Towards the end of last year I had the chance to look at unique early breechloader, an example of Frederic Prince’s breechloading percussion rifle dating from the 1850s. Prince’s rifle (no, not the gunsmith formerly known as…) used a sliding barrel action, with the barrel sliding forward when the action was unlocked, to open the breech. It is a fascinating design, almost the reverse of later bolt action designs with the bolt handle attached to the barrel rather than to the bolt. Prince’s is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, examples of a sliding barrel system with other early designs including Sharps & Hankins Model 1862 Carbine and the French Darne sliding breech shotguns of the 1880s.
In the photo above we can see the rifle’s action opened, with the bolt handle, which is attached to the base of the barrel, pushed forward to open the breech and allow a paper cartridge to be loaded. The bolt unlocks to the right and then travels down an L-shaped bolt channel. Once a cartridge was loaded the rifleman would then close the breech by pulling the bolt back and locking it to the left. He’d then put a percussion cap on the lock and the gun was ready to fire. Here’s a gif showing how the action worked.
Prince’s rifle was reportedly able to fire six rounds in just 46 seconds, according to official reports. It was tested by the British Army in the summer of 1855 against the Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifle Musket and recommended for further testing but the trials never took place and it wouldn’t be until the 1860s that the British Army adopted a breechloader, which utilised Jacob Snider’s action.