A Look Back at the Springfield Trapdoor Rifle

Springfield Model 1861 Percussion Rifle
Civil War U.S. Springfield Model 1861 Percussion Rifle-Musket with Bayonet: The Springfield Model 1861 percussion rifled musket was the most used rifle by the Union in the Civil War. It is not difficult to see its relation to the Model 1873.
Rock Island Auction Company
Rock Island Auction Company

Rock Island, IL –-(Ammoland.com)- In terms of American military long arms very little attention is given to a predecessor of the much heralded M1903 and M1 Garand, the Springfield Trapdoor.

The Springfield Trapdoor was produced for over 20 years and would experience many changes throughout its life. The rifle would take its place in history just after the Civil War, despite the justifiable hesitation of many military personnel who were all too aware about the superiority of repeaters and magazine fed rifles. It would kill buffalo by the thousands as America expanded westward and would also play a role in the wars against the Native Americans. Militarily it represents the watershed transition for U.S. forces from the musket to the rifle. Today we find out a little bit more of this rifle, its origins, the question of its performance, and its role in history.

Rare Early Springfield Armory Model 1873 Trapdoor Rifle with Rare Metcalfe Device
Rare Early Springfield Armory Model 1873 Trapdoor Rifle with Rare Metcalfe Device


After the Civil War, the War Department wanted a breech-loading rifle. To be specific, they wanted a breech-loading rifle that would chamber a self-primed, metallic cartridge. This led to the formation of an Army Board who, in 1865, would host trials of different rifles by makers both foreign and domestic. The idea of the Master Armorer at the U.S Armory at Springfield, Mr. Erskine S. Allin, was to take the existing Civil War muzzle-loaders, of which there were thousands, and convert them by adding the now well known “trap door” to the receiver.

View the Action Working

This appealed to the Board for a number of reasons:

  • It used existing materials, thereby saving money and manufacturing time.
  • Money was even more important with the War Department’s newly slashed budget.
  • Single shots were viewed as more reliable and rugged than repeaters or magazine rifles.
  • It looked like proven guns of the past, especially with its pronounced hammer.
  • Their priority on long range accuracy over rate of fire.
  • Single shot rifles were thought to force a more efficient use of ammunition

The Board adopted the National Armory’s (a.k.a. the U.S. Armory at Springfield, later just “Springfield”) design, now referred to as the “First Allin.” However, this “adoption” was more of a test drive than a final acceptance. As reports came in from the field in subsequent years, the rifle would be adapted, redesigned, replaced in the field in small numbers. This went on for about 5 years from National Armory’s Model 1865 to their Model 1870, until on September 3, 1872, the Board of Army Officers held another trial. This trial was designed to find a rifle with more in line with their preference toward range and power than the Model 1870 being “test driven” by soldiers in the field. The Board, now known as the “Terry Board,” was headed by Brigadier General A.H. Terry and requested roughly 100 different breech-loading rifles from various makers to put through trials. They again received both foreign and domestic submissions from some of the most prominent firearms manufacturers of the day such as: Winchester, Remington, Springfield, Sharps, Spencer, Whitney, and others. All but 21 were rejected almost immediately and only two of those were modifications of the current .50 caliber trap door

Rare U.S. Springfield Armory Model 1875 Officer's Model Trapdoor Rifle, Late Type II
Rare U.S. Springfield Armory Model 1875 Officer’s Model Trapdoor Rifle, Late Type II
Breech from above of the Officer's Model 1875
Breech from above of the Officer’s Model 1875

At this point, a “sidebar” study was held by the Terry Board. It was a separate, yet related, study to determine which combination of caliber, powder charge, and bullet weight would provide the best performance. They tested .40, .42, and .45 caliber bullets, powder amounts from 65-80 grains, several rifling variations, and bullet weights from 350-450 grains. Each variation had its own barrel and was tested with 20 shots at 6 targets 500 yards away. The winner would be barrel #16 with the #58 ammunition, which would be the 45-70-405 cartridge. We know it better as the .45-70 Government. The round was deemed so effective that Colt would be making Gatling guns to utilize that round later that same year. It is surprising that both government and private manufacturers took so long to realize that by increasing powder and lessening bullet weight, they could produce rifles with much greater range. The development of this round and its subsequent rifle, literally made for each other, would mark the American shift from muskets to longer range rifles.

By the time the .45-70 was decided upon, the Terry Board had further narrowed the field of long arms to six possible candidates. Each was altered to use this new cartridge and tested further. In the end, their bias to an older style of warfare and rifle won out and the trap door action was selected. The preference for a powerful rifle that would be accurate at long distances also implies interesting things about the state of American conflict at that time. The Civil War having ended a short 7 years earlier, the thought was to again select a weapon that would perform nobly in a similar type of conflict. The thought of fast-moving battles against Native Americans may have been a secondary priority at that time, hence the lack of urgency to adopt repeating and magazine based rifles.

Extremely Rare Original Late 1892 .30 Caliber Experiential Trapdoor Rifle
Extremely Rare Original Late 1892 .30 Caliber Experiential Trapdoor Rifle
Same rifle in full.Extremely Rare Original Late 1892 .30 Caliber Experiential Trapdoor Rifle
Same rifle in full.Extremely Rare Original Late 1892 .30 Caliber Experiential Trapdoor Rifle


It is known that trapdoor rifles were not developed until after the Civil War and through Springfield’s manufacturing records one will find that the first 1,940 Model 1873 carbines and 2 rifles were not made until the final months of 1873 with an additional 6,521 weapons ready by March 31, 1874. The Model 1873 was the fifth improvement of the Allin design.

The Spanish-American War would not start for another 24 years. Until that time the Allin System longarms would be used in the American plains for two purposes: killing buffalo and fighting American Indians. As a buffalo killer, the weapon was apt. Its muzzle velocity of 1,350 feet/second would allow it to penetrate 17 inches of white pine at 100 yards, certainly enough to kill a buffalo. This power when combined with its long range accuracy also made it an excellent hunting rifle for other large game of the prairie and coyotes. The classic cowboy song “Home On the Range,” was first published in 1873 with its now well-known lyrics of buffalo roaming while deer and antelope play. Little could author Brewster M. Higley have known how much the Springfield, developed that same year, would affect those animals.

Desirable Custer Era U.S. Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor Carbine with Indian Markings
Desirable Custer Era U.S. Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor Carbine with Indian Markings

The Allin System’s performance in the Indian Wars is much debated. Often cited are the “large number” of empty cartridges found at the Battle of Little Big Horn which exhibited signs of malfunction. Such examples were found, however, they are a small percentage (2.7 – 3.4% by some counts) of the thousands rounds that were fired in that conflict. The concern over jamming weapons in the Indian Wars is not a modern one. Even at the time, it was a known concern among soldiers. This was due in large part to the use of a copper alloy (“Bloomfield Gilding Metal”) in the manufacture of the ammunition’s case. Copper was prone to expanding in the breech upon firing and could also prevent the extractor from properly functioning. This often required the user to pry the cartridge from the breech or to push it out by using the ramrod. Such a remedy was not an option on the carbine version which did not include that valuable tool. This brought about the use of brass cases to reduce expansion, a material still in use to this day.

The Springfield Model 1873 carbine was the standard issue longarm of all U.S. Cavalry units from 1874 to 1896, but the rifle would be switched out in 1886 for the improved Springfield Model 1884. The Allin system would be not be replaced as the standard U.S. rifle until the adoption of the Krag-Jørgensen (a.k.a. Springfield Model 1892-99) which would also be produced by the Springfield Armory from 1894 to 1904. For those paying close attention to dates, this means that the Krag, using its smokeless ammunition, was the primary rifle used in both the Spanish-American War as well as the Philippine-American War, though the sheer number of available trap doors inevitably meant that the outdated black powder guns would still see use.

Excellent U.S. Springfield Model 1884 Trapdoor Rifle
Excellent U.S. Springfield Model 1884 Trapdoor Rifle
U.S. Springfield Model 1884 Trapdoor Rifle Breech as seen from above.
U.S. Springfield Model 1884 Trapdoor Rifle Breech as seen from above.


It’s hard to see how any troops could complain about the Springfield trap door. With a new variation out almost every year of its production, any issues could be dealt with rapidly and remedied in subsequent variations. The only issues that could not be fixed were those of its relatively low rate of fire, a quality inherent to its loading method, and its black powder propellant. I will not cover the vast number of variations here. For an exhaustive list of the changes and varieties in all their minutia, please consult what many consider to be the Bible of Springfield Trapdoors, Robert Frasca’s The .45-70 Springfield. With his list of all the parts that were altered from 1873-1894, it is difficult to imagine one piece remaining throughout all 20 years of production.

Not only did the Model 1873 miss the major conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was also vastly overshadowed by the iconic Winchester repeater and Colt revolver released that same year. It was a rifle languishing in the past by a population in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and hungry to adopt the new technologies that accompanied it. The Model 1873 was relegated to ill-chosen government contracts, slaughtering buffalo, and killing Native Americans. Racks full of the model even inspired a less than flattering poem from poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled, “The Arsenal at Springfield.” Outdated in both propellant and loading system even before it was adopted by the government and lacking the celebrity of a military conflict, the Springfield Trapdoor plays a quiet role in the story of U.S. military arms, yet remains a highly desirable collector’s piece with its unique loading system, endless varieties to collect, and aesthetically pleasing components like the lockplate, hammer, and sweeping breech block. Even a highly dedicated collector would stay busy for decades happily collecting this long arm of the American plains.

In fact, one collector did just that, Dr. Richard Branum. Our upcoming December 2013 Premiere Firearms Auction will have over 50 trapdoor rifles at all levels of collecting! Dr. Branum’s collection represents a lifetime of collecting and has resulted in the most comprehensive and academic collection of trapdoors. Represented will be rare, experimental variations, extremely high condition models, unusual calibers, accouterments, and many different years of production. The collection possesses every caliber of manufacture: .58 rimfire, .50-70 government, .45.70 government, the rare .45-80 long range cartridge, and .30-40. It also contains every barrel length and every variation of the ramrod bayonet. It is a living history lesson to view all the chronological variations in this fantastic collection.

If early American militaria and rifles are your passion, the Springfield Trapdoors alone will be enough to get you champin’ at the bit. There will also be nearly 70 Civil War pieces that help make up the nearly 1,000 antiques available in this auction. And we all know why antiques can be so nice. Stay tuned each and every week for more fascinating and laudable firearms.

Organ of Trapdoor Muskets
Organ of Trapdoor Muskets
“This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Frasca, Albert J., and Charles R. Suydam. The .45-70 Springfield: Springfield Caliber .58, .50, .45 and .30 Breech Loaders in the U.S. Service, 1865-1893. Springfield, OH: Frasca Pub., 1997. Print.

Rock Island Auction Company has been solely owned and operated by Patrick Hogan. This company was conceived on the idea that both the sellers and buyers should be completely informed and provided a professional venue for a true auction. After working with two other auction companies, Mr. Hogan began Rock Island Auction in 1993. Rock Island Auction Company has grown to be one of the top firearms auction houses in the nation. Under Mr. Hogan’s guidance the company has experienced growth each and every year; and he is the first to say it is his staff’s hard work and determination that have yielded such results. Visit: www.rockislandauction.com

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I am looking at a 1873 Springfield Carbine 45-70. It has a 25″ barrel. I can find no info about a carbine except with with e a 22″ barrel. Can anyone help . Thanks Matt


I have a Winchester trap door rifle has a number on it can’t find the date. how do I go about finding more about it?


MInor note; the Longfellow poem is 1845, and the Springfield gunrack, or at least the one I remember seeing, is full of 1861s. What was in the rack in 1843 was probably 1816s.

Cody R

What a great read! The Springfield Trapdoor rifles are a great piece of history, war no war. A true testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the time. It’s such an interesting era of firearm evolution, and to get to hold and fire the firearms that shaped this country is special. All of us here at Powder River Cartridge love to get out and live a little piece of history at the range from time to time. If anyone is looking for Trapdoor ammo we carry a great smokeless cartridge loaded for Springfield Trapdoor pressures at http://www.powderrivercartridge.com.

Ken Ploeser

Hey guys, I make a hand field reloading kit that is a match to the Springfield TD .45-70 Gallery Ball Loading kit issued in 1905 for use in military marksmanship training. The kit allows you to load target practice lead balls directly into the 45-70 Govt. case. Up to 3 balls loaded into the case make the official Guard Load. One & 2 ball loads are shot in target loads and the Varment loads. Check it out at http://www.ballwright4570.com. Or read about Ballwright in Black Powder Cartridge Magazine or the Single Shot Exchange Magazine. No BS folks, this is the… Read more »

Joseph C. Appel

A great article about a great rifle. A favorite of mine ever since the 1940’s when a family friend gave one to my Brother. It is still in the family.
I still hunt with a Marlin Model 1895 and have taken deer with it. Thank you.

Kevin McGonigal

I like articles about firearms and current political happenings but I like this kind of article even more, the history of firearms. As for the Trapdoor model I agree with the Terry Board. At that time the repeaters were firing anemic calibers and they did jam. I would not have preferred a Winchester to a Trapdoor until the 1886 model, to defend my life. The Remington Rolling Block was just as good as the Trapdoor and also the Sharps, but circa 1873 the repeaters available were just not as reliable or as certain a man stopper as they became a… Read more »


The emphesis on single shot rifles lasted long after the “Trap Door”. The Krag and 03 had magazine cut offs to insure single loading except in emergencies. Indeed, the great selling point of the Krag was the strange gate loaded magazine. It was adopted over rifles like the Lee and Mauser preciselybecause it was a better ‘single shot’ than the others. The fact is, the US military was obsessed with ammunition conservation. Consideration was even briefly given to issueing a 30/40 Trap Door. Magazine rifles, indeed any breech loader was frowned upon during the Civil War to prevent ammo waste.… Read more »