- - Thursday, February 27, 2014


With the combat suitability, or lack thereof, of the U.S. M4 rifle in recent headlines, it’s worth remembering that the history of America’s military arms is replete with failures, successes and controversy. One of the best-known examples occurred during the American Civil War.

Rightly or wrongly, the decisions of one man would be credited with extending the bloodshed of the War Between the States by as much as two years. Some historians have contended that the refusal of Union Chief of Ordnance James Wolfe Ripley to adapt to new firearms technology cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 came at a time of dramatic technological improvements in firearms. One major area of innovation was the introduction of breech-loading rifles and carbines.

For three centuries, firearms had been muzzle loading. Gunpowder was poured into the front end, or muzzle, of the barrel, followed by a lead ball. which was then firmly rammed in place before the gun could be fired. This was very difficult to accomplish in any position other than standing, which exposed the shooter to enemy fire in combat. The burnt black powder left fouling residue in the barrel, requiring more force and more time to ram successive lead balls down the tight barrel for follow-up shots as the dirt and debris constricted the diameter of the bore.

A gun that could be loaded from the breech, or rear, of the barrel solved both these problems. The shooter could remain prone behind cover while reloading , and since a new charge was inserted at the rear of the barrel, the residue of the previous shot did not interfere with loading.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, numerous breech-loading designs were available, some of dubious quality. Others, such as the famous Sharps design, had the system pretty much perfected.

Ripley was not a fan. A former superintendent of the main U.S. arsenal, Springfield Armory, Ripley was appointed as chief of ordnance for the U.S. Army in the first month of the Civil War. At age 67, he was put in charge of selecting and acquiring Union weaponry. As a former artillery commander, he is credited with modernizing the Army’s crew-served ordnance.

However, he adamantly opposed the purchase of breech-loading firearms. He believed them to be unreliable and that they led troops to waste ammunition by firing faster, complicating the issue of ammunition resupply.

Ripley also declined to replace existing smoothbore muskets with rifles, wrongly believing that existing arms could be converted by rifling the barrels, and refused to purchase state of the art British Enfield rifled muskets. The Confederacy had no such compunctions, and in the early years of the war bought modern British arms as fast as they could be produced.

Ripley’s most notorious decision, however, was his lack of interest in repeating firearms. The seven-shot Spencer rifle and the 15-shot Henry rifle were lever-action repeaters available early in the Civil War. Using self-contained metallic cartridges, either could be fired as fast as the shooter could work the lever and pull the trigger until the magazine was empty. Of course, these “newfangled gimcracks” struck Ripley as far more wasteful of ammunition than even the single-shot breech-loaders.

Not everyone shared this resistance to innovation in firearms. Some units purchased their own breechloaders and repeaters. President Lincoln himself test-fired a Spencer and was favorably impressed. In September 1863, Ripley was removed as chief of ordnance.

This is far from the only historic example of controversy over new types of American military arms.

In the Mexican-American War of the early 1840s, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott insisted his men carry the same general type of flintlock muzzleloading smoothbore muskets that had been in military use for well over a century, while Col. Jefferson Davis armed his regiment with the latest cap-and-ball percussion rifles.

Following the Civil War, as effective repeating rifles came available, the military instead chose a single shot as their standard issue arm. George Armstrong Custer’s troops were outgunned at the Little Big Horn by Lakota and Cheyenne carrying Winchester repeaters. By the late 19th century, America was scrambling to match the bolt-action Mausers and high velocity smokeless powder cartridges of Europe.

The American military managed to catch up with the adoption of the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield in time for World War I. The United States pulled ahead of other nations by the beginning of World War II as the only major combatant to enter the war with an effective semi-automatic as standard issue — the M1 Garand, immortalized by Gen. George S. Patton as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

Reviewing current analysis of the M4, one might bear in mind that for two centuries some of America’s best and brightest military minds have clashed over firearms technology, and it is bound to happen again.

Jim Supica is director of museums for the National Rifle Association.

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