A quick look at the 1873 Springfield rifle

With the Model 1873 Springfield Rifle — commonly called the Trapdoor Springfield — the US military officially entered the era of metallic cartridges (an era we’re still in today).

It could have done so at least ten years earlier, but as is often the case, military leadership was planning for a different kind of combat than it actually experienced. I’ve read that the military wanted a rifle that would be suited either to a renewal of the Civil War or to war with a European power. Instead, the 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifle was used almost exclusively in the many skirmishes and small-scale battles of the westward expansion.

Geronimo (R) with warriors, 1886. Geronimo holds an 1873 Springfield military rifle.

In 1865, with the war over, the army started the procurement process for a breech-loading metallic cartridge rifle. The legendary Sharps rifle and carbine were already available, and had been widely used in the Civil War, but the newer metallic cartridge rifles were expensive and the company was suffering financial and production problems that precluded them from consideration. Sharps carbines remained in military service through most of the western era, but in small numbers compared to the 1873 Springfield. (Sharps & co. eventually got their ducks in a row, and their rifles were highly sought after by hunters and long-range marksmen throughout the Old West era.)

Lever-action rifles were briefly considered — Henry and Winchester were both selling them in the civilian market by that time — and quickly eliminated. Quick and handy though they were, they were less reliable under abuse and adverse conditions than single-shot breechloaders. Also, the military wanted a rifle that could reliably kill a cavalry horse at 600 yards, and although accurate enough, lever-action cartridges at the time weren’t powerful enough to be reliably lethal at that kind of range.

The Trapdoor Springfields, on the other hand, could fire a more powerful round that was being developed at the time: the .45-70-405, so called because it fired a .45 caliber bullet that weighed 405 grains using 70 grains of black powder. Today it’s called the .45-70 government and is a fairly common, highly effective round used in lever-action hunting rifles.

.45-70 cartridge compared to .30-06 and .50-90 Sharps. From Wikipedia.
A .45-70 cartridge (center) compared to .30-06 (L) and .50-90 Sharps (R). From Wikipedia.

Also, as a clincher, the thousands of war-surplus Springfield muskets sitting around in government armories could be converted to the new breech-loading trapdoor configuration. So, after years of testing, the Model 1873 Springfield became the official standard rifle of the US military. It was a huge improvement over its muzzle-loading predecessor.

Metallic cartridges were light-years ahead in reliability, and although it wasn’t as quick to fire as the Henry and Winchester lever-actions, it was light-years ahead of muskets in that realm, too. Inexperienced users could sustain a rate of fire of 8 rounds per minute, and trained troops could sustain a rate of 15 rounds per minute. In FAR System terms, that’s approximately one shot per three rounds at the low end, one shot per two rounds for proficient shooters, and one shot per round for experts with the rifle.

A Springfield 1883 (updated version of the 1873) with the “trapdoor” breech open for loading. (wikipedia.com)

If your FAR Western character is in the military, the 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifle is most likely what you’ll be carrying. On duty, that is.

No doubt there were plenty of soldiers who wished they could have had the rifles that civilians (and many of the Indians they fought) were carrying. Turns out the lever-action rifles that had been passed over were better suited in many ways for the skirmishes and small-scale battles that characterized the Indian Wars of the western expansion era.

But that’s not to diminish the effectiveness of the Springfield rifle. It was a rugged, dependable weapon. Still is, actually. One of the wonderful things about firearms is that they’re incredibly durable if protected from the elements. Nearly 130 years after they were last used by the military, there are plenty of 1873 Springfields out there in gun collections that could be loaded up with commercially available ammunition and used right now (as in right now) for hunting or self-defense if their owners so chose.

The 1873 Springfield “trapdoor” breech-loading mechanism could be retrofitted to Civil War surplus Springfield muskets. (From breachbangclear.com)

Sources

Is the .45-70 Gov’t. Cartridge Still Relevant? americanrifleman.org

The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation. Winston O. Smith. William Morrow & Co., NY. 1943.

The Springfield M1873 – America’s First Modern Rifle? breechbangclear.com

Springfield Model 1873 wikipedia.comm

.45-70 wikipedia.com

.45-70 Government ballisticstudies.com

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