Nineteenth century repeating rifles combine several advancements, including a percussion system and self-contained metal rimfire cartridges, and added a magazine to the gun that would then load the next cartridge after firing. Without those advancements repeating rifle would not have been practical.
Elisha Collier in 1816 patented a repeating flintlock. Although, he would never find success in his percussion arms, he did inspire Samuel Colt’s line of revolving arms.1 Colt Model 1855 Revolving Rifles were the first repeating rifles to be used in the Civil War.2 One reason for that was that the United States military already had them in storage at the war’s outbreak. Colts were accurate, but their open-ended chambers (the magazine was a six chamber revolving piece) proved to be dangerous if they were not loaded in the proper way.3 The Colt Model 1855 Revolving Rifle was used in the first two years of the war, but then was considered to be outdated technology after the Henry and Spencer carbines were promoted.4 The Henry and Spencer used self-contained rim-fire cartridges; whereas, the Colt ammunition loaded the ball and powder separately.
The Henry and the Spencer’s self-contained cartridges were stored in magazines. The Spencer’s magazine, fitting seven rounds, was in the stock of the gun (pictured left). The entire magazine could be switched through the butt of the gun. The Henry’s magazine, fitting fifteen rounds, was attached to the bottom part of its barrel. Ultimately, Spencer’s carbine was more powerful and durable than the Henry Rifle and was adopted for military use. Although some Henrys saw use in the Civil War, the Spencer became more popular and more massed produced.
The Henry Rifle had rim-fire priming. A firing pin was placed through a hole in the breech bolt. When the hammer hit the pin, the pin would hit the cartridge case to ignite the self-contained cartridge. (His pin was double pronged to hit the cartridge’s rim in two places so that the cartridge would surely go off even if the primer was not spread evenly on the rim.)5
1 Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006), 42
2 Bilby, Revolution of Arms, 44
3 Bilby, Revolution of Arms, 46-47
4 Bilby, Revolution of Arms, 45
5 Bilby, Revolution in Arms, 61
From Single-Shot to Repeating
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
This magazine is from the Spencer Carbine Model 1865.