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The First Assault Rifle?

Discussion in 'Non-World War 2 History' started by KodiakBeer, Apr 21, 2017.

  1. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    Interesting argument here for the 1860 Henry. The definition of Assault Rifle is a select fire weapon, using an intermediate round that's good out to 300 yards (or so). Putting that volume of fire into the hands of individual soldiers changes the entire tactical dynamic down at the squad, platoon, company level. Of course, this presumes that leaders appreciate the advantages of suppression fire and movement that the technology allows, something that wasn't always appreciated in the Civil War.
    Still, there were enough cavalry units supplied with this and similar rifles (Spencer, for example) that some leaders must have grasped the advantage of the new rifles. Then, after the war, Army Ordnance quickly abandoned all interest and went with the single-shot Trapdoor rifle. In the civilian world, this prejudice didn't exist and the rifle, and later improved lever-action designs, became a staple of the Indian wars, on both sides.

     
  2. CAC

    CAC Ace of Spades

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    Very interesting, great post...
     
  3. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    To me, one of the other unappreciated aspects of modern military rifles is the simple narrow front post sight. When you shoot a vintage rifle of any type (whether military or sporting), you quickly realize how difficult it is to make precise shots with the blunt 'post' or round bead on older rifles. So, while the added range of cartridges like the 30.06 is theoretically possible, the sights make long range shots rather difficult and improbable. With the newer style sight, you can place that bullet exactly where you want it if your rifle is properly zeroed and you have the range doped correctly.
    I've seen it argued that the large and blunt front sight on WWII era rifles was for quick acquisition in low light, which is probably true, but it defeats the purpose of those heavy cartridges to reach out and touch the enemy at a distance.
     
  4. belasar

    belasar Court Jester

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    While a interesting concept, I have my quibbles here. If I recall correctly the video presents the round as a pistol caliber, at least in that era. More troubling it founders on the 'select fire' criteria. There is no selection here, just someone pulling the trigger as quickly as they could chamber a round, no different from a muzzle loader or trapdoor weapon. My understanding is that select fire encompasses single shot, burst and full automatic, all with a single trigger pull. There was I believe a rifle withe a revolving cylinder that also would meet the same criteria of the Henry or Sharpes, just not as well.

    Don't get me wrong, I buy into the idea that these all helped lay the ground work for a assault rifle, but did not really get there and to be the 'first' you gotta do all the jobs, not just some of them.
     
  5. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    ...Or the Spencer Repeating Rifle and carbine also introduced in 1860 (patented 6 Mar 1860-the Henry was patented on 16 October 1860) and firing the .56-56 Spencer cartridge, it had a 7 round tubular magazine and was capable of 20 rounds per minute sustained fire. Quite a difference between it and the max three rounds per minute of the standard rifled musket. So the Spencer pre-dates the Henry. It was produced in much greater numbers than the Henry, and was widely issued by the Union during the "War of Northern Aggression".

    As to numbers, 11,471 Spencer rifles and 46,185 carbines for a total of 57,656 Spencer's, Rifle and Carbine were delivered to the government during the war (confusing because most Burnside manufactured Spencer's were delivered after the cessation of hostilities and the number quoted by the U.S. Army, 144,000, is for government purchases and includes the 1865 Spencer delivered through 1866. This doesn't include private purchases which is how the total for the war is oft quoted as 230,000). 1,731 Henry's were produced for the military and another 6-7000 were fielded through private purchases. There were two features of the Henry design that made the Army hesitant to adopt the rifle; 1.) the lack of a forward hand guard made combat use problematic since the barrel heated quickly and 2.) the under barrel tubular magazine; it was susceptible to dirt and debris, the thin tubular, under barrel magazine was easily dented during combat use rendering the rifle inoperable, the soldiers holding the tube when firing would sometimes contact the spring follower causing a failure to feed. Both these issues were corrected in the post war rifle the Model 1866 Winchester. "Nelson King's improved patent remedied flaws in the Henry rifle by incorporating a loading gate on the side of the frame and integrating a round, sealed magazine which was covered by a forestock."

    Colonel John T. Wilder mounted his infantry units on confiscated horses and mules and armed them with privately purchased Spencer's. His "Lightning" brigade was composed of the 17th and 72d Indiana mounted Infantry, and the 92d, 98th and 123d Illinois mounted Infantry. He fought an exemplary action at Hoover's Gap during the Tullahoma Campaign, where his rapid movements and stout defense of the critical gap (thanks in large part to the Spencer's firepower) forced Bragg to fall back to Chattanooga.

    On the 18th of September, the day before the Battle of Chickamauga, Wilder's troops (minus the 92d Illinois) were instrumental due to the firepower of their Spencer's, in contesting multiple crossing points along the Chickamauga Creek as Bragg attempted to strike and destroy Rosecran's Army in detail before it could consolidate.

    On the 2d day of the Battle of Chickamauga, Wilder's Brigade (minus the 92d Illinois that was detached at Missionary Ridge) was in reserve near the Widow Glenn's house when Longstreet broke the Union Lines. The entire right flank of the Union Army of the Cumberland crumbled and started fleeing back down the Dry Valley road towards Rossville Gap and Chattanooga. Hood wheeled right and started rolling up the Union left. Hindman's Confederate division attacking to Hood's left, crushing two brigades of Davis' Union Division, and Liaboldt's brigade of Sheridan's Division. Lytle's and Walworth's brigades of Sheridan's Division contested the advance for a short while, then Lytle was killed and fearing they were being surrounded these last brigades on the Federal left fled the field. Sheridan had earlier fled the field and didn't stop till he was almost back to Ringgold Gap, leaving Wilder to his own devices. Wilder came up from his reserve position, counter-attacked with his Spencer's, stopped the confederate advance and threw it back. He later wrote; “At this point it absolutely seems a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps, and I actually had it in my heart to order the firing to cease in order to end the awful sight. But the merciless Spencer seven-shooter would not cease.” Once Hindman's confederates had been driven back to near the LaFayette Road,
    Wilder planned of cutting through to Thomas' forces on what remained of the Union left until he was ordered to retire by first Sheridan, in a message, and then Asst. Secretary of War Charles Dana, in person. Even so Wilder didn't leave the field until around 3pm and then gathered up union supply trains and fragments of broken artillery units and escorted them back to Chattanooga.

    Without the Spencer, Wilder could not have succeeded in any of these actions.

    Guns & Ammo article on the Spencer:

    7-Shot Wonder: The Spencer Repeating Rifle - Guns & Ammo
     
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  6. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    I don't think he is arguing that lever guns "laid the groundwork" for the Assault Rifle, just that within the parameters of a time when your opponent was armed with muzzle loaders and single shot rifles, a lever gun effectively was an assault rifle. The 'job' was not to fire bursts, but to be capable of suppression fire (which is what burst fire is intended to do) and could also be done with rapid fire that a repeater like this could do.

    Remember too, that the current M4 has been dialed back to three round burst in 'full auto' which does the job.
     
  7. harolds

    harolds Member

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    A long time ago, it may have been in a university history class, I remember being told that the Turkish army bought a bunch of Winchester lever-actions (not sure which model) and used them in a war with Russia. Apparently the Turks used their single shots until the masses of Russian troops got close, then opened up with the Winchesters and just slaughtered the Russians and thus held their positions.
     
  8. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    The Turks bought about 50,000 Winchester 66 rifles in 1877 to use against Russia, and later the Russians (perhaps still impressed by the Turkish experience) bought about 300,000 Winchester 95 lever guns in 7.62x54 at the beginning of WWI. Teddy Roosevelt famously equipped his officer volunteers with Winchester 1895 rifles (in .30/40 Krag) during the Spanish-American war, and later used another 95 (in 30.06), for his African hunting.

    The cool thing about the Winchester 95 (designed by John Moses Browning hisself) was that it had a box rather than tube magazine, so could be used with modern smokeless spitzer bullets. A tube mag with spitzer cartridges loaded nose to primer is a detonation waiting to happen, and the 95 box magazine solved that problem.
     
  9. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    O.K., while that may be true for the Henry, it does not invalidate K.B.'s premise if you use the Spencer instead, which I've already stated pre-date's the Henry by several months. At .56 caliber it could be considered an intermediate cartridge as the standard rifle round was .577 cal Enfield or .58 Springfield. While the Henry did have an effective range of around 200 yards, the Spencer Rifle had an effective range of 500 yards similar to the modern M-16.
    .
    Not necessarily, as KB correctly pointed out select fire can be semi/automatic such as the current AK and certain models of the M16/M4 or semi/burst, 3-round burst being the current US version. So if the Gatling Gun, a contemporary to the Henry and Spencer, is generally considered the forerunner of the machine gun; it was unlike the modern machine gun in it required manual power in the form of a crank to cycle the weapon in order to achieve a rate of fire in the 200-800 rounds per minute range. This rate of fire is similar to modern machine gun rates of fire. (at the high end the post-Civil War ten barrel Gatling had a 1,000 rpm rate of fire). It was Hiram Maxim's use of the energy from the fired cartridge to automatically perform the mechanical operations that led to the first true machine gun.

    The Story of the Gatling Gun



    If the above is true, as is generally accepted, then manual operation of the rifle would not invalidate his premise, up until firearms makers harnessed the energy from the cartridge to automatically cycle the weapon at a much later date. The rifle man was just manually performing actions that were later performed chemically, combustion being a chemical process. In point of fact the Spencer had two methods of fire. The first being the magazine feed, the second starting with the 1865 Spencer (introduced the Stabler cut-off attachment) was single shot breech loading. So yes it was a form of select fire.

    "One final improvement was the March 1865 incorporation of the Stabler cut-off attachment, which was invented by Edward Stabler of Sandy Springs, Md. It allowed the carbine to be fired as a single-shot with the seven cartridges in the magazine being held in reserve. Stabler was paid a royalty of 25 cents for each carbine fabricated with his magazine cut-off device."

    In conclusion, I think the premise is correct, the video's creator just selected the wrong weapon. KB's premise, inspired by the video, IMHO is spot on.
     
  10. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    I mentioned the Spencer in the OP. To expand on that, the Spencer had some of the advantages of the Henry, but had only half the magazine capacity and in addition required the hammer be thumb-cocked after each new cartridge is moved into the chamber by the lever action. In effect, half the mag capacity and less than half the rate of fire. It's still streets ahead of the muzzle-loaders of the period, but well behind the Henry.
     
  11. USMCPrice

    USMCPrice Idiot at Large

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    Actually, with the introduction of the Blakeslee box and the tubular reloaders the effective rates of fire were not much different. Reload time needs to be factored in.
     
  12. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    You still have to pause and cock before each round can be fired in a Spencer. With the Henry/Winchester rifles the trigger can be pulled as the lever closes - look at the opening few seconds of the vid above. Then too, the Spencer has only half the mag capacity so it's just outclassed by the Henry, at close range anyway.
     
  13. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake Member

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    The Spencers and Winchester Carbines are really the precursors for the bolt action rifles and carbines that came into use at the end of the C19th. The Boers in 1899 -1902 and BEF in 1914 could deliver high weights of fire.

    Technically the granddaddy of Assault rifles is this weapon doomed to failure until the invention of smokeless powder. Mannlicher 1885 Semiauto Rifle
     

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