Sangamon County Rifle Association
Right Reason on Second Amendment Rights
Springfield, Illinois

Phil Davis

Remington Rolling Block Rifle

Phil Davis
 SCRA meeting 11/6/06
December 2006 GunNews

During the Civil War the muzzle loading rifle was the standard issue arm.  One example was a muzzle loading .58 caliber muskatoon.  It fired a .58 or a .577 caliber cartridge.  You had to tear the cartridge with your teeth, pour the powder in, insert the ball, ram the cartridge, prime and fire.  A well trained trooper could do that three times in a minute. The dental requirement during the Civil War was very simple.  You had to have four teeth, two on the top and two on the bottom and they had to be opposite one another so that you could tear the cartridge off.  But if you didn't have that they probably found some way to give you permission to tear it with your hands although it would take you much longer to load.

Cartridge breechloaders were the wave of the future, so a year after the Civil War ended, the US Army adopted a new rifle. The type that was adopted by the US military on a wide scale was called the trap door rifle. Davis said shooting the trap door is very pleasant especially with black powder cartridges.  Its a shove, push, big ball of flame and when you hit something with it, its a big thwack!  Davis was part of a club in Virginia, Illinois and to participate in their buffalo shoots you needed to fire a rimmed cartridge with a cast bullet at 200 yards,  and you had to knock down metallic silhouettes.  The first time he went over there with an 1884 trapdoor Springfield, loaded with 500 grain bullets loaded with black powder, he fired a shot and he could count to two.   He could hear boom,  and then would see the target go and then clunnnnng!  Davis said he has seen people shoot large caliber black powder rifles at distances of five and six hundred yards.  They will actually fire the shot, open the breech and blow smoke and wait for the bullet to hit.  That's how long it takes.  The trajectory is much like a mortar at anything past 200 to 250 yards.  Some people say at 500 yards your trajectory is actually coming in at about a 35-45 degree angle.

The trap door rifle was originally designed in 1866 so that they could recycle the millions of .58 caliber Springfield muskets they had laying around after the Civil War.  To do this, they cut the breech end off of it, sleeved it down to .50 caliber, and put on a new breech mechanism which just simply screws onto the back of the barrel. It has an almost identical lock to the 1863 rifle musket.

The trapdoor was the action that Custer's men went into the Battle of the Little Bighorn with. A big mistake on his part because he actually waited to begin his Battle of the Little Bighorn campaign until he had replaced his obsolete Spencer repeating rifles with the new Springfield single shot carbines.  Had he retained the Spencers and had he not been so arrogant as to leave his Gatling guns and his mountain howitzer artillery battery at home, things may have been a lot different on the banks of the Little Bighorn river that day.  But he thought, no we're calvary men, we're going to move fast and we have no need of that, because we're only dealing with mere savages anyway.

The trap door had another failing, its ejector. The ejector is only a small piece of metal off to the side.  It only catches one side of the casing.  If you had the old balloon head cases that were made out of stamped sheet brass, quite frequently that little ejector would tear the edge off of it and then you would be in the middle of combat trying to dig a powder encrusted case out of there with your pocket knife.  They found many broken bladed pocket knives and gouged up brass cases on the Little Bighorn battlefield.  So we know that Custer's men had that problem.

The Springfield Trapdoor rifle in .45-.70 caliber and in .50-.70 caliber, was the primary weapon of the US military from the 1860's all the way through the Spanish American War.  Many reserve units went into war in Cuba carrying the Springfield.

Davis showed us the other rifle that came about in that time period, a Remington rolling block carbine, model 1902. Davis said that particular rifle is chambered in the modern smokeless 7 mm Mauser caliber.  Anybody who tells you the Remington rolling block will not handle smokeless powder, tell them they're full of it.  A 7 mm Mauser actually has more chamber pressure than a .30-06 does.

During the design competition in 1866,  Remington came up with the rolling block action.  The reason this is called a rolling block action is because the thing that closes the breech of any rifle is called either a bolt or a block.  In the Remington, the breech was unlocked until the moment you pulled the trigger, allowing you to extract at will and load at will.  The second you pull the trigger, however, the hammer rides on a huge drum of steel.  There is over a half inch of machine tooled steel that is holding that breech block in place.  So as that trigger is pulled and the hammer is falling the breech block is locked in place and no matter how hot the load is, you're not going to have that come back.

There was an old movie in the 1970's where a guy was firing a
Remington rolling block buffalo rifle and he fired about two shots, then he threw it down and said the breech block was sprung.  Davis immediately said there is no way that a black powder cartridge is going to spring the breech block of a Remington rolling block rifle.

Remington in 1867 took this rifle action to the Paris Arms Exposition in Paris, France.  It seems the rest of the world was thinking the same thing that the United States was.  By the end of 1867 between September and December over 100 entries, 101 to be precise, had adopted the Remington rolling block action as their military rifle action.  Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Egypt, Turkey, other countries in Africa, Sudan and Russian bought a contract of them.   Almost every one of the major European powers adopted the M-1867 Remington rolling block action.  They saw the inherent strength and fieldability of this action.  The main competitor with this rifle on the world stage was the Peabody action which became the Martini-Henry.  The Peabody action had 36 moving parts.  The Remington rolling block had 22 moving parts. It was tested on trials in Egypt.  It was tested all over in Turkey.  Sand, dirt, grit, nothing seemed to hamper this rifle.  They did not have problems with jamming and they did not have problems with quality control.  This is the rifle that saved the Remington Arms Company after the Civil War.  

There was an order placed by the US government for, Davis believes, 40,000 rifles which were three band length rifles and 10,000 carbine length rifles in .50-70 in the year of 1867.   They also put a order in for 5,000 rolling block .50 caliber pistols, single shot pistols that fired a short .50 caliber cartridge.

Davis said there is literally a list of cartridges as long as his arm that the Remington rolling block was chambered in for military contracts for over 100 governments around the world.

Davis talked about one of the famous campaigns where the Remington rolling block went up against the vaunted Martini-Henry and the Snyder. The Mahdi, a revolutionary leader in Sudan in the 1860s and the 1870s, raised an army of over a million men.  And for his army he went out and selected the most modern rifle he could find, one that worked well in the sand, one that worked well in the heat - the Remington rolling block.  In the first campaign against the Mahdis, Sir Gordon of Khartoum led the British with their Snyders and their Martini-Henrys against the Mahdi, and the British got their backside handed to them. Their Snyders had bulging brass and wouldn't work right.  There are drawings of British soldiers stomping on the side of their breech block on their Snyders trying to get their .577 Snyder cases while the Mahdi troops calmly boom, boom, boom.  The Remingtons were easy to clean.  You had only to open the breech block, pour water down the barrel, run down a cleaning rod with a brush  and you were ready to go.

This rifle was the choice of the Spanish and other major European powers.  The United States ran into this rifle in 1898 in Cuba and the Philippines while fighting Spanish guerillas in the Spanish military.  It was in caliber .43 Spanish. It was superior to the Springfield because it had a stronger action.  The later ones that were in the hotter calibers after 1900 were superior to most of the other single shot rifles of the day because they shot a very flat shooting cartridge.  Its military career ended after 1905.  Even seven years after the advent of the famous 98 Mauser, South American and Central American countries were ordering Remington rolling blocks in 7 mm Mauser. Davis has heard but not verified it that there was one issue of Remington rifles issued to Bolivia in .30-06.  Davis would love to have one.   He said if you have one sitting in your closet, talk to him. If there are any, Davis is a big fan of the .30-06 cartridge.

Besides the miltary contracts, Remington had booming sales within the sporting industry with the rolling block rifle. The Remington competed in this market with the Sharps and the Ballard.  The Remingtons used the same action as their military version, but they had a splinter type fore end and either a straight or a pistol grip stock.  You could get these as plain or as fancy as you wanted them.  One of the most famous of the Remington rolling blocks was one owned by one Billy Dixon.  Billy Dixon made a famous shot at Apache Wells at a riding man some 1200 yards away. He fired a single shot and took him out of the saddle with a Remington rolling block.  Davis believes his cartridge was a .45-110

Top to bottom,

J P  Murray artillery carbine

Remington Rolling Block,

and Springfield Trapdoor

.45-70 cartridge with a .500 grain paper patch bullet.

The Remington rolling block action faded into obsecurity as all the buffalo rifles did a little after the turn of the century. The bolt action rifle superseded it, as it had a faster rate of fire, usually a longer barrel, and more refined sights.

Still the Remington rolling block with a few exceptions was actually a finer and more reliable rifle than the Springfield rifle which was adopted by the US military.  The Remington rolling block was used by over 100 countries around the world.

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