Rifling Machine


In this video, Bill Hoover demonstrates a rifling machine. That type of hand-powered rifling machine may have been used in the Civil War. The process could take a couple hours for a skilled gunsmith to rifle. Yet, other riflers, such as the 1853 rifling machine (pictured above), would have been powered by water or steam.  Those machines cut down production time.


This rifling machine (1853) was used to cut pistol barrels. The machine was ahead of others in its automatic movements.  Watch how this machine works.


This rifling machine was used for to make rifles during the Civil War. The machine is similar to the one in the above video. The machine is hand-powered and hand-indexed (indexing is turning the machine to the next position to carve the next groove). That process was a lot slower than steam- or water-powered riflers.

A reliable rifling machine was extremely important in carbine manufacturing during the Civil War. That machine tool changed the manufacturing process of arms, allowing the widespread conversion of muskets to rifles and the creation of a multitude of rifled arms--including the famous carbines of the Civil War--to be feasible. Without a good rifling machine, the bore’s grooves may not have been clean enough to pass government inspection. Furthermore, good rifling helped to define a good, accurate, and reliable gun. The tools’ products had a substantial effect on the battlefield during the Civil War.

Rifling machines were created independently—inventors did not collaborate, but made the machines at relatively the same time—during the years preceding the Civil War. By 1831, the rifling machines had been so perfected that there was little changes to them in the following years. Yet, in the 1840s, Frederick Howe did create a machine that could bore four barrels at once, and it became popular.1 By rifling four barrels instead of just one at a time, his tool demonstrated manufacturers’ push to increase production output, while decreasing production time.

Some of the earlier rifling machine models were used at Harper’s Ferry in the 1830s when John Hall was there. Those rifling machines featured a block that spun on a rod. The block had cutters that carved into the barrel’s inside as the rod moved to give the cuts a spiral pattern. The deepness of the grooves was adjustable by “reducing the pressure on the barrel or by regulating the length of the cutting strokes.”
2 In 1836, a Harper’s Ferry machine could rifle eleven barrels per day.2 Those machines made rifling gun barrels an easier and significantly quicker process.

Another significant model of rifling machines came in the decade before the Civil War. In 1854, Henry D. Stone of Robbins & Lawrence created a rifling machine for carving out the barrels of guns, in particular the foreign-designed Enfield Rifles.
3 His invention cut three grooves at the same time, quickening the rifling process even more.4 According to the American Precision Museum, who currently displays the Robbins & Lawrence 1853 rifling machine pictured in the top photo, “Powered by the overhead line shaft and driven by a waterwheel, the rifling machine [Robbins & Lawrence 1853 rifling machine] works all day without tiring.”5

Although Stone’s machine was well known for its work with foreign-designed arms, it was most likely not solely used for that purpose. Robbins & Lawrence sold their rifling machines, possibly including Stone’s design, to other companies during the Civil War, including Remington in 1861.
6 After Robbins & Lawrence failed, Lamson, Goodnow & Yale moved into the Windsor plant and continued producing machine tools. That company fulfilled orders for rifling machines requested by the Springfield Armory and Smith & Wesson during the war.7 As seen through the continued machine tool production  from Robbins & Lawrence to Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, rifling machines were important tools in both public and private manufacturing.

Around the same time as Stone, Springfield Armory’s Master Machinist Cyrus Buckland was a contributor to the perfection of the rifling machine. In 1855 he created a rifling machine that used “expanding cutters […] capable of cutting grooves of even or decreasing depth.”
4 After improvements in 1856, the machine completely rifled a barrel in 25 minutes.4 Compared to the original rifling machines (as seen in the video on the left) which could take several hours of work for the gunsmith, Buckland’s machine made the process faster and more precise. Likewise, Buckland’s machines rifled approximately 200 barrels in an eight hour workday. Only 20 years before, rifling machines carved out 11 barrels per day.2



Overall, rifling machines were important attributes to any private or public factory, because they were essential in the creation of carbines (most carbines in the Civil War were rifled, not smoothbore). Equally important, rifling machines promoted collaboration through steady improvements of machine designs, thus reflecting the ideals of the American System of Manufacturing. Those tools’ innovation came from both the public and private sector machinists as they built upon designs to increase production capacity and efficiency, and practical improvements were applied to factories in both sectors.

1 Felicia Johnson Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley: A Regional Study of the Economic Development of the Small Arms Industry, 1798-1870 (George Banta Publishing Company: Menasha, Wisconsin, 1948), 156.
2 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 155.
3 Carrie Brown, “Guns for Billy Yank: The Armory in Windsor Meets the Challenge of Civil War,” Vermont History 79, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2011): 144; Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 156.
4 Deyrup, Arms Makers of the Connecticut Valley, 156.
5 “Arming the Union,” American Precision Museum, Last Modified 2013, http://www.americanprecision.org/arming-the-union
6 Carrie B¬rown, “Guns for Billy Yank,” 144, 149.
7 Carrie B¬rown, “Guns for Billy Yank,” 151.
8 James J. Farley, Making Arms in the Machine Age:  Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal, 1816-1870 (Pennsylvania:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 65.
9 James J. Farley, Making Arms in the Machine Age, 65-66.

In the South, Major Hagner at the Frankford Armory designed a machine that carved spiraling grooves in the inside of the gun barrels. His invention had a rod that had several “cutting heads” or pieces that engraved into the metal to make the grooves.  Those heads cut the bore in one motion, instead of the single cutting head on the rod that took repeated actions to rifle the barrel (such as the one on rifling machine in the video). His machine was manufactured and running in 1856 and within a year, it could cut 39 to 42 barrels in 8.5 hours.8 Although his invention was innovative and faster than Buckland’s machine, it was too costly to produce, and, therefore, it was not widely manufactured for private companies.9 Although rifling machines were innovative, advancements had price tags that not everyone could afford.