When America Was Last In The Arms Race
IN SINCLAIR LEWIS’S NOVEL MAIN STREET there is a scene where Dr. Will Kennicott and his wife, Carol, are on a hunting expedition near their Minnesota home. Dr. Kennicott, who prides himself on being up-to-date, lectures his less than fascinated bride on the merits of his new rifle, which uses the latest thing in propellants—smokeless powder. The date is 1908, and at that time smokeless powder had indeed just begun to replace black powder in American firearms. In Europe, however, black powder had been obsolete for at least two decades.
Go back ten years. The most memorable images from the Spanish-American War are of American triumphs: Commodore Dewey in Manila, Commodore Schley in Santiago, Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Yet all these famous victories took place against a poorly motivated foe with little backing from its government. The ease with which America’s military rolled over Spain’s token opposition obscures the major lesson its leaders learned from the “splendid little war": Their weaponry was hopelessly behind the times.
The assault on the village of El Caney, part of the only real land battle of the war, illustrates the point. Gen. William R. Shafter led 6,653 men against a force of 520 Spaniards holed up in a stone church and a fort called El Viso. Given the imbalance in forces, Shafter expected to take the fort with little trouble. He did not reckon on his opponents’ vast superiority in equipment.
The Americans, carrying a motley variety of antique arms that varied from regiment to regiment, were conspicuous targets for the enemy’s fire. As Herbert Billman described the action in the Chicago Record , “The Second Massachusetts suffered severely, apparently because the Springfield rifle with which the state troops are equipped uses black powder that invariably betrays its position and exposes the soldier to well-directed shots from the enemy.” Charles Johnson Post, whose classic The Little War of Private Post recounts his experiences in Cuba, describes the puff of smoke that emerged from the barrel with each shot as “somewhat the size of a cow.”
Black powder had several other disadvantages. Besides advertising a soldier’s position, the smoke made it hard for him to see what he was shooting at, and infantry and artillery alike often had to pause after firing a few rounds to wait for the smoke to clear. Black powder left a residue that fouled guns and sometimes jammed them. On top of all that, black powder had significantly less power than smokeless, resulting in droopy trajectories that seriously impaired accuracy. This meant that cartridges had to carry more powder and be built heavier to do sufficient damage at low velocities. Carrying a few dozen black-powder cartridges weighing several ounces apiece could really slow a soldier down.
Eventually the United States took El Caney. The Spanish garrison ran out of ammunition and surrendered. A few weeks later the war was over, but the carnage had been dreadful, considering the halfhearted opposition. America’s lightning victory had been achieved with Civil War-era weapons, and the nation’s military leaders knew it. If America was going to be a world power—and with the new territories that came with the victory, it had no choice—it would have to update its ordnance.
SINCE THEIR FIRST USE IN WARFARE in the early 1300s, firearms had been the most important factor in military calculations. The side with the more effective guns usually won, and technological advances could often make up for unequal numbers. Yet for all the innovations in the arms themselves, the substance that made them possible—black powder, often called simply gunpowder—remained basically unchanged for more than five centuries.
The earliest European gunpowders, of the fourteenth and possibly thirteenth centuries, were slow-burning mixtures made from roughly equal parts of finely milled sulfur (a naturally occurring element known in medieval times as brimstone), carbon (from charcoal), and saltpeter (potassium nitrate, extracted from compost piles and animal dung). By the seventeenth century the optimal proportions of roughly 75 percent saltpeter, 10 percent sulfur, and 15 percent carbon had been set, and so they would remain for several hundred years. The only real improvement after that was the discovery that a liberal dousing with urine (bishop’s urine was thought to be the best) would “corn” the powder, or form it into grains, which burned more quickly.
The basic principle behind firearms is simple. An explosive is ignited at the sealed end (the breech) of a metal tube (the barrel); it turns very quickly into gas, creating tremendous pressure, which causes a projectile to shoot out the open end of the tube (the muzzle). In the earliest portable firearms, known as matchlocks, the powder was ignited with a “match,” a lit piece of cord that had been soaked in saltpeter to ensure slow burning. Matchlocks were a considerable improvement over the bow and arrow, but they were cumbersome and difficult to reload.
A few decades after Columbus’s voyage the wheel lock and the snaphance, predecessors of the flintlock, began to appear. In these the powder was ignited with sparks from a flint striking roughened steel, as in a cigarette lighter. Many different designs and incremental innovations took place in the ensuing years, but the muskets that colonists and redcoats used against each other in the 177Os and 178Os were made to essentially the same pattern as had been used a century earlier. Artillery, too, had evolved little since the Renaissance. So at the time of the War for Independence, American weapons technology was generally on a par with that of Europe, which is to say primitive and stagnant.
After the war, however, another revolution began, this one industrial. Among the many areas toward which Americans turned their inventive ingenuity was weaponry. Their main goal was improving small-arms fire: a major problem with flintlocks was the complicated procedure needed to shoot them. First the soldier had to insert a cartridge in the muzzle and force it down the barrel to the breech with a ramrod. The cartridge, which consisted of a metal ball and a measured amount of powder tied up in paper, had to fit snugly or else the gases from exploding powder would not propel the ball very far. After a few rounds the powder residue inside the barrel made the cartridge even harder to force into place. (This problem was especially pronounced with rifles—arms whose barrels have spiral grooves. The grooves impart spin to a bullet, increasing accuracy dramatically, but the ammunition must match the diameter of the barrel almost exactly.)
When he had finished loading the cartridge, the musketeer poured finely ground powder from a vial into a “pan” at the breech. This powder was quicker to ignite than the corned powder in the cartridge and served to “prime” it, ensuring that the entire charge of powder went off more or less simultaneously. At last the soldier was ready to pull the trigger, which struck the flint against the steel and fired the weapon. Then it was time to reload. A trained man could get off four shots a ,minute. (The exact procedure for loading and firing varied with the type of gun. Colonial soldiers in the Revolutionary War would bite off the end of a cartridge, pour a bit of powder in the priming pan, and then jam the rest of the cartridge into the barrel.)
SEVERAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE early nineteenth century made possible the manufacture of small arms that could be fired more rapidly. One was the development of breechloading technology. Obviously, if you insert the ammunition at the breech, you save the time it takes to shove it all the way down the barrel. Another important development was the percussion cap. Fulminate of mercury explodes when compressed, and by about 1820 it was possible to use a small amount of that compound in a tiny metal cup to set off the powder charge. The percussion cap made it possible to ignite the powder by tripping a hammer instead of sparking a flint on steel. This system had many advantages: a much lower rate of misfires, no flash from ignition of the priming powder (which could temporarily blind a shooter or alert a hunter’s quarry), less delay between the trigger pull and firing- and it could be used in the rain.
So by the early 1800s, conditions were right for the development of weapons that could fire several shots in succession without the need for reloading. The first American rapid-fire weapon was the Collier flintlock revolver, invented by Artemus Wheeler and Elisha H. Collier of Boston in the 1810s. As the name implies, it retained the use of flint for ignition, but it solved the reloading problem by having a breech with four to eight separate chambers that could be rotated into place one by one, by hand. It also had a mechanism to prime the pan automatically. Having loaded a cartridge in each chamber in advance, a user could fire up to eight shots as needed with scarcely any pause in between. Flintlock repeaters and revolvers had appeared before, but Wheeler and Collier’s were the first that really worked. They were sold in England through the 1840s, but they were too expensive to gain wide use. Still, they demonstrated the considerable sophistication of the best American gunsmithing.
The first truly practical and affordable rapid-fire weapon was the famous Colt revolver. It is said, somewhat apocryphally, that the idea for it came to Samuel Colt in 1830, when he was a sixteen-year-old seaman on the brig Corvo : by observing the rotation of the ship’s wheel (or perhaps the windlass), he conceived of a pistol with a rotating breech. Whatever his source of inspiration, he had carved a rough model before the voyage was over, and as soon as he docked at Boston in 1831, he set about building a prototype. Over the next several years he encountered the stumbling blocks familiar to most inventors, and to support himself he toured the country as “the celebrated Dr. Coult,” giving public demonstrations of the effects of nitrous oxide gas. By 1836 he had refined his design enough to receive a U.S. patent.
The patent was granted on questionable grounds, for no single element of the Colt revolver was new. Rotating-breech weapons, though not common, had been known for several decades at least, as had the percussion cap, another feature of Colt’s pistol. Still, the Colt revolver had two important advantages over earlier models. The first was its method of turning the cylinder. As the trigger was cocked, a pawl attached to the hammer engaged a ratchet on the end of the cylinder and advanced it the proper amount. This was the first reliable method of turning the cylinder on a revolver automatically. The Colt’s second advantage was in fact several advantages: cheapness, ruggedness, and dependability. Samuel Colt was a pioneer in changing gunsmithing from a craft to an industry, adopting the system of interchangeable parts to the point where 80 percent of the work in his Hartford, Connecticut, factory was done by machines. Moreover, Colt marketed his products with consummate adroitness.
The Colt revolver quickly gained acceptance on the frontier and saw action in the Texas war of independence. The U.S. armed forces adopted Colt firearms in the 184Os and used them in the Mexican War. By then the Army had also adopted the quick-firing breechloading rifle of John H. Hall. It was the first general-issue breechloader in military history.
Other developments in rapid-fire technology included an improved leveroperated repeating mechanism developed in 1847 by Walter Hunt. It is still in use today. Hunt was a remarkable all-around inventor whose patents include the paper collar, stoves, boats, a street-sweeping machine, a shoe enabling acrobats to walk on the ceiling—and the safety pin. He also invented a sewing machine in 1834 but decided against patenting it because it would have put hand sewers out of work. (See “Seam Stresses,” Invention & Technology , Winter 1994.)
Hunt’s lever action was incorporated during the 1850s in the Spencer and Henry rifles, which used modernstyle metallic rimfire cartridges (that is, ones fired by striking a thin ring of fulminate of mercury deposited around the base). Spencer and Henry repeaters were used extensively by Union forces in the Civil War; of these weapons, Confederates said with weary fatalism, “You load them once on Sunday and fire them all week.” More widely used, by both sides, were ordinary muzzle-loading rifles with Minié bullets as ammunition. Minié balls (as they were known, somewhat inaccurately) were slender enough to be loaded without fierce ramming, but their soft lead base expanded upon firing to ensure they fitted tightly into the rifling. While technically not rapidfire weapons, Minié-equipped rifles married the accuracy of rifled weapons with the fairly quick reloading of the latest smoothbores.
Perhaps the ultimate American rapid-fire weapon of the black-powder era was the celebrated gun patented by a physician named Richard Catling in 1862. It saw limited use by Union forces and was adopted enthusiastically by other countries in the following decades. The six-barrel (later ten-barrel) hand-cranked Catling could fire several hundred rounds per minute, and while it was heavy and difficult to aim, it was fairly reliable and could be devastating against massed troops.
All these advances in rapid-fire weapons were important to the development and acceptance of smokeless powder, because they put across to conservative military establishments everywhere the point that although black powder had served admirably for half a millennium, it was no longer good enough. The basic nature of warfare had changed. Through the Civil War in America and the Crimean War in Europe, the basic infantry maneuver remained the charge, in which a mass of troops would rush toward the enemy, first firing its arms and then attacking with bayonets when it got close enough. But rapid-fire rifles, with their great range and accuracy, made such mass charges prohibitively costly. Armies started learning to advance in widely spaced skirmish lines, with troops crouching, crawling, and taking advantage of any available cover. This shift in tactics (which did not become complete until the horrors of World War I unmistakably showed the futility of mass charges) made long-range marksmanship and increased firepower more important, and the need for smokeless powder became acute.
THE EARLIEST PRE cursor to modern smokeless powder was guncotton, invented by the chemists Christian Friedrich Sch’f6nbein of Basel and R. R. B’f6ttger of Frankfurt in 1846. Guncotton consists of cotton fibers soaked in nitric and sulfuric acids. It burns quickly and thoroughly and produces an enormous quantity of gas. Almost immediately after its invention guncotton was tried experimentally in both small arms and artillery, but it was simply too explosive to be manufactured, handled, and stored safely. It also tended to blow gun barrels apart.
The first practical smokeless powder was invented in 1864 by Edward Schultze in Berlin. He produced it by boiling sawdust in soda, steaming it for several hours, and then nitrating the pulp. Schultze powder was slower burning than guncotton but still too violent for rifles. In smoothbore shotguns, however, where the loose-fitting load did not permit high pressures to develop so readily, Schultze powder proved quite acceptable. In 1870 an Austrian chemist, Frederick Volkmann, came up with a further improvement by soaking bleached wood chips in nitric and sulfuric acids, treating the resulting compound with potassium nitrate, and then dissolving it in ether and alcohol. Volkmann’s powder was safe enough to use in rifles and it could be molded into any shape, but he ran afoul of the Austrian government, which wanted to maintain a monopoly on gunpowder production, and his promising recipe was never adopted.
Then came the breakthrough. In England a chemist named Walter Reid developed an improved form of Volkmann’s mixture for shotguns. It was marketed under the name E.G. Powder. In 1884 E.G. Powder came to the attention of a young French chemist, Paul Vieille, who was under contract with the French army to develop an improved propellant for military rifles. Vieille thought E.G. Powder was close to what he wanted, though it still burned too fast for use in rifles. He set about experimenting with the formula, and on only his second attempt he had what he wanted: poudre B , as he called it.
The active ingredient in all these propellants was the same: nitrocellulose, a nitric-acid ester of cellulose, which is a polymer found in many natural fibers, wood and cotton among them. In guncotton the esterfication is nearly complete—that is, nearly every hydroxyl group in the cellulose molecules is replaced by nitrate. Guncotton is insoluble in most common solvents. Stopping the esterfication of cellulose short of completion, however—leaving about a quarter of the hydroxyl groups untouched—yields pyroxylin, which is much more readily soluble and somewhat less explosive. Pyroxylin can be dissolved in an alcohol-ether mixture to yield collodion, which, blended with various other ingredients, was the basis for the first wave of smokeless powders.
Poudre B , or B powder, consisted of Reid’s collodion mixed with guncotton. Combustion was rapid and violent by today’s standards, and stability and shelf life were poor—unacceptable, in fact, to the British, who tested and rejected the formulation. (They later adopted cordite, which is guncotton and nitroglycerin gelatinized with acetone and treated with petroleum jelly. Cordite, which was invented in 1889 by Frederick Abel and James Dewar, is more stable than B powder, and it eventually became the most common of smokeless powders.) Still, the muzzle velocities obtainable with B powder loads were impressive, well over 2,000 feet per second, and military observers much appreciated its clean-burning properties. The armies of Europe knew that they finally had a practical smokeless powder, and they hastened to develop firearms using it.
The French were first. The famous Lebel rifle, issued in 1886, featured an eight-millimeter round using B powder. It remained the standard firearm of French infantrymen for more than thirty years. The Germans joined the arms race with the 1888 Commission rifle, which used an independently developed type of smokeless powder similar to the French preparation. Not to be outdone, in 1889 Belgium adopted the Mauser, which became the progenitor of most modern bolt-action military and sporting rifles. Both the Commission and the Mauser were much more up-to-date than the Lebel, and the Mauser was adopted, with some modifications, by most of the armies of Europe.
BY 1891 THE CONVERSION OF EU rope’s armies to smokeless-powder rifles was well under way (pistols and artillery would come later). The undersized American army, however, was still armed with “trapdoor” Springfields, single-shot black-powder breechloaders that had been adopted back in 1866 (see box on page 28). America was two generations behind in small arms and equally deficient in artillery. We could not have faced any of the great European nations in battle and might well have been bested by minor-league powers like Italy and Turkey. As Rep. George B. McClellan, Jr., son of the Civil War general, remarked in early 1898, the U.S. Army had been reduced to a “clumsily organized national police force.” It could bully Indians and striking workers, but it was totally unprepared for modern warfare.
How did all this come about? After all, in 1865 the mighty Union Army was more than a million strong, and it was more than a match for any European force. But with the demise of the Confederacy, the need for a large army vanished. The Spencer repeaters were sold as surplus, and the Springfields, modified to accept metallic cartridges, were deemed good enough. And so they were—for the 1860s.
Within two decades the U.S. Army had dwindled to about twenty thousand regulars. Except for contending with outnumbered Indians, it saw little combat. Oceans protected the country against invasions from abroad; Canada and Mexico were not much of a threat. Besides, it had long been America s practice to maintain a token standing army and rely on state militias and volunteers to supply troops in times of need. The state militias had even less incentive to modernize their weaponry.
In the meantime, the nations of Europe were constantly ganging up on each other. The Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the RussoTurkish War, and civil strife almost everywhere, all took place in the three decades following 1865. When they weren’t actually fighting, the European nations were forming coalitions (the Triple Alliance, the Reinsurance Treaty, the Dual Alliance) or squabbling over territory. Each country knew that if its military forces were backward, it risked being swallowed up by a powerful neighbor or at least being forced to settle for the short end of the stick at the next round of negotiations. In addition, European nations were establishing colonies all over the globe, and it was often necessary to bring a good deal of military pressure to bear on the natives before unfurling the benefits of civilization.
EUROPEAN SPORTSMEN were much slower than soldiers to adopt smokeless powder. The favorite playgrounds of English big-game hunters were Africa and India. The smokeless powders of the day were very temperature-sensitive, exploding much more violently in jungle heat. Stories of burst barrels on tropical safaris circulated rapidly, and smokeless powders did not become well established, even in temperate areas, until the late 1890s.
U.S. military commanders were aware of the deficiency of their forces during this period and made some attempts to upgrade their weapons. The Army tested and rejected the fast-shooting Colt Lightning slide-action rifle in the mideighties, and the Navy purchased Hotchkiss bolt-action repeaters at around the same time. But the Hotchkiss did not prove satisfactory, and the armed forces ended up sticking with their antiquated Springfields. Hugo Borchardt, an American, had pioneered the automatic pistol (i.e., one that loads ammunition automatically from a magazine) a few years earlier, and his guns had never used anything but smokeless powder, but they too were rejected by the American military, perhaps because they were rather unwieldy.
The United States formally adopted its first smokeless-powder firearm in 1892, when the Army approved the .30-caliber Norwegian Krag-J0rgensen rifle, whose action was similar to the Mauser’s, though not quite as good. Conversion to the Krag was by no means immediate (the first ones did not reach soldiers until October 1894), but all regular troops were supplied with some version of the gun by 1896. (Smokeless-powder artillery would not appear until the following decade.) By that time even a small, out-of-theway country like Portugal had been entirely smokeless for years. Two years later came the Spanish-American War, which convinced the last doubters that black powder had to go, and as quickly as possible.
In addition to its antiquated small arms, the United States was behind the times in larger weaponry. The American warships, which were so singularly successful against the poorly maintained Spanish navy, used black-powder propellants almost exclusively, and the Army’s artillery corps fought with antiquated 3.2-inch black-powder rriuzzleloaders. In 1898 the United States did not have a single modern fieldpiece; its arsenal included the venerable muzzle-loaders, black-powder Catlings, and black-powder Hotchkiss revolving cannon (Gatling-type weapons that fired sixty small shells a minute). The artist and war correspondent Fredric Remington wrote of one battle: “No one’s glass could locate the fire of the Spanish guns and we could see [the American artillery’s] smoke miles away on our right. Smoky powder belongs with arbalists and stone axes … in museums.” Still, the Spanish-American War was of seminal military importance for the United States. It conclusively demonstrated the effectiveness of aimed rifle fire from smokeless-powder small arms. The United States suffered hundreds of casualties from Spanish riflemen armed with Mausers, and the number would have been far higher if Spain had had the will to defend Cuba.
THE CHANGE TO SMOKELESS POW der was rapid and complete. Black powder simply offered no advantages. The military had been shaken out of its customary conservatism by the war, and since increasingly safe smokeless powders were readily available, the American civilian firearms industry quickly phased out black powder. In 1903 Tom Horn, whom some have called the last of the Western outlaws, was subdued during an attempted jailbreak soon before his execution. He was armed with a stolen Luger automatic pistol that he couldn’t figure out how to load; all his experience had been with black-powder revolvers. By World War I, for most uses, black powder was as rare as vinyl LPs are today.
The civilian changeover took somewhat longer than the military’s, and for several reasons. First, the earliest smokeless-powder rounds were more prone to misfires than black-powder cartridges. In a military engagement, where many men are firing at once, a slightly higher percentage of misfires is acceptable in exchange for better range and accuracy. For a hunter or someone interested in self-defense, where the action is often at close range and the first shot has to count, the reverse may be true. But improvements in smokeless powder eventually made misfires less of a problem.
Also, the metallurgy of the 1880s and 1890s took a while to catch up to the advances in explosives. Gun barrels made from the best ordnance steels of the period were barely strong enough to withstand the pressures of high-velocity smokeless rounds, and they tended to wear out quickly from the abrasive copper-jacketed slugs and hightemperature detonations of those rounds. For military uses, again, the increased range, concealment, and potential for repeated shots made fragile guns acceptable. Civilians who had to buy their own ordnance tended to prefer the more durable, old-fashioned types.
The world of firearms changed immensely over a few decades before and after the Civil War. Americans were instrumental in creating that change with innovations in rapid-fire technology. After the war ended, though, the most important new developments took place abroad, until beyond the turn of the century. The smokeless powder that American inventions had made necessary and the new weapons that smokeless powder in turn demanded almost all came out of the workshops of Europe.