The 1873 Springfield Trapdoor was the first standard issue breech-loading rifle adopted by the United States Army. Although it was adopted in 1873, the history of the Trapdoor began in 1865. As the Civil War was winding down, the War Department requested that the Ordinance Department develop a breech-loading rifle for the military. The Ordinance Department sent requests for prototype arms to all the major arms manufacturers and to anyone who would like to submit a test gun for trial.
After a considerable amount of testing, a breech-loader submitted by Springfield Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin was adopted. A very simple design as he modified the existing Model 1861 muskets. Chambered for the .58-60-500 rimfire cartridge, only 5,000 were made. The 1865 Trapdoor is often referred to as the “First Allin”. In 1866, the “Second Allin” was introduced with significant improvements over the 1865. These rifles were chambered for .50 (50-70-405) center fire cartridge. 52,000 of these rifles were manufactured with half being sent to Europe for the Franco-Prussian War.
Several other variations were produced up to 1873 when the Trapdoor was adopted by the U. S. military. Chambered in the .45-70-405 cartridge, over 700,000 rifle were produced. The rifle had a 33-inch barrel and was designed for the foot soldier. The carbine model was developed for the cavalry and had a 22-inch barrel and used a reduced-power load of 55 grains of powder (instead of 70 grains) to help manage recoil. The Trapdoor stayed in production until 1892. One significant change was experimented with in 1886. This carbine had a 24-inch barrel and the Army hoped it could be used for both the infantry and the cavalry. The troops did not find the rifle significantly better than the ones on hand and interest quickly dwindled. Only 1,000 of these guns were ever made for trial. The Trapdoor was used in the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American, and Philippine-American Wars.
The rifle’s biggest drawback was that it was a single shot firearm. The Trapdoor carbine was the standard issue rifle for the 7th Cavalry on those two fateful days in June 1876. Many of the attacking Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were armed with repeating rifles while Custer’s men struggled with revolvers and the single-shot Trapdoors contributing to the loss of Custer’s command.
One interesting lesson learned from the Little Big Horn was in the early days of metallic cartridges, the cases were made of copper as it was easy to work with. Many of the rifles recovered from the battlefield had fired cases stuck in the chamber. It was believed that as the rifles got hot and fouled the extractors would just tear through the rim leaving the case stuck in the chamber. Soon after, the army went to brass cartridge cases. The Trapdoor and its many variants played a vital role in the development of the the early breech-loading firearms, despite its shortcomings. It was replaced by the Krag bolt action rifle in 1892.
From Page 19 of our Fall 2018/Winter 2019 Issue.