Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Burnside Carbine

General Ambrose Burnside is famous for a few things.  Fruitless charges against fortified positions at Fredricksburg in December of 1862, being stymied by a smaller Confederate unit while trying to cross a creek for a good portion of the day at Antietam earlier in 1862 and for his long whiskers that traveled down his face from his ears joining up under is nose -- sideburns.   Prior to the war, he was an officer in the Burnside Rifle Company of Providence, Rhode Island.  That company developed the .54 calibre Burnside carbine. 
A carbine is a short rifle intended to be used by mounted soldiers.    As such, it needed to be loaded from horseback, a difficult proposition when armed with a full length musket measuring nearly 5 feet.   Early percussion carbines were shortened muskets.  The soldier still had to load the charge at the muzzle, seat the projectile in the barrel, remove the ramrod, ram the charge and projectile, return the ramrod, prime the weapon by placing a percussion cap on the cone and full cock the weapon before he could fire.  The whole time he is balancing himself on the back of a horse amidst the din of battle.  It didn't take long for  firearms inventors to devise a way to shorten the process and make more rapid firing possible.   Hence, the breach loading carbine.

The Burnside is not the first breach loading carbine.  It is, however, the third most issued carbine in the Civil War behind the Sharps and the Spencer.  It fired a unique cone shaped, metallic cased round and was produced in five models dating back to 1857.  The most common model of the Burnside carbine required the soldier to half cock the weapon's hammer, release the breach by operation of a lever inside the trigger guard (which causes the breach to drop  back and down away from the barrel), insert a round, close the breach, prime, full cock and fire.

Union forces were the primary users of the Burnside.  While the Confederates  captured many a Burnside, it was not a popular arm in the South.  This is most likely because of the Burnsides' specialized round.   As the Burnside round is flared at the projectile (forming a gas seal at the barrel), firing the carbine by loading loose powder in the breach and inserting a round in the barrel didn't work so well.  Too much gas escaped from the improperly sealed breach to be effective.  Thus, the poor Southern trooper who was supplied with a Burnside carbine would have to rely on captured ammunition or wait to pick up or be issued a more universal weapon such as the Sharps or Maynard.

While the Burnside proved a reliable service weapon, it did have its faults.   Earlier models had a breach that fully dropped down and was somewhat difficult to load and quickly return.   Those issues were corrected by a double hinged mechanism that resulted in the above described action. Also, late 3rd and early 4th model Burnsides saw the implementation of a guide screw added to the right side of the receiver and a channel cut on the right side if the breach. This feature ensured that the brea h would easily and quickly return to firing position.   One design flaw that proved a nuisance is the lack of an ejector mechanism to remove spent cartridges from the breach.  Consequently, the soldier had to remove the cartridge by hand.

The carbine pictured above is mine.  It bears serial number 2833 and is a transitional 3rd/4th model.   It has the earlier style hammer, but the double-hinged breach drop mechanism and the guide screw.