Lore of the Lorenz

If you go to a Civil War reenactment, you will see a remarkable thing: thousands of volunteers taking great pains to portray (and many of them, to experience, down to the taste of hard tack) the lives of the troops of the War Between the States. They have an eye for accuracy that stops just short of getting dysentery, or combat wounds (and having them treated with the ignorant brutality of 1860s medicine). They obsess over the weave of clothing, the embroidery of insignia, and, of course, weapons. The average reenactor knows a hundred times more about his rifle-musket or carbine than his actual Civil War ancestor did, and he and his friends will share their knowledge freely and openly with anyone who’s actually interested. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

And yet, you might come away with some not quite right ideas. The vast majority of Union portrayals carry the Springfield rifle-musket; the vast majority of Confederates, the Enfield. Yet both Billy Yank and Johnny Reb dipped into a deeper and wider sea of small arms. There were obsolete smoothbores — some of them retained deliberately, by regimental colonels’ preference — and penny packets of oddball breech-loaders, especially for the cavalry. Enemy weapons were routinely captured and turned on their former owners, especially by the Rebels. But the bulk of non-standard arms were imports. Even the Union, which had the only surviving national arsenal and the majority of civilian gun manufacturers who could turn their machinery to military arms contracts, couldn’t arm its recruits fast enough, and imported prodigious quantities of arms. One of the most significant of those was the Lorenz rifle. This image of a nice one was posted to a Civil War forum by Bob Owens:


The similarities to the Springfield and Enfield are evident. (Convergent evolution. A Messerschmitt has a lot in common with a Spitfire, Mustang or Yak-3, for that same reason).

The Lorenz was the service arm of the Austrian Empire, adopted in 1854. It was roughly equivalent to the 1855 Harper’s Ferry rifle-musket or its Springfield equivalent, or to its British contemporary, the Enfield. Since the Empire adopted a new Lorenz variant in 1862, distinguished more by superior metallurgy than by design changes, selling off the old Lorenzes to avid American buyers seemed like a good idea.

Civil War arms historian Joseph Bilby describes the arm and some of its variations:

Lorenz guns were acquired from several sources; the Hapsburg armories in Vienna and private arms makers in Vienna and Ferlach. The Lorenz rifle-musket had a 37 ½ inch barrel secured to the gun’s stock with three barrel bands. The gun was made with two styles of rear sights; a non-adjustable “block,” calibrated to hit a man somewhere on the body up to 300 schritt (paces), issued to line infantry (Type I), and a leaf sight adjustable up to 900 schritt issued to noncommissioned officers and skirmishers (Type II). Both types were imported. Captain Silas Crispin, reported a batch of newly imported .54 caliber as “12,384 of them having the simple block rear sight, and the remainder – 3,144 – being furnished with elevating screws, ranging up to about 800 yards.” It seems reasonable to assume that most bulk purchases of surplus Lorenzes, Union and Confederate, probably reflected the same ratio of sight types, as they seem to correlate with Austrian army issue patterns.

Lorenzes were marked on their lock plates with the last three digits of the year of production. For example “860” designates a rifle made in 1860. The Austrians adopted a new version of the Lorenz in 1862, with a steel rather than iron barrel. These were not imported, and guns with “863” and “864” with provenance to the Civil War are contractor guns made specifically for export. These contract pieces are usually threaded for standard US nipples.

Although walnut stocked examples exist, most Lorenzes were stocked in beech, stained dark brown. The Lorenz quadrangular socket bayonet featured a diagonal mounting slot. Both of these characteristics make it immediately identifiable on a dealer’s table at an antique gun or Civil War relic show.

(Bilby goes into it at greater length in Small Arms at Gettysburg).

The South needed anything, and they bought weapons far worse than the Lorenzes, which were made by a Great Power with substantial arms-making industries, and were only a few years old. (The British sold them, along with modern Enfields, rebarreled and percussion-converted rifles that started as 18th-Century Brown Besses). The North told themselves they were just buying the Lorenzes so that Southern purchasing agents didn’t get them — they wound out buying around two for every Rebel one — but wound up issuing them, anyway. In addition to surplus Lorenz rifles from Habsburg stock, the many small manufacturers that made Austro-Hungarian Army rifles sold new guns to the buyers as well. All in all, somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 Lorenzes made their way to the USA. Some were bored out to the standard American .58 caliber (there are a lot of variations of this out there), and some were issued in the original .54. Most Lorenz rifles were bright-finished from the factory, like the one shown above, but some were blued or browned.

Civil War riflemen varied in their appreciation for the Lorenz, suggesting to historians like Bilby that the rifles may have varied widely in quality. He quotes some primary sources on the arm:

The Lorenz was well regarded by some troops to whom it was issued, including those of the 5th New Jersey and 104th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiments. Private Alfred Bellard of the 5th praised his .54 caliber Lorenz for being “short, light and very easily cleaned, “while Quartermaster James D. Hendrie of the 104th believed his outfit’s Austrian guns to be “very superior weapons, although not so well finished as the American arms.” His colonel remembered the regiment’s guns as “rough but good and reliable.” The men of the 23rd Pennsylvania were delighted to trade in their .69 caliber rifled muskets for Austrian arms, which they found to be “most efficient firearms.” An Illinois officer regarded the Lorenz as “although a little heavy, a fine piece for service.” Leander Stillwell of the 61st Illinois considered his .54 Lorenz “a wicked shooter.” Stillwell and his comrades “were glad to get the Austrians, and were quite proud of them.” The Suckers of the 61st carried their Lorenzes until June of 1863, when they exchanged them for Enfields.

Other Yanks were not as enthusiastic. In 1863, a Union inspecting officer condemned the Austrian weapons of the 47th Massachusetts Infantry. Lorenz rifle-muskets issued to western troops in the second year of the war seem to have been decidedly inferior to those issued the previous year. William E. McMillan of the 94th Illinois’ Company E wrote that his unit’s Lorenzes were “not worth much,” while the 100th Illinois reported that its .58 caliber Lorenz guns “are roughly and improperly made and cannot be called an effective weapon. The men of the 106th Illinois complained that the Lorenz was “miserably poor,” and the 120th Illinois classified its .54 Lorenz guns as “worthless.”

The 125th Illinois was issued Austrian rifle-muskets in .58 caliber of “which not over one-half were perfect…many will not explode a cap.” The 125th’s regimental historian complained that some of the Austrian guns’ nipples “were not entirely drilled out,” and some could not mount a bayonet without hammering it on. The 130th Illinois reported that “one-third or three-eights of these arms [Austrian] are defective.”

Like Colonel Penrose of the 15th New Jersey Infantry, who exchanged his men’s Enfields for Springfields on the battlefield, Major Robert L. Bodine of the 26th Pennsylvania rearmed his regiment on the field at Gettysburg. Bodine’s men came to Gettysburg armed “with the Austrian rifle of an inferior quality, and I desired toe exchange them for Springfield rifles; which was done without the red tape processes. Quite a number of them were taken from the Rebels. Like the Jerseymen of the 15th, the Pennsylvanians picked up several Confederate-made rifle-muskets along with the Springfields. Apparently unaware of the production facilities at Richmond, Bodine reported that these guns “had gone through the renovating process, and bore the Richmond C.S. stamp.”

Lorenz guns may well have gained a bad reputation from their association with older .71 caliber Austrian “Consol” or tube-lock muskets, which were conversions from flintlock. These guns, some of which were rifled, others not, were converted by a method devised by Giuseppe Consol of Milan. The Consol/Augustin system replaced the flintlock pan and frizzen with a two-piece priming chamber and installed a new hammer.

In the last year of the war, the union was trying to get rid of all it’s nonstandard arms, including the Lorenz, but the Confederacy was importing even more of these and other foreign weapons.

One of the most celebrated Rebel uses of the Lorenz came at the battle of New Market, Virginia, in May, 1864, where among the Confederate participants were 257 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.  Confederate Major General John Breckinridge committed the cadets only reluctantly, but he faced a larger force of Union men under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel. Most (over 200) of the cadets were armed with Lorenz rifles. Ten cadets were slain, or died of wounds; another 57 survived wounds. At the battle museum there is a mangled Lorenz that was carried by a wounded cadet, displayed with his description of his wounding. The cadets had, bravely but unwisely, marched in ranks into the muzzles of the Yankees’ artillery. Poor fellow never got off a shot before Union shrapnel laid him low; when the rifle was disassembled for preservation in the 1990s his Minié-ball cartridge was found intact in the breech!

In Austria-Hungary, the later model Lorenzes were converted along a similar timeline to their American Springfield counterparts to breechloading, metallic-cartridge rifles. This produced the Wentzel rifle; mechanically it is quite similar to the Allin conversion that produced the Springfield trapdoor. But the American imports were disposed of postwar. Unlike Springfields made at Springfield, the Lorenzes (and imported Enfields from minor English smiths, and Springfields made by contractors) tended to be hand-fitted and not to have interchangeable parts — not optimal in a military arm.

Given the importation of something like 350,000 Lorenzes, and the haste with which they were disposed by the Federal Government, there are believed to be many thousands of original rifles still in circulation. (Others are believed to have been used as rebar in the construction of Bannerman’s Castle in New York; orphaned muzzleloaders).

You can usually find a Lorenz or two for sale on GunBroker. The bayonet, with its trademark angled slot, is somewhat less common than the rifle. The guns are common enough that they’re underpriced compared to Springfields and Enfields of similar vintage.

Given the wide distribution of fakes, however, we would have to urge one to exercise extreme caution with a Lorenz that purports to be of Civil War, especially Confederate, and doubly especially New Market, origin, and is therefore priced above market. (Bear in mind that the battle was a Confederate victory, and the fallen Rebels’ Lorenz rifles were presumably recovered by their own side and restored to the VMI armory or reissued). Even written provenance, as we’ve seen with the recent spate of Little Big Horn auctions, can be, shall we say, questionable. American documents of the period tend to refer to the Lorenz not by that name, but simply as “Austrian rifle.”

With the popularity of reenacting, the Lorenz has been copied in both high-quality and budget replicas. One dead giveaway of a modern replica is that the barrel is steel (like the later Lorenz Model 1862, actually), whilst an original Lorenz has an iron barrel. (unfortunately, the best way to test this is the spark test — not sure what nondestructive methods are available).

So that is a bit of the Lore of the Lorenz — a rifle that most haven’t heard of, but that played a significant role in a war half a world away from its origins.

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