The 1860s were an interesting and exciting time in firearms development. Countries were transitioning from muzzleloaders to cartridge rifles. The American Civil War highlighted everything from muzzleloaders to Gatling guns. Many European countries utilized various conversions, including Great Britain, which used the Snider conversion
THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS
REJECTED BY THE U.S. … SO
SNIDER SOLD IT TO BRITAIN
designed by an American, Jacob Snider. The military quickly saw the advantages of breech loader (a firearm loaded via a chamber from the rear) versus front loader models. Besides being faster to load, the ability to do so while in the prone position meant the shooter presented a much smaller target for enemy marksmen. The British brought out the P-53 Enfield rifle in 1853. It is a .58-caliber muzzle loader that shoots a hollow-base bullet weighing anywhere between 405 and 500 grains. It was popular in the American Civil War, second only to the Springfield. During the 1860s, many countries were experimenting with breechloading rifles, and Britain was no exception. Like many nations, its military wanted to use existing stocks of rifles to save money. Snider started working on the conversion in 1862, and by 1865 it was complete. But the original idea was rejected by the US in favor of the trapdoor design, so he sold it to Great Britain.
THE WAY IT WORKED WAS, the rear of the barrel was cut out and a swinging breech block was installed. By the push of a button, the breech block would swing up, a cartridge could be inserted, and the block pushed back in place. Ejection was performed by the shooter, pulling out the empty
RELIABLE, THOUGH A STOPGAP MEASURE
cartridge or by tipping the rifle over. There was no safety, which was common among rifles of that period. The rear sight is adjustable, though crude by today’s standards, and the front is a typical blade style.
THE P-53 ENFIELD IS A LONG AFFAIR, although there was also a carbine made. One of my specimens, sporting an 18-inch barrel, is supposed to be an original carbine used in Canada by the Mounties. My other with a Snider conversion lacks the push button, which is found on later models. The system works well and is reliable, though it was a stopgap measure. The British gave it to many of their colonies, including those in Africa, India and Australia. It was loaded with buckshot and said to be popular with the Indian police for use in riot control.
Story & Photos by Bob Shell