At the end of the American Civil War, the Union had well over a million surplus muzzle-loading rifle-muskets, all of which were obsolete since it was clear that in the future all military rifles would be breech-loaders and most likely use metal cartridges. The U.S. was not alone in this predicament; most European nations were in the same boat. Prior to the end of the American Civil war, only Prussia had standardized on breech-loading bolt-action rifles, albeit with paper cartridges and needle-fire ignition. France was committed to an arms race with Prussia, and having seen Prussia overcome Austria in the Austro-Prussian War, France also introduced their own bolt-action needle-fire Chassepot rifles in 1866.
The U.S., England, and Austria found an economically effective solution out of their firearm crisis. They adopted methods to convert muzzle-loaders to breech-loaders, allowing the reuse of existing stocks of muskets and associated spare or surplus parts. The English used the Snider conversion system on their pattern 1853 Enfields, and the Austrians produced Wanzl conversions for their Lorenz rifles. However, both the Snider and Wanzls were stop-gap solutions, soon to be replaced by new models, Martini-Henrys in Great Britain and Werndls in Austria. Only in the U.S. did the conversion models lead to the long-term production of similar new rifles.
Muzzle-loading rifle-muskets like this Pattern 1853 Enfield were the donors for hundreds of thousands of cartridge conversions in the late 1860s.
The loading gate on a Snider conversion opened to the side.
Snider conversion installed in the breech of a Pattern 1853 Enfield.
The “trapdoor” on the 1866 Springfield opened forward for loading.
Conversion system designed by Springfield Master Armorer Erskin S. Allin installed in a Model 1861 Springfield rifle musket donor. This is a Model 1866 “Trapdoor”, which used the original barrel from the donor musket but was sleeved down to .50 caliber with renewed rifling.
Reportedly, several conversion systems were considered by the U.S. Army, including Rolling Block and Peabody mechanisms. However, I suspect that the “trapdoor” system designed by Springfield Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin always had the inside track on the U.S. trials. One alternative conversion system, which apparently was given only passing consideration, was designed by two brothers, Joseph and George Henry Needham of London, England. The rifle shown is a Needham converted rifle.
With the hammer back the gate could be swung open. You can see that the striker was pinned to the original hammer.
The loading gate of a Needham conversion was locked in the closed position by the hammer.
This early Needham conversion was installed in a rifle-musket originally made in 1863 in Norwich Connecticut.
The Needham conversions were probably pretty cost effective, but the early models in particular had problems which I discovered after I obtained this example. As with any conversion the first step would have been to cut into the original sealed chamber, opening up a breech. A new chamber would have to be milled into the end of the barrel to accept a metal cartridge of the type pictured. Then a hinged breech block would be installed with a firing pin and transfer bar that could be hit with the hammer which had been modified to reach into a recess in the block. A spring was installed to pull back the pin before and after the moment when the transfer bar extension of the firing pin was struck by the hammer. On the early models, the firing pin transfer bar casting was liable to break, as occurred with this rifle. Loosening a set screw allowed the remnant of firing pin to be removed, revealing that it had broken at the point where the transfer bar once connected.
I was delighted (and frankly amazed), to discover that The Rifle Shoppe in Jones Oklahoma had listed in their catalog both “old style” and “new style” firing pins for Needham conversions! However these were not items that they had on the shelf but rather an ability to cast upon order. The waiting list was considerable, but after about 10 months I received the two casting shown in the picture with the broken original. I ordered both because at that time I did know not which was the right part for my gun. I had been in touch with Jim Burgess who had co-authored a report on Needham conversions with Marc Gorelick which was presented to the Virginia Gun Collectors Association and available on-line*. Jim had sent me a sketch of the firing pin from his gun, and it was clearly unlike mine, so I knew different versions existed.
The remnants of the original firing pin above two replacements obtained from the Rifle Shop. The original is a better match to the “old style” pin.
The original pin and the replacement after machining required to make it fit and function.
As can be seen in the picture, when I compared the broken pin to the two castings, it was apparent which was a match for mine; however, it was also apparent that the new piece was a rough casting with much more metal than would ever fit in the housing on my rifle. My blacksmith friend Steve Bloom (Iron Flower Forge) did the hand fitting to produce the finished replacement shown. There are several differences between the two styles of firing pins, and clearly they were never intended to be interchangeable. The most important difference is the new style pin is reinforced at the stop where my pin broke. The old style pin is one factor that suggests that this rifle is a very early sample of a Needham conversion, perhaps an example that led to its failure in U.S. government tests. The other factor is that the conversion was built into a rifle made by the Norwich Arms Co., one of the smaller contractors to the Union during the Civil War. The large majority of Needham conversions were built into rifles made by the Alfred Jenks & Sons firm in Bridesburg, Pennsylvania, and so are marked “Bridesburg” on the lock plate.
Needham conversions, like the very first generation 1865 Springfield conversions, used the original barrels which were bored for .58 caliber. They were chambered for the short large diameter cartridges shown. The upper cartridge in the photo is a .45-70 government cartridge used on the later Model 1873 Springfield, which were not “conversions” but new-made rifles in the pattern of the older conversions.
Bridesburg Needham conversions and the Fenian invasions of Canada
The Fenians were an Irish-American group who wanted to put pressure on Great Britain to free Ireland. They conspired to mount an invasion of Canada and occupy some territory in order to force concessions. The Fenians purchased surplus Bridesburg rifle-muskets and sent 600 armed men across the Canadian border from New York in June 1866. The small force briefly captured Fort Erie, but was readily overcome, and the men were sent back to the U.S.. Surprisingly, the Fenians were sufficiently well connected politically that they were able to recover their guns along with their freedom to try again.
However, by the time the Fenians were considering a second foray across the border in 1867, the British troops in Canada were equipped with Snider conversions of the P1853 Enfield rifle, and the Fenians knew they would be seriously outmatched with their original muzzle-loading Bridesburg muskets. Reportedly, supporters of the Fenians rented space in a Trenton, New Jersey shop, where hired English gunsmiths performed the Needham conversions on about 5,000 rifle-muskets. The Fenians launched a second invasion in May of 1870 across the Vermont border. The Canadians were forewarned and the Fenians soundly defeated. This time, the guns used in the attack were confiscated by the U.S. Army, along with additional guns that had been stored in Trenton. The army subsequently auctioned off the guns, a large number of which were purchased by the surplus dealer Schuyler, Hartley & Graham. These guns account for the majority of the Needham convertion rifles which occasionally show up for sale.
A Finnish reader named Ossi sent us a photo and some information on a rather outlandish Finnish weapon developed at the tail end of the Continuation War with the USSR. It was a standard m/31 Suomi submachine gun, but with the addition of an underbarrel flamethrower(!). It is not particularly uncommon historically for flamethrowers to be more or less disguised to look like regular rifles from a distance, to prevent the enemy from being able to easily spot the men with flamethrowers and concentrate fire on them. This one, however, is the only one I’m aware of where the flamethrower is attached to a fully functional firearm.
Apparently this was field tested in the summer of 1944, but never went into production. Apparently the only remaining example is on display at the Finnish Military Museum (Sotamuseo) in Helsinki.
The Swiss experimented with scoped sniper rifles during World War II, and the results were the K31/42 and the K31/43. Only a couple thousand were made between the two models, and they were not considered particularly successful. Ultimately they were replaced by the ZfK-55 (a much better rifle for the purpose) a decade after the war. The two earlier versions are pretty interesting to see though – I had the chance to look at examples of both types at Simpson Ltd in Galesburg, Illinois. Here’s the video I put together on them:
After I posted my recent video on the M1898 Rast & Gasser revolver, I had a reader named Emery write me offering one he has for sale. I would love to take him up on the offer, but the gun budget just doesn’t allow it right now – so I’m passing it on to anyone in the audience who is interested. I don’t have any personal connection to the gun or seller, but I think it’s a pretty decent deal for someone who would like one of these revolvers. The story I got about it was this:
I purchased it from a local pawn shop in June 2008. The story I was told by the pawn clerk is as follows:
The person who sold it to the pawn shop got it from his Father who brought it back from “the war” (presumably WW2). He inscribed his name on both sides of the frame to identify it as his. I think his name was Anderson. The seller (the son) was leaving for Europe with the military and did not want to take it with him for fear he might be accused of stealing it from a museum. The chambers are all bright and shiny, no pitting. The bore has some pitting in the grooves but the lands are sharp and clean. The lanyard ring and nut are missing.
If you are interested, Emery is asking $350 plus shipping costs. This is a C&R gun, and must ship to a C&R licensee or regular FFL. You can reach Emery at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask any further questions. When he tells me it is spoken for, I will take down this post.
German soldier with R35 Lebel Mle 1892 Berthier carbine – these were still being issued to support-type troops when WWII broke out. As you see here, some of them found their way into German service in occupied France.
Today’s post was written by a Swedish reader named Arne Bergkvist, about a very early Swedish automatic pistol I had not been aware of. It is particularly interesting as one of relatively few examples of self-loading firearms designed before the advent of smokeless powder. It never went into serial production, but shows plenty of ingenuity for its time. So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Arne…
Swanström 1882 Automatic Pistol
by Arne Bergkvist
Carl Peter Swanström, born on 11 September, 1854 in Älvbacka parish just outside Karlskoga, the city where the BOFORS factory is located. Swanström was an employee from the early 1880s, first as a smith but later as foreman at the gun factory. An accident in the test department took his left arm, but the work with his automatic pistol was finished. Swanström had a grandson who immigrated to United States in the late 1920s and brought both a pistol and shotgun with him. In 1968 his widow got in contact with a well known gun collector and Luger-book author, Harry E. Jones from Torrance California. He purchased the pistol (as well as a shotgun made on the same principles), and the guns have been in the Jones family for 30-40 years now.
Swanström 1882 Automatic Pistol, right side
Swanström 1882 Automatic Pistol, left side
In 1999, when I for the first time could see and touch, both the pistol and the shotgun was Harry E. Jones not with us anymore. His son Mike Jones, at that time owned and maintained the collection. Harry E. Jones had under the time he owned the pistol, contacted the Army museum in Stockholm and done investigations about Swanström to get the proper information.
Extremely well done, handmade, with a short glance looking like a sawed of Winchester 92. The loading gate is similar as on Winchesters. The finish at the internal parts looks like a Swiss watch. By removing two screws you can divide the pistol in two parts, mechanism and grip.
Swanström broken into two main parts
After divided in two parts you can continue the dismounting by taking out the magazine unit by pulling the magazine tube forward. Now the system is open for inspection and cleaning.
Swanström with magazine tube and grips removed. Note the lug under the muzzle to allow the barrel to recoil backwards guided by the magazine tube.
Instead of a hammer, the use of a striker take less space, and makes the mechanism behind the feeding elevator less bulky. The barrel-receiver unit will move backwards about 6.5 mm (1/4 inch) every time you pull the trigger. The bolt and barrel are locked together during this recoil by a pair of lever arms, which have square ends locking into the barrel assembly (the recesses in the bolt to fit them are located in the enlarged “bulbs” behind the chamber; see photo below) and round ends that lock into the bolt. Under the bolt on the picture below, you will see one of the locking levers. These levers are pushed open to release the bolt after recoil pushes the whole assembly back far enough. The striker is the “key” for opening the bolt. When striker passes the back part of the locking levers, they press out in the back and the hooks will fall deeper in to the bolt, unlocking from the barrel. After the front part of the levers open up the unit, the bolt continue backwards , throwing out the empty shell, picking up a new round from the elevator and is back in action again.
Swanström bolt mechanism – note the locking lever
The receiver turned up-side-down. Here you can see the square opening for the recoil hooks next to the chamber. At the front of the bolt you can see the recoil hook mounted at the bolt.
Swanström bolt mechanism
At the top of the receiver you can see the bulbs on each side of the bolt, just before the rear sight groove. The barrel is tapered with a steel front sight.
Swanström top view
Caliber: 7,5 mm Swiss ordnance 1882
Operating system: Short recoil
Locking system: Delayed blowback
Total length: 298 mm (11.75 in)
Total height 115 mm (4.5 in)
Barrel length 135 mm (5.3 in)
Magazine capacity:5 cartridges
Finnish: None; “in the white”
All pictures taken by Mike Jones, Torrance California USA
The Sosso was an interesting design produced experimentally by FNA Bescia in Italy in very small numbers during World War II. It was a short-recoil operated design chambered for 9x19mm, and featured a particularly unusual magazine design. Instead of using a convention spring and follow, the magazine contained what is best described as a belt-feed. A loop of chain in the magazine held 21 cartridges, and rotated one position each time the pistol was fired. This doesn’t seem to have had any particular benefit over a typical magazine (it certainly cost more to make), but it an interesting idea:
M1942 Sosso pistol magazine disassembled
An example of a Sosso form the collection of Geoffrey Sturgess was sold by James Julia at auction, which gave us the opportunity to see some outstanding photos. This particular example (serial number 8A) included a holster-stock; a concept which was on its way out of popularity by the time these were being made. In addition, Julia also published an Italian-language copy of a Sosso manual, which I have not yet have the chance to translate:
The KE-7 was a short-recoil, open-bolt light machine gun developed by SIG Neuhausen between the World Wars. It was offered for sale in basically any cartridge a nation might request, and were sold primarily to China and Latin America. I have a full Vault page on the KE-7 with a number of manuals, and today I also have these photos, from the collection of Reed Knight:
Note that the standard magazines held 25 rounds, and this gun has an extended magazine fitted. I don’t know exactly how large it is, but I would guess 40 rounds. I have not been able to find reference to these magazines in any literature.
I recently had a chance to take a look at a rifle that has been floating around the Japanese collector’s community causing grief since for at least 25 years. It is a Type 99 Arisaka, specifically a first-series Nagoya production gun, serial number 84664. What makes it unusual is that it had a Type 96 or Type 99 Nambu light machine gun bipod attached to the muzzle.
In theory, this is supposed to be an experimental rifle from Nagoya during the period when they were about to stop mounting bayonets on new-production Type 99 rifles. It is supposed to be one of several different test models made to evaluate different bipod/monopod options, which does fit the time period when this rifle was originally made. The rifle’s monopod lug was ground off of its barrel band, and the stock and handguard were cut back several inches to make space to mount the bipod. The bayonet lug on the bipod is correctly positioned, so a standard Type 30 bayonet will still fit and latch securely. The bipod and bayonet lug are numbered to match the rest of the rifle, and the dust cover and stock have been marked with characters suggesting that it is test rifle #22 from Nagoya.
Problem is, the bipod was added by a US collector in the late 70s or early 80s, not by Nagoya Arsenal. It was produced as a practical joke on another collector, and later found its way into circulation, being advertised as a real Japanese prototype. I learned this backstory from a noted collector who was offered the rifle back in the 80s, and spoke to its original creator. Unfortunately, prior to the internet it was difficult to make this sort of thing widely known, and each time someone went to sell it they had already invested in it as if it was legit, and thus wanted to recoup their money or make a nice profit on it.
Here is the rifle back in the 80s (you can tell from the couch), back when my correspondent was offered it:
Note the markings in the buttstock.
Bipod detail (the rifle has a muzzle cover as well – click to enlarge)
Having handled the gun, I have to say that I really liked the way it handled. The Nambu bipod is lighter than you might expect, and I think it works pretty well in this application. If I could buy this piece for the price of a well-sporterized Type 99, I would absolutely do so. But as a collector, one has to be careful to view novelties with some skepticism – just because we like something doesn’t mean it is historically legitimate. Caveat emptor, as always.