Firearms

The Top AR Platforms of the 1870s

Your position is under attack. You need to fire copious amounts of bullets. You need to overwhelm the opposing force. Firepower is the essence and it must come from a small group of soldiers. At the very least, you need to double your enemy’s rate of fire. You need a short fast rifle that is quick into action. You need a carbine platform that is easy to carry. You need an assault rifle. The AK-47 is solid, the AR-15 runs like a sports car. Your problem is that it is the 1870s. What do you do now? Well, you’ll get nothing in the automatic range, but if you are quick with the wrist, you have a few choices you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.

What do you need in an AR of the 1870s? It must be compact and portable—not like carrying a fence post around. It must be capable of rapid fire, no ramrod, trapdoor, or even bolt actions are welcome here. Sorry SMLE fans, you’re not yet invented. It must be able to make a single soldier have the firepower of a small group. Furthermore, this soldier may or may not be a professional. The rifle must help make them such. What we do get for our money are great rifles for the time and icons for the present.

Spencer Carbine
Spencer Carbine

First up to the plate is the Spencer carbine. It provides multiple shots in a light and short platform. A rifle easily carried in a troop transport of the time, a saddle. Furthermore, it is the only rifle on our list with a removable magazine. There is no bullet button; sorry California. The tube magazine awkwardly came out of the rear of the stock. You pushed cartridges down in the spring-loaded tube magazine, and then the magazine went back into the stock. The cartridge for this rifle was mainly the .50-70 and .45-70 Government, the chosen rounds of the U.S. Military. This cartridge had more kinetic energy and effective range than today’s varmint rounds used by the military.

Spencer Carbine Cross Section

However, rate of fire makes this little rifle come up way short of a solid 1870s AR weapon. To shoot it took two steps. First, you had to load it as a lever action rifle. The block would fall and a round then pushed itself forward from the magazine. It then lifted into the chamber on the reverse stroke of the lever. Unfortunately, the rifle did not cock the hammer during this stroke. You needed to cock the hog-leg hammer separately. Eight to ten shot per minute was great at that time but still slower than the rest of our weapons.

Henry Rifle Model 1860

The next rifle up to the plate is the Henry Lever Action Rifle. Firepower goes way up this time from 8-10 rounds per minute with the Spencer to almost 30. As fast as you could work the lever, the next shot was ready to launch. This was the AK of the 1870s. It was strong, solid and dependable. A brass frame made it distinctive on the battlefield. When the average muzzleloader was three good rounds per minute and the single shot trapdoors were not much better, sixteen rapid fire shots was as close to auto as you could get. Furthermore, the rifle could stay at the shoulder unlike the previous mentioned types, making follow up shots more effective.

From the movie Silverado a Henry 1860 in action

However, with that amount of firepower, came weight. This thing was a boat anchor to carry. Furthermore, it was like swinging a telephone pole into action. It was not a compact platform and it needed a wide area to perform due to its length. This is far from a carbine. On the back of a horse, it is a long draw to bring from saddle to first shot. Nevertheless, you were indeed the belle of the ball if you were carrying the Henry or the Spencer during the war in the previous decade.

Was there a better option? That answer is quite simply yes, and its name was Winchester. Fast, rugged, reliable and unlike the other two, it kept getting better. By the 1870s the Henry and Sharpes were basically the same weapon. Winchester was on its third model by 1876 and the 1873 may have been the best for at least 20 more years.

Winchester Model of 1873

The first rifle was the Winchester Model of 1866. Known as the Winchester Repeating Rifle, that name would stick for many decades. It borrowed a look from the Henry; it had a bronze alloy receiver. Many times this rifle is mistaken for the Henry because of this distinct pattern. This Winchester, called the Yellow Boy, began a great legacy in firearms.

The next in succession was the famous Winchester of 1873. I would have reached for this 1870s AR. It came in a carbine version. Thus, it was short, light and fast. It was quick from the saddle to action with a very short draw. When chambered in the .44-40, it became a real tactical weapon. Colt began manufacturing a new Single Army Action pistol in this caliber. You could carry just one cartridge type in the field—one for the handgun and one for the rifle. We still struggle with that tactical advantage in this day and age. With almost three-quarters of a million produced, this was the most popular rifle of its time. It was the gun that won the west. Historians tagged it with this grand title due to its domination of other firearms of the era. Very few other rifles can claim such an overwhelming advantage.

Winchester Model of 1873 In Action. The Ultimate AR of the 1870s

However, any one of these rifles would have been an excellent tactical rifle. In June of 1876, the troopers on the hillside of the Little Big Horn ran headlong into an opponent bearing these ARs of their time. The troopers armed with single shot trapdoor rifles would not live to tell what a highly mobile force armed with such firepower could do in just a few minutes.

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Comments (12)

  1. I wish people who are self proclaimed gun experts would stop using “AR” to reference “Assault Rifles.” That is Not what it stands for. You appear as ignorant as the liberals and democrat politicians who push gun control despite knowing nothing about what their writing laws about. It feeds their feeble minds when we should be starving them, or educating them.
    AR stands for Armalite Rifle!
    Oh, and by the way that goes for “Assault Weapons” too. I teach women how to use a Bic pen as an assault weapon.
    Don’t let yourself be pulled into the liberals book of words and definitions.

  2. The Spencer Rifle and the Carbine version had it’s own cartridge.
    It is the 56-50 spencer. 50 caliber with 56 grains of Black Powder.
    They had the b\numbers backwards for some reason, I forget why

  3. Not a problem, Gevens/Gary,

    When I see something obviously false and then they still argue the point when the correction is offered, I find the need to back up the guy trying to do the right thing. I teach several Basic Pistol Courses every single month and I’m certified in all NRA disciplines as well as other law enforcement and military training and curriculum. So, again, I know where you’re coming from.

    Now, if I REALLY wanted to “pile on”, I would point out this statement from the article:
    “By the 1870s the Henry and Sharpes were basically the same weapon.”

    Really?! A 15-round, lever-action repeating rifle firing essentially a pistol cartridge is basically the same as a single-shot, falling-block rifle firing a massive rifle cartridge? That’s like saying the Thompson and the 1903 Springfield would also be basically the same weapon.

    Do I even have to point out that Winchester acquired the rights to Tyler Henry’s design in order to make the Winchester Lever Action in the first place?

    Also, I’m sure it was just a typo when the article refers to Colt’s “Single Army Action” pistol instead of Single Action Army…

  4. Thanks Wolvie. Among my hobbies I am a Civil War re-enactor and a cowboy action shooter so I do know a bit about the firearms of that era. I’m also a firearms instructor, a retired USAF munitions officer, and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in US History. So, I know the difference between a credible source vs. what just anyone can write on the Internet. I did also note the Spencer “magazine” in-accuracy, but I didn’t want to appear to be “piling on”.

  5. Dixie Gun works and others make center fire conversions for the Spencer that use cut down brass (not sure which) and cast bullets. Check YouTube for step by step videos.

  6. Gary, you are absolutely correct.

    First, the repeating Spencer rifle was NOT chambered in 50-70 or 45-70. Only the single shot falling block Spencer was chambered in these calibers. The short, rimfire cartridges it was chambered for were similar to the 44 rimfire the Henry was chambered for.

    Second, the article states that you could load the magazine and then insert a loaded magazine into the Spencer rifle. Again, this is false. The spring-loaded magazine tube had to be removed, then the cartridges were dropped into the hole in the back of the stock, then the spring-loaded magazine tube was pressed back into place and locked. Contrary to what the article states, people weren’t walking around with pre-loaded, spring compressed magazines.

    So, Gary…it’s not you. You are correct.

  7. What is your source? I have a Spencer carbine and the design is such that it is incapable of chambering a cartridge as long as the .50-70. The carbine version was much more popular with the cavalry, although of limited use by the Confederates because they did not have access to a supply of replacement ammunition for it. There was no source of manufacture for the Spencer cartridges in the South, so they had to rely on what they could capture from Union supplies. Custer’s 7th Cavalry carried the Spencer carbine until just prior to the Little Big Horn campaign when they traded in their Spencers for the Model 1973 Springfield Trapdoor carbines chambered in .45-70 caliber. “Falling block actions” were not limited to the Spencer. The Sharps also had a falling block action and those were converted to fire metallic cartridges such as the .50-70 and the .45-70. The difference was that the Spencer was a repeater, while the Sharps and Springfield Trapdoors were single-shot designs.

  8. Gary,
    Fact check: “The carbine version was very popular with the cavalry of both the Union and Confederate armies and was issued in much larger numbers than the full length rifle. The falling block action lent itself to conversion to the new metallic cartridges developed in the late 1860s, and many of these converted carbines in .50-70 Government were used during the Indian Wars in the decades immediately following the Civil War.[4]”

  9. Sorry, but the Spencer did not fire the .45-70 or .50-70 cartridge. Those would have been far too powerful for this little gun. Instead the Spencer fired a .56-50 cartridge and it was rimfire rather than centerfire. It was the Springfield Trapdoor conversion rifle that fired the .50-70 cartridge and the later new manufactured Sprinfield Trapdoor carbines and rifles that fired the .45-70 cartridge. Some Sharps rifles and carbines were also chambered to fire the .50-70 and the .45-70.

  10. rational,
    You nailed it! Thanks for the great feedback. Check out my Firearm of the Week every Friday. Thanks again for the great and well informed feedback.

  11. Nice touch, these are great little articles (and accurate), kudos to the writer. Just reinforces the mentality of arrogant officers who sacrifice functionality for the sake of saving a few rounds of ammo. Legend has it that the brass thought soldiers would waste ammo. Fortunately for the Indians, they didn’t have to wage war by committee or low bid.

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