The Whitworth rifle was a British-made rifled musket heavily based on the Pattern 1853 Enfield. Its designer, Joseph Whitworth, owner of the Whitworth Rifle Company, sold it to the Confederate States during the American Civil War.
The Whitworth, as mentioned earlier, was heavily based on the Pattern 1853 Enfield, although several elements were changed. The barrel of the weapon was the major difference with an innovation incorporated into its design. The bore of the barrel was hexagonal in shape (reminiscent of the Model 1814 Common Rifle's octagonally shaped barrel) which twisted to form the Whitworth's equivalent of rifling. This, combined with the (relatively) hexagonally-shaped bullet, meant that the Whitworth operated without requiring the bullet to deform to engage with the rifling.
Other than this, the Whitworth was pretty much a conventional rifled musket, with a very similar stock, and percussion lock mechanism to the Pattern 1853 Enfield. The barrel was given a tighter 1:20 inch twist ratio than the Enfield to increase the Whitworth's long range accuracy. A variety of barrel lengths were available (33 in, 36 in or 39 in) attached by either two or three barrel bands, depending on length.
It was among the first firearms to be used with a deployable stand to stabilize the gun. This stand was forked to give as much stability and width as possible, improving the sharpshooters' accuracy, although the shooter would have to find thier own stand to accommodate the Whitworth. Sights varied from one Whitworth to another with a variety of leaf sights, Enfield sights and others used on Whitworths. A limited number of Whitworths were fitted with a Davidson telescopic sight, mounted to the left-hand side of the barrel to prevent contact with the percussion lock mechanism.
The Whitworth was designed to use a longer and more slender bullet than the relatively new .58 calibre Minie ball used with the Pattern 1853 Enfield. This .451 calibre bullet was longer to be better stabilised over a longer distance, as it had been discovered that longer, sleeker (ie smaller diameter) bullets were more stable for a greater period of time than larger calibre examples.
The Whitworth was available with two types of bullet shapes. The intended design of bullet was hexagonal in shape, matching the bore of the barrel. This bullet did not need to deform, meaning it could be made of a harder lead, which means that a greater muzzle velocity could be maintained as the bullet would remain virtually uniform in shape after it was fired, remaining as aerodynamic as possible. The second type of bullet used was much like a Minie ball, round in shape which required it to deform to engage with the rifling.
The Whitworth would not be used in anger by Britain, becoming more of a collector's gun. In America however, the interest in sharpshooters became greater and, by the time of the American Civil War, the need to use a long range rifle to defeat artillery crews became greater. Confederate forces decided to buy the Whitworth to fulfill this role, with units equipped with the Whitworth being named (and unimaginatively at that) "Whitworth Sharpshooters".
A distinctive whistling noise was generated from the hexagonally shaped bullets the rifle fired. In one famed incident during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union General John Sedgewick was shot and killed by a Whitworth Sharpshooter, having just remarked that "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance". Five Confederate soldiers would later claim to making the shot.
In Britain, Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself struck the bull's-eye of a target 400 yards away with a machine-rested Whitworth during the British National Rifle Association's first annual meeting at Wimbledon in 1860.
In modern times, original Whitworths are very valuable collector's pieces, being claimed by some to be the very first sniper rifle. It is recommended to use exact copies of the Whitworth's distinctive hexagonal bullet, with several companies producing replica molds for the distinctive bullet. Likewise, several companies produce replica weapons, among them Parker Hale, Pedersoli and Euro Arms, all of whom produce replicas for recreational use and Civil War re-enactments.