Very few names in English gunmaking are associated with the level of quality, craftsmanship and innovation as that of Westley Richards.
Author and firearms researcher DeWitt Bailey may have said it best of Westley Richards when he noted: “The Westley Richards firm certainly enjoyed the highest reputation of any Birmingham maker with the ‘sporting gentry’, and were the only Birmingham manufacturers to seriously compete with the ‘Best London’ makers in the field of sporting guns and rifles.”
Richards patent #633 (March 25, 1858) for a breech loading percussion rifle design, was probably the most important. This patent covered his famous“Monkey-Tail” breechloading system. This simple and elegant design allowed the advantages of a breechloading rifle to be applied to traditional muzzle loading, cap lock designs. The system received its nickname from the shape of the breech lever, which resembled a monkey’s tail when the breech was opened for loading. The locking system utilized a sliding plunger that was actuated by the pressure of the cartridge being fired, moving backwards and locking the breech so it could not open until the pressure subsided. As a double safety, the hammer was machined in such a way that the breech could only be opened when the hammer nose was resting on the cone (nipple). Placing the gun on half-cock or full-cock prevented the action from being opened unintentionally.
Richards was also innovative in advancing the science of rifling, and appears to have developed the concept of polygonal rifling simultaneously with (or possibly just prior to) Joseph Whitworth. As Whitworth had no facilities to manufacture arms during his early days (prior to the establishment of the Whitworth Rifle Company), he relied upon Richards to produce his early guns.
The most prized of the Westley Richards “Monkey Tails” were his Military Match and Prize Rifles. Richards produced 1,500 of these extremely well made and accurate rifles between 1858 and 1869. They were manufactured with both 36” and 39” barrels, with the 39” gun being produced in very limited quantities. These “Match & Prize Rifles” were the guns that consistently won the breechloading rifle competitions at Wimbledon from their inception until the 1886 rule change that required breechloading rifles to utilized “fixed” or internally primed ammunition, which eliminated the percussion guns from completion.
Of these highly prized and desirable guns (numbered individually from 1 to 1500), less than 50 are known to have survived to today. Most of the above research regarding the “monkey tail” is derived from the work of Robbie Betteridge, from a paper he delivered to Great Britain’s Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association.