The History of the American Rifle

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There are few things that are as quintessentially American as the right to keep and bear arms. And among the most popular arms have always been the rifle. A fixture of the American Revolution, a symbol of the American West, the rifle is one of the most ubiquitous signs of American culture.

In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the American Rifle and trace some of the most popular developments in the gun that almost defines America. Of course, there are many other rifles developed and patented in America, but these represent the large steps forward in the development of the American rifle.

The American Longrifle

Of course, America did not invent the rifle. That was done long before America was settled by Europe. Most of the rifles used by the early colonists were imported. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Americans began making modifications to rifles like the Jaeger rifle. With these changes, the rifles became known simply according to the place where it was either commonly made or used; like the Pennsylvania Rifle or the Kentucky Rifle.

What were these changes to the German Jaeger rifles? American gunsmiths made two important changes that defined these early guns: they made the barrels longer and smaller in diameter. The longer barrels are why they are often referred to as “American Longrifles.”

The general consensus for why these changes were made is that it the rifles were more accurate and were more effective at larger ranges (a necessity when hunting). In addition, because the barrels were narrower, the bullets were smaller and therefore cheaper. This made the ammunition more affordable for the common man.

The Spencer Repeating Rifle

Developed by Christopher Spencer, the Spencer Repeating Rifle was one of the first rifles that could rapidly fire cartridges which were fed through the rifle’s butt. You could effectively shoot 7 bullets in about 15 seconds. The mechanism worked by a two-step process in which cocking the lever ejected the used cartridge and then returning it back to position loaded the next cartridge.

Spencer had perfected his design by 1860 but they were not in popular use early in the American Civil War because leaders thought the quick action might lead soldiers to fire too often and thus waste ammunition.

However, in 1863, Spencer made a special trip to the White House to let Abraham Lincoln test-fire the rifle. After hitting the target 7 times in a quick secession, Lincoln ordered 107,000+ rifles for the Union Army.

The Spencer Repeating Rifle was is high demand until being supplanted by the Winchester.

The Winchester Rifle

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Another repeating rifle and a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt, the Winchester Rifle is known as “The Gun That Won the West.” The Winchester Rifle, particularly the Model 1873 was one of the most popular guns in the American frontier because of its reliability and the ability to use the same ammunition in popular handguns like the Colt. Winchester produced a wide range of rifles and other firearms throughout the 20th century, making it a symbol of the American huntsman.

By far the most popular Winchester was the Model 1894 which sold over 6 million before it was discontinued in 2006. Today, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company is own by the Olin Corporation which still manufactures quality rifles and shotguns.

The M1903 Springfield Rifle

The Springfield Armory was a leading manufacturer of U.S. Military firearms from 1777 to 1968. This bolt-action rifle was a staple of the U.S. military throughout the early 20th century. It was introduced as the official standard issue infantry rifle in 1903. It was the most popular rifle used throughout World War I by the U.S. Military. If a soldier was serving in a trench during WWI, he likely had an M1903 in his hands.

It featured a 5-cartridge clip that could fire as fast as 10-15 rounds per minute. It was effective up to 1,000 yards and commonly used as a sniper rifle up to the Vietnam War. Even though it was replaced in 1937 by the M1 Garand, it remained in common use throughout World War II because the United States had entered the war and was short on other rifles. For similar reasons, the rifle was also used somewhat during the Korean War.

Today, it is a popular civilian rifle primarily for its historical context since they are no longer manufactured.

The M1 Garand Rifle

This rifle was desired by gunsmith John Garand in 1928 and was the first semi-automatic rifle to be issued by the U.S. Military. A vast improvement over the M1903, the M1 Garand could fire 40-50 rounds per minute and was effective up to 500 yards. Part of the increased speed was due to the “en bloc” clip design. The clip holds 8 rounds of ammunition and when the rifle fires the last cartridge, it ejects the clip and locks the bolt open so that you can quickly insert another clip. After the clip is inserted, the bolt automatically snaps in place so that the rifle is ready for use again.

The M1 saw widespread use during World War II and the Korean War until it was replaced as the official U.S. Military rifle by the M14 in 1959. According to General Patton, the M1 Garand was “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

The M16 Rifle

The M16 is probably one of the most widely recognized rifles today. It was adopted by the U.S. Military as the standard issue rifle in 1964 and is therefore widely associated with the Vietnam War even though it remains the standard rifle to this day.

The M16 was designed in 1956 by Eugene Stoner and L. James Sullivan. In its fully automatic mode, it can fire between 700 and 950 rounds per minute. The M16 accomplishes this impressive firing power by using a gas-operated, rotating bolt system which is air-cooled and fed by a magazine which holds 20 rounds.

As of 2016, more than 8 million M16s have been manufactured and used by over 80 countries as part of their standard issue equipment. Given that it is the highest selling rifle in its class, it is safe to say that the M16 is the symbol of the American rifle worldwide.

Sources (other than Wikipedia):

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