The Tragedy Of The Trapdoor Springfield
IN THE SUMMER OF 1864 FEDERAL troops were stalled before Petersburg and Atlanta, and the public was souring on what seemed to be an endless war. Democrats were suggesting peace overtures to the Confederacy, and President Lincoln was nervous about his re-election. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton instructed Alexander B. Dyer, the Army’s chief of ordnance, to break the stalemate with increased firepower.
Dyer ordered Erskine Allin, master armorer at the government’s arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, to “use whatever means seem practical” to produce a breechloading rifle, instead of the slow, awkward muzzleloaders the Union Army had been using. Allin called for prototypes from inventors and then submitted a plan he said was his own, which he patented. It called for installing a hinged breechblock on the rear of existing .58-caliber muzzleloading muskets, which would allow a copper cartridge to be inserted from the rear. Southern resistance collapsed before the rifle could be produced in quantity, but some 5,000 were shipped to garrisons on the Western plains. Hard-bitten veterans took one look at the clumsy apparatus and dubbed it the “trapdoor rifle,” a name it has retained to this day.
Those first trapdoors were scarcely less awkward than the muzzleloaders they replaced, and they were inaccurate and unreliable as well. Springfield worked on improvements, sleeving the worn Civil War barrels down to .50 caliber and designing a new “central fire” reusable brass cartridge case that held seventy grains of black powder. The makeshift solution pleased economy-minded government officials, but soldiers were less enthusiastic. The bullet was so slow, troopers said, that an Indian had time to duck after he saw the smoke. In 1873 the caliber was shrunk again, down to .45, in an attempt to improve range and muzzle velocity. The resulting .4570 cartridge went on to fame in Winchester and Remington rifles, but in the trapdoor Springfield it was a miserable failure. Among its many problems, after prolonged firing, blackpowder residue tended to seize the shell in the chamber, making the weapon useless.
But no matter. The War Department liked the trapdoor because it looked the way a rifle was supposed to. With its big side hammer, full-length stock, and ramrod, it resembled the muskets that George Washington’s troops had used. This reassured Indians and gratified nostalgic bureaucrats, if not the men who had to use it; that the rifle was woefully user-unfriendly did not seem to matter at all.
A soldier working a trapdoor Springfield had to manage all the moves of a drum major: hammer to half cock, muzzle down as the breech was opened (so the block wouldn’t flop closed again on his fingers), cartridge inserted, breech closed, and hammer hauled back to full cock. Once the trigger was pulled and the trooper recovered from a rather stout recoil, the process began again—this time with the muzzle elevated, so that the expended case (if it did not seize in the chamber) could clear the action. A man on the ground had his hands full trying to manage all these steps; if he was pitching and rolling in the saddle, it was impossible.
THE TRAPDOOR RIFLE HAD some initial success in August 1867. In a hot firefight near besieged Fort Phil Kearny in the Wyoming Territory, a detachment of 32 wood-cutting soldiers armed with the new breechloaders made a stand against some 1,500 of Red Cloud’s Sioux, who were shooting arrows and an assortment of firearms that they had captured or acquired in trade. The day before, a haycutting detail, similarly outnumbered, had defeated another bunch of Sioux near Fort C. F. Smith in the Montana Territory. But soon trouble arose. Several inventors filed suits claiming thatAllin had stolen ideas they had submitted to Springfield in 1864. The Army ended up paying $125,000 to settle these claims, an astounding amount in the days when new rifles cost about $7 apiece. These payments were later employed to justify continued use of the trapdoor Springfield long after it had been superseded by vastly superior designs.
Officers who wanted a better rifle got their chance in 1870, when Chief of the Army William T. Sherman convened a board to study the matter. Rifles of fifty different designs were dumped in mud and sand, driven over by wagons, soaked in brine, and fired for days without cleaning. The decision was unanimous: A Remington design known as the rolling block should be the Army’s new rifle. Naval officers observing the proceedings ordered 20,000 Remingtons; carried ashore in Asia, they performed excellently in the First Korean War of 1871. The Danes, Chinese, Russians, Egyptians, and Argentinians —even the Pope’s bodyguards - ordered them too. But not the U.S. Army.
Remembering the large patent-infringement claims it had paid in the previous decade, the Army was hesitant to give up on the trapdoor so soon. General Dyer countermanded the board’s findings in 1870, ordering a “new and improved” trapdoor for the infantry. The cavalry got a trapdoor carbine to replace its seven-shot lever-action Spencers, which most users had found quite satisfactory. (The Army said they were not rugged enough; the repeating feature caused soldiers to waste ammunition; extracting spent cartridges was sometimes difficult; and they tended to fire accidentally if jarred.) This switch forced the horsemen to fight on the ground. They could charge with revolvers and sabers, but in a firefight they had to dismount and engage the enemy on foot, while every fourth man did his best to hold four rearing, plunging horses. It was a poor strategy for Indian fighting, one that would bear bitter fruit at the Little Bighorn, where troopers frantically worked their awkward carbines until, one by one, they began to jam and the troopers died in a hail of arrows and lead.
The trapdoor Springfield outlived Custer. It mounted the bayonet thrust through Crazy Horse and fired the bullet that killed Sitting Bull. It battled the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South in the early 1870s and put down labor unrest in Chicago in 1877. It went to Cuba with the volunteers in 1898 (regular troops and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were armed with Krag-JØrgensen repeaters, which the Army had officially adopted six years earlier) and to the Philippines to defeat nationalist forces between 1899 and 1902. In the uncertain days preceding America’s entry into the Great War, militia units along the East Coast carried trapdoors as they anxiously peered seaward.
IN THE LATE 1930S ARMY DISPOSAL teams scuttled thousands of trapdoors in the North Atlantic while Francis Bannerman, a surplus-goods tycoon, offered them to an uninterested public for three dollars apiece. The market improved decades later with the coming of the Little Bighorn Centennial. By the time Kevin Costner was dancing with wolves, the rifle that had been cursed by soldiers for fifty years cost a workingman a week’s wages. And if it bore the markings of the 7th Cavalry (which fought at the Little Bighorn), it might require a home-equity loan.
Today the trapdoor Springfield remains a stone on which historians stumble. It was a stopgap solution hastily conceived to ensure Lincoln’s re-election, already obsolete on the day it was introduced, yet it remained in service longer than any other American rifle. Its billow of smoke and throaty roar brought the United States from being an isolated, fratricidal nation into the role of world power.