An interesting item is currently up for auction on Gunbroker – a Springfield rifle musket converted to a breech loader with a rolling block action. For those not familiar with the action, the Remington Rolling Block rifle was one of the best – I think the best – of the late 19thC crop of breech loading battle rifles. It was simple, robust, and extremely strong, so that it was easily adapted to smokeless powder loads at the turn of the century.
By 1865 the Army was looking for a breech loader to replace their muzzle loaders. Candidates included the iconic Trapdoor (properly the Allin Conversion, so named after master armorer Erskine Allin of the Springfield Armory) and the new rolling block action, which dated from 1863. The Army wanted to convert existing rifles rather than buy new ones, so both conversions filled the bill. Allin had the inside track and his conversion was adopted, even though it was not, in my opinion, as good as the rolling block.
The initial conversions of service rifles with the Allin mechanism added had the caliber reduced from .58 to .50 by means of a sleeve soldered in the bore. The gun used a center-fire copper cartridge, the .50-70*, which in 1866 became the Army’s standard cartridge. Conversions continued until 1873, when the Army switched to a built from scratch .45-70 Trapdoor rifle, its mainstay during the Indian Wars. The Trapdoor Springfield continued in service until replaced by the .30 cal. Krag rifle in 1892, and even then saw use in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. I have a friend in California who has an early .50-70 Trapdoor. The lock is marked 1862 and it has the .50 cal. reducer sleeve.
But back to the Rolling Block. What makes this particular one unusual is that it has been converted from a standard Springfield rifle – as you can see it has the military sights. It fired a very unusual .58 cal. center-fire copper cartridge (which I did not even know existed), and only a few hundred were made for the Army trials. Afterwards some went to the South Carolina National Guard in 1869, and some, like this one, were sold to Mexico. They are pretty rare, as you can tell from the price.
In the larger scheme of things, however, the Rolling Block was the clear winner, and went on to become one of the most successful rifle designs ever. It was adopted by the armies of over 40 nations and saw service in WWI, having made the transition to smokeless powder, and was also used all over the world for target shooting and hunting. There is a brisk sale in replicas today. No one but the US Army ever used the Trapdoor – even the Navy and Marines preferred the Rolling Block, and it was also used extensively by the New York National Guard.
* In the argot of the time, the numbers mean a .50 caliber bullet with 70 grains of black powder. Sometimes a third number was added for the bullet weight i.e. .45-70-405 meaning .45 caliber bullet, 70 grains powder, 405 grain bullet.
UPDATE: Seems I oversimplified the process a bit for the Trapdoor. The initial 1865 model fired the .58 cal. cartridge like the Rolling Block mentioned above, but had some extractor problems. These were improved in the Model 1866, which was sleeved down to .50 cal. as stated. This did not entirely cure the extractor problems, however, and the Allin mechanism underwent at least five upgrades. As I said, my vote would have been for the Rolling Block, but no one asked me.
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