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Rare Early Springfield Armory Model 1873 Trapdoor Rifle with Rare Metcalfe Device

By Rock Island Auction Company:

In terms of American military long arms very little attention is given to a predecessor of the much heralded M1903 and M1 Garand, the Springfield Trapdoor.  The Springfield Trapdoor was produced for over 20 years and would experience many changes throughout its life.  The rifle would take its place in history just after the Civil War, despite the justifiable hesitation of many military personnel who were all too aware about the superiority of repeaters and magazine fed rifles.  It would kill buffalo by the thousands as America expanded westward and would also play a role in the wars against the Native Americans.  Militarily it represents the watershed transition for U.S. forces from the musket to the rifle.  Today we find out a little bit more of this rifle, its origins, the question of its performance, and its role in history . . .

Origins

After the Civil War, the War Department wanted a breech-loading rifle.  To be specific, they wanted a breech-loading rifle that would chamber a self-primed, metallic cartridge.  This led to the formation of an Army Board who, in 1865, would host trials of different rifles by makers both foreign and domestic.  The idea of the Master Armorer at the U.S Armory at Springfield, Mr. Erskine S. Allin, was to take the existing Civil War muzzle-loaders, of which there were thousands, and convert them by adding the now well known “trap door” to the receiver.

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This appealed to the Board for a number of reasons:

  1. It used existing materials, thereby saving money and manufacturing time.
  2. Money was even more important with the War Department’s newly slashed budget.
  3. Single shots were viewed as more reliable and rugged than repeaters or magazine rifles.
  4. It looked like proven guns of the past, especially with its pronounced hammer.
  5. Their priority on long range accuracy over rate of fire.
  6. Single shot rifles were thought to force a more efficient use of ammunition

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Civil War U.S. Springfield Model 1861 Percussion Rifle-Musket with Bayonet
The Springfield Model 1861 percussion rifled musket was the most used rifle by the Union in the Civil War. It is not difficult to see its relation to the Model 1873.

 

The Board adopted the National Armory’s (a.k.a. the U.S. Armory at Springfield, later just “Springfield”) design, now referred to as the “First Allin.”  However, this “adoption” was more of a test drive than a final acceptance.  As reports came in from the field in subsequent years, the rifle would be adapted, redesigned, replaced in the field in small numbers.  This went on for about 5 years from National Armory’s Model 1865 to their Model 1870, until on September 3, 1872, the Board of Army Officers held another trial.  This trial was designed to find a rifle with more in line with their preference toward range and power than the Model 1870 being “test driven” by soldiers in the field.  The Board, now known as the “Terry Board,” was headed by Brigadier General A.H. Terry and requested roughly 100 different breech-loading rifles from various makers to put through trials.  They again received both foreign and domestic submissions from some of the most prominent firearms manufacturers of the day such as: Winchester, Remington, Springfield, Sharps, Spencer, Whitney, and others.  All but 21 were rejected almost immediately and only two of those were modifications of the current .50 caliber trap door.

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Rare U.S. Springfield Armory Model 1875 Officer’s Model Trapdoor Rifle, Late Type II

 

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At this point, a “sidebar” study was held by the Terry Board.  It was a separate, yet related, study to determine which combination of caliber, powder charge, and bullet weight would provide the best performance.  They tested .40, .42, and .45 caliber bullets, powder amounts from 65-80 grains, several rifling variations, and bullet weights from 350-450 grains.  Each variation had its own barrel and was tested with 20 shots at 6 targets 500 yards away.  The winner would be barrel #16 with the #58 ammunition, which would be the 45-70-405 cartridge.  We know it better as the .45-70 Government.  The round was deemed so effective that Colt would be making Gatling guns to utilize that round later that same year.  It is surprising that both government and private manufacturers took so long to realize that by increasing powder and lessening bullet weight, they could produce rifles with much greater range.  The development of this round and its subsequent rifle, literally made for each other, would mark the American shift from muskets to longer range rifles.

 

By the time the .45-70 was decided upon, the Terry Board had further narrowed the field of long arms to six possible candidates.  Each was altered to use this new cartridge and tested further.  In the end, their bias to an older style of warfare and rifle won out and the trap door action was selected.  The preference for a powerful rifle that would be accurate at long distances also implies interesting things about the state of American conflict at that time.  The Civil War having ended a short 7 years earlier, the thought was to again select a weapon that would perform nobly in a similar type of conflict.  The thought of fast-moving battles against Native Americans may have been a secondary priority at that time, hence the lack of urgency to adopt repeating and magazine based rifles.

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Extremely Rare Original Late 1892 .30 Caliber Experiential Trapdoor Rifle

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Same rifle in full.

Use

It is known that trapdoor rifles were not developed until after the Civil War and through Springfield’s manufacturing records one will find that the first 1,940 Model 1873 carbines and 2 rifles were not made until the final months of 1873 with an additional 6,521 weapons ready by March 31, 1874.  The Model 1873 was the fifth improvement of the Allin design.

The Spanish-American War would not start for another 24 years.  Until that time the Allin System longarms would be used in the American plains for two purposes: killing buffalo and fighting American Indians.  As a buffalo killer, the weapon was apt.  Its muzzle velocity of 1,350 feet/second would allow it to penetrate 17 inches of white pine at 100 yards, certainly enough to kill a buffalo.  This power when combined with its long range accuracy also made it an excellent hunting rifle for other large game of the prairie and coyotes.  The classic cowboy song “Home On the Range,” was first published in 1873 with its now well-known lyrics of buffalo roaming while deer and antelope play.  Little could author Brewster M. Higley have known how much the Springfield, developed that same year, would affect those animals.

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Desirable Custer Era U.S. Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor Carbine with Indian Markings

The Allin System’s performance in the Indian Wars is much debated.  Often cited are the “large number” of empty cartridges found at the Battle of Little Big Horn which exhibited signs of malfunction.  Such examples were found, however, they are a small percentage (2.7 – 3.4% by some counts) of the thousands rounds that were fired in that conflict.  The concern over jamming weapons in the Indian Wars is not a modern one.  Even at the time, it was a known concern among soldiers.  This was due in large part to the use of a copper alloy (“Bloomfield Gilding Metal”) in the manufacture of the ammunition’s case.  Copper was prone to expanding in the breech upon firing and could also prevent the extractor from properly functioning.  This often required the user to pry the cartridge from the breech or to push it out by using the ramrod.  Such a remedy was not an option on the carbine version which did not include that valuable tool.  This brought about the use of brass cases to reduce  expansion, a material still in use to this day.

The Springfield Model 1873 carbine was the standard issue longarm of all U.S. Cavalry units from 1874 to 1896, but the rifle would be switched out in 1886 for the improved Springfield Model 1884.  The Allin system would be not be replaced as the standard U.S. rifle until the adoption of the Krag-Jørgensen (a.k.a. Springfield Model 1892-99) which would also be produced by the Springfield Armory from 1894 to 1904.  For those paying close attention to dates, this means that the Krag, using its smokeless ammunition, was the primary rifle used in both the Spanish-American War as well as the Philippine-American War, though the sheer number of available trap doors inevitably meant that the outdated blackpowder guns would still see use.

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Excellent U.S. Springfield Model 1884 Trapdoor Rifle

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Previous gun’s breech as seen from above

Variations

It’s hard to see how any troops could complain about the Springfield trap door.  With a new variation out almost every year of its production, any issues could be dealt with rapidly and remedied in subsequent variations.  The only issues that could not be fixed were those of its relatively low rate of fire, a quality inherent to its loading method, and its blackpowder propellant.  I will not cover the vast number of variations here.  For an exhaustive list of the changes and varieties in all their minutia, please consult what many consider to be the Bible of Springfield Trapdoors, Robert Frasca’s The .45-70 Springfield.  With his list of all the parts that were altered from 1873-1894, it is difficult to imagine one piece remaining throughout all 20 years of production.

Not only did the Model 1873 miss the major conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was also vastly overshadowed by the iconic Winchester repeater and Colt revolver released that same year.  It was a rifle languishing in the past by a population in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and hungry to adopt the new technologies that accompanied it.  The Model 1873 was relegated to ill-chosen government contracts, slaughtering buffalo, and killing Native Americans.  Racks full of the model even inspired a less than flattering poem from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled, “The Arsenal at Springfield.”   Outdated in both propellant and loading system even before it was adopted by the government and lacking the celebrity of a military conflict, the Springfield Trapdoor plays a quiet role in the story of U.S. military arms, yet remains a highly desirable collector’s piece with its unique loading system, endless varieties to collect, and aesthetically pleasing components like the lockplate, hammer, and sweeping breech block.  Even a highly dedicated collector would stay busy for decades happily collecting this long arm of the American plains.

In fact, one collector did just that, Dr. Richard Branum.  Our upcoming December 2013 Premiere Firearms Auction will have over 50 trapdoor rifles at all levels of collecting!  Dr. Branum’s collection represents a lifetime of collecting and has resulted in the most comprehensive and academic collection of trapdoors.  Represented will be rare, experimental variations, extremely high condition models, unusual calibers, accouterments, and many different years of production.  The collection possesses every caliber of manufacture: .58 rimfire, .50-70 government, .45.70 government, the rare .45-80 long range cartridge, and .30-40.  It also contains every barrel length and every variation of the ramrod bayonet.  It is a living history lesson to view all the chronological variations in this fantastic collection.

If early American militaria and rifles are your passion, the Springfield Trapdoors alone will be enough to get you champin’ at the bit.  There will also be nearly 70 Civil War pieces that help make up the nearly 1,000 antiques available in this auction.  And we all know why antiques can be so nice.  Stay tuned each and every week for more fascinating and laudable firearms.

 

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“This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,

Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;

But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing

Startles the villages with strange alarms.”

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

SOURCES:


Frasca, Albert J., and Charles R. Suydam. The .45-70 Springfield: Springfield Caliber .58, .50, .45 and .30 Breech Loaders in the U.S. Service, 1865-1893. Springfield, OH: Frasca Pub., 1997. Print.

 

27 Responses to Rock Island Auctions: The Springfield Trapdoor Rifle

    • You can still locate these rifles at rural Midwest auctions and estate sales, I have purchased two in the last decade for under $500.00. I must also embarrassingly admit that I shot my father’s, in the mid 60s, with .410 rounds, shooting rats on our farm. Wow, was he mad.

  1. I might be wrong, and please forgive if I am, but I don’t think the Trapdoor could be called a watershed from musket to rifle because both the Springfield and Enfield muzzle loaders of the Civil War were rifled. Maybe it would be better to called it a move from muzzle loaded to breach?

    • Its a transitional rifle, almost all countries had a rifle that was modified from percussion to cartridge firing. The Tabatière, the Snyder Enfield, and the Trapdoor. The centerfire cartridge was the revolutionary concept, not the rifles themselves.

      • You’re right, and I certainly don’t mean to take away from the rifle or the excellent article. I just remember being lectured by a Civil War re-enactor about the differences between a musket and a rifle when I referred to his Enfield as a musket.

        But again, a great article and wonderful pictures.

        • Technically a P53 Enfield and a 1861 Springfield are “rifled muskets.” A rifled musket is a musket-sized gun with a rifled barrel, that normally shoots a Minie ball rather than a round ball. Rifled muskets also can accept socket bayonets, whereas the first military rifles couldn’t accept a socket bayonet (some took swords).

          Musket also refers to the style of the stock. A full wooden, military style stock was known as a musket stock until about WW1. M1895 Winchesters that were sold to militarys were known as “muskets.”

        • Thank you Craig, that helps a great deal. I didn’t realize that they were considered rifled muskets instead of rifles.

        • They were also called rifled muskets because the powers that be at that time wanted to continue using ranks of men standing shoulder to shoulder and 2-3 deep. They wanted a rifle with the length of the traditional muskets so the ranks in the back, in the heat and confusion of battle, wouldn’t accidently shoot into their comrades in front.

      • Don’t forget the needle guns of France, Prussia and a few other places. Breech loaded bolt guns that were pretty neat and a huge leap forward compared to a muzzle loaded weapon.

  2. The rifles are cool and I wouldn’t mind owning one. The article was a great job.

    However, even in 1865, it should be noted that the US military doesn’t always pick the best equipment for its troops.

    • It has been truly written, though I hope/believe that our military is fighting this tendency, that “Generals are always preparing to fight the previous war.”

    • It’s been hit or miss to acquire the right infantry weapon. We picked the Krag which was inferior to the Mauser and caused us some issues against the Spanish. We “stole” the Mauser action for the 1903 (I own an 1903A3 and love it!) after the war. Garand had a home run with the M1 and troops were finally able to lay down an impressive volume of fire (another rifle I own and love!). What do most of the previous rifles have in common? Leaders were afraid of soldiers wasting ammo and wanted them to take aimed shots. It sounds nice in theory but not in practice.

      Then the M14 came out with a giggle switch. It was a great rifle but was not suited to how modern combat was evolving and was a relic of the 600 yard engagement cult(I need one!). It is also just an improvement on the Garand so it was not really a giant leap forward in technology. The ammo was still heavy which limited how many magazines the individual soldier carried. Then finally the M16 firing an intermediate cartridge was adopted. Now a soldier can carry a basic load of 210 rounds or more. That makes a difference. It was a step in the right direction for modern tactics. Luckily most of the flaws of the weapon system and maintenance have been worked out.

      Of course, after all of these years, we had to dust off the M14s for Afghanistan for those 600 yard taliban kills so no weapon is the end all be all of combat.

      • Mostly agree with your assessment with a few caveats. The M14 was not a great rifle in the sense that the select fire capability was essentially meaningless, making it a Garand with a larger magazine. The FN FAL was superior and the army cooked the shoot off to favor the M14. That said, it is on my shopping list.

        I also don’t consider the 5.56 an intermediate cartridge, who would even consider smaller. It is my understanding that when the M16 was discussed with NATO members, the Brits urged adoption of a cartridge circa .270 (don’t recall exact caliber) which would have been an excellent compromise.

        • The cartridge the British preferred was the .280 British (7x43mm, actual bullet diameter .284). The British EM-2 bullpup and the early FN FAL prototypes were chambered in it, but since it wasn’t invented in America and the Pentagon had a decades out of date obsession with 1000 yard shooting, they insisted that the new cartridge would have to be ballistically near-identical to .30-06. This killed the EM-2, which wasn’t strong enough for the 7.62x51mm round, but the FAL was easily adapted to it and thus survived despite the sabotage by Pentagon idiots.

          Who then, as you said, rigged the testing to avoid adopting the FAL. And also lied to Congress by telling them the M14 would be cheaper because they could use the existing M1 Garand production lines without any retooling. That was, of course, nonsense; the M14 is adapted from the Garand, but the idea that no retooling at all would be required was absurd.

      • Select fire capability is vastly overrated even in the closed terrain of Vietnam. Most spray and pray fire doesn’t hit anything. The M-14 was the best rifle in 1944. Unfortunately it didn’t arrive until 1957. I agree that the FN FAL would have been a better choice. I also agree that the 5.56 cartridge is not an intermediate powered cartridge. It is a small bore rifle cartridge suitable for shooting coyotes. Ask any Iraqi or Afghan war infantry veteran if engagements don’t occur at 600 yards any more.

  3. I have been working my way back on U.S. Infantry weapons and I hope to find a trapdoor someday. I see them for sale online fairly often. I almost never see real 1861 Springfields as I bet a lot of them were converted to the trapdoors.

    I’ve been to the Springfield Armory twice. It is a drool worthy place to visit and I recommend anyone in the Springfield, MA area to check it out. For anyone interested, here are some pictures.
    http://s3.photobucket.com/user/dedzerg/slideshow/Springfield%20Armory

  4. Fascinating and illuminating, and also brings to mind how the US military really has a poor record of selecting its primary long gun. By my count, starting with the Rolling Block there has been 6 major rifles selected over the last century, and only the 03 Springfield and the M1 Garand could be judged to be the best available though the M16 was more about poor caliber selection than the rifle itself.

  5. Nice article!

    When I was a kid my old man had a Trapdoor hanging on the fireplace mantel, just for decoration. I wish he had been into shooting and I could have had a chance to fire it.

  6. Alright guys, not cool taking pics of my gun collection. I don’t go around taking snaps of your gigantic, lavish gun rooms full of columns of iconic firearms, do I? Sheesh…

  7. Having fired an original Trapdoor Springfield (arsenal refinished in 1886) I can attest to its accuracy…first round hit on an 8″ plate at 100 yards standing. The rifle’s recoil, firing modern .45-70 ammo, gently rocks you back – rather than being snappy. I remember asking my uncle (the keeper of the rifle in our family) what such a big round was used for. He replied, “Indians.”

  8. “Not only did the Model 1873 miss the major conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries…”

    That makes sense in the absense of time travel.

  9. From my understanding, even the M1 was screwed up by the Army. They insisted on a clip instead of a magazine (to be loaded from the top) as they were worried about mags getting lost and poor shooting with a mag going downward from the receiver. Fortunately, they remade the M1 into an M14, great rifle to shoot, never try (full auto) select fire as you will bring down an airplane, wish I could buy one though.

    The AK 47 came out and you’d of thunk we woiuld have copied it but no, we had to take a modern sporting rifle and deploy it with no cleaning kits in Viet Nam. Some guys died in Viet Nam because of that rifle, read about the Ia Drang Valley fight. The Army blamed failures on troops not cleaning them also. And to think it only took 20 years to get right (sort of).

    When the government shows up with up with a product, just RUN in the opposite direction. Good news, they are launching a new 3.5 billion dollar destroyer, some guy in a speedboat or with a shoulder fired weapon will cause havoc with it.

  10. Watch some of the old Three Stooges episodes when your wife isn’t around (nothing turns off females as much as slapstick Stooge routines) and you’ll see them carrying trap doors any time there’s a military theme. Apparently there were a bunch of Springfields in the Hollywood prop departments in the 30’s. The studios probably got them from Bannerman. Worse than Gary Cooper carrying a .30-40 Krag in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” which was probably another Bannerman deal.

    • Hollywood used Trapdoors for a lot of movies. Dressed up to look like flintlocks cause it was easier to use blank cartridges than real muzzleloaders. Cut down to pistol size with the phony flintlock action they dressed up many a pirate belt in the swashbucklers Hollywood used to make. Most civil war movies that were made in the day were using Trapdoors in place of percussion guns. The list goes on.

      Speaking of Krags. The 30’s version of Gunga Din was filmed in Southern California and the British troops carried Krags and Colt revolvers.

  11. Well I live in Tasmania Australia and shoot all over the country. I own two Trap-doors, an early 1873 carbine, (almost a Custer one) and a mint 1893 (inspection date) ramrod bayonet model 1884. The carbine has been my deer and kangaroo gun, and all in between, pigs and goats mostly for the past 40 years and has never let me down EVER. I shoot B/P only with a 400 grain proji, the carbine boots but likes the 65 grain powder load. I wouldn’y change them for the world, I own Sniders and Rolling Blocks, but the T/D is still my favourite. Keep well all. Col

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