More Photos Below
 Model 1871 Ward­Burton Bolt-Action Rifle & Carbine

Cal. 50/70.
22" rnd bbl. Marked "eagle / U.S. / SPRINGFIELD / 1871" on the left side of the receiver,
"WARD.BURTON.PATENT. / DEC.20.1859.FEB.21.1871" on top of the bolt. "JWK" cartouche in banner on left side of stock. .
Only 316 of these carbines were made for trails. The generally saw hard service.

Another Single Shot Rifle by Burton

     For almost a half-century, the bolt-action rifle reigned supreme in America's military small-arms arsenal. The  long-lived use of the bolt-action was, by no means, unique to the United States. Almost without exception, bolt-action military rifle was a staple in the arsenals of most industrialized nations from the late 1800s through the Second World War.

     The United States' first standardized bolt-action Service rifle was the .30-40 Krag-Jorgenson, adopted in 1892 and put into production at the Springfield Armory two years later. The Krag was followed by the legendary Model of 1903 Springfield, which saw widespread service in both World Wars. The '03 was augmented during World War I by another bolt-action rifle, the U.S. Model of 1917 "American Enfield." Even after adoption of the semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle in 1936, the US. military relied heavily on bolt-action rifles throughout World War II. And today, bolt-action rifles remain in use by the American military as sniping arms in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     Although the Krag was America's first standardized bolt-action service rifle, it was not the first bolt-action utilized by our armed forces. From the late 1870s through the late 1880s, several types of bolt-action rifles were procured for testing, evaluation and limited issue by the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps. These arms were the Hotchkiss, Remington-Lee, Remington­Keene and Chaffee-Reese, which were chambered for the same blackpowder.45-70 Gov't cartridge used by the Model of 1873 "Trapdoor" Springfield. The Model of 1895 Winchester 6 mm US. Navy (Lee-Navy) rifle, which featured an unusual straight-pull bolt and clip-loading capability, was adopted in 1895. It was employed during the Spanish-American War and for a couple of years afterward.

the Winchester Hotchkiss


M1895 Winchester-Lee



     Although these early repeating, bolt-action Ameri­can military rifles may not be extremely well-known today, they were preceded by an even lesser-known bolt-action, the Model of 1871 Ward-Burton.

     The genesis of the Ward-Burton occurred during the first few years following the conclusion of the War Between the States. After Appomattox, the US. Army had a large number of serviceable, but obsolete, muzzleloading rifle-muskets in its inventory. Since funds were tight in the immediate post-war period, the Ordnance Department chose to convert some of these surplus muzzleloaders into breechloaders. A conversion devised by Springfield Armory Master Armorer Erskine S. Allin was used to convert the leftover rifle­muskets. This was accomplished by milling out the top rear portion of the muzzleloader's barrel and attaching a hinged breechblock. The altered arms were dubbed "Allin Conversions." 

The Model of 1865 utilized a.58-cal., rimfire metallic cartridge and was the first of the so-called "Trapdoor Springfields." The Model of 1865 was soon superseded by the much-improved Model of 1866, which featured a simpler breech mechanism and a greatly superior cartridge, the .50-70 Gov't. The Model of 1866 was followed by another .50-70 Trapdoor Springfield, the Model of 1868, which utilized a newly made receiver rather than one fabricated from surplus muzzleloaders as were the previous two Allin Conversions.

     Although a quantum leap forward as compared to the ponderous muzzleloaders, the Allin-designed Trapdoor was intended to be an interim arm until an improved breechloading system could be developed. The period of 1870 to 1872 was a time of experimen­tation and uncertainty for the US. Army Ordnance Department. It was clear that the muzzleloader was woefully out-of-date and that the breechloader was the future of military rifles. It was not certain, however, exactly what would be the optimum breechloading mechanism with which to arm the US. military.

     To this end, the Ordnance Department encouraged submission of various designs so that the most promising could be field tested and evaluated for possible adoption as an improved breechloading service rifle. Four basic breechloading mechanisms were eventually selected for limited production and evaluation. Funds were appropriated by Congress for these designs to be manufactured by the Springfield Armory for trial and field testing. All were chambered for the standard .50-70 rifle cartridge (or its carbine equivalent), while the barrels and most of the furniture were finished in "National Armory Bright." These arms were:

(1.) The Model of 1870 "Trapdoor" Springfield­
Springfield Armory manufactured 11,533 M 1870 rifles and 341 M1870 carbines. The Model of 1870 was a slightly modified version of the Model of 1868 Trap­door Springfield rifle.

(2.) The Model of 1870 "Rolling Block"-
Spring­field manufactured 1,008 rifles and 314 carbines of this design for trial by the U.S. Army. Patent rights to the Rolling Block mechanism were held by the Remington Arms Co. Shortly after production of the Model of 1870 trial arms ceased, Springfield Armory manufactured 10,001 Model of 1871 Rolling Block rifles. The Model of 1871 rifle featured an improved "locking action" mecha­nism, which automatically brought the hammer to half­cock when the breechblock was closed. The U.S. Navy issued some Springfield-made .50-70 Rolling Block rifles, also designated as the "Model of 1870," during this period. Although differing in some relatively minor details from the US. Army Model of 1870 (including blued barrels and bayonet lugs), these were considered as issue arms by the Navy rather than trial arms.

(3) The Model of 1870 Springfield/Sharps-
The Sharps was a popular civilian arm that had previously seen military use in the Civil War. A number of Civil War-era percussion Sharps were modified after the war to chamber the .50-70 center-fire metallic cartridge, and a fair number, mainly Model of 1867 Carbines, were already in service with the U.S. Army. Most of the M1870 trial arms utilized modified Sharps percussion receivers, but 300 newly made actions were used by Springfield Armory to assemble some of the later trial rifles. With the exception of the basic Sharps action, Springfield produced the balance of the components. Total production of the M 1870 Springfield/ Sharps trial guns amounted to 1,300 rifles and 308 carbines.

(4) The Model of 1871 Ward­Burton Bolt-Action-
The U.S. Springfield Armory produced 1,011 rifles and 316 carbines of the Ward-Burton pattern.

     The above arms were each entirely different breechloading designs that enabled the Ordnance Department to evaluate the attributes--positive and negative--of the various mechanisms. The Trapdoor Springfield, Sharps and Rolling Block were, in varying degrees, familiar due to their prior U.S. military and civilian use. On the other hand, the bolt-action Ward-Burton was something of an unknown to the soldiers charged with its testing.

     For the record, there were two "quasi bolt-action" US. military arms that predated the Ward-Burton. 

The Greene breechloading percussion rifle, made in very limited numbers from about 1859 into the early 1860s, featured a unique under­hammer action with a rudimentary bolt-operated mechanism. 
The Palmer carbine of the Civil War era utilized a bolt to open the chamber, but it was fired by means of a separate, side-mounted hammer. Neither were designed with what can be accurately characterized as a true bolt-action mechanism. Like virtually all subsequent modern bolt-action rifles, the Ward-Burton had the striker, ejector and extractor self-contained in the bolt body.

While the norm for bolt-action designs today, this was a novel, 
if not radical, mechanism in the early 1870s. 

    The Ward-Burton was invented and patented by two Americans, Gen. W G. Ward and Bethel Burton. The Ward-Burton rifle was a single­shot design that featured a bolt with two sets of threads on either side of the body that locked into corresponding threads machined into the inside of the receiver. The stubby bolt handle rotated down­ward to lock the action and rotated upward to disengage.

The Ward-Burton was Amer­ica's first true bolt-action military rifle. The stubby bolt rotated 90 degrees to unlock the two sets of threads on either side of the bolt body, which mated to corresponding recesses machined inside the receiver. The mechanism is easily understood by viewing the sectioned drawing from the U.S. Army manual on the rifle (L). Both rifles and carbines were manufactured at the U.S. Springfield Armory. The carbine, intended for cavalry use, included a ring-and-bar arrangement for a sling on its left (top).

      When the bolt was drawn to the rear, the empty cartridge case was automatically ejected, and the rifle was ready for a fresh cartridge to be inserted. It was cocked when the bolt was pushed forward. There was a small, spring-loaded bolt lock on the right rear of the receiver that functioned as a safety.

The Model of 1871 Ward-Burton was in production at Springfield Armory in 1871 and 1872. The receiver was case­hardened, and the left side was marked "WARD BURTON PATENT, DEC.20,1859, FEB.21.1871 "with a "spread eagle" over "US. SPRINGFIELD 1871." 

They were not serially numbered. The barrel and most of the furniture were finished in "NationalArmory Bright," as were the other trial arms of the period. The Ward­Burton rifle had a 321/s" barrel secured to the full-length stock by two barrel bands and was fitted with a folding-leaf rear sight. It had the same type of cleaning rod as the Model of 1868 Trapdoor Springfield rifle. The Ward-Burton rifle was issued with the Model of 1855 socket bayonet and also used the same type of leather sling as the .50-70 Trap­door Springfield rifles.

     The Model of 1871 Ward-Burton carbine had a 22" barrel secured by a single barrel band to an appropriately shortened stock. It was fitted with a ring-and-bar attachment on the left side of the stock similar to the other Spring­field Armory carbines of the era. The stocks of both the Ward-Burton rifle and carbine were typically marked with two different inspec­tion stamps: "ESA" (Erskine S. Allin) and "JWK" (John W Keene). Ward­Burton rifles and carbines were stamped "US' on their buttplate tangs. With the obvious exception of the bolt-action mechanism, the Ward-Burton shared many of the same features as the Model of 1870 Trapdoor Springfield.

     The Model of 1871 Ward-Burton rifles and carbines were issued to a number of US. Army units for field testing, along with the other .50-70 breechloading trial designs. The U.S. Army's 13th Infantry was one of the units that tested Ward-Burton rifles. While made in very limited numbers, Ward-Burton carbines saw a surprising amount of use by several Army units, including the It', 3rd 4th 5th 6th and 9th' US. Cavalry companies. Most of these cavalry units were also concurrently issued Model of 1870 Trapdoor Springfield, Model of 1870 Rolling Block and Model of 1870 Sharps trial carbines.
While nominally trial arms, some of the Ward-Burtons especially the carbines--saw at least a modicum of combat use. Ward-Burton carbines are known to have seen service during the Yellowstone Expedition, and they were issued to cavalry units stationed in Nebraska, Texas, Colorado and Kansas.

Ward-Burtons, like this Model of 1871 Rifle, were single­shots with no exter­nal hammer, 
and this caused problems for troops accustomed to guns so equipped. 
Many accidental discharges occurred, and one infantry offi­cer stated 
"the men are afraid of it" in a report.

     The various trial arms, including the Ward-Burton, were subjected to grueling and rigorous use. In the majority of the subsequent test reports, the Ward-Burton did not fare well in the estimation of the reporting officers. For example, an officer of the 6th US. Cavalry succinctly stated that the Ward-Burton carbine was " ... unfit for cavalry service ... :' The Ward-Burton rifle did not perform any better than the carbine. As an illustration, an officer of the 13th Infantry opined that the Ward­Burton rifle had caused too many accidents, and " ... the men are afraid of it ... ." Another officer of the same unit initially found favor with the arm in his early reports in the summer of 1872, but by the winter of the same year, his opinion had totally changed. He proclaimed the Ward-Burton rifle as " ... a dangerous and inferior musket." Ultimately, not one of the 95 final reports of field testing recommended the Ward­Burton for adoption.

     There were several reasons for the near universal dislike of the Ward-Burton. Undoubtedly, the unusual (for its day) bolt-action was distrusted by many of its users. Unlike the Trapdoor Springfield, Sharps and Rolling Blocks, all of which had large outside hammers that could be readily observed, it was difficult to ascertain whether the Ward-Burton's action was cocked and/or loaded. A number of accidents occurred because troops unfamiliar with the design discharged guns they assumed were unloaded. Several design flaws contributed to the Ward-Burton's problems, including a screw that could shear off during recoil. Improper heat treatment of the bolt also caused some failures, which led to further distrust.

     As the results of the field trials were reviewed and evaluated, it became apparent that the Ward­Burton was not suitable for continued production or widespread issue, and it was dropped from further consideration. Ward and Burton developed a repeating, magazine-fed version, but the design didn't even get into the trial stage due, in large measure, to the negative reputation of the Model of 1871 rifle and carbine.

     The Model of 1870 Trapdoor Springfield was eventually selected as the best trial breechloader. A slightly modified version, the Model of 1873 chambered for the new.45-70 Gov't cartridge, became the Army's standardized shoulder arm. The .45-70 Trapdoor remained in production until shortly after adoption of the Krag in 1892.

     Despite its shortcomings in the field trials and subsequent rejection by the Army, the Model of 1871 Ward-Burton rifle and carbine are popular with collectors today. A Ward-Burton rifle or carbine in excellent condition is among the most attractive U.S. martial arms of the Indian War period. When compared to its contemporaries, the Ward-Burton has a surprisingly modern appearance. Many saw hard use during the infantry and cavalry field trials, and most surviving specimens are well-worn. The Ward-Burton is significant as the first true bolt-action produced for the U.S. military. It is an example of an interesting--if ultimately unsuccessful--martial arm. Surviving examples, particularly carbines, are increasingly harder to find on the collector market today, especially in excellent condition.
While often overlooked along­side its better-known contemporaries, such as the Trapdoor Springfields, Rolling Blocks and Sharps, the Ward-Burton represents a significant milestone in the evolution of U.S. military arms. Whatever flaws it may have possessed, the Ward-Burton has the distinction of being the first U.S. military bolt-action rifle, and as such, is one of the more interesting, and historically significant, fire­arms of the Indian War era.

Bruce Canfield
American Rifleman








Ward Burton Bolt Action Magazine Rifle
Serial #:  NSN  Manufacturer:  Ward-Burton
Model:  Bolt Action  Type:  Rifle
Barrel Length:  30 inch round
Finish:  casehardened/blue Stock: walnut

Description:  Aside from the obvious differences in contours, the minor variations in dimensions and the lack of markings, it is obvious that this is a Ward-Burton design. Bethel Burton originally patented his bolt action breech loading rifle 20 December, 1859 as a percussion rifle. William Ward was at Springfield Armory developing ideas on breech loading guns. Together they developed one of the finalists in the 1868 Trials and 1300 guns were made at Springfield for field trials. Both received patents on bolt action magazine rifles on the same day, 29 June, 1869. Both had pivoting cartridge carriers operated by the bolt. Bethel Burtonâ€ôs patent, #92,018, was obviously issued before William Wardâ€ôs, #92,129, so legally it would have had precedence. It is not known why they did not get a joint patent, but then they never did. The magazine tube was mounted under the barrel. It can be loaded from the bottom when the bolt is at the rear. The magazine causes other differences from the single shot Ward Burton. The size of the magazine causes the ramrod to be far below the centerline of the barrel and also increases the size of the stock and barrel bands. This rifle is something of an enigma. The buttplate trigger guard, barrel bands, forearm tip and ramrod tip are all made of brass. The brass mountings would seem to indicate that the rifle was intended for the British market while the American cartridge for which it is chambered would suggest that it was made for local sale. The sights are typically military with a stepped single leaf type at the rear and a block type at the front. The bayonet lug is placed on top of the barrel to the rear of the front sight for a Burton pattern bayonet. There are sling swivels on the front barrel band/forearm cap and the trigger plate in front of the loading port/lifter.