A diagram of the Spencer repeating rifle, circa 1860.
Scientific American
q&a / memory

From Spencer Rifles to M-16s: A History Of The Weapons US Troops Wield In War

Muzzleloaders have evolved into smart-style automatic firearms in just 150 years.
The U.S. military has stood perpetually accused of not fielding new weapons to troops fast enough since at least the Civil War, when the Union Army took years to replace muzzleloaders with obviously superior repeating rifles.

And when new weapons finally do make it to the front lines, complaints that they are ineffective in actual combat usually follow. The M-16 controversy is a perfect example.

It would be easy to blame such problems on the indifference or outright ignorance of “the brass.” The truth, however, is much more nuanced than that, according to Richard S. Faulkner, the William A. Stofft chair of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Faulkner spoke with Task & Purpose at length about the financial, logistical, and practical factors that determined when and how the U.S. military fielded small arms from the Civil War through the Vietnam War. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: If repeating rifles were available at the start of the Civil War, why did the Union Army continue to use muzzleloaders for the first three years of the war?

The issue had little to do with doctrine. The real sticking points were logistics, money, and the ugly realities of trying to expand an army from 16,000 to over a million men. The supposed “villain” in this tale is the Union Army’s Chief of Ordinance, Brigadier General James Ripley. In response to a query from the Secretary of War about buying Henry and Spencer rifles in late 1861, Ripley pointed out logical and practical reasons for not buying the weapons. He worried about the reliability of both weapon’s magazine systems, the cost of the rifles and ammunition, and inreasing the already troublesome number of different types and calibers of ammunition in the army. While he was conservative in his bent, he had good reasons for being cautious.

Neither the Henry nor the Spencer [repeating rifles] had undergone much testing in the field, and neither company was ready for anything approaching the mass production required to arm a rapidly expanding army. In 1861 and 1862, the Union needed weapons immediately —not sometime in 1863 or 1864.

Both the Henry and the Spencer were more than three times the cost of a traditional rifled musket. Marcus Tullius Cicero had it right when he noted that, “The sinews of war is infinite money.
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