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A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves ("rifling") cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile (for small arms usage, called a bullet), imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the orientation of the weapon. When the projectile leaves the barrel, this spin lends gyroscopic stability to the projectile and prevents tumbling, in the same way that a properly thrown American football or rugby ball behaves. This allows the use of aerodynamically-efficient pointed bullets (as opposed to the spherical balls used in muskets) and thus improves range and accuracy. The word "rifle" originally referred to the grooving, and a rifle was called a "rifled gun." Rifles are used in warfare, hunting and shooting sports.

The origins of rifling are difficult to trace, but some of the earliest practical experiments seem to have occurred in Europe during the 15th century.Archers had long realized that a twist added to the tail feathers of their arrows gave them greater accuracy. Early muskets produced large quantities of smoke and soot, which had to be cleaned from the action and bore of the musket frequently, either through the action of repeated bore scrubbing, or a deliberate attempt to create "soot grooves" that would allow for more shots to be fired from the firearm. This might also have led to a perceived increase in accuracy, although no one knows for sure. True rifling dates from the mid-15th century,[citation needed] although military commanders preferred smooth bore weapons for infantry use because rifles were much more prone to problems due to powder fouling the barrel and because they took longer to reload and fire than muskets.[citation needed]

Rifles were created as an improvement in the accuracy of smooth bore muskets. In the early 18th century, Benjamin Robins, an English mathematician, realized that an elongated bullet would retain the momentum and kinetic energy of a musket ball, but would slice through the air with greater ease. The black powder used in early muzzle-loading rifles quickly fouled the barrel, making loading slower and more difficult. Their greater range was also considered to be of little practical use, since the smoke from black powder quickly obscured the battlefield and made it almost impossible to target the enemy from a distance. Since musketeers could not afford to take the time to stop and clean their barrels in the middle of a battle, rifles were limited to use by sharpshooters and non-military uses like hunting.[citation needed]

Muskets were smoothbore, large caliber weapons using ball-shaped ammunition fired at relatively low velocity. Due to the high cost and great difficulty of precision manufacturing, and the need to load readily from the muzzle, the musket ball was a loose fit in the barrel. Consequently, on firing the ball bounced off the sides of the barrel when fired and the final direction on leaving the muzzle was unpredictable.

The performance of early muskets defined the style of warfare at the time. Due to the lack of accuracy, soldiers were employed in long lines (thusLine infantry) and fire at the opposing forces. Precise aim was thus not necessary to hit an opponent. Muskets were used for comparatively rapid, imprecisely aimed volley fire, and the average soldier could be easily trained to use them. The (muzzle-loaded) rifle was originally a sharpshooter's weapon used for targets of opportunity and deliberately aimed fire, first gaining notoriety in warfare during the Seven Years' War and American Revolutionary War through their use by American frontiersmen. 

The invention of the minie balls in the 1840s solved the slow loading problem, and in the 1850s and 1860s rifles quickly replaced muskets on the battlefield. Many rifles, often referred to as rifled muskets, were very similar to the muskets they replaced, but the military also experimented with other designs. Breech-loading weapons proved to have a much faster rate of fire than muzzleloaders, causing military forces to abandon muzzle loaders in favor of breech-loading designs in the late 1860s. In the later part of the 19th century, rifles were generally single-shot, breech-loading — designed for aimed, discretionary fire by individual soldiers. Then, as now, rifles had a stock, either fixed or folding, to be braced against the shoulder when firing. The adoption of cartridges and breech-loading in the 19th century was concurrent with the general adoption of rifles. In the early part of the 20th century, soldiers were trained to shoot accurately over long ranges with high-powered cartridges. World War I Lee–Enfield rifles (among others) were equipped with long-range 'volley sights' for massed firing at ranges of up to 1.6 km (1 mi). Individual shots were unlikely to hit, but a platoon firing repeatedly could produce a 'beaten ground' effect similar to light artillery or machine guns; but experience in World War I showed that long-range fire was best left to the machine gun.

Gradually, rifles appeared with cylindrical barrels cut with helical grooves, the surfaces between the grooves being "lands". The innovation shortly preceded the mass adoption of breech-loading weapons, as it was not practical to push an overbore bullet down through a rifled barrel, only to then (try to) fire it back out. The dirt and grime from prior shots was pushed down ahead of a tight bullet or ball (which may have been a loose fit in the clean barrel before the first shot), and, of course, loading was far more difficult, as the lead had to be deformed to go down in the first place, reducing the accuracy due to deformation. Several systems were tried to deal with the problem, usually by resorting to an under-bore bullet that expanded upon firing.

The original muzzle-loading rifle, with a closely fitting ball to take the rifling grooves, was loaded with difficulty, particularly when foul, and for this reason was not generally used for military purposes. Even with the advent of rifling the bullet itself didn't change, but was wrapped in a greased, cloth patch to grip the rifling grooves.

Minié system - The "Rifled Musket"

One of the most famous was the Minié system, invented by French Army Captain Claude-Étienne Minié, which relied on a conical bullet (known as a Minié ball) with a hollow skirt at the base of the bullet. When fired, the skirt would expand from the pressure of the exploding charge and grip the rifling as the round was fired. The better seal gave more power, as less gas escaped past the bullet, which combined with the fact that for the same bore (caliber) diameter a long bullet was heavier than a round ball. The extra grip also spun the bullet more consistently, which increased the range from about 50 yards for a smooth bore musket to about 300 yards for a rifle using the Minié system. The expanding skirt of the Minié ball also solved the problem that earlier tight fitting bullets were difficult to load as black powder residue fouled the inside of the barrel. The Minié system allowed conical bullets to be loaded into rifles just as quickly as round balls in smooth bores, which allowed rifle muskets to replace muskets on the battlefield. Minié system rifles, notably the U.S. Springfield and the British Enfield of the early 1860s, featured prominently in the U.S. Civil War, due to their enhanced power and accuracy.

Over the 19th century, bullet design also evolved, the bullets becoming gradually smaller and lighter. By 1910 the standard blunt-nosed bullet had been replaced with the pointed,'spitzer' bullet, an innovation that increased range and penetration. Cartridge design evolved from simple paper tubes containing black powder and shot, to sealed brass cases with integral primers for ignition, while black powder itself was replaced with cordite, and then other nitro-cellulose-based smokeless powder mixtures, propelling bullets to higher velocities than before.

From 1836, breech-loading rifles were introduced with the German Dreyse Needle gun, and followed by the French Tabatière in 1857 the British Calisher and Terry carbine made in Birmingham and later in 1864 and the more well known British Snider–Enfield. Primitive chamber-locking mechanisms were soon replaced by bolt-action mechanisms, exemplified by the Chassepot in 1866. Breech loading was to have a major impact on warfare, as breech-loading rifles can be fired at a rate many times higher than muzzle loaded rifles and significantly can be loaded from a prone rather than standing position. Firing prone (i.e., lying down) is more accurate than firing from a standing position, while a prone rifleman presents a much smaller target than a standing soldier. The higher accuracy and range, combined with reduced vulnerability generally benefited the defense while making the traditional battle between lines of standing and volleying infantry men obsolete.

Revolving rifles were an attempt to increase the rate of fire of rifles by combining them with the revolving firing mechanism that had been developed earlier for revolving pistols. Colt began experimenting with revolving rifles in the early 19th century, and other manufacturers like Remington later experimented with them as well. The Colt Revolving Rifle Model 1855 was an early repeating rifle and the first one to be used by the U.S. Government, and saw some limited action during the American Civil War. Revolvers, both rifles and pistols, tend to spray fragments of metal from the front of the cylinder. This is not a problem for pistols, since both of the shooter's hands are behind the cylinder. A rifleman needs to have one hand in front of the cylinder to balance the weapon, and as a result, would end up with shards of metal sprayed at high velocity into his forearm. Cap and ball type revolvers were also prone to chain fire, which again was more of a problem for rifles since the rifleman's arm was in front of the cylinder. These undesirable characteristics severely limited the revolving rifle's popularity.

Until the early 20th century rifles tended to be very long; an 1890 Martini–Henry was almost 2 m (6 ft) in length with a fixed bayonet. The demand for more compact weapons for cavalrymen led to the carbine, or shortened rifle.

The advent of massed, rapid firepower of the machine gun, submachine gun and the rifled artillery piece was so quick as to outstrip the development of any way to attack a trench defended by riflemen and machine gunners. The carnage of World War I was perhaps the greatest vindication and vilification of the rifle as a military weapon.

Modern hunting rifle

During and after World War II it became accepted that most infantry engagements occur at ranges of less than 300 m; the range and power of the large battle rifles was "overkill"; and the weapons were heavier than the ideal. This led to Germany's development of the 7.92×33mm Kurz (short) round, the MKb-42, and ultimately, the assault rifle. Today, an infantryman's rifle is optimized for ranges of 300 m or less, and soldiers are trained to deliver individual rounds or bursts of fire within these distances. Typically, the application of accurate, long-range fire is the domain of the marksman and the sniper in warfare, and of enthusiastic target shooters in peacetime. The modern marksman rifle and sniper rifle are usually capable of accuracy better than 0.3 mrad at 100 yards (1 arcminute)