A History of U.S. Military Rifles

Youtube’s Hickok45 calls his Youtube page a drama-free shooting channel, which it certainly is. The man clearly loves shooting, which … Continued

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXh4Qhmt3xA?

Youtube’s Hickok45 calls his Youtube page a drama-free shooting channel, which it certainly is. The man clearly loves shooting, which is evident in every vid shot in his backyard range littered with steel plates, “evil 2-liters,” and soda cans.

In this video, Hickok45 goes through all the major U.S. military rifles issued since 1776. It’s not new, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s very informative.

The video covers a lot and is 35 minutes long, so if you can’t turn on those speakers at the moment, here are the guns he goes over, and a little bit about each that you might not know.

Flintlocks

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The original was the muzzleloading long rifle, also known as the Pennsylvania Rifle or the Kentucky Rifle. Hickok shoots what he calls a Brown Bess, which was the standard British long gun from 1722 until 1838 and was common in the Colonies, but unlike the long guns, the Brown Bess was a smoothbore flintlock with no rifling. The long guns were mostly modified small frame rifles that were originally designed in Europe and could be accurate out to about 270 yards, but fired a relatively small caliber projectile, usually somewhere between .32 and .45 caliber, from very long barrels. A piece of flint was grasped in the vice-like jaws held in place by a screw wrapped in a felt pad to keep it from cracking. When the trigger is pulled, the flint strikes the frizzen which generates a spark that ignites powder in the flash pan, which in turn ignites the charge in the barrel and fires the weapon.

Each time the weapon was loaded, powder had to be poured into the flash pan as well as the barrel before the rifle could be cocked and fired—not exactly easy to do under battle stress and/or in wet conditions. These weapons dominated the battlefield for about 100 years.

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Caplock Rifles

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An 1858 Enfield, Double Band.

Flintlocks were eventually succeeded by muzzleloading caplock rifles. To ignite the main charge, a percussion cap, which is basically just a big primer, was struck by the hammer. It added the step of placing a cap on the nipple cone, but removed the entire flint assembly, frizzen, and flash pan, creating a significant advantage for battlefield troops. The system was actually patented way back in 1807 by Rev. Alexander John Forsyth, because he got sick of birds getting spooked by the smoke from the flash pan before his shot was fired. But it wasn’t until Forsyth’s patents expired that the system was actually developed. Many older flintlock weapons were converted to caplocks.

Hickok shoots an 1858 Double Band Enfield. The longer three-band version was a common Civil War rifle from the UK that shot a .577 minie ball.

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Morgan Freeman unboxes an Enfield Pattern 1853 Three Band rifle as Rawlins in “Glory” (1989).

Breechloaders

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A single-shot Springfield 1873 Trapdoor rifle. photo from ammoland.com.

Next up is 1873 Trapdoor Springfield, representative of the beginning of the age of the metallic cartridge and the breech-loading rifle, forever making muzzleloaders and other actions curiosities for hunters and collectors. At the tail end of the Civil War, cartridge guns like the first lever rifles and the Spencer rifle began appearing on the battlefield. But that was a time of great transition for firearms, and the military was slow to catch up. In the 1870s the military officially adopted the Trapdoor Springfield in full length and carbine versions. It was a single-shot rifle that took a .45-70 rimfire cartridge that was originally made of copper—which expanded too much in the breech when the round was fired, and grew a green film of oxidation when carried in leather shell holders that often jammed the Springfield. This was a serious problem for the carbine version, which had no ramrod to clear it. Brass eventually replaced copper and became the new standard for all cartridges.

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Bolt Guns – the Springfield Krag-Jorgensen M1892-99

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A Springfield 1892 bolt-action rifle. photo from rockislandauction.com.

The Model 1873 was replaced by the Springfield Model 1892 bolt-action rifle, which had an action based on the Norewegian Krag-Jorgensen action. It was the first rifle in .30 caliber, and the first using smokeless powder in a rimmed centerfire cartridge, bringing us closer to the modern age of firearms. It had an unusual feeding system and wasn’t around for long, but it represented two huge advancements for U.S. military arms. It held more than one round and fired a pointed cartridge, which couldn’t be done with lever guns, limiting their range, accuracy, and velocity.

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A trooper with an M1896 rifle on improvised shooting sticks in “Rough Riders” (1997).

Mauser Action – the Springfield M1903

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A Springfield M1903 Mk 1.

After the Spanish American War in 1898 the U.S. copied the design of the Mauser action to create the Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle. It had an internal magazine, with some variants holding up to 25 rounds, and was loaded with stripper clips. It was originally chambered in .30-03, but was soon manufactured in the new .30-06 cartridge. The M1903 was the U.S. go-to rifle in World War I and saw continued use in WWII, even as it was being phased out. Now, it’s a classic bolt-gun that’s still very effective.

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M1 Garand

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An M1 Garand rifle with a M1917 leather sling.

During World War II, the semi-automatic M1 Garand began to replace the Springfield ’03, representing a permanent shift for the U.S. military toward semi-auto gas-operated rifles. In fact, it was the first semi-auto rifle every issued by any military. As the ’03 was the definitive American rifle during WWI, the Garand was such for the Second World War, seeing heavy action and gaining a reputation as a rugged, and reliable rifle, if a little heavy. The only wide criticism of the rifle was the fact that it had an internal magazine that was loaded by an en-bloc, a metal clip that holds 8 rounds. The clip ejected with the last round, making a distinctive ping sound. The Garand served U.S. troops through the Korean war until the M14 came along.

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M14

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The M14 was intended to replace the M1 Garand and was issued from 1959 until 1964. It was, for the most part, an M1 Garand with a detachable box magazine and a tweaked gas system. It was a big advantage over the M1 in some respects, but it was still a very heavy rifle, though it fired the .308 Win, or 7.62 x 51mm NATO, a smaller round than the .30-06. It fired in full-auto, but it was not very accurate in that mode. It’s still regarded as a very accurate in semi-auto fire.

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U.S. soldier carrying an M14 in Vietnam. photo from cheaperthandirt.com

M16

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An original M16 with a 20-round magazine.

Though the M14 did see some use in Vietnam (and is still used by some units today), it was mostly replaced by the end of the Vietnam war by the much lighter and smaller rifle, the M16. The rifles is based on Eugene Stoner’s AR-15 designed by Armalite, including modern materials like aluminum and polymers. It was chambered in the small and speedy 5.56 round. Hickok has an M16A2. The original M16 had a lot of problems, mostly due to the ammo issued for it being loaded with the wrong powder, and the barrel not being chrome-lined, leading to a lot of jams and hatred for the new “plastic” rifle. It didn’t help that the M16 was billed as a self-cleaning rifle and wasn’t even issued with a cleaning kit. We now know a direct impingement rifle is far from self-cleaning. The M16A1 fixed a lot of these problems.

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M4

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The first version of the M4 carbine with a four-position collapsible stock.

The M4 is the carbine version of the M16, with a collapsible stock and shorter length (usually a 14-inch barrel), but still chambered for the 5.56. It’s an evolution of the Colt Automatic Rifle-15 Military Weapons System, better known as the CAR-15, which was made by Colt in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was used by some units in Vietnam, and after as the Colt Commando, before the M4 came around in 1994. In modern combat, often carried out in urban areas in close-quarter battle situations where maneuverability is required, a full-sized M16 just isn’t practical. The Marine Corps and U.S. Army are now in the process of phasing out the M16 and bringing in the M4 as their standard service weapon.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

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