MilSurp: Springfield “Trapdoor” – The Gun That Really Won the West

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To learn more, visit www.northcapepubs.com or email ncape@ix.netcom.com.

To purchase a .45-70 Springfield rifle on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=trapdoor.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to explore the .45-70 Springfield in greater detail, obtain a copy of The .45-70 Springfield, 5th Revised Edition by Joe Poyer and Craig Riesch from North Cape Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 1027 Tustin CA 92781. The price is $22.95 plus $5.75 postage. The book contains a narrative history of the development and use of the Springfield “Trapdoor” as well as detailed descriptions of the various models, their parts as they changed during their long production, and all markings and serial numbers.

Hollywood legend has it that the gun that “Won the West” was the Winchester Model 1873 Jimmy Stewart struggled to keep in the movie Winchester ’73. In fact, it was the U.S. Model 1873 .45-70 Springfield, better known to modern day collectors and shooters as the “.45-70 Trapdoor” for its top-opening breech block, that truly “Won the West.”

The lever-action Winchester ’73 was most commonly chambered in a short, semi-bottle-necked cartridge dubbed the .44-40. A round that could be chambered in both handguns and rifles, when it was fired from a rifle it had limited range and power. The Winchester Model 1873 also had numerous openings through which dirt and rain could enter to foul the action.

U.S. Springfield Model Rifles, top to bottom: Model 1865, .58-65 caliber; Models 1866, 1868 and 1870, in .50-70 caliber; Models of 1873, 1877, 1884 and 1888, in .45-70 caliber.

The Answer?

As a result, the U.S. Army never seriously considered the Winchester lever rifle for adoption. What they did adopt was the much stronger “trapdoor action” designed by Colonel Hiram Berdan and improved by Springfield Armory employee Erskine S. Allen. This action employed a long, straight cartridge holding a .456 diameter lead, round nose bullet weighing 405 grains (later changed to 500 grains) and which had an effective range up to 2,400 yards. It smacked its target with nearly four times the energy of the .44-40 cartridge.

The Winchester Model 1873. It did not have the range and striking power for military service as perceived by the U.S. Army.

The recent unpleasantness between the North and South had shown the importance of massed, long-range fire from a rifle-musket. The U.S. Army’s officers of all ranks had “seen the elephant” and knew how deadly massed fire could be at long ranges.

The only real antagonists the United States Army faced in the post-war years were Native American tribesmen who conducted (using a modern term) an insurgency, employing hit-and-run tactics. They tended to avoid set-piece battles unless the enemy was at a distinct disadvantage (as were Captain William J. Fetterman and Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, who were attacked at close range and quickly overwhelmed at The Battle of the Little Bighorn).

The U.S. Springfield “Trapdoor” breech, open and closed.

The favored method of attack on armed settlers and soldiers was from a distance. A well-trained Indian horse carrying a rider could cover up to one mile in four minutes or so. A Springfield rifle or carbine could be reloaded and fired twelve times a minute by a trained soldier, but probably only eight to ten times under the stress of combat.

Native American troops often gathered within sight, but at distances of a half a mile or so, to harass their intended victims before attacking. Assuming the soldiers began firing volleys at extreme range and it took two or three minutes for the recipients to realize they were under fire and organize to charge, and two to four minutes to ride close enough for their shorter-range weapons to have an effect, the soldiers would have fired a minimum of fifteen to thirty-five volleys at the charging foe that would have emptied enough saddles of the tribe’s most precious commodity, manpower.

Gun Details

The Springfield Rifle of the mid-1860s through the 1890s came in seven distinct models: The Model 1865 which fired a .58-65 cartridge; the Models of 1866, 1868 and 1870 which fired the .50-70 cartridge, and the Models of 1873, 1884 and 1888 chambered for the revered .45-70 cartridge.

The new Model 1866 Springfields firing the .50-70 cartridge enabled massively outnumbered soldiers to stand off successive attacks like those at the Hayfield and Wagon Box Fights in 1866. The Model 1866 and 1868 .50-caliber “needle guns” as the Springfields were then known (because of the long firing pin required by the long “trapdoor” action) were also used in the campaigns of 1868-69 and the Red River War. But in 1873, a new model of the Springfield firing a powerful, and longer-ranged .45 caliber cartridge filled with 70 grains of black powder (the .45-70) was released to the troops. It received its first real combat test during the 1876 summer campaign against the alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho. At the Battle of the Rosebud, for instance, over 40,000 rounds were fired by the soldiers and their Crow and Shoshoni allies. Long-range rifle fire from two infantry companies saved Lt. Colonel William B. Royall and his outnumbered battalion of cavalry from annihilation.

The U.S. Model 1884 Springfield Rifle Rear Sight. The sight ladder is calibrated from 100 to 1,800 yards while the notch at the very top of the sight ladder is calibrated for 2,400 yards or 1.3 miles.

During the next twenty-five years, the .45-70 Springfield would finally tame the West in the hands of the U.S. Army at the Nez Perce War, the Apache Campaigns and numerous smaller actions. The .45-70 Springfields would also see widespread use during the Spanish-American War in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

How It Works

The Springfield “Trapdoor”, as the rifle is known to modern collectors and shooters, was a remodeled single-shot Civil War rifle-musket. Indeed, the Models of 1865 and 1866 were actually Model 1863 rifle-muskets in which breech end of the barrel was cut open and the breech block assembly bolted on. To load and fire, the soldier lifted the thumb latch on the right side to open the breech block. The cartridge was inserted, the breech block snapped shut, the hammer cocked, the rifle sighted and the trigger pulled.

The .50-70 and .45-70 cartridges had high arcing trajectories that made them very effective at long ranges when fired in volleys. Due to differences in barrels and bores, wind conditions along the trajectory, and individual variations in point of aim among soldiers firing the volley, the bullets would all arrive at the distance indicated on the rear sight leaf at about the same time but dispersing in a large oval. It proved to be very effective. In fact, rifle volley fire was only made obsolete as an infantry tactic by machine guns which used the same principle.

The Springfield “Trapdoor” rifle has developed a devoted clique of collectors, while still retaining relatively modest prices. Over 568,300 .45-70 Springfields were manufactured between 1873 and 1894 in three rifle models and two carbine models. After service with the regular army, they were still found in National Guard armories as late as World War I. They are an important aspect of American history and retain the romance of the Old West. Be sure to take a look at GunsAmerica.com for Trapdoors you can buy for your own collection.

Editor’s Note: If you would like to explore the .45-70 Springfield in greater detail, obtain a copy of The .45-70 Springfield, 5th Revised Edition by Joe Poyer and Craig Riesch from North Cape Publications, Inc., P.O. Box 1027 Tustin CA 92781. The price is $22.95 plus $5.75 postage. The book contains a narrative history of the development and use of the Springfield “Trapdoor” as well as detailed descriptions of the various models, their parts as they changed during their long production, and all markings and serial numbers.

To learn more, visit www.northcapepubs.com or email ncape@ix.netcom.com.

To purchase a .45-70 Springfield rifle on GunsAmerica.com, click this link: https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?T=trapdoor.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • 2War Abn Vet March 29, 2017, 3:01 pm

    It is noteworthy that the prevailing opinion of the military leadership of that day (not only in the U.S, but universally) was that if you gave the soldier a firearm capable of firing multiple rounds, he’d just waste ammunition.

  • Kris Littledale March 27, 2017, 10:05 pm

    Pretty lame article with a boatload of factual errors. The writer needs to be fired.

  • Norm Fishler March 27, 2017, 8:12 pm

    State of the art 1870s, but scary-weak by today’s standards. The pit of my stomach goes cold every time I see a shooter step up to the line with one at the local cast bullet matches. “Aw well hell,” they tell me. “You just gotta load ’em light!” I would not shoot one with a light or heavy load on a bet. Mock & guffaw all you want, but I have been rationed two eyes & have become rather attached to them over the years. Shoot them all you like & I’ll watch . . . from afar off.

  • RJH March 27, 2017, 1:08 pm

    Yeesh. You twisted history to make this point. Sure the military had not bought into the Win and Colt 73 tandem. But the military didn’t win the west! It was the pioneers, trappers and explorers that carried those guns and settled the lands that won the west. They outnumbered the military by the thousands and were the real reason for the forts and outposts in the first place. Don’t go rebranding history just to talk up a great weapon.

    • joe March 28, 2017, 9:09 am

      You don’t understand: we have to keep up the myth that we can’t do anything without government.

      Like today, the military was primarily out there to keep money flowing to the well-connected special interests.

    • Daniel Braatz April 2, 2017, 4:37 pm

      Excellent points!

  • Jim Irwin March 27, 2017, 11:45 am

    I’ve been collecting shooting restoring and enjoying the 45-70 for about 40 years so far.
    I love the intent of this book and this message.
    However: I get frustrated with serious errors in facts that diminish the credibility of the rest of the facts given and may serve to lead a newcomer astray.
    The one that really jumped off the screen for me was the mention of bullet diameter as .454 inches.
    That’s correct for the venerable 45 (long) Colt pistol cartridge, BUT is dead wrong for the 45-70.
    45-70 lead bullets must be .459 diameter to shoot well and avoid leading the bore. Original mil specs are readily available for anyone who would look for them. I know of NO reloading manual that would even suggest .454 for use in the 45-70. Using a 454 bullet in 45-70 will give horrible leading and terrible accuracy, all due to gas cutting and deposition of lead in the bore throat.
    In the trapdoor, given that bore diameters typically run around .460 with some variation around that, .459 is minimum, with .460 to even .461 being better.
    Alloy should be 16 parts lead to 1 part tin. A pretty hard alloy. This is per the mil specs of the time.
    Rifle bullets are round nose and 500 grains weight with a flat base ahead of 70 grains black powder..
    Carbine bullets are also round nosed, and 405 grains weight, and hollow based using 55 grains black powder.

    • Author March 28, 2017, 5:21 pm

      The .45-70 .405 grain rifle bullet was officially 0.458 inch in dia. Bore diameter was officially 0.45 inches with a variation of 0.001 allowed. Bullets were made of twelve parts lead and one part tin, and compressed which made them relatively soft. Source: Rules for the Management of the Springfield Rifle, Carbines, and Army Revolvers, Calibre .45, National Armory, Springfield, Mass, 1874, pages 20 and 21.
      The diameter of the 500 grain rifle bullet was 0.456 inch in dia. Source: Rules for the Management of the Springfield Rifle, Carbine and Army Revolvers, Caliber .45, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898, pages 43 and 45.
      The .454 entry was a typo and should have been .456.
      Bore diameters naturally varied somewhat but the Ordnance Department had quite strict standards. Most large variations in bores we see today are quite possibly from use.

    • Paul Helinski March 28, 2017, 8:45 pm

      That’s just a typo, and nobody is going to be led astray by a typo in an overview article. You probably haven’t shot BPCR with trapdoor, because there are plenty of people out there shooting as cast 459s out there, as well as 458s, and either can be as big as 460 or more as cast. Military spec on these cartridges was a heavily compressed load that NOBODY does these days, and you can’t get 70 grains of modern 2F or 3F into the case even. Most people slightly compress 2F Swiss after using a powder drop, and most people use a 458 mold. Some size, most do not. And 1:30 is just as common as 1:20. People like you ruin the internet because you have to feel self important by pointing out what is clearly a typo, and not someone’s opinion or instruction. You didn’t even mention the 50-70 guns, of which there were a bunch.

      • Author March 29, 2017, 4:26 pm

        I don’t think that history is on your side. The Army patrolled and pacified the West. The number of forts and camps west of the Mississippi between 1850 and the late 1880s testify to that. The point remains, the Winchester was a hunting rifle, not a military rifle. I don’t believe I said anything about the Colt Peacemaker not being used by the military. After all, it was the side arm — along with the S&W Schofield in the 1870s and 1880s. The explorers and trappers were transits. The settlers may have come before the troops, but if there was trouble, they did not remain until soldiers pacified the area. Check the US/Dokata War in 1862 in Minnesota. A horrible example of US government treatment of the Sioux, but many settlers fled the area until peace was restored. Same in Arizona during the Apache wars . . . etc.

  • JCitizen March 27, 2017, 11:42 am

    I thought I knew everything about the trapdoor rifle until I saw that caliber – 58-65 cartridge; = in the article. I simply cannot find an image of this cartridge anywhere on the internet – does anyone have a link?

    • Jeff April 21, 2017, 8:56 pm

      The .58-65 is also known as the .58 Miller rimfire. There is a picture of it in the book Cartridges of The World. I couldn’t find a picture online either.

  • BJG March 27, 2017, 10:46 am

    Have owned several Trapdoor’s in my life, liked all of them. Found the 500gr. RN to be the most accurate.. (actually weighted 520grs with 1/20 alloy.) actually took several ground hogs with the 330gr hollow point.The trapdoor was also not as weak an action as most people were lead to believe.

  • Larry Abrams March 27, 2017, 8:28 am

    Have owned and shot several Trap Door Springfields in my life. One of my finds was when I was ridding horseback in S.D. along a river bottom when from a distance I saw an old fence line and bracing up a corner post was a Springfield Trap door. The right hinge was busted which was one of the main weak points of the Trapdoor along with the ejector pin. One of the reason they found so many broken knife tips at the Little Big Horn Battle field was because of the ejector pins.. After constant fire Custer’s men had to use their knives to pry out the spent shells from many of their rifles..

  • Lloyd Dumas March 27, 2017, 7:12 am

    You will get no argument from me when it comes to range and reliable of the trap door, oh.. and simplicity.

  • REM1875 March 27, 2017, 4:28 am

    Capt Fetterman’s Waterloo was not at the Little Big Horn as one could mistakenly believe from the article but Fetterman Massacre happened almost 10 years earlier December 21, 1866 with the loss of all 81 men near Fort Phil Kearny, near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming

    • Author March 28, 2017, 4:29 pm

      The article did not say that there was any connection between the Fetterman and Custer massacres.

  • DLT March 24, 2017, 3:11 pm

    If you are interested in viewing an animation of how the breech opens and closes you can view this link;
    -http://www.rockislandauction.com/blogpics/Oct2013/Trapdoor/TrapDoor.gif
    That is an image from another RIAC blog on Trapdoor rifles.

  • DLT March 24, 2017, 3:09 pm

    If you are interested in viewing an animation of how the breech opens and closes you can view this link;
    http://www.rockislandauction.com/blogpics/Oct2013/Trapdoor/TrapDoor.gif
    That is an image from another RIAC blog on Trapdoor rifles.

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