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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 3287 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 82 times.)

* 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle.png (101 KB, 878x305 - viewed 75 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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« 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 73 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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« 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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« Reply #9 on: January 02, 2018, 07:42:31 am »

Me too!
Quick Fire
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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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« 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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« 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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Tsalagidave
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« Reply #13 on: January 30, 2018, 01:12:19 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

Aaah Texas.  I have a meeting there tomorrow morning.  5:30 flight from LA to an 11am meeting in Austin, then lunch and back on the plane returning to LAX by 620pm.  Wish I had more time to visit friends.

-Dave
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #14 on: January 30, 2018, 01:14:09 am »

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

-Bulldog

Thanks Bulldog.  I don't think I've given you a welcome before but would like to do so now.
I look forward to hearing more from you.

-Dave
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« Reply #15 on: February 07, 2018, 05:40:54 pm »


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

I'll vouch for that. I acquired one for a magazine review some years back and it was c**p. The loading lever came off in my hand and when I finally did get it loaded I fired only one cylinder full before giving up. Tremendous amount of splash-back on my face - fortunately wearing safety glasses. I put it back in the box, took it back and told him I could not review rubbish. Strangely enough I tried a couple of the reproduction Roots pistols and one was quite good but the other was almost as bad as the rifle. Quality control was sporadic at best.

On the other side of the coin I tested one of their Whitney .36 calibre revolvers and it was a super bit of kit. I fired close to 80 shots before there was a hint of binding from black powder fouling.

Not long after their demise we saw the emergence of Chaparral Arms and it was hinted to me by another Italian manufacturer that these were made from Palmetto produced parts that were assembled in Germany.

Chance
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« Reply #16 on: February 08, 2018, 02:07:50 am »

Thanks for your feedback Chance.  It's great to hear from you.   You have the experience and I'm glad you have had success with at least one of the Palmetto guns.  As for the rest with the 55' Rifle, it sounds like what I have been hearing from others.  I am grateful that I never spent the $1600 Dixie Gun Works was selling that for at one time.

-Dave
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« Reply #17 on: February 08, 2018, 04:28:33 am »

Aaah Texas.  I have a meeting there tomorrow morning.  5:30 flight from LA to an 11am meeting in Austin, then lunch and back on the plane returning to LAX by 620pm.  Wish I had more time to visit friends.

-Dave

Gee, Dave, maybe thiscould help?



yhs
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« Reply #18 on: February 08, 2018, 07:22:21 am »

Love that!
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #19 on: February 08, 2018, 04:19:12 pm »

Professor,  I can completely relate to that..


LOL!

-Dave
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« Reply #20 on: February 17, 2018, 09:21:55 am »

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

•   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.

-DR


Hi

I'm usually in the Barracks, but my first firearm was a Remington 1858 from Dixie Gun Works.  I had several chain fires and thought that "myth" might be a bit off base.  Doesn't matter though because holding a revolving rifle like you do a Musket, bolt action or AR-15 means that you get your wrist burnt anyway.  I keep a picture of a SAA with my training aides to show why you hold a revolver with one hand.

Later
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Tsalagidave
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #21 on: February 17, 2018, 01:33:40 pm »

Hi

I'm usually in the Barracks, but my first firearm was a Remington 1858 from Dixie Gun Works.  I had several chain fires and thought that "myth" might be a bit off base.  Doesn't matter though because holding a revolving rifle like you do a Musket, bolt action or AR-15 means that you get your wrist burnt anyway.  I keep a picture of a SAA with my training aides to show why you hold a revolver with one hand.

Later


I see where you are coming from Mike.  I chose the word "myth" for 2-reasons.  One, it's provocative. We naturally gravitate toward something that sounds controversial on sites like this. However, my second and most important reason is that I just got sick and tired of hearing people say that the m.1855 rifle had a"flawed" design that was "naturally" prone to chain fires, perhaps more so than other revolvers of the period.

The main point is that the m.1855 design is no more "flawed" than any other contemporary revolvers of  the day.
If you short start a musket ball, you will burst a barrel. Loading a misshapen cartridge will jam any modern metallic cartridge arm.  These are not design flaws but rather, rules of proper handling to avoid problems.

This was precisely my point with the m.1855. It is a very well made weapon; it just represents a step in technological evolution that was eventually surpassed by more innovative design options. Even when it came to handling the m.1855, it was never intended to be held forward of the cylinder.  Even if there was no chain fire, the high-velocity spray of lead shards and unburnt powder grains would be murder on the shooter's exposed hand.  For this reason, the manual of handling the arm accommodated this.

Since you are an experienced BP  shooter also, I know I'm preaching to the choir here so the rest of what I am about to say is geared toward the new shooters out there. In 30 years of firing thousands of rounds through cap & ball revolvers, I have never experienced a single chain fire on a live round and it is entirely because of the mentoring I had from older shooters, not because I was some kind of wiz on the topic. Here is what the old-timers had me do...

If your bullet mold makes a ball that just fits, throw it away and get a larger ball mold.
When you ram a revolver ball, it better shave a perfect ring of lead all the way around the bullet or you don't have a good seal. Any misshapen or undersized ball will cause a chain fire.  Now, I only use original molds for my bullets.  In the case of my Colt 2nd gen revolvers, I only load powder, ball and cap.  That's all.  No grease...ever.  Rarely patches or oil.  Also, I make sure that the caps fit properly and if I lose one, I cease firing and re cap.

My only 2-chain fires both occurred on blank fires while working as a stunt performer. On both occasions, the powder charges were both insulated but the cap had fallen off exposing the port to the hot gasses from firing.  On both occasions, i had not properly fitted my caps as I was rushing to be ready for the show.

Anyhow, those are just my 2-cents on what I've seen.  Thanks again Mike for making me expand on why I chose the word "myth".  I was really hoping someone would for the benefit of the discussion and I glad it was a fellow BP revolver shooter to do that.

Thanks again.

-Dave

 
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« Reply #22 on: February 26, 2018, 04:34:15 pm »

If you look up Sam Colt's early patents he designed the rear of the cylinders so the nipples were in a recess to prevent a multiple discharge from the rear. Check this out for a modern take on the idea.

http://www.geojohn.org/BlackPowder/bps2Mobile.html

Chance
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Dave Rodgers


« Reply #23 on: February 27, 2018, 01:33:36 am »

Thanks Chance,

That article has excellent insight. The crushed powder train makes a lot of good sense.  The only reason why I never had one is presumably, 1. I always use either a flask or an authentic combustible cartridge. 2. I never use pistol grease.

Crisco/pistol grease turns your firearm into a slick "greased pig" that is unnecessarily dangerous to handle.  It also attracts dust which is extremely harmful to the weapon and if enough works between the ball and the bore, theoretically you could rupture the barrel or cylinder.

My only critique is that the author has it all wrong on making paper cartridges.  You use onionskin paper soaked win a warm solution of distilled water and sodium nitrate. The ends and toe plug of the cartridge are "glued" with sodium silicate.  In the case of a colt navy round, the projectile is a .375 conical ball made using an original Colt bullet mould. 


The powder is the measured amount from an original or black powder series powder flask.  There is no grease, no oil, no wad, and no need to prick the paper with a needle. The jet of hot gas from the exploding fulminate instantly penetrates the fulminated paper igniting the fuel and incinerating the cartridge.

So at the end of the day, Sam Colt knew exactly what he was talking about when he printed his instructions. 

Thanks for sharing that information.  I really appreciate that.


* Colt pack small.jpg (95.1 KB, 576x768 - viewed 46 times.)

* Colt Rounds small.jpg (79.45 KB, 768x576 - viewed 53 times.)
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