The Burnside Rifle was an important part of military history, shaping the American Civil War and influencing the development of firearms that followed. This article delves into the details of its development, manufacture, use, and impact on the landscape of weaponry.
Development of the Burnside Rifle
The Burnside Rifle was developed and patented in 1856 by an American engineer and soldier, Ambrose E. Burnside. Known for his unconventional ideas, Burnside sought to remedy the challenges of early muzzle-loading rifles. This led to the birth of the Burnside Breech-Loading Carbine, a precursor to the Burnside Rifle, which made its mark due to its unique design and operational efficiency.
The rifle was a breech-loading weapon, a significant departure from the muzzle-loading rifles prevalent in that era. It was characterized by a unique tapered brass cartridge that reduced gas leakage – a common problem in early breech-loading designs. This distinctive cartridge was loaded into the breech of the rifle through a hinged assembly, contributing to the faster reloading times compared to its muzzle-loading predecessors.
Manufacturing of the Burnside Rifle
Burnside formed the Bristol Firearm Company of Rhode Island to manufacture the carbine. However, financial difficulties caused the company to go bankrupt in 1857. Despite this setback, the inherent promise in the design did not go unnoticed. The rifle was later produced by the Burnside Rifle Company, which was established after Burnside sold his patent rights to recover from bankruptcy.
From 1857 until the end of the Civil War in 1865, over 55,000 Burnside Rifles were produced. The Burnside Rifle Company was the primary manufacturer, but secondary contracts were also given to other companies, such as the National Arms Company in Brooklyn, New York, and the Massachusetts Arms Company in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. This allowed for increased production to meet the demand during the American Civil War.
Use of the Burnside Rifle
The Burnside Rifle was introduced just in time for the American Civil War, where it saw widespread use, particularly among Union cavalry regiments. The rifle offered a reliable and fast-loading alternative to the muzzle-loaders of the era, and it was especially effective for mounted troops who needed quick reloading times.
The rifle's design also made it popular in other countries. Despite its primary use by the Union Army, a limited number of Burnside Rifles were exported to Mexico and were used in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Cartridges and Performance
The Burnside Rifle used a unique .54 caliber brass cartridge. This cartridge was designed to be tapered, with a hollow base into which the weapon's conical firing pin could fit. This ensured that the gas produced on firing was captured and used to increase the bullet’s velocity, a mechanism that reduced gas leakage and increased the effective range and accuracy of the rifle.
The cartridge held a 380-grain lead bullet and was loaded with 46 grains of black powder. The Burnside Rifle's muzzle velocity was approximately 950 feet per second, comparable to other rifles used in the Civil War era.
Predecessors and Comparison
The predecessors of the Burnside Rifle were primarily muzzle-loading rifles, such as the Springfield Model 1842 Musket, the Lorenz Rifle, and the Harper's Ferry Model 1803. These weapons required the user to manually push the ammunition down the muzzle, making reloading time-consuming and challenging in combat scenarios.
The Burnside Rifle, with its breech-loading mechanism, represented a significant improvement over these older designs. It offered a faster reload speed and more practicality in combat scenarios, especially for cavalry units.
Among the other breech-loading rifles of the era, the Spencer Rifle and the Sharps Rifle were prominent contemporaries of the Burnside. The Spencer Rifle, patented in 1860, was also widely used during the Civil War and was renowned for its seven-round magazine, which provided a significant advantage in sustained fire. The Sharps Rifle, known for its accuracy and range, was a popular choice among sharpshooters.
The Burnside Rifle, with its innovative design and improved performance, marked a significant step forward in the evolution of firearms. Its use during the American Civil War demonstrated the advantages of breech-loading mechanisms, leading to their widespread adoption in later rifle designs.
Despite the financial difficulties faced during its production and the competition from other breech-loading designs, the Burnside Rifle made a considerable impact. It remains a testament to Ambrose E. Burnside's ingenuity, representing an important chapter in the history of firearm development.
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