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1855 Springfield Rifle
June 26, 1855 U. S. Army Ordinance Board recommends the adoption of the .58 caliber 1855 Springfield Rifle and the hollow base Minié Ball (or bullet) to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. This would be the most common firearm during the Civil War
September 1, 1858 Battle of Four Lakes, near present-day Spokane, WA, features 500 U. S. soldiers defeating a similar-sized contingent of American Indians. The soldiers won because their new rifle-bored muskets exceeded the range of the Indians smooth-bore weapons
May 10, 1861 Nathaniel Lyons [US] takes control of St. Louis to end rioting, seizing Camp Jackson (Confederate militia) and 1200 1855 Springfield Rifles Missouri

1855 Springfield Rifle

In 1855 the Springfield (MA) Armory began planning the production of a .58 caliber musket with a rifled barrel. This weapon, along with the Model 1861 Springfield Rifle and the Model 1863 Springfield Rifle would become the most common shoulder weapon used in The Civil War. Known as a "rifle musket" the 1855 Springfield Rifle replaced an earlier .69 caliber musket and a .54 caliber rifle. It featured improvements that increased both range and accuracy.

Prototyping of the 1855 Springfield Rifle occurred at the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry because of this location's proximity to Washington D. C..

The first musket produced by the Springfield armory would not be available to the U. S. Army until 1857. A similar short-barrel weapon was also known as the 1855 Springfield Rifle, however, it was designed for light cavalry and never produced in the quantities of the rifled musket. Major technological advances were incorporated into the design of the weapon, however, it was not breech-loading and remains one of the few examples of a rifled musket ever mass produced.

In the previous flintlock system, a piece of flint struck an iron plate known as a frizzen. It would create a spark (hopefully) and ignite a small amount of gunpowder in the pan. This would then ignite the gunpowder in the barrel and cause the gun to fire. Wind, rain and a bad loading technique could play havoc with actually firing the weapon.

Lock assembly from the 1855 Springfield Rifle with a Maynard Tape Primer
Lock, 1855 Springfield Rifle
First of the advances was the elimination of the flintlock. When the flint struck the frizzen and moved down the plate the movement and impact sent a tiny motion through the gun. Dentist Edward Maynard, who would later invent the metal cartridge and lever-action breech-loading rifle, devised a series of percussion caps on paper known as the Maynard Tape Primer (think of the caps in a child's gun). Maynard used a new compound in the tape, fulminate of mercury, which was much more powerful than gunpowder. The tape was stored in a cartridge near the hammer, leading to the unusual "loop" in the hammer. This design eliminated any human intervention in the lock area and kept the charge dry until fired. When a gun's hammer was released the action would move the next cap to the plate, the hammer would strike the cap and fire the gunpowder in the barrel. Since the need for the frizzen and pan were gone, the entire lock assembly was changed, resulting in a smoother fire, increased accuracy and almost no smoke from the lock (this was why Maynard came up with the new system).

To further improve the gun the Springfield Armory selected the rifling system designed by French Army Captain Claude Minié. In muskets, a round ball would closely, but not exactly, fit a barrel. For a rifled gun to work, the projectile and barrel needed to have zero-tolerance, so that the grooves on the rifle would spin the projectile as it left the gun. This spinning action would keep the bullet on a straight line in relation to the target. To ease loading the Springfield used a cylindrical-cone, hollow-based Minié Ball which would expand on firing to use the rifling on the barrel. The spin also increased the distance a projectile traveled.

Using a .69 caliber flintlock musket a veteran combat soldier could accurately fire 200 feet. Using an 1855 Springfield the same soldier could accurately fire 500 feet. Sharpshooters would extend this to 1000 feet. The number of misfires dropped dramatically as well.

The equipment Robert E. Lee told Colonel Thomas Jackson (later better known by his sobriquet, Stonewall) to remove from the Harpers Ferry armory in early 1861 had been designed to produce the 1855 Springfield Rifle.

The 1855 Springfield Rifle changed artillery techniques. Before the introduction of the rifled musket artillery could be positioned close to the front lines. With the longer distance of the shoulder arms, artillery was placed further from the lines, making it less effective. If field artillery was close to the enemy, it would be protected by infantry, a duty the soldiers did not like because enemy sharpshooters would aim at anyone near the position.

An 1861 revision of the 1855 Springfield rifled musket eliminated the Maynard Tape Primer and replaced it with individual percussion caps which were loaded each time the gun was fired. This increased the time to reload by a second or two, but cut costs on the firearm dramatically. Other major changes were a new rear sight to increase accuracy and a swell on the ramrod to better hold it in place when firing or marching. While the Springfield and Harpers Ferry armories produced most of the rifled muskets until 1861, by 1865 more than 20 armories were producing the revised Springfield.

One of the armories manufacturing the 1861 model Springfield Rifle was Colt Firearms. They began making minor improvements to the design during manufacturing and the Colt's were highly regarded on the battlefield. In 1863 Springfield revised the design to incorporate most of the Colt as well as revisions form other manufacturers. Almost all of the changes made by Colt involved the lock mechanism.

Additional information:

Springfield Armory, now a historic site run by the National Park Services
Colt Firearms

Links appearing on this page:

Harpers Ferry
Robert E. Lee
The Civil War
Thomas Jackson
Washington D. C.

1855 Springfield Rifle was last changed on - December 16, 2007
1855 Springfield Rifle was added on - March 14, 2007

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