A breech-loading weapon, usually a gun or cannon, is one where the bullet or shell is inserted or loaded into the gun at the rear of the barrel or breech; the opposite of muzzle-loading. All modern mass production guns are breech loading.
The main advantage of breech-loading is a reduction in reloading time; it is much quicker to load the projectile and charge in at the breech than to force them down a long tube, especially when the tube has the spiral ridges from rifling.
Matchlocks were the first effective long guns, and the first to have breech-loading. The entire firing chamber was removable, to be reloaded or replaced. The chamber was held for firing by either wedging or screws. There were numerous problems, one of which was seemingly unsolvable: fouling and pitting at the join between chamber and barrel leading to increasingly more severe windage and backflash (a flare of gunpowder through the join). There were many attempts to solve this, and these attempts continued through the development of the wheellock and the flintlock. All failed to completely seal the breech, and compared to muzzle-loaders, they were much more expensive, fragile, and difficult to repair.
Although breech-loading weapons were developed as far back as the late 14th century in Burgundy, the 1400s in Spain and Portugal, and the 1500s in England and China, breech-loading became more successful with improvements in precision engineering and machining in the 19th century. Patrick Ferguson, a British Army officer, developed in 1772 the Ferguson rifle, a breech-loading flintlock weapon. Roughly two hundred of the rifles were manufactured and used in the Battle of Brandywine, during the American Revolutionary War, but shortly after they were retired and replaced with the standard Brown Bess musket.
The improvements to breech-loading came with general improvements in precision engineering and machining in the 19th century. The Austrian Crespi or the American Hall were improvements, but still relatively weak. The caplock breech-loader was a clear improvement through superior manufacture and metallurgy, but needed the development of the metallic cartridge to enable successful breech-loading. The gun barrel could now seal against an expanding cartridge with the detonation forward of the join rather than behind it. The low-powered copper Flobert cartridge was invented in 1836, as was the pinfire cartridge (Lefaucheux), although this required fixative work by Houiller in 1846 to produce a workable cartridge.
The first widely used breech-loader was the Prussian Dreyse Zundnadelgewehr or needle-gun, a bolt action single-shot rifle invented in 1838 and so called because of its 0.5-inch needle-like firing pin which passed through the cartridge case to impact a percussion cap at the bullet base. The cartridge was actually paper and the gun had numerous deficiencies, but the great successes of the Prussian army convinced many other nations to quickly develop their own versions. The French adopted the new Chassepot rifle. The British initially took the existing Enfield and fitted it with a Snider breech action (solid block, hinged parallel to the barrel) firing the Boxer cartridge. Following a competitive examination of 104 guns in 1866, the British decided to adopt the Martini-Henry lock with trap-door loading. In the USA, the enormous number of war surplus muzzle-loaders produced the Allin conversion Springfield in 1866. With the trap-door loading mechanism of the British gun, the Springfield's firing mechanism was very similar to the Prussian gun. The development of the tubular magazine rifle in the 1870s rendered all previous rifles obsolete.
During the American Civil War many breech loaders would be fielded. The Sharps rifle used a successful dropping block design. The Greene Rifle used rotating bolt-action, and was fed from the breech. The Spencer, which used lever-actuated bolt-action, was fed from a 6-round detachable tube magazine. The Henry rifles and Volcanic rifles used rimfire metallic cartridges fed from a tube magazine under the barrel. These held a significant advantage over muzzle-loaders. The improvements in breech-loaders had spelled the end of muzzle-loaders. To make use of the enormous number of war surplus muzzle-loaders, the Allin conversion Springfield was adopted in 1866.
Single-shot breech-loaders would be used throughout the latter half of 19th century, but they were slowly replaced by various designs for repeating rifles, first used - and heavily - in the American Civil War. Manual breach-loaders gave way to manual magazine feed and then to self-loading rifles.
John H. Hall produced the first breech-loading firearm in the United States. It was patented in 1811 and was a flintlock rifle, .52 caliber, weighing ten pounds. A hinged breeclhlock (the metal block which closes the rear of the bore against the force of the charge) contained the chamber (the part of the gun that holds the charge or, in the case of modern weapons, the cartridge). In loading, the front end of the block was lifted by releasing a spring, and the charge was inserted. The block then locked back into the barrel.
The Army accepted Hall's flintlock rifle in 1819. In 1833 a smoothbore carbine (shortbarreled) version was issued to the First Regiment of U.S. Dragoons (First Cavalry). The barrel was twenty-six inches long. This first cavalry breechloader was also the first Army gun to use the percussion ignition system. Later it was made in a rifled version.
One of the remarkable features of Hall percussion models was that the breechblock, which contained all the gun's working parts, could be removed and used as a pistol if desired. Hall breech-loading carbines and rifles were used in the Mexican War and passed into the West in the hands of mountain men and traders as well as soldiers. The federal government also issued several thousand Halls to state militias, and some of these guns found their way West.
The Hall patent, however, failed to solve the problem which plagued breechloaders from the beginning. The seam between chamber and barrel was not sufficiently tight. Flame tended to spurt from the joint, and there was consequent reduction in velocity because of explosive gas leakage. There were also difficulties with the breech catch. And so the weapon was produced only in limited quantity, and the surplus, sold at bargain prices, made profitable items in the Indian trade.
Christian Sharps, who had worked on the Hall patent at Harpers Ferry Armory, developed the first successful breechloader. Sharps moved to Cincinnati where in 1848 he patented a system that became famous throughout the West when incorporated in the Sharps Breechloading Percussion Single-shot Carbine.
This revolutionary weapon - short-barreled and ideal for western use - employed a linen or paper-wrapped cartridge with ball attached, though it would take loose ball and powder also. In loading with a cartridge, the trigger guard acted as a lever which lowered the breech block and exposed the chamber. The cartridge was then inserted. Returning the breechblock to closed position sheared off the end of the cartridge and exposed the powder, so that when the trigger was pulled and the percussion cap exploded, ignition of the powder took place and the gun fired. A skilled shooter could deliver four or five shots a minute in this fashion.
In a variety of calibers from .36 to .52, Sharps breech-loading carbines and rifles were reasonably accurate at long ranges - enthusiasts even claimed up to 1,000 yards but most Easterners had trouble judging distances in the clear atmosphere of the West. It was carried in covered wagons on the Oregon and California trails, and it played a leading role in the bloody pro and antislavery fighting in Kansas that preceded the Civil War. John Brown and his fellow abolitionists carried Sharps rifles. They were called "Beecher's Bibles" because Henry Ward Beecher, the renowned antislavery preacher of Boston, was said to have sent a shipment of them to Brown in Kansas in crates labeled "Bibles." Beecher supposedly said that one Sharps would be more persuasive in the slavery conflict than one hundred Bibles. At any rate, John Brown's men were armed with these famous breech loaders when they attacked the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, an incident that got Brown hanged and set Union soldiers singing: John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul goes marching on. (Confederate soldiers admitted ten years later that this song created more apprehensive terror in Southern ranks than all the cannon Grant and Lincoln could muster.)
It is certain that during the 1850's the Sharps became the most popular shoulder arm in the West. It proved superior for hunting buffalo or humans. So the Sharps enjoyed immense popularity even though it never succeeded in remedying the defects common to breechloaders since the original Hall. Gas escaped at the breech. Parts fouled. Bullets lost velocity and accuracy.
In 1863, upon being directed by the president conduct experiments with a new type of firearm, the head of the Union's Ordnance Dept. sneered, "What does Lincoln know about a gun?" Little did the functionary know that the president, in fact, knew quite a lot.
In December 1816, Lincoln's family left Kentucky for Indiana's greener pastures - not that they found them. Instead they encountered "a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods," Lincoln later wrote. For protection and sustenance, the Lincolns owned an old smoothbore musket and two rifles. When, a few months later, the boy saw a flock of wild turkeys gingerly approach the family's new cabin, he selected "a rifle gun," and, "standing inside, shot through a crack and killed one of them."
Modestly explaining that his hunting skills "never much improved afterwards," Lincoln preferred to leave deer and bears to his friends. Instead, contenting himself with turkeys and raccoons, Lincoln and his kinsman Dennis Hanks hunted "pretty much all the time especially so when we got tired of work, which was very often I will assure you," Hanks recalled. As he got older, Lincoln cut back on the hunting to spend more time with his beloved books, which was presumably the reason he and another friend once walked into town to buy a rifle and agreed to share it.
For a short time in 1832, Lincoln served in the militia during the Blackhawk War. Considering his later role as a warlord, Lincoln's inept turn as an officer is entertainingly ironic. Placed in charge of a company composed of, in the words of Maj. William Miller, "the hardest men he ever saw," poor Capt. Lincoln was neither feared nor respected. To his first order to drill, one man replied, "Go to hell," and he soon gained a reputation for incompetence. Another time, his men "liberated" the officers' whisky supplies. Early the next day, as their brother companies formed up and marched away, Lincoln's boys were too sodden to even stand. At his subsequent court-martial, Lincoln was ordered to carry a wooden sword. Soon afterward, the militia, with no little sense of relief, mustered him out. Although Lincoln's soldiering career could not be described as stellar, the experience did extend and expand his acquaintance with various forms of military arms.
Henceforth, he kept abreast of ordnance developments. In the 1850s he knew, from his copies of the Annual of Scientific Discovery, of the roiling debate between advocates of the new breechloaders and those of the more traditional muzzleloading rifle-muskets. Indeed, later that decade, when Lincoln discovered that his business acquaintance George McClellan had recently been part of an influential military commission to Europe, he quizzed him mercilessly about modern armaments. And as a voracious reader, Lincoln devoured the many in-depth reports in The New York Times and Scientific American covering arms trials and Ordnance competitions to determine the best method of converting muzzleloading firearms into breechloaders.
Underlying Lincoln's interest in gun technology was his insatiable curiosity about all things mechanical. Indeed, he remains the only president to have a patent - for a device to buoy vessels over sandbars - in his name. According to William Herndon, his longtime law partner, Lincoln wanted to know every machine "inside and outside, upside and downside." Another of Lincoln's colleagues, Henry Clay Whitney, recalled his friend's inquisitiveness. While traveling together, whenever they stopped at a local farmhouse for dinner, Lincoln would obtain some "machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically; he would 'sight' it to determine if it was straight or warped; if he could make a practical test of it, he would do that; he would turn it over or around and stoop down, or lie down, if necessary, to look under it; he would examine it closely, then stand off and examine it at a little distance; he would shake it, lift it, roll it about, up-end it, overset it, and thus ascertain every quality and utility which inhered in it."
From such careful investigations, Lincoln's mind would penetrate the very nature of things, allowing him to perceive the fundamental cause-and-effect principles upon which they relied to work. Such understanding was central to his belief that free societies were more innovative than enslaved ones, for the former sought to improve technology to reduce toil, raise profits and improve efficiency, but the latter's intellect and energy were smothered by the dead weight of tradition and the dust of ages.
Lincoln's linking of technology with liberation inspired him to be ever on the lookout for better and more innovative guns with which to arm Union soldiers. The greatest obstacle to his ambitions was the Ordnance Dept., or more particularly, Gen. James Ripley, its chief. Ripley, famous for his absolute incorruptibility, starchy bearing and unyielding adherence to the rules, dreaded the president's inquiries about new types of firearms. To his mind, his job was to increase the North's output of working, easy-to-use, standardized, muzzleloading Springfield rifle-muskets for use by the hundreds of thousands of troops in the field, not to waste time on Lincoln's latest fancy.
Ripley performed admirably in arming the Union, but he was wrong to quash small-arms innovation, and Lincoln was right to try promising guns that attracted his eye. He proved particularly interested in the experimental lever-action repeating rifles firing the new metallic cartridges that some dared believe would displace traditional ramrod-and-ball loading. The two leading repeater companies were Oliver Winchester's New Haven Arms Co. (which made the Henry rifle) and Christopher Spencer's Repeating Rifle Co. (home of the eponymous rifle). Representatives of both firms had previously approached Ripley only to be told (in Winchester's case) that the Henry was useless, despite its "singular beauty and ingenious design," and (in Spencer's) that his wasn't the kind of weapon "which I would be willing to adopt for the military service." To his mind, they were underpowered (the Springfield caliber was the potent .58; the repeaters' were either .44 or .52), wasteful of ammunition, and impossible to manufacture in great quantity.
Lincoln wanted to see for himself, though his personal view was that the single-shot breechloader would be the army rifle of the future. (As indeed they would be, evidenced by the adoption of the "Trapdoor" Springfield). And so it was that, in the summer of 1861, the president and his private secretary, William Stoddard, tramped across the White House south lawn for some shooting practice. Lincoln carried a very early prototype Henry, and Stoddard a Springfield rifle-musket specially modified into a breechloader. At the bottom of the lawn there was a patch of ground picturesquely called Treasury Park, though it wasn't so much a verdant Eden as weedy, gravelly turf enclosed by a wooden fence and dominated by a large pile of lumber that Lincoln used as a backstop for shooting.
Having set up a target against the woodpile, Lincoln and Stoddard took their positions 100 yds. away. Lincoln fired, missing. Stoddard fired and hit. "I declare, you are beating me," said Lincoln. "I'll take a good sight this time." Hearing shots in the middle of Washington, where discharging firearms was banned, a passing sergeant and his men appeared shouting, "Stop that firing! Stop that firing!" Seeing the president, the sergeant stopped short, did a comical double-take, and rapidly withdrew. "Well," remarked Lincoln, "they might have stayed to see the shooting."
Two years later, Lincoln heard that Spencers, often privately purchased despite their dearness, were, like Henrys, more than twice as expensive as standard Springfields, costing the average soldier four months' pay. But they were becoming popular thanks to their ability to rattle the enemy with rapid fire. One Southern lieutenant, taken prisoner, asked his Spencer-armed captors, "What kind of Hell-fired guns have your men got?" And Col. George Custer remarked that if his entire command were armed with Spencers he would not hesitate to charge the rebels even when outnumbered two to one. This was something of an irony, given that at the Little Bighorn, most of the charging Indian warriors who used repeaters carried Winchesters.
Intrigued, the president requested that one be sent to the White House. Unfortunately, it was defective and so too was its replacement, prompting the president to dismiss the gun as fatally flawed. In mid-August 1863, hoping to salvage the situation, Christopher Spencer himself came to demonstrate the firearm. Betraying his curiosity in all things mechanical, Lincoln asked to be shown "the inwardness of the thing." So Spencer took the piece apart and screwed it back together, delighting the president. Spencer then accompanied the president, Lincoln's son Robert and his secretary John Hay to Treasury Park. They set up a wooden plank three feet long and six inches wide to use as a target. Lincoln took the first shot, from 40 yds. away. It hit 5" below, and somewhat to the left, of the bullseye. His next hit the spot, and by furiously working the lever, he rapidly placed five more in the neighborhood. "Now," he said, "we will see the inventor try it." Spencer then performed, in Hay's words, "some splendid shooting," and beat the president's score. Lincoln, amused, defended his inferiority by remarking that Spencer was younger than he. Then Hay had a try, but his efforts were "lamentably bad." Being younger than both, he blamed his poor eyesight.
Bidding farewell to Spencer, Lincoln gave him the riddled target, saying that "it might be a gratifying souvenir." (In 1883, Spencer donated it to the Lincoln collection in Springfield, Ill., but it was subsequently lost.) In his diary, Hay echoed his boss' thoughts on the Spencer: "A wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls and firing the whole readily and deliberately in less than half a minute."
The most immediate and important result of the Spencer test was that Lincoln ousted Ripley from his post, for it was now clear that the chief had been foot-dragging since the beginning. Henceforth, federal procurement of Spencers (mostly in a carbine version for cavalry) quickened and eventually amounted to roughly 100,000 pieces. Although the exact number is debatable, this increase was owed less to any direct intervention on Lincoln's part than to Ripley's successors believing that muzzleloaders were on their way out, destined to be replaced by breechloaders-a category that included not only lever-action repeaters but single-shot rifles. Moreover, this figure is dwarfed by the more than 1.5 million Springfields manufactured during the war.
In the end, Spencer's success did not save his company. After Appomattox, demobilized soldiers brought their arms home. Since their wartime Spencers worked so well - no less a personage than Gen. Grant declared them "the best breech-loading arms available" - they saw no need to upgrade them with new models. In 1868-69, the firm, flailing in debt, was wound up. Winchester bought its remaining assets for the knockdown price of $200,000. Even so, for decades one could see Spencers in action everywhere on the frontier.
Unlike his rival Christopher Spencer, Oliver Winchester had not had a good war. Despite Lincoln's admiration for his Henry rifle, just 1,781 of them were sold to the Ordnance Dept. Nevertheless, several thousand more were bought unofficially by various units and used with great success. In February 1863, for instance, Capt. James Wilson of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry was attacked by seven Confederates; he rapidly killed them all in eight shots - an impossible feat for anyone armed with a regulation Springfield.
Understandably then, as early as mid-1865, Winchester - irritated by Spencer's success as well as provoked by an attempted boardroom coup by the rifle's disaffected creator Benjamin Henry - had begun thinking about phasing it out and forging ahead with an improved replacement. Within the year, the newly dubbed "Winchester" Model 1866 went into production. It would be the first of the company's phenomenally successful and rightly legendary family of guns. Thus, in the final reckoning, Lincoln's rifles may not have won the Civil War, but they aided immeasurably in subduing the American West.
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