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As Canadian confederation loomed just over 150 years ago, few knew that the British troops guarding the

frontier against invasion from the United States were caught up in a major ammunition crisis.

By early 1867 the 12,300 or so regular soldiers in British North America had nearly all been 

issued with new breech-loading rifles which were supposed to give them a fighting chance 

against Fenian raiders, or perhaps even the United States Army.  The new breech-loaders 

replaced the muzzle-loaders used by British in 1866. The Canadian volunteer regiments were 

due to have their muzzle-loaders replaced as soon as more of the new rifles arrived from 

Britain. But things were not as they seemed.  

“The new rifles were found to be defective in the breech, and alterations were made which 

necessitated a new description of cartridge; and perhaps it is worthy of record that The 

Regiment was, not withstanding the frequent incursions of the Fenians, a considerable time 

without a single round of ammunition,” Richard Higgins, an officer in the British 25th

 (King’s Own Borders) Foot was later to write regarding the arrival of the Snider-Enfield rifles in January 1867.

The new rifles had been rushed to Canada due to fears that Irish nationalists based in the 

United States were planning a repeat of incursions they had made into Canada during the 

summer of 1866. The Fenian Brotherhood, as they were known, included many veterans of the 

Civil War and believed fomenting trouble in Canada would further the cause of Irish 

independence from British rule. British and Canadian authorities feared that when the Fenians 

returned in 1867 they would be armed with breech-loading rifles with a faster rate of fire than the

muzzle-loading weapons used by Canada's defenders the previous summer. The new British 

breech-loaders fired three times faster than the rifles they were intended to replace. 

The British put their faith in converting their existing stocks of Enfields into breech-loaders using 

a firing system patented by US inventor Jacob Snider.  The conversion involved cutting out the 

lower part of the Enfields’ barrels, complete with the old firing mechanism, and replacing them 

with Snider’s hinged breech fire system. The British decided it was cheaper to convert the 

hundreds of thousands of Enfield muzzle-loaders they already had than it would be to buy one 

of the better-performing models of breech-loader available at the time, or to commission a new 

one. As well as being done as cheaply as possible, the British specified that the conversions 

were to be as accurate as the old Enfield muzzle-loaders, first issued in 1853. The Snider-

Enfield came closest to meeting both criteria in two years of trials involving various breech-

loading mechanisms beginning in 1864.

The patent drawing 

The problem was that the Snider-Enfield rifles used in the trial and the ammunition for them had 

been hand-made by skilled armourers. Conversion of the Enfields using machinery and millions 

of rounds of factory-produced ammunition proved a disaster.

In March 1867 the British Secretary of State for War, Lieutenant-General Jonathan Peel, told 

the House of Commons that he intended to fully test the first converted rifles to come off the 

production lines before authorizing their general issue. However, his hand was forced by an 

urgent demand for breech-loaders from the Governor General of Canada, Viscount Charles 

Monck, who feared further Fenian invasion.

“We went on working at the gun factory day and night – and, I am sorry to say, sometimes on 

Sundays – but we succeeded in sending out the converted Sniders to every British soldier in 

Canada, before the navigation closed,” he said.

“In the meantime I sent sixty guns to Hythe for trial, and the first report was that the shooting 

was more than favourable. Shortly afterwards the head of the Laboratory came to me and said 

he was sorry to inform me that when the ammunition was made up in the millions there was a 

slight escape of gas, which threw up the breech-loading apparatus. We therefore proceeded to 

try a new or No.2 cartridge, which was sent down to Hythe and fired with exactly the same rifles 

which had shot so well in the first instance. The report came back to us that the cartridges would

hardly hit anything, and scarcely hit the target at all.”.

In fact, the superintendent of the British Army’s musketry school at Hythe, Maj.-Gen. Charles 

Hay, had told his political masters in November 1866 that, “The shooting (of the Sniders) has 

been most wild; many of the shots fall short of the target and others go no one knows where.” 

Hay left Hythe the following year.

The second, or No.2, cartridge had a stronger base than the original and the rifle breeches no 

longer blew open when fired. The third version incorporated a shorter and lighter bullet which 

restored its accuracy. 

The ammunition had long been mired in controversy. The “laboratory head” referred to by 

Lieutenant-General Peel, Colonel Edward Boxer, had broken government protocol by personally

patenting the original No. 1 cartridge. Serving officers were not supposed to patent the results of

work carried out at government facilities such as the Woolwich armouries where Boxer was the 

superintendent. But it was not against the law and the Royal Navy allowed officers to take out 

patents. Boxer eventually resigned from Woolwich in 1869 after questions were asked in the 

House of Commons about his conduct.

There were also questions from people who saw remarkable similarities between the Boxer 

cartridge and the patents of other firearms pioneers, particularly the work of London gunsmith 

George Daw in the early 1860s. 

The first four million Boxer cartridges for the Snider-Enfield had been factory produced by Eley 

Brothers. But tiny flaws in the thin brass used to make the base of the cartridges allowed gas to 

escape into the hinged breech when the rifle was fired, blowing it open. There were also 

suggestions that the children employed by Eley to operate the cartridge-making machines were 

not sufficiently skilled for the work. Consequently Eley Brothers were not asked to produce the 

No. 3 cartridge or any of the subsequent versions for use with the Snider-Enfield – though the 

ammunition was made until the early 1870s when the Snider-Enfield was replaced in the British 

service by the Martini-Henry rifle. The unusable No. 1 cartridges were converted into blank 

ammunition for training. 

While Colonel Boxer at Woolwich experimented with the new cartridges, Snider was working on 

alterations to the breech-loading mechanism, including an improved spent cartridge ejector. 

The British Army not only had doubts about the Snider-Enfield in 1867 but also about their 

regular soldiers in Canada. Questions were being asked about the loyalty of the Irishmen 

serving in the ranks. About one-third of the soldiers in most of the nominally English and 

Lowland Scots regiments were Irishmen and there were fears that they were being subverted on

both sides of the Atlantic by Fenian agents.

The men of the 25th Foot, later the King's Own Scottish Borderers,  had already proven their loyalty to the Crown in June 1866 when, still 

armed with the old Enfield muzzle-loader, they had deterred Fenian raiding parties from 

crossing the border with the United States into Quebec. On June 9 around 300 men from the 

regiment were part of a force including British regulars from the Rifle Brigade and volunteers 

from Montreal, Waterloo and Granby which intercepted 200 Fenians near Pigeon Hill. The 

Irishmen fled back across the border into the arms of waiting US troops.

It is possible that the sight of British troops drilling in Canada with their new Snider-Enfields may

have discouraged Fenian incursions in 1867. The Fenians, contrary to the fearmongering 

spread by Canadian officialdom, were still armed in 1866 with muzzle-loaders. In 1867 the 

Fenians sent 5,000 of them to New Jersey for conversion, by British gunsmiths, into breech-

loaders. These rifles were never used in anger and were finally confiscated in 1870 by the US 

authorities following further failed Fenian incursions into Canada and auctioned off.

The Irish-Americans were perhaps fortunate not to have faced troops armed with Snider-

Enfields. The soft-nosed Boxer bullets were notorious for the horrendous exit wounds they 

inflicted. Military historian Sir John Fortescue reported that he could put both hands into the 

wounds inflicted on deer he had seen shot with a Snider rifle. In 1868 around 300 men of the 

British 4th (King’s Own) Foot had blasted 7,000 charging Abyssinian warriors to a screaming halt

at the Battle of Arogee in present-day Ethiopia. The Africans kept coming after the first volley 

tore numerous gaps in their ranks because they believed they could reach the British before the 

redcoats had time to fire again. But the rapid fire, at least for 1868, of the Snider-Enfield came 

into play as the British regiment managed to fire off thirty to forty soft-nosed rounds per second. 

Despite the early problems with the Snider-Enfield , it became the standard weapon of Canada's

fledgling army. By 1869 the British had shipped around 82,000 of them to Canada. They were 

used in both the 1870 Red River Expedition and the 1885 North-West Rebellion. 

It was not only the men of the 25th Foot who appear to have breathed a sigh of relief that there 

had been no major Fenian incursion into Canada during the ammunition crisis. The Times, that 

Establishment mouthpiece, noted in March 1867 in an article about the first Snider-Enfields 

shipped across the Atlantic, “Happily, these rifles were not required for actual service, or the 

Fenians against whom they were intended to be used would have enjoyed an unexpected 

immunity.” 

 

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