HL Deb 13 July 1866 vol 184 cc782-7

I rise for the purpose of putting a Question to the noble Earl the Under Secretary of State for War (the Earl of Longford), of which I have given him private notice. It relates to a subject which is of much importance and interest at the present time. I wish to ascertain from him what is the present condition of the supply of breech-loading rifles to the army; and I feel assured that your Lordships will excuse me if I interpose for a few moments some remarks on a subject with regard to which I have long taken great interest. Two years ago, while I had the honour of holding the seals of the War Department, I took steps to provide breech-loading rifles for the army; and on the present occasion I have the less hesitation in directing attention to the subject, because of the generous manner in which the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the present Secretary of State for War (General Peel) spoke of the labours of his predecessors in the remarks which he addressed the other day to his constituents at Huntingdon. I am thus relieved from the necessity of troubling your Lordships with a vindication of the course taken with reference to this subject by the late Government. It is, however, very important that your Lordships and the public should be accurately informed as to the present state of this question, and as to the prospect which we have of obtaining an efficient breech-loading arm; and therefore I shall be glad to hear from the noble Earl any particulars which he thinks may be given consistently with the requirements of the public service. I wish especially to know whether I am correct in supposing that the breech-loading arm into which the existing Enfields are being largely converted is an arm constructed upon the system invented by Mr. Snider, with regard to which very favourable reports were received from the Ordnance Select Committee before I left the War Department. Those reports led us to hope that by conversion on that system we should obtain an arm possessed not only of equal, but of better shooting qualities than the present Enfield; that we should have an arm capable of being loaded at the breech with rapidity and ease; and also that we should have—what I conceive to be of great importance—a cartridge which would get rid of the necessity of capping, or, in other words, one which carried its own ignition—the cartridge being the improved cartridge of Lieutenant Colonel Boxer. I shall also be glad to learn from the noble Earl to what extent the conversion is going on, at what rate the supply is likely to be delivered, and to what extent the application which I understand was made to the gun trade has been responded to? But, my Lords, there is another question, and one of a more general character, involved in this matter, and on which also I wish to receive some information. In the year 1864, a committee of distinguished officers was appointed by me to inquire into the best mode of arming our infantry, and the subject has ever since been under careful consideration. It became the duty of the Government when the report of that committee was received to determine upon which principle we should proceed—whether we should wait till a perfect arm had been produced on the most scientific principles, in spite of many competitions and considerable delay involved in that course; or whether we should convert the existing arms into breech-loaders, under cover of which we might further consider the larger and more important question. Your Lordships are aware that Her Majesty's late Government determined to adopt the latter course. Now, I am desirous to ascertain the course the present Government is likely to pursue, both as to the matter of converting the existing arms, and as to the other and more general question. The army is entitled to have the best arm science can supply. The inquiry ought to be extended not only to the question of loading at the breech, but to the character of the cartridge, the mode of ignition, and to those points suggested by the use of what are called the revolving or repeating arms. This is a matter for grave consideration, requiring the exercise of great caution and care. I trust I shall hear from the noble Earl that measures are being taken for the conversion of the existing arm; and secondly, that the wider and more general question will receive the attention it deserves at the hands of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, the former connection of the noble Earl with the War Department fully justifies the great interest he takes in the question of supplying the army with breech-loading small arms. The noble Earl has adverted to the course pursued by the Government in office two years ago, and their choice between adopting a thoroughly new arm and the conversion of the existing arm into breech-loaders. Their decision was, to a certain extent, determined by the large number of Enfield rifles then in the possession of the War Department; and they proceeded with the conversion of the old arms in preference to waiting till an entirely new weapon should be decided upon. They succeeded after a course of experiments—not very quickly conducted owing to the difficulties with which the subject was surrounded—in selecting what I believe to be an excellent arm, simple in construction and carrying an excellent cartridge, which ignites without a separate cap being necessary. The cost of conversion was computed to be about £1 each weapon, but after a while it is believed this expenditure will be somewhat reduced. There are 600,000 arms in hand capable of being so converted. The late Government, just previous to leaving office, made arrangements for the conversion of 40,000 of these arms by the end of the military year, which expires on the 31st of March. Two years ago we were satisfied that we were in possession of a tolerably good arm, in the use of which the army, both regular and auxiliary, had acquired a great degree of skill, and the circumstances of the time were not urgent. Since then, however, the aspect of affairs has changed, and it is necessary that no delay should be allowed in providing the army with breechloaders. Accordingly, on the present Government succeeding to office, arrangements were made for delivering to the army some- thing like 150,000 breech-loaders by the 31st of March, partly by the extension of the Government factory at Enfield, and partly by accepting a considerable contract from an eminent firm in the private trade; while other contracts have been invited by the Secretary of State for War, who is not without hope that satisfactory tenders will be received. After the 31st of March the facilities for the conversion of the present weapon will be much greater than they now are, as by that time the alterations of machinery will be completed, and the factory at Enfield will be in full working order. Some impatience has been expressed at the time occupied by the experiments which have been carried on; and I have myself expressed some impatience on the subject; but what I have said now will, I hope, satisfy the House that no time has really been lost, and that neither the present Government nor their predecessors have been unmindful of the national importance of the question.


My Lords, I heartily endorse all that has been said by the noble Earls on each side in reference to the present subject. During the progress of the trials which have been adverted to I have been in constant communication with Earl de Grey and the Marquess of Hartington, and since the change of Government with General Peel, the present Secretary for War. The importance of supplying the army with the best possible small arm has long been felt by Her Majesty's Government, and the subject has received from them considerable attention. No delay has arisen beyond what was necessary in order to avoid any serious mistake, and to endeavour to obtain the best possible arm under the circumstances. This may seem a very simple matter; but if your Lordships were aware of the difficulties to be encountered and the extent of the trials necessary to enable a sound conclusion to be arrived at, you would not be surprized at the delay which has occurred. If the Government should have made a mistake and adopted a bad arm, I am quite sure that your Lordships and the country would have been dissatisfied with the decision. The other question is, perhaps, one of more importance—namely, whether conversion of the old arm into breech-loaders, or the adoption of an entirely new arm was the wiser course to be taken. There could be no doubt that a breech-loading Enfield would be a better arm than the muzzle-loading Enfield, and I think there could be no question that the first thing to be done was to convert the existing Enfields into breech-loaders. But it should be borne in mind that by resorting to conversion in the first instance, by which we could avail ourselves of the arm we already possessed, we gained time, without, however, pronouncing the converted arm to be the best obtainable. That is a question to be decided hereafter. Its determination must necessarily involve frequent experiments and considerable delay, and yet not a moment's delay could be allowed; and therefore the present conversion is the right thing at the present moment. I am glad to have the opportunity of making these remarks, and I wish now to say a word or two on a subject which has lately attracted considerable attention. I refer to the needle gun used by the Prussian army. I believe it will be found that this gun, as a breech-loader, is not the best form of breech-loader; but, notwithstanding its demerits, it is so far superior to the muzzle-loaders that it produced results hitherto unparalleled. It is well that this should be known; because, otherwise, an impression might go forth that the conversion now going on is not as desirable as the immediate adoption of the Prussian arm would be. I believe that no one who has paid attention to the subject of small arms will differ from me in the opinion I venture to express that other breech-loaders of which we know are much superior to this special arm with which the Prussian army is entirely provided. Under these circumstances I believe your Lordships will not think that any mistake has been made in resorting to the conversion of our existing arm; and I am happy to know that this conversion is going on as fast as possible. The change of Government took place at a moment when this question was uppermost in the minds of the War Department, and I have no doubt that the late Minister for War intended to go beyond what he had already ordered. I am therefore persuaded that your Lordships will be satisfied that everyone has endeavoured, as far as lay in his power, to give our troops, as rapidly as possible, the best arm obtainable under the circumstances. Undoubtedly, it would be a disgrace to us if we did not secure for our troops the very best arm the world can furnish; but in justification of the delay which has occurred — during which, however, we have not been unmindful of the importance of the subject, I may remind your Lordships that no other country but Prussia — not France, nor Russia, nor Austria — nor, indeed, any country possessing a large army, has armed its troops with breech-loaders. This will account for a certain amount of hesitation in adopting measures which recent events prove to be indispensable.


I quite concur in what has fallen from the noble Earl opposite (Earl de Grey), and highly approve the course which has been taken in altering as quickly as possible the present Enfield rifle into a breech-loading arm. It is, however, quite evident that this can only be a temporary arrangement; for it is plain to all who have examined the subject that great improvements may still be made, and that we must provide the whole army with a breech-loading rifle. It is, therefore, essentially necessary that no time should be lost in arriving at a conclusion on the subject. This will be the work of what is called the Ordnance Committee. I do not think that the Ordnance Committee is the proper body to determine this question, which is assuming greater importance every day. It it well worthy the consideration of the Secretary for War whether this subject should not be laid before a Special Committee, consisting of officers commanding those regiments which have obtained the highest number of marks for shooting, assisted by several gentlemen who in private life have turned their attention to the improvement of breech-loading small arms. I take this opportunity of throwing out such a suggestion, as I feel assured that the right hon. and gallant Officer at the head of the War Office will make every effort to place the best arm that can be obtained in the hands of our troops.