The Burnside Breechloading Carbine

Both of my avid readers know that I have been working, not so secretly, to resurrect a Burnside Carbine from the parts bins of several sutlers. I am pleased to have that project almost completed, and will begin my selection with a history of the talented General from Rhode Island, A. E. Burnside.

The Man

Ambrose Everett Burnside was born in 1824 and graduated from the U. S. Military Academy in 1847, being posted as a Lieutenant of Artillery to Mexico that same year. He arrived too late to see any action, but continued to serve with the Artillery in the newly acquired territories in the Southwestern United States. Official Army documents record that Burnside was wounded in a skirmish with Apaches in 1849, but saw no other action under fire. His last post of duty in the military service was at Ft. Adams, in Newport, R.I. While stationed at Ft. Adams, in July 1853, Lt. Burnside requested permission from the Secretary of War to have the Springfield Armory construct a model of a firearm of his design, obviously for the purpose of satisfying the "working model" requirement of the U.S. Patent Office. With a working model, Burnside established his first company, Burnside & Bishop, which was destroyed by fire in late 1853. With the insurance money, Burnside then formed the Bristol Firearm Company in January 1854. Burnside had recently wed Mary Richmond Bishop of Providence, and his relatives invested heavily in his venture. More importantly, Burnside was able to acquire the services of a respected Massachusetts gunsmith, George P. Foster, during the infancy stage of his corporate development.

With Fosters expertise, Bristol Firearms was able to produce locks and other gun components for the trade. These items provided a modest income while Burnside perfected his carbine design. Interestingly, the company stationary of this period shows several back-action locks available from Burnside. Perhaps the greatest contribution that Foster made to the Burnside Carbine was the gain-twist rifling which was used in every model carbine. Even shot-out, pitted barrels perform admirably at 50 yards due to this feature.

Burnside received his first patent on his original carbine on March 25, 1856.

The Carbine

The original Burnside Carbine effectively overcame several of the chief complaints about the only breechloading weapon in service at the time -- the Hall Carbine. The Hall leaked gas terribly, fouled miserably, and was wont to have cases stick in the breech block. Burnside eliminated all three complaints with his new carbine design.

The drawing for Burnside's first patent illustrates the tapered cartridge that became synonymous with Burnside's Car- bines. By adding a plunger to the back of the breech block, and combining the plunger with a tapered cartridge, Burnside elimi- nated stuck cartridges. The plunger also allowed the cartridge to be jammed between the mouth of the barrel and the breech block, allowing for minor variations in individual cartridge length, yet decreasing the area available for gas blowback. Closing the action on a Burnside pinches the cartridge tightly between the barrel cone and block -- a very effective seal. Burnside required the use of cartridges of his own manufacture in his arms. Instructions for loading cartridges for the Burnsides, printed in 1861, require the use of tallow and/or beeswax in making the cartridges, which helped to reduce fouling just as our modern lubricants do today.

Burnisde Breech & Cartridge

Five of a Kind

There are five models of Burnside Carbines, and the rarest is the first model. 200 were ordered for trials in May 1856, but the order was not completed until January, 1858. The Army liked what they saw as carbines trickled in, and 709 more carbines were ordered in September 1856 following a committee review of breech- loading carbines at West Point that summer. Mind you, at this time, the first contract was not fulfilled. These carbines, known as the Second Model design, included two important George Foster innovations -- the famous Burnside latch which replaced an awkward lever on the First Model, and a belt was added to the case mouth of the cartridge for a more effective seal in dis- charging the firearm. Both of these improvements were patented on April 10, 1860 (U.S. Patent No. 27,874).

These two contracts had been entered into by the Bristol Firearms Company, which reorganized as the Burnside Rifle Company in May of 1861. The new factory was not complete until 1862, continuing the late deliveries for which the Burnside Rifle Company is infamous. By the end of 1862, Burnside had contracts for 9,300 carbines, but had delivered a scant 1,060.

The onset of hostilities saw an increase in orders for Burnside Carbines. Third Model Carbines began to be delivered in 1861, the only change being the addition of a 9 and 1/2 inch foregrip to the 2nd Model. Foster continued to improve the basic design however, and in late 1861 the company began delivery of the Fourth Model Carbine.

The Fourth Model, referred to in correspondence as the "New Model," contained many improvements. A breech lever pin replaced the screw that held the block in the frame, allowing quicker, easier cleaning. The lever which rotated the breech block up for loading and unloading was cantilevered, creating easier access to the chamber. The Fourth Model was the arm reviewed in Scientific American in their December 20th issue of 1862. I am including page 2 of the Burnside Patent Number 38,042 to illustrate the genius of Foster's improvements (Note: Issac Hartshorn, who's name appears on the patent, was the Burnside salesman. Acquiring copies of patents is easy. They cost $3.00 each from U. S. Patent Office, (703) 305-8337. You will need the Patent Number to order.) As you can see from the drawing, the breech block, by tilting on it's center rather then at it's end when the lever is opened, presents the chamber at an elevation easier to reach with the fingers.

The remaining improvement was to add a guide screw on the right side of the frame, because in rapid fire situations, it is hard to operate the lever properly. The guide screw, and a corresponding channel on the right side of the breech block, corrected this problem. The resulting Fifth Model Burnside Carbine is the most available and best designed Burnside. Between 1863 and 1865, 43,940 Fifth Model Carbines were purchased by the U. S. Army, more then twice the number of Second, Third and Fourth Models combined!

Getting your hands on a Burnside Carbine is not all that hard. I have seen everything from hulks to intact specimens at the last four Nationals. My project started with the purchase of a Fifth Model frame, barrel and breech from the Regimental Quartermaster. I was able to get most of the parts from Bill Burnside Carbine and Barrelled Action Osbourne at Lodgewood Manufacturing (414-473-5444) and Phil Seiss at S & S Firearms in Glendale, New York (718-797-1100). Look for matching serial numbers on the frame and the breech block. I would be wary of shooting a Burnside with unmatched numbers. Let your favorite sutler know your looking for a Burnside, and he can probably steer you to a good working specimen. I was able to build mine for $750 over a 10 month period, so it is a project well within the average skirmishing budget.

Next Month: Shooting the Burnside Carbine

Until then, shoot safe, have fun and support Civil War site preservation while we still can.


Both of the .69 caliber Smoothbore Muskets mentioned in my column last month were approved for use by the N-SSA at the 93rd National. This will certainly increase the number of competitors in the Smoothbore Class. I hope to have some tips for shooting the Armi Sport Model 1842 in the near future.

(C) 1996 Tom Kelley