Strange History: A Remington Rolling Block From the USS Niagara

This rifle is being sold at Morphys on October 31, 2018.

The story of the USS Niagara is quite an odd little corner of history. It was a ship built in 1877 and acquired by the US Navy in 1898, fitted out as a water distillery and supply ship. That fitting out was not actually done by the Navy, though, but rather by a group of wealth private citizens in New York, headed by William Randolph Hearst. As an outburst of (allegedly) grassroots support for the US war effort against Spain, these men outfitted and donated the Niagara to the Navy. And the fitted it out like a private yacht, with porcelain china and silver flatware for all the officers and sailors, and much more. The arms and accouterments purchased were all finely stamped or engraved with the name of the ship, including 35 brand new Remington Rolling Block rifles in 7mm Mauser, with “NIAGARA” engraved in bold letters across the top of the receiver.

Once the outfitting was complete and the ship was in Navy service, she sailed down to Cube, stayed on station for about two months without participating in any action of note, and then sailed back to New York to be decommissioned and sold for scrap. Francis Bannerman was on hand at the scrap auction, and bought most of the small items form the ship (including the rifles). Bannerman’s catalog would list Niagara items until 1927…

 

32 Comments

    • Cherndog. Read my post and also perhaps buy my book noted in the text and you might have a different opinion of the US Navy’s efforts in the Spanish American War. …. the book is sold for cost and under 10 bucks but it’s 400 pages and 800 illustrations and it covers a subject that should be better known. The Niagara was a needed vessel and when you consider what the US Navy (and Army) gained for the US, you might have a different opinion of the investment.

      • Here is a history of the Niagara: Turns out it’s intended distilling role was superceded by other ships but she served as a ammunition ship in Cuba and Puerto Rico, something else the Navy needed. First a merchant ship for 20 years, then naval service for the Spanish American war, and after being sold out of the Navy, she continued her Merchant career for many, many years. For every ship in the forefront there are several doing jobs behind them. Here is her history: http://www.shipscribe.com/usnaux/AW/aw-niagara.html

    • “Wasted just after serving two months?”
      But notice that with 1890s technology, keeping ship in storage, even mothballed, is not free cost. This might be actually more economic solution than keeping it, even if at first glance it might looks as “waste”.

  1. Thanks for showing this one, Ian. I’m always thrilled to see a video about a black powder cartridge military arm. The single-shot military rifles from the 30-odd-year span between development of the modern cartridge and the introduction of smokeless powder have always been my favorite, and especially the Remington rolling blocks.

    • Allen, I may have misunderstood you post but to confirm, the Remington in 7mm was smokeless, one of the first mass produced smokeless powder rifles in quantity in the 1890’s that served in battle in quantity. The Remington, like the Colt SAA, due to it’s simplicity, effortlessly made the transition from black powder to smokeless.

      • “The Remington, like the Colt SAA, due to it’s simplicity, effortlessly made the transition from black powder to smokeless.”
        I don’t agree. What allowed this, was in case of Remington, big safety margin, allowing usage of stronger than original cartridge. In case of Colt SAA or more precisely revolver cartridges after invention of smokeless powder, they simply created smokeless loading which did not excess maximal pressures of old black-powder, thus they could be used in revolver for black-powder. Notice that, unlike in rifle cartridge, there was not big demand for brand new [i.e. with new case shape] smoke-less powder cartridge.

      • The rolling block started as a black powder cartridge gun, then made the transition to smokeless – probably not a great idea, in hindsight. Still, the rolling block happens to be my favorite rifle. My original post was really more about rollimg blocks in general rather than this particular rifle.

        • Nothing wrong with the idea in my opinion. The rolling block action is exceptionally strong, so converting it for smokeless powder cartridges was quite easy. Unlike, say, the various black powder era bolt action rifles with only a single locking lug. Some were still converted, but only for rear echelon troops, which were not expected to fire their weapons a lot.

          In any case, the rolling block was still making Remington money during WW1, when the French bought a bunch for their rear echelons.

          • Yes, I have been wanting a WW-1 French rolling block in the 8mm Lebel for some time. Not too long ago, Ian put up a video of one.

  2. ” fitted it out like a private yacht, with porcelain china and silver flatware for all the officers and sailors, and much more.”
    Did they find appropriate man to command it? That is having similiar views regarding military uniforms to Reichsmarschall Göring?

    • Perhaps Gun Jesus overstates the poshness of the Niagara in relation to other vessels, of course I am sure the Niagara’s accommodations were first class. At that time, Naval and Merchant officers of all nations, while they might not have been wealthy, prided themselves in their gentlemanlyness which included rather lavish dinnerware and such. It as a matter of pride. All major naval warships had a silver service and china for entertaining. The term “officer and a gentleman” was no empty phrase, it was an expectation. Even today the US Naval Academy includes Ballroom dancing as part of the education of an officer. Also, there was no lack of professional ships captains and officers in the US Merchant Fleet, these guys were no pansies.

  3. Ian you are Gun Jesus and I worship you for that, but you are not US Navy History Jesus. As for the Remington Rolling Block, thank you for showing it. It is interesting that the RB where in 7mm as were the Rough Riders Potato diggers, the South and Central American Market in 7×57 was very significant to US gun manufacturers in that era peaking with the Mexican revolution around 1912 although by then the Carabina Trienta Trienta became the most sold weapon from the US to the South. But I digress as I am wont to do.
    The Navy actually made a good showing in the campaign (with a little help from wealthy patriots some with their own agendas) compared to the US Army that did not show to advantage. Actually the navy needed the water distilling ships to support the auxiliary ships on the blockade. The US Navy was not prepared for a conducting an extended Naval blockade and while the few standard warships in 1898 had their own sufficient water distilling plants, many of the smaller auxiliary ships, some 67, mostly civilian in origin, did not have adequate distilleries for extended blockade duty and any summer in Cuba demanded lots of water (and ICE). The Navy also had 37 ships directly tied to service the fleet. They actually had two distillery ships, including Niagara on service in Cuba. There were also two ships that provided ICE (most of the warships could produce their own but many of the auxiliary ships and transports packed with men did not have the capability). There were 9 colliers and 20 transports and one valuable repair ship dedicated for the fleet (not including the large transports servicing the US Army). Like most of the unsung transports and auxiliary ships used in war they received little publicity but they did valuable service so knocking the value of the Niagara is showing a bit of ignorance.
    The US Navy and Marines onshore maintained a high standard of health and the ships showed a high standard of service. When you read the deck logs of the USS Texas, the most busy battleship in the campaign, you see the value of those transports and auxiliaries. I co-authored what may be the most detailed study of the design, construction, equipment, and service any US Warship ever written in book form, Old Hoodoo, The Battleship Texas, America’s First Battleship, 1895-1911. It is available at cost for under 10 dollars on Amazon.com. We didn’t bother with attempting to recoup costs or profit from the book….books like this are not best sellers and the IRS is a hassle with such small numbers and we didn’t need the hassle. 400 pages/800 illustrations…pic.
    To anyone that has studied the USS Maine and the probable causes of the explosion, there is no mystery (although media hysteria and Navy white-washing help make it so in the period). The Maine (the second commissioned battleship of the US Navy), as one of the first large steel hulled warships of the US Navy, and due to lack of our lack of experience in designing and building such ships, was a poor design, poorly executed, and a bomb waiting for the right circumstances to go off (as were many of the pre-dreds of the period, they were exploding like firecrackers). The USS Texas authorized at the same time, was a British design, US built, and suffered from fewer of the design and construction issues of the Maine. Of course the Maine was not intended to be a battleship at all, but an Armored Cruiser but it’s inadequacies as such put it more in perhaps a 3d class battleship classification so she was commissioned as a battleship after the Texas-a true second class battleship. While the Texas thrived in the action packed (for her) Spanish American War, the Maine blew herself up with a little help from an unlucky set of circumstances (she really wasn’t ready to be sent to Cuba when assigned) and probably a lot of ignorance of the officers (which the US Navy was not going to discuss-ever, not even the Rickover study went there).

    • You seem to know a good bit about the Maine. As a confirmed landlubber, I have a question;

      The best guess as to what actually blew her up seems to be that a short circuit in an electric lighting system caused a spark in a half-or-less full coal bunker, resulting in a thermobaric (fuel-air) dust explosion that in turn set off other things, like her magazines.

      True? False? Maybe? Or is there a better explanation?

      cheers

      eon

      • If I might be permitted to jump in on this one, Admiral Rickover (the nuke submarine guy) wrote a book some years back about the loss of the Maine. He believed that the cause was a slowly smoldering coal fire in a bunker adjacent to a forward powder magazine. I’m an old navy engineer but my experience only goes back to black oil fired propulsion plants. Lots of merchant ships in WW2 still burned coal but that’s a discussion for another day. Anyway I learned that coal will spontaneously combust in very hot and confined environments, like a warship in the tropics. According to Admiral Rickover and other sources I’ve read, slow burning coal bunker fires were very common on ships. The coal bunkers were pretty well starved for combustion air so there usually wasn’t a major problem. Unfortunately the coal storage and one of the magazines on the Maine shared a common bulkhead. The magazine eventually cooked off as the shell propellants of those days weren’t very stable. All of the evidence from the wreck indicates that the Maine was sunk by an internal explosion. The war of course was started by William Randolph Hearst’s propaganda.

        I might throw in a comment about the Remington Rolling Block as well. The rifle was used by almost everybody except in the British Empire during the Victorian Era because it was simple, strong, and cheap. Sort of the AK-47 of its day. They were great for what we’d call third world armies – only a couple of moving parts, they worked with little or no maintenance, and you could fix them with a big rock. Remember that its competition was the Snyder and later the Martini Henry, the trapdoor Springfield, and the various early European breechloaders that really didn’t work all that well. If I was going to walk across Africa or chase bandits in Khyber Pass in the 1880s or even 90s I think that I’d be well served by a big bore Rolling Block in whatever caliber was locally available and a Webley or Smith and Wesson Schofield on my belt.

        • Thank you! I knew about the common bulkhead between the bunker and the magazine, but was unaware of the coal spontaneous combustion problem, although it is sometimes seen in coal tipples on land.

          cheers

          eon

        • Though I agree with you that the Remington rolling block was probably the best military single shot rifle of its era, the Mauser M1871 and Gras Mle 1874 certainly worked well enough and both were used by other nations than their native one as well. The Italian Vetterli wasn’t bad either, although of course regression in capability compared to the original repeating Swiss Vetterli. The latter was just very expensive…

          • There was also Berdan bolt-action single-shot rifle (today, Berdan is most commonly associated with another of his invention – Berdan primer).
            Its designer was citizen of U.S.A but it was most widely used by Russian Empire, default until adoption of 3-line rifle pattern 1891 (Mosin), but still commonly used during Great War and Russian Civil War, in limited numbers used by Finnish forces (left over from Finnish Civil War of 1918) during Talvisota.
            Berdan rifles were also used by Tsardom of Bulgaria. Interestingly some Berdan rifles were converted to 7,62x54R cartridge, see 1st photo from bottom:
            http://www.hungariae.com/Berdan.htm

    • “Maine (the second commissioned battleship of the US Navy), as one of the first large steel hulled warships of the US Navy, and due to lack of our lack of experience in designing and building such ships, was a poor design, poorly executed, and a bomb waiting for the right circumstances to go off (as were many of the pre-dreds of the period, they were exploding like firecrackers)”
      I am not sure about last sentence. What were pre-dreadnought lost to explosion without enemy action AND due to design flaw (i.e. without crew negligence)?
      I found such list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Ships_sunk_by_non-combat_internal_explosions and it contains following pre-dreadnoughts:
      Italian Benedetto Brin (1915) – boom due to Austro-Hungarian sabotage
      HMS Bulwark (1914) – improper storage of ammunition
      French Iéna (1907) – possibly old powder, was disposing of old powder regulated in French Navy at that moment?
      French Liberté (1911) – also possibly old powder, question as above

      • Well, I know that the double-base powder used back then was inherently unstable over time, and would develop esters that formed gaseous byproducts that when mixed with air could spontaneously combust, thus igniting the propellant itself in a deflagrative reaction; that’s a very rapid burn that looks a lot like a full-throated explosion.

        It was just such a reaction that literally blew the HMS Hood in half in the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 after a single penetrating hit to her aft magazine by a 38cm AP shell from KM Bismarck;

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zbz6Oa5PQuA

        A similar fate was narrowly missed by the USS South Dakota (BB-57) on 6 May 1945, when a tank of propellant powder for her 16 inch main guns deflagrated, and then exploded, while being transferred from the supply ship USS Wrangell. Rapid flooding of her forward magazines saved the ship;

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_South_Dakota_(BB-57)

        Ironically, at the time South Dakota was commanded by RADM Charles Momsen, an officer mainly noted for being one of the Navy’s leading experts on submarine warfare and underwater rescue;

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Momsen

        Apparently , “Swede” Momsen knew how to not get a battleship sunk, too.

        cheers

        eon

        • BB-57 case, shown that explosion also happens on post-dreadnought battleships and that there was always chance of propulsive powder going off in wrong time.
          Back to pre-dreadnought: so far 2 cases (both French battleships) which possibly exploded without “help”.
          I am quite confused about Japanese Mikasa: some texts say it exploded, but there exist many photos showing currently Mikasa as monument. Did existed more than 1 ship bearing that name?
          Anyway, that is at most 3 cases, when they were many many pre-dreadnought which did not go “boom” and often serving tens of years, for example:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMS_Schleswig-Holstein

  4. Fascinating topic, Ian.

    I found this concerning the life of the ship Niagara after decommisioning:

    http://shipscribe.com/usnaux/AW/aw-niagara.html

    “…was decommissioned on 14 Oct 98. Struck from the Navy list on 20 Apr 99, NIAGARA was advertised for sale on 13 Jun 99 and was sold on 19 Jul 99 to Henry P Booth of New York (president of the Ward Line) for $75,563. NIAGARA resumed service with the Ward Line in 1899 and remained in operation until she was laid up at New York in 1906. She was purchased in 1910 by the Brunswick S.S. Co. (Bee Line), which operated out of Brunswick, Georgia, to New York and Havana. Refitted and renamed BRUNSWICK, she was chartered back to the Ward Line in 1910 and 1911 and then sold in 1912 to Gulf & Southern S.S. Co. Sold again in 1918 to the United Fruit Co., she was renamed TRUXILLO. Again sold in 1920 and 1921, she was scrapped in 1925.”

  5. I looked at buying the book on the Texas, $10 in the US, $58 plus postage in Australia and Amazon U.S. won’t ship here because of tax collection reasons by our retarded government.

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