~ Westley Richards Monkey Tail History

The HBSA kindly asked me to talk to them and in recent years I have been collating background information on Westley Richards Monkey Tails (and others) in an attempt to recreate the History of “'tails” by reverse engineering. Westley Richards has changed hands several times since the demise of the founding family and little of its Monkey Tail history has survived, apart from that recorded by the Military. The 'tail was a Muzzle-loading – Breech-loading Caplock Pistol / Carbine / Rifle much prized, the carbines by the Boer especially, for its long range accuracy. Patented in March 1858 it has an astounding history, still being made in the late 1880’s and in military service until the turn of the Century. The Caplock design was an anachronism directly resulting from the Military Belief that ammunition containing its own initiator and stored in bulk was inherently disastrous. Coupled with an equally rigid belief that only an ounce ball of .577 calibre was man enough for the task the prospects for the Military ‘tail were bleak.

Breech loading Black Powder guns had always been problematic. The inevitable fouling of the barrel was endemic and and the breech seal was the main bugbear; the latter was conquered by a paper wrapped bullet and powder cartridge with a greased wad at the back giving a seal ahead of a close fitted breech piston. A standard Musket cap ignited the charge through the nitrated paper. The wad was pushed forward by the next round and was ejected by the next shot. Several manufacturers adopted this principle but it wasn’t until Westley Richards patented the muzzleloading version that accuracy was achieved. The Muzzle Loading nose cone in the Westley Richards permitted the wad, having cleaned the bore ahead of the bullet, to be blasted aside without affecting the path of the bullet. It was called a ‘Monkey Tail’ because the breech was opened by a simple lift up lever, thought to resemble a monkey's tail. Breech locking was ingeniously effected by negative angles on bearing surfaces – firing the gun made absolutely certain that the breech wouldn’t open while breech pressure was high. After a few mishaps the hammer / tail were adapted so that the former couldn’t be cocked without the latter being closed. I know not a few who view this design with some disquiet.

Isambard K. Brunel, in his spare time, had pondered the question of loading a fouled muzzleloader. In the mid 50’s he came up with a loose fitting octagonal bullet that would, by the action of the planes of the rifling bearing on the smaller planes of the bullet, self centre. He pestered Westley Richards for many months before his idea was constructed – trials were reported as successful.

Whitworth patented this principle but in a polygonal form with a mechanical fitting bullet and these early Whitworths were made by Westley Richards. Whitworth can be found as late as 1870 complaining bitterly that the Army still clung to their heavy large bore bullets despite all evidence that ‘small bore’ was the way to go; eventually the Army got there with the Martini-Henry, but in their defence they did have a goodly load of Enfield/Sniders to use up. All ‘tails (except a .577 and one with Henry rifling) were made with octagonal rifling with a twist of 1 turn in 20 inches. Do not expect parts on 'tails to be interchangeable, apart from Enfields, they aren't. Despite ‘Whitworth Patent’ being stamped on the barrel of most Westley Richards Monkey Tails there in no evidence that any patent payments were made.

Very early ‘tails used leather barrel bands, they started with an Enfield pattern Nipple ‘Snail’ and a tail spring retained by a bolt.

Trials started with the Small Arms Committee in 1859, but before getting official recognition they were grasped by the Yeomanry; probably the first recorded survivors are of the Cumberland & Westmoreland Yeomanry Cavalry & The Royal Gloucester Hussars. Early in 1860 the War office decided that the WR breechloading rifle had shown sufficient promise to warrant the Manufacture of a nominal 100 for troop trials. Production of the trials batch, with socket bayonets, was completed on 24th May '61 and issued at the rate of 20 per Regiment to the 25th, 32nd and 84th Regiments at Aldershot, as well as the 47th Regt & 1st Btn. Rifle Brigade at Dublin. Westley Richards supplied a total of 112 rifles with 39 inch barrels for these trials.

The 36” & (very rare) 39” Military match and prize rifles were the pre-eminent breech-loaders at Wimbledon in the NRA competitions started in 1860.

Initially these generally had a slightly tighter bore than their shorter cousins. .4495 and .4505 were tried. Thereafter .450 & .451 became more common with the advent of the bore riding bullet. ‘Tails remained victorious until the Breech loading rules were changed in 1886 to only permit primed cartridges whereupon Westley Richards pressed the advantages of the Martini Henry Patents he had acquired.

As far as our Ordnance was concerned the Cavalry had a slightly different perspective to the Artillery and the Infantry, hardly surprising when you consider muzzle-loading a smooth bore Victoria Carbine on top of a horse or the breech leakages from the Sharps. After much trial and tribulation patterns were finally approved (April 1861) and 2,000 were made, all be it in four dissimilar batches. These were trialled by 18th Hussars, the 10th Hussars, and the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carbineers). Sighted to 400, 700 or 800 yards they were, in error, made in two chamber sizes and under four differing Sealed Patterns. The Fourth incorporated all the familiar elements of the ‘tail, a rim beyond the nipple lump to protect the stock, dovetailed tail spring and two holes in the butt for the tools. One of these was issued to the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, but this, sadly, has had the barrel replaced from an earlier rifle.

The 25” Carbine was ideal for Cavalry and Artillery alike and in 1861 to 1863 several hundred found their way out to South Australia and the Victorian Volunteers. The latter favoured a one and a half band version, the half band for the front sling swivel. These were generally in 450 calibre.

Victorian Volunteer Carbine issued to Swan Hill

The Cavalry fell in love and were successful in gaining acquiescence for Enfield to make 20,000, under licence. In reality massive retooling was required and at one stage BSA was approached as an alternative supplier. Eventually production bore fruit in 1866 in the form of 19,000 carbines and the Monkey Tail became the first major issue breech loader for the Army. A smaller bore was chosen, .448 / .481 than the norm of .450.

They were mainly consigned to Yeomanry units. Very few of these guns have survived, so far I have only found specimens issued to:

Wiltshire Yeomanry Cavalry (WYC); East Lancs Yeomanry Cavalry (ELYC); Queens Own Royal Glasgow Yeomanry Cavalry (QORGYC) sometimes just called Queens Own Royal Yeomanry Cavalry (QORYC); Uxbridge Yeomanry Cavalry(UYC); Royal Berks Yeomanry (RBY).

Westley Richards also produced some 2000 Rifles and socket bayonets (Pattern approved in 1864). Some 1800 of these were issued to the Montreal Garrison in the face of the 'Fenian Threat' but the cartridges became fragile in the intense cold and were replaced with Martini-Henrys. Their bayonets were made by Reeves and were stamped by the Bagot Street Inspector 'B/4' or 'B/13', several are to be found to have been shortened; known serial numbers range from 21 to 1989, to match their rifles whose matching numbers were prefixed with a 'B'.

I have found no record of trials in the Monsoons of India, or, indeed, any importation.

In Africa they were initially introduced on a shoot on Bain’s Estate - West of Bloemfontein by the, then, Prince of Wales. The ‘tail literally took South Africa by storm and became the bane of British Commanders. Rumours that some of our African Forces had them issued (Durnsford’s Horse) are unsubstantiated. Whilst the Martini-Henry suffered from case fragmentation (Isandlewana and Rourke’s Creek) the ‘tail could be cheaply muzzleloaded and it outranged our Service rifles during the 1st Boer War, and was still being carried in the 2nd. Listed in the Record of ZAR stores dated January 1892 were 125,901 Monkey Tail Cartridges.

Many of the guns produced for the African hunting market are heavy barrelled pistol-grip and are the forerunners of the ‘Express’ rifle.

There is no mention of them in the States, apart from occasional Confederate personal purchases, the development of rim and centre fire cartridges being preferred.

In late 1866 D. Luís da Câmara Leme was instructed to buy Small Arms for the Portuguese Army. This led to 2000 x 20” Clavinas being bought for the Cavalry and 8000 x 33” Hunters for the Infantry. All the barrels appear to have been made by TT, Thomas Turner.

The Clavinas were converted in 1873 for use by the Artillery. The Side mounted sling ring bar was removed by cutting the nail cups off flush with the woodwork. The front band was replaced with one incorporating a bayonet stud. Bayonets (exceptionally rare) were made locally for both the Clavina and the Hunter. The MRDs being 18 mm & 19.5 mm respectively. The Hunter’s Bayonets are of Yataghan design with a blade length of 22”, and weigh 1 lb 12 .75 oz. or so Luiz Mardel records in his epic Manual of Arms. I understand the Clavina’s bayonet to weigh 1 lb 3.75 oz. and be of machete shape, but they were later issued to the Mozambique Police and are rarer than hens teeth. Portugal used these long arms in Mosambique, virtually to extinction and on retirement many of the Hunters were rumoured to have been made into ornamental banister spindles.

The order was later expanded to include 1000 pistols,.451/.475, to use 25 Grains of powder. These were produced in two forms, With Ramrod (two variants) for the 2nd. Cavalry Regiment, Queen’s Lancers, based in Lisbon and without rod for the other Regiments, primarily the 1st. King’s Regiment. Manufactured with one butt mounted lanyard ring these were locally equipped with a second ring attached to a replaced rear nail cup. They were worn suspended on a cord passing from the left shoulder, through the two rings. FA stands for Fabrica de Armas (Arms Factory).

In 1866 trials started to convert the Capping Breech Loader to Central Fire and over the next three years some 500 Central Fire carbines and rifles were produced in 450 & 451 calibre in various lengths, mainly 25”, and in both Military and pistol grip configurations. The bulk (production rather than trial) were shipped to S. Africa.

Westley Richards seems to have ceased production in 1868.

Westley Richards Arms & Ammunition from 1870 to 72 apparently made no ‘tails and morphed into National Arms & Ammunition Co Ltd, who restarted production still using locks made by T. Rigby and J. Riley. Barrel Makers Millward continued until NA&A production was started. The small squiggle shown top centre appears late in the NA&A production run on the Trigger plate and is believed to be a Westley Richards mark.

Most owner’s ask ‘How Many were made?’ to which the quick answer is 42,000 plus 19,000 made under licence by Enfields and some copies by Hollis, Murcott, John Reeves and Hugh’s Universal etc. after the Patent expired.

Arriving at this ‘best guess’ answer has been aided by Westley Richards (not having a normal sequential serial numbering system) and a Gundealer in Africa who puts together composite guns. As far as I can make out Westley Richards had one group of ‘Best Guns’ and these included ‘tails made in 130 bore, 52 bore single and double, 40 bore single and double and finally .4505 calibre. Thereafter guns will generally fall into one of the following groups, unless they have been ‘got at’. The figures in brackets are the number of known, identifiable, survivors (subject to constant updating); lengths, in inches, refer to barrel length as measured from the muzzle to the foot of the hump containing the tail hinge pin.

Dated 1858 to 1869

Prefix A, numbered 1 to 2000, 19”Carbines to the Army, dated 1861/2 (8)

Prefix B, numbered 1 to 2000, 36” Rifles to the Army, dated 1864 (5)

Numbered 1 to 4000 Colonial, Volunteer & Civilian 19”, 20” & 25”Carbines (116)

Numbered 1 to 3000, 36” & 39”Rifles, mainly Military Match and Prize (79)

Prefix P, numbered 1 to 8000, 33” Portuguese Hunters, dated 1866 or 1867 (46)

Prefix P or P/C, numbered 1 to 2000, 20” Portuguese Clavinas, dated 1867 (35)

Numbered 1 to 1000, 9” Portuguese pistols, dated 1867 (68)

Numbered 1 to 500, 25”, 34” & 39” Central Fire Rifles, dated 1867, 8 & 9 (28)

Known of but still unidentified (72ish)

Total 22,500, (475)


Numbered 1, to a debatable, 19000, 20” under License at Enfield. (15)

Dated from 1872 to 1885 and mainly exported to South Africa

25” Carbines numbered 5000 to 20,000 (163)

25” Carbines Prefix C numbered 1 to 5000 (26)

Express rifles numbered 3000 to 6000 (33)

Got at (miss-matched lock date and Serial Number) (15)

Known of but still unidentified (62ish)

Total 23,000 (299)

Grand Total 64,500 (789)

It has been claimed that hundreds of thousands of ‘tails were supplied to the Boer, but my sources tell me that the Boer couldn’t afford that many and the survivors bear out only 21,000. One of the 'Unique Selling Points' of the 'tail was that it could be reloaded cheaply either with hand made cartridges or as a muzzle loader. The coming of age trial for a Boer lad was to hit a chicken’s egg on top of a molehill at 100 yards. With a 25” barrel the Boer would expect a 50% hit rate on a human at 800 yards. Hunting for food made them superb judges of range. Ironically the Boer called the ‘tail a ‘Witwort’ after the inscription on the barrel.

Few tools are found with UK guns.

The top one is an early Westley Richards breech cleaner, the middle pair are Enfield tools with WD & the normal 'E' marks.

The bottom pair are the later NA&A Co and come with 'African'

carbines. Ammunition is somewhat of a puzzle. Busk in ‘Handbook for Hythe 1859- the Rifle and how to use it' and later Lewis' 'Small Arms & Ammunition' shows the Monkey Tail Bullet as being a mechanically fitting octagonal bullet, much like the Whitworth. Cased guns bear a label referring to a mould as for muzzle-loading use only – not for breech-loading. These references seem at odds with the sights in that Whitworths had a dual scale for Mechanical fitted bullets and conicals, the former offering better range despite the added friction, presumably because of less windage.


Cartridge Investigation is an ongoing task; to date I have found adverts in "The Ironmonger" dated 1861 & 62 which offer Eley Cartridges in four formats of .457 diameter. Bullets were compression cast and hardness is unknown, but the weights and accompanying charges were:

530 grains ~ 2.75 drams

480 grains ~ 2.5 drams

430 grains ~ 2.25 drams

400 grains ~ 2.0 drams

One dram = 27.34 grains, the powder used was Harvey & Curtis No 6.

The 400 grain ensemble was used for the 2000 Carbines made for the Army in '61 and information on Army Trials details the issue of lead bullets hardened with the addition of 5% tin. These did not shoot well in the early carbines with stretched chambers.

As a conical of .447 diameter, flat base, the borerider appeared in ‘63 with a bullet length of 1.013”~1.015”, a charge of 55 grains and an overall cartridge length of 2.73”, in June ‘65 this was reduced to a length of 2.62”, as a result of increased diameter from not greasing the cartridge.

For the Rifle the Army started off in April ’61 with a cylindro-conoidal, hollow base, of 530 grains hardened lead of diameter 0.457 inches propelled with a charge of 2¾ drams, or 70 grains. This was superseded in July ‘65 with a 480 grain, skirted Boreriding Conical Bullet of length 1.167”, body diameter 458, skirt dia.468, skirt height .150, lubricated with pure wax, charge of 70 grains ‘Rifle FG’ contained in a paper cartridge of outside diameter .476 increasing at the bottom third to .483. Overall length with .501 diameter wad attached was 3.08”and it was lubricated with Westley Richards No. 8. Whilst Westley Richards recommended a more pointed nose Boxer, the Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory, preferred a more rounded profile.

Take down Instructions for Monkey Tails

If you intend to shoot a Monkey Tail, or even if you aren't, it is desireable to strip it down and clean / derust / lubricate to protect and preserve - provided you don't damage it whilst doing so. If your gun resists giving up it's screws it is imperative that you get properly fitting screwdriver blades - fitting both length and width of slot - before you mangle them.

The following section explains how and illustrates some of the markings you may find on individual components.

To avoid confusion the term 'Serial Number' refers to the (sometimes prefixed) number always found on the left side of the lump, ie. opposite the nipple. The batch number is a two digit number, generally in the form of Roman Numerals formed by chisel cuts but stamped numbers have been seen on post 1866 guns. Left and Right assume the gun is held upright with the muzzle pointing away, so Right is 'Lockside'.

1). Remove the cleaning rod / ramrod.

2). To remove the lock - go to half cock and slacken the Nails. If the lock won't release undo the nails a couple of turns and whilst the majority of the thread is still engaged give the nail heads a light tap to break the seal. If the lock plate is badly corroded the rust can expand into the surrounding woodwork so use commonsense before the hammer. With the loosened nail heads supported on a flat hard surface and the lock uppermost go round the lockplate with a square edge up against the stock at the stock / plate joint. The lockplate edges are angled slightly, in the fashion of a countersunk screw, to ease separation.

The lock plate normally has the date of manufacture

in the triangle behind the hammer. You can also see the batch number on the top edge (16).

On the inside the lock-maker may be named in

the vicinity of the mainspring stop. The inspector will usually be marked on the tumbler stop and perhaps the inner face of the hammer. I prefer not to take the hammer off the tumbler unless it's loose and I want to close up the square hole. This area is one of the weak spots - the heavy mainspring leading to a distorted hammer / tumbler fitting. Strip the lock to clean or de-rust as necessary.

3). The trigger guard comes next, the front screw has a short metal thread running into the trigger plate; the rear, 1 for pistol or 2 for carbine, screws are threaded for wood, they may need a tap or slight tighten to break the lock. In an extreme case it is possible to break a seizure by using a very narrow propane flame to heat only the recalcitrant screw. Clean and lubricate, if you don't have Eezox use a wax - candle will do - for the wood screw.

Note the Serial number (126) on the outside of the guard tail and in this case the King's Regiment, (R1), Troop (G) & Rack Number (19)

and the batch number, inside the guard.

4). Just ahead of the trigger is one large screw running up through the stock into the shoe. You can see it's nose

if you lift the tail. It may be necessary to use a penetrating oil applied from the breech. It may be batch numbered. You may also see the batch number on the trigger blade and the trigger plate, and the maker DB over 3.

5). Free the other

barrel constraints, bands wedges or pins. All retainers are inserted from the stage left and extract the same way. The Portuguese Hunter & Clavinas have the Serial number repeated on the band's bayonet boss.

6). Lift out the barrel to reveal a repeated Serial Number (126) on the shoe, on the right, hitherto hidden under the stock. The Proofhouse Bore is the 52 but in exceptional cases may be 25, 40 or 130; the three other marks are Proof View & Final Acceptance.

The barrel maker will be marked between the wedge / pin keep and the shoe, here ringed in yellow ~ TT (Thomas Turner), but you may find WR, V. Millward, or NA&A Co + date. The batch numbers are ringed in red and Inspectors Initials are ringed Green.

You may be lucky enough to have an original nipple, this will have WR on one of the faces of the square and the fire-hole will be bouched in platinum (as is the communication hole down to the barrel) - see left, --------> contrasted with a Standard Enfield


Other markings are Whitworth Patent, normally between the lump and the rearsight, sometimes repeated so that wherever the sight is placed it can be seen. The 3 or 4 digit number on the barrel left, just ahead of the lump is the bore diameter, usually .451 for pistols and carbines, and .4505 or .451 for rifles of the 52 bore. On the opposite side is the groove depth, .475 for pistols, .480 occasionally on early rifles but generally .483. The charge, 25 grains for pistols, 55 grains for carbines 70 grains for short rifles and 85 grains for long rifles may be found to the left of the tail lever spring. Alternatively the inscription 'FOR WESTLEY RICHARDS CARTRIDGES' is stamped on guns issued from / in 1884 starting in the 19000 serial range.