The Baker Rifle Transformed Soldiers Into Long-Distance Killers
This 19th-century gun started it all
Originally published on June 16, 2015.
On a freezing January day in 1809, rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the British 95th Rifles was flat on his back in the snow outside of the Spanish town of Cacabelos.
Some might say that was no place for an Irishman, but this was the waning days of the Battle of Cacabelos during the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. Plunkett knew exactly what he was doing.
The French Général de Brigade Auguste-Marie-François Colbert was doing his best to lead French cavalry in a rearguard attack that could place the British Army at his mercy.
Plunkett wanted Colbert dead — and Colbert was more than 600 yards away.
While he lay on the ground, Plunkett inserted his foot into the sling of his Baker .705-caliber rifle to stabilize the weapon, tucked the butt of his rifle into his shoulder and took aim using only his skills and iron sights.
Plunkett squeezed the trigger, and a moment later the general fell dead. Then Plunkett took another shot that killed a second French officer who rode to Colbert’s aid.
It was a defining moment for the rifle. For nearly 200 years, soldiers in nearly every army of the Western world have carried some kind of rifle as their basic weapon.
The Baker rifle led the way. It wasn’t the first rifled firearm placed in the hands of a foot soldier — the Germans and the Americans during the 18th century had used rifles with lethal effectiveness.
But less-accurate and rapidly loaded smoothbore muskets had dominated European battlefields for two centuries beforehand. Now the British, masters of the First Industrial Revolution, had a weapon that could kill the enemy hundreds of yards away and be mass-produced.
The 19th century became the century of strategic warfare fought by riflemen who would adopt the tactics of “fire and maneuver.”
When it came to this new field of battle, an ordinary foot soldier caught in the open wasn’t just visible … he was dead.
Shooting solid projectiles at humans out of metal tubes using gunpowder for a propellant is nothing new. The Chinese had cannons by the late 1200s, and the English deployed artillery in a primitive form in 1346 at the pivotal Battle of Crécy.
Smoothbore “handgonnes” made their appearance in Europe during the last half of the 14th century — when they didn’t explode in the hands of their users. And, of course, there were “musketeers” for centuries.
But a rifle is a special weapon. In fact, at one time it was a weapon for elite forces only. What makes a rifle what it is are grooves called “rifling” cut inside the barrel of the weapon that cause the bullet to spin. That spin makes the ballistics of the weapon far more predictable, therefore more accurate.
A Baker rifle dating to after 1806. Pitt Rivers Museum photo
The best smoothbore, muzzle-loading flintlock weapon of the Napoleonic Wars was the .705-caliber “Brown Bess” musket, which was fast to load and fast to fire. A good soldier could load and fire three shots per minute from a Brown Bess.
But the Brown Bess was effective only out to around 70 yards. At that distance, even a well-aimed shot would arrive a yard off target. No wonder infantry tactics of the time relied on massed firepower delivered by infantrymen firing in volleys.
That’s because the musket ball fit loosely in the weapon’s barrel — it simply rattled off the wall of the tube when the weapon was fired and would even corkscrew its way downrange as it zipped toward its target.
But even early rifles were deadly accurate because the spinning bullet would travel along a flat, predictable trajectory. In other words, you could aim a rifle and have a reasonable chance of hitting the target.
In the 1700s, so-called Jäger rifles adapted from hunting weapons by the Germans in the hands of a skilled marksman could reliably hit quarry that were hundreds of yards away.
However, the muzzle-loading weapon was more difficult to load. Black powder fouling and the rifling itself slowed the process down.
Then there was the American Revolution, where the British learned some hard lessons about rifles in the hands skilled marksmen.
In 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga, Timothy Murphy was one of 500 crack rifleman who had accompanied Gen. Daniel Morgan to thwart Gen. John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his invading British Army.
Murphy climbed a tree with his Kentucky rifle and took aim at Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser, who was busy rallying the British troops in an effort push back the Americans’ regular forces. Murphy took the shot even though Fraser was more than 300 yards away.
Call him the original American sniper. Murphy’s shot dropped Fraser to the ground — and the general died the next day. The demoralized British retreated and the Americans won a victory that reverberated around the world, convincing the French that the cause of independence was worth backing with money, supplies and troops.
By 1798, the British Army’s Board of Ordnance began a search for a reasonably priced, soldier-proof rifle that could put that kind of accuracy in the hands of a small number of dedicated riflemen.
By 1800, the army selected a design by Ezekiel Baker. It was not a particularly innovative weapon, sharing some of the features of the Jäger rifles from the previous century.
But the Baker rifle worked very, very well in the hands of one of the most famous rifle regiments in British history, the 95th Rifles. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of novels and the television series it inspired know of the 95th Rifles, but even though Richard Sharpe’s exploits are fictional, the historical importance of the regiment is dead accurate.
Whether you were a general or a drummer boy, the 95th Rifles targeted and killed anyone responsible for command, control and communication on the battlefield. Slowly, the British Army — as well as the rest of Europe and the Americas — began to realize riflemen were the future of warfare.
Add further technological changes such as reliable breech-loading mechanisms, dependable mass-produced metal cartridges, and less-expensive methods of manufacturing and soon every soldier — not just elite riflemen — was capable of long-distance killing on the battlefield.
So, no matter who the trigger-puller is today, contemporary soldiers should tip their helmets in honor of the Baker rifle and the troops who carried it. Perhaps no other weapon in the last 200 years did more to shape a world of war fought with rifles.