Bite the Bullet

In 1857 native soldiers of the Indian Army rose up against the British Empire in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. It’s often said that the cause of this unrest was the paper cartridge issued for use with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. These were greased at one end to lubricate the bullet, which had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle end for loading. In order to open the cartridge, soldiers were instructed to tear it with their teeth, resulting in the ingestion of some of the grease. Rumours spread that this grease was derived from pig fat, forbidden to Muslims, or from cows, which would be a serious issue for Hindus. Moreover, the rumours suggested that this was a deliberate practice intended to degrade and even to force conversion to Christianity.

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P'53 rifle, containing a lead 'Minié syle bullet

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P’53 rifle, containing a lead ‘Minié syle bullet

In fact, the causes and background to the mutiny were rather more complicated than this, but historians agree the cartridge rumours were one of the main triggers or tipping points for the mutiny. Some have disputed the claim of pig and/or cow fat, but although it is clear that their use was not intentional, both types of grease were indeed used on the cartridges. Although many officers in India recognised this serious oversight and attempted to address it, the offence and concern had already been caused. The result was widespread violence, bloodily put down by the Imperial authorities, with ringleaders being ‘blown from guns’, or tied to the muzzle of cannon which were then fired.

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic 'V' notch

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic ‘V’ notch

One less obvious result of the mutiny was the introduction of a new pattern of arm. Though it outwardly resembled the Enfield rifle, the rifling lands and grooves themselves were machined away, and a much more basic rear sight fitted. These new Pattern 1858 and 1859 smoothbore muskets effectively put ‘Brown Bess’ back in the hands of Indian troops. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the effectiveness of any future uprising, as they would be much less effective at range, and make the targeting of officers far more difficult.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms