What’s almost five feet tall, one hundred and twenty-eight years old, and can still hit bullseyes at 250 yards? That’s right, it’s the US Springfield Model 1884 “Trapdoor” Rifle. This historic rifle is both beauty and beast and after one look you’ll know that “They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
By the time this particular rifle had rolled off the line in 1892, The Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts had already been producing arms for over 100 years. Springfield spent the first half of the 19th century producing muskets. Over those years the US Government owned Springfield Arsenal definitely learned a thing or two about producing firearms.
By the end of the Civil War the venerable musket was long in the tooth, and Springfield had found a way to recycle them by converting the old rifles from muzzle loaders into “breech loaders”. Springfield’s Erskine S. Allin came up with an economical conversion strategy. He added a hinged breechblock to the old Model 1863 muskets and the “Trapdoor Springfield” was born.
1884 Trapdoor Assault rifle?
This wasn’t a plinker or varmint gun, this was a military rifle and there’s nothing subtle about it. At 52” long and nearly 10 pounds the 1884’s barrel alone is as long as many modern weapons. The Trapdoor was made in many variations over its twenty year-ish lifespan. These included carbine models that were most famous for coming up “short” with General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at a place called Little Big Horn.
I’m not a military historian but I’m told Custer had more problems than the performance of his Springfield Trapdoor Rifles. Even so, by the time the ever evolving Trapdoor was hitting peak production it was already being technologically surpassed by newer designs.
It is a single shot rifle. Although an experienced rifleman is said to have been capable of firing 10-15 rounds per minute with a Trapdoor that’s kind of like a 19th century Jerry Miculek type performance. Seriously impressive but definitely not typical – it takes skill.
The US Army needed a more modern rifle capable of sustained and accurate fire, even in the hands of average soldiers. At the end of the 19th century it moved on to the 1892 ‘Krag’ bolt action rifle which was magazine fed. Even so, over two decades the Springfield Armory cranked out about 700,000 of the Trapdoor rifles.
Although the Springfield Trapdoors left the Army wanting for something better before long, the powerful and accurate rifles became a mainstay for big game hunters. The heavy Springfield Rifles proved effective on all sorts of game including against massive buffalo. Well on into the 20th century hunters of all sorts of large game still favored the Trapdoors and many are still in use today.
The 1884 Springfield Trapdoor shoots a straight sided, rimmed 45-70 cartridge propelled (traditionally) with 70 grains of black powder. The stout cartridge propels a hefty 405 grain lead bullet at around 1400 fps. This thing packs a wallop. Like a 1750 ft-lb of muzzle energy wallop. No wonder buffalo weren’t fond of this thing.
When first developed by the Springfield Armory, the 45-70 used a copper casing. I’m sure the gleaming copper was a sight to see. The problem was, the casing had a tendency to expand excessively in the chamber, proving too much for the Trapdoor’s extractor and needing to be pried or tamped out of the gun.
The copper cartridges looked nice but often turned the Springfields into 9 1/2-pound war clubs. Not good. You never want to bring a club to a gunfight. After a few years of frustration and failures, the copper cartridges were replaced by brass with much improved results.
Think a modern .223 projectile does damage? Let’s compare.
|45-70 Government||.223 Remington|
|Muzzle Energy||1750 ft-lb||1100 ft-lb|
The 45-70 is throwing just shy of an ounce of lead at over 950 miles an hour. That’s going to leave a mark. That is, it will if you can hit something with it.
Hitting the curve
As devastating a round as the 45-70 was out of the Springfield Trapdoor, aiming it was something of an adventure. The ballistics of the combination were somewhere between a rifle and a mortar. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the path the bullet flies is more of a lob than a line to be sure.
Laying flat, the Buffington sight on the 1884 Springfield Trapdoor is calibrated to a default distance of 250 yards. If you put it on a target at 100 yards the bullet will fly over the target without even touching it like an overhand curve ball. Inside of 250 yards is what was considered “point-blank” firing.
The plan was, if your target was inside of 250 yards and you put your sight on the target’s belt buckle, your round should end up somewhere between the belt buckle and his chin. Not precise, but close enough for government work.
Flipping the sight up, the 3” tall steel slider moves the site aperture in increments which dial out to a very optimistic 2000 yards.
As you slide the elevation adjustment towards the top of the scale you start to get a feel for how severely the angle of the rifle is canted up to reach out to those distances. It feels awkward as heck. But give the designer credit, the math checks out.
If you can manage your part, the sight will put you in the ballpark.
Putting a point on it.
If you weren’t able to discourage your enemies approach from a mile away by lobbing lead down from above upon them, you still had options. This particular variant of the Springfield Trapdoor has an integrated round rod bayonet secured in a channel in the fore stock under the barrel.
The rear end of the “bayonet” is threaded to do double duty as a cleaning rod and the business end looks something like a sharpened Phillips screwdriver. Squeeze a clever retaining clamp under the muzzle and the pointy end protrudes out over a foot beyond the barrel.
Rumor has it the rod bayonets were neither popular nor particularly effective but trust me – you still don’t really want to get stuck with one. At least they might have come in handy to tamp out those pesky copper cartridges that got fused into the chamber so that’s something.
Shooting the Trapdoor rifle
If you’re a modern shooter used to AR platforms or even contemporary bolt actions, operating the 1884 Springfield can be a hoot. I’m actually pretty impressed with the machining of the action and some of the features but operating that massive external hammer is like stepping back in time.
It has three positions. One, about a half an inch back is the “safe” position. Second is halfway back or “half-cocked”, which allows the trapdoor to be operated for loading and unloading. Last is full-cocked when you’re ready to fire.
Pulling that hammer back to full cocked feels like you’re going to launch the bullet from the force of the hammer spring alone. When you pull the trigger it comes down with a vengeance. Surprisingly, even though you feel like you’ve cocked a piece of artillery, the recoil is relatively mild.
This has something to do with the tuned down “Cowboy” or 45-70 Government “safe for Trapdoor” loads but is also due to the weight of the rifle.
Shooting offhand is a little bit of a balancing act but with your support arm tucked in the long 32” barrel steadies up pretty well. With a sight radius longer than War and Peace, aiming is pretty precise. The trigger has no take-up at all and breaks like a dry twig at a little over seven pounds. I don’t know if it came from the Springfield Arsenal that way, but after 128 years it’s as broken in as it’s likely to get.
You can hit a target with this rifle. Maybe not in the bullseye every time, but out to reasonable distances it’s not hard to keep it on the paper. That being said, this is more of an heirloom than a shooter for me because of its provenance.
Back during the latter part of WW II, a skinny teenager from Long Island, NY made the trek into Manhattan. Traveling the East Side on Lexington Avenue to 65th Street he entered Robert Abels’ Antique Firearms shop and purchased this particular 1884 Springfield Trapdoor rifle for the then princely sum of $12.
This was his first rifle and like so many of us bitten by the shooting bug, started a lifelong addiction to shooting and collecting firearms. Guns seem to fly in and out of here at a crazy pace sometimes but this rifle is not going anywhere. This one’s a keeper and the skinny teenager from NY who bought it some seventy-five years ago is my father, who handed this rifle down to me.
Thank you Dad.