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A rifle is a firearm that uses a spiral groove cut into the barrel to spin a projectile (usually a bullet), thus improving accuracy and range of the projectile. It is the same principle that causes a rugby ball or an American football to be more accurate when thrown correctly. Examples of non-rifled firearms are shotguns and muskets.
The word "rifle" originally referred to the grooving, which was called "rifling" (compare "riffle" and "ripple"); originally a rifle was called a "rifled gun". Some manufacturers make rifled shotguns.
Typically, the bullet is propelled by the contained detonation of an explosive compound (usually cordite), although other means are used, such as compressed air. Such rifles are called air rifles and remain popular for vermin control, hunting small game, and casual shooting ("plinking").
Originally, rifles were sharpshooter weapons, while the regular infantry made use of the greater firepower of massed muskets, which fired round balls of calibers up to 0.75 inch (19 mm). Benjamin Robins, an English mathematician, realized that an extruded bullet would retain the mass and kinetic force of a musket ball, but would slice through the air with much greater ease. The innovative work of Robins and others would take until the end of the 18th century to gain acceptance.
By the mid-19th century, however, manufacturing had advanced sufficiently that the Brown Bess was replaced by a range of rifles—generally single-shot, breech-loading—designed for aimed, discretionary fire by individual soldiers. Then as now, rifles have a stock, either fixed or folding, which is braced against the shoulder. Until the early 20th century rifles tended to be very long—a Martini-Henry of 1890 was almost six feet (1.8 m) in length, with a fixed bayonet. The demand for more compact weapons for cavalrymen led to the carbine, or shortened rifle.
Muskets were smooth-bore, large caliber weapons using ball-shaped ammunition fired at relatively low velocity. Due to the high cost and great difficulty of precision manufacturing, and the need to load readily from the muzzle, the musket ball was a loose fit in the barrel. Consequently on firing the ball bounced off the sides of the barrel when fired and the final direction on leaving the muzzle was unpredictable.
The origins of rifling are difficult to trace, but some of the earliest practical experiments seem to have originated in Europe during the fifteenth century. Archers had long realized that a twist added to the tail feathers of their arrows gave them greater accuracy. Early muskets produced large quantities of smoke and soot, which had to be cleaned from the action and bore of the musket frequently; either the action of repeated bore scrubbing, or a deliberate attempt to create 'soot grooves' might also have led to a perceived increase in accuracy, although no-one knows for sure. True rifling dates from the mid-15th century, although the precision required for its effective manufacture kept it out of the hands of infantrymen for another three and a half centuries.
Some early rifled guns were created with special barrels that had a twisted polygonal shape. Specially-made bullets were designed to match the shape so the bullet would grip the rifle bore and take a spin that way. These were generally limited to large caliber weapons and the ammunition still did not fit tightly in the barrel. Many experimental designs used different shapes and degrees of spiraling. Although uncommon, polygonal rifling is still used in some weapons today with one example being the GLOCK line of pistols.
These designs were gradually replaced with cylindrical barrels cut with helical grooves, the surfaces between the grooves being called "lands". This innovation shortly preceded the mass adoption of breech-loading weapons, as it was not practical to push an overbore bullet down through a rifled barrel, only to then (try to) fire it back out. The dirt and grime from prior shots was pushed down ahead of a tight bullet or ball (which may have been a loose fit in the clean barrel before the first shot), and, of course, loading was far more difficult, as the lead had to be deformed to go down in the first place, reducing the accuracy due to nose deformation. Several systems were tried to deal with the problem, usually by resorting to an under-bore bullet that expanded upon firing. One of the most famous was the Minié system, which relied on a conical bullet (known as a Minié ball) with a hollow at the base of the bullet that caused the base of the round to expand from the pressure of the exploding charge and grip the rifling as the round was fired. Minié system rifles, notably the U.S. Springfield and the British Enfield of the early 1860s, featured prominently in the U.S. Civil War, due to the enhanced power and accuracy. The better seal gave more power, as less gas escaped past the bullet, which combined with the fact that for the same bore (caliber) diameter a long bullet was heavier than a round ball. Enhanced accuracy came from the expansion to grip the rifling, which spun the bullet more consistently.
Another important area of development was the way rounds were stored and used in the weapon. The Spencer repeating rifle was a breech-loading manually operated lever action rifle, that was adopted by the United States and over 20,000 were used during the Civil War. It marked the first adoption of a removable magazine-fed infantry rifle by any country. The design was completed by Christopher Spencer in 1860. It used copper rim-fire cartridges stored in a removable seven round tube magazine, enabling the rounds to be fired one after another, and which, when emptied could be exchanged for another.
As the bullet enters the barrel it screws itself into the rifling, a process which gradually wears down the barrel, and more rapidly causes the barrel to heat up. For this reason machine-guns are equipped with quick-change barrels which can be swapped every few thousand rounds, or, in earlier designs, were water-cooled. Unlike older carbon steel barrels, which were limited to around 1,000 shots before the extreme accuracy faded, modern stainless steel barrels for target rifles are much harder, and so wear far less, allowing tens of thousands of rounds to be fired before accuracy drops. (Many shotguns and small arms have chrome-lined barrels to reduce wear and enhance corrosion resistance. This is rare on rifles designed for extreme accuracy, as the plating process is difficult and liable to reduce the effect of the rifling.) Hardened armor-piercing bullets produce wear rapidly, which necessitates that they are encased in softer metal or Teflon.
Over the 19th century, bullet design also evolved, the slugs becoming gradually smaller and lighter. By 1910 the standard blunt-nosed bullet had been replaced with the pointed, 'spitzer' slug, an innovation which increased range and penetration. Cartridge design evolved from simple paper tubes containing black powder and shot to sealed brass cases with integral primers for ignition, whilst black powder itself was replaced with cordite, and then other smokeless mixtures, propelling bullets to higher velocities than before.
The increased velocity meant that new problems arrived, and so bullets went from being soft lead to harder lead, then to copper jacketed, in order to better engage the spiraled grooves without being "stripped" in the same way as a thread would be if subjected to extreme forces.
Rifles were initially single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons. During the 18th century, breech-loading weapons were designed, which allowed the rifleman to reload whilst under cover, but defects in manufacturing and the difficulty in forming a reliable gas-tight seal prevented widespread adoption. During the 19th century, multi-shot repeating rifles using lever, pump or linear bolt actions became standard, further increasing the rate of fire and minimizing the fuss involved in loading a firearm. The problem of proper seal creation had been solved with the use of brass cartridge cases, which expanded at the point of firing and effectively sealed the breech while the pressure remained high, then shrinking back slightly to allow for easy removal. By the end of the 19th century, the leading bolt-action design was that of Paul Mauser, whose action—wedded to a reliable design possessing a five-shot magazine—became a world standard through two world wars and beyond. The Mauser rifle was paralleled by Britain's ten-shot Lee-Enfield and America's 1903 Springfield Rifle models (the latter pictured above), both of which were copied from Mauser's original design.
The advent of mass, rapid firepower and of the machine gun and the rifled artillery piece was so rapid as to outstrip the development of any way to attack a trench filled with rifle and machine-gun equipped soldiers. The nightmare hell of World War I was to be the greatest vindication and vilification of the rifle as a military weapon. By World War II, military thought was turning elsewhere, towards more compact weapons.
Experience in World War I led German military researchers to conclude long-range aimed fire was less significant at typical battle ranges of 500 m. As mechanisms became smaller, lighter and more reliable, semi-automatic rifles, including the M1 Garand, appeared. World War II saw the first mass-fielding of such rifles, which culminated in the Walther MKb-42, the first assault rifle, one of the most significant developments of the 20th century army.
By contrast, civilian rifle design has not significantly advanced since the early part of the 20th century. Modern hunting rifles have fiberglass stocks and more advanced recoil pads, but are fundamentally the same as infantry rifles from 1910. Many modern sniper rifles can trace their ancestry back for over a century; the Russian 7.62 x 54 mm cartridge, used in the front-line SVD Dragunov, dates from 1891.
Muskets were used for rapid, unaimed volley fire. The average conscripted soldier could be easily trained to use them. The (muzzle-loaded) rifle was originally a sharpshooter's weapon used for targets of opportunity and sniper fire. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British 95th Regiment (Green Jackets) used the rifle to great effect during skirmishing. Because of a slower loading time than a musket, they were not adopted by the whole army. The adoption of cartridges and breech-loading in the 19th century was concurrent with general adoption of rifles. In the early part of the 20th century, soldiers were trained to shoot accurately over long ranges with high-powered cartridges. World War I Lee-Enfields rifles (among others) were equipped with long-range 'volley sights' for massed fire at ranges of up to a mile (1600 m). Individual shots were unlikely to hit, but a platoon firing repeatedly could produce an effect similar to light artillery or a machine gun, but experience in WWI showed that long-range fire was best left to artillery and machine guns.
Up to, during, and after WWII it has become accepted that most infantry engagements took place at ranges of less than 500 m; the range and power of the large rifles was "overkill"; and the weapons were heavier than the ideal. This led to Germany's development of the 7.92 x 33 mm Kurz (short) round, the MKb-42, and ultimately, the assault rifle. Today, an infantryman's rifle is optimised for ranges of 300 m or less, and soldiers are trained to deliver individual rounds or bursts of fire at these ranges. Accurate, long-range fire is the domain of the sniper and of enthusiastic target shooters. The modern sniper rifle is generally capable of accuracy better than one arcminute (300 μrad).
In recent decades, large-caliber anti-material sniper rifles, typically around .50 (12.7 mm) caliber cartridges, have been developed. The US Barrett M82A1 is probably the best known such rifle. These weapons are typically used to strike critical, vulnerable targets such as radar antennae or the jet engines of enemy aircraft. Anti-materiel rifles can certainly be used against human targets, but the much higher weight of rifle and ammunition, and the massive recoil and muzzle blast, make them impractical for such use. The Barrett M82 is credited with a maximum effective range of 1800 m (1.1 mi).
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