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. Produced for over 20 years, the Springfield Trapdoor experienced 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 of the superiority of repeaters and magazine fed rifles.
The Springfield Trapdoor would kill buffalo by the thousands as America expanded westward. It also played 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 discover a bit more of this rifle, its origins, the question of its performance, and its role in history.
Origins…What Role Did the Springfield Trapdoor Play in History?
After the Civil War, the War Department wanted a breech-loading rifle. To be specific, it 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 for 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.
This appealed to the Board for a number of reasons:
- It used existing materials, thereby saving money and manufacturing time. (Money was an important factor given the War Department’s newly slashed budget.)
- Single shots were viewed as more reliable and rugged than repeaters or magazine rifles.
- It looked similar to proven guns of the past, especially with its pronounced hammer.
- The Board’s priority of long-range accuracy over rate of fire.
- Single-shot rifles were thought to force a more efficient use of ammunition.
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 and replaced in the field in small numbers. This went on for about five years from National Armory’s Model 1865 to its Model 1870. Then, on September 3, 1872, the Board of Army Officers held another trial.
This trial was designed to find a rifle 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,” headed by Brigadier General A.H. Terry, 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. They rejected all but 21 almost immediately, and only two of those were modifications of the current .50 caliber trap door.
At this point, the Terry Board held a “sidebar” study. 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 to 80 grains, several rifling variations and bullet weights from 350 to 450 grains. Each variation had its own barrel and fired 20 test shots at six targets from a distance of 500 yards.
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 deemed so effective, Colt began making Gatling guns to utilize the same round later that year. It is surprising that both government and private manufacturers took so long to realize that by increasing powder and lessening bullet weight, it 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 they decided upon the .45-70, the Terry Board had further narrowed the field of long arms to six possible candidates. Each one 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 they selected trap door action. The preference for a powerful rifle, accurate at long distances, also implies interesting things about the state of American conflict at that time. The Civil War had ended a short seven years earlier and 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 the time; hence the lack of urgency to adopt repeating and magazine-based rifles.
It is known that trapdoor rifles were not developed until after the Civil War and through Springfield’s manufacturing records we find the first 1,940 Model 1873 carbines and two rifles were not made until the final months of 1873. An additional 6,521 weapons were 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 long arms 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 for 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.
The Allin System’s performance in the Indian Wars is much debated. Often cited was the “large number” of empty cartridges found at the Battle of Little Big Horn, which exhibited signs of malfunction. Although such examples were found, they are a small percentage (2.7 to 3.4% by some counts) of the thousands of rounds 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 long arm 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), also produced by the Springfield Armory from 1894 to 1904. For those paying close attention to dates, this means 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 black powder guns were still used.
It’s hard to see how 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 black powder propellant. We will not cover the vast number of variations here. For an exhaustive list of the changes and varieties in their entire 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 altered from 1873 to 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, the iconic Winchester repeater also vastly overshadowed it and the Colt revolver released the 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.”
“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
Outdated in both propellant and loading system even before the government adopted it, and lacking the celebrity of a military conflict, the Springfield Trapdoor plays a quiet role in the story of U.S. military arms. Yet it remains a highly desirable collector’s piece with its unique loading system, endless varieties to collect and aesthetically pleasing components such as the lockplate, hammer and sweeping breechblock. 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. Rock Island Auction Company’s 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 production years. The collection includes every caliber of manufacture: .58 rimfire, .50-70 government, .45-70 government, the rare .45-80 long-range cartridge and .30-40. It also includes 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 chompin’ 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.
Do you have a Springfield Trapdoor rifle? Have you been to a Rock Island Premier Auction? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.