This is the story of a rifle that changed the destiny of an entire subcontinent, the story of a weapon that triggered one of the greatest revolts of the 19th century, and a weapon that led to the winding up of the world’s first great multinational company. This is the story of the ‘1853 Enfield Musket’.
Here’s a clue to what we’re talking about: a rifle that was first issued by the armed forces in Britain in 1855 and in India in 1857.
Remember being told in history class that the spark that ignited the Revolt of 1857 in the subcontinent was the cartridge of a new rifle issued to sepoys of the British East India Company? History teachers and textbooks have repeated, ad nauseam, that the cartridges had to be ‘bitten’ before the bullets could be used, and that they had been greased with pork and beef fat. But this was taboo for Muslims who abhor pigs, and Hindus who worship the cow. Asking them to bite these cartridges was tantamount to asking them to give up their faith!
While the textbooks say that the sepoys had to ‘bite the bullet’, none of them explains why. And why were the cartridges greased in the first place? The answers lie in the realm of military munitions and advances in weapons technology.
This rifled musket had a barrel that was a metre long (99 cm) and three distinctive bands. It had to be loaded from the barrel mouth. It was a .577 bore, and used a lead minie ball and black powder. Before this, muskets were loaded with powder from a powder horn, after which a lead ball was removed from a separate pouch and rammed into the barrel with a ramrod, which was tucked under the barrel when not in use. Then, a wad of cloth was rammed back to keep the powder and ball packed into place. The rifleman then placed a percussion cap on the hammer and let fly by pulling the trigger.
This was a cumbersome and time-consuming process. To work around this, a pre-measured amount of powder with a musket ball was rolled in paper and turned into a cylindrical cartridge. To load the rifle, the rifleman or sepoy had to pull out a cartridge and bite off the bullet, which was at one end, and pour the pre-measured powder down the barrel, followed by the ball. This, in turn, was followed by the greased paper and then rammed in.
But the British had forgotten to take into account the religious beliefs of their Indian sepoys. When the rumour of the grease used on the cartridges spread, the sepoys were furious. They refused to use the cartridges and were arrested for their apparent defiance. Discontent had been simmering among the sepoys for some time and, ironically, the anger at the cartridges was the trigger for the Revolt of 1857.
The grizzly aftermath of the Revolt resulted in the British monarch directly taking charge of India, and the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 was read out all over the country on the 1st of November. The new Pattern 1858 gun with a different bore (0.656) was introduced to quell any uneasiness among the Indian sepoys and assurances were given that the cartridges were not dipped in beef or pork fat.
But the 1853 Enfield Musket had found its mark. It was too late for the East India Company, which first set up trading operations and then ruled the subcontinent for over 250 years. After the Revolt, the British Crown took over the Company with all its assets and all its armed forces, and by 1874, the Company was dead. And its end could be traced to a rifle that was technologically superior but that had misfired spectacularly.