- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - In the years he served as curator of artillery for the Fort Sill Museum, Lynden Couvillion always knew the 3.18-inch Breech-Loading Chambered Rifle was special.

Now, thanks to him, visitors who tour the Field Artillery Museum can see exactly how it was loaded.

“It was Couvi who brought this important artillery piece to my attention and suggested restoring it for exhibit in the museum,” Field Artillery Museum Director Gordon Blaker said. “As the Army’s first breech-loading artillery piece, it is a significant gun in the development of technology and artillery history.”

The story begins not with the rifle itself, but its predecessor, which is also on display in the south gallery of the museum. That’s the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, which was in widespread use during the Civil War and saw service from 1861 to 1907.

“It’s made out of wrought iron rather than cast iron or bronze,” Couvillion explained. “It’s a wrought iron rod that goes through a forge, is heated quite hot, wrapped around a mandrel (a cylindrical piece of metal) and then welded, and then layers put on.

“It’s a very strong gun, because each layer compresses the preceding layer, so it’s very strong compared to bronze or cast iron,” he said. “Very accurate piece, well-liked in the Civil War, used by both sides, but it had a small exploding projectile.”

Soldiers praised its accuracy but complained that the projectile was way too small.

“After the Civil War, we’ve got hundreds of these things lying around. They’re the best gun we had in the Civil War. And in the 1870s, there’s a big, big jump in technology. In that time it took two weeks to produce a pot of steel. With the Bessemer process of blowing air through the pot and burning the carbon off of it, it goes from two weeks to like two hours. So they can make large quantities of really cheap steel.

“The problem with steel is that it’s brittle. You don’t know if it’s as hard as glass or as soft as bronze. At the same time they invented a system to determine how hard it was. So they were able to grade this steel so you knew what you were getting out of the pot. Midvale Steel Co. did a lot of that stuff,” Couvillion said.

To convert the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle to a breechloader, manufacturers sawed off the breech and screwed in a new steel breech and installed a breechblock on it. The steel breech was rebored to 3.18 inches to attain the desired projectile size.

The breech-loader was part of the museum collection when Couvillion joined its staff in January 1976, and it sat in front of his office the whole time he worked here.

“I knew it was special. I just didn’t know what it was,” Couvillion said.

In 1992 he took a higher-paying job at Anniston, Ala., where he started the Army Historical Clearinghouse and did not return to this area until he retired from there in January 2007.

Nowadays it’s far easier to research things like this on the Internet, so he went online and determined this is what he had always thought it was. Eight 3-inch Ordnance Rifles underwent the conversion, and they were numbered sequentially. The first is in an East Coast cemetery. This is the second.

“It brings up some different challenges. The old guns, when you fired them, the flame went around the projectile, lit the fuse, and it went on its way. (The breech-loader) seals the gases behind the breech, and you don’t have that flame going around the projectile. So now you’ve got to invent a fuse that will light without the flames. It’s got to be a percussion fuse or a time fuse of some sort. Much more sophisticated than the old stuff was,” Couvillion explained.

Also, the blast was breaking the trails of the carriage 16 inches below the elevation box used to raise and lower the tube.

“So this thing was more powerful than they thought it was going to be. So they go to Midvale Steel and they say, ‘We want a steel sheet metal carriage for this.’ And Midvale Steel says, ‘You can’t bend steel because it breaks.’ So they said, ‘Invent it,’ so they did.

“The end result of that is that all the cheap steel sheet metal that you have today, in cars and refrigerators and stoves, all comes from the need for a carriage for that gun,” Couvillion said.

Before he went to work on it, the breechblock was rusted shut. A 10-ton press broke trying to extract it, so the Directorate of Logistics got it loose with a 50-ton press. Couvillion then took it all apart, cleaned off all the rust and put it back together. All the lands and grooves had to be lined up to 1/1,000th of an inch in order for the breechblock to go back in.

“That was a challenge, but it turned out to be a really good piece. I never thought I would see the breech move. I really didn’t,” Couvillion said.

He worked on it one or two days a week for about three months to restore the piece. He removed several layers of paint along with bird droppings that had been painted over. Then he repainted it gloss black, its original color. He also built a pedestal for it.

“As a developmental piece, it’s a very, very important piece. It was issued in 1881. By 1885 it’s out of service, or at least they quit talking about it in ‘85,” he said.

Though it fell by the wayside much quicker than its Civil War forebear, it was more accurate and had a range of 6,000 yards versus the 1,800-yard range of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.

The breech-loaders were sent in pairs to various places, but Couvillion has found no mention of what they were used for.

“It’s an exceptional piece. It’s a miracle that it survived,” Couvillion said. “And I feel that I was honored to be the one to clean it up and to put it back together.”


Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com

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