Fast Reloading of Guns in the 19th Century

Gun Rights

This post describes the speediest means of reloading firearms in the 19th century. The main focus is not the ammunition capacity of any particular type of arm, but rather how quickly various arms could be reloaded after the initial ammunition was spent.

As the post also explains, although the 19th century was, by far, the century of the greatest advances in firearms, many of those advances were not truly new. Rather, the advances were the results of improvements in manufacturing that greatly reduced the price of gun types that previously had been very expensive.

The post covers, in order:

  • Spencer lever-action rifles (fast reloads of 7-round tubular magazines);
  • Girardoni rifles (20-round tubular speedloaders);
  • bolt-action rifles (reloads via detachable box magazines or stripper clips);
  • double-barreled shotguns (over 30 shots per minute);
  • semiautomatic handguns (detachable box magazines or stripper clips);
  • metallic cartridge revolvers (via circular speedloaders);
  • cap-and-ball revolvers and pepperboxes (for revolvers, cylinder swaps starting with an 1858 Remington patent);
  • finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the large progress in reloading speed of single-shot muskets and rifles, thanks to the replacement of muzzleloading with breechloading.

Spencer lever-action rifles

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The first repeating long guns that became a major commercial success were lever-action rifles. They were introduced in the late 1850s. The first commercially successful lever action was the Henry Rifle of 1860; it held 15 rounds in a tubular magazine under the barrel, plus one round in the firing chamber.

Lever action rifles are fast shooters. Today, the champions of the Single Action Shooting Society can fire 10 shots in 2 seconds. The competition requires use of unimproved replicas of common 19th century arms. Once the user had fired all 16 shots from a Henry—or all 18 shots from its successor, the Winchester Model 1866—reloading would take some time, as the user would have to drop cartridges one at a time into the magazine.

Much faster reloads were possible with the Spencer lever action repeating rifles and carbines), which was also introduced in 1860. During the Civil War, the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, of Boston, made 144,500 rifles and carbines (short rifles), including 34,000 subcontracted to the Burnside Rifle Company of Providence, R.I. Burnside also made the Burnside Carbine, similar to the Spencer but with different rifling. The company’s founder, Ambrose Burnside, was a Union general, strong advocate of using black volunteers in combat, future R.I. Senator and Governor, future first President of the National Rifle Association, and the namesake of “sideburns.”

Of the Boston production, 107,372 were sold to the U.S. government, as were 30,052 of the Providence production. The disposition of the rest was presumably private sale, which would almost certainly include some Union soldiers buying arms for themselves. The Spencer was a preferred firearm for cavalrymen. Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms 633 (9th ed. 2007).

The Spencer held 7 rounds in a tubular magazine in the buttstock. After firing 7 rounds, the user could pour in 7 fresh rounds using the Blakeslee speedloader, patented in 1864. The Blakeslee cartridge box kit could hold up to 13 tubes, with 7 rounds each.

The principle of the detachable magazine had been put into use long before, albeit not on a scale as large as Spencer’s. After the American Revolution, American inventor Joseph Belton moved to England, where starting in 1786 he created 7-shot breechloading repeaters with detachable metal magazines for the British East India Company. The 1786 gun had 7 separate firing pans, each of which needed to be reprimed after a magazine change.

In America, Belton is most famous for a prior 1777 invention. During the Revolution, in Philadelphia he demonstrated a gun that fired 16 shots at once. The observing committee –which including two American generals and scientist David Rittenhouse–wrote to the Continental Congress urging adoption of the gun. Letter from Joseph Belton to the Continental Congress (July 10, 1777), in 1 Papers of the Continental Congress, Compiled 1774–1789, Petitions Addressed to Congress 139 (1957). The Continental Congress ordered a hundred, but could not come to terms with Belton on the price. J. Cont. Cong., at 324, 361 (May 15, 1777). He insisted on £130 per gun, equivalent to £27,258 today, or $34,174–too much for a government that already couldn’t make ends meet.

Another ancestor of Civil War Spencer was the lever-action Kalthoff repeater of 17th-century Europe. Some of them could fire 30 rounds without reloading. They “spread throughout Europe wherever there were gunsmiths with sufficient skill and knowledge to make them, and patrons wealthy enough to pay the cost. . . . [A]t least nineteen gunsmiths are known to have made such arms in an area stretching from London on the west to Moscow on the east, and from Copenhagen south to Salzburg. There may well have been even more.” Harold L. Peterson, The Treasury of the Gun 230 (1962).

However, like all repeaters of the time, the Kalthoffs were much more expensive than standard infantry firearms. This is because repeaters, by their nature, have more intricate internal parts than single-shot guns, and the repeater’s parts must fit together more precisely than in single-shots. If a Kalthoff part broke, the gun could only be repaired by a specialist gunsmith. The widespread adoption of lever action repeaters was impractical until the American industrial revolution, when, as described in a previous post, federal government industrial policy created a firearms industry that could mass produce high-quality intricate and interchangeable parts.

Although many Union soldiers provided their own firearms, as did Confederates, the majority of Union soldiers used firearms issued by War Department. When the Civil War ended, the U.S. government owned many more firearms than it would need for the soon-to-be much smaller post-war Army. Pursuant to General Order no. 101 (May 30, 1865), Union soldiers were allowed to buy their government-issued firearm for a deduction from their monthly pay. The most expensive was the Spencer, for $10. Muskets were $6, and revolvers or non-Spencer carbines $8. In 1865, the monthly pay for a Union private was $16. For sergeants it was $17 to $21, for lieutenants $105.50, and more for higher ranks.

Bolt-action rifles

The bolt-action rifle had been invented in 1836. Single-shot bolt-action rifles started becoming widespread in 1866. The magazine-fed bolt-action repeaters became standard infantry arms in the 1880s. Some of them used detachable box magazines, such as the 8-round 1888 British Lee-Metford.

Other models had a fixed (permanently attached) magazine that could quickly be reloaded with stripper clips. The clips held the rounds of ammunition in a straight line at their base, so they could speedily be shoved into an empty fixed magazine.

Girardoni rifles

The Spencers, with their speedloaded tubular magazine, used a system also used by the earlier Girardoni air rifle. Invented for Austrian army snipers in 1779, the Girardoni had a tubular magazines for 21 or 22 rounds, depending on .49 or .46 caliber. Each Girardoni came with four speedloading tubes; once the gun’s magazine was empty, pouring in 20 more rounds was simple and fast. Because of the air bladder’s finite capacity, a Girardoni could fire about 40 shots before the air bladder needed to be pumped up again. That took 1,500 strokes of the special pump.

Ballistically equal to a powder gun, the Girardoni could take an elk with one shot. The best gun of its time, the Girardoni was used by the Austrian army for decades, but did not become widespread in America. Most importantly, it was quite expensive. Second, after years of rough use, the neck connecting the bladder to pump would weaken, so that air refills became impossible. Like other early firearms, the very expensive Girardoni set a high standard that would eventually become attainable by firearms made for ordinary consumers.

Semiautomatic firearms

These were invented in 1884. The first ones to become major commercial successes were the Mauser C96 pistol starting in 1896, and the Luger in 1899. The former had a fixed magazine fed by stripper clips, the latter a 10-round detachable box magazine.

Double-barreled long guns

The double-barreled gun was invented in 1616. W.W. Greener, The Gun and Its Development 102 (9th ed. 1910). By the 1880s, breechloading and metallic cartridges had made the double-barreled shotgun into a fast shooter. With a flip of a switch, the gun could break open: the barrels would tilt down and the two empty cartridges would be  ejected. The user could then drop two fresh cartridges into the exposed barrel breeches. The rate of fire was about 26 rounds per minute for aimed shots, and “upwards of thirty” otherwise. Greener at 504.

Metallic cartridge revolvers and pepperboxes

The modern form of the metallic cartridge was invented in 1853, and is used by the vast majority of modern firearms. A metal cylinder holds the bullet, gunpowder, and primer all in a single unit. Its predecessors date back to the reign of King Henry VIII.

The first American revolver to use metallic cartridges was the 7-round breechloading Smith & Wesson New Model 1, introduced in 1857.

In the next section, I will explain how previous models of revolvers—the muzzleloading cap-and-ball type—had to be laboriously reloaded by ramming a bullet from the front of the cylinder to the back. The new Smith & Wesson opened on a hinge, exposing all 7 chambers at the back of the cylinder. When reloading, the user would use an attached rod to push out the  now-empty shell of a fired cartridge. Then the user could drop a fresh round into the empty cylinder chamber. For a full reload, the process would be repeated for each chamber. The ammunition for the Model 1 was Smith & Wesson’s new .22 rimfire short, which is still in use today.

Pepperboxes are similar to revolvers, but have multiple rotating barrels; they are discussed in more detail in the next section. In 1859, the first pepperbox using metallic cartridges was produced by Sharps. Production would be over 150,000. Lewis Winant, Pepperbox Firearms 78, 87 (1952).

Reloading a S&W revolver was faster than reloading a pre-1858 cap-and-ball revolver; cap-and-ball reloading became much quicker starting in 1858, thanks to a Remington patent discussed in the next section.

In the 1860s and 1870s, metallic cartridge firearms displaced firearms using older types of ammunition. As the process continued, reloading of revolvers with metallic cartridges sped up.

The S&W New Model 1 broke open from the bottom, via a hinge on the top. Later, “top break” revolvers put the hinge on the bottom. The user did not have to turn the gun upside-down to reload. Opening a top break revolver automatically ejected all the empty shells from the entire cylinder.

In 1879 the first speedloader for revolvers was patented. It was a circular clip that held six rounds of ammunition in the exact position of a revolver cylinder. While 6 rounds had become the standard capacity for revolvers, some models had more or fewer, so they would need speedloaders made for the revolver’s particular capacity and caliber.

With the entire back of the cylinder the exposed, the user places the speedloader over the empty cylinder and then turns a knob on the speedloader to release the cartridges all at once, dropping them into the cylinder. With some practice, the process is quick, albeit not as fast as swapping detachable box magazines on a semiautomatic firearm. In the days when many or most law enforcement officers carried revolvers–that is, up until about the 1990s–speedloaders were standard on an officer’s duty belt.

In 1889 came the swing-out cylinder, which is ubiquitous on modern revolvers. The cylinder is attached to revolver’s frame via a hinge called a “crane.” Like the top break, the swing-out exposes all cylinder chambers simultaneously. A few years later Smith & Wesson introduced an ejector rod to push out every empty shell from the cylinder all at once. Speedloaders made for a top break revolver can work for a swing-out, and vice versa.

Cap and ball revolvers and pepperboxes

The first repeating firearms to become huge commercial successes in the United States were handguns, starting in the 1830s. Although the Colt revolver was patented in 1836, until the 1850s revolvers were overshadowed by pepperboxes. In a revolver, a cylinder holds several rounds of ammunition, most typically 5 to 7. Before each shot, the cylinder is rotated by mechanical action from the trigger or hammer, and the cylinder aligns the next round in the cylinder’s chambers with the barrel. A pepperbox works similarly, except that the pepperbox has a separate barrel for each round of ammunition; the barrels rotate around an axis. (Some earlier models of pepperboxes wrapped the barrels around an axis, but the barrels did not rotate.)

Pepperboxes were less accurate than Colt revolvers, but accurate enough at close range. Many pepperboxes could fire faster than a Colt revolver because they were double-action; that is, they fire as fast as the user can press the trigger. In contrast, the Colt revolvers were single-action; before pressing the trigger, the user had to cock the hammer with his thumb. The first Colt revolvers had five shots, whereas many pepperboxes had six. Perhaps most importantly, the Colt revolver could cost four times as much as a pepperbox. Paul Henry, Ethan Allen and Allen & Wheelock 4, 17, 48, 59 (2006) (Allen price of $8 to $8.50 to dealers).

The largest-capacity American-made pepperbox appears to be the 10-shot Pecare & Smith, introduced in 1849. Lewis Winant, Pepperbox Firearms 58 (Palladium Press 2001) (1952).

The first American pepperbox patent was by Darling in 1836. Winant at 20. The leading American manufacturers were various companies associated with Ethan Allen. Allen was not the same person as the illustrious Vermont patriot of the American Revolution. The 19th-century Allen is the person who founded the company that today sells fine furniture. He “was a pioneer in the transition from handmade to machine-made and interchangeable parts.” Id. at 28.

“The Allens were very popular with the Forty Niners. . . . The pepperbox was the fastest shooting handgun of its day. Many were bought by soldiers and for use by state militia. Some saw service in the Seminole Wars and the War with Mexico, and more than a few were carried in the Civil War.” They were last used in a major engagement by the U.S. Cavalry in an 1857 battle with the Cheyenne. Id. at 30.

Like lever actions, neither revolvers nor pepperboxes were truly new. In the 18th century and before, expert gunsmiths made revolvers for wealthy customers, but their main business was single-shot flintlocks. Starting in the 1810s, Eilisha H. Collier of Boston began working on revolving pistols and rifles. He was the first gunsmith “to be known solely as a manufacturer of revolvers.” John Nigel George, English Guns and Rifles 231 (1947). In 1819-20, while working in London, Collier produced 150 revolvers, “a very respectable figure for an expensive hand-made weapon of that type.” Id. at 236.

In 1715, John Pimm of Boston made a 6-shot flintlock revolver that resembles a modern Smith & Wesson .38 Special. M.L. Brown, Firearms in Colonial America: The Impact on History and Technology 1497-1792, at 255-56 (1980). King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) owned a four-shot matchlock revolver. Greener at 81-82.

Far more mainstream than King Henry’s gun were the magazine-fed Lorenzoni handguns of the 1600s. They used a cylinder that was rotated via a lever into three different positions to load a fresh ball, a fresh gunpowder charge, and fresh priming powder. While the Lorenzoni cylinder did revolve, the cylinder held only one bullet and an appropriate amount of gunpowder at a time. The cylinder was revolved in order to reload a fresh bullet from one internal magazine, and fresh powder from another such magazine.

Pepperboxes also predate 1600. One well-known model was the “Holy Water Sprinkler,” consisting of several barrels wrapped around the staff of a mace; some said that Henry VIII carried one. Winant at 7, 11. In the latter 17th century, pepperboxes were made by Jan Flock of Holland, and in the late 18th by Henry Nock of England. Id. at 13-14. Once the percussion cap was invented in the early 19th century, an unknown gunsmith in Pennsylvania made a 6-shot pepperbox. Id. at 18.

There are two main reasons why pepperboxes and revolvers started to become widely popular in the 1830s rather than the 1540s. The first was a change in firearms ignition.

Previously, firearms had used either flintlock or matchlock ignition. Matchlocks were obsolete in America and England long before 1791. The wheellock, invented by Leonardo da Vinci, was a step on the way to the flintlock. In flintlocks and matchlocks, the firing begins by igniting loose gunpowder in the firing pan. For a flintlock, the ignition is by sparks from a flint striking steel; for a matchlock, by the trigger lowering a slow-burning hemp cord to the firing pan. The firing pan is connected to the main gunpowder charge in the breech (back) of the barrel by a narrow channel that enters the barrel via a small touch hole. In the early 1805, after 12 years of careful work, Scotland’s Rev. Alexander Forsyth invented percussion ignition: the hammer of a firearm would strike a small explosive (the fulminate) and that explosion would ignite the main gunpowder charge in the firearm’s barrel. Percussion priming made it possible to have several rounds ready to fire, without the need to refill a priming pan.

A second reason why revolvers and pepperboxes became ordinary consumer items in the 1830s rather than the 1540s was manufacturing cost. Being mechanically more complex than single-shot guns, repeaters could be, and were, produced artisanally from the fifteenth century onward, but required many hours of expert labor. Mass production for a large consumer market became possible as a result of the Madison-Monroe industrial policy, begun in 1815, of federal investment in research and development of machine tools for the mass production of firearms from interchangeable parts.

All the American pepperboxes, as well as the Colt revolvers in their first decades, were cap and ball firearms. That is, they were a type of muzzleloader. To load a round, the user poured gunpowder into a revolver’s cylinder chamber (or one of the barrels on a pepperbox) from the front, and then rammed a bullet into place. At the back of the same cylinder chamber (or barrel, for a pepperbox), the user would place a percussion cap on a nipple. Then the process would have to be repeated for the next cylinder chamber (revolver) or barrel (pepperbox). For revolvers, a short ramrod on a pivot was typically attached underneath the barrel. With the cap and ball system, once a handgun was empty, a full reload was far from instantaneous.

That changed in 1858, with the third version of the new Remington “Beals” revolvers. Remington had patented the first and second Beals models in 1856 and 1857. Charles Schif, Remington’s First Revolvers: The Remington Beals .31 Caliber Revolvers 6-8 (2007) (Patents 15,167 & 17,359). In the 1858 patent, no. 21,478, the barrel was affixed to the revolver frame by a single pin, and the pin was designed to be easy to remove. The user would push out the attachment pin, replace the empty cylinder with a fresh, preloaded cylinder, put the barrel and pin back into place, and be ready to shoot. Id. at 48. As Remington advertising explained, “The efficiency of the arm may be greatly increased by the addition of duplicate cylinders, thus affording the advantage of a brace [pair] of Pistols at a trifling additional expense.” Id. at 106 (reprinting advertisement that ran in the George W. Hawes’ Ohio State Gazetteer and Business Director in 1859-60).

Another company, U.S. Starr Arms, made revolvers with a similar mechanism, using a screw for attachment, and designed for fast reloads. Colt revolvers had an attachment pin, but it had not been made with reloads in mind. Thus, some Colt users would file the pin so that was easy to remove, and the gun could then be reloaded just as fast as a Remington. I do not know if Fordyce Beals figured out the idea of a removable attachment pin by noticing what Colt users were doing, or if Colt users got the idea of filing their pins after seeing the Remington Beals revolvers.

Single-shot rifles

As I described in a previous post, the American colonists switched from matchlock firearms to flintlocks much sooner than their European cousins did. Because a flintlock is much easier to reload, the change quintupled the fire—at least in the hands of a proficient user—from no more than one shot per minute to five shots per minute.

Flintlock firearms started becoming much more powerful in 1787 when England’s Henry Nock patented a new breechblock. Formerly, the touch hole had been located near the back of the main powder charge. Nock moved the touch hole to around the middle of the powder charge, so that all the powder would ignite at once. Greener at 118; George at 188-90. Because all the powder now burned in an instant, gun barrels could be shortened; there was no longer a need for long barrels that provided time of various parts of the powder to combust. George at 190.

Nock’s breechblock was one of many inventions that made the flintlocks of 1787 much better than the flintlocks of 1687. George at 103 (“immense improvement in such matters as the cutting of screw threads, the tempering of springs, the case-hardening of working parts and lock-plates, and the accurate fitting of all members of the lock”); 114 (“waterproof” flash-pan allowing moisture to drain out the bottom); 115 (“small bearing-wheel” on the pan cover or pan cover spring that reduced friction and “greatly increased” the speed of opening the pan cover and “lessened the chances of its missing fire”).

In the first decades of the 19th century, as percussion ignition became standard, retrofitting a flintlock to use percussion ignition was inexpensive and easy. With percussion ignition, the user no longer had to pour loose priming gunpowder into the firing pan; simply putting a cap on the nipple was much faster. So reloading became faster.

After experimentation, the best form of percussion ignition was determined to be the copper percussion cap, “shaped like a thimble and with a small charge of fulminate in the crown.” George at 258. The cap sat on a nipple near the breech.

The retrofit instantly made a firearm more reliable and powerful. Because the detonation of the fulminate instantly ignited all the gunpowder at once, the gun fired more powerfully. At the time, not everybody with a flintlock owned one with a Nock breechblock, which also ignited all the powder at once. Even with a Nock breechblock, there was sometimes a short delay between when the sparks landed in the firing pan and when main powder charge exploded, since the flame had to travel from the priming pan to the main powder charge. George at 246-48.

Unlike flintlocks, which had loose powder in the firing pan, a percussion cap gun was in little danger of not firing because of rain or heavy moisture.An 1834 British army test, conducted “in all types of weather,” fired 6,000 rounds, and reported 936 misfires from flintlocks, compared to only 22 from percussion locks. (At the time, “lock” was the term for what we today call the “action” of gun—the part of the gun that performs the mechanical operations of loading and firing.)

Moreover, as described above, in a flintlock the burning powder in the firing pan communicates with the main power charge via a touch hole in the barrel. Necessarily, some of the burning gas from the main powder charge would escape via the touch hole, rather than staying in the barrel to push the bullet out through the muzzle. When the flintlock touch hole was replaced with the percussion nipple, a path for rearward gas escape was eliminated. “The penetration and recoil are therefore proportionately increased.” Greener at 117.

Meanwhile, breechloaders were becoming increasingly common. The vast majority of  modern firearms are breechloaders. They load from the back of the barrel (the breech) rather than from the front of the barrel (the muzzle).

Of course, King Henry VIII had breechloaders in 1537. His armory included  breechloading matchlock arquebus handguns and rifles. Upon examination centuries later, the guns “with some minor difference in details, were found to be veritable Snider rifles.” Charles B. Norton, American Breech-loading Small Arms 10 (1872). Invented in 1865, the Snider rifle was the standard British service arm of 1866-74. Greener at 103-04.

But unlike Henry VIII’s lever action and revolver guns, the breechloader became widespread well before the 19th century. “[M]any specimens” of breechloaders  “may be seen in museums of ancient arms.” Greener at 703. “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, breech-loading arms were very numerous and of greatly diversified mechanism.” Id. at 103-10 (quote at 105); see also George at 47.  Among the most famous, at least to Americans, was the Ferguson rifle, which was used by the British in the American War of Independence and was “the first breech-loading carbine ever used by a regularly organized British corps.” Greener at 108. The user could hit a 200 yard target with six shots per minute while stationary, or four shots per minute while walking and reloading—reloading on the move having hitherto been impossible. George at 149-50.

From an American perspective, the first highly popular breechloader was the 1848 Sharps single-shot rifle. It used percussion ignition, plus old-fashioned paper cartridges that contained the bullet and powder charge, but not the primer. A novice could fire and reload 9 shots per minute. Sharps’ Breech-loading Patent Rifle, Scientific American, Mar. 9, 1850. The Sharps were especially popular with pioneer families heading West. Nine shots per minute by a novice was a big change from the flintlock’s rate of five shots per minute by an experienced user.

But the biggest breakthrough for breechloaders was the invention of the modern metallic cartridge in 1853. As described above, it contains the bullet, powder charge, and primer in a single metal casing. A predecessor had been invented around 1810 by Samuel Johannes Pauly of Switzerland. Building on the invention of percussion ignition, Pauly put the fulminate inside a pan in the center of a short metal case. The Pauly case attached to the rear of a traditional paper cartridge (which contained the gunpowder and the bullet). The fulminate would be detonated when struck by a firing pin. (As opposed to the standard percussion cap, which was detonated when struck by a hammer.)

You might not be surprised to learn that Henry VIII also had guns that used metallic cartridges. For all breechloaders in every century, there was one fundamental problem that needed to be solved. Unlike with a muzzleloader, the breech of the breechloader must be opened every time new ammunition is inserted. Unless a perfect seal is created at the breech, some of the gas from the burning gunpowder will escape rearward. Whatever gas escapes rearward will be wasted, since it not used to impart forward energy to the bullet. The rear gas could be annoying to the user.

The solution was the metallic cartridge. If the case were precisely as wide as the bore of the barrel, then the case itself would create a gas seal—as Henry VIII’s engineers well understood. It took a lot of trial and error to build a metal case that was precisely the size of the bore on the king’s breechloaders. George at 17-18. A king could afford the very high labor cost of handcrafted ammunition built for a particular firearm, but few other people could. Even after machine tools greatly reduced variations in bore sizes in a given caliber, bore sizes still varied within a range of tolerance. Some breechloaders were designed with breechblocks that made a perfect gas seal, but over repeated use, the friction of metal moving against metal might eventually thin the metal and allow some gas to escape.

The metallic cartridge of 1853 was the answer. Unlike Henry VIII’s ammunition, the 1853 cartridge used an expansive shell. This thin-walled shell could readily be dropped into the barrel breech. Then, when the gunpowder ignited, the pressure would expand the wall of the shell to release the bullet, and to form a perfect seal behind the expanding gas. “Probably no invention connected with fire-arms has wrought such changes in gun construction as the invention of the expansive cartridge case.” Greener at 133.

The expansive metallic cartridge was greatly beneficial for repeating firearms. First, the mechanics of a repeater are simpler if the primer is contained in the cartridge, rather than having to be loaded separately.

Secondly, for repeating arms, especially if not correctly loaded, there was a risk of “chain fire.” That is, the flame that was igniting one round might escape and ignite another round. At the least this could severely damage the gun, and at worst the explosion might injure the user. Today, if you have a reproduction of a 6-shot cap and ball revolver, the safety instructions may encourage you to load only every other round in the cylinder during target practice, to reduce the risk of a chain fire. People who carried fully loaded cap and ball revolvers for defense presumably decided that the small risk of a chain fire was outweighed by the risk of running out of ammunition while under attack. With the metallic cartridge, the risk of chain fire was greatly reduced.

Even on a single-shot rifle, the expansive metallic cartridge was a game-changer because it sped up reloading. As stated in the 1859 annual report by U.S. War Department Chief of Ordnance Henry Craig, “With the best breech-loading arm, one skillful man would be equal to two, probably three, armed with an ordinary muzzle-loading gun.” Carl Davis, Arming the Union 117 (1979).

Undoubtedly the Union could have won the Civil War much faster if it had been able to equip all its soldiers with breechloaders. But that was logistically impossible. With production lines running as fast as possible, it took until 1863—two years into the war—before the Union could supply every infantry soldier with the Army’s then-standard arm, the muzzleloading Springfield Model 1848 rifle. Retooling all the muzzleloading production lines to convert them into breechloading was not possible, given the Army’s immediate need for huge quantities of rifles. The Union had to make do with whatever breechloaders it could obtain from private companies and from imports. The Union’s deficiency in very large-scale firearm production at hitherto unknown quantities was one reason so many Union soldiers brought their personal firearms to service.

Later, when the Army had reverted to its small peacetime size, the single-shot 1873 Springfield rifle was adopted as the standard service arm. According to tests by the Ordnance Department, “A practiced person can fire this arm from 12 to 13 times per minute, loading from the cartridge-box. (It has been fired from the shoulder at the rate of 25 times per minute from the cartridge-box).” Springfield Armory, Description and Rules for the Management of the Springfield Rifle, Carbine, and Army Revolvers, Caliber 45 (Gov’t Printing Off. 1887).


During the nineteenth century, firearms that could be reloaded quickly after being emptied became widespread and affordable to a broad market. Many of the developments involved ideas that had been worked out centuries before, but had not become available to average consumers due to the high labor costs of artisanal manufacture before the industrial revolution.

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