The Burnside Carbine
And its Models
The Burnside evolved through a series of design changes to become one of the most common Civil War era breech-loading carbines, third in numbers behind the Spencer and the Sharps."
--Joseph G. Bilby,
A Revolution in Arms: History of the First Repeating Rifles,
Ambrose Burnside’s First Model carbines were experimental and contained a side lever lock.4 The barrel was 22 inches long, and the carbine operated with a tape primer percussion system.5 There was also a transitional model between the first and second that made suggested changes after first model armed a U.S. cavalry. Two of the suggested adaptations were the removal of the side lever and Foster’s spring latch (see below). Only approximately 50 were made, and they were not used in the Civil War.6 However, the first and transitional Burnside models reflect the idea of private companies striving to fulfill government contracts and demonstrate the advancements that came out of the private industry’s partnership with the U.S. military.
The Burnside Carbine, Second Model, has a .54 caliber metallic cartridge. The total length of the carbine is 39.5 inches and weighs around 6 pounds, 12 ounces. The barrel is 21 inches long and has five rifled grooves.7 The Second Model used George P. Foster’s locking
The Third Model only varies slightly in aesthetics from the Second Model. The Third Model has a 9.5-inch forearm, where the second model did not, as well as a slightly rounder hammer. The barrel was made out of cast steel. All of the third models were made in 1862.12a
The Fourth Model of the Burnside Carbine is another transitional type.6 In this model, Foster’s locking system was improved. The breech block was double pivoted, and its “hinged center section” allowed the cartridges to be inserted more easily than the previous models.12 The Fourth Model still used a .54 caliber metallic cartridge and was rifled with five grooves. The cast-steel barrel was 20 inches long.13 Like the Third Model, it used a 9.5-inch forearm.14 Approximately 7,000 of this model was made between 1863 and 1864.6b
The Fifth Model was essentially identical to the Fourth Model except for a “guide screw” that “allows [sic] smoother operation of the breech as it rides in the corresponding curved groove in the breech block.”6 Around 43,000 of this model was made between its production years of 1863 and 1865.12 This Burnside used the percussion cap system for ignition.15
According to Historian and biographer William Marvel, “Unlike many mass-produced pieces, all Burnside’s military carbines and rifles were well made.”16 That is not saying all mass produced interchangeable pieces were not well made. The statement simply qualifies the idea that interchangeable parts were always better. If a company’s machines were old and outdated, they may not have produced the best pieces. Similarly, due to not having extremely precise measuring tools, not all parts may be exactly interchangeable. Because the Burnsides were hand-fitted, at least initially, their quality was increased (as long as trained workmen are creating each
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
5th Model Burnside Carbine's opened breech with the guard lever fully extended
he Burnside Carbine, created by Ambrose Burnside who later became Major General for the Union, had six models that were created before or during the Civil War. The First Model and the following transitional type were not used in the Civil War, but the other four models were used, in particular the Fifth Model. The Burnside gained a good reputation on the battlefield, and the company received many orders for them during the Civil War.1 One of the first orders came from the Rhode Island's Adjunct General T. J. Stead, who contracted for 7,500 Burnside carbines around July of 1861.2 Union soldiers were armed with 55,567 Burnsides throughout the Civil War.3
1 William Marvell, Burnside (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 14.
2 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 81.
3 Arcadi Gluckman and L. D. Saterlee, American Gun Makers, 2nd ed. Revised (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: The Telegraph Press, 1953), 30; Arcadi Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines (New York: Bonanza Books, 1965), 329; Francis A. Lord, Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms, and Equipment of the Union and Confederacy (New York: Castle Books, 1965), 340.
4 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 326-327.
5 Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 5th ed. (Northbrook: DBI Books, Inc., 1990), 491.
6 Norm Flayderman, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms … and their values, 9th ed. (Iola, Wisconsin: Gun Digest Books, 2007), 618.
7 Flayderman, Flayderman's Guide 5th ed., 492; Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 325.
8 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 327; William B. Edwards, Civil War Guns: The complete story of Federal and Confederate small arms: design, manufacture, identification, procurement, issue, employment, effectiveness, and postwar disposal (Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982), 115.
9 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 326.
10 Jack Coggins, Arms and Equipment of the Civil War (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962), 58.
11 Flayderman, Flayderman's Guide, 5th ed., 492; Edwards, Civil War Guns, 115.
12 Flayderman, Flayderman's Guide, 5th ed., 492.
13 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 327, 328.
14 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines, 328..
15 Davis, Arming the Union, 120.
16 Marvell, Burnside, 12.
17 Gluckman, Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines,327.
a Col. Arcadi Gluckman indicates in Identifying Old U.S. Muskets, Rifles & Carbines that the Second Model Burnsides were made in 1861, and the government ordered about 1,000 of that model in 1860.17
b Most sources classify both the Fourth and Fifth Model as one model. However, the author believes the difference is significant enough to classify the models separately.
system, patented on April 10, 1860.8 Foster’s breech had a “curved, spring lever-latch against the trigger,” which unlocked by pulling the trigger on the guard.9 The soldier then lowered the “pivoted trigger guard,” which in turn moved the breech block in a downward motion. When the guard was completely lowered, the breech fully opened, and the cartridge was then loaded.9 By moving the trigger guard back up, the breech block moved forward and placed the bullet located at the top of the cartridge in the chamber. According to Arcadi Gluckman, “The edge of the brass shell covering the joint helps to form a gas seal at the moment of explosion."9 The bullet was then extracted by hand.10 The Second Model, the first Burnside model to be used in the Civil War, was manufactured between 1861 and 1862.11
one). Hand-fitting parts allowed the gun to be assembled with the guarantee that the parts will fit together to make a reliable and fully operational gun. However, hand fitting meant that the Burnside could not be repaired as easily on the battlefield. That may have been the reason why carbines with more interchangeable parts were ultimately more favored during the Civil War, because the largest customer was the U.S. military.
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
5th Model Burnside Carbine's open breech