Metford, William Ellis (DNB01)

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METFORD, WILLIAM ELLIS (1824–1899), inventor, born on 4 Oct. 1824, was the elder son of William Metford, a physician, of Flook House, Taunton, by his wife, M. E. Anderdon. He was educated at Sherborne school between 1838 and 1841, and was apprenticed to W. M. Peniston, resident engineer under Isambard Kingdom Brunei [q. v.], on the Bristol and Exeter railway. From 1846 to 1850 he was employed on the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth railway. After 1850 he worked for Thomas Evans Blackwell in connection with schemes for developing the traffic of Bristol, and subsequently acted for a short time under Peniston as engineer on the Wycombe railway, residing at Bourne End. During this period he designed an improved theodolite with a travelling stage and a curved arm upholding the transit axis, and also invented a very good form of level (cf. Journal of Institution of Civil Engineers, February 1856).

In March 1856 Metford was elected an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and early in 1857 he obtained an important appointment on the East India Railway under (Sir) Alexander Rendel. He arrived at Monghyr on 18 May to find that the mutiny had just broken out. With the aid of the railway staff he took a leading part in organising the defence of the town. His ceaseless exertions largely contributed to the safety of the garrison, but they permanently impaired his health, and within a year he found himself obliged to abandon his engagement and return to England.

Metford's interest in rifle shooting began in boyhood, his father having established a rifle club with a range in the fields near Flook House, and he gave constant attention to it in the intervals of his engineering studies. Late in 1852 or early in 1853 he suggested a hollow-based bullet for the Enfield rifle, expanding without a plug. It was brought out with the assistance of Pritchett, who was awarded 1,OOOl. by government for the invention on its adoption by the small-arms committee. In 1854 Metford investigated the disturbance of the barrel by the shock of the explosion, which affects the line of flight of the bullet, a difficulty which had led to much misunderstanding. In 1857 the select committee found his form of explosive rifle bullet the best of those submitted to them, and in 1863 it was adopted by government. In March 1869, however, it was declared obsolete in accordance with the resolution of the St. Petersburg convention against the employment of such missiles in warfare. Metford's chief distinction in rifle progress, however, is that he was the pioneer of the substitution of very shallow grooving and a hardened cylindrical bullet expanding into it, for deep grooving and bullets of soft lead. In 1865 his first match rifle appeared, having five shallow grooves and shooting a hardened bullet of special design (Patent No. 2488). In 1870 he embarked seriously on the production of a breechloading rifle, paying the closest attention to every detail of the barrel and cartridge. Before long his first experimental breechloading rifles appeared, and at Wimbledon in 1871 two of them were used, with one of which the principal prize for military breechloading rifles was won by Sir Henry St. John Halford [q. v. Suppl.], whose acquaintance he had made in 1862 at the Wimbledon meeting, and who henceforth was his friend and assistant in his experiments. From 1877 the record of the Metford rifle was an unbroken succession of triumphs. Between that date and 1894 it failed only four times to win the Duke of Cambridge's prize, while it took a preponderating share of other prizes.

The advance in military small arms abroad, and especially the increased rapidity of loading, caused the appointment of a committee in February 1883 to deal with the question. Metford designed for them the detail of the ˑ42 bore for the rifle provisionally issued for trial early in 1887, and on the adoption of the ˑ303 magazine rifle, known as the Lee-Enfield, he gave much assistance in designing the barrel, chamber, and cartridge.

In 1888 the war-office committee on small arms selected as the pattern for British use a rifle which combined the Metford bore with the bolt-action and detachable magazine invented by the American, James P. Lee. This arm, known as the Lee-Metford rifle, is still in use. In 1892 Metford's health finally broke down, and henceforth he was precluded from active work. He died at his house at Redland, Bristol, on 14 Oct. 1899. About 1856 he married a daughter of Dr. Wallis of Bristol.

[Privately printed memoir of W. E. Metford (with portrait). This memoir appeared in an abbreviated form in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1900, vol. cxl.]

E. I. C.