The Springfield 1873 Trapdoor Rifle

The Springfield 1873 Trapdoor Rifle is one we’ve probably seen in photographs and in Hollywood movies, but I doubt many of us realized the impact this rifle had on warfare of the period.

A redesign of an earlier trapdoor system, the Springfield 1873 was the first standard-issue breech-loading rifle adopted by the US Army. It saw lots of action in the battles with the American Indians, including at The Battle of Little-Bighorn. To the left is a picture from 1866 of Apache Chief Geronimo holding a Springfield Trapdoor rifle.

The rifle was named for its hinged breech block, which opened like a trapdoor allowing rapid loading of the single-shot weapon. With a barrel nearly 33 inches and an overall length of 52 inches, the rifle used .45-70-405 bullets: that means .45 caliber, 405-grain bullet propelled by 70 grains (4.5 grams) of black powder. With that kind of firepower, it was an effective weapon for the shooter.

Springfield also made the 1873 rifle in a half-stock, shorter barrelled carbine version, which fired bullets with less powder—and less recoil—for mounted cavalry soldiers.

The 1873 trapdoor was originally designed to fire copper cartridges rather than brass, but they expanded more in the breech, causing jamming. While a foot soldier could drop back and use a knife blade to clear the jam, a cavalry soldier found himself carrying a rifle that was only useful as a  rather fancy club.

The black powder Model 1873 continued to be the main service rifle of the U.S. Military until it was gradually replaced by a bolt-action rifle using smokeless powder in 1892. It still was used by secondary units during the Spanish–American War in Cuba and in the Philippines,

By the way, if you include a Springfield 1873 Trapdoor in your story—or any black-powder weapon—remember the shooter can’t hide. The haze of bluish smoke would give away their position every time. 

Tracy Garrett
History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

16 Comments

  1. Your gun posts are the best, Tracy! Such useful trivia like the expanding copper cartridge and the blue smoke. I’ve used a Springfield in stories but hope it wasn’t this model because if it was I may have gotten it wrong.
    Thanks for the great info!

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. This rifle was an affordable, reliable weapon of the time. and it was/is easy to load.

    I enjoy researching these posts and am glad you like them.

  3. Tracy, great information. So, do you actually own one of these weapons??? Just wondering…

  4. No, Renee, I don’t own one of these–although you can still purchase a replica version.

  5. I learn more about weapons on this blog, than I have seen or heard, and espeically ones I read about in books… thanks Tracy for another history lesson..

  6. I really enjoy your informative posts about guns, Tracy. My friend owned a replica of this gun. He belonged to a Blackpowder club. My husband would shoot at the local shoots and I enjoyed watching. The group would camp….all primative right down to their clothes and shoes. Any thing modern had to be out of sight(coolers were covered with old wool blankets, for instance) Cooking was over an open fire. It was fun! Of course we didn’t camp with them. We went home to our soft beds and temperature controlled house.

  7. Very interesting, Tracy! You are so informative on guns. I’ve used some of your information and probably will a lot more in future books. I think of all the rifles, with the exception of the long barrel one that Fess Parker used in “Daniel Boone,” this trapdoor rifle was the one most often shown in TV westerns. It must’ve been really popular.

  8. You’re welcome, Kathleen O. I’m glad you find the blogs interesting.

  9. Connie L, My dh and I are seriously considering joining a Cowboy Action Shooting club or a SASS – single-action shooting. While both those include period costuming and weapons, there’s no way I’d do the camping thing either. Thanks for stopping in.

  10. Oh, the information a person can glean from this blog. I love guns and have shot my share over the years. My father and brother were both Deputy Sheriff and had lots of different kinds of hand guns and rifles. When I was a kid, it seemed that I always had a bruise on my shoulder from the ‘latest’ fire arm my brother would bring home. We would be out practicing as soon as possible.

  11. I agree Linda. Since it went from black powder to smokeless powder in its evolution its been used in movies like Deadman, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Hidalgo, Pale Rider, The Young Riders, Van Helsing, even Star Trek:Voyager–by the “Union” and “Confederate” Q soldiers.

  12. And I’ll bet, Mary J, that you wore that bruise like a badge of honor. I know I still do. Thanks for dropping in.

  13. I don’t know much about gun so this is great information. I think my brother in law has some back powered guns.

  14. Tracy, what an interesting blog. Thanks for sharing. There’s so much to learn about rifles and ammunition that it’s unreal, so I found your great blog wonderfully informative. Hugs, Phyliss

  15. Tracy, thanks for sharing about this gun. Very interesting.

  16. Tracy–happened upon this site by accident. Very interesting.Mary Stuart the heroine in my novel,”Wild Angel”uses her trapdoor Springfield–which she has purchased out of the Sears catalog in 1932 for $1.90 to provide game for people who are going hungry during the great depression. Although “Wild Angel” is not exactly a western…chapter one, “Rose of the Cimarron” is. You might find it interesting. You can read it on Amazon Kindle for one dollar. Just type in Wild Angel by Mark Stark as there is another unrelated book out there by the same title. Thanks

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