Springfield Rifle
As used by US Forces circa Spanish American War

This page is provided for those aficionados of Theodore Roosevelt who are interested in the arms issued and used by US forces and the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. While it is not a complete history, this page will provide a good basic reference on the Springfield Trapdoor rifles and their ammunition. Because of the numerous models of the Springfield that were in use prior to the Spanish-American war I have limited the specifications to the M1888 rifle and the M1873 carbine which are representative of the line and are what were most commonly used in that conflict.

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| The Rifle | The Ammunition | Ballistics |


The Rifle

While it is doubtful if any of the Rough Riders used the Springfield rifles and carbines they were of common enough issue in the military to be included in this overview of arms of the Rough Riders.

Based upon a post-Civil War cartridge conversion of muzzle loading muskets, the "trapdoor" models (more properly called Allin Conversions) originally utilized the .58 rimfire and then the.50-70 cartridge. By 1868, instead of converting old weapons into "trapdoor" models, a new rifle, the U.S. Rifle, Model 1868, was developed using the Allin "trapdoor" mechanism. This weapon went through a a reduction in caliber to .45-70 and series of minor modifications (models 1870, 1873, 1879,1880, 1884 and 1888, and 1889) throughout its service life. Manufacture of the "trapdoor" Springfields was terminated in June of 1893 but production of certain critical parts was resumed during the Spanish-American War. However, the shortage of parts for field repair became so acute that parts had to be obtained by disassembling over 8,000 older rifles in storage.

The Springfield rifle was the main shoulder arm used by the state troops at the outbreak of the war, in spite of its being outdated in comparison with the smokeless powder weapons that were becoming available. Many of the existing National Guard regiments already carried this weapon, so it made sense to continue arming their enlarged regiments with the same weapon. The United States government had many of these weapons in storage so they could be readily supplied to the sudden influx of troops. The overwhelming major objection to this rifle was that it used black powder instead of the more modern smokeless powder. The black powder cartridge left a tell-tale cloud of smoke by which the shooter could be spotted and fired upon. Also, the smoke cloud required the shooter to wait until the smoke cleared before he could aim and fire again. Another perceived problem was that the original ammunition with the folded copper "balloon" head cases had a nasty reputation for sheering off in the chamber during rapid firing but this problem was eliminated with the newer case designs at the time of the war. Unfortunately it's reputation for this problem did not wane as quickly.

In addition, the weapon was a single shot whereas the newer Krag-Jorgensen and the Spanish Mauser rifles were magazine weapons. The United States, however, insisted in its military doctrine that its magazine-equipped Krag-Jorgensen rifles be used as single shot weapons with the rounds in the magazine reserved only for "emergencies." Still, in actual combat, the rate of fire of the single-shot "trapdoor" rifles was much slower than that of the Krags.

At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the current model was the Model 1888/89 although there were many of the earlier model rifles and carbines in use. The modification that was the major difference between the Model 1873 and the Model 1888 was the replacement of the triangular bayonet with a rod bayonet. Since there were only minor differences between the various models of the Springfield Rifles and carbines I have limited the table below to the basic specifications of the M1888 rifle and M1873 carbine. The Springfields were fitted with 3 groove barrels with a 1:22" twist

US Rifle M1873
Springfield M1873 rifle (7k jpg)

Photo courtesy David A. Deemer

US Carbine M1873

Photo courtesy Joseph P. Blecha

Springfield Rifle and Carbine
Model Barrel
(in)
Weight
(lb)
OAL
(in)
Adoption
Date
Miscellaneous
M1888 Rifle 32.5 9.3 51.9 n/a Differed from preceding models
mainly in the type of bayonet used
M1873 carbine 22 7.5 41.3 n/a  

Information gathered from an 1887 issue of The Rifle indicates that using the 500 gr round that accuracy of the M1884 production rifle was about 3.5 - 4 MOA out to about 1300 yards, 6 MOA from1300 - 1500 yards, and about 12 MOA from 1500 to 2000 yards--all based upon 10-shot groups.


Ammunition

Originally the ball ammunition for the Springfields was issued in two variations. A .45-70-405 loading which utilized a charge of 70 gr of FG black powder with a 405 gr round nose lead bullet for use with the rifle, and a lighter carbine load known as the .45-55-405. This utilized the 405 gr bullet and a 55 gr charge of FG powder along with pasteboard wadding to make up for the empty space, and was designed to make recoil more manageable in the lighter carbines. In August of 1882 the 500 gr bullet load with improved long range accuracy and ballistics (due to the more efficient burning of the powder charge with the heavier bullet) was adopted as the M1881 ball, and replaced the 405 gr rifle load.

Government ordnance records indicate that after July, 1882 no 405 gr bullets were produced. It appears that the "carbine" load was officially phased out during that period although there were probably large stocks on hand. All three of these loadings were useable in any .45-70 caliber weapon.

As originally produced the cartridge case was non-reloadable and made of folded copper and used the Benet cup inside primer (no external primer). In August of 1882 concurrent with the adoption of the 500 gr bullet the case was changed to a solid head design with a standard primer of the Berdan type. However, by the time of the Spanish American War the case was made of tinned brass which was much stronger than the copper previously used and more resistant to corrosion, and utilized a Boxer type primer.

Originally, both the rifle and carbine rounds were seated to the same overall length and headstamped with a "C" or "R" for identification. However, in 1886 because of the earlier discontinuing of the 405 gr rifle load and the 405 gr bullet it was decided to eliminate the over powder wad in the 55 gr loads and to seat the bullet directly on top of the reduced powder charge resulting in an instantly identifiable difference in overall length and the headstamping practice was dropped.

The 500 gr load was the defacto "issue" .45-70 cartridge for the US military during the Spanish American War. However, because there were no doubt large stocks of all three variations of the cartridge in the arsenals of the National Guard it is certain that all were used in the Spanish-American War.

In early 1897 experiments were done using smokeless powder and production of the M1898 smokeless round was started. It utilized a charge of 30.5 gr of DuPont No. 4 which gave a velocity of 1,428 f/s at a chamber pressure of about 18,000 psi. These rounds can be identified by a cannelure about .68" back from the case mouth which was needed to hold the bullet in place, previously accomplished by seating the bullet on top of the 70 gr black powder charge. The improved ballistics would give about 17" less drop at 500 yards and 110" less drop at 1000 yards using the same 300 yard zero, a significant improvement. However, it is extremely doubtful if any of this smokeless ammunition saw action in the Spanish-American War because of the large stock piles of the black powder loads. A 500 gr jacketed bullet load was tested and approved in 1898 as the "M1898 Jacketed" and ordered but this ammunition may never have been delivered. No production smokeless carbine loads or jacketed bullet loads are known.

The basic ammunition load for the Springfield armed soldier was 50 rounds carried in a single-loop "Mills" belt about the waist.

About 7 million rounds of .45-70 were eventually produce, but with the adoption of the .30 caliber Krag rifles the service life of the .45-70 was coming to an end and the Philippine campaign was probably the last combat use of the .45-70. However, Springfield .45-70 rifles were still being issued for guard duty as late as the WW I.

.45-70 US Army Cartridge Basic Specifications
Weight of loaded ball round n/a
Cartridge case Copper, brass, or tinned brass
Bullet Jacket None
Bullet Core Lead and tin (1:16) compressed
Bullet Length 405 gr - 1.1", 500 gr - 1.3"
Bullet Diameter .457 - .458"
Bullet Weight 405 gr or 500 gr.
Powder Charge Rifle load 70 gr FG black powder for both the 405 gr and
500 gr bullets. 55 gr black powder for the carbine loading.
Muzzle Velocity (Ball) * .45-70-405 - 1350 f/s; .45-70-500 - 1315 f/s;
.45-55-405 - 1125 f/s from carbine
Penetration
(White Pine @ 100 yd) *
19" (500 gr rifle); 14.5" (405 gr carbine)
Pressure 405 gr Rifle and 500 gr Rifle 18 - 20,000 psi
* From period ordnance publications

 

.45-70 Cartridge Dimensions (Period Ordnance Data)
.45-70 ctg dimensions (20k gif)

 

.45-70 US Army Cartridge Issued Variations
Cartridge Identification Miscellaneous Information
405 gr Rifle Ball RN lead bullet
and "R" headstamp
 
405 gr Carbine Ball Short RN lead bullet
and/or "C" headstamp
 
500 gr Ball Long RN lead bullet Smokeless load has a cannelure
below case mouth.
Blank Shellacked card wad and tapered
case mouth
Also manufactured with with a
bullet-shaped case mouth.
Blank (Gatling Gun) Extended case the length of a ball
round with a mouth of the case
shaped like a bullet with several slits.
Also seen with a wooden or
paper bullet.
Guard Round lead ball with crimped case mouth  

Ballistics

Because of its low velocity the .45-70 rounds had a very curved trajectory which made it more difficult to hit targets at long range, especially for semi-trained reserve troops, although in the hands of a skilled marksman hits at extreme range were frequently made. In addition, difference in size and weight between the .45-70 and .30-40 (one hundred .30-40 cartridges weighed the same as sixty .45-70 cartridges) meant that the average soldier could carry fewer rounds with him for the Springfield than he could carry for newer Krag-Jorgensen Rifle.

The ballistics below are based upon period ordnance manuals for the muzzle velocities and contemporary lead round nose bullets of matching shape whose ballistic coefficients are known.

Comparative Ballistics
Range .45-70
500 gr
.45-70
405 gr Carbine
.45-70
405 gr Rifle
  Velocity Trajectory Velocity Trajectory Velocity Trajectory
0 1315 -1.0 1125 -1.0 1330 -1.0
100 1200 24.8 1030 33.6 1180 26.0
200 1110 26.5 960 35.5 1070 28.2
300 1040 910 990
400 990 -58.3 860 -77.7 930 -63.5
500 950 -101 820 -202 880 -167
600 910 -285 780 -378 840 -315
700 870 -460 750 -612 800 -513
800 840 -680 710 -908 760 -765
900 810 -950 680 -1280 730 -1080
1000 780 -1270 650 -1720 690 -1460

Period ordnance publication state that at 300 yards the mean radius (double it for approximate group size--not exact but close enough) for 10 shot groups was about 4.2" for the rifle and 6.5" for the carbine.

The .45-70 did have one advantage over the more modern rifles of the time. Because its .45 caliber bullet made a large permanent wound cavity in comparison to the 7 mm Mauser and .30-40 Krag rounds it was a noticeably better "stopper" than the more modern cartridges which made very small permanent wound cavities unless bone was hit. (See the page on the Krag for the wound profile for the "modern" rounds.

The wound profile below, while actually from the 10.4 mm Vetterli cartridge (300 gr lead round nose at 1357 f/s), is typical of the wounds produced by big bore lead round nose rifle bullets. The 405 gr rifle load would probably perform almost identically to this round and the 500 gr rifle round would simply exhibit somewhat greater penetration due to its higher sectional density.

Typical wound profile (21k jpg)

 

The .45-70 cartridge has been enjoying a resurgence in the last few years by folks who appreciate the power of its big fat bullet. Loads for the .45-70 were originally limited to about 20,000 psi for the Springfield.  In modern lever and bolt action rifles suitable for higher pressures and using modern powders some spectacular ballistics can be achieved and it is possible to drive a 500 - 540 gr - cast lead bullet at close to 1600 f/s from an 18" - 22" barrel.  However, to achieve these improved ballistics pressures are raised to the 35-37,000 psi level--a level that will destroy a Springfield.

As an interesting historical foot note, the .45-70 and similar cartridges were tested at very long ranges (up to 2 miles (!) in 1879, at Sandy Hook, NJ.  Click on the link below for further fascinating information.

http://www.researchpress.co.uk/targets/ballistics/sandyhook.htm


Reference Material

The .47-70 Springfield, Books I and II, by Albert Frasca and Robert Hill

History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition, Vol. I: 1880-1939, by F.W. Hackley, W.H. Woodin, & E.L. Scranton, Macmilin Co., New York, 1967

International Ammunition Association Journal, Issue 391-September-October, 1996, "A Look inside the trapdoor of the Caliber 45 Rifle Model of 1873," by Larry Duddy

Description and Rules for the Management of the Springfield Rifle, Carbine, and Army revolvers, 1874 (reproduction), Frasca Publishing


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Updated 2010-04-06