US Army Rifle and Carbine Adoption 1865-1900

Courtesy of reader Mike, we have today a copy of a Master’s thesis written by Major John Davis in 2007, as a part of a Staff College degree. The title of the paper is “U.S. Army Rifle and Carbine Adoption Between 1865 and 1900”, and the first two thirds of it comprise a pretty good history of the rifle adoption process at the time. It begins with the Allin conversions of the Springfield (colloquially called the Trapdoor Springfield), and goes through the adoption of the Krag rifles and carbines. During that time there were several testing boards convened to investigate new rifle designs, including many with magazines. Davis’ thesis covers these series of tests well, and gives some insight into why the Trapdoor remained the official US rifle for so long. Several of the competing designs are pretty interesting guns in their own right, including the Winchester-Hotchkiss, Remington-Lee, Chaffee-Reese, and others.

The final third of the paper left me a bit flat, though. I expect the thesis was required to apply a historical study to a current day military issue, and Davis makes the argument that the rationale for maintaining the Springfield in the face of newer technology is parallel to the rationale for the modern Army not replacing the AR platform. To this end he discusses the various replacement options like the XM-8 and HK 416, and cites a couple anecdotal cases of M4 carbines malfunctioning in battle (although apparently not arguing with the stated 5000 average rounds between failures for the weapon, which is extremely good).

Whether Davis effectively makes the argument for replacing the M4 I will leave up to you – but his coverage of the 1870 and 1880s trials is excellent, and well worth reading:

U.S. Army Rifle and Carbine Adoption Between 1865 and 1900


  1. I have read quite a few of these papers, I generally try to pick up a few when I pass through Fort Leavenowrth. Always and informative read. Your assumption about the final third is correct, generally they have to tie the paper into current doctrine or operations in some manner. One of my favorite papers was about the COIN/Multinational implications of the U.S. Army and Mexican Army pursuing Victorio along the Texas-Mexico border in the late 1800’s. Follows the same pattern, first two thirds is some great history, last third ties it into the current era. I have found these papers to be a good read on longer airline flights.

  2. From 104 pages total starting at page 61 is account of late trends; that means, this document is both historical and current. No doubt, lots of juicy reading is there (I happen to find myself in latter portion right now). Thanks for posting.

  3. While I’m not at all convinced that retaining the AR platform is necessarily the best decision for the Army, the performance difference between an M4 and any of the competing designs is a hell of a lot less than the difference between a single-shot trapdoor Sprignfield and a bolt-action, detachable-magazine repeater like the Remington-Lee.

    • Change between Springfield Trapdoor single-shot and Krag repeaters was generational, but happened only within couple of years. We can say something like if energy previously retained would suddenly materialize and it probably applies well for given period. You are right saying that differences in modern times, design to design are not that great, true. It may look like insignificant, maybe due to technical stagnation. When comes to historical parallels and todays situation, I call what it is – just a parallel.

      If however, some valuable and time proven lessons were taken, we would not be facing dilemmas, such as this:

  4. The requirements in the 1800’s tests were very elaborate, but what were the tests trying to simulate? The correct answer to the wrong question misses the point. The question should have been, what sort of combat was the soldier of the late 1800’s likely to face? A European army, with their single shots, or Indians who had not read the report that said their repeaters were unreliable and fragile?

    One could argue that the military is still trying to figure out who it is likely to go up against. It has swung from columns of troops against the Soviets on the plains of Europe to counter insurgency by troops in Humers in the desert to…what? The paper did seem to turn almost into a sales pitch at the end, without really questioning who the Army thought it might need to shoot in the future.

    There is no real

  5. parallel between the 1800’s trails and the M16. McNamera said that the Air Force would adopt it, so they did. While almost anything was better than the M1 carbines they replaced…it seems to have been a far cry from actually having tests and trials. McNamera was one of the whiz-kids who thought that using space-age technology was going to fix everything. The M16 is a clever design, but overly complex to make, too many parts, and that gas system–the author had that right. One suspects that if Klashnikov’s parents had immigrated to the US in the 1920’s, that if US Army Sgt Klashnikov had presented his rifle, without plastics or aluminum or magic buzz-saw bullets, to the military that McNamera would have yawned.

    • In the late 1940s, the Pentagon was still obsessed with the notion that any standard-issue rifle would have to fire a round that was ballistically equivalent to .30-06. The value of the assault rifle was totally lost on the Army brass of the era. So it’s a safe bet that if Kalashnikov had presented his rifle to them in 1947, they’d have been uninterested.

  6. First two thirds, well written but nothing in it is exactly ground breaking. Kind of like reading a bit of Flaydermans Guide. Enjoyable for what it is, but frankly I was not very impressed. The last third…does anyone think this young Major has an HK/FN fetish? I thought I was reading an article from one of those black rifle magazines at the grocery store.

    I would give this “thesis” a B at undergrad level, since it was competent. A Masters based on this work? Hmmm. The US Army paid this fellow’s salary as a Major for a year while he reserarched and wrote it. Is it worth nearly $100, 000? Garry James should be a PhD.

    Sorry to be so critical, but almost every serious antique gun collector and I know could have written this without having to spend a year researching it.

    • I’m no professor, but I too found the paper lacking. There were numerous grammar and spelling errors, and while I am less well-versed on the period the first four chapters concern, I noticed numerous incorrect details in chapter five, such as his description of the SCAR’s bolt as being derived from the M249 (it’s not, it’s a Stoner-Johnson seven-lug design, just like the AR-15’s). In addition, the fifth chapter doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the previous four. Rather than drawing real parallels to the procurement process of rifles in the early twenty-first century versus that of the 19th, it essentially (in one case , literally) regurgitates the content of pop magazine articles.

    • First and foremost, I was never a “Young” Major. Second, I do not own a single HK product but was privy to some of the test data, so no, I do not think it likely that I have an “HK fetish.” And third, if you think you could research, write, and defend a thesis while completing the Command and General Staff course ithe MMAS is in addition to, have at it but I will warn you, we had a higher drop rate than BUDS. Just some points to ponder.

  7. The first four chapters are interesting, but the fifth chapter is a polemic against the M16, M4 Carbine, and the 5.56mm caliber. Unfortunately, this irrelevant reformer rant really took away my confidence in the author’s writing and the paper’s veracity. Many of the statements made in this chapter are misleading, unsubstantiated, or wrong.

  8. On evalating and comparing M16 system with others, author seems as a sales agent
    of rival companies. Besides, it is rather hard to understand the gas fouling to
    spread into the receiver on a M16, since it solely may occur after the separating
    of bolt carrier from gas tube in which the projectile goes off the barrel within
    the time past, and, remaining gas also spreads into the receiver from the back of
    chamber in every kind of autoloading feed systems except long recoil types which
    is not subject of recent manufacturing.

  9. While tolerances between both the Carrier and Bolt go to tenses of thousands, there are those two puff-out holes. It is likely that the exhaust goes right into the 1″ upper’s bore, pass the ejection port. Also, seal-off between Key-bolt-carrier and Gas tube is far from perfect. In wider scope of thought you have to wonder why Ljungman did not last that long (although, its open breech concept is lot better vented).

    Heat effect to dry-out lubricant seems to be easy to accept as real. I know a man, who having long working experience with M16 system, had view close or nearly identical to that written by author of document. He was recommending exactly the same.

    The qualitative leap can be achieved in face of sound competition only. True or not, the American industry is good at duplicating, not as much in inventing or simply altering (well yes, some do piston versions) to obtain something better. There may be exceptions I do not know much about. So, the field is left to foreigners.

    • The Kriss Vector SMG is very innovative and is an American design. The latest incarnation of the M14 was done with off-the-shelf items, i.e., stuff the civilian marketplace developed. The Dillion mini-gun took an existing design, and made it reliable. I think the issue isn’t the inventiveness of Americans. The issue is that to develop military arms it takes a lot of testing and it takes a company with deep pockets to fund that research, especially when a government contract is not at hand.

      Of American arms companies, Ruger could fund R&D like that, but with the civilian market exceeding their capacity, why gamble on the government when the government thinks the M4 is swell? Remington is milking what is left of their glory days for their leveraged buyout owners. Savage does not do automatics. Winchester is only a trademark now. Colt is getting back on it’s feet, but why replace what they already have contracts for?

      If a big advancement will be made in American arms design it will be from small companies (who are the one’s that are making piston AR15’s, etc.) who are funded by the civilian market. But they will struggle to match the R&D resources, and the ability to fine tune parts after thousands of rounds of tests, of an FN or an HK.

        • Yeah, I though so but let you to remind yourself. Although I remember there was attempt for cooperation Stateside or even some original thought (patent?) may have been from there. I am just lazy to go and dig it out.

          • It may be limited design participation over-marketed for domestic sales, but everything I have read stateside about the Kriss is “American designed, Swiss manufactured.” Think I read the details once but who knows. That not withstanding, it is a really innovative design. Absolutely, the coolest full-auto weapon I’ve shot was an M3 owned by a friend with a Class 3. Way better than a Thompson, which I shot a lot of clouds with. The grease gun I did .45 double-taps with. Sounds like the Kriss does the same, only better.

    • Though experiment knows the best, if US is to change the M16, the replacement
      rifle should not be a derivative or redesign of this gun since some of its
      features like unfoldable shoulder stock was out of date, even the first times
      when it deputed.

      Besides, though Stoner’s “in line moving mass” approach sounds advantegous in
      theory, there is little benefit in real practice since it could be overshadoved
      by some cheaper alternatives. Best feature of it, should be “Even pressure back
      and forth inside the gas chamber loading very small resistance over the locking
      lugs during unlocking” which could not be equalled by any other “Piston Stroke”

      HK’s “Over the beach” demonstration, most probably, prepared by half educated
      advertisement peoples considering others being on the same level with themselves
      thinking M16 being of straight gas impingement system like Jungman’s, and not worth
      even to watch it.

  10. One of ‘details’ rarely mentioned (or better not mentioned at all) is M16/M4’s limited ability in terms of “over-the-beach” test. Is it realistic? Well, U.S.Marines do that kind of thing routinely, right?

    Would you go with that thing over the beach knowing it will blow up?

    My position own is not a flat critique of this system, actually some 40plus years ago I was great fan of it. But having said that, nothing stays on spot and development must go ahead.

  11. Intersting read for me, as a Brit I didn’t know much about US 19th century military arms so it was useful as a primer. On the other hand the bit about current US small arms procurement was on point.

    The M4 seems to be a “jammy” weapon. In the previous carbine competion, each weapon fired 60,000 rounds giving the following stoppage rates

    XM8: 127 Stoppages
    MK16 SCAR: 226 Stoppages
    HK416: 233 Stoppages
    M4: 882 Stoppages (later reduced to 239 as a result of statistical jiggery pokery ie they probably forgot to carry the 1 or something πŸ˜‰ ).

    There is no good reason not to replace the M16/M4 with a more reliable weapon with increased service intervals and reduced ownership costs, they also need to look at a larger calibre than 5.56mm for better range and terminal effect.

    • Hi Andrew,

      where do you think is British future in small arms going? As I understand the H&K seem to cover that territory as much as your neighbour across the channel.

    • That was an invalid test, in a lot of ways. The M4s were off-the-rack weapons pulled out of the system, and had been previously issued. The other weapons were brand-new, and had been hand-selected and tuned by the manufacturers before the test. Critically, the M4 magazines were also not brand-new, either. Any surprise that nobody paid any particular attention to the test, outside of some HK and FN fanboys?

      I’m not a particular fan of the M16/M4 series weapons, but if you want to replace them, the testing needs to be done honestly. I’m not sure that the US procurement system is capable of doing that, or that it ever was. The only real successes of late, like the M240 ground versions, came in through the back door. Which is, to my mind, a good reason to burn the entire system to the ground, fire the vast majority of the participants, and start over.

      If the US had a functioning small arms procurement system, the M16 would never have been fielded the way it was, and likely would have seen significant changes in basic design before it saw general issue. The abysmal M60 would never have seen daylight, and the M240 would have had troop trials before becoming the primary ground MG that would have shown what Afghanistan taught us–That it is too damn heavy to be hauling around the mountains at altitude on foot. Unfortunately, we lack such a system.

      As a former career professional soldier in the US military who spent his entire career in the combat arms and who had a focus on small arms throughout, I’m fully in accordance with the supposed Samurai practice of returning a sword that broke in battle to the swordsmith via his rectal orifice. As many hours as I spent trying to keep my M60s running, it gives me great pleasure to imagine the ass****s who inflicted that abortion on us impaled upon a row of them…

      • Probably fair assessment. I read in past some unofficial record given by combat troops. They typically rated M4 carbine and M9 pistol as marginal and M249 as completely unsuitable. M240 was generally well received and appreciated.

        • The M249 suffered from a lack of emphasis on replacing them when worn. You can only get so much use out of a stamped sheet-metal receiver like the M249’s before you need to trash the whole thing and buy new ones. Brand-new, fresh from the factory? Great weapon. Clapped-out and rebuilt by various logistics agencies across the US military? Highly questionable weapon I’d prefer not to take to war without extensive testing and examination of individual examples. We turned all of our weapons in to the folks at the Department of Logistics at Fort Lewis, and got back a lot of different rebuilds. Some were done locally, some were done by FN. The FN versions were as good as the brand-new guns. The local ones? Spotty, very spotty. Some were great, some were good, and others had to be “returned to sender” as soon as we tried firing them. I speculate that a lot had to do with gauging criteria, and that the local rebuilds were built on a standard that was way too accepting, while FN was extremely stringent.

          The Marines? I don’t know who was doing their rebuilds, but if the ones I was seeing were any example, they shouldn’t have been allowed near them. Much of the angst against the M249 comes from the USMC, and that’s because they wanted to justify the M27 program. I’m not going to say they sabotaged the M249, but I will say they cheap-jacked the rebuild/refurbish process, from my observation.

          The M249 is a great weapon, when new and up until it’s had a couple of years of issue and about 30-50,000 round through it. By that point, you need to do a full rebuild.

          • Very good reading Kirk – and thank you. I happen to be involved in that particular industry in past so it just adds some valuable information.

    • One can only be suspicious that the only weapon in that carbine test that used USGI magazines was the M4 (the SCAR used FN magazines, the HK used H&K steel magazines, and the XM8 is only compatible with G36 magazines). Considering that something like 95% of stoppages are magazine related, surely that had an effect on the weapon’s performance.

      While there are a lot of popular media claims that the AR-15 is a flawed system, or that we’re better able now to field more reliable rifles, the most expert opinions I know of say that the rifles work fine, and are the most reliable in the world. All of the embedded links come from authors with enormous amounts of trigger time and combat experience with the platform. In addition, my attempts to replicate claims of inherent unreliability with my own personal weapon have failed to do so, and despite the high four digit round count and lack of attention and cleaning for much of that time, it has continued to function.

      • You have a credible point Nathaniel. It is well known that ‘disposable’ aluminum std. issue magazine is of questionable quality. Perhaps good when new, but once gets dinged – big problem. As I read some time ago DOD rejected potential replacement so grunts have to do with what they got.

  12. God know’s. The MOD are as bad at procurement as the US DOD. I read that the MOD is keeping the L85/L86 in service longer, mainly as there is no money and the UK is not likely to be in the sand box again this generation or anywhere else as “energetic” for a while. The MOD has good relations with HK so something based on the 416 seems likely though EU rules mean it must be a open procurement which means anything could happen.

    I’d like to think the weapon will chambered for something more capable than 5.56 (something in the 6.5 to 7mm range ideally). It would be nice for a rifleman to actually be effective against someone with a PKM at 600m rather than being outranged. There is quite a lively debate on autogun on GPC calibres and their pro’s and cons, I’d suggest dropping in for a look.

    • Hmm, that sounds like something I would expect. At occasion I been reading page by Tony Williams, so I pick something here and there. One time it looked that SIG was making inroad into France, but it may be (who knows) more of H&K territory in future.

      Funny thing, both Britain and France, countries with such a tradition, do not have their own small arms factories (save for AI perhaps) anymore.

  13. As the author, I would like to thank every one for their comments on my thesis. I did employ due diligence and was required to undergo a rather intensive thesis defense. While I did focus primarily on the history component, I am a certified marksmanship master instructor, have served as a military firearms advisor, instructor, and range master and am intimately familiar with the failings of many weapons systems to include the M4/M16 and have served with many having and sharing additional experiences. Unfortunately, many of these direct experiences could not be shared within the scope of the thesis. Again, thanks for both the praise and constructive criticism.
    Very Respectfully
    John C. Davis
    Major, U.S. Army, retired

  14. A hand-receipt here shows that on July 7, 1867, 2500 .58 Caliber Springfield muskets (and 6 M1841 mountain howitzers with 30o rounds each) and 750,000 rounds of .58 caliber ( mini-ball) ammunition were transferred to Major E.M.S. Carpenter, Montana Territorial Militia. Today I could tell you where 11 of the rifle-muskets and one of the brass howitzers are. You will recall the same summer Springfield Second Allin Coversion .50 caliber breech-loading rifles were issued along the Bozeman Trail to make a big difference at the Wagon Box and Hayfield fights. Here’s the mystery (to me): why do we have strong evidence, here in Montana, of the use here of .58 caliber cartridges, which were found (expended) at 28 mile Springs on the Helena to Fort Benton Road, on the internet a case for.58 caliber cartridges sent down to Missouri from a Montana antique dealer, and an unopened package (and three other unfired
    rounds) in the Thompson Museum in Virginia City? No military units were issue the quickly obsolete first conversion. If the Fenians who invaded Canada modified m1861’s to first conversions, might the same have happened into trade guns in Canada?

  15. Mystery solved. After reviewing photos of cartridge (10) packet in Virginia City and on the Internet, I realized they (and the wooden packing crate on the Internet) are all .58 caliber fromthe Saint Louis Aesenal, which means they’re the paper cartridges sent up the Missouri River as parry of the shipment of 750,000 rounds sent with the 2500 Springfield Rifle-Muskets for the Sioux-Cheyenne and Pigan-Blood Indian scares. The cartridge casings found in Virginia City are longer and could be for the second allin conversion that’s also there. The cartridge casings found at 28-mile springs are stuccoed .58 caliber, but have no markings from the Frankford Arsenal. Weapon unknown, unless there were needleguns with those kind of cartridges.

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