HRH Prince Philip 1921-2021 – a true supporter of fieldsports and conservation
There are many debates about the answer to this question and there are often multiple people who claimed to have invented the rifle. That may be because there are many different components that make a rifle, a rifle, and all of these were invented in different periods. The actual rifling of a gun’s barrel was invented before the modern-day rifle bullet/round, and the lever or bolt-action mechanisms that we associate a rifle with came even later still - so how can we identify the true inventor?
The one thing that really defines all rifles are the twisting grooves embedded into a gun’s barrel. This is exactly what rifling is and it’s how the ‘Rifle’ got its name. If we’re going by this definition, then the first known developer of barrel rifling was an Austrian man named Gaspard Kollner, who experimented with this in 1498. There may have been attempts even earlier than this, as the main inspiration of this idea came from German archers who realised that their arrows flew far faster and more accurately when they gave the arrow tails/feathers a twisted design.
Having said this, Kollner’s invention at the end of the 15th century only used straight grooves and it wasn’t until he received help from German Augustus Kotter in 1520 that they applied the spiral grooves to a working example.
It’s probably fair to say that it was a joint effort between Kollner and Kotter for the invention of the rifled barrel. The date of 1520 is extremely early when you realise that most nations didn’t start adopting rifles into their arsenal until the 1800s. A potential reason for this was that the musket had become a trusted and effective weapon for many years, and the only thing that was going to knock it back was if something significantly more accurate came along. The initial grooved barrels weren’t enough to make this happen but in the 1700s, British Professor Benjamin Robins used his knowledge of maths and physics to completely revamp the characteristics of a bullet. Before this time, the muskets most people were using fired ball-shaped ammunition which had a good centre of mass that helped maintain power to propel itself through the air. But Robins discovered that by stretching the form of a bullet to a lozenge type shape and then pointing the end too - a bullet could cut through the air with increased speed and precision.
This was the birth of the modern-day rifle bullet that we still know and trust. With the barrel rifling and the rifle round having been discussed, we can look at the bolt action mechanism as one of the final implementations of the present-day rifle. The bolt action is the most common rifle mechanism in the world, but is relatively new as a concept and wasn’t even invented in its first form until 1824. A German inventor named Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse was the man who finally produced a finished article, but that wasn’t complete until a few years later in 1836. This means the bolt action has only really been around for 185 years - a very brief moment in the history of firearms.
So the real answer is that there is no right answer - the rifle has evolved and developed over a number of centuries - beginning way back in the late 1400s and all the way through to the mid-1800s. To be honest. It’s likely that the rifle is still in development today and there are features that are yet to be completed, we just don’t realise it. We wonder what the rifle will look like 100 years from today...