They'll come galloping to see rare rifle at dragoons museum

IT was the most advanced rifle of the 18th century and the first breech-loading rifle to be officially adopted by the British Army.

If it had not been for the death of its inventor, thousands more Ferguson rifles could have been made for armed combat. Now a rare replica of the unique weapon is to take pride of place among exhibits in a new 1.5 million museum at Edinburgh Castle.

Military paraphernalia from wars in the 17th century to the modern day - as well as interactive touchscreens documenting military history - will be showcased in the new Royal Scots Dragoon Guards museum. But the acquisition of a Ferguson rifle, invented by the Royal Scots Greys' Major Patrick Ferguson, is a real coup for museum chiefs.

The breech-loading rifle is more than four feet long - double the length of today's average rifles - with the cartridge loaded into the barrel at the breech end (bottom) rather than at the muzzle (top).

The attraction at the New Barracks in the Castle is expected to open in mid-May, replacing the regimental museum's current basement home.

Its entrance has been hidden away from many visitors since the newer National War Museum of Scotland opened five years ago.

Visitor numbers have since dwindled but military chiefs are confident the new location, which boasts spectacular views over the city, will prove a hit.

The move to the new complex is well under way with the near life-size replica of a trooper horse from the Great War having been moved from the old museum. The horse, which was commissioned when the new museum opened in 1995, had to be carried by four people around corners and up a flight of stairs to its new home.

Regimental secretary Colonel Roger Binks said visitors to the new facility, which is around 25 per cent larger than the previous museum, could expect to find many new attractions.

He said: "We have brought in a number of items from the National Museum of Scotland and the War Museum which have not been on display for a long time or never on display at all.

"There are 17th and 18th-century weapons including shields, a rifle and half a dozen swords. These were all swords carried by people on horses. We will also be having a special display which we are going to keep under wraps for a bit longer.

"Another new item on display is a replica of the Ferguson rifle. It was donated to us by an American company and I believe is worth $4000. We are delighted to have it as it is very unusual. I am sure it will be of great interest to people."

Born in 1744, Ferguson was one of Britain's most able and dedicated military officers who did much to expand the colonial empire around the world.

After studying early experiments in breech-loading weapons, he came up with the 18th century's most advanced military rifle. British officialdom was so impressed they ordered Ferguson to personally supervise the production of his own design.

But the first engagement of the Ferguson rifle in September 1777, during the American War of Independence, turned out to be its last. At Chadd's Ford in Pennsylvania, Ferguson and his Light Company led a diversionary attack.

Ferguson was struck in the right arm and seriously wounded. Without his leadership, the Light Company split up and the rifle company disbanded. Although other Ferguson breech-loading rifles were made for the East India Company and private purchasers, very few survive to the present day.

Ferguson was later killed in the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780. On horseback, he was a conspicuous target and was picked off by American sharpshooters.

Project curator John Batty said: "There's many fascinating exhibits, including the replica which we are delighted to have. The museum is coming on very well and I think there will be something for everyone."

THE FACTS

The history of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, which has its headquarters at Edinburgh Castle, is the record of three ancient regiments.

It was formed in 1971 from the union of two famous regiments, the 3rd Carabiniers and the Royal Scots Greys.

But the 3rd Carabiniers had themselves been constituted in 1922 when the old 3rd Dragoon Guards and the Carabiniers (6th Dragoon Guards) amalgamated. Through the Royal Scots Greys, they can claim to be the British Army's oldest surviving Cavalry of the Line.

They eventually became part of the Royal Armoured Corps.

The regiment - whose tanks are now used in battle, as opposed to its famous grey horses - is probably best known for the actions of Ensign Ewart who, at the Battle of Waterloo, captured the standard of one of Napoleon's crack regiments.

The regiment's band famously topped the pop charts with its version of Amazing Grace. The current regimental museum was opened by the Queen in 1995.