The Burnside Carbine found its way onto many battlefields of the Civil War, utilizing a special .54 caliber cartridge designed specifically for the weapon itself.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
Credit: Right side profile view of the Burnside Carbine
The Burnside Carbine was a popular carbine rifle fielded across all of the major battlefronts of the American Civil War. The weapon was developed by Ambrose E. Burnside from whence the carbine received its name. Burnside was a part of the US Army but gave up his position in order to concentrate on developing the gun in whole. The Burnside Carbine made use of a specially-designed cartridge, this being a brass .54 caliber cartridge developed by Burnside himself. His new weapon and corresponding cartridge did much to eliminate the leaked hot gasses that were common when firing other breech-loading weapons of the time. In the Burnside Carbine, the cartridge itself sealed the barrel from the breech thanks to its specialized design, in effect creating a seal to contain the gasses. In the end, the Burnside Carbine was only rivaled by the Spencer and Sharps types as the most important and quantitative carbine of the American Civil War. The Burnside Carbine was used by both sides in the conflict - a testament to its quality design and engineering.
The Burnside Carbine made use of the breech-loading concept. This allowed the operator the capability to reload his weapon from the rear of the gun body as oppose to jamming a cartridge and propellant down the muzzle (muzzle-loading) by way of a ramrod as was common in muskets. The carbine made use of two trigger guards which were pressed to open the breech block. The open breech block was now made ready to accept a fresh .54 cartridge. Once a cartridge was inserted and the breech block closed, the operator was free to fire the gun. As a percussion-based system, the operator cocked the hammer back via the hammer spur. The pulling of the trigger activated the hammer to which the hammer head struck a percussion cap. The cap sparked and ignited the black powder contained in the cartridge and propelled the bullet out of the barrel. The firing system was fitted along the right side of the body, consistent with musket rifles of the day.
The weapon weighed in at 7lbs and featured a muzzle velocity of 950 feet per second. Effective range was listed out to 200 yards.
What made a carbine "a carbine" was its shortened barrel length when compared to that of a contract rifle. The Burnside Carbine had a barrel measuring in at 21 inches with an overall length of 39.5 inches - suitable for specialized battlefield elements such as cavalry - essentially infantrymen on horseback and trained in the use of the sabre and powerful mounted-charges. The barrel was situated into a wooden frame and single-banded along the foregrip. A forward sight was fitted just aft of the muzzle. The metal body contained the trigger group and hammer action as well as the breech. A rifle-style handgrip was provided as was a curved stock capped with a metal buttplate. The trigger was fitted under the rifle handgrip and ringed by the dual trigger guards.
Burnside fielded his carbine in a West Point competition against some seventeen other carbine designs in 1857 and came out victorious. Initial government orders were slow to follow, however, and it was only the advent of full-blown war in America that pushed orders into the thousands. Union cavalry were among the largest groups operating the handy little weapon. Production of the carbine ran from 1857 to 1865 and was handled by the Burnside Rifle Company and the Bristol Firearms Company of Providence, Rhode Island. Despite appearing in five differing models and having the design improved upon by George P. Foster, the Burnside Carbine was eventually superseded in production by the Spencer Carbine by the end of the war - Burnside facilities were converted to handle government production of the Spencer brand. Ambrose Burnside eventually sold his interest in the company in order to become the Union Army of the Potomac commander.
Despite Burnside's engineering successes with his carbine, he proved to be something of an incompetent officer in the field - leading Union forces to defeat at both the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of the Crater. Nevertheless, his carbine went on to become the stuff of legend made possible by the war.
Manufacturing Burnside Rifle Company; Bristol Firearms Company - USA
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