|Both of my avid readers know that I have been working, not so secretly,
to resurrect a Burnside Carbine from the parts bins of several sutlers.
I am pleased to have that project almost completed, and will begin my selection
with a history of the talented General from Rhode Island, A. E. Burnside.
The ManAmbrose Everett Burnside was born in 1824 and graduated from the U. S. Military Academy in 1847, being posted as a Lieutenant of Artillery to Mexico that same year. He arrived too late to see any action, but continued to serve with the Artillery in the newly acquired territories in the Southwestern United States. Official Army documents record that Burnside was wounded in a skirmish with Apaches in 1849, but saw no other action under fire. His last post of duty in the military service was at Ft. Adams, in Newport, R.I. While stationed at Ft. Adams, in July 1853, Lt. Burnside requested permission from the Secretary of War to have the Springfield Armory construct a model of a firearm of his design, obviously for the purpose of satisfying the "working model" requirement of the U.S. Patent Office. With a working model, Burnside established his first company, Burnside & Bishop, which was destroyed by fire in late 1853. With the insurance money, Burnside then formed the Bristol Firearm Company in January 1854. Burnside had recently wed Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, and his relatives invested heavily in his venture. More importantly, Burnside was able to acquire the services of a respected Massachusetts gunsmith, George P. Foster, during the infancy stage of his corporate development.
With Fosters expertise, Bristol Firearms was able to produce locks and other gun components for the trade. These items provided a modest income while Burnside perfected his carbine design. Interestingly, the company stationary of this period shows several back-action locks available from Burnside. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Foster made to the Burnside Carbine was the gain-twist rifling which was used in every model carbine. Even shot-out, pitted barrels perform admirably at 50 yards due to this feature.
Burnside received his first patent on his original carbine on March 25, 1856.
The CarbineThe original Burnside Carbine effectively overcame several of the chief complaints about the only breechloading weapon in service at the time -- the Hall Carbine. The Hall leaked gas terribly, fouled miserably, and was wont to have cases stick in the breech block. Burnside eliminated all three complaints with his new carbine design.
The drawing for Burnside's first patent illustrates the tapered cartridge that became synonymous with Burnside's Car- bines. By adding a plunger to the back of the breech block, and combining the plunger with a tapered cartridge, Burnside elimi- nated stuck cartridges. The plunger also allowed the cartridge to be jammed between the mouth of the barrel and the breech block, allowing for minor variations in individual cartridge length, yet decreasing the area available for gas blowback. Closing the action on a Burnside pinches the cartridge tightly between the barrel cone and block -- a very effective seal. Burnside required the use of cartridges of his own manufacture in his arms. Instructions for loading cartridges for the Burnsides, printed in 1861, require the use of tallow and/or beeswax in making the cartridges, which helped to reduce fouling just as our modern lubricants do today.
Five of a KindThere are five models of Burnside Carbines, and the rarest is the first model. 200 were ordered for trials in May 1856, but the order was not completed until January, 1858. The Army liked what they saw as carbines trickled in, and 709 more carbines were ordered in September 1856 following a committee review of breech- loading carbines at West Point that summer. Mind you, at this time, the first contract was not fulfilled. These carbines, known as the Second Model design, included two important George Foster innovations -- the famous Burnside latch which replaced an awkward lever on the First Model, and a belt was added to the case mouth of the cartridge for a more effective seal in dis- charging the firearm. Both of these improvements were patented on April 10, 1860 (U.S. Patent No. 27,874).
These two contracts had been entered into by the Bristol Firearms Company, which reorganized as the Burnside Rifle Company in May of 1861. The new factory was not complete until 1862, continuing the late deliveries for which the Burnside Rifle Company is infamous. By the end of 1862, Burnside had contracts for 9,300 carbines, but had delivered a scant 1,060.
The onset of hostilities saw an increase in orders for Burnside Carbines. Third Model Carbines began to be delivered in 1861, the only change being the addition of a 9 and 1/2 inch foregrip to the 2nd Model. Foster continued to improve the basic design however, and in late 1861 the company began delivery of the Fourth Model Carbine.
The Fourth Model, referred to in correspondence as the "New Model," contained many improvements. A breech lever pin replaced the screw that held the block in the frame, allowing quicker, easier cleaning. The lever which rotated the breech block up for loading and unloading was cantilevered, creating easier access to the chamber. The Fourth Model was the arm reviewed in Scientific American in their December 20th issue of 1862. I am including page 2 of the Burnside Patent Number 38,042 to illustrate the genius of Foster's improvements (Note: Issac Hartshorn, who's name appears on the patent, was the Burnside salesman. Acquiring copies of patents is easy. They cost $3.00 each from U. S. Patent Office, (703) 305-8337. You will need the Patent Number to order.) As you can see from the drawing, the breech block, by tilting on it's center rather then at it's end when the lever is opened, presents the chamber at an elevation easier to reach with the fingers.
The remaining improvement was to add a guide screw on the right side of the frame, because in rapid fire situations, it is hard to operate the lever properly. The guide screw, and a corresponding channel on the right side of the breech block, corrected this problem. The resulting Fifth Model Burnside Carbine is the most available and best designed Burnside. Between 1863 and 1865, 43,940 Fifth Model Carbines were purchased by the U. S. Army, more then twice the number of Second, Third and Fourth Models combined!
Getting your hands on a Burnside Carbine is not all that hard. I have seen everything from hulks to intact specimens at the last four Nationals. My project started with the purchase of a Fifth Model frame, barrel and breech from the Regimental Quartermaster. I was able to get most of the parts from Bill Osbourne at Lodgewood Manufacturing (414-473-5444) and Phil Seiss at S & S Firearms in Glendale, New York (718-797-1100). Look for matching serial numbers on the frame and the breech block. I would be wary of shooting a Burnside with unmatched numbers. Let your favorite sutler know your looking for a Burnside, and he can probably steer you to a good working specimen. I was able to build mine for $750 over a 10 month period, so it is a project well within the average skirmishing budget.
Next Month: Shooting the Burnside Carbine
Until then, shoot safe, have fun and support Civil War site preservation
while we still can.
(C) 1996 Tom Kelley
Not too long ago, a Burnside was a popular arm for those skirmishing events requiring Carbines. However, the increase in availability of reproduction Carbines -- Smiths, Sharps and Gallagers - and their relative ease of operation spelled the end of the Burnside Carbine's popularity. And although they are no longer the most desired Carbine on the line, the Burnside remains the most accurate black powder military Carbine ever designed.
The photo of the open Burnside breech, left, shows the breech rotated up and the gas seal area in both breech and barrel. The genius of the Burnside Carbine rests in the very gas seal which requires special ammunition, and in it's gain twist barrels. When proper alignment between the breech block and barrel are maintained, and ammunition is properly prepared, a 133 year old Burnside still leaks no gas at the breech. And even seriously worn or pitted barrels can shoot excellent groups at 50 yards due to the gain twist used to manufacture this weapon.
A barrel with gain twist rifling starts with a slow rate of twist at the breech of the barrel, but the rate of twist is increased as the bullet reaches the muzzle. Gain twist has been around a long time, and has always been recognized as an option to increase accuracy. No doubt, Burnside's employment of an experienced gunsmith, George P. Foster, as the Factory Manger early in the development of his Carbine played a key role in the use of gain twist rifling. According to my records, the Burnside Navy Rifle, which had a 29 inch barrel, had a gain twist of 1/83 to 1/52. My 21" carbine has a similar gain twist. Because of their design, Burnside Carbines are inherently accurate, and are lethal pigeon poison at 50 yards.
Armed with this information while developing my load, I knew that gain twist is still a favorite round-ball technique, so I started looking for a .56 round ball mould. I actually found one at my local gun shop, a Lyman 562RB. After casting a small batch, I ran a couple through the barrel to check for size and fit. The ball took easily to the lands, and the grooves left just the slightest imprint on the ball, so I was ready to start shootin' my Burnside. I knew safely using the 265 grain round ball in lieu of the 360 grain bullet would increase my projectile velocity, which would help me take advantage of the gain twist rifling. My projectile to powder ratio with the roundball is 7:1, with a bullet it would be 9.6:1. I think the lighter ball gives me a least 25% more velocity without damaging accuracy.
Furthermore, all of the old-timers who have shot Burnsides ask me what I'm shooting, and when I say it's a round ball they shake their heads approvingly. Experience counts, and I know a good idea when I steal it.
After deciding on a suitable projectile, I had to get cases. Brass cases are available, at $2.75 each. However, Bill Osborne at Lodgewood Mfg. (414-473-5444) came up with some plastic Burnside cases last fall. The manufacturer of these cases had recently discovered a box, and Bill bought up all he had. These modern cases are $37.50 for 50 cases. I have been shooting them now for four months, and having compared my case longevity with teammates shooting barrel-stuffers, have found them to be as serviceable as plastic Smith cases presently on the market.
I started my load development out low, for safety's sake, and it took me about three hours to settle on my load. The plastic cases are reduced capacity, so they have thick walls, and will only hold about 40 grains of FF powder. With reduced loads, my ball was running out of steam and dropping off low to the left, and I didn't want the increased pressure of FFF powder.
My standard load for a Burnside Carbine now consists of a .562 pure lead round ball over a .45 Wonder Wad on top of 37.5 grains of FF Goex black powder in a plastic, reduced-capacity tube. Photo 1 shows one of my first groups using this load off the bench, and I think you will agree it is suitable for skirmishing purposes. It is very important to lube your cartridges. I dip the nose in a mixture of 50% paraffin and 50% Len's Lube, covering the ball completely. This lube helps complete the gas seal at the breech mouth when firing, in addition to reducing fouling build-up in the barrel.
It has not been easy getting my Burnside to the line for skirmishing. Since I began my project at the Spring National in 1995, I wanted to have the Burnside ready for Carbine Team at the Spring National this year. Thanks to Tony Beck, who provided me with some excellent tips, I was able to get my Burnside working in April. I carefully packed it to the National, and stopped by Lodgewood and S & S Firearms to show off my project and thank them for their help in completing this ambitious task. Then, while tightening the hammer screw the day before the event, the head of the screw sheared off and left me confounded and frustrated, to say the least. It took me a week after returning to retap the tumbler and install a new hammer screw.
As this photo illustrates, the Burnside lock is a "back-action" lock, which means that the mainspring is behind the tumbler. The Burnside lock uses the lower portion of the bottom of the mainspring as the sear spring, which requires careful tuning of the lock. I managed to get the Burnside to the Mason-Dixon Skirmish, however, I had to retire early when I concluded the lock was firing with less then three pounds of trigger pull. I got that problem corrected with a little fine tuning, and at the Snowball Skirmish on June 29, it functioned flawlessly through 67 rounds of fire in individual and team events.
Speaking of mainsprings, original Burnside mainsprings are as scarce as hens teeth and Dodos. Once again, the Laurel Brigade's Tony Beck provided me with tips for making a Burnside spring from a repro Spencer mainspring, or I would still be waiting to complete and compete this gun. The repro Spencer Springs are a little shorter then original Spencer mainsprings, and they end up just a little long, but workable, in a Burnside.
And, this gives me the platform and opportunity to chastise those idiots who tear guns apart. In my search for parts in good condition, I can't tell you how many valuable items I have seen ruined by stupid hammer and chisel buffoons who don't bother to research and learn about a gun before attempting to dismantle it, usually for parts. It is a sad fact that an original Burnside is worth more when parted out then when kept whole. And, sutlers are businessmen, not museums or collectors. I can live with these economic facts when medicated correctly. However, I have no earthly use for the simpletons who hope to gain monetarily through the destruction of even the smallest historically significant part. Odsbodkins, man, ask a sutler or gunsmith to help you dismantle that Burnside or other valuable weapon. Every part has historical value and significance, and I just wish there was a way I could keep these derelicts from destroying half a Burnside while parting out the rest.
Well, my pursuit of Burnside knowledge will have taken me to three skirmishes in five weekends, with a major reenactment on one of the two other weekends (Man, do I have a great wife or what!). Next month, we'll look at rebuilding or restoring your own Burnside Carbine, which will complete the Burnside saga for now. So, until then, shoot safe and have fun.
(C) 1996 Tom Kelley
Since Fifth Model Carbines were produced in the greatest numbers, you will probably be acquiring parts for that particular Burnside -- and it makes sense to make a Fifth Model first for just that reason. The Fifth Model Burnside Carbine has a guide screw in the right side of the frame. I think it is best to acquire a both a barrel and frame with the corresponding breech at the same time. The photo shows both a barrel frame unit (top) and a completly rebuilt carbine (bottom). The top fronts of both the frame and breech should have matching serial numbers for the safest operation of the arm, and the best way to insure this is to acquire both at the same time. The photo shows both a barrel and frame assembly and a nearly finished Burnside for comparison. I have been able to find these assemblies at many sutlers over the last 15 months. If you seek my recommendation, try either S & S Firearms (717-497-1100) or Lodgewood Mfg (414-473-5444), but start with your favorite sutler first.
When inspecting a barrel for purchase, consider the rifling. You want to carefully inspect the last 6 to 9 inches of barrel for pitting or worn rifling. You can usually run the ol' fingernail test on rifling. Your fingernail, when inserted just inside the barrel, should catch on the edges of the grooves. Given the inherent accuracy of the Burnside, even a modestly pitted or worn barrel will still perform well at 50 and 100 yards, but you should get the best barrel you can find during your search.
The Burnside breech actually consists of two main pieces and a guide screw, and this unit fits neatly inside the frame, pivoting on the Link to receive each cartridge. The cone seat moves forward when the breech is opened, jarring the cartridge loose (I have never had a stuck case in my Burnside -- another great design feature). Inserting a cartridge after removing the empty case returns the cone seat to the proper position. The nipple is mounted on the cone seat, and communi- cates the ignition charge to the cartridge. When buying a breech, inspect the cone seat carefully. If you have a choice, buy a breech that has a small hole in the cone seat where the cartridge sits. Smaller communication holes make for more forceful and consistent ignition. A worn, larger than normal communication hole can be soldered over, but this repair will be an annual one if you shoot five or six hundred rounds annually.
Of all the parts you will need to complete a Burnside Carbine, lock parts are by far the hardest to find. Because I wanted to build a shooter, I didn't mind using reproduction parts on my lock. As I mentioned last month, original mainsprings and tumblers are rare today, and priced even dearer. I got my reproduction lock parts from S & S Firearms. They require some gunsmithing skills to complete, but I was able to go slow and get the job done.
Because the last three models of carbines produced by the Burnsides Rifle Company had forearms, you will need two pieces of wood for your project. I was not too happy with the replacement wood parts I got, particularly the buttstock. The lock mortise was only about 60% inletted, and the toe of the stock was more than an inch short. I spent the month of February building up the toe of my stock with "Acraglas" just to get it to fit the buttplate. Make sure you take at least your buttplate with you when you go looking for wood, and get stocks with a little extra one them, not stocks that are short (You know, that stock was in the marked down pile, so maybe I was just being too cheap).
The forearm has both a barrel band and a screw holding it in place, which seems like overkill, but you'll never lose that son-of-a- gun either.
I conquered the shortage of Burnside Mainsprings by using a Spencer repro mainspring. The end that hooks onto the tumbler fly was too wide, so I had to thin that down about 1/8" on the last inch of that arm of the mainspring. You can also shorten the end of the mainspring that acts as the sear spring, and thin it down, too. By putting a thin edge on it, I was able to get a pretty good trigger pull without sacrificing safety.
If you would like a complete parts list to begin your own Burnside building project, see below.
You don't have to build your own. I saw two Fifth Model Burnsides at the National Skirmish, although one did not have matching serial numbers. I also saw an excellent specimen in Gettysburg at a shop next to the Farnsworth House, and the asking price was less than $1200. So, if you want to have some real fun, there are lots of options available.
One thing you will notice after you start shooting your Burnside is that your favorite load may start to change point of impact after about 500 rounds. This causes some people to think something is wrong with the gun. In my case, I am convinced that the use of the arm, and the constant cleaning of the barrel, after years, nay, decades of neglect, causes the condition of the barrel to improve with renewed use. I just checked my barrel out because my pet load is shooting left 2 1/2 inches, and I was chagrined to see how much better it is since I started shooting it this spring. I think the pressure and heat from competitive shooting is shaking out some rust still, so I'll do a little sight work and keep plugging along with it.
Before I close, let me say what a joy it was to participate in the Maryland Levi Garrett Territorial Match at Sudlersville Gun Club last weekend (Aug 3-4). The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association event is a real test, but fellow skirmisher Ben Ewing from the Delaware Blues made things more enjoyable. These "round-ball" shoots can add a lot of shooting to your schedule, so check out your local gun club and go shoot safe and have fun.
(C) 1996 Tom Kelley
Burnside Carbine Parts List
Fourth & Fifth Models
Barrel & Frame
Breech Block Subassembly