The Civil War Burnside carbine – shooting, history and impact
The Burnside carbine played an important part in firearms history as this was the first arm of the US Army to shoot metallic case cartridges. This breech loading percussion or capping carbin was designed by Ambrose E. Burnside in the 1850s.
Carbines were not new items in warfare in the middle of the 19th century. Arming the cavalry with firearms is just as old as the invention of the wheel lock mechanism. All type of cavalry men carried at least pistols from the first third of the 16th century. The first horse soldiers to carry a carbine were the bandeliers of the late 16th-17th century, but dragoons also carried long arms.
As the firearms started to dominate warfare, the cavalry arm lost a large portion of its importance on the battlefield, while kept its traditional roles outside the battlefields, like fighting the small war, reconnaissance, keeping contact between bodies of the army.
By the beginning of the 19th century the cavalry was divided into light and heavy cavalry. They had different roles on the battlefield. Heavy cavalry, like the cuirassiers where supposed to fight in closed combat formations, and their primary role was to penetrate the battle formations of the enemy with a frontal charge. Light cavalry, like the hussars, chevau-légers, uhlans were supposed to envelope the flanks, and chase the retreating enemy. And in between them, there were the dragoons, the mounted infantry, who could fight on horseback, but could also fight as an infantryman dismounted.
As firearms improved this balance was lost forever. With the adoptation of the muzzle loading rifles and later the breech loading rifles, the traditional battlefield roles of the cavalry were questioned. The cavalry charge was not effective any more against the accurate fire of the rifle musket, and could not cope up with the increasing rate of fire of the breech loaders.
Experiences of the war of Crimea 1853-56, the Franco-Austrian-Sardinian war of 1859 and the Austrian-Prussian war of 1866 showed that the traditional balance between combat arms shifted towards artillery and infantry. In the second half of the 19th century all armies simplified their cavalry arm, leaving only a light cavalry type armed with a sabre and carbine, sometime with revolver or pistol. All other noble historical cavalry types vanished in the past forever.
The situation in the United States was different. The development of the American cavalry was much more efficiency-oriented. Instead of the light and heavy differentiation, the American cavalry was emphasizing the dragoon concept from the beginning. This is completely understandable as from the early times the US cavalry had to fight against regular and non-conventional forces, and had to operate with small force on large areas. This required a flexible approach in arming horseman. He had to be able cover the role of the infantry and cavalry completely in the same time. Mounted rifles of the wars of the first half of the 19th century were a good representation of this concept. Such arms as the breech loading carbines, like the Hall flintlock and percussion carbines were an excellent arm for this concept, and in fact the adaptation of the Hall carbines for cavalry use in 1819 was a straight forward decision.
Carbines of the civil war
When the civil war broke out only 4076 breech loading Hall percussion and flintlock carbines were available in the warehouses, only enough to arm four cavalry regiments. The US Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General James W. Ripley shared the view that the percussion breech loading carbine is the perfect arm for horseman, supported by the revolver and sabre. Neither of the sides planned a long conflict, so solving the carbine question was not a priority. After the battle of Bull Run however, things changed. Arming the newly raised cavalry regiments was inevitable.
Ripley immediately ordered 73,000 carbines from various sources, but in the meantime also examined the available repeaters firing a self-contained cartridge. Both the Henry and Spencer were officially tested in 1861 by the Army, although the concept proved successful, Ripley had important objections:
1st they bot required a special ammunition
2nd they could not be fired with ball and powder
3rd the weight of the arms with the loaded magazine was more than what was acceptable for him
4th he was afraid that the primed cartridges can go off on in the magazine
5th the spiral grooves of the magazines can lose power during the rough military use
6th the rapidity of fire of the single shot breech loader was enough
Ripley did not have time to waste, so instead of selecting one pattern to be produced in the Federal Arsenals, he opened the window for all available breech loading carbines. Private contractors and importers rushed to the help, offering their weird innovations or cheap surplus carbines imported from Europe. None of the US based makers were capable of producing large quantities – probably except for the Sharps – so the US Government was open to accept the offer of nearly any contractors. Between 1861 and 1866 the US Army procured more than 427,000 breech loading rifles and carbines, and this number can be increased by the breech loaders purchased by various volunteer unites of Northern states.
The greatest challenge of early breech loading rifles was how to seal the gap between the breech and barrel. There were two basic concepts for these rifles. The externally and internally primed cartridges. Externally primed breech loaders utilized a metallic, rubber, linen or paper cartridge case holding the bullet, lubrication and powder, while the percussion cap had to placed on the cone, just as in the case of muzzle loaders.
The internally primed arms used a self-contained cartridge uniting bullet, powder, lubrication, metallic case and primer in one single item. These rimfire cartridges were based on the patent of Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson about “Improvement in Filling Metallic Cartridges dated April 17, 1860.
The story of the Burnside carbine
The Burnside carbine is based on the externally primed concept. Ambrose E. Burnside of Bristol Rhode Island was wounded on the neck by an Apache arrow on August 23, 1849. According to the legend this event, and the experience of Hall carbines blowing out gases at the joint of the breech and barrel inspired him to work on a firearms concept that offered a better arm to the horse soldier than the sabre and revolver. He summarized the problem in his first paten well: “The chief difficulty experienced in the construction and use of breech-loading fire-arms arises from the tendency of the discharge to open the joint between the barrel and the breech piece or chamber, the two being forced in contrary directions by the explosion, and however exact the workmanship or strong the parts are made the open joint will leak and the bearing-surfaces are soon fouled.”
First lieutenant Burnside was ordered to Fort Adams by 1852 where he perfected his breech loading design. Hi used his military contacts to manufacture a sample piece in the Springfield Armoury. The young officer decided to leave the army in 1853 and establish a gun making facility funded by money borrowed from the family of his young wife. Although his first facility was destroyed by a fire, he rebuilt the venture and established a new factory on Sumner Street in Bristol. While Brunside was perfecting his arm the company manufactured muzzle loaders and gun parts. Burnside applied for a patent on November 16, 1855, and received a letter of patent on March 25, 1856, number 14,491.
Burnside claimed the following:
“1. The use of cartridge case made partially or wholly of soft metal in combination with a beveled mouth in rear of the barrel, and the movable chamber of a breech-loading fire-arm for the purpose of packing the joints thereof, and operating in the manner substantially as herein set forth.
- The movable cone seat or breech pin, in combination with the soft metal cartridge case, operating in the manner substantially as herein described, to eject the empty cartridge case, as set forth.”
In 1856 Burnside found an investor for his company, and managed to push his carbine concept to official military trials. Major Willian H. Bell tested the rifle on trial at the Washington Arsenal in 1857. After the trials Burnside wrote a report to secretary of war John B. Floyd about the arm stating the following:
1st His cartridges were water tight, which is not true for paper cartridges.
2nd The cartridges can be easily unloaded if the gun was not used, and the cartridges can safely kept in the cartridge pouch.
3rd If the Burnside rifle was loaded, the nipple was capped, the rifle could be put into water for an hour, and the gun would still fire.
4th The Burnside rifle can be used with paper cartridges and lose powder and ball just as good as other breech loading designs.
The trials were very successful. The rifle was not only safe and fast to operate but solved the problem of gas leakage: ”During the firing of 60 rounds, the performance of the piece was entirely satisfactory. A white handkerchief being placed over the joint, showed no escape of fluid between the barrel and chamber, nor could be discovered from any other part, except which is usual from the vent; so that the sliding parts of the chamber and breech were about as untarnished as that of the beginning of the fire.”
The Ordnance Board sent its report to the Secretary of War on September 30, 1857, stating that: “…the Board are of unanimous opinion that the breech loading rifle submitted by A.E. Burnside of R.I. is best suited for the military service. As a breech-loading arm it is thought to be simple and strong in its parts and therefore, less liable to get out of order than any other. The cartridge is simple in its structure, strong and perfectly protects the powder from moisture and the gun from the clogging action of the gas.”
In November 1857 Burnside received an order of 1000 for his carbines, that was revoked a day later. He needed 18 months to fulfil the order, that was too slow for the Ordnance Department. the company was close to bankruptcy so he decided to sell his share, inclusive his patent rights. George B. McClellan employed him at the Central Railroad in Chicago. His former company, the Bristol Firearms Company continued operation under the leadership of George Foster and Charles Jackson as a treasurer.
In July 1858 new trials were conducted with the rifle. Seven breech loading carbines were tested by a new board, and although the design succeeded again, there were some new points of objection:
1st The spent case can be hard to eject if a new cartridge was forced into the spent piece accidentally.
2nd Rust can prevent the case ejecting system from working.
3rd The cost of the cartridge was significantly higher than any other designs.
On September 21, 1858 the Ordnance Department finally placed a second order for 709 carbines, so finally the Burnside found its way to the troops. The delivery was very slow this time again. The first pieces were inspected only in December 1860. The new rifles were put to the test again by the Board of Ordnance again, this time against such well known carbines as the Sharps, Merill and Maynard. This time the board was not in favour of the capabilities of the carbine. The ejection of the cartridge was not easy if the chamber was fouled, and it was hard to remove with fingers in cold weather. They also stated that “The parts of this arm are more complicated than Sharps’s and would be more difficult to replace, and, it is believed, would be more liable to get out of order. The firing of this arm was not so accurate as some of the others… which is probably owing to the fact that the ball is slightly displaced from the center of the bore by closing the breech, as can be observed by removing the cartridge without firing. … Although the board considers this arm as capable of rendering good service, it does not consider it as equal to Smith’s and Maynard’s for adaptability to the military service.”
The Burnside cartridges
The heart of the Burnside concept is the cone shaped brass cased cartridge holding the powder, lubricant and conical bullet. Burnside’s design was indeed ingenious, but he was not the one who invented the soft metal cartridge, such concepts, as the pinfire and rimfire designs were well known by this time, however, as we saw before armies were still not conceived by the capabilities of the self-primed cartridges. The brass case of the Burnside was a good design: its coned shape helped easy extraction with the aid of the springed ejector, the bubble shape neck held enough lubricant and sealed the joint between breech and barrel, while the mouth protruded into the forcing cone creating a gas tight seal while also holding firmly the bullet.
The Ordnance Board examining the concept also stated important features that were in favour of the military use:
1st The cartridges are waterproof.
2nd The cases can be tin-coated, to prevent Verdigris build up on the surface.
3rd Empty cases can be packed within each other. 20 cases will be as long as 4 full cases. They can be repeatedly filled and used.
4th They can be customized for any powder charge and they are cheaper to fill a case than in the case of any other paper cartridges.
The original Burnside cartridge held 55 grains of black powder and a conical ball. This charge generated too large recoil, so the load was limited to 40-45 grains later.
The company planned to tool up for the production of cases, but could not fulfil the demand of the Ordnance Department, so new companies were involved in the making. Brown & Bros. was contracted to make 50,000 cases for the Army, and also the Frankford Arsenal tooled up for the production.
The Brunside Rifle Company slowly built up its cartridge production as well. According to Isaac Hartshorn, agent of the company by October 1862 they were able to produce 10,000 cartridges a day. Later in 1863 the company requested a reissue of the original patent to broaden the claim, and to be able to supply the original patent cartridges solely to the government. They delivered 20,4 million cartridges to the US army till 1865. The cartridges were bundled by ten in paper wrappers, first 10, later with 12 percussion caps included.
The company included loading and reloading instruction to the rifle, and also provided proper tools for reloading the cartridges consisting a sizer for the ball and a sizer for the cases as well.
“DIRECTIONS FOR Loading Burnside’s Breech Loading Rifles.
Elevate the muzzle to an angle of thirty degrees ; press the right hand thumb on the latch of the guard, and the chamber will fall open ; drop the cartridge into the chamber, and close the latter by applying right hand smartly to the exterior of the guard. After firing, on opening the chamber take out the case with thumb and fore finger.
To Take a Loaded Cartridge from the Gun.
Elevate the muzzle to an angle of forty-five degrees ; open the chamber slowly with right hand, giving time for the ball of the cartridge to leave the barrel easily. Take the cartridge from the chamber in same manner as an empty case. To Prepare the Breech Pin, Barrel and Chamber for Cleaning. 1st. Take out the hinge screw of the guard, and the guard and chamber will be separated from the gun. 2d. Raise the cover on the guard with thumb nail, and take out the screw that holds the breech pin, and the latter will be separated from the chamber.”
The Burnside cases could be reloaded many times, and probably if the solider did not loose them, they would last forever. Reloading the cases did not need any machines, it could be done using easy sizing tools.
“TO LOAD THE CASES.
1st. Pass the balls through the ball sizer to make them uniform in size ; keep the sizer when using it, lubricated with sperm Oil to prevent it from leading.
2d. Insert the case sizer in the tops of the cases to make them uniform in size for the balls.
3d. Apply a small quantity of melted beeswax with a pointed instrument, to the vent holes, to make the cases water proof at their lover ends ; remove any excess of the wax.
4th. Place (say) 50 eases in holes made in a board in rows ; put in each case 45 grains of powder same quality as HAZARD’S AMERICAN RIFLE POWDER ; put a circular paper wad on the powder ; warm a composition of one Dart, spermaceti and two parts tallow, that has been melted together ; put, some of this on the wads and in the beads ; dip the lower end of the balls into the composition, and put them into the cases ; put, the eases in rotation into the Loading Swage ; when a case and ball are in, set the ball part of the swage upon the ball ; hold the case part in hand ; give the ball part a light blow with a small wooden mallet, sufficient to force it upon the case part, which will settle the ball upon the shoulder of the case, and close the top of the case around the ball ; take off the ball part, press up the movable button in the lower end of the cartridge part, and the cartridge will be free. The above process makes the cases water proof at their upper ends, and causes every cartridge to be of the same length, and every ball to be in the centre of every case. The spermaceti and tallow also acts at each discharge as a lubricator to the barrel, thereby preventing the gun from leading and fouling. The cases can be repeatedly reloaded. These rifles do not require washing. It is only necessary to swab the barrels and wipe the chambers and breech pins, with oily cloths after continuous firing. They can be fired any number of times continuously without cleaning, as the cartridges pack the joints, and the spermaceti and tallow lubricates and cleans the barrel at every discharge.”
There were two types of bullets loaded into the cartridges. The first bullet had a diameter of .562-564” with a weight of 380-400 grains. It had tow grease grooves. The second model was introduced in 1864 with one grease groove with the same dimensions. The lubrication was mixed from one part sperm whale oil or spermacetli and two parts of tallow.
The Poultney & Timble cartridge
The Burnside Rifle Company was never able to turn out as many cartridge as the Ordnance Department requested, so they started to look for new sources without violating the patent rights of the company. Thomas Poultney responded to the request. Their patent of “wrapped soft metal cartridges” offered a good option to substitute the Brunside patent cartridges. The case of the Poultnely cartridges differed significantly from the drawn cases of the Burnside cartridges. The case was formed by winding a brass foil. The case did not close the joint as tightly as the original cartridge, but expanded into the gap when fired. The foil was wrapped on a mandrel, and the base was closed by folding down the projecting metal by four folds. The overlapping sides were not united offering a flexibility to the case to expand into the chamber.
This method of making cases was protected by Letter’s patent No. 40,988 by Thomas J. Rodman and Silas Crispin, December 15, 1863. The Poultney and Trimble cartridge were tested three times officially with favourable results, that resulted an order of 2 million cartridges for the company, supplied at $28.36 per thousand.
The operation of the Burnside system
According to the description of the patent the operation of the rifle was easy and sound:
„The parts being in the position represented in Fig. 2, the metallic cartridge is dropped into the breech piece or chamber, which is returned to its firing-position by the operating-lever F, and bolted by bringing up the handle E. The joints between the barrel and the breech piece or chamber, and between the latter and the movable cone-seat or breech pin, are thus covered by the soft-metal cartridge-case, which at the instant of discharge is forced into or against these joints, thus effectually preventing the passage of smoke through them and keeping the parts untarnished. After the piece is discharged the breech piece or chamber is withdrawn, as in Fig. 2, and the movable cone-seat, or breech pin is caused to advance by the pin a and projection y, and thus the empty cartridge case is loosened from its chamber so that it may easily be withdrawn by hand, if it be desired to save them, to be again employed in a similar manner. Where the firing is rapid, as in an action, the gun may be turned over after the breech has been withdrawn, when the empty case will fall out and may be instantly replaced by a new ones.”
The Burnside carbine variants and production during the Civil War
James W. Ripley, Chief or Ordnance placed the first order for Burnside carbines in July 1861, and till the end of the conflict nearly 54,000 carbines were delivered to the US Army from the second, third, fourth and fifth models, all chambered fort the second type of cartridge. All were produced by Bristol Firearms Company and its successor, the Burnside Rifle Company.
The orders for the Burnisde carbines flown in slowly. In the first two years of the conflict only 3500 pieces were delivered to the army. There were important improvements to the design during its course of service. The 1st or pre-war model lacked the springed lever catch that was added to the 2nd model. The wooden forearm was added to the barrel after 1862, to save the palm of the soldier from the overheating barrel. This resulted the 3rd model. Further improvements were made after October 1862: the shape of the lever was modified and the breech block was also improved. Easy removal of the block was helped with adding a lever pin instead of the previous screw. This was the 4th model Burnside. The last model, produced from April 1863, often called the 5th, featured a stud screw on the right side of the frame to help the opening of the breech piece. This crew rode in a curved groove in the breech block.
The Burnside carbine was the second most utilized percussion breech loading carbine after the Sharps.
The Civil War cavalry – if equipped well – had a good range of arms to choose from: the sabre, revolver and carbine. Revolver and sabre war intended to be used on horseback, while the carbine was usually used dismounted in skirmish formation, fulfilling the role of the dragoon. The usual small unit tactics were to dismount a part of the available man to cover the action of the mounted soldiers with their carbine fire. This seems like good theory, but the effectiveness of the carbine fire is questionable. First the cavalry regiments seldom held target practices, second the accuracy and range of the capping carbines were anything close to the effectiveness of the rifle muskets of the infantry. It as a common belief within the infantry that these guns are useless in hitting an enemy. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hyde of the US Army remembered after the war: “We had a belief in the infantry that these carbines would not hit anything, and I confirmed the belief so far as I was concerned by borrowing one form a wounded man and firing in the line for an hour. To be sure there was nothing but smoke to fire at as a general thing, and although in dead earnest then, I am happy in the conviction that I did not hurt anybody.”
So, carbine was used mainly dismounted. But if a cavalry unit was dismounted it immediately lost a quarter of its strength as the horses had to be cared for when the rest of the horsemen were skirmishing. These tactics were much better working in defence than in an attack.
How the horsemen evaluated the Burnside carbines?
It is not easy to interpret the evaluation of the actual soldiers who carried the firearms of the Civil War. These reports are highly controversial. We can be sure that if we find a soldier who loved and arm, we will fond somebody who considered it useless, and the one decided to adopt it should be hanged. The same goes for the Burnside. Many of the reports praise its quality and accuracy, and many pull it down to the ground. And this is completely acceptable as the average soldier lacked the proper skill and methods for evaluating a military firearm. Their reports are strongly subjective based on negative or positive experiences. A soldier of the 12th Illinois Cavalry wrote they could “load and fire them 10 times per minute with care and take a very deliberate aim; in some target practice… a ball was shot 400 yards through a sheet iron car which is about 1/16 inch thick and almost through the other side.” Colonel Rugges from the 3rd Illinois reported that they were light to carry, shot well and the cartridges were well protected.
Historical shooting with the Burnside
My carbine is a 5th model, around 43000 were made between 1863-65. The serial number is 17878. The carbine is in perfect working order with a mint bore. It was produced by the Burnside Rifle Company, and based on the subinspection marks and the cartouche on the stock, it was delivered to the US cavalry.
There are two types of Burnside cases available on the market today. One is made of plastic; the other type is made of durable brass, of course none of them available in Europe. So, I did what a creative Hungarian has to do: I decided to turn a few cases till my order arrived from the US. The brass cases are not cheap, but I really have to say that an absolutely unprofessional turner like me will spend just too much time with making them, so all in all, it worth to buy the commercially available products. I starter the project with measuring the chamber. This is done by removing the breech block from the carbine, with releasing the axis. Removing the breech block is quite simple: press the little springed pin, and turn the axis 180 degrees to pull it out. This is just as easy as in the case of the Sharps rifles.
Now it is time to remove the ejector from the back of the breech block. There is a screw on the left side of the block, that must be removed to allow the ejector block with the nipple to be removed. When it is removed, we can measure the chamber. Measure the diameter at the mouth, just below the larger diameter part for the bubble of the cartridge case, and the diameter of the hole at the back with a caliper. Now reinsert the ejector piece, so its back is in flush with the back of the breech block and measure the chamber depth from the bottom of the bubble to the bottom of the chamber.
These chambers were originally reamed and the wear of the tools could result slight changes in chamber diameters, meaning your properly sized case probably will not fit into any other Brunside carbines. This is why the commercially available Burnside cases are made a bit longer, so you can fine tune them to your gun. Now deduct 0,1-0,2 mm from the length and diameters and there you go, you have the size of the cone of your cartridge. Now measure the size of the bubble, and the diameter of your barrel breech. This latter part is important, as this little collar of the case entering the barrel breech will seal the gases upon firing. The bubble, that is actually filling the gap between breech and barrel was hollow inside on the original cartridges, and held the lubrication. Reproducing this part is beyond by turner capabilities, so I skipped this part, just as it is skipped in the case of commercially available brass and plastic cases.
My cartridge cases have the following sizes:
These cases accept 40 grains of 2Fg black powder and a 14.2 mm round ball. The plastic and brass cases bought from Lodgewood accept a bit more powder, as the wall of these cartridges are a bit thinner. Their capacity is cca 44-45 grains. The bore measures .543” between the lands and .561” in the grooves, meaning that the 14.2 mm (.559”) lead round balls shall have a near complete fill in the grooves resulting a gas tight seal and a good grip of the rifling on the projectile. These round balls fit well into the mouth of my cases; with a little pressure they stay in place securely. After the cases were filled with black powder and ball, I dip lubed the cartridges using a mix of 8 parts tallow, 2 parts beeswax and a little synthetic engine oil.
The cartridges I used are of course not proper reproductions of the cartridges of the civil war time, and we cannot be sure weather the same accuracy can be obtained with the original service cartridges or not. The accuracy is dependent on such factors as the quality and quantity of powder, the specifications of the case, the form, weigh and diameter of the projectile and the lubrication.
The operation of the rifle is excellent. Both the brass and plastic cases are easy to remove from the chamber. In fact, my heavier turned cases fall out of the chamber opening the breech. The breech itself is completely gas tight. You don’t have a problem here, like in the case of the percussion Sharps rifles with burning gases escaping at the joint of the breech and barrel. The recoil is minimal, and the rifle is a tack driver. It is not a challenge to but the balls into the same hole at a distance of 30 meters. The muzzle velocity of the projectile was between 318-323 m/s or 1043-1059 f/s, delivering 851-879 J of muzzle energy.
Increasing the power of the shot is only possible if we can avoid using the limited quantity cases. But we have a large gap between the breech and bore we have to fill with something. There is a solution for this also: by cutting the base of a case you can create a collar that fills the gap and seals your action. This will increase your powder capacity to cca 65 grains.
The Burnside is an excellent piece of history and although it delivers much less killing powder than a rifle musket, it was a well designed and useful arm. The action is simple and reliable, easy to operate even on horseback. Being the first US martial arm to fire a metallic cartridge, it plays an important part in firearms history. The externally primed breech loading rifles vanished quickly, as from the second d half of the 1860s all major military powders were moving towards self-contained cartridges uniting primer, powder, bullet in a metallic case. But what the heck. This rifle still looks so pretty, we have to use it.
Balazs Nemeth, November 2020
Schiffers, Peter: Civil War Carbines. Mowbray Publishers, 2008.
Thomas, Dean S.: Round Ball to Rimfire, Part two. Thomas Publications, 2002.
Bilby, Joseph G.: Civil War Firearms. Combined Publishing, 1999.
Walter, John: Weapons of the Civil War Cavalryman. Osprey, 2020.