Development & Description of the Baker Rifle

The Baker rifle was a major improvement on the smoothbore Brown Bess. The Brown Bess had been the standard military flintlock musket for over a hundred years. During this period, gunsmiths and soldiers knew that accuracy could be greatly improved by rifling guns but cost and reliability deterred widespread use of rifles by soldiers of any nation. Nevertheless, a number of small militia units had used rifles in various actions with devastating results, and the British Board of Ordnance took notice.

The Ferguson rifle, designed in 1774, was the first English breech-loading rifle made for military use. Colonel Patrick Ferguson submitted an order for the manufacture of 100 of these rifles used to arm a detachment in the American war. The rifles were used with great effect, but unfortunately Ferguson was seriously wounded in 1777, and was later killed. On his death General Howe had the Ferguson rifles placed in store. Following the cessation of hostilities, further trials with rifles were largely abandoned.

A decade or so later, the early battles of the French Revolution saw prominent use of skirmishers and, as often happened at the start of a new war, the British Army looked to expand its units able to fight in dispersed order. The Army realised that at least a portion of these troops should be armed with a rifle, and the British Board of Ordnance sought to procure the best rifle possible to arm a specially trained rifle corps as well as existing rifle units like the 5/60th.

A former apprentice to Henry Nock, gunsmith Ezekiel Baker of 24 Whitechapel Road, London, delivered a rifle finally chosen by the Board from the many submissions trialed. Baker had been established in his shop for some twenty-five years. He already held Government contracts for smoothbore muskets and pistols, and was also supplying the Honourable East India Company.

In the year 1800, the principal gun makers in England were directed by the Honorable Board of Ordnance to produce a specimen, in order to procure the best rifle possible, for the use of a rifle corps (the 95th Regiment) raised by 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 one quarter of a turn in the rifle, was approved by the committee.”

“It was also remarked, that the barrel was less liable to foul from frequent firing, than the whole, 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 Honorable Board of Ordnance to have their rifles made upon a similar construction.”

Ezekiel Baker

The above quotation holds what, perhaps, may be the essence of that which we call a Baker rifle. That is the rifling twist rate “having only one quarter of a turn in the rifle”. Baker’s barrel was only 30 inches. In modern terminology, that equates to one turn in 120 inches – an extremely slow twist. Today, muzzleloading rifles are generally one in 60, or one in 72 inches, for patched round ball, and only one in 48 inches for rifles designed for slug projectiles.

Indeed it was only this rifling system that Baker claimed as his own. Outwardly his rifle had many similarities to numerous continental rifles that had been in various services for up to twenty years. Mostly, these arms had seven groove rifling in barrels approximately 30 inches, and a calibre of .60 inches ranging upwards to .70 inches. The difference being their rifling twist rates, all around one turn in 30 inches. This would impart more rapid spin to the round ball, theoretically providing better accuracy. The drawback being considerable fouling residue with each firing, requiring frequent cleaning.

Baker’s first rifle was of musket size and bore, and was rejected as too cumbersome. The first of many improvements to the Baker, was to reduce the barrel length and overall size, and to reduce the bore to .625 (a “standard” rifle bore for the age – remembering that standards were often very loosely applied).

“When the 95th Regiment was first raised, I made some rifles of equal dimensions of the muskets, in order that they might be supplied with ammunition, if necessity required, 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.”

Ezekiel Baker

Compared to the regular army’s 57 inch long Brown Bess of the era, the special issue Baker was a relatively short and handy weapon. Its inherent accuracy quickly won respect among true marksmen in the military. Baker rifles were manufactured under government contract by numerous gunsmith shops in both London and Birmingham. Consequently, a number of subtle variances may be noted between individual arms, mainly due to hand-finishing in the different shops. The initial order for Baker’s rifles was made up by nine London gunsmiths, viz. Baker, Barnett, Brander, Egg, Harrison and Thompson, Nock, Pritchett, Wilkes and Wright.

The rifle was also subject to a number of modifications throughout its service life, including the manufacture of several carbine variants for cavalry units. These variances and modifications make it difficult to offer any concise description of the Baker. They do provide for a fascinating, perhaps sometimes frustrating, investigation for the lucky owner of an original, or for the re-enactor wishing to create a reproduction of a particular year model.

Generally then, the Baker can be described as a flintlock rifle with overall length of just 45.5 inches. Nominal calibre was .625 inch; barrel 30 inches with seven groove rectangular rifling, making a quarter turn in the length of the barrel. It had a robust sword (bayonet) bar extension at the right front of the nicely browned barrel. The colour has been described as a muddy reddish brown. Front sight was a thick iron blade on a thin rectangular base, finished to the barrel contour, and brazed to the barrel. Rear sight was a block dovetailed into the barrel, about seven inches forward of the breach, allowing windage adjustment. The block was cut with a V notch, sighted to 200 yards, ahead of which was a forward lying, hinged single leaf, also V notched, sighted for 300 yards.

The locks were marked “Tower” and “G.R.” under a crown (later versions are marked “Enfield” as well but production there only commenced after Wateloo). The rifle was stocked to the muzzle with English walnut, and many were fitted with a brass patch box in the butt. The brass trigger guard was distinctively shaped like an elongated ‘S’, enabling a firm grip of the rifle for precise trigger let-off. The buttplate was brass as was the sideplate. The stocks were fashioned with a raised cheek piece on the left of the butt, and they were also stamped with government markings, and carried a brass escutcheon at the upper wrist. The break-off style barrel was held in the stock with three flat, captive wedges. The fore-end cap and ramrod pipes were brass and the 30 inch steel ramrod had a rounded tip. The ramrod was drilled for a small torque bar and tapped for a ball-drawer and wiping eye. A sling swivel was fitted immediately in front of the triggerguard, with a forward swivel about five inches behind the muzzle. Total weight about eight and one quarter pounds, not including the sword bayonet.

Four Baker rifles and a carbine iIllustrating variations of pattern. The upper rifle and the carbine have the swan neck cock. More obvious are the different butt boxes. All have the early style sword bar. The sword is the second pattern. The Baker cavalry carbine has no sword bar and has a swivel ramrod.

Four Baker rifles and a carbine iIllustrating variations of pattern. The upper rifle and the carbine have the swan neck cock. More obvious are the different butt boxes. All have the early style sword bar. The sword is the second pattern. The Baker cavalry carbine has no sword bar and has a swivel ramrod.

The sights remained of the same design until 1823, although many variations will be noted, due to the aforementioned hand-finishing. The 1823 pattern consisted of a plain V notched small block brazed to the barrel, a retrograde step. It was sighted for 200 yards. The stocks also had minor variations, particularly with the presence or otherwise of a patchbox, the size of the brass patchbox cover, and within the patchbox compartments. A major change to stocks, was the addition of a narrow slit, completely opening up the ramrod channel, to preclude blockage by fouling or dirt. The slit stock came into general production about 1812, although it does appear on a few earlier examples.

Considering all of the Baker rifle components, the lock saw the most variance, particularly during the Napoleonic years. There were four basic changes in design and a significant number of minor variations. Some were mechanical, but mostly they were minor decorative or hand finishing touches, such as border lines. Early models had the rounded lockplate and swan neck cock. It was a reduced-size India Pattern lock. The second type, an adaptation of the New Land Pattern lock, had a flat lockplate, and a flat ring-necked cock. Some of these had raised pans and roller steel springs, some had the small leaf sprig engraving at the point of the tail of the plate, although otherwise void of decoration, aside from the standard markings. Others had the double border lines engraved on the plate and body of the cock.

About 1806, a third type of lock appeared. This had both a raised pan and a safety bolt let into the tail of the lock plate, and was fitted with a flat ring-neck cock. The plate itself had a stepped down tail and the entire lock was somewhat smaller than the earlier patterns. The raised pan was rapidly dropped in favour of a cheaper and less complicated ordinary pan. The sliding safety bolt was also considered an unnecessary refinement for the elite 95th. The modified New Land Pattern became the standard, but all of these locks were used concurrently, making it difficult to classify or precisely date any rifle from the lock alone. In 1822 production reverted to the first type, having the rounded lockplate and rounded swan-neck cock.

The Baker rifle was generally superseded in 1837 by the Brunswick rifle. However some regiments serving in outposts of the empire continued to use Bakers for several more years. These included units of the 21st Regiment or Royal Scots Fusiliers garrisoned in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia from 1833 until 1840.

Note: In compiling this page, it is not intended to provide a complete and thoroughly detailed account of all Baker rifle production. Indeed, lack of both military and manufacturer’s records of the era precludes this. Rather, it is hoped the information herein (gleaned from collected writings of eminent authors) will suffice to whet the appetite of the scholar. Further personal study and research on this historic rifle, and the wonderfully exciting period of its service, will be found most rewarding. Several of the authors with well documented works, and recommended for further reading, are D.W.Bailey, I.V.Hogg, Col.H.C.B.Rogers, Ian D.Skennerton and F.Wilkinson.

See also our Recommended Reading page

Baker Rifle - Australian War Memorial

Baker Rifle – Australian War Memorial