America’s First Metallic Cartridge: The Burnside Carbine

The Burnside carbine was originally invented by Ambrose Burnside – the man who would later command the Army of the Potomac and after whom sideburns would be named. Burnside came up with the idea while stationed in Mexico as a young officer, and resigned his commission in 1853. A substantial amount of money had been allocated by Congress to replace the Hall carbines, and Burnside hoped that his gun would be adopted. Despite his efforts, the attempt was unsuccessful, and Burnside sold his interest in the patents and company to one Charles Jackson in 1858.

Jackson continued to promote the gun, and his big break came with the outbreak of the Civil War. Under Jackson’s ownership, the company would manufacture 53,000 Burnside carbines by the end of the war, in 5 progressively improved variants.

The innovation of the Burnside was its use of a metallic cartridge to seal the breech of the weapon against escaping gas. However, the cartridge did not incorporate an ignition source. Each round had a small hole in the base, and a standard percussion cap was fitted to the outside of the breechblock to fire. This cartridge was innovative and effective, but would become obsolete by the end of the war, and no serious effort was made to continue making Burnside carbines after the fighting ended.

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Hi, guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on I’m Ian McCollum and I’m here today at the Rock Island Auction Company, Taking a look at some of the guns they’re going to be selling In their upcoming December of 2017 premiere auction, And today we’re taking a look at a Civil War carbine. Now, there are a lot of varieties of US Civil War carbines out there And… some of them are kind of boring, And a lot of them all tend to get lumped together as ”just some old single-shot carbine”. However, what we’re looking at today is a Burnside carbine, and There’s a lot more interesting stuff going on With this design than I think a lot of people realize. To start with, it was actually designed by Ambrose Burnside, Who went on to become the general of the Potomac, And one of the leading Union figures in the Civil War. He actually designed this well before taking that job, And actually had- took no profit from the construction Of more than 50 thousand of these guns during the Civil War. Also, this is the first US military arm that was actually Issued that used a self-contained metallic cartridge, But it’s kind of a different style of cartridge than we would normally expect today. So, let’s… start at the beginning: Ambrose Burnside graduated from West Point, the US Military Academy, In 1847, he was posted to Mexico, although didn’t- He was there too late to take part in any of the fighting; And while there he got an idea for developing a breech-loading carbine. Now, one of the last things he did in the army was in 1853, He actually had the Springfield Armory manufacture a prototype of his carbine for him. This was something he was able to do because of his army connections, and They charged him for the work but he got a pretty good deal… And he basically had Springfield make this gun, Then he got the gun, and then he immediately resigned his commission, And went to set up a business to manufacture these. In 1854, Congress allocated a bunch of money – I think it was $90,000 –

To replace Hall carbines that were currently in the US Cavalry service. So, there’s a big chunk of money out there available for a new carbine, Burnside has… a new carbine that he thinks is – Well, that is, really, much better than the Hall, And so what he was hoping is to get a government contract For a bunch of that money. Now, the army did actually buy 200 of these – Or rather, they contracted for 200 of them in 1856… Well… It took Burnside and his company about 2 years to manufacture them, They weren’t delivered until 1858; At that point, they were trialed, and they were actually pretty well liked. This was a good carbine, however… Things were a little too late, and by this point, A lot of the money – a lot of this carbine money – had already been allocated and used, And the- y’know, 200 rifles for the army wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the company And it basically went bankrupt. Burnside sold his patent rights and sold the company To a guy named Charles Jackson, And… he bailed. He went on to find other things to do. Jackson, in the meantime, continued to try and press for sales of the carbines. He did make a second sale to the army of 709 – That’s an odd number because they allocated $25,000 And basically it was – how many carbines along with accessories and accoutrements Can they get for $25,000? Well, 709. So, that’s what they ordered. He got a contract for the navy, for testing, but Wasn’t able to complete the guns in the required time frame, and so that contract was cancelled; Things didn’t seem to be going all that well for Jackson, either. But then, the Civil War breaks out. And at this point, the US military needs a lot more carbines. This has suddenly become a matter of much greater priority. Now, I should point out: Carbines were intended for the cavalry; These were never… even considered, really, for standard infantry use.

They weren’t considered- they were considered inferior to rifles for general combat use, But, because you couldn’t really run a muzzle-loading rifle on horseback, Breech-loading carbines were accepted as cavalry weapons. And so that’s why this profusion of cavalry carbines during the Civil War, But basically no new infantry rifles. There’s not that much in the way of markings on this; We have ”Burnside Rifle Company – Providence Rhode Island” there on the lockplate, We have ”Burnside – model of 1864” and a serial number, Here on both the receiver and the breech block, And we actually have the US inspector’s cartouche, Still magnificently preserved here on the side of the stock. Now, the action of the Burnside is a little bit unusual, And it’s pretty cool; As I mentioned, this was really the first- This was in fact the first US military firearm to use a self-contained metallic cartridge. So, in order to operate, what you did is You have this lever on the bottom of the trigger guard, You pull that down, And that pivots the breech block down and- Well, back and up. So you now have access to the breech block here, and… If we look down in the bottom there you can see there’s a hole; That hole connects to the percussion cap nipple, Right here. So, this is a percussion cap fired weapon, however… You actually have metallic cases, and it’s- A rather odd looking case, certainly by today’s standards; Kind of looks like an ice cream cone; With this taper; so a large bullet at the front – It was actually a 400 grain 54 caliber bullet – At the front, and then a big grease ring at the base of the bullet, And then the cartridge actually tapers down to the base, Where there is an open hole at the bottom of the cartridge. The hole is just slightly smaller than the 2F powder that was used inside,

So the powder doesn’t fall out. That brass case is there- And by the way, there is no primer in this case. No percussion cap built into it, no primer – nothing. It’s just powder and bullet. So that’s why the gun requires a percussion cap for firing. The purpose of the cartridge – or the cartridge case – Is actually to provide a seal around the gap between the breech block and the barrel. This is the typical problem of a breech-loading rifle – Is how do you seal it so the gas doesn’t leak out right here? The modern answer is you use a brass cartridge case; The brass expands and creates a gas seal. Well, Burnside patented that idea And used it successfully here. What he didn’t do was incorporate the ignition source into the cartridge. So, his brass case has this ring, Basically to expand into the gap between the breech block and the barrel, And seal it against gas, and it works very well. The reason that there’s a hole in the base of the cartridge Is so that the fire from the cap can go through and ignite the powder and fire the cartridge. In fact, really, the only problem that these were reported to have in the field was The cartridge occasionally getting sticky and difficult to extract. In total, there were 5 different variations of the Burnside carbine. Now, the first variation – which is all pre-war – And this- this is those 200 guns, primarily, that the army bought for testing – Instead of having the breech-opening latch in the trigger guard It actually had a separate latch up here; And that was… definitely problematic – It was easy to catch on things and… The variation- when they went from the first variant to the second Is when they changed the latch to this inside design. This was strong, it wasn’t unlatched accidentally, It was a really good design. The third variation – they added a wooden handguard here on the bottom,

Which had not been present before. That’s helpful for protecting one’s hand when the gun starts to get hot from repeated firing. The fourth variation – they added this lever instead of a screw. This is a pin that can be removed for- well, for disassembly – for taking out the breech block. All right, this one doesn’t want to come down because it’s just a little tight for my finger, but What you do is you push this button down and then this lever allows you to pull this pin out From right there, and remove the whole breech block assembly. That was the fourth variant. The fifth variation added a useful change, where – At this point- and this is a fifth variation carbine- the last, Which was, by the way, the most common of the actual production guns – By 1864 everything they were doing was that final variation. What this does is put some mechanical limitations on the action of the breech block moving So, on the fifth pattern you have to tilt it forward and then lift it up. On the earlier patterns, these two weren’t connected And so you could lift this up and then tilt it forward, And one of the problems with that is if you didn’t do things in the right order, You could actually catch the tip of the bullet in the barrel And bend or deform the case while you were trying to close the breech block. So, having it- having the order fixed by this mechanical linkage in here Was a definite improvement in practical handling of the gun. One other element that I didn’t show you before Was that the back end here actually reciprocates back and forth. So when fired, this gets pushed back, And then when you go to take the cartridge out, This pushes forward when you open the breech block, And what that does is give the cartridge a little bit of a tap forward. Because it is a very heavily tapered cartridge, That will tend to unseat it completely, and the idea is That prevents the cartridge… Case from sticking in this chamber. Now, it didn’t work perfectly, but it was pretty good And this was one of the major patent features of the gun – That extra- bit of assist and leverage to push the cartridge out.

If we look at the price that the government was charged for these carbines We can see this interesting trend of it decreasing over time. As the guns were made a little more efficient to manufacture, And as the tooling was paid off and just the- The industrial process improved, the price of the carbines came down. So, at the very beginning, the very first ones in 1861, The government was charged $35.75 per gun, By January of 1863, the price was reduced to $30, There were a major series of contracts in March of 1863 At which point the price dropped to $25, And finally by 1864- by the middle of 1864, The price per gun was down to $19; So almost cut in half, compared to the very beginning of the war. And for most of these contracts there was also an option For the government to accept guns that might have some minor… Esthetic problems – Things that didn’t actually affect practical functionality, But didn’t look quite as good – They could accept those and they’d get a dollar off on the guns if they did so. So, as production efficiency improved, the government got… got a better deal on the guns. So the Burnside carbine would end up being the third most common cavalry carbine used By the Union during the Civil War, behind the Sharps and the Spencer. At this point, it had no connection at all to Ambrose Burnside, the original inventor; He was busy leading the army and didn’t have any hand in the rifle company. However, the company got substantial orders through 18- well through the end of the war, They made like 20,000 of these guns in 1863, They made another 21,000 in 1864, And then production tapered off dramatically in 1865 With only about 3,800 of the guns made. The reason for that is they actually transitioned to making Spencer carbines. The Spencer company couldn’t make enough to keep up with demand, And so the Burnside company was granted a license to produce Spencers, And Burnside would make something like 33,000 Spencer carbines during 1865. So the company did really quite well during the war.

At the end of the war, they recognized- Well, of course, they had already transitioned away from even making Burnside carbines, And they recognized that this was a thoroughly obsolete design by 1865 or 1866. The Spencer carbine was going out of style as well; There wasn’t a whole lot of demand for them, Especially with nearly 100,000 made – plenty of them on the surplus market – And so the Burnside company basically was just left to go bankrupt. Jackson didn’t really try to maintain the business or develop new products; Basically, it had had its run and now it was over. Burnside himself would go on to be governor of Rhode Island, He would be a senator from the state of Rhode Island, And interestingly he actually served as the first president of the NRA; The NRA having been formed after the Civil War as an organization to improve marksmanship standards As a result of seeing the rather pitiful marksmanship standards of Union recruits during the Civil War. So, a lot of interesting things going on with this carbine. And this is a particularly fantastic example – Just really- there’s a remarkable amount of original finish And really nice case hardening colors on the whole gun. If you would like to a magnificent example of a Burnside carbine like this for your own collection, Take a look at the description text below – you’ll find a link there to Rock Island’s catalog page on this one; You can see their pictures and description and price estimate – all that sort of information; You can place a bid right on their website if you’re interested in having it yourself. Thanks for watching.

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