To speak the truth, the U.S is no stranger to war, much like many western nations in the present day.
For better or for worse, America’s ongoing participation in foreign conflicts throughout the years has led to the accelerated development of military weapons technology.
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In this blog, we’ll be taking a look at how rifles used by the U.S army have developed considerably over what is a relatively short space of time.
One of the earliest rifles to see widespread use in the U.S military was the Pennsylvania Rifle, which was sometimes referred to as the Kentucky Rifle.
This lengthy gun featured the now archaic ‘muzzleloading’ system whereby the process of loading ammunition was completed via the barrel rather than a conventional clip/magazine method.
Muzzleloading required the user to replace gunpowder in both the barrel and the flash pan (located near the gun’s trigger) before firing each shot.
Naturally, this made reloading the weapon to be very time consuming when compared with modern weapons however, despite its lengthy operating time, this weapon saw over 100 years of use.
The Caplock Mechanism
The introduction of a “caplock” system was one of the next big steps in creating more efficient weapons for the battlefield.
This new type of rifle was proved highly successful by removing the flint mechanism, flash pan and frizzen (a steel arm located above the flash pan).
The new mechanics of this weapon helped to shorten the time needed to complete the firing and reloading process and this allowed for improved combat effectiveness in the field.
Traditionally, however, caplock rifles were still loaded from the muzzle, which brings us swiftly on to the next stage in this journey.
Breechloading and Bolt-Action
The next step in the evolution of the modern firearm was the use of ‘breechloading’ and it was certainly a big shift forward.
Weapons such as the “Trapdoor Springfield” were some of the first iterations of this new, rear loaded weapon variant, and this essentially signified an end to the less efficient muzzle loading guns of yesteryear.
These weapons required users to insert ammunition into the rear of their weapon which meant there was no longer a need to place guns on the floor in order to reload them.
Next up is one of the most recognisable buzzwords in this article: “bolt action”.
Replacing the previously mentioned Springfield model 1873, the 1892 added a bolt action system which provided further convenience to the user and helped to achieve more accurate shots.
The picture below shows a comparison between the older caplock mechanism (top) and the bolt action system (bottom) which is still used extensively today.
This weapon in particular introduced very important benefits:
- The ability to fire more than one round before reloading
- Allowing for pointed ammunition to used (not possible with previous technology)
Due to its innate design, pointed ammunition resulted in higher accuracy, improved velocity and greater effective range – all highly desirable characteristics which were previously unobtainable.
The Springfield M1903 retained the same bolt action system as its predecessor but also made use of an internal magazine which was reloaded with “stripper clips” (pictured below).
What’s more, some variants of the M1903 were able to store an impressive 25 rounds in one single clip – a huge development when compared to the muzzle-loaded, single shot weapons used just 50 years prior.
The famous M1 Garand entered military circulation in 1936 and was the first ever semi-automatic rifle to be officially issued to the United States Army.
Famed for its robust construction and impressive reliability, the M1 Garand was used extensively in the Second World War before being replaced by the newer M14.
The M14 came with a very similar design to its younger brother but also housed a box shaped magazine and upgraded internal gas system.
The detachable, 20-round magazine in particular was one of the most welcome additions to the weapon as many soldiers were dissatisfied with the previous model’s use of an “en-bloc” clip which limited it to just 8 rounds before needing to be reloaded again.
Semi-automatic rifles are now extremely common in many armies, however, some soldiers still swear by bolt-action as a result of personal preference.
The Modern Day
The final two (and arguably most notable) weapons in this list are the M16 and M4.
Rather than bringing new weapon’s mechanisms to the playing field, the M16 was more of a modern reimagining and visual overhaul.
It’s composition of modern materials including light aluminium and polymers helped minimise the weapon’s weight - another common complaint of the older firearms.
Subsequent M16A1 and M16A2 models were also produced to remove many of the issues associated with the weapon’s modern revamp including frequent jamming from the lack of chrome lining.
As an alternative to the later M16A2, America also commissioned the creation of a new carbine, the M4, complete with telescopic (extendable) stock and a shorter barrel length.
As a more compact weapon, the M4 was lighter and much easier to manoeuvre on the battlefield which, coupled with its fully automatic and semi-automatic firing modes, made it a much more versatile weapon.
In terms of infantry rifles, this blog just about covers everything (in the U.S at least)
As you can see the transition from rudimentary, front loaded, heavy rifles with limited range to compact, light and versatile frontline weapons has been incredibly quick and this is shining example of how the military often leads the way with technological innovations.