By Patrick McSherry

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This single shot, black powder weapon was carried by many of the United States troops in the Spanish American War. The weapon was outdated and put the troops using it at a disadvantage.


By the end of the American Civil War, the United States Army recognized the need to obtain a breech-loading rifle for its use. However, with the end of the war, funds were curtailed, and the army had an overabundance of muzzle-loading weapons left from the war. The "trapdoor" rifle denoting the method of opening the rifle at the top of the breech to load a cartridge, was developed and about 30,000 rifles were converted to "trapdoor" models, more properly called "Allin Conversions". By 1868, instead of converting old weapons into "trapdoor" models, a new rifle was developed using the Allin "trapdoor" mechanism. This weapon was the U.S. Rifle, Model 1868. This weapon went through a series of minor modifications (1870, 1873, 1879,1880, 1884 and 1889, as well as a few more specialized cadet and officer varieties), and was used for thirty years.

At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the current model was the Model 1889. This weapon was the main shoulder arm used by the volunteer troops at the outbreak of the war, in spite of its being outdated in comparison with the smokeless powder weapons that were becoming available.

The modification that was the major difference between the Model 1873 and the Model 1889 was the replacement of the triangular bayonet with a rod bayonet, and a few other very minor modifications.


From the United States government's standpoint, one major advantage of the Model 1889 was that it had many of these weapons in storage, and they could be readily supplied to the sudden influx of troops. Many of the existing National Guard regiments already carried this weapon, so it made sense to continue arming their enlarged regiments with the same weapon.

The overwhelmingly major objection to this rifle was that it used black powder instead of the more modern smokeless powder. The black powder cartridge left a tell-tale cloud of smoke by which the shooter could be spotted and fired upon. Also, the smoke cloud required the shooter to wait until the smoke cleared before he could aim and fire again.

The weapon was a single shot whereas the newer Krag-Jorgensen and the Spanish Mauser rifles were magazine weapons. The United States, however, insisted that its magazine-equipped Krag-Jorgensen rifles be used as single shot weapons with the rounds in the magazine reserved only for emergencies. Still, in actual combat, the rate of fire of the single-shot Model 1889 "trapdoor" rifles was much slower.

The Model 1889 "trapdoor" rifle had an advantage in "take-down" power over the newer smokeless powder rifles such as the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle, used by some United States forces, and the Spanish Mauser because these weapons fired a smaller projectile. This difference in size and weight also meant that the average soldier could carry fewer rounds with him fo rthe Model 1889 than he could carry for newer Krag-Jorgensen Rifle (one hundred .30 cal. cartridges weighed the same as sixty .45 cal "trapdoor" rifle cartridges).

Lastly, the "trapdoor" rifles fired at a higher trajectory than did the more modern weapons, resulting in more difficulties in aiming.


Action: Single-shot breech-loader
Total length: 52 inches
Length of barrel: 36 inches
Rifling: 3 grooves, making one turn in 22 inches.
Stock length: 48-3/4 inches
Weight: 8.25 pounds
Ammunition: .45-70-405
Charge: 70 grains
Weight of projectile: 405 grains
Bayonet: Rod-type


Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, "The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress", Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899. 4 vols.

Gluckman, Arcadi, "United States Muskets, Rifles and Carbines", Buffalo: Otto Ulbrich Co., Inc., 1948.

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