GENERAL JACOB’S EXOTIC RIFLE
This eccentric British officer designed a military rifle almost as unorthodox and unusual as he was.
by Garry James © 2008
19th century abounds with larger-than-life soldiers and adventurers. If
some of their stories were not so well documented one would think they were
works of fiction. No country produced odder, braver—some might even
say a bit reckless—heroes than Great Britain.
A perfect case in point is Brigadier General John Jacob. Today one can visit his tomb and former residence in a city in Pakistan named after him, Jacobabad. He is still revered as the man who tamed the Northwest Frontier, and his monuments are carefully maintained by the government as historical sites. But what made him so special? Called by Major-General Sir Charles Napier, “the Seidlitz of the Scinde Army,” Jacob was contradictory in the extreme. He could at once be charming, bellicose, brash and boorish. A stammer, which made him appear somewhat shy in no way, affected his opinion of himself, and he was one of India’s most able administrators.
He was considered fearless on the battlefield but was also addicted to romantic poetry. Firearms had interested him from an early age, and though his knowledge of ballistics was somewhat lacking, his mechanical skill and élan for the subject, coupled with a substantial income, allowed him to engage in this enthusiasm with gusto.
Jacob was born in 1812, the son of a Somerset vicar. At age 14 he enrolled in the Honourable East India Company’s academy at Addiscombe, and graduated some two years later with a second lieutenancy in the Bombay Artillery.
During the First Afghan War (1839-42) he was attached to the Scinde Irregular Horse, where his natural leadership and easy manner with the native troopers under his command drew the attention of the authorities. In late 1841 he was offered the command of the regiment, which he accepted gladfully.
The Scinde Irregular Horse was a sillidar regiment. This meant the native Indian cavalrymen (sowars) received more pay then their counterparts in the regulars, but they were required to supply and maintain their own equipment and horses. The East India Company provided only firearms and ammunition. Everything else, including fodder, rations and medical care were the responsibility of the troopers.
His regiment figured heavily in the conquest of the Scinde in 1843, and was constantly involved in skirmishes with border tribesmen. Jacob’s star ascended and his renown spread throughout Northern India. He greatly improved the living conditions of the people in the area in which he was stationed, and because of this, the town of Khangur was officially renamed Jacobabad in his honor in 1851.
In the early 1850s Jacob took it on his own to prescribe the firearms carried by the Scinde Irregular Horse, influencing the adoption a double-barreled carbine and pistol that were manufactured by Swinburn & Son, beginning Jacob’s relationship with the company that was to figure prominently in some of his later endeavors.
During his campaigns, Jacob also worked on ways to improve the military service rifles of the period. From the late 1830s rifle units of the East India Company were equipped with older Baker-style flintlock rifles and percussion Brunswicks. The Brunswick system involved a bore cut with two deep spiraled grooves into which a mechanically fitting .620 caliber pre-patched “belted” ball was loaded. The girdle of the bullet, which was marked with a black line on the patch to aid in loading, corresponded to the width and depth of the grooves, and when the gun was fired a spin was imparted to the projectile. Brunswicks could keep most of their shots in a two-foot circle at 200 yards.
Though damned by some the Brunswick actually worked well within its limitations, but as the bore became fouled after repeated firing, loading became more and more difficult—to be fair, a criticism that could be leveled at just about any muzzle-loading rifle of the time.
Jacob had seen the Brunswick in use in India and was unimpressed. While he felt no animosity towards the concept of a mechanically-fitting projectile, he correctly surmised that the irregularity of the Brunswick bullet in its flight was not conducive to superior accuracy. He proceeded to design a barrel which increased the Brunswick’s two grooves to four. This allowed him to fire a symmetrical ball cast with a pair of intersecting belts. Rifles so set up were successfully tested by Jacob, according to Lieutenant Hans Busk of the Victoria Rifles in his book, The Rifle and How to Use it. Jacob’s range was a level plain “studded with numerous targets and stretching far away into the sandy desert in front of the lines of the Scinde irregular Horse, near Jacobabad.”
Experiments were so encouraging that Jacob offered his improved rifle to the East India Company, who flatly rejected him stating, “the two-groove rifle , which is thought good enough for the Royal Army is good enough for the soldier in India.”
Undaunted, Jacob continued with his experiments, ultimately arriving at a conical bullet with a pointed nose, round base and four studs to engage the rifling. Interestingly enough this was not a unique concept, as the Russians used a conical bullet with two studs in their “Luttish” version of the Brunswick rifle. Accuracy with Jacob’s new bullet was markedly superior to that of his belted ball and he claimed he was able to hit targets regularly out to 800 yards.
About this time (1851) the French-designed Minie rifle, using hollow-based bullets which were expanded into the rifling upon the explosion of the propellant charge, was adopted by the British government. Early Minie bullets employed iron cups in their bases to help with expansion, although because often these cups were actually driven through the bullet, they were eventually replaced with boxwood ones. The Minie rifle would prove to be one of the soundest, most accurate muzzle-loading rifles ever issued to the common soldier, but Jacob, after what he claimed to be exhaustive testing, rejected it outright and proceeded to design his own severely pointed projectile, sans cup, and with the addition of four studs to engage the rifling in the manner of his previous design.
The results were impressive, Jacob claimed, with good accuracy supposedly attained out to 1,200 yards. The bullet was further “refined” by elongating it to 2 ½ diameters and eliminating the hollow base. During his trials, Jacob became infatuated with the concept of a double rifle similar to the double-barrel smoothbore Scinde Irregular Horse carbine already in service, and turned his attentions towards its further development and to the perfection of an explosive bullet.
The “rifle shell” was not original to Jacob, having been thought up by Captain Norton of the 34th regiment of Foot. Both Norton and Jacob recognized the value of a bullet which could be used to explode enemy artillery caissons at a great distance. To this end Jacob expanded upon his “perfected” bullet. It was now available in two forms—solid and “shell.” The then Major Jacob also conceived his own exploding device, which consisted of pointed, copper percussion tubes filled with fulminate of mercury which fit into the fore part of the shell. These were tested at Jacobabad and results were good enough for Jacob to crow, “…it seems certain that two good riflemen so armed, could, in ten minutes, annihilate the best Field Battery of Artillery now existing.”
He had also developed a bullet with an iron tip so that it would not be deformed during loading. Patches were still to be an integral part of the equation, with Jacob noting, “The best method I am acquainted with of preparing military rifle ammunition, is to stitch slightly to the balls, patches of thin cotton cloth completely deprived of starch…and then dip them into melted tallow.” Bullets were to be kept “carried loose in a pouch; the powder being in blank cartridge in a separate partition.” All the while the “ideal rifle” was also being perfected. Finally Jacob felt confident enough to describe it. “Double—32 gauge—4-grooved—DEEP grooves, of breadth equal to that of LANDS, to take four-fifths of a turn in the barrel—barrels the best that can be made, twenty four (24) inches long, weight of pair of barrel alone about six pounds, NOT LESS: the ends of the lands to be rounded off at the muzzle—patent breech—no side vents—first sight EXACTLY PARALLEL to the bore—the muzzle sight being raised if necessary for this purpose—four points to be inserted inside the barrel near the breech for tearing open a blank cartridge when rammed down whole—full stock, well bent, of the best heart walnut, attached to barrel by bands…Best locks, strong mainsprings and heavy cocks…Trigger pull easy to pull, plenty of play in the cocks. External vents in nipples to be small –six spare nipples of each size to fit Eley’s No. 13 and No. 26 caps—one mould for balls and two for Jacob’s shells.”
Apparently experimental versions of the rifle were manufactured for Jacob by George H. Daw, who (among others) later advertised sporting models of the piece. A writer of the period described shooting a gun made on this pattern:
“The recoil is by no means pleasant.[Jacob recommended a powder charge of some 2 ½ drams—68 grains of gunpowder!] The gauge is 32. This rifle does not seem to have any advantages at sporting ranges; but for military purposes it has been strongly recommended. Especially in reference to the explosive shells which are used with it….the shells…require a short stout barrel, and cannot be used with a long thin one, like the Enfield [still, Enfield-style rifles were actually manufactured with Jacob rifling, and seemed relatively popular]. For killing large animals, like the elephant of rhinoceros, they are particularly qualified; and I should strongly recommend elephant hunters to examine the merits of this rifle…”
Around the time of these experiments, Sir Joseph Whitworth’s hexagonally-bored rifle, firing elongated “smallbore” .451 “bolts,” was receiving considerable attention as a long-range target gun. Granted, Jacob never expected his short-barreled double to have pinpoint accuracy, however now even his claims of superior range were being challenged.
Although Jacob was not directly involved in the Indian Mutiny of 1857—his command belonged to the Bombay Army whereas it was primarily the Bengal Army that rebelled—there are oblique references to one of his single-barrel rifles and explosive shells being used by an officer to blow up an Indian artillery caisson at over 1,000 yards.
Despite being an outspoken critic of the Rebellion, Jacob was open-minded enough to realize that any “attempt to keep the natives of India or the soldier of the Indian Army in darkness and ignorance, in the hope of increasing power over them will be as contemptible and base as it would be unwise and useless.” Bearing this in mind, he decided, in 1858, to raise a battalion of native riflemen to be armed with his double gun. The men were also to be issued an unusual sword bayonet with a 30-inch-long blade, patterned after the Scottish basket-hilt broadsword.
“Jacob’s Rifles,” as the unit was to be called, was to be organized on the sillidar system, in the manner of the Scinde Irregular Horse, and would number about 1,000 officers and men, about 900 of whom would have Jacob’s very expensive and complicated rifles.
It is at this point that the history of the Jacob rifle becomes hazy. Jacob died of “exhaustion” on December 5, 1858, but apparently not before he was able to place an order with Swinburn & Son of London, for the requisite number of guns. These rifles, now somewhat modified from his original design with half-stocks, no cartridge-tearing points in the breech, and nipples to take standard musket caps, were manufactured in some numbers—their locks exhibiting dates ranging from 1859 to 1861. A butt box for loose patches was set into the right side of the butt and was proudly emblazoned with the legend, “JACOB’S RIFLES.” The unit, redesignated the 3rd Baluchi Rifles in 1861, and later the 30th Bombay Native Infantry, had a long and distinguished career, but did they ever carry the rifle designed for them by their founder?
In the book, General John Jacob (London, 1900) by Alexander Innes Shand, there is a photograph identified as the “Sind Frontier Field Force, Jacob’s Rifles.” Unfortunately the quality of the reproduction is such that individual small details are difficult to make out. But a close examination of the troops, shows that they are armed with some short of short rifle, coming up to just above their hip—far too short to be a Brunswick or two-band Enfield. They do, indeed, appear to be carrying Jacob rifles. Over the years, though, Jacob rifles have appeared with considerable regularity, in quantities and condition belying their use in India. In fact, as late as 1907 Francis Bannerman, a New York military outfitter, was listing Jacob rifles, along with their bayonet, in his catalog as “double barrel elephant rifles.”
It is my supposition, that those guns made relatively early in the contract probably did make it to India and were distributed, for a time, to troops. However, following the Mutiny, the Peel Commission decreed that native soldiers were not to be armed with weapons as up-to-date as those carried by Crown troops, and it is possible that those rifles that were issued were withdrawn, replaced with older arms and sold surplus. As well, Swinburn & Son most likely had a number of overstock guns on hand and released them to the civilian market. In fact, high-grade sporting versions of the military double were also offered by other makers, though a close look at the parts and markings indicate they were manufactured, at least in part, by Swinburn.
Jacob rifles outlasted their originator by a considerable period, especially in the hunting field with calibers as large as 8-bore being fielded. Explosive loads were actually vigorously marketed and used against thick-skinned game. There are also references to Jacob-style rifles being used in the American Civil War, and as England became a large supplier to both the North and the South, there is no reason not to suppose that some, indeed, did see combat. Jacob bullets have purportedly turned up at some battle sites, and there is an intriguing account by George Hughes Hepworth in The Whip, Hoe and Sword; Or the Gulf-Department in 63, (1864) which seems to describe the Jacob rifle ( and possibly even exploding bullets) very accurately: “The rebels, too, were good shots. There was one man who was a source of great annoyance to us: and many a poor fellow will testify to his existence by showing a very peculiar and ugly wound in leg or arm. He used a double-barreled shot-gun, of English make, with a bore large enough to admit a ball weighing an ounce and a half. The bullets he used were double the size of those made for the Enfield rifle…. We never could tell in which tree he was, though we were constantly on the watch for him; and yet if you chanced to show your head over the cotton-bales which were our fortifications, you would be reminded of the necessity of prudence by a distinct hum which is a very unpleasant sound to hear. He disabled men standing more than three quarters of a mile off. I do not know that he actually killed any one at that distance; but he made some very disagreeable wounds.”
If one analyses this account it becomes interesting on several counts. The gun is described as being “double-barreled,” it is hitting targets at great distances and causing wounds different enough to be remarked upon by the author, and the bullets are described as producing a “hum,” to which I can personally attest as I have heard that very sound distinctly from bullets fired in my own Jacob rifle. All-in all, a very interesting passage.
The Jacob rifle and its creator remain enigmas. While the gun performed well enough under carefully controlled conditions, it was in no way markedly superior to the standard Pattern 1963/58 Enfield British service rifle. Granted a gun that could find its target at the long distances encountered in some areas of India’s Northwest Frontier was an attractive proposition, but the extensive training that would have been required to master the piece, and its inherent crankiness and expense, offset any advantages it might have had.
As has been noted by a number of his critics, General John Jacob’s tenacity on the battlefield was only matched by his narrow-mindedness in other matters. He was the sort of person who, though an innovator, could become enamored of his ideas to the exclusion of all others. A considerable private fortune was spent to develop and promote the Jacob rifle, but time and technology simply passed it by.