Resurrecting the Burnside Carbine

In the last few columns, I've been describing the efforts I undertook to acquire and assemble the parts necessary to complete a Burnside Breechloading Carbine. More than 55,000 of these weapons were purchased by the U. S. Army between 1858 and 1865, and most of these were Fifth Model Carbines. Since my avid readership has increased by 50% (I have three now), I thought I would describe the efforts needed to complete such a project yourself, and throw in some pointers I picked up along the way.

Since Fifth Model Carbines were produced in the greatest numbers, you will probably be acquiring parts for that particular Burnside -- and it makes sense to make a Fifth Model first for just that reason. The Fifth Model Burnside Carbine has a guide screw in the right side of the frame. I think it is best to acquire a both a barrel and frame with the corresponding breech at the same time. The photo shows both a barrel frame unit (top) and a completly rebuilt carbine (bottom). The top fronts of both the frame and breech should have matching serial numbers for the safest operation of the arm, and the best way to insure this is to acquire both at the same time. The photo shows both a barrel and frame assembly and a nearly finished Burnside for comparison. I have been able to find these assemblies at many sutlers over the last 15 months. If you seek my recommendation, try either S & S Firearms (717-497-1100) or Lodgewood Mfg (414-473-5444), but start with your favorite sutler first.

When inspecting a barrel for purchase, consider the rifling. You want to carefully inspect the last 6 to 9 inches of barrel for pitting or worn rifling. You can usually run the ol' fingernail test on rifling. Your fingernail, when inserted just inside the barrel, should catch on the edges of the grooves. Given the inherent accuracy of the Burnside, even a modestly pitted or worn barrel will still perform well at 50 and 100 yards, but you should get the best barrel you can find during your search.

The Burnside breech actually consists of two main pieces and a guide screw, and this unit fits neatly inside the frame, pivoting on the Link to receive each cartridge. The cone seat moves forward when the breech is opened, jarring the cartridge loose (I have never had a stuck case in my Burnside -- another great design feature). Inserting a cartridge after removing the empty case returns the cone seat to the proper position. The nipple is mounted on the cone seat, and communi- cates the ignition charge to the cartridge. When buying a breech, inspect the cone seat carefully. If you have a choice, buy a breech that has a small hole in the cone seat where the cartridge sits. Smaller communication holes make for more forceful and consistent ignition. A worn, larger than normal communication hole can be soldered over, but this repair will be an annual one if you shoot five or six hundred rounds annually.

Of all the parts you will need to complete a Burnside Carbine, lock parts are by far the hardest to find. Because I wanted to build a shooter, I didn't mind using reproduction parts on my lock. As I mentioned last month, original mainsprings and tumblers are rare today, and priced even dearer. I got my reproduction lock parts from S & S Firearms. They require some gunsmithing skills to complete, but I was able to go slow and get the job done.

Because the last three models of carbines produced by the Burnsides Rifle Company had forearms, you will need two pieces of wood for your project. I was not too happy with the replacement wood parts I got, particularly the buttstock. The lock mortise was only about 60% inletted, and the toe of the stock was more than an inch short. I spent the month of February building up the toe of my stock with "Acraglas" just to get it to fit the buttplate. Make sure you take at least your buttplate with you when you go looking for wood, and get stocks with a little extra one them, not stocks that are short (You know, that stock was in the marked down pile, so maybe I was just being too cheap).

The forearm has both a barrel band and a screw holding it in place, which seems like overkill, but you'll never lose that son-of-a- gun either.

I conquered the shortage of Burnside Mainsprings by using a Spencer repro mainspring. The end that hooks onto the tumbler fly was too wide, so I had to thin that down about 1/8" on the last inch of that arm of the mainspring. You can also shorten the end of the mainspring that acts as the sear spring, and thin it down, too. By putting a thin edge on it, I was able to get a pretty good trigger pull without sacrificing safety.

If you would like a complete parts list to begin your own Burnside building project, CLICK HERE.

You don't have to build your own. I saw two Fifth Model Burnsides at the National Skirmish, although one did not have matching serial numbers. I also saw an excellent specimen in Gettysburg at a shop next to the Farnsworth House, and the asking price was less than $1200. So, if you want to have some real fun, there are lots of options available.

One thing you will notice after you start shooting your Burnside is that your favorite load may start to change point of impact after about 500 rounds. This causes some people to think something is wrong with the gun. In my case, I am convinced that the use of the arm, and the constant cleaning of the barrel, after years, nay, decades of neglect, causes the condition of the barrel to improve with renewed use. I just checked my barrel out because my pet load is shooting left 2 1/2 inches, and I was chagrined to see how much better it is since I started shooting it this spring. I think the pressure and heat from competitive shooting is shaking out some rust still, so I'll do a little sight work and keep plugging along with it.

Before I close, let me say what a joy it was to participate in the Maryland Levi Garrett Territorial Match at Sudlersville Gun Club last weekend (Aug 3-4). The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association event is a real test, but fellow skirmisher Ben Ewing from the Delaware Blues made things more enjoyable. These "round-ball" shoots can add a lot of shooting to your schedule, so check out your local gun club and go shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1996 Tom Kelley

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