British Thorneycro?ft Bolt-Action Rifle

By Jonathan Ferguson

A True Forgotten Weapon

The world’s first bullpup rifle emerged from the Victorian twilight. It predates the term “bullpup” itself, which first appeared in print in 1940, by several decades; it predates the current crop of military bullpup firearms by several more. Although named for industrialist James Baird Thorneycroft, the lion’s share of the actual design and development work would have fallen to Moubray Gore Farquhar, of Farquhar-Hill automatic rifle fame.

Thorneycroft’s involvement was probably limited to finance and promotion. This was a truly British effort, Thorneycroft being an Englishman living in Scotland, and Farquhar a native Scot who had relocated to Birmingham to pursue his career. Unlike Thorneycroft, Farquhar was a military man and had served as an officer in Thorneycroft’s brother’s Mounted Infantry unit in South Africa. This is an important, if poorly documented connection with the rifle at hand, because the Thorneycroft was fundamentally an arm intended for mounted soldiers and cavalry. Although ill-timed in terms of the military needs of the day, the basic concept that the Thornycroft embodied would eventually gain widespread acceptance and remains in use today.

The Rifle

The British combat experience in the Second Boer War led to a modernisation programme for the service Lee rifle. At the same time, a much more radical response was being developed. Whereas the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) was conceived as a universal short rifle, Farquhar and Thorneycroft intended their scratch-designed equivalent to be “… more suitable for use by mounted troops” (from the patent). Mounted Infantry were an important unit type for British colonial warfare, able to quickly get to where they were needed, dismount and fight as conventional riflemen. Even more so than regular troops, they had a need for a compact and lightweight yet long-ranged personal weapon. Although they did not typically fight from the saddle, handling the 1902 rifle strongly suggests that one-handed firing may have been a secondary purpose—or at least a happy fringe benefit—of the unusual layout and rearward point of balance. As with a modern bullpup, it is possible to roughly aim the weapon whilst it is braced...

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V23N3 (March 2019)
and was posted online on February 1, 2019


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