As the US Civil War drew to a close, it was quite apparent to everyone that muzzleloading rifles were obsolete, and any military force wishing to remain relevant would need to adopt cartridge-firing weapons. However, the Union arsenals had a million or more muzzleloading rifled muskets still on hand. How to modernize the weaponry without simply throwing away all those existing guns?
The task was put to Springfield Arsenal master armorer Erskine Allin in 1865, and he devised a “trapdoor” style of conversion to turn an old Springfield muzzleloader into a breechloader. He had the benefit of having seen the previous year’s extensive trials of breechloaders, but the final product was his combination of what he judged to be the best elements of the ideas available.
The result has long been known colloquially as the Trapdoor Springfield, and this 1865 model was the very first of them. It was still in .58 caliber, and used a rather complex extractor system. It would soon be revised to make improvements to it, and ultimately a .45-70 model became standard for US infantry and cavalry forces – and remained their standard until the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen in the 1890s.
Hugo Borchardt was a brilliant and well-traveled firearms designer. He was born in Germany but emigrated to the United States at a fairly young age, where he became engaged in the gun trade. He spent time working with Winchester, Remington (where he patented improvements on James Paris Lee’s box magazine idea), and Sharps (where he designed the M1878 rifle and worked as Superintendent). With this experience under his belt, he returned to Germany and worked with the Loewe/DWM corporation.
Borchardt’s seminal invention in Germany was his C93 automatic pistol, which was the first of its kinds using a reasonably powerful cartridge and a locked-breech action. Unlike the other designs extant at the time, the C93 went into commercial production, and 3000 were ultimately made. The gun was safe and reliable, and it set the standard for locating a detachable box magazine in the grip, which remains the standard today. However, its very bulky mainspring assembly led to it being a rather awkward handgun to use (although it was a quite nice carbine when used with its detachable shoulder stock).
Borchardt’s talents came hand-in-hand with a fair amount of hubris, and he refused to consider the possibility that his pistol could be improved. Several military trials requested a smaller and handier version of the gun, and when Borchardt refused to make those changes, DWM gave the job to a man named Georg Luger. Luger was very good at taking existing designs and improving them, and he transformed the basic action of the C93 into the Luger automatic pistol, which of course became one of the most iconic handguns ever made.
The Reifgraber, aka Union Automatic Pistol, is an interesting mechanical design from an inventor with an interesting personal background.
Joseph Joachim Reifgraber was born in Austria in 1856, and emigrated to the United States at some point before the mid 1880s. He was a machinist by trade, and was clearly a political activist as well, in the mid and late 1880s, he published a German-language anarchist newspaper in St Louis, entitled Die Parole. He also served as delegate to at least a couple trade unionist conventions around the same time.
However, his political activism seems to waned as time went by, and he began to take out patents on firearms development. He submitted both rifles and pistols to US military testing (not exactly the actions of a truly devoted anarchist…). His pistol design here is an unusual short recoil, locked breech action which was marketed by the Union Firearms Company of Toledo, Ohio. Interestingly, it was chambered for the rimmed .32 S&W revolver cartridge, and could be supplied with a second barrel for use with .32 ACP cartridges.
If the Colt Paterson was the high-end classy choice for a sidearm in the mid-1800s, the Allen & Thurber pepperbox would have been the simple working man’s alternative. While Colt was working for military contracts, Allen & Thurber ignored that market in favor of producing an affordable civilian sidearm in large volume.
The basic idea of a pepperbox is like a revolver, but with the cylinder comprising a cluster of full-length barrels instead of just chambers lining up with a single barrel in turn. This made the pepperbox a simpler weapon to manufacture, as it did not have the precise alignment requirements of a traditional revolver. Allen & Thurber’s examples were further simplified by having no sights and smooth bored, and being double action only.
These were not the tool of professional gunmen, but they were simple, cheap (a quarter the cost of a Colt), and effective enough at close range. Allen & Thurber sold a huge number of them (exact numbers are not known, as they were not serialized) during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s and made a very tidy profit in the process. The end of the pepperbox came as metallic cartridges were becoming common place, as there was no easy way to convert the from muzzleloading to cartridge use, and cheap revolvers would take their place as the stereotypical working man’s handgun.
The Swiss military began experimenting with scoped sniper rifle during WWII, with the K31/42 and K31/43. These use periscopic optics permanently mounted to the side of the receiver, and were both found less than ideal. Experiments continued after WWII, and the periscopes were replaced with tradition style scopes on quick-release mountings.
Eventually the idea of making the sniper rifles mostly parts-interchangeable with the standard K31 carbines was also discarded, and the ZfK-55 was adopted. It uses the same basic action as the K31, but only a few small parts can be interchanged between the two types of rifle. The ZfK-55 has a longer and heavier barrel, heavy stock, integral bipod, muzzle brake, and most unusual of all, the action is canted slightly clockwise. This was done to allow the optic to be centered over the barrel but still allow the use of standard 6-round charger clips to reload the rifle.
Today we’re looking an another early European micro-pistol. This is the Erika, developed by Franz Pfannl and chambered for the 4.25mm Liliput cartridge (which develops approximately 1/4 the energy of the .25 ACP).
These pistols were actually carried for personal protection, under the theory that any gun was better than no gun, and that the presentation and threat of a gunshot would be sufficient to dissuade an attacker (or with the idea of using them on stray dogs, for example).
Practicality aside, the mechanical internals of tiny pistols like this Erika are quite interesting to see, simple because of their minute size. Pfannl really was part gunsmith and part watchmaker…
Consider the problem of the pocket revolver of the 1860s. In order to be small enough to be reasonably concealable and comfortable to carry, it would typically be made in .31 caliber. That’s not a lot of firepower…even back in those days when ballistics potency was rather less of a concern to buyers than it is today.But for the person who does want something more than 5 shots of rather small caliber, what is the solution?
Well, John Walch came up with an idea. Superimposed charges were not a new idea, but Walch took that concept and applied it to the pocket pistol. The idea of superimposed charges is that you load two complete sets of powder and projectile into a single chamber, and then have two separate firing mechanisms so that you can fire the front charge first and then the rear charge. This had been used in flintlock rifles for example, but Walch used it to double the capacity of a 5-shot revolver to 10 rounds. The Walch revolver had two hammers and a single trigger, which would drop the hammers in the proper order.
While to 10-shot capacity in a small package was a good idea, the gun suffered from some problems. If the rather long flash-tube to ignite the front charge in a chamber became clogged with black powder residue and the rear charge were then fired, the gun could explode. When it did work properly, it was even less powerful than a typical .31 caliber piece, as the double charges had to be a bit smaller than normal to allow space for both in the cylinder.
The guns were used by one company of Michigan Infantry during the Civil War, but never sold very well. Interestingly, they were actually manufactured by Oliver Winchester and the New Haven Arms Company…
Today we are accustomed to seeing sub-compact 3.5″ 1911 pistols for sale from a whole bunch of manufacturers – but this was not always the case. Making a really small 1911 actually run reliably is not a trivial proposition, as the slide velocity and spring force become very touchy, and small changes can have major repercussions. The first company to get the kinks out of the mechanism and bring an effective pistol to market was Detonics. Their MkI has a number of interesting features that were quite novel at the time.
The US National Firearms Act includes a category called “Any Other Weapon”, which encompasses a variety of regulated weapons, including firearms which are disguised to look live other everyday objects, such as canes, and pens. R.J. Braverman, however, devised and patented a type of pen gun which the ATF concluded was not subject to regulation as an AOW. Braverman did this by designing a gun which had to be folded into a vaguely gun-like shape before it could be fired, thus negating its disguised look.
The gun was called the “Stinger“, and was sold in the 1990s in several calibers – .22LR, .22WMR, .25ACP, .32ACP, and .380 (although it was recommended not to shoot the .38-=0 much, as it could damage the gun’s mechanism). While it was legally simply a handgun, the Stinger was pretty limited in its capabilities. It was a single shot device, and rather laborious to reload. It also featured an automatically-engaged safety and no sights. Still, if you wanted a gun that looked like a pen (or perhaps like a tire pressure gauge), the Stinger was definitely your easiest solution!
The “Plus Ultra” was a variation on the Ruby automatic pistol made by Gabilondo y Urresti (the original holders of the Ruby trademark) just shortly before they changed their name to Llama. The Plus Ultra was a scaled-up Ruby using double stack, 22-round magazines (still chambered for .32ACP). It offered much greater capacity than the standard pistols, and a few were actually made as select-fire guns. They never sold particularly well, though, and are rather uncommon today.