Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt found himself in a tight spot on the outskirts of Santiago, Cuba, on July 1, 1898. He had just led his Rough Riders in an attack up a winding muddy road from the beach. At a curve in the road he found his way blocked at the foot of Kettle Hill by the 71st New York Volunteers. They were taking heavy rifle fire from the heights before Santiago. The 71st troops were armed only with single-shot black powder 1873 Springfield rifles and might as well have been carrying a banner reading, “Aim right here!” Each time a New Yorker fired, his position was immediately given away by a billow of black powder smoke—“about the size of a cow,” as one trooper put it. From their well-dug-in positions up on the Santiago heights, Spanish troops were armed with Mauser Model 1893 repeaters that used smokeless powder and high velocity bullets to deadly advantage. All a Spanish soldier had to do was center his sights on that cloud and pull the trigger. Odds were good he’d hit somebody.
Realizing they could not stand that kind of punishment for very long, Roosevelt demanded that the New Yorkers rush the Spanish position, but they would not advance without proper orders. Roosevelt did not hesitate. He waved a revolver salvaged from the wreck of the battleship Maine and bellowed: “You need orders, then I will give them! Come with me or stand aside and let my men through!” The charge that followed swept the Spaniards from the heights, pushed Roosevelt into the headlines and eventually carried him to the presidency of the United States.
That black powder rifle that performed so miserably before Kettle Hill had also failed 22 years previously at the Greasy Grass—the Little Bighorn. In addition, parallels between the commanding officers at both battles are astounding. Theodore Roosevelt and George Armstrong Custer were both young and brash lieutenant colonels. Both had once held positions of greater responsibility—Custer as a major general in the American Civil War, Roosevelt as U.S. undersecretary of the Navy. Both men found themselves mired in poorly planned assaults upon superior forces. Both were driven by presidential ambitions.
The 1873 Springfield carried by Custer’s 7th Cavalry was a carbine, a foot shorter than the model carried by the New York volunteers in Cuba. Out on the windswept prairie, the smoke from black powder was no problem—but the fouling it left behind was. After the battle, many troopers were found tomahawked to death, their guns useless with cartridges seized in the chambers.
The Model 1873 Springfield—both carbine and rifle—has a long and checkered history, one that stretches back to the darkest days of the Civil War. Its predecessor, the Model 1865, was ostensibly the brainchild of one Erskine Allin, master armorer at the government’s arsenal at Springfield, Mass. Federal troops were stalled before Petersburg and Atlanta; the American public was souring on what seemed to be an endless war. Democrats were suggesting peace overtures to the Confederacy, and the White House was rightfully nervous about Abraham Lincoln’s reelection chances.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton instructed Chief of Ordnance A.B. Dyer to break the stalemate with increased firepower. Dyer ordered Allin to “use whatever means seem practical” to produce a breechloading rifle. Allin, in turn, called for prototypes from inventors. Then Allin submitted a plan of his own, which he patented, calling for installing a hinged breechblock on the rear of existing .58 caliber muzzleloading muskets that would allow a rimfire copper cartridge to be inserted in the breech. Southern resistance collapsed before the rifle could be produced in quantity, but some 5,000 were shipped to garrisons on the Western plains where hard-bitten veterans took one look at the clumsy apparatus and dubbed it “the Trapdoor rifle,” a name it has retained to this day.
Besides being awkward, those first Trapdoors were inaccurate and unreliable. The bullet—traveling at about 1,100 feet per second—was so slow, troopers claimed, an Indian had time to duck after he saw the smoke. Simple mathematics indicate this may not have been typical frontier hyperbole. Springfield worked on improvements, sleeving the barrels down to .50 caliber, and designing a new “central fire” (centerfire) reloadable brass cartridge case that held 70 grains of black powder. In 1873, the caliber was shrunk again, down to .45, in an attempt to improve downrange performance. The resulting .45-70 cartridge went on to fame in Winchesters and Remingtons, and—loaded with smokeless powder—remains a popular “dangerous game” hunting cartridge today. But in the Trapdoor Springfield, the .45-70 was a miserable failure.
But no matter. The War Department apparently liked the Trapdoor because it looked like a proper rifle. The fact that it was woefully user-unfriendly did not seem to matter at all. A soldier working a Trapdoor Springfield had to manage all the moves of a drum major: hammer to half cock, muzzle down as the breech was opened so the block wouldn’t flop closed again on the fingers, cartridge inserted, breech closed and hammer hauled back to full cock. Once the trigger was pulled, and the soldier fully recovered from the rather stout recoil, the process would begin again, this time with the muzzle elevated so the expended case, if it did not seize in the chamber, could clear the action. A man on the ground had his hands full. Pitching and rolling in the saddle, using this Springfield was an utter impossibility, and called for a change in cavalry tactics. Cavalry troopers could charge with pistol and saber, but when engaged in sustained action, they were told to dismount and fight from the ground in groups of four. Three men fired, while the fourth held the rearing and plunging horses.
There was initial success on August 2, 1867. In a hot exchange near besieged Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming Territory, a detachment of 32 wood cutters armed with Civil War–era muzzleloaders converted to breechloaders with the Allin System made a stand against vast numbers of Red Cloud’s Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. The Sioux—accustomed to going up against muzzleloaders—rushed the detachment hiding behind its overturned wagons, expecting to weather the first volley, then to overwhelm the soldiers while they tried to reload. But the sustained fire from the defenders threw back one Indian charge after another with heavy losses. Finally, a lone medicine man rode out, intending to render the bullets inaccurate by signs and incantations. A trooper got him in his sights, squeezed the trigger. The bullet fell far short. Sioux jubilation lasted as long as it took for the trooper to run the sight up another notch. A great wail went up from the Sioux, as the medicine man tumbled from his horse. They withdrew, after sustaining about 60 dead and 120 wounded. The defenders lost only three dead and two wounded. While white historians call it the “Wagon Box Fight,” Sioux folklore refers to their first encounter with breechloaders as the “Bad Medicine Fight.”
But there was bad medicine for the white man, as well. Extensive newspaper coverage of the Wagon Box Fight prompted several inventors to file suits, claiming Allin had stolen ideas they had submitted to Springfield back in 1864. The Army ended up paying out $125,000 to settle these claims, an astounding amount in the days when new rifles cost about $7 each. Those payments were later used to justify continuing to use the Trapdoor Springfield long after it had been superseded by superior designs.
Officers wanting a better rifle got their chance in 1870, when Chief of the Army William T. Sherman convened a board to study the matter. Fifty designs were dumped in mud, in sand, were driven over by wagons, soaked in brine and fired for days without cleaning. The decision was unanimous. A Remington design known as the “rolling block” should be the Army’s new rifle. The Remington was everything the Trapdoor Springfield wasn’t: It was simple to manufacture, easy to operate, and strong enough to make the eventual transition to smokeless powder. Naval officers observing the proceedings ordered 20,000 Remingtons, which were later carried ashore by sailors and Marines in Asia, where they gave superlative performance in the little-known First Korean War. The Danes, Dutch, Chinese, Russians, Turks and even the pope’s bodyguards ordered them too.
But not the U.S. Army, which—remembering patent infringement claims paid a decade earlier—was hesitant to give up on the Trapdoor Springfield. General Alexander B. Dyer countermanded the board’s findings, ordering a “new and improved” Trapdoor rifle for the infantry. The cavalry got a Trapdoor carbine to replace its seven-shot lever-action Spencers; West Point cadets, a midsized rifle for drill; and a few officers sported a half-stocked model with brass ornamentation and a special long-range sight. In all, about 750,000 were produced.
The 1873 model first saw combat on June 17, 1876—one week before the Custer debacle, when Brig. Gen. George Crook and 1,300 men stumbled onto Crazy Horse’s band in the headwaters of Rosebud Creek in what is now northern Wyoming. The battle raged for a day and saw some of the poorest shooting in the history of the U.S. Army. Crook lost nine men dead and 23 wounded while expending an astounding 10,000 rounds of ammunition. When the smoke cleared, only 36 Sioux and Cheyenne lay dead upon the field. Nearly out of ammunition, Crook withdrew, leaving the Indians to annihilate Custer the following week. Though no explanation of the woeful marksmanship was ever given, historians blame the Trapdoor Springfield.
The Trapdoor Springfield outlived Custer. It bore the bayonet thrust through Crazy Horse, and fired the bullet that killed Sitting Bull. It put down labor unrest in Chicago, battled the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. And long after the rest of the world’s armies had made the switch to smokeless powder, the Trapdoor Springfield went to Cuba with the volunteers, and to the Philippines to defeat the fanatical Moros. In the uncertain days preceding American entry into World War I, militia units along the U.S. East Coast still carried Trapdoors.
In the late 1930s, Army disposal teams scuttled thousands of Trapdoors in the North Atlantic while military surplus tycoon Francis Bannerman offered them to an uninterested public for $3 apiece. In an effort to move his huge stock of rifles, Bannerman cut many down to carbine length for hunting, even removed rifling from some to accommodate .410 shot shells. But the market improved with the coming of the Little Bighorn Centennial. Today the collector demand for Trapdoor Springfields far exceeds the supply of remaining unaltered originals. Several European gun makers are currently offering reproductions to fill this unlikely market niche.
The Trapdoor Springfield remains an enigma, a stone on which historians stumble. Hastily conceived to assist Lincoln’s reelection, it was obsolete the day it was produced. And despite its obvious flaws, it remained in service longer than any other U.S. rifle.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.