullet, allowing the shot to be accurate up to 150-200 yards, if not more. The standard musket of the time, comparatively, was accurate up to only about 75 yards.
Sharpshooter Thomas Plunkett, an Irishman, demonstrated how accurate the rifle could be in capable hands when he famously shot French General Auguste François-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais in the head at the Battle of Cacabelos in 1809, at what some records estimate was a distance of 600 meters.
The usual procedure for riflemen of the time was to work in pairs, one to load and the other to shoot. The riflemen would deploy into combat ahead of the main force to take strategic positions and snipe the officers, drummers, and cannoneers, inflicting general chaos on oncoming combatants and other skirmishers.
The gun’s relatively short length was another advantage of the Baker Rifle. Infantry units could use the terrain to their advantage to get better shots of valuable targets, while also using the rifle in standard formation when needed.
Slow to Reload
Although the Baker Rifle was an innovative and incredibly effective weapon, it did have its drawbacks, one of the biggest being that it was slow to reload. The average British soldier could load and fire 3 rounds per minute with a smoothbore musket. With the Baker, a rifleman could typically load and fire at only 2 rounds per minute. The slow reload was the main reason Napoleon himself despised Baker Rifles and refused to arm his soldiers with them.
Another drawback of the rifle was that after 20 or so shots, the grooves would get mucked-up within the barrel. The gun would lose accuracy and be harder to reload, and some soldiers would use water or urine to wash out the power residue.
Inestimable Historical Influence
The overall damage the Baker caused on battlefields outweighed its flaws. The extent of the damage done by the Baker Rifle, and the degree to which it changed the outcome of Peninsular War and helped catapult the rise of the British Empire, is nearly inestimable.
The rifle was deadly not only in the hands of trained British riflemen, but also in the hands of the Portuguese Caçadores (another word meaning “hunters”). The Caçadores were formed in 1809 to fight occupying French forces during the Peninsular War. After losing many battles in 1808 and a reorganization under British command, they became one of the most trusted allies and fierce fighters of the war. Spanish guerilla troops also used the Baker to harass French troops traveling across Spain.
A Long-Serving Life
The Baker Rifle was finally retired, and its production ceased in 1838; however, some records show a few British troops continued to use the rifle up to 1841. This rifle had the longest serving life of any rifle in British history, having seen conflicts at Waterloo and the Alamo, and in Ireland, the West Indies, South Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Nepal, and New Orleans. The Pattern 1800 Infantry Rifle led the way for the rest of the world to standardize the rifle, and without the Baker Rifle, Napoleon likely would have been able to create a French Empire, in place of the British.
Matthew Dye is a historian and researcher, writing from the south. Email him at [email protected], and view his portfolio at www.dyeinggraphics.com.
“The Baker Rifle,” Eric W. Edwards, Pitt Rivers Museum Library Assistant: http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-baker-rifle.html
“The Accurate and Deadly Baker Rifle,” Arnold Blumberg, Military History Magazine: http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/the-accurate-and-deadly-baker-rifle/
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: By Antique Military Rifles – originally posted to Flickr as Various Baker’s, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6417575