Portuguese 1867 Monkey-tail Carbine

  • Country: Portugal
  • Ignition System: Percussion
  • Calibre: .45 Monkeytail combustible

In 1866 the Portuguese set about updating their arsenal of percussion weapons. They had, up to that point, been following the British Enfield pattern of arms and sent their agents once again to the United Kingdom to see what they could find. They selected a breech loading percussion system devised by Westley-Richards which is usually called monkey-tail, as will be explained later.

The system had previously been trialed by the British and issued to a very limited extent to cavalry and experienced some commercial success with target shooters but by 1866, with the advert of cartridge breechloaders just over the horizon, the system was positively outdated. Nonetheless the Portuguese adopted the system in rifle, carbine and pistol form. The numbers purchased appear to be 8000, 2000 and 1000 of each type respectively.

As with the Podewils-Lindner, the basic principle is that the breech of the barrel can be opened to load a combustible cartridge containing a powder charge and bullet, the breech is then closed, a percusison cap applied to the conventional nipple and the weapon is fired. Although the general idea is the same, the Westley-Richards rifle has a completely different breech mechanism and unlike the Podewils-Lindner it is not a conversion but a purpose built system.

Key to the whole system is the hinged door at the rear of the receiver which has a curved extension where the breech tag would normally be, this is the famous “monkey tail”. Mounted on a rail on the underside of this door is a sliding block with a hinged brass breech plug. The rear of the sliding block has a wedge extending down from the block body. When the system is closed, the wedge sits in a shoe at the rear of the receiver section. When fired, gas pressure pushes the sliding block backwards such that the wedge is forced up against a sloping surface in the rear of the receiver shoe thus locking the breech shut as long as pressure is present. When there is no longer any pressure on the breech plug, this same sloping surface of the shoe pushes the sliding block body forward such that the entire door can be opened by lifting the tail section. If you have followed my explanation, you will note that the breech is only locked at the instant of firing, something unthinkable today but the system works flawlessly. The brass breech plug is hinged so that it can better make the 90° turn from the open position to the closed position.

As with most capping breechloaders, the system itself has no gas seal, instead it relies on specially designed ammunition. The paper cartridge for this system comprised a paper tube closed at one end in which the charge was placed, the bullet was them placed over the charge such that it protruded from the tube, a string was then tied around the cartridge between the charge and bullet and finally the bullet portion dipped in wax lubricant. A thick greased felt wad is placed on the closed end of the tube which expanded under ignition pressure when pushed up against the breech plug. Since this wad is at the rear of the cartridge, it would not be expelled from the barrel upon ignition, the theory was that the wad of the fired cartridge would be pushed down bore by the insertion of the next cartridge thus cleaning the bore at the same time. In my experience the felt wad sticks to the breech plug and can be picked off when the door is opened. The wad does do its work provided it is of the correct diameter and thickness. The paper cartridge would have been encased individually in paper cases for protection which had to be peeled off before loading.

The barrel has the inscription “Whitworth Patent”, this is to acknowledge the use of Whitworths polygonal rifling for the bore, in this case the bore is eight sided. On the barrel is also marked the land and groove measurement for the barrel. It comes in very handy when selecting the bullet for this carbine. The lock is dated 1867 which corresponds to the Portuguese contract, and the left side of the stock shows the mark F.A and a date which appears to be an inventory mark.

The barrel is held by a very large transverse pin and a muzzle band, the muzzle band was a bayonet bar on the right side for mounting a sabre bayonet very similar to the British 1860 bar-on-band bayonet. These bayonets are extremely rare so I have been unable to find one.