Breechldrs Influence of repeating rifles in the Civil War

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Was reading about early repeating rifles like the Spencer and it got me thinking: had one side had the idea to purchase/acquire a large quantity of repeaters, would it have made a difference in the war? For example, if enough had been acquired to outfit a few divisions, would it have made a tactical difference in any battle?

edit: @Don Dixon correctly mentioned that repeaters are NOT semi autos. Thanks!
 
Last edited:

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
The solid-drawn brass centerfire case was what made cartridge firearms a mature technology, and that was still some years away.
That’s a good point. From my little understanding of CW small arms, I know that revolvers during this time we’re not like those we have today...they required percussion caps and took some minutes to fully reload.
 

Don Dixon

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 24, 2008
Location
Fairfax, VA, USA
A semi-automatic firearm is by definition a repeating firearm whose action automatically loads the following cartridge into the chamber and prepares it for firing, but requires the shooter to manually actuate the trigger in order to discharge each shot. Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher produced the first successful design for a semi-automatic rifle in 1885. So, what semi-automatic firearm, pray tell, was in existence at the time of the Civil War? While Spencers and Henrys were repeating rifles, they weren't/aren't semi-automatic.
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
A semi-automatic firearm is by definition a repeating firearm whose action automatically loads the following cartridge into the chamber and prepares it for firing, but requires the shooter to manually actuate the trigger in order to discharge each shot. Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher produced the first successful design for a semi-automatic rifle in 1885. So, what semi-automatic firearm, pray tell, was in existence at the time of the Civil War? While Spencers and Henrys were repeating rifles, they weren't/aren't semi-automatic.
Indeed you are right. I lumped both together, not realizing that big difference.
 
Joined
May 1, 2015
Location
Upstate N.Y.
A couple of hurdles to overcome in order to arm any large force. First on the South side : they did not have capabilities to mass produce either arms or metallic ammo. On the North side: One had to try to overcome the mindset of the Military that any weapon that had capabilities of a more rapidly fired weapon was going to waste ammo. The North had a lot more manufacturing facilities, but still was limited with labor shortages.
 

thomas aagaard

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 19, 2013
Location
Denmark
Was reading about early repeating rifles like the Spencer and it got me thinking: had one side had the idea to purchase/acquire a large quantity of repeaters, would it have made a difference in the war? For example, if enough had been acquired to outfit a few divisions, would it have made a tactical difference in any battle?
That side would have lost the war, when their soldiers ran out of ammo.
 
Joined
Aug 1, 2020
Location
Mid Hudson Valley, New York
Was reading about early repeating rifles like the Spencer and it got me thinking: had one side had the idea to purchase/acquire a large quantity of repeaters, would it have made a difference in the war? For example, if enough had been acquired to outfit a few divisions, would it have made a tactical difference in any battle?

edit: @Don Dixon correctly mentioned that repeaters are NOT semi autos. Thanks!
Cycom,
Arms such as the Spencer and Henry were truly innovative repeaters with self contained brass cartridges but neither company had the ability to produce the number of weapons that would have changed the outcome of the war. It is true that Union cavalry troops armed with the Spencer did quite well with them, but there were not all that many in service. The Henry was far less common and appeared late in the war, often purchased privately by soldiers. After the war the Spencer company faded away and the Henry business was purchased by Winchester to go on to greater glory. As an aside it's a great story to read about Spencer personally approaching Abraham Lincoln regarding his invention and that Lincoln took the weapon out for a range session (or two). Wish we had Presidents with that kind of Moxie today.

Bill
 
Joined
Aug 1, 2020
Location
Mid Hudson Valley, New York
Can you imagine being an ordinance officer trying to keep up with the supply of ammo?
Polloco,

Colonel James Ripley was the head of US Army Ordnance and has been heavily criticized for not modernizing the Federal armies as well and as quickly as many believe could have been done. He may have been conservative but the criticisms aren't entirely fair. To your point, just think of the difficulty in supplying ammo for the large number of breech loading carbines that went into US service? There actually were a number of good weapons developed (as well as some dogs) and you could spend a lifetime researching all of them. They all used proprietary types of ammo. Ripley had his hands full just trying to standardize the .58 caliber rifle musket for the Federal troops. I don't dispute that he was a stick in the mud. The book "American Rifle, a Biography" by Alexander Rose is well worth reading and gets into the whole debate about firepower vs. traditional marksmanship.

Bill
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Cycom,
Arms such as the Spencer and Henry were truly innovative repeaters with self contained brass cartridges but neither company had the ability to produce the number of weapons that would have changed the outcome of the war. It is true that Union cavalry troops armed with the Spencer did quite well with them, but there were not all that many in service. The Henry was far less common and appeared late in the war, often purchased privately by soldiers. After the war the Spencer company faded away and the Henry business was purchased by Winchester to go on to greater glory. As an aside it's a great story to read about Spencer personally approaching Abraham Lincoln regarding his invention and that Lincoln took the weapon out for a range session (or two). Wish we had Presidents with that kind of Moxie today.

Bill
Yeah, I just can’t see Joe going to the range anytime soon!
 

johan_steele

Regimental Armorer
Retired Moderator
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
South of the North 40
As has been mentioned cost of tooling and manufacturing to completely arm either side was prohibitive.
An friend once told me that it’s only obsolete if it fails to kill you. Much hay is often made about all the old weapons from Europe issued to US troops. The reality is they had filled the arsenals of the premier armies of Europe 20 years earlier and the real problem was young soldiers looking at lock plates with dates stamped on them that were older than they were. Those of us who shoot today fully understand just because a rifle is decades old doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it.

The Henry was hideously expensive, difficult to manufacture and fired a pistol cartridge. The Spencer was better in that it was more robust with a stronger cartridge. But Spencer didn’t start to get sizable numbers of arms into the field until two years into the war.

the weapon in hand is better than the weapon that won’t get there until after the fight is done.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
This is the cumulative deliveries of all Spencers:

Spencer.png


The problem isn't a lack of orders. McClellan had 10,000 Spencer rifles ordered with a couple of weeks of becoming GinC. It is the fact that Spencer simply didn't have a factory to build them. It took him a year to get a factory together to start manufacturing them. Similarly, the Burnside company took the best part of a year to retool to make them. If Springfield had been retooled, it would not have been making rifle-muskets for maybe a year, and then making fewer Spencers than it did Springfields.

As it was, Spencer only accepted contracts from two agencies, the Federal government and the State of Massachusetts. All the weapons produced for MA was seized by the Federal government. The contracts were:

Initial government order for 10,000 rifles, later reduced to 7,500
A MA contract for 2,000 rifles and 1,200 carbines (first batch of rifles seized by USG, second batch also seized, as were the carbines)
USG order for 11,000 carbines
USG order for 34,000 carbines
USG order to Burnside coy.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The Henry was hideously expensive, difficult to manufacture and fired a pistol cartridge. The Spencer was better in that it was more robust with a stronger cartridge. But Spencer didn’t start to get sizable numbers of arms into the field until two years into the war.
I think "two years into the war" is an understatement! Spencer had barely made any deliveries by April 1863 - by the end of that month they'd delivered 4,200, which is an increase from the zero they'd delivered by November 1862.
As of the end of June 1863 they'd delivered 7,502, and deliveries didn't resume until October.

ED: I'm also not sure how robust the Spencer actually was; any data on stoppage rates? The anecdote I have to hand is that on Spencer's first demonstration to Lincoln both the weapons he showed off jammed very severely.
 

FedericoFCavada

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 27, 2015
Location
San Antonio, Texas
Phillip Leigh wrote a provocative "what if" essay as a chapter of one of his books about this very conundrum or set of conundrums. The thesis has been assailed under many of the points already raised in this thread.

Allow me to parse a few "what might have been" issues to clarify:

1. Repeating rifles were privately purchased from private arms manufacturers. So the tube-magazine lever-action Henry was expensive, and fired a .44 cal. rimfire cartridge that matched no other arm. The lever-action rifle and carbine of Christian Spencer also had a proprietary cartridge, and as noted up post, as many as could be made were made and issued out. As for the expenditure of ammunition, there is the well-known tale of the 21st OH at Tullahoma and Chickamauga: Armed with five-shot Colt revolver rifles, they inflicted enormous casualties on rebel forces until they ran out of ammunition.

2. The breech loader vs. muzzle loader. Ripley's hide-bound and frankly unpleasant personality that proved irksome to so many, including Lincoln somewhat obscures a problem: insufficient arms, insufficient production base/ factories, a whole bunch of obsolete .69 cal. smooth bore muskets, and since his stewardship since 1855 of the Model 1855 .58 cal. muzzle loading rifled arms, the issued service rifle. For a time it was deemed cheaper and expedient to simply rifle the .69 cal. muskets, acquire enormous numbers of arms from Europe--which was perhaps simply necessary not only to supply Federal forces, but to deny stands of arms from the rebel purchasing agents!--and ramp up production of .58 muzzle loaders, which was done. Ripley's defenders point out that the Federal cavalry was wholly equipped with breech-loading carbines, which was itself a prodigious logistical feat. Some of these breech loaders used linen or paper cartridges ("capping breech loaders), others used unique proprietary cartridges of metal or gutta percha.

RESEARCH QUESTION: Could more have been done to provide infantry with breech loaders? Many units, such as some from Connecticut and other states, the Berdan sharpshooters, etc. acquired Sharp's capping breech loaders. The very first breech-loading percussion arm in the world, the Hall carbine, had once been turned out by Harpers Ferry, which had been destroyed early in the rebellion, so no machinery and tooling was left, presumably. In many ways an inadequate and at times even dangerous arm, the Hall was long-in-the-tooth, and those rifles that were refurbished by ruthless war profiteers and foisted on hapless units are the stuff of legend. Still... The derivative Norwegian Kammerlader was being used in that Scandinavian nation... The Prussian nädelgewehr or Dreyse needle gun was a rather homely and inefficient design, but it allowed Prussia an edge in the wars fought in Central Europe and Northern Europe at roughly the same time as the U.S. Civil War... Could the U.S. have produced a pattern of a capping breech loader in greater quantity during the Civil War?

3. The muzzle loading rifle cartidge was typically two pieces of paper, one encapsulating the powder charge, and the other encapsulating the powder envelope and the bullet. The other type, the Enfield-Pritchett favored by the CSA after much disatisfaction with other patterns, is made of three pieces of paper. In either case, the cartridge is torn open, the powder charge introduced into the barrel, and then the bullet is removed from the paper, or, in the latter case, simply introduced into the barrel and the bulk of the empty cartridge snapped/torn off and disposed of. Revolvers used a self-consuming combustible paper cartridge. There were private ammunition manufactories that produced paper combustible cartridges for handguns, that also produced combustible cartridges for rifle muskets.
RESEARCH QUESTION: Could the U.S. have done more to provide much simpler-to-use and less fumble prone combustible cartridges for the available muzzle-loading rifled arms? Imagine being able to simply introduce the cartridge "right side up" into the muzzle, ram it down, and shoot versus the motions and fine motor skills required to manipulate the paper cartridge. Some units privately purchased "rocket paper" or combustible cartridges and found them reasonably easy to use, and it did increase their rate of fire somewhat.

4. RESEARCH QUESTION: Might more have been done to actually train soldiers in marksmanship and the proper use of the sights on their arms than was done?

Those above issues strike me in order as the fundamental issues and semantics affecting the firearm technology of the era?
 
Top