The disadvantages of a muzzle-loading firearm at this point were quite clear. They were slow to load, inaccurate and could not be easily re-loaded on horseback.
The solution would be to switch over to a breech-loading option. This allows for faster re-loading, the ball does not have to be squashed down the barrel or patched (for accuracy) or loose fitting for speed of loading.
The trick was finding a suitable system that could be batch produced. Interestingly, for a time when thread standardisation was a major difficulty in manufacturing, a tapered, 11-thread screw provided a possible solution.
The inventor was Major Patrick Ferguson, modified from an earlier design by Issac de la Chaumette. Ferguson acquired a patent in 1776 and was permitted to take an Experimental Corps of Riflemen to fight in the rebellion going on in the American Colonies.
The only actions these rifles saw that can be seriously verified are the Battle of Saratoga and the Battle of Brandywine, in which Ferguson was wounded and while recovering, his Corps was disbanded.
So, how did this work?
At the back of the chamber, there is a brass plug. This has a tapered thread. The tapering was important, as once it had been fired fouling would build up on these threads, the tapering would allow free movement of the action once the initial break was made.
The 11 parallel threads meant that instead of a number of revolutions, the breech could be opened in one fluid movement.
You can then insert the ball into the breech (remember, you’re loading from the breech, not the muzzle now!), followed by your powder charge. Screw the action closed, clear loose powder off the barrel and prime the pan.
Although this sounds like an involved process to modern readers, it is significantly faster than reloading a musket correctly, as demonstrated by the rate of fire being 6-10 rounds per minute. Even a very well trained infantryman may only manage 3-4 shots per minute with a muzzle loader.
The Ferguson is widely recognised as being the first breech-loading rifle ever adopted by a military. Although it only saw limited service, it paved the way for other breechloaders to be tried and used. In the US, the M1819 Hall Rifle was adopted and used in the American Civil War, though the first military to adopt a breech-loading rifle as the standard arm for infantry was Norway (the Kammerlader).
You can watch a great video on the Ferguson over at Forgotten Weapons here.