My Trapdoor Carbine "Shootin' Iron"

Photo of a " trapdoor-Springfield " style calvary carbine

The "Trapdoor" Carbine shown above was assembled by the author during the early to mid 1970's, from the chopped remains of an "after-market" trapdoor rifle generically known as a "Bannerman Special". Such firearms were assembled by Francis Bannerman and Sons, and other, less well-known vendors, from earlier-revision trapdoor parts that the U.S. Arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, had sold as "scrap metal"; scrap metal is generally melted down for recycling. (although the word "recycling" was not part of the vernacular then as it is today, the concept of metals recycling is as old as the use of metals, and "recycling" is the function of the scrap metal dealer). Frank Bannerman (the name "Francis" was utilized for business purposes) began his career as a teenager when he took over his father's scrap metal business.

Bannerman, et el, came up with a different idea of "recycling"; they decided to "make up" rifles from the scrapped parts. It has been reported that SA had bent those lockplates that were included in the scrap sale, and few of these could be straightened and made useable, so reproductions were made (or, as it has also been suggested, that some of these may have been altered Springfield lockplates from earlier model surplus rifles), commonly being stamped with the date "1884" (or "1883") which never appeared on an arsenal-issued lockplate, and immediately distinguishes a rifle so equipped as vendor-made. It has been reported elsewhere, within the Trapdoor Springfield collecting community, that rifles under serial number 50,000 were ordered to be recalled in January 1880 ; some parts removed from these arms were sold to the vendors (it appears that Bannerman was the major purchaser here; I've no specific info on other vendors who were involved with "fake" Springfield arms). I'm speculating that the vendors also had to have stocks made up (I haven't yet uncovered any facts on this part of the story); if memory serves me correctly (no guarantees on that!) the remains of the original stock wood on this particular rifle as I received it was not the black walnut as used on the original, arsenal-made rifles, but some lighter colored wood, resembling the appearance of yellow oak.

When the Arsenal learned of this practice of building rifles from parts, they discontinued the parts sales.

The rifle was presented to me by my old friend Mark, who obtained it from his friend, gunsmith Roger Denton. Roger had purchased the rifle from someone who reported it had been found in a barn. As it was not a true Springfield collectible, Roger decided to convert it to a "camp shotgun". Roger had cut off the barrel behind the muzzle, leaving a barrel 20-1/4 inches in length, 1-3/4 inches short of the true carbine length of 22 inches. The forend was trimmed to about 4 inches behind the new muzzle, and the butt cut off and the wrist rounded off just behind the trigger-guard tang. It looked like what a .45-70 single-shot pistol would look like ala Ned Buntline!

The guys reported using it like this as a "camp gun", using .410-ga shotgun shells, a practice that is considered to be hazardous, as those shells are slightly smaller than a proper .45-70 shell-casing, and will frequently split if fired in these rifles.

Obviously, to be of any use, the rifle would have to be restored somehow. Due to the existing barrel length, the only thing that made any practical sense at the time was to build a carbine. Dixie Gun Works had a large selection of both original and reproduction parts for Trapdoor firearms at that time. So, I ordered a number of parts to fix up what was left of the "Bannerman" rifle into a serviceable carbine.

The butt-plate and stock are modern replicas from Dixie; the carbine barrel-band, Buckhorn rear-sight and screws, side-bar and saddle ring, lock tumbler and sear, ejector-pin and spring were all original parts from Dixie. The front sight is a modern repro from Trapdoors Galore. The lock-assembly, trigger group, the barrel-band spring, the lock-mounting screws and the barrel/receiver group all came from the "Bannerman". The serial number on the receiver is in the mid-40,000 range; as these numbers come from the recall group mentioned above, the parts clearly came from the scrap-sale. The original service rifle having this serial number has been reported in the collector's serial number database as originally issued October 11, 1879, to a soldier in the 5th Infantry.

One interesting detail about these parts is that the breechblock shows visible signs of having been tin-plated; I've read reports that tin-plating was once experimented with for naval service. I suspect that the receiver may also have been plated, though I cannot tell for certain by its appearance.

Trapdoor Springfield Collecting

Genuine Springfield Armory made rifles are now collectors items. Bannerman's had purchased and re-sold most of these genuine arms following their withdrawal from military service; the earlier vendor-made guns are generally referred to by the collecting community as "fakes. The existence of the "Trapdoor Bannerman" rifles has resulted in traps for the unwary novice, as unscrupulous persons will try to pass off made-up rifles as genuine. A useful resource for those interested in collectibles is the Trapdoor Springfield Collectors Forum for the exchange of information on the "Old Warrior".

Loading and shooting original trapdoor rifles

Original "Trapdoor Springfield" rifles are 19th century, military, black powder cartridge rifles. These particular firearms are of the caliber known as "45-70 Government", and have rifling significantly wider and deeper than that found on civilian rifles of the same caliber made by firms such as Marlin and Winchester. The ammunition required for accurate shooting from these rifles must take into account this fact. The philosophy behind this rifling was that a military rifle needs to be capable of firing many rounds accurately before cleaning is needed, and it was decided to provide room, in the form of this deeper, wider rifling, for the buildup of excessive fouling produced by the black powder ammunition then in use.

The result is rifling that is slightly over bullet diameter; standard practice is to make rifling slightly under this diameter. Thus, the tin-lead alloy bullets required must be able to expand at the base to seal in this rifling. This was accomplished in the original bullet, the M1873 405gr, by a hollow base, similar to that of the legendary civil-war "Minie" bullet. In 1881, the rifle cartridge was upgraded to a 500gr flat-base bullet, whose mass was sufficient for it to obturate in the rifling without need for a hollow base; the cartridges for the carbine continued to use the M1873 bullet.

The soft (20 parts lead, one part tin) alloy bullets required for accuracy in these rifles must be loaded using a press, or hand-press, with some specially set up and customized reloading dies (the Lee Loader, though excellent for general use with jacketed bullets (which it is designed for), is not suitable for use with soft alloy bullets).

A complete manual on how to load cartridges for original trapdoor rifles and carbines (this applies to all old trapdoors, arsenal or vendor made, as long as they have the original, deep-groove government barrels) is available from Wolf's Western Traders. These fine folks also have all the correct dies, die-parts, cleaning jags, etc, that are needed for successful reloading and shooting the trapdoor Springfield.

Alloy Fouling in Old Trapdoor Barrels

I have recently acquired a replacement barrel, turned down to correct carbine dimensions from an old trapdoor rifle barrel; like many of the old barrels, as well as my original, the bore has a serious case of tin-lead fouling, which requires removal before having the "new" barrel installed. Much of this kind of fouling in old trapdoor barrels may have been the result of firing generic "45-70" caliber alloy-bulleted ammo intended for use in Winchester and other civilian single-shot (and later repeating) rifles. As this ammunition had lighter-weight bullets not having the hollow-base required by the military rifles, shooting such effectually under-size bullets in the trapdoor barrels allowed gas leakage around the bullet which vaporized some of the bullet alloy and deposited it in the bore. As the alloy of tin and lead has the general property of solder, it is very troublesome to remove.

I have been experimenting with electrolytic removal of this alloy fouling; I have found that this process is not as efficient as might be desired. Due to the tenacity of the fused alloy, and the fact that the electrolytic cell formed by the barrel, electrode, and electrolyte constitute an electric cell, like that in an automotive battery, metal-removal efficiency declines as the cell charges from the power source, requiring multiple applications of the process using fresh electrolyte. This does alleviate some of the tedious work of scrubbing the bore with brushes, patches, and Hoppe's #9.

As electrolytic action can attack the barrel steel, I have been experimenting to determine which combination of electrolyte and electrical potential would be a practical compromise between efficient alloy removal and excessive oxidation of the barrel; I haven't yet found this ideal. I may put up a page about this once these old barrels have been successfully cleaned.

For safety reasons, I have been using the commercially-made Outers "Lead Out" electrolyte rather than the more efficient industrial electrolytes (such as sodium hydroxide which is mentioned in the report referenced below, and which is very hazardous to mix or handle; industrial chemicals of this class require an OSHA-safe environment and equipment to use safely).

As a retired electrical engineer, I found a useful reference in this report, from the Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering at the University of Minnesota, on "Removal of Lead from Printed Circuit Board Scrap by Electrolysis-Chemical Precipitation Method" for it's clear presentation on the process of electrolytic metal recovery.

Created on Mar 24, 2006

updated on May 5, 2006

updated on July 3 and July 13, 2006, with special thanks to Mr. Dick Hosmer at the collector's forum for providing additional information and corrections.

updated on September 26, 2006