When Old Attitudes Shoot Down New Innovations in U.S. Weaponry; Clashes over the Faulty M4 Are Just the Latest in American Military History

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Supica

With the combat suitability, or lack thereof, of the U.S. M4 rifle in recent headlines, it's worth remembering that the history of America's military arms is replete with failures, successes and controversy. One of the best-known examples occurred during the American Civil War.

Rightly or wrongly, the decisions of one man would be credited with extending the bloodshed of the War Between the States by as much as two years. Some historians have contended that the refusal of Union Chief of Ordnance James Wolfe Ripley to adapt to new firearms technology cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of casualties.

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 came at a time of dramatic technological improvements in firearms. One major area of innovation was the introduction of breech-loading rifles and carbines.

For three centuries, firearms had been muzzle loading. Gunpowder was poured into the front end, or muzzle, of the barrel, followed by a lead ball. which was then firmly rammed in place before the gun could be fired. This was very difficult to accomplish in any position other than standing, which exposed the shooter to enemy fire in combat. The burnt black powder left fouling residue in the barrel, requiring more force and more time to ram successive lead balls down the tight barrel for follow-up shots as the dirt and debris constricted the diameter of the bore.

A gun that could be loaded from the breech, or rear, of the barrel solved both these problems. The shooter could remain prone behind cover while reloading , and since a new charge was inserted at the rear of the barrel, the residue of the previous shot did not interfere with loading.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, numerous breech-loading designs were available, some of dubious quality. Others, such as the famous Sharps design, had the system pretty much perfected.

Ripley was not a fan. A former superintendent of the main U.S. arsenal, Springfield Armory, Ripley was appointed as chief of ordnance for the U.S. Army in the first month of the Civil War. At age 67, he was put in charge of selecting and acquiring Union weaponry. As a former artillery commander, he is credited with modernizing the Army's crew-served ordnance.

However, he adamantly opposed the purchase of breech-loading firearms. He believed them to be unreliable and that they led troops to waste ammunition by firing faster, complicating the issue of ammunition resupply.

Ripley also declined to replace existing smoothbore muskets with rifles, wrongly believing that existing arms could be converted by rifling the barrels, and refused to purchase state of the art British Enfield rifled muskets. …