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Author: Sue Law
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Disclaimer: This short story is a not-for-profit work of fan fiction, a homage to the work of author Bernard Cornwell. The character of Richard Sharpe is the copyrighted property of Mr Bernard Cornwell and the story is based on the character as developed in Mr Cornwell's series of novels.
In late 1805/early 1806 Sharpe transferred to the recently formed 2nd Battalion, 95th (Rifle) Regiment. Since he was a quartermaster in Moore's Campaign, and since this was a common posting for officer's made from the ranks, he was probably given the battalion Quartermaster job straight away. It was done for two reasons. First, they were far more experienced with the army system than a novice lieutenant and made better quartermasters. Secondly, the additional pay the job drew helped the ranker officer cope with the high expense of being an officer. This story is set soon after he joined, when he is still new to the Regiment and the job.
On Tuesday the crates of new Baker rifles arrived. At last the remaining men of the 2nd battalion would be armed, including 2nd Lieutenant Sharpe (QM). One of the facts that had reconciled Sharpe to being appointed quartermaster was that all junior officers joining the Rifles were issued with a rifle and trained with their men to learn the unique field techniques of the Rifles. And that included quartermasters.
A working party, supervised by Sharpe, offloaded the crates and stacked them down in the Armoury under the watchful eye of the armourer. There, in the dim armoury, Sharpe, Sergeant Miller and Chosen Man Simms began to count and check the rifles. This was Sharpe's first contact with the weapon which was to shape his future life.
Like the Musket, the Baker rifle was a flintlock weapon, so Sharpe's previous experience enabled him to check the firing actions without any further instructions. The difference was in the barrel and stock. The barrel seemed ludicrously short to him, nine inches less than a musket, and was browned. Miller, cautiously, wary of giving offence, explained the features which made the Baker different and the flaws this inspection was intended to pick up. Un-browned sections of barrel, which could glint and give a rifleman's position away, missing or broken tools in the brass-lidded patch box set in to the stock, and so on. Sharpe listened suspiciously, ready to jump on any familiarity, but Miller droned steadily on, happy that this officer at least would listen.
They were about two thirds of the way through their task, half way down a crate, when it happened. Simms, finishing with one rifle, laid it in a rack and picked up the next. For some reason the movement caught Sharpe's eye, and he lifted his head from the tally he was updating. His eye was caught by the rifle just uncovered. Time seemed to stop, the armoury vanished, the rifle called him like a siren. Entranced, he reached out and lifted the rifle from the crate. Tilting it this way and that, he let the dim light run up and down the browned barrel, glow in the polished wood stock, glint off the brass patch box lid. He ran his hand up the stock, over the crown imprinted in the cover plate, round the barrel and along the brass trigger guard back to the unfamiliar grip extension. Without volition, his hand curled round the guard, feeling the stability the grip added. His index finger slid up and down the trigger.
Sergeant Miller smiled to himself and frowned at Simms to keep him working. Lieutenant Sharpe hadn't been an easy officer to work with. Unhappy with the quartermaster posting, still uneasy with his authority over the two experienced riflemen, uncertain how to be friendly without encouraging familiarity, he had withdrawn into a wary aloofness. Still, he was a fair man, and had no qualms about working as hard as his men, so Sergeant Miller, always sceptical about the ability of musket men to become riflemen, had reserved judgement. As he watched Sharpe admire the weapon, oblivious to his surroundings, the scales tipped Sharpe's way. It took a born soldier to recognise a perfect weapon.
Though not produced in the same numbers as the Brown Bess musket, the Baker rifle was still a mass-produced weapon. Every rifle had its fault, its slight blemish and riflemen found these as they got to know their weapon, found them and learnt to compensate for them. Every now and then though, every thing went right and a perfect rifle was produced. Such was the rifle which had caught Sharpe's eye. He would never be able to say how or why it was, he just knew that this rifle was special. Sergeant Miller coughed. Sharpe started, half pulled back from his reverie, and looked towards the sound. "She'm a beauty." Said Miller, in his Kentish accent. "Mmm" Sharpe agreed, his eyes returning to the beautiful weapon. For nearly ten years he'd used a musket, sometimes in anger, sometimes in training. He'd been one of the top musket men, able to fire five rounds a minute under the right conditions and as good a marksmen as the simple musket allowed. But the musket had always been a dead thing in his hands, a tool of his trade. This rifle felt alive in his hands, called to him in ways a musket never had. He flicked open the cover plate on the tool compartment, checked it and snapped it closed, pulled back the cock and felt the smoothness of the action, past half to full. The trigger was light, balanced and the hammer fell. Still lacking a flint, there was no spark, but this did not prevent an appreciative smile slowly spreading over Sharpe's face.
Awareness of his surroundings slowly returned. Simms, sitting on the other side of the crate, was darting quick glances at him while his hands automatically checked the next rifle. To his left Miller was smiling, a fatherly expression on his face. Sharpe blushed and moved to pass the rifle over to Simms. "Now, sir," Sharpe paused, and Miller continued, "why don't you just issue that one to yourself?" He looked at Miller, half suspecting a trap, but the rifleman's face was guileless. "It's either that one now, or some other one tomorrow," continued Miller, drawing the issue book towards him. He filled in the details and passed the book across to Sharpe to sign. Unwilling to put the rifle down for the slightest moment, Sharpe laid it across his lap while he signed. As Miller pulled the book back, he lifted the rifle again and automatically cuddled it in what he would later learn was the rifleman's ready position. He looked up at Miller, still embarrassed. Miller smiled broadly and lifted his hand in salute. "Armourer can engrave your name on it, Sir!" he said, and Sharpe understood that somehow he had passed a test, and to Sergeant Miller he was a "proper" rifle officer.