The Springfield M1873 – America’s First Modern Rifle?

Firearm antiquarians may remember that the Springfield M1873 was first put to the test at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and saw service for over 20 years.

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At the end of the Civil War, the US War Department decided to switch to a breech-loading rifle for general issue. In 1865 a military board, headed by Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry, decided the rifle should be able to chamber a self-primed, metallic cartridge.

Over 100 designs from domestic and foreign manufacturers were tested for rifles and carbines for the U.S. Military. These rifles had to be accurate and reliable, and had to have a high rate of fire on the order of 15 rounds per minute. Lever-action rifles were included in the test, but these rifles were still in relative infancy and could not chamber a round that was truly effective at the ranges that the army was looking for.

The single shot platform was deemed to be more reliable. Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin submitted a rifle based on the surplus Civil War rifles, of which there were thousands. Allin converted them to cartridge use, replaced the .50 caliber barrels with one that was .45″ in diameter, and made use of a trapdoor in the breech block to load the rounds and remove the fired case.

Image of the Springfield M1873
Springfield M1873

It could fire 8-15 rounds per minute and was called “No. 99 Springfield” or the “First Allin.” Prototypes were fielded and issued to units in the West for evaluation. When problems were found adjustments were made, but another board was convened in 1872 called the “Terry Board” (named for Brigadier General A.H. Terry). They retested another 100 or so rifles and came back to the Springfield design once again.

Up-close image of Springfield M1873 action.
It could fire 8-15 rounds per minute and was called “No. 99 Springfield” or the “First Allin”.

Much like today’s military weapon selections, this was based on costs. A large stock of muskets was ready for conversion, and as Allin explained,

“It is particularly adapted to the alteration of the Springfield rifle-musket (or any other), as it can be done without changing the features of the musket or without throwing away any of its parts. All that is necessary is to cut away the barrel on the top at the breech and add the block and shell extractor, cut the recess in the breech-screw and modify the hammer. All other parts remain the same.”

Plus Allin was a government employee and thus no design royalties would need to be paid.

The round

Although a number of different experimental rounds were used during the trials, they found the most effective cartridge to be the “.45-70-405.” This denoted a .45 caliber bullet weighing 405 grains charged by 70 grains of black powder. It made for a powerful and effective load, at least for the Infantry.

Cavalry types who used the carbine version found the lighter load charged with 55 grains of powder was more effective on horseback. The infantry round had a muzzle velocity of 1350 feet per second compared to the cavalry’s 1,100 feet per second.

After its adoption into service, it became known as the Model 1873 Springfield rifle and carbine. By then the rifles were manufactured rather than converted from muskets, although many of the old musket parts were used in their building.

Custer’s Battalion

Image of General Custer in uniform.
General Custer

The carbines and rifles of 1873 were put to their first real test at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The ammunition was loaded in cases made of a copper alloy that was prone to expanding in the breech upon firing. When the cases bulged they could not be extracted, and as the carbines lacked ramrods, they needed to be pried from the chamber using a knife. It has been written in many history books that Captain Thomas French, M Company Commander at the Reno defensive position, used the cleaning rod or ramrod from his infantry rifle to clear the bulged cases from carbines passed to him by the cavalrymen on the line.

Black and White Image of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Battle of Little Bighorn.

Later that year the cartridge was redesigned with a brass case, since that material did not expand as much as copper. This was shown to be a major improvement, and brass became the primary material used in the United States military cartridge to this day.

The M1873 saw service for over 20 years, and was replaced upon adoption of the M1892 Krag Bolt Action rifle in that same year. Improvements were made every year to the M1873 to that point and despite the adoption of the Krag in 1892, the M1873 saw service in the Spanish American War in 1893 with second-line troops.

Initially sold as surplus for as low as 75 cents in the late 1890s, the trapdoors increased in value over the years, but lately they aren’t bringing the prices they once commanded.

Shooting the M1873

Although there are modern reproductions to be had courtesy of Harrington & Richardson, Pedersoli, and a few other outfits, any shooter or collector’s goal should be to score an original one. It could have sat in an armory for 20 years or actually been used in the Indian Wars.

Image of Springfield M1873
Any shooter or collector’s goal should be to score an original one.

A lot of folks have issues shooting firearms this old. The truth is, if it is in sound working order, it can still be shot. Have any antique rifle looked over before you shoot it, though. And never fire the rifle with loads exceeding original chamber pressures of around 25,000 psi. The trapdoor action might be strong, but it’s not that strong!

Image of Springfield M1873
If you score one, look it over. If it is in sound working order, it can still be shot.

Mike the Mook

If you enjoyed reading this article, we have other great articles about historical firearms in our column, Weapon Trivia Wednesday.

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Mike Searson

Mike “the Mook” Searson is a veteran writer who began his career in firearms at the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire life, writing about guns and knives for numerous publications and consulting with the film industry on weapons while at the same time working as gunsmith and ballistician. Though seemingly a surly curmudgeon shy a few chromosomes at first meeting, Searson is actually far less of a dick and at least a little smarter than most of the Mad Duo’s minions. He is rightfully considered to be not just good company, but actually fit for polite company as well (though he has never forgotten his roots as a rifleman trained to kill people and break things, and if you look closely you’ll see his knuckles are still quite scabbed over from dragging the ground). You can learn more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter, @MikeSearson. [huge_it_gallery id="19"]


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