Rifles: 2nd Half of the 19th Century

We have commented before on how interesting it is that no firearms advance gives any nation a lasting advantage. This takes place both because everybody who is not experiencing success copies others’ successes with alacrity, and because technology tends to advance at about the same rate everywhere, as equally bright people work to develop new ideas on the shoulders of the same body of prior work.

Reasons notwithstanding, you can pick just about any period in history and watch the armies of the nations of the world advance together, as if they were in step. Let’s pick the second half of the 19th Century, which began with everyone more or less on the same sheet of music — call it Movement I, maestoso, with Minié or other displacing balls fired from muzzle-loading rifle-muskets — and at the end of a rapid flurry of advances was playing a livelier gavotte on repeating bolt-action rifles firing fixed centerfire ammunition.

Experimental 45-70 Springfield

In the middle of the 19th Century, the question was: how do we get from rifle-musket to breechloader? Conversions were the answer almost everywhere.

We’ve made rather a dog’s breakfast of too many metaphors there. We promise to stop; we’ll stick to declarative sentences, here on out.  In military service, service long-arms passed through four stages between 1850 and 1900, almost regardless of nation. Here’s a little graphic illustrating what we mean.

rifle_history_1850-1900Germany is an outlier here, in part because we selected Prussia as our representative German state (the German Empire wasn’t unified under the Prussian crown yet at the start of this period. Had we chosen Bavaria it might have looked more like the other nations).

At the end, we just didn’t have room for the definitive bolt-action repeater, the Mauser 98!

If Germany was a leader, looking at the dates, the United States was a bit of a laggard; the 1888 Springfield was fundamentally unimproved from the 1865 Allin conversion. Imperial Russia, often thought of as backward, doesn’t look nearly as bad. (Of course, adopting a rifle is one thing; producing enough of them to arm the Russian Army is a whole other challenge). It would be interesting to add other powers, such as Spain and Sweden, and perhaps some of the more advanced South American lands, to the chart.

Although we like our bright colors, the next step ought to be to make a proper Gantt chart of it, in which you’d see how much variation there was in years of adoption, visually.

By the way, the individual steps are not nearly as neat and clear as the graphic implies. This comprehensive and illustrated analysis of the Enfield P.53s progress to the Snider is representative. Like the Allin conversion in the USA, the Snider won out over many possible alternatives in testing. (And here’s a great page on the Martini-Henry, the Snider’s follow-on). For every repeater, breech-loader, and conversion that was adopted, there were many also-rans.

24 thoughts on “Rifles: 2nd Half of the 19th Century

  1. robroysimmons

    An 1891 Mosin built in Chatterault 1894 later converted by the rascally Finns to a M-39 graces my safe, and it is a fine shooter as well.

    Off topic, but concerning old rifles of the 8mm variety, Ian is warning about Turk surplus 8mm and I can from experience whole heartedly concur.

    1. Tam

      Wouldn’t shoot it in anything but a good condition 98 action to which I didn’t feel a ton of emotional attachment.

  2. Bonifacio Echeverria

    As always, spot on. Rifle development, together with artillery development, was the arms-race of the late XIX. It served to measure the power of nations and their economies. By the time repeaters were introduced wars were already decided at the factory floors rather than battlegrounds.

    Just now I’m about to start a travel for the next 4 days or so, but when I can have a moment I would not mind making an abstract of Camara’s book about Spanish service rifles, if you’r interested.

    Writing from (poor) memory, the sequence was something like this:

    – French&British service muskets from the Peninsular War booty/help plus what was left of the regulation prewar Spanish muskets (these were majority in the LatAm Independence wars, both sides, in the first stages before LatAm was flooded with cheap surplus Napoleonic war muskets).
    – M1828&M1836 flintlock musket (Sp design).
    – 1851 (aprox) minié rifle-musket, percussion cap (Sp design).
    – Late 1860s Berdan conversions
    – 1870s Remington Rolling Block (a true Kalashnikov of the XIX, the weapon of choice of many poor armies -we would say Third World now- from Egypt to Russia).
    – 1893 Mauser copy

    So up to mid century Spain, more or less, kept the pace. At least of design. By the late 60s it was so back behind in the Industrial Revolution race that it was reduced to purchasing whatever in the market. Surprisingly, they bought with remarkable wisdom. But, then again, the country spent, for all intents and purposes, the *whole* XIX at wars of some shorts. Mostly civil wars, so the guys signing the checks for arms were most interested in purchasing the best available. That explains how a poor backward country seemingly took each and every train in rifle development at the right time (or shortly thereof), but local innovation was non-existent.

    By late century it, at least, had regained the ability to locally produce top-notch foreign products (with generous tech transfers). But by 1893 there was no indigenous rifle design worth the name. There were some interesting attempts during the early XX, however.

    I’d bet that Switzerland, with a highly developed industry, an arms manufacturing tradition of its own and completely out of trouble since 1849 would do a very interesting comparison.

    Of course, most nations spent the whole XIX at wars of shorts (the US winning the West, Russia winning the East, France&UK carving colonial empires…). The number/intensity of wars in which each nation was involved should be taken into account. It was a pretty powerful incentive for arms development (or purchase). I have always suspected that the US lagged behind (in govt issue items, the Rolling Block was a sales blockbuster around the world that in many armies remained in service until the bolt action smokeless repeaters appeared) because it really didn’t need all that much firepower to police the West and destroy the native peoples (the Western movies regardless).

    Europe was a different tale. But there are interesting twist in that tale, too. Every time I heard/read about how criminally clueless the High Staffs of the warring nations were about modern infantry armaments in August 1914 I always remember that the side with better rifles lost at San Juan Hill, the one with more machine guns lost at Port Arthur and even the Boers, who had it all right (Mausers, plenty of shovels and wire and even QF field artillery) got their asses thrashed by the guys with the fancy bright color uniforms. As someone said… equipment only takes you half way.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks, Bonifacio. I just didn’t have time to research the other countries I mentioned like Spain and Sweden, let alone the ones I didn’t.

      I think one problem Spain had in the war with the US was that they had local conscripts whose heart wasn’t really in it.

      Still if they were adopting Flintlocks in 1828 and 36, when the rest of the world was going percussion, they were well behind. If you read old memoirs you never see the victorious general saying much about the quality of his physical rifles. There seems to have been an assumption of parity throughout, unless the battle made the superiority of one side’s weapons really clear, like the impression left on the US soldiers (and a man who would be US President) by the Spanish 7mm Mausers in 1898.

      The Royal United Service Museum catalogs the following Spanish percussion muskets.
      #2473 musket (1852)
      #2474 musket, Sea Service (1860)
      #2476 rifle (about 1860)
      #2478 rifle (1859)
      #2479 rifle (1855)
      #2480 rifle (1858)
      #2481 rifle, regulation (1858)
      #2482 musket (1859)
      All on p. 169.


      There are not many Spanish flintlocks in the collection (#2393 claims to have been property of Brazilian general Don “Vedro Ivo” but they may be mistaking Spanish for Portuguese language).

      1. Bonifacio Echeverria

        Ummm… considering both US M1822 and M1835 muskets were also smoothbore flintlocks I would not say that Spain, or the US, were so far behind. The British didn’t have a percussion issue musket untill the Pattern 1839 (maybe wrong here, speaking with nothing but my memory). IIRC, the Prussians had one by 1831?. Percussion was not realy a thing up untill the 1840s when everybody tried to convert whatever they had to percussion. No big wars in the 1830s also, so no real way of “feeling the need”.

        About percussion Minié rifles, as said, it was a rough aproximation. I’m pretty sure they were standard issue by the 60s in Spain (like everywhere else). Just can’t check the dates right now. By 1867 they were converting the 100.000 of them then in inventory to Berdans. Spaniards used Miniés during their auxiliary role conquering Indochina for the French in 1859-60. Those troops came from the Philipines garrison, usualy the last to get the latest issued rifle.

        Yes, the conscript tale has been around a while. It has its fair share of true on it. A grandgrandfather of mine would have been happy to avoid seeing so much world, but the problem is that, besides the obvious disavantage in sheer power, the Spanish army at Cuba had been there doing business for almost a decade. There was a measure of exhaustion both in the Army and in the country. The country was poor, and the army was equipped, and paid, accordingly. Ten years of war did not help. But people usualy forget that a significant part of Spanish forces were actualy Cubans that had every reason to be interested in defeating Maceo and co. They had been ruthlessly effective during the guerrilla phase of the war before US intervention. A US backed victory of their foes would have done them no good.

        The Sp Gov however, was probably the most tired of it all. It had been looking for a way out of the Cuban mess, prestige prevented direct independence (or sell schemes), so a quick and disastrious war would be the perfect exit strategy. There were several memoirs/pamphlets back then floating that idea… hard to tell how long went the true of it (actualy the Gov did as much as it could to avoid a protracted resistence that could only have worsened the butcher bill for the Americans; if that would have actualy dampened US support for war is another matter altogether) and how long the selfserving “we did our part, but the badbadbad Gov sold us”.

        On the other hand, the US declaration of war did flare up a good amount of patriotism. The Maine incident was perceived as underhand. People at Spain was, for a while, all for the war, there were even volunteers -that were not shipped in time-, public subscriptions, lots of Jingo noise in the press. Of course, there is that always delicate matter of patriotism in a public square and practical patriotism as applied shouldering a rifle and marching up towards the sound of the guns. By that time the country was so near breaking point that poor people did not truly have many reasons to try hard in any war for the sake of “king and country”.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I think that the Maine incident is broadly understood by historians not to have been any kind of Spanish action, just an all-American screwup that the Spaniards got blamed for.

  3. Ratus

    “…For every repeater, breech-loader, and conversion that was adopted, there were many also-rans.”

    And this is what keeps Ian@ForgottenWeapons so busy.

  4. Brad

    Let’s not forget the 200,000 Spencer repeating rifles and carbines. Which the US Army bizarrely discarded after the Civil War, despite peacetime downsizing.

    1. John M.


      It was obvious by the end of the US Civil War that repeaters offered an incredible advantage in firepower. But it wasn’t until 1892 that the US Army adopted a repeater!

      I’d be very interested in what civilian sales of single-shot breechloaders vs. repeaters looked like in that 1865-1892 period. I somehow doubt that single-shots were outselling repeaters by, say, 1885, despite the fact that the single-shots were probably cheaper.

      -John M.

  5. Haxo Angmark

    meanwhile, at the sharp end, discontinuities continued. 1870: German cavalry (swords) attacking French supply convoy (chassepots). Possible (local) French victory

  6. Ken

    Great topic and post! I published a short book about development of the Krag for the US Army on Amazon that delves into exactly this topic. The last 50 years of the 19th century are a fascinating time to research regarding firearms.

      1. Ken

        Yes sir that is it – thanks for the order. The nice thing about an e-book is I can revise/update it as I want. Therefore, if you see any errors or think I should explore an area further let me know. You have my email address.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I have started reading it, Ken. So far so good, and I think it does fill a gap. One comment — your discussion of Civil War & subsequent tactics is sound, but you should read, if you haven’t, the works by Joseph Bilby, especially Small Arms at Gettysburg, to see just how dreadfully lacking the training of most CW units (Yankee and Rebel alike) was. Some regiments had barely fired at all.

          Here’s an article by the man on the same subject (arms at Gettysburg), necessarily a lot thinner than the book:

          1. Ken

            I just received my copy of Bilby’s book from abebooks. I’m already through Ch 1. Great recommendation and great book. If it’s not already in your Weaponsman reading list it should be.


          2. Hognose Post author

            I just got two older Bilby books from Amazon or Abe (forget which as I buy lots of books). One is a history of the Irish Brigade, unit famous for hanging on to smoothbores real late. I’ve only just skimmed the TOC yet, but one of the appendices is a series of weapons inventories — makes, models and counts at given dates. The title is Remember Fontenoy! The 69th New York and the Irish Brigade in the Civil War. The other is Civil War Firearms, and he combines tons of primary-source research with “empirical history,” which one might call “trying it out yourself!”

            At this point I’m going to buy and read anything Mr Bilby writes.

            I think it was Ian at Forgotten Weapons that turned me on to Joseph G. Bilby.

  7. Tam

    One of my favorite periods of rifle development. And it’s interesting to note how some decisions made to try to get a quick and economical leg up over the competition during this era came back to haunt later designers.

    Keeping the base diameter of the 11mm Gras for the 8x50R in order to use the Kropatschek as a starting point for the new rifle (and allow emergency conversions of older ones down the road) must have been roundly cursed by French machine gun designers for the next 30 years.

    1. Hognose Post author

      On the other hand, the PKM (and the new PKP) are proof that enough dogged engineering can triumph over brain-damaged design, like rimmed MG rounds.

      Kind of like the Porsche 911, actually.

      1. archy

        ***On the other hand, the PKM (and the new PKP) are proof that enough dogged engineering can triumph over brain-damaged design, like rimmed MG rounds. ***

        I suppose you’re aware that the Finns considered a post-WWII [AKA the Continuation War to the Finns, first attacked by the Soviets in 1939] adaptation of the German roller-locked MG42, but in their standard Finnish 7,62x53r cartridge as derived from the Soviet 7,62x54R. But when push nearly came to shove and a follow-up Soviet invasion was expected circa 1959-’60, the Finns instead purchased something like a half-million Sten guns from the then-new firm of Interarmco in the United States and went into widespread production of 9mm Parabellum ammunition for them, the idea being to supply a Sten, ammo and magazines to any Finnish man, woman or child who would use them to kill Soviet troops with.

        But the Finns were also well aware of both the limitations of their captured former Soviet DP and DT LMGs and Finnish-designed Lahti-Saloranta 26 automatic rifles and the effectiveness of the MG42 in dealing with Soviet mass attacks on German positions in the Eastern Front during WWII. One question yet unanswered: would the Finnish version of the moottorisaha have used the standard Soviet/Finnish Maxim-derived belt [still usable with Russian and Finnish PK/PKM/PKP MGs today] or would something new inspired by the German Gurt 33 or the French AAT52 belt have come along? Ei ota vieraat milloinkaan kallista perintöänne.
        tulkoot hurttina aroiltaan! Mahtuvat multiin tänne…

    2. Ken

      You reminded me of a point I’ve noticed about US military cartridges. The base diameter just in front of the rim is nearly the same for the 45_70, 30-40, ,30-06, 45 ACP and 7.62 NATO. Not identical but so close that I’m sure there were evolutionary reasons.

  8. Keith

    Excellent article sir thank you. If this the level your books are going to be I hope I can afford them.

  9. archy

    ***We have commented before on how interesting it is that no firearms advance gives any nation a lasting advantage. This takes place both because everybody who is not experiencing success copies others’ successes with alacrity, and because technology tends to advance at about the same rate everywhere, as equally bright people work to develop new ideas on the shoulders of the same body of prior work.***

    This is right close to a proof of Lamarckian inheritance, the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it has acquired during its lifetime to its offspring (also known as heritability of acquired characteristics or soft inheritance) Because we have the printing press and the blueprint process derived from it, we can have advanced machine tool production and the fruits thereof, all within a single human lifespan. This can skew the generally believed Darwinian theory of evolution, the change in heritable traits of a population over a more gradual length of time so severely as to nearly refute Darwin’s too-simple theory completely. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism

  10. Andrew Miller

    Great article, I agree with your point that arms race is futile because countries would just end up with the same thing because like you said technology is almost the same around the world, unless you are building it from the ground up.

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