Why didn’t more soldiers have Sharps in the U.S. Civil War if they’d been around so long? Again, because of cost. Compared to a muzzle-loading Springfield, the Sharps was very expensive to produce, plus ammunition had to be manufactured for it. Only 11,000 of the Model 1859s were produced, most going unissued or given to sharpshooters.
The carbine version of the Sharps was popular with calvary on both sides of the war and was issued in larger numbers than other carbines, especially because it could be converted to metallic cartridges developed in the 1860s. Many converted Sharps were issued to troops during the Indian Wars in the years directly following the Civil War. Almost 90,000 Sharps carbines were produced and was the most common firearm carried by Union calvary regiments, though many were replaced by repeating Spencers by the end of the war.
The Spencer repeating rifle was a lever-action, seven-shot rifle fed with cartridges from a tube magazine in the rifle’s buttstock. It was designed by Christopher Spencer in 1860.
The Spencer was adopted by the Union Army and was used by cavalry during the American Civil War. It was popular, but it was complicated to build and could not be manufactured at a rate that could replace the then standard-issue muzzleloaders.
The Spencer carbine was a shorter and lighter version first produced in 1863. In 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant supplied Gen. Phil Sheridan with 10,000 mounted men equipped with Spencer seven-shot carbines, a prototype of which had been personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln. These rifles, which the Southern Confederacy didn’t have the manufacturing capability to match, contributed to the Union’s victory.
Unlike later repeating rifles that hung the magazine tube beneath the barrel, the Spencer’s tube was located in the buttstock. To reload, a magazine tube insert containing the spring was removed, and seven fresh cartridges were placed into the tube before the insert is replaced.
Working the lever, which doubled as a trigger guard, extracted a spent casing and then fed a new cartridge from the mag tube, but the lever did not automatically cock the hammer. The hammer then had to be manually cocked before the rifle could be fired.
The earliest Spencers used copper-cased rimfire cartridges. A device called the Blakeslee Cartridge Box contained tubes filled with seven cartridges each. The idea was that the tube could be dumped right into the mag tube for quick reloading—but since the cartridge-box tubes were made of thin metal, they tended to bend during transport and carry, thus not allowing all of the cartridges to be dumped.
The rifle was initially chambered for .56-56 Spencer loaded with 45 grains of black powder. They were also available as .56-52, .56-50, and a wildcat .56-46, a necked down version of the original cartridge. The cartridge length was limited by the action size to about 1.75 inches. It was a solid design and the first truly reliable repeating rifle, though it was outshined by the high capacity and ease of use featured in repeating designs from Henry and then Winchester.
The Springfield Model 1903 rifle, which was based on Mauser patents, was the most successful bolt-action military rifle in U.S. history photo courtesy NRA Museums
The Model 1903 Springfield, formally known as the “United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903,” was officially adopted as a U.S. service rifle on June 19, 1903.
It saw service in World War I and was officially replaced as the standard infantry rifle by the faster-firing semiautomatic M1 Garand starting in 1936. However, the M1903 Springfield remained in service as a standard issue infantry rifle during World War II, as the U.S. entered the war without sufficient M1 rifles. The Model 1903 introduced a lot of Americans to bolt-action rifles.
Over one million U.S. Model 1903s were manufactured before production was discontinued in 1941. Many soldiers came home from World War I and wanted bolt-action rifles for hunting and sporting purposes.
The M1903 that was originally adopted by the U.S. military was chambered in .30-30 and had a 24-inch barrel with no carbine version created, as the rifle was deemed short enough for both troops and calvary. The War Department stided several examples of the Spanish Mauser Model 1893 that had gained a deadly reputation in the 1898 Spanish-American War. They then applied some feature from the Krag-Jorgensen rifle to a bolt and magazine system from the Mauser Model 93 to created what became the Model 1903. The gun was such a Mauser copy that the U.S. government lost a suit brought by Mauser and had to pay $250,000 in royalties to Mauser Werke.
Over 80,000 M1903 rifles had been produced by January 1905 at the government-owned Springfield Armory. However, when Theodore Roosevelt objected to what he considered a thing and flimsy spike bayonet design and mount, the rifle was retooled for a blade-type bayonet and called the M1905. Improved sights were also added.
The rifle had to be modified again when the new “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906″ ammunition was adopted, better known as the .30-06, with spitzer-shaped (pointed) bullets. The sights had to again be retooled based on the ballistics of the new cartridge.
By the time of the 1916 Pancho Villa Expedition, the 1903 Springfield was in the form we know and the form that was issued to troops through World War II, providing troops with long-range accuracy, power, and reliability.
M1 Garand Rifle
The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1” was adopted on Jan. 9, 1936
The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1,” better known as the M1 Garand, chambered in .30-06, was adopted in 1936 by U.S. Armed Forces as a standard-issue service rifle, the first semi-automatic firearm to hold that spot. It replaced the M1903 bolt action models.
During the interwar years, John Garand, a Canadian-born design engineer and Springfield Armory employee, worked on a design for a new gas-operated semiautomatic rifle chambered for the standard .30-06 military round that would be named the M1.
All told, over 3.5 million M1s were produced at the Springfield Armory. An additional 500,000 were manufactured by Winchester Repeating Arms Co. General George S. Patton called this rifle “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” It gave American troops a significant edge in combat over enemy soldiers, the majority of whom were armed with slower firing bolt-action rifles.
For more on the extensive
history of the M1 Garand, go here.
AR-15 and M16 Rifles
The AR-15 was developed by ArmaLite Corporation, a subsidiary of a California aeronautics company. Its patent was later bought by Colt. photo courtesy NRA Museums
The AR-15, and its military offspring, the M16, got their start in an American aeronautics company. In 1955, the ArmaLite Corporation, then a subsidiary of Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Corporation, submitted a gun design to the U.S. Army. It was the AR-10, a .308 Winchester rifle devised by Eugene Stoner (a former U.S. Marine who had served in Aviation Ordnance during WWII) but based on George Sullivan’s concepts. Sullivan was an engineer who saw an opportunity to use new manufacturing methods and materials to create new gun designs.
The AR-10 was made with anodized aluminum, a plastic butt stock, and other modern materials that were common in the construction of aircraft at the time, but not firearms. The Army was then searching for a new service rifle. The AR-10 was a modern rifle, a new rifle for an age that had molded plastic cups, dashboards, and toothbrushes. It was also a modular rifle, making it far easier to service and use than previous designs. It also weighed only 7.25 pounds without a magazine—about two pounders lighter than the M14 it was competing with.
The Army, however, was skeptical.
Time magazine profiled the AR-10 and called it a new “aluminum rifle” produced “at no cost to the taxpayer” and said the rifle “gave promise of being superior.” At the time, the Springfield Armory was still making guns for the U.S. military, as it had since George Washington founded it. Sure, civilian gun designers had always collaborated with the Armory and built new designs for soldiers and citizens alike, but if this rifle was accepted, it could mean the end to the Armory, as the Armory was counting on making the M14 for years to come and didn’t have the know-how to make plastic stocks and rifles with anodized aluminum parts.
Some of the U.S. Army’s leadership was also reportedly turned off by ArmaLite’s media blitz. The AR-10 didn’t win a military contract, but its offspring, the AR-15 later would. The AR-15 was chambered for the lighter and faster 5.56mm (or .223 Remington). However, before the military bet on the new AR-15, ArmaLite’s parent company hit hard times financially and decided to unload ArmaLite.
In January of 1959 the AR-15′s design and manufacturing rights were sold to Colt for the rock-bottom price of $75,000 and a 4.5 percent royalty on future sales. Colt’s experienced firearms engineers went to work and quickly tweaked the AR-15′s design. The biggest change they made was relocating its charging handle from under the carrying handle to the rear of the receiver. Colt then started a public-relations campaign that knocked the M14 for being too old-school as they talked-up the benefits of the lighter AR-15.
The original AR-15 weighed less than 6 pounds without a magazine, whereas the M14 weighed on average 9.2 pounds when empty. The AR-15 finally had its day. In 1963 a full-auto version made for the U.S. military was dubbed the M16. That same year Colt began selling semiautomatic AR-15s to U.S. consumers. It became the standard U.S. service rifle and forever changed miitary preference from large, long-range chamberings to lighter rifles that fired smaller, faster projectiles.
deep dive into the history of the AR-15 and AR-10 rifles and their designer, go here.
The M4 carbine was adopted in the 1990s as a more compact alternative to the full length M16 rifle. photo from Colt.com
The M4 carbine is the progeny of the M16 rifle, which was born from the AR-15. The M4 is a shorter and lighter variant of the M16A2 assault rifle. It is a gas-operated, magazine-fed, selective-fire rifle. Like the rest of the M16 family, it fires the .223 caliber, or 5.56mm NATO round. U.S. Armed Forces carry versions of this carbine. Its selective fire options include semiautomatic and three-round burst (like the M16A2 and M16A4), while the M4A1 has the capability to fire fully automatic instead of three-round burst (like the M16A1 and M16A3). They are also capable of mounting the M203 grenade launcher. The M4A1 carbine is a fully automatic variant of the basic M4 carbine.
The M4A1 is used by almost all U.S special-operation units. The U.S. Army lists its maximum effective range at about 500 to 600 meters. A team of engineers from ATK and Heckler & Koch (H&K) thought they had a rifle that could replace the M4 when they combined forces to create the XM8– an assault rifle with a “smart” grenade launcher–in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The XM8 design was originally part of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon program (OICW), which was developing a “smart” grenade launcher that a shooter could program to explode at a certain distance. The system, however, couldn’t meet stringent performance and weight requirements and was prohibitively expensive. The XM8 project was formally cancelled in 2005. Many sources now say the U.S. Army won’t replace the M4 until a new infantry rifle makes it possible for a technological leap ahead.
In 2014, the U.S. Army had about a half million M4s and was reluctant to make a big and expensive change without a very good reason for doing so. Some of the M4′s critics have been very vocal. For example, U.S. Army Senior Warrant Officer Russton B. Kramer, a 20-year Green Beret,
told The Washington Times that if you want to improve your chances of surviving on the battlefield, you have to modify your M4 with over-the-counter products.
Other active and former U.S. soldiers have said they’re not being forced to buy products from the civilian marketplace to keep their M4s running. What they’re doing is trying to make them more accurate with better triggers and sights, and more ergonomic with better grips and other products. Steve Adelmann, a retired SOF Operator who spent 22 years in the U.S. Army and who currently owns Citizen Arms, said, “I can’t speak for everyone, but my experience was that aftermarket parts were purchased to upgrade, not to keep guns running. I consulted several current armorers and grunts about
The Washington Times article to see if my recollections were incorrect. To a man they backed up my observations.”
Many agree that the modular nature of the M4 platform allows soldiers (or citizens with AR-15-type rifles) to upgrade or replace uppers and other parts. For now, this is easier to do than developing and procuring an entirely new system.
deep dive into the history of the M4 Carbine, go here.
The Model 1911 pistol served as the standard-issue sidearm for the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 to 1985. In total, the U.S. military bought around 2.7 million Model 1911 and 1911A1 pistols. photo courtesy NRA Museums
“People think of semiautomatic pistols as being space-age technology, but the truth is perhaps the greatest pistol ever invented, one still carried by cops, civilians, and some in the military, is the Model 1911, a gun designed when the Wright brothers were still selling bicycles in Ohio,” says Phil Schreier, the senior curator for the NRA’s National Firearms Museum.
The Model 1911 pistol was the result of a search for a suitable self-loading pistol that would replace the variety of revolvers then in service. Designed by John Browning (1855-1926), the need for the a new and more powerful semiautomatic pistol became clear to the U.S. military when American units fought Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The U.S. forces were using the then-standard Colt Model 1892 revolver chambered in .38 Long Colt.
The Moros frequently used drugs to numb themselves to pain, and the .38 Long Colt cartridge didn’t have enough knockdown power to stop them. Also, the revolver was slower to reload than new semiautomatic pistols. In 1906 this search for a better handgun led to military test trials. Field tests from 1907 to 1911 were held, and the Colt Model 1911 won easily and was adopted by the U.S. Army on March 29, 1911, thus gaining its designation, Model 1911.
It was adopted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in 1913. Originally manufactured only by Colt, demand for the Model 1911 in World War I became so great that it was also manufactured in the government-owned Springfield Armory, making the 1911 yet another civilian invention that was picked up and manufactured by contract by the U.S. government.
The Model 1911 pistol was subsequently widely copied. It quickly became popular with civilian shooters in competitive events. Soon full-sized and compact variants were made available for civilians as carry guns. The Model 1911 was replaced by the 9mm Beretta M9 pistol as the standard U.S. sidearm, but due to its popularity, the Model 1911 has not been completely phased out.
For a deeper dive into the history of the 1911 and the other guns designed by John Browning, go here.
Beretta M9 Pistol
The Beretta M9 was the official U.S. service pistol from 1985 until 2017, when the various branches of the military began replacing it with the modular SIG Sauer P320 pistol, designated as the M17 and M18 (compact). photo courtesy NRA Museums
The semiautomatic M9 pistol was part of a limited group of guns tested in the U.S. military’s XM9 trials to determine a successor to the Model 1911 pistol. Beretta’s M9 (essentially a military-specification Beretta 92FS) won the trial, narrowly beating out the SIG Sauer P226 for cost reasons, and became the new U.S. service pistol.
Beretta began making guns in northern Italy centuries ago, just a few years after Leonardo DaVinci died. Beretta’s pistols would influence the next generation of gun designs. In the mid-1980s, it was seen as the pinnacle of high-capacity 9mm handgun technology by people who didn’t know anything about Glocks yet. This was reflected in pop culture. Mel Gibson, for example, carried a Beretta 92 in the 1987 action film “Lethal Weapon” and was cast as the younger, hipper cop beside the older, and revolver-carrying, Danny Glover. The Beretta 92FS was widely issued by U.S. police departments when they switched from revolvers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In December 2014, Beretta unveiled the M9A3, an updated version of the M9 under the Army’s Enginering Change Proposals under the existing contract. That same month, the Army decided not to evaluate the M9A3 at all and instead pursue the MHS program.
In January 2017, it was announced that a version of the SIG Sauer P320 pistol built to military specs would be adopted as the M17 pistol with a carry-sized model adopted as the M18. The military said it was chosen because it was the only pistol that allowed for the swapping of differerent grip length and slide-barrel length combinations. The pistol beat out the Beretta APX as well as entries from Glock and FN, among others.