Remington Split Breech – Before It Was Famous

The Remington Rolling Block was one of the most widely successful and popular military rifles of the late 1800s, and its development began with the Remington Split Breech carbine during the American Civil War. The concept was independently conceived by two different engineers – one was Leonard Geiger, and the other was Joseph Rider – an engineer working for the Remington firm. When the guns went into production, Remington agreed to a royalty deal with Geiger (and his partner, Charles Alger) to avoid any potential patent lawsuits.

The system is a clever and compact design in which the hammer acts as a lock to hold the rotating breechblock in place when fired, and it would prove capable of use not just with black powder cartridges but also after the widespread adoption of high powered smokeless power ammunition. However, when Remington first demonstrated it to the US Ordnance Department during the war, they did not have the production capacity to actually make a large number. Instead, the gave that authority to a Mr. Samuel Norris, who was able to obtain contracts for 20,000 of the guns (5,000 in .44 Rimfire and 15,000 in .56-50 Spencer rimfire), and contract their manufacture to the Savage Revolving Fire Arms Company. These guns would all be delivered to the Federal government, but not in time to see any use during the war.

Instead, they were put into storage, and soon sold off as surplus. Virtually all of them were repurchased by Remington and a few other surplus brokers and resold to France in 1870, when the French were desperate for arms to replace their huge losses in the Franco-Prussian War.

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[ Remington Split Breech ] 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 April of 2018 Premier Firearms Auction. What we have here today are a pair Of Remington Split Breech carbines. We have a first pattern in the back, And a second pattern in the front. This is the gun that would, in its next evolution, become the Remington Rolling Block. Which would be a somewhat under-appreciated mainstay of worldwide military forces For a couple of decades towards the end of the 1800s. … The Rolling Block that would follow this Is arguably the best single-shot military rifle that was ever developed. It was simple, it was reliable, it was durable, it was effective, it was accurate. And it would see service all the way through World War One. However, at its very beginnings it was this, the Split Breech carbine. And we’ll look at these in detail in a moment, and I’ll show you exactly … Where that ”split breech” name comes from. But the origin of this is, interestingly, actually two guys Who apparently came up with basically the same idea at the same time. The first one was a guy named Leonard Geiger, … Who patented some of this concept, and then never actually put it into practice. This would be the early 1860s that he did this. Never produced the guns as far as we can tell. And he ended up coming to an agreement with a business partner Who he relinquished the patent rights to. That guy didn’t do anything either, his name was Charles Alger. And it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere, except for the fact That a man named Joseph Rider, who was one of the engineers for the Remington Company, Came up with a very similar idea, and patented … some slightly different aspects of it. Well, Remington … thought this had some potential as a military arm. And when they went to start producing it, they discovered Geiger’s patent.

And, while it wasn’t the very first thing they did, … after a year or two they realised that there was a potential legal problem here. Because there was overlap between the two designs. So they came to an agreement with Geiger and Alger To actually pay a … royalty on Geiger’s patent. So Geiger and Alger ended up making a nice amount of money On their patent despite never actually manufacturing it, so it worked out well for them. Remington of course turned this into a tremendously popular rifle, So it worked out well for them. It kind of worked out well for everybody involved. Now, the initial production of these guns has a cool story to it as well. During the Civil War Remington was really Working at full capacity making, especially, revolvers. They also took a contract to make standard pattern rifles for the Federal government. They didn’t have excess production capacity To try and put into a potential new weapon like this. However the … Ordnance Department kind of had a standing policy That it was willing to buy like 1,000 examples of pretty much any Breech-loading carbine mechanism that looked like it was reasonably practical. So in 1864 Remington took … a Remington-made prototype To Washington to demonstrate to the Ordnance Department. And the demonstration went fairly well, And they happened to run into a guy there by the name of Samuel Norris. … Norris would end up being pretty heavily involved in Remington. But at this point his involvement was that he thought this carbine had potential, And he was eager to try and make some deals. And Remington … kind of had more work than they could deal with. And the two came to this agreement that Norris Would basically act as an … agent for Remington. And if he could get a contract, and get production, and just … if he could deal with it, Remington would be happy to give him a … portion of the contract, a portion of the profits. And hey, that meant if Remington could get a contract for their guns, Great, they’ll make some money on it. But they’re not willing to try and deal with all of the hassle Of getting production, they don’t have room to do it themselves.

So Norris managed to arrange a contract from the Federal government For 1,000 small frame, the first pattern, Remington Split Breech carbines. These were in .44 rimfire calibre. And the trick was he had to then find someone who could make them. He ended up finding the Savage Revolving Firearms Company. We’ve done some videos on Savage revolvers and Savage revolving rifles. They had some manufacturing capacity and they were willing to take on a project like this, With a caveat: they weren’t willing to do 1,000 guns. They needed a bigger order in order to make it worth their while. They … wouldn’t do this unless they got an order for 10,000. So Norris took a substantial risk here and he put in an order For 10,000 Split Breech carbines with the Savage Firearms Company, Despite the fact that he only had a contract to make 1,000 for the government. He was enough of a believer in the system. He thought it was a good enough gun that he figured either the government would order more, Or someone would be willing to pay for these guns. And he was willing to risk a substantial amount of his own capital to make this happen. He thought it would be worthwhile, and as it turns out he was right. … In January of … ’65 the Federal government was willing to up the contract For these .44 calibre Remingtons to 5,000 guns, so that was a big help. Because the Federal cavalry was having trouble procuring Enough guns that were good and reliable. … Slightly earlier, in September of ’64, the Union decided to standardise On the .56-50 Spencer cartridge for all of its cartridge-firing breech-loading rifles. They had a lot of Spencers. And they were getting enough of these new various types of breech-loading carbines In different calibres, with totally different types of ammunition sometimes, Look at things like the [Burnside] cartridge. They wanted to standardise it. So when they standardised on the .56-50, which was the Spencer cartridge, They came back very quickly thereafter, the next month, October of ’64, And they offered Norris and Remington a contract for 15,000 Of these split breech guns in [.56-50] calibre. … So Norris’s bet paid off.

In fact he managed to sell 20,000 of the guns from an initial order of 1,000, did great. He would go on to have a bright future … in cooperation with Remington. The only real downside here is none of these guns Were actually delivered in time to take part in the Civil War. In fact, the … .50 calibre guns, the deliveries didn’t finish until like May of 1866, So well after the war was over. Remington, … and Savage, and Norris were one of the lucky contractors to the Union, In that they were actually allowed to complete this contract even after the war ended. Most of the Union’s arms contracts were simply cancelled when … peace was reached. They didn’t need any more guns, they had plenty to begin with. Now that the war was over they didn’t have to … keep buying new stuff. Most of these contractors, they’re just, ”That’s it. We’re cancelling it.” And some of these guys got really kind of left in the lurch financially. Well, Remington, Savage and Norris were lucky in that their contract was allowed to be fulfilled. The design of these two carbines is really identical mechanically, However in .44 calibre they were a little bit smaller than in … .56-50. Which, by the way, that’s a .56 calibre base of the cartridge, Which tapers to .50 calibre at the bullet. That’s what that nomenclature is. So the .50 calibre gun had to be just dimensionally larger in order to fit the larger cartridge, And that’s the difference between these two. The Savage factory manufactured all 5,000 of these first-pattern small-frame guns, And then they retooled as necessary to make the larger-pattern .50 calibre guns, And made the whole contract of 15,000 of these. So a grand total of 20,000 manufactured between the two. So the way this works is you have a hammer, And you have a breech block. And the breech block rotates on this pin, Pivots open, and gives you access to the chamber, right here. So you would put in a cartridge, and then you would close the breech block. And then what’s clever about this system is that when the hammer falls, It actually locks the breech block and prevents it from rotating. So as soon as that starts moving, there are two … basically interlocking Round surfaces inside here, the hammer locks the breech. And so it fires.

It … can’t open until you re-cock the hammer, which then unlocks the breech. It’s a very clever system, it’s a simple system, it worked … quite well. These were originally relatively low-power rimfire cartridges. And the reason for the ”split breech” name is Simply that the hammer is right smack in the centre of this breech block. Now that would prove to be fine for .44 rimfire and .56-50 Spencer, It would not be suitable for … real rifle calibre cartridges. And so after doing these Split Breech guns, Rider (Joseph Rider, Remington’s engineer) And the Remington Company would go back and they’d redesign this system a bit To make for a solid breech block. And that is what would be officially known as the Remington Rolling Block, And what would become very popular. Here is the larger of the two, the .50 calibre, Which works exactly the same way, just slightly larger parts. You can see there’s a little nub on the breech block wheel here, and that acts as the extractor. So when you open this It’s going to do nothing until you get to about there, And then it’s going to start to pull the cartridge out. And it pulls it just about a quarter inch out of the chamber. You then grab it, throw it out, and put in a new cartridge. The firing pin is right there, fixed to the face of the hammer. And there’s a little hole in the breech block for it to go through. Of course these are rimfire cartridges, so the … firing pin is offset at the top of cartridge. We have some markings here on the tang. Remington, Remington was located in Ilion, New York. That December 22nd 1863 patent is, I believe, the Geiger patent that they got permission to use. And then the 1864 patent is Joseph Rider’s patent. When this became the Rolling Block, a whole bunch of Additional patents would be filed for various features. And on … Remington Rolling Blocks you’ll see the list Of patent dates on their markings continue to expand. These were US martial property firearms, Despite the fact that they arrived too late for the Civil War. So they will have the appropriate inspectors cartouches on the stock.

Now if the stocks have been replaced at any point, which isn’t all that uncommon, Because these would go on to see combat use (we’ll talk about that later), If the stocks have been replaced obviously the cartouches are gone. But on this .50 calibre one it’s pretty cool that they’re still there. As is the ”US” stamp on the butt plate. The sights here are pretty typical for this sort of thing, you’ve got a rear notch for 100 yards. And then you’ve got a flip-up post which gives you a notch for 300 and a notch for 500. Those are both marked on there, 3 and 5. Wow, that’s tight. There we go. … Note that you actually have kind of a buckhorn style of sight picture. There’s a rear notch with an opening above it. Front sight is just a basic barleycorn style post. Now I think even the best part of the story is yet to come, And that is what happened to these after they were received into Federal government property. Of course it’s 1866, the Civil War is over, They don’t need all of these guns, they basically go straight into storage. And then in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War happens. One little aside here: the Spencer Rifle Company went out of business in 1869. … And … I should say and they were bought up by Winchester. If they had managed to squeeze out one more year, They might have actually ended up in a financial position to have Spencer buy out Winchester, And substantially change American firearms history, because of the Franco-Prussian War. It didn’t go so well for the French. And in 1870 they found a massive French army surrounded, cut off, And ultimately captured by Prussian forces. And in the process the French lost literally hundreds of thousands of rifles, And became desperate for more small arms. Well, where on earth are they going to get small arms? … There’s only so much that you can tool up and manufacture on your own, Especially with the country at war. Well, what about other countries that might have big stockpiles of surplus guns That they would be willing to sell to the French. Well, here’s the United States just a couple of years after the end of Civil War, Where the US has manufactured a boatload of guns, and now they’re all sitting in storage.

And in fact the US government is starting to sell them as surplus. Well a couple of private companies, in particular one by the name of Schuyler, Hartley & Graham, Started purchasing up large quantities of American surplus firearms, And shipping them to France for a really pretty nice profit. Some other guys got into this business. In fact Hartley would end up buying the Remington Company several decades later. And at this point he was cooperating with Remington. Remington had sold … these small frame guns to the government for 17 dollars each, And they’d sold the large frame ones for 23 dollars each. Well, they bought them back clean, stored, and basically unused For 15 dollars each, and then sold them to the French. So Remington made a quite nice profit, along with some of these other surplus dealers, Shipping all of this American surplus off to France. There’s one particularly fun story where a guy named W.W. Reynolds, He was delegated to be an agent for … Schuyler, Hartley & Graham to take a … large batch of guns, Something like 80,000 rifles and carbines, (maybe even more than that, I don’t remember the exact numbers), To take them over to France, deliver them, take payment, and then come home. You didn’t have international wire transfers and PayPal and such in the 1870s. If you want to get paid, well you have to go there, Get some money, like in the form of gold, and then bring it home. So that was his job to do. He managed to get the guns to France, into Paris. And by the time the deal was all closed and finalised, Paris was getting surrounded by the Prussians. And he managed to make his escape from Paris, I kid you not, in a hot-air balloon. With a couple of really close calls when the wind started Blowing him over Prussian army encampments. That right there by the way, if there are any movie producers watching, The story of that arms sale from the US to France and the subsequent escape By hot air balloon, that would make an awesome movie if done right, I’m just saying. So ultimately what happened to virtually all of these Remington Split Breech guns Is they got shipped over to France. They were not used in the American Civil War, but they did get used in the Franco-Prussian War.

Especially the ones in .56-50. The French bought a boatload, literally a boatload, of Spencer rifles and carbines in .56-50 So they had that ammunition. And most of these guns got pretty well used during that conflict As a French substitute for all the Chassepots that had been lost in the campaign. If you are interested in having either a first pattern, these are quite rare, Or a second pattern, and this one is really quite nice condition, Either one of them for your own collection, take a look at the description text below the video. You’ll find a pair of links there, One for the catalogue page of each of these guns here at Rock Island. … Those pages will have their photos, their description, Their provenance, their value estimates, And a way you can place a bid right through their website and make them yours. Thanks for watching.

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