Published 22 December, 2019; last updated 08 March, 2021
We do not know if breech loading rifles represented a discontinuity in military strength. They probably did not represent a discontinuity in fire rate.
This case study is part of AI Impacts’ discontinuous progress investigation.
We have not investigated this topic in depth. What follows are our initial impressions.
Modern mass production firearms are breech-loading (though mortars are generally muzzle-loaded), except those which are intended specifically by design to be muzzle-loaders, in order to be legal for certain types of hunting. Early firearms, on the other hand, were almost entirely muzzle-loading. The main advantage of breech-loading is a reduction in reloading time – it is much quicker to load the projectile and the charge into the breech of a gun or cannon than to try to force them down a long tube, especially when the bullet fit is tight and the tube has spiral ridges from rifling. In field artillery, the advantages were similar: the crew no longer had to force powder and shot down a long barrel with rammers, and the shot could now tightly fit the bore (increasing accuracy greatly), without being impossible to ram home with a fouled barrel.
Breech loading rifles were suggested to us as a potential discontinuity in some measure of army strength, due to high fire rate and ability to be used while lying down. We did not have time to investigate this extensively, and have not looked for evidence for or against discontinuities in military strength overall. That said, the reading we have done does not suggest any such discontinuities.
We briefly looked for evidence of discontinuity in firing rate, since firing rate seemed to be a key factor of any advantage in military strength.
Upon brief review it seems unlikely to us that breech loading rifles represented a discontinuity in firing rate alone. Revolvers developed in parallel with breech-loading rifles, and appear to have had similar or higher rates of fire. This includes revolver rifles, which (being rifles) appear to be long-ranged enough to be comparable to muskets and breech-loading rifles.2
The best candidate we found for a breech loading rifle constituting a discontinuity in firing rate is the Ferguson Rifle, first used in 1777 in the American Revolutionary War.3 It was expensive and fragile, so it did not see widespread use;4 breech-loading rifles did not become standard in any army until the Prussian “Needle gun” in 1841 and the Norwegian “Kammerlader” in 1842.5 Both the Ferguson and the Dreyse needle gun could fire about six rounds a minute (sources vary),6 but by the time of the Ferguson well-trained British soldiers could fire muskets at about four rounds a minute.7 Moreover, apparently there are some expensive and fragile revolvers that predate the Ferguson, again suggesting that breech-loading rifles did not lead to a discontinuity in rate of fire.8 All in all, while we don’t have enough data to plot a trend, everything we’ve seen is consistent with continuous growth in firing rate.
It is still possible that a combination of factors including fire rate contributed to a discontinuity in a military strength metric, or that a narrower metric including fire rate saw some discontinuity.
Thanks to Jesko Zimmerman for suggesting breech-loading rifles as a potential area of discontinuity.