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Whitworth rifles are always eagerly contested for at auction, what makes this even more special is that it is thought to be an early experimental model. The rifle is serial numbered 154 which is stamped on the 35 inch barrel, also being engraved 'Joseph Whitworth Patent' and stamped with Birmingham proof marks. The barrel is fitted with a dovetailed windage adjustable front sight and folding ladder sight stamped with the rifle serial number and 'Preston'. F. Preston of Manchester was one of the contractors along with Brazier and Palmer who supplied parts to the Whitworth Rifle Company. Preston’s mark is also seen on the ramrod. The lock is marked Whitworth, dated 1858 and stamped with the Whitworth crowned cypher, the inside of the lock plate is stamped with the rifle serial number 154. The hammer rests on a platinum lined nipple.
The low serial number of this rifle was thought by the late Bill Curtis (1931-2021) of the English Whitworth Project to be part of the first batch of 200 rifles used for experiments and testing. The unusual shape of the trigger guard is thought to be a shooting rest aid as well as an area to secure a ‘jockey cap’ nipple protector. A similar Whitworth was sold by the Rock Island Auction Company (RIAC) Illinois, Lot 226 in their 3rd December 2021 sale for $8,625. Whilst very similar, there are some small differences between the RIAC rifle serial number 170, and rifle number 154 appearing in our August sale. Gone is the textured butt plate and trigger which is seen on rifle 154 but not on rifle 170 sold by RIAC. The RIAC example has a fixed front sight whereas rifle 154 has a windage adjustable sight. The front sight blade has been replaced and it is not clear from studying rifle 154 if it was always fitted with a adjustable front sight or if this is a period modification.
Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) was a designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist of huge eminence and great importance in the mid 19th century, he is a hero to anyone with the vaguest interest in engineering. His vastly important career is reflected by the establishment of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Whitworth was approached by Lord Hardinge in 1854 to investigate 'the mechanical principles applicable in the construction of an efficient weapon’. The designer turned his attentions to the rifling and importantly the relationship between bullet length and bore diameter. He developed a polygonal hexagonal rifling pattern which sets his rifles apart from anything that had gone before and gave his weapons exceptional accuracy.
The famous story which needs to be repeated whenever a Whitworth is nearby is of Union General Sedgwick who lost his life to a head shot fired by a Confederate sniper with a Whitworth rifle. On the 8th May 1864, Sedgwick berated his men from ducking and taking cover from incoming enemy rounds exclaiming ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance’ but soon lay victim to the Whitworth rifles awesome accuracy. It is thought that the Confederate army had around 250 Whitworth rifles during the American Civil War, it is during this conflict that the legend of the weapon grew as Union troops developed a deep respect and also fear of its extended range capabilities. The Whitworth rifle could shoot 4.5inch groups at 500 yards, something many modern centrefire rifle shooters would be more than happy with. At 1800 yards groupings were recorded at 12 feet, still enough to harass groups of troops or officers. It must be remembered that only twenty or so years previous, most firearm engagements largely existed at ranges of up to 100 yards maximum being limited by the smooth bore muskets fielded. Whilst some rifles crept into military service in the late 18th and early 19th century they had nothing like the capabilities of the Whitworth rifle.
Rare early Whitworth rifle serial number 154 will be sold in our 9th August Firearms auction, the presale estimate is £5,000 – 7,000.
Should you have any items you would like to sell in one of our Firearms, Arms and Militaria sales we would be pleased to hear from you. For more information please contact Chris Large on 01270 623878 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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