Saturday, June 07, 2008

BPCR: Black Powder Cartridge Rifle.

By the 1870's, the armies of the world had wholeheartedly begun the transition to breechloading rifles firing metallic cartridges. I'm fortunate enough to have five examples of the breed in my museum, from France, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States. It's interesting to compare and contrast these very different rifles that entered service all at roughly the same time, and the different imperatives and philosophies that drove their acceptance by those various nations. They fall into roughly three groups.

The first group is represented by the German Mauser Kar. 71 (a shortened derivative of their Gew. 71 infantry rifle), and the French Mle. 74 Gras. Of these five nations, Germany and France had the most experience with breechloaders as general-issue infantry weapons. The Prussian army had begun issuing the Dreyse rifle in 1841, and the French had followed suit with the Chassepot in 1866. Both weapons were "needle guns", which is to say that they fired combustible cartridges made of linen or paper that were loaded through the breech, which was of the pattern that we would come to know as the conventional "bolt action". They were called needle guns because the primer was in the base of the bullet, ahead of the powder charge, and a long, needle-like firing pin had to pierce all the way through the charge to reach the primer. Needless to say, this caused problems as the slender firing needle was exposed to the erosive effects of the combusting powder charge. Also, the paper or linen cartridges did not obturate, or seal, the breech, causing the firer to be exposed to occasional jets of hot gases in the face; something not conducive to accurate aiming.

After fighting a war between them with these older weapons, the Germans were the first to field a bolt-action rifle firing a self-contained brass cartridge. The first of a long line of Mauser-designed German rifles, the Gew. 71 featured a self-cocking bolt, unlike the Dreyse, which had to be manually cocked after closing. Using the camming action of the opening bolt gave good extraction of the spent case, but the Gew. 71 lacked an ejector, requiring the firer to tip the rifle on its side after opening the bolt to let the spent cartridge fall free. The French response was more parsimonious, having just come out on the losing side of the recent unpleasantness, their Mle. 74 Gras was designed so that it could be made by fitting a new bolt to an existing Chassepot, thus converting it to take brass cartridges. Both weapons are 11mm, or .43 caliber, a large step down for the Germans, whose Dreyses had sported a .60" bore.

Unlike the French and the Germans, who faced each other on the continent, the US and Britain were isolated by the sea, and faced only skirmishes with hostile, technologically-primitive natives on their expanding frontiers. The British had originally used a breechloading conversion of their Enfield muskets, based on a design by Snider, but the 1870's saw the .58 caliber Snider-Enfields replaced by a new falling block design by a Swiss named Martini. Pulling down on a lever under the action dropped the breechblock and ejected the spent brass from the previous round. A new cartridge was fed into the breech and the lever raised to close the rifle, which was now ready for firing.

The Americans, rebuilding after a savage civil war, weren't eager to spend fortunes on new munitions. A method was devised by a man named Erskine Allin, master armourer at Springfield Arsenal, to convert the massive stock of .58-caliber rifle muskets to cartridge breechloaders. Much like the Snider-Enfield, the Allin Springfield used a trapdoor breech. Like the British design, this allowed ignition to be accomplished by the existing sidehammer. Unlike the British design, which flipped open to the side, the trapdoor breech on the Springfield flopped open to the front. Oddly, for a country that had so much experience in a recent conflict with breechloading repeaters such as the Spencer and the Henry, in the early 1870s the US Army decided to start making "trapdoor" Springfields from the ground up, as new-built rifles. These required the soldier to place the weapon on half-cock, flip the breech up, insert the cartridge, close the breech, cock the rifle, and fire. In their favor, they had an ejector for the spent brass, which neither the Snider-Enfield or even the high-tech Mauser could claim at that point.

Unlike the French and German efforts, both the British and American rifles used .45 caliber cartridges that packed a serious wallop, even at extended ranges. As a footnote, the 1873 Springfield's .45-70 Government cartridge is still a popular sporting round today, a hundred and thirty-five years later.

The odd duck out is the Swiss Vetterli Gew. 69/71. Of the five rifles, it is the only repeater. In the 1870s, Napoleon's invasion was still a recent sore to the independence-minded Swiss, who watched the constant knuckle-jousts between Germany, France, and other continental powers with some trepidation. Switzerland relied on a citizen militia to ensure their sovereignty and, being a technologically-advanced country, selected a technologically-advanced weapon with which to arm them. The Vetterli fired a somewhat weak .41 caliber rimfire round, but it combined a modern breechloading bolt action with a 12-shot tubular magazine system inspired by the U.S. Henry lever-action repeaters. The disadvantages of rimfire priming were offset by a forked firing pin that struck the cartridge in two places simultaneously to ensure reliable ignition.

Reading about these different rifles and their reasons for being is quite interesting. It's another level of interesting altogether to have them where you can study and fire them side by side. Thankfully for the collector, all these rifles predate the 1898 cutoff by almost three decades; the Federal government doesn't consider these antiques to be firearms, and so they can be acquired and shipped without the need of special licenses. Buy a time machine or two and enjoy it!