Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lincoln's Favorite Rifle

When it comes to rifles, most men are predictably conservative.  Tell me which gun someone first learned to shoot well, and I'll tell you what he considers the finest rifle ever made.

Take that guy who has shot 70-pound white tail deer in the hill country of Texas with his Daddy's old .30-30: he's going to be hard to convince that he needs a rifle with a little more authority when he crosses the border into New Mexico in search of Rocky Mountain elk.  He will never even consider replacing that antique lever action.

Interestingly, this rule works the same way for military rifles.

In the late 1930's, the Marine Corps started issuing a new combat rifle, the M1 Garand.  In  hindsight, there is now fairly universal agreement that this was the finest rifle of the Second World War, but at the time, the Marines hated it.  About the nicest name the Jarheads had for the rifle (and certainly the only one I can put in this blog) was "the Mickey Mouse rifle."

The Marines had been using the Springfield Rifle since 1903 and had used it in the First World War, the Philippines, and Nicaragua.  It worked, they trusted it, and they knew exactly how to use it.  The Marines--more than any of the other services--consider themselves riflemen, and they treasured the '03 Springfield, and refused to consider a replacement.

Guadalcanal changed their minds.  The Mickey Mouse rifle did a great job--it was accurate, it was reliable, and it could fire eight times as fast as you could pull the trigger, so it didn't take long for the Marines to fall in love again:  with a new, treasured rifle.

An even more extreme example can be seen a decade before the Civil War.    This was a period when firearms were starting to change dramatically and there was pressure for the US Army to modernize.  A cavalry unit stationed at Fort Stanton, New Mexico was issued Sharp's Rifles to evaluate.

The Sharp's was a breech-loading rifle that could be easily loaded and fired accurately while mounted on horseback.  These cavalrymen had been using the Model 1841 carbine.  Not only was the musket clumsy and so inaccurate that they couldn't hit the side of a barn unless they were inside it, but the muzzleloader was almost impossible to reload on horseback.  (You can imagine the difficulties of trying to use a musket's ramrod while on a moving horse!)

It’s easy to understand the difference this new rifle made to the soldiers.  They loved the Sharp's Rifles, and when the testing period was over, enthusiastically encouraged the military's adoption of the rifle for all mounted troops.

When this endorsement reached a general higher up in the chain of a command, he rejected the new rifle, claiming that the new firearm was "a breech-loading toy."  This general knew that the M1841--a gun he had used during the war in Mexico--was the better firearm and wouldn't even consider a new firearm, so the cavalry never got the better rifle.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had heard of a new "super rifle".  Not only could it accurately fire seven rounds without reloading, but was easy to operate and maintain in the field.  While most muskets and rifles of this period used paper cartridges that were extremely sensitive to even the slightest moisture, this rifle used metallic cartridges impervious to moisture.  This weapon could even be used reliably in a driving rain! 

With paper cartridges, even the lightest rain forced soldiers to fight with bayonets, knives, or even their hands.  At the Civil War Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, the two armies fought for 18 hours in a heavy rain that made gunpowder all but useless.  The fighting was the worst at the Bloody Angle, where the men fought until the muddy earthworks had become so slippery with blood that the men could hardly stand.

Lincoln had heard of the new rifle and wanted to test it for himself.  Now, these days, the idea of a head of state personally firing a military firearm seems ludicrous.  (Hell, I still can’t believe that President Obama shoots skeet!)

In Lincoln’s time, however, it was actually fairly common.  Honest Abe was fairly besieged by inventors--each promising that his newfangled gizmo would win the way by the end of the year. 

So many of these crackpot inventors wanted to demonstrate some form of bullet-proof armor that Lincoln finally established a new rule:  anyone wishing to demonstrate body armor had to wear it, himself, while Lincoln personally tested it by firing a rifle at the inventor.  This rule considerably thinned the herd.

So, in August of 1863, it wasn’t all that surprising when Lincoln met Christopher Spencer on a small hill close to the partially constructed Washington Monument.  Aiming at a target 40 yards away, Lincoln fired and hit the target seven times in just a few seconds.  Impressed, Lincoln wanted the new lever action rifle for all of his troops.

This was a sound decision.  In time, the Spencer Rifle was the most sought after rifle in the Union Army.  Besides being a superb combat weapon, it had a little known extra advantage:  if captured by the Confederates, the weapon became all but useless.  The southern states were suffering a copper shortage so severe that the moonshine stills of Kentucky and Tennessee temporarily vanished.  When Southerners give up Bourbon, you know there wasn't enough copper to manufacture ammunition for the Spencer, either.

After the war, Major General James Wilson wrote: “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral.  Our best officers estimate that one man armed with [is] the equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Today, some historians have argued that if the Spencer Rifle had been issued to Union troops, the Civil War might have been concluded two years earlier.  So, why wasn't it used?

Brigadier General James Wolfe Ripley, the Army’s Chief of Ordnance, refused to purchase breech loading rifles.  His arguments included the fact that the North had large supplies of older muzzle loaders in warehouses that could be used and that rapid firing rifles would encourage the soldiers to waste ammunition.  His arguments delayed the large scale purchase of better weapons for years.

By the end of the war, the North had purchased only 12,472 Spencer rifles.  This is a pitifully small number when you consider that 2,896,537 men were mustered into the Union army.

After the war, The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company was sold, eventually being bought by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company which still manufactures lever action rifles.

And Christopher Spencer?  He went on to make quite a few other things.  The first successful pump shotgun, a steam powered horseless carriage, a sewing machine, and the first automated machine to manufacture metal screws.  By the time he died in 1922, he held 42 patents, and despite being 88, was taking flying lessons.

And what happened to General James Wolfe Ripley?  Who cares?

1 comment:

  1. Innovaters tend to make place-holders uncomfortable. During the Civil War, for instance, General McClellan and his fellow military bureaucrats believed their job was to preserve the Union Army. Mr. Lincoln's goal was rather different. He believed he'd been elected to preserve the Union. Lincoln grew so frustrated with McClellan's refusal to risk the Army of the Potomac that he sent McClellan a remarkably snarky cable. Here's the text:

    My Dear McClellan:

    If you are not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a short while.

    Yours respectfully,

    Abraham Lincoln

    They don't make presidents like that anymore. Possibly, Reagan, but not one after that.