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Cas City Forum Hall & CAS-L  |  Special Interests - Groups & Societies  |  The American Plainsmen Society (Moderators: Caleb Hobbs, Tsalagidave)  |  Topic: The M.1855 Colt Revolving Rifle and the Chain-Fire Design Myth Revisited 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: The M.1855 Colt Revolving Rifle and the Chain-Fire Design Myth Revisited  (Read 829 times)
Tsalagidave
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Dave Rodgers


« on: December 27, 2017, 06:38:35 pm »


Here is another sneak peek of an article I'm working on...

The M.1855 Colt Revolving Rifle and the Chain-Fire Design Myth Revisited

It is one of the most interesting, complicated, and misunderstood weapons of the American Civil War.  In a time where massed armies carried single-shot muskets, rifles, and carbines, the Colt model 1855 Revolving Rifle seemed to be as innovative as it was problematic.  Just a few short years earlier, the emergence of Colt’s patented revolver replaced the average Joe’s single shot pistol with 5-6 rounds ready to fire from a single gun. Its durable design made it more reliable than earlier attempts such as the “pepperbox” and its single rifled barrel design made it more accurate, lighter, and easier to carry.  Colt now wanted to apply this innovative concept to the world of single-shot military arms and  it seemed that Colt engineer Elisha Root scored a home run with his patented “1855 Side hammer” design. Models with smaller calibers such as a .44 cal. version would have 6 chambers while the larger “military” models would commonly be in .56 with a 5-shot cylinder.

The Pros:
•   It offered 5 times the firepower for its operator to wield against multiple targets simultaneously.  Since it is extremely difficult and time consuming to reload a single shot muzzle loader in a running fight, a revolving rifle would be the ideal "high capacity" solution for “border warfare” against hostile tribesmen or frontier ruffians.

•   The greater firepower was a force multiplier allowing a smaller body of troops to engage a larger body of enemy combatants more effectively.

•   The “Root” design gave it the durability to be used on either the frontier or in military life.

The Cons:
•   It was much more complicated to produce and maintain than single shot breechloaders and muskets.

•   More moving parts mean a greater likelihood of failure. On a firing line, a soldier is only as effective as the weapon he uses. Black powder weapons fowl with every firing.  As the fowling (burnt powder residue) builds up, the weapon becomes inoperable until it is cleaned. This would likely cause the revolving rifle operator to go offline for a few minutes to clean his bore and revolving mechanism after about 30rounds or so.  While this was common in muzzle loaders too, inventions like the “cleaner round” allowed muzzle loading infantrymen to have more trigger time on the line of battle.

•   They are more costly and difficult to produce.  Not every arms manufacturer had the capacity for Colt’s level of craftsmanship and this limits the availability of getting such weapons with the same regularity as rifle-muskets could be procured. Also, the manufacturing cost for a Colt’s belt revolver was exorbitant enough; the purchase cost of an 1855 Revolving Rifle was $44 which is about 3-times that of a standard army rifle musket.
 
•   The ammunition was not uniform. The typical military load for the m.1855 was .56 cal. This means that it could not chamber the .577/.58 cal ammunition that was standard US Army issue.  A good example was when the 21st Ohio dealt devastating firepower upon the Confederates at Chicamauga but was still captured when the specialized ammunition ran out.
•   The weapon was potentially more hazardous to use since improper loading could cause a “chainfire” where multiple loaded chambers ignited at once.

The Chain-Fire “Faulty Design” Myth.
Yes, I said that the “chain-fire prone design” claim is a myth.  Any website that covers this topic will talk about the Colt Revolving Rifle’s threat of “chain firing” as if its designers were completely unaware of this “flaw” until it was too late.  This is false.  Did they grease the balls in each loaded cylinder? No, they did not.  Was the weapon faulty?  No, it was not. The Colt revolving rifle did precisely what it was designed to do with the same reliability as any Colt revolver.  Load it improperly or handle it irresponsibly and there would be consequences.  I carefully studied the official US Army manual for the m1855 Colt Revolving Rifle and not only were the designers fully aware of the chain fire problem; they also had methods in place to prevent it. Here is the proper way to load and handle the weapon.

•   Cap each chamber first before loading. Yes, you heard me correctly. Colt engineers observed that it would prevent loose powder from falling through the vents and contributing to an accidental ignition or for hot gasses to enter the vent of an uncovered cone.  Also, the larger bored chambers may risk a cook off if there is an air flow coming in through the cone after a recent firing. Capping the cone (aka. “nipple”) helps prevent a cook off from occurring while you are seating the ball. It also ensures that each chamber is properly sealed during the loading process.

•   Properly seat only a well formed conical ball.  A damaged or misshapen ball will allow powder to get in between the projectile and the chamber wall. The millisecond hot gas contacts this powder leak, you have a serious problem. The factory conical balls have a solid base so they don’t crush easily like minie balls do.  They are also wider than the tube so the lead will shave off evenly when the round is rammed. This creates a seal that is just as snug as a metallic cartridge. If rammed improperly, it’s a dangerous accidental discharge waiting to happen. Under normal shooting conditions, this shouldn’t be a problem.  In the haste of battle, there’s a greater likelihood for loading mistakes to be made in this as in any other weapon of the period. If so, watch out for your fingers; and that is why you…

•   Hold the trigger guard with your free left hand and do not hold the fore stock.  The fore stock is for drill and using the bayonet only.  The official US Army manual clearly states that the shooter support the arm by the trigger guard while firing (see illustration).  Even if chain firing is not an issue, there is a significant amount of hot powder and lead shavings spraying out from the thin gap between the cylinder and the barrel. This is why it's best that you don't place your hand in advance of the cylinder while firing.

•   Be careful with your powder. The manual advised brushing away loose powder if loading with standard US Army-type cartridges.  However, the Colt Revolving Rifle appears to have more commonly used the “combustible envelope” cartridges made by the Colt factory.  This negated powder spillage but nonetheless, the manual advises you to keep an eye on it all the same just like you would do with the revolving pistol.

•   Either fire in one rank or have the front rank kneel.  This seemed to be more a concern when troops were loading with loose powder instead of combustible envelope rounds.  The theory is sound. All the sparks from the rear rank shooters may ignite the rounds being handled by the front rank as they load. Because of the weapon’s comparatively high rate of fire, it seems that fighting in a single rank is preferred.

In conclusion, the m1855 Colt’s Revolving Rifle seems to have been more adequately suited for an armed traveler on the open plains and deserts of the American West than for fighting in line infantry to the east.  It is well documented that the Berdan’s Sharpshooters disliked it in favor of the Sharps Rifle’s superior accuracy and reliability. In some cases, members of the famed 21st  Ohio gave favorable opinions of the arm. However, in the end, the m1855 proved to be a logistical nightmare for the Army.  They saw limited service in the war overall and were all but completely withdrawn from service by the war’s end. Now, over a century and a half later, one man’s trash is another’s treasure as the few surviving examples of m.1855 Colt Revolving Rifles now auction somewhere north of a 5-digit pricetag.

-DR


* 1855 Colt Rifle Manual.png (184.4 KB, 329x678 - viewed 35 times.)

* 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle.png (101 KB, 878x305 - viewed 34 times.)
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Galen
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« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2017, 06:19:08 am »

An outstanding weapon! Sure wish I had one.
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Tsalagidave
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #2 on: December 28, 2017, 07:46:58 pm »

I agree.   The main reason why so many see the m.1855 as "more dangerous" is because the instructions on the proper loading and handling process has not been in wide circulation since the Civil War.  As long as this arm is properly handled, it's no more or less dangerous than using any other cap and ball revolver. 

I have heard all kinds of crazy theories on how to hold this arm safely by people who never studied the manual or spent much time shooting. (My favorite of the ridiculous theories is to hold the loading lever like a Tommy Gun.)  The assumption that people were just plain stupid because they lived in earlier centuries has always been one of my pet hates.
 
There are notations on this website from members who have tested the reproduction model that Palmetto Arms made before they went out of business.  Palmetto was infamous for their shoddy quality arms but despite that, apparently sometimes they made a decent one.  I have seen good and scathing reviews of the repro but I am wary of holding these evaluations too close to the originals.  Colt made its name for top-tier quality and Palmetto wasn't.

That said, if there was a maker out there who could make an M.1855 to Colt's quality specs, I'd be one of the first in line to buy one. Also, here's a photo of the Rifle Bullet packs.  I would love to try my hand at making these.

-Dave


* Colt Rifle Cartridge Pack.jpg (51.45 KB, 600x398 - viewed 32 times.)
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Galen
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« Reply #3 on: December 29, 2017, 08:34:07 am »

If the Colt Roote rifle was good enough for Bull Harris its good enough for me!
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Tsalagidave
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #4 on: December 31, 2017, 04:02:29 pm »

Amen to that.  I completely forgot to mention its appearance in El Dorado.

-Dave
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Niederlander
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« Reply #5 on: December 31, 2017, 10:07:42 pm »

As I recall, Bull shot it with his hand on the forend, so he must have failed to read the manual!
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Tsalagidave
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #6 on: December 31, 2017, 11:47:59 pm »

That's Hollywood for you.  When do they ever really study?
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Drydock
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« Reply #7 on: January 01, 2018, 01:30:22 pm »

I always thought "Eldorado" was the best of the Howard Hawks trilogy.  No singers trying to be actors, great Dialog. ("I'm looking at a tin star with a Drunk pinned to it.") wonderful character actors, and unique weaponry. ("Swede, I need a gun for a man who can't shoot.") Grin


Oh, and the best drunk fight scene ever filmed: "COLE!  He won't feel it."
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Niederlander
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« Reply #8 on: January 01, 2018, 11:10:07 pm »

Yep, it's my favorite one, too.  I will admit, though, I always sort of liked Dean Martin's "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me".........
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Quick Fire
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« Reply #9 on: January 02, 2018, 07:42:31 am »

Me too!
Quick Fire
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Mogorilla
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« Reply #10 on: January 03, 2018, 10:04:57 am »

I have always loved the Root.   When Palmetto was making a repro, I started saving my pennies.  Alas, still saving pennies and Palmetto is no more.   I had the opportunity to a handle an original Root Carbine that was made for a Ranger company in Texas.  It was a great natural pointer and your hand naturally went to hold at the trigger area.   Interesting on capping before loading.  Makes sense.  I have only had one chain fire and it was due to poor fitting caps, first shot dislodge a poor fitted cap, I saw it in the ignosecond as I was firing the second chamber, three chambers went.   Got to hand it to Col. Colt's design, no damage to the pistol.  Took a few years off of me though. Grin
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Tsalagidave
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« Reply #11 on: January 04, 2018, 01:21:12 am »

Thanks for sharing Mo.  You just touched on a very important element of the rear-venting chain fire.  The uncovered vent not only gives direct access for hot gas to cause an ignition but it allows loose grains from even a well packed chamber to leak out and come into contact with the other primers. If you ever try burning loose powder on the back of a percussion cap, it can communicate enough heat through the copper to ignite the fulminate.  From there the pyrotechnical nature of the load takes its course. 

This was another reason why the manual recommended either the front rank kneel to avoid the spray from the rear rank or for the outfit to fight in one rank only.

P.S. Don't lament not getting a Palmetto "Root".  The majority of reviews I read on them were bad.  According to many Palmetto customers I have spoken with, they went out of business for a good reason.

-Dave
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G Bulldog Grainisland III
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« Reply #12 on: January 08, 2018, 02:31:41 am »

Spiffing post on most interesting weapon. Thank you for sharing!

-Bulldog
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