50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
1873 TRAPDOOR CARBINE
We tend to think of the Winchester lever-action and the Sharps buffalo rifle as the most prominent and effective firearms of the American West. But there was a third rifle that dramatically helped shape the history of the frontier, the 1873 Springfield Trapdoor .45-70 carbine. In fact, from 1874 until 1892, it was the standard issue shoulder arm for U.S. government mounted troops. Think of it as the MI Garand of the Indian Wars.
It’s easy to see how the Trapdoor got its name.
In sharp contrast to the muzzleloading muskets that preceded it in U.S. service, which required a soldier to load and fire five times a minute, a skilled cavalry trooper could fire an 1873 Trapdoor 13 times a minute, almost tripling the previous rate of fire; accuracy was probably not a factor in these rapid-fire endeavors. As a practical exercise, I have loaded, aimed, and fired an original Springfield Trapdoor Carbine seven times a minute from horseback, hitting a silhouette target each time. Needless to say, this single-shot cartridge-firing saddle gun was a formidable weapon in the hands of a trained soldier.
Given the limited but dramatic success of the breechloading Sharps and the cartridge-firing Henry during The Great Rebellion, the Army knew it had better start embracing this new technology, if it was going to accomplish its post-war mission of maintaining law in the east and establishing it in the west. Thus began an earnest search to replace its 1861 and 1863 muzzleloading Springfield rifle-muskets.
Ever distrustful of the newfangled repeating rifles, which were too complicated for in-the-field repairs, the Army decided to stick with what it knew best, the single-shot rifle. Much of the pressure to develop a new longarm fell upon Erskine S. Allin, master armorer at Springfield Armory. Drawing inspiration from a previous, reverse-hinged breechblock system invented in 1860 by George W. Morse, and a forward-hinged breechblock patented by William Mont Storm in 1856 at Harpers Ferry, Allin came up with a “quick fix” idea of converting the Armory’s more than one million .58-caliber surplus muzzleloaders. He cut off the breech end of the barrels and installed a flip-up firing pin and bolt assembly that swung up on a hinge. In an attempt to identify with this new issue arm, troopers began calling it the Trap-Door Springfield. Allin also came up with a new .58 rimfire cartridge, known as the .58 Allin, a chunky round that featured a 500-grain bullet backed by 60 grains of powder.
Unfortunately, the Model 1865 First Allin rifle and cartridge conversion proved less than adequate in field trials and quickly led to the centerfire .50-caliber Model 1866, in which the .58 muskets had their barrels sleeved to accept the smaller .50 Government bullet. The new cartridge used a stepped-up charge of 70 grains of blackpowder, making the .50-70 the first centerfire cartridge to be officially adopted by the U.S. Army. Additional changes led to the Models 1868 and 1870 in this same caliber.
The .50-70 had limitations, as far as range was concerned. Consequently, the army conducted a series of tests and came up with a perfect combination of caliber, bullet weight, and powder: a .45-caliber, 405-grain lead bullet, backed by 70 grains of blackpowder. Subsequently, the list was whittled down to what would become one of the most famous rifle and cartridge combinations in firearms history, the 1873 Trapdoor Springfield and the .45-70 Government cartridge. Both were literally made for each other.
But it was the 1873 carbine, rather than the rifle, that was the ideal weapon for its time. In the wide-open spaces of the West, it was the cavalry, not the infantry, that was needed. Consequently, because of mounted warfare against the Indians, the 22-inch barreled 1873 saddle gun became the weapon of choice. Although muzzle velocity for the Army’s new official cartridge was 1,350 fps when fired from a rifle, it soon became apparent that this was not a favored load for a seven-pound carbine. As a result, the .45-70’s powder charge was reduced to 55 grains for the carbine, which produced a muzzle velocity of 1,100 fps, a concession to the saddle gun’s lighter weight and resultant increased recoil.
Like the rifle, the carbine featured three-groove rifling with a 1:22 twist, case hardened receiver, and rear sights stamped on the left side with a “C” (rifle sights were stamped with an “R”).
All carbines were fitted with a stock-mounted bar and saddle ring, which was hooked to a leather sling worn diagonally across the trooper’s body, thus preventing the carbine from being accidently dropped. Unlike subsequent models, the 1873 carbine had no buttplate provision for carrying a detachable cleaning rod. In addition, the first carbines had a stacking swivel affixed to the barrel band; this feature was eliminated in later models.
There were numerous changes made to the 1873 carbine throughout its 20-year lifespan. A few of the more readily identifiable variations include: the Model 1877, with a thicker stock, low-arched breechblock, and hinged buttplate for carrying a three-piece cleaning rod; the Model 1879 with its slightly wider receiver and buckhorn rear sight; and the Model 1884 with its Buffington rear sight.
Like all military guns, parts were readily interchangeable, and it is rare to find a trapdoor in “as issued” condition. Even today, parts are replaced by collectors to upgrade specimens. In addition, because of its romantic image and subsequent desirability, many “carbines” have been made from cut-down rifles. (A filled-in ramrod hole is your first clue.) The most desirable Model 1873 carbines are those with serial numbers below 43,700. These pre-1876 trapdoors are known as “Custer Guns,” as there is a chance they saw action on June 25, 1876, at the Little Big Horn. However, as Al Frasca, author of The .45-70 Springfield, mentioned to me in an e-mail some years back, “There are so very few [authentic] Custer guns around ... I have not seen one I can say is right, for many years.”
Although the 1873 carbine was an enlisted man’s weapon, it was quickly embraced by officers, who began ordering customized sporting versions from Springfield Armory. Due to the popularity of these Officer’s Models and the disruption they caused to the regular production run of service guns, their features were standardized by the Armory, in 1875. This included a 26-inch barrel, checkered stock, pewter fore-end, and a cleaning rod affixed under the barrel. In all, 477 Model 1873 Officer’s Models were produced. Although originally priced at $36, today their costs are in the five-figure range.
The standard 1873 carbine served gallantly in the Indian Wars, as well as the Spanish American War. It was also issued to Apache scouts in Arizona, and, as late as the 1920s was still in use by many National Guard units. In the 1880s and ’90s, many carbines were altered for civilian use by firms such as Hartley and Graham of New York, who dressed up these warhorses with buffalo horn fore-ends and checkered stocks. In all, there were 60,912 carbines made from 1873 to 1893, of which approximately 20,000 were actual first issue Model 1873s.
Although once sold as surplus for as little as $3.50 apiece and touted by the Philadelphia firm of W. Stokes Kirk in a 1922 ad as being a “Handy, strong knock-about gun for boys on ranch,” it has always been a rugged and reliable firearm. That fact was not lost on Harrington & Richardson, which produced replicas of the trapdoor carbine, in the 1970s. Today, firms such as Dixie Gun Works and Uberti import excellent Pedersoli-made recreations of this famous Indian Wars gun, and original guns can still be readily found at most good-sized gun shows. I still shoot my Model 1879 carbine, which was manufactured in 1881. A five-pointed star stamped after the serial number indicates that this gun was an arsenal rebuild, and further research revealed that, in 1898, this carbine was reissued to the 13th Colorado Volunteers. In addition, I occasionally hunt with my Dixie Gun Works replica and my Pedersoli Officer’s Model. So I can tell you from personal experience that the trapdoor carbine, whether original or replica, still can hold its own on my bucket list.