But the U.S. Army favored the Springfield.
When I was in elementary school, and “cowboys and Indians” did not lead to sensitivity training, I had a cap rifle modeled on the Remington rolling-block carbine. In my mind, only the lever-action Winchester was more symbolic of the Old West.
The rolling-block carbine was the logical companion of the New Model rolling-block rifle, introduced in 1866. This early model came in various calibers, in both rimfire and centerfire, of which the best known was the .50- caliber rimfire Navy, sometimes called the Model 1867. In 1867 Remington improved the extractor and introduced the No. 1 military rifle and carbine, which would be the company’s mainstay for the remainder of the century.
The action was simple—pull back the hammer and block, insert the cartridge directly into the chamber, close the hammer and block, and fire. Due to this ease of use, overseas military forces rapidly adopted the Remington. Cavalry units liked the carbine because it was easy to handle on horseback; a mounted soldier could get off as many as 10 to 15 rounds a minute. Mexico’s Rurales (national policemen of the Guardia Rural), were particularly fond of the carbine, using it until the force was disbanded in the wake of the 1910 revolution.
Combined American and foreign orders led to a multitude of calibers, the best known of which are .50-70 and .45- 70 U.S., .43 Egyptian and Spanish, .45 Scandinavian, and .58 musket, all in centerfire. Tens of thousands were manufactured under license in foreign countries to the calibers and specifications of those countries. Even at the Remington factory in Ilion, N.Y., there was little standardization in manufacture. Barrel lengths ran from 20 to 24 inches. Sling swivels might be mounted on barrel band and buttstock, or on a staple on the left side of the receiver, or both. The company also seems to have saved money by cutting down available inventories of rifle forestocks for the carbine. In many examples, the carbine forestock has the remnant of a ramrod channel filled with a cut-to-fit piece of wood.
In 1869 the Army Ordnance Board, headed by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, convened to formalize revisions to cavalry tactics. As the saber would be abandoned in favor of the firearm as the primary weapon, small arms drew much attention. Even before the board concluded its deliberations, the Remington’s rapid adoption overseas prompted the Ordnance Bureau to order tests on the .50-70-caliber Remington rifle. The Schofield board’s recommendations, submitted in June 1870, gave preference to the .50-caliber Remington, followed by the .50-caliber Springfield, .50-caliber Sharps, .42-caliber Morgenstern, .45- caliber Martini-Henry and .50-caliber bolt-action Ward-Burton. Chief of Ordnance Alexander B. Dyer balked, citing problems with the Remington, but General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman saw this as a ruse by the Ordnance Bureau and the Springfield Armory, which were loathe to abandon the existing trapdoor design in which Springfield had invested so much time and effort. Sherman insisted on field tests with carbine versions, and Springfield produced a total of 313 Remington Model 1870 carbines. These have the longer, straighter, Springfield-style forestock and an eagle with SPRINGFIELD U.S. stamped on the right side of the receiver.
As might be expected, given the mindset of the Ordnance Bureau, the field tests identified problems with every weapon except the Springfield. The report on the Remington cited extractor problems, saying sometimes shells “cannot be withdrawn without considerable difficulty.” (Ironically, this was a common complaint about the Springfield during the Great Sioux War of 1876–77.) Ultimately, however, the Springfield won out.
Nevertheless, a variety of arms were issued to troops in the field. During the Red River War of 1874–75, the 8th Cavalry carried a yeoman’s share of these experimental weapons, including 13 Remington carbines, as well as Springfields, Sharps and Ward-Burtons, all in .50-caliber. In a five-hour, running battle at Round Timber Creek, Texas, on November 6, 1874, 100 Southern Cheyennes mauled a scouting expedition of 28 men under Lieutenant Henry J. Farnsworth. Because the official reports were cursory and vague, the site was unknown until 2003 when archaeologists from the Texas Historical Commission recovered a large number of fired and unfired cartridges— including Remingtons—that allowed them to trace the course of the fight.
The rolling block was manufactured into the 20th century, with calibers as modern as .30-40 Krag, 7mm Mauser and .303 British. The light Baby Carbine in .44 WCF was made from 1890 until about 1914. With the completion of a French contract in 1916, Remington shut down production of large-caliber, centerfire rolling-block rifles. When production of the Model 4 rimfire ended in 1933, the rolling-block era was over.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.