Those Colt Rifles

I got a chance to examine the Quarterly ordnance Returns for the
Federal army this morning, looking to see what the 21st Ohio reported after the battle of Chickamauga.

For the 4th Quarter of 1863, the 21st reported 167 Colts, 82 Enfields, and 15 Springfields on hand – a total of 264 arms. The effects of the Chickamauga losses are still clearly evident, with the 21st still showing half the strength it carried into action on September 20th.

By the 1st Quarter of 1864, with a return dated in March of that year, they do show significant recruitment. More than 500 weapons are on hand, and presumably, the soldiers to use them. However, those weapons are now Enfields. No Colts are reported at all. Easier on the quartermaster, certainly, but I have to wonder how the old hands in the 21st felt about it. If I come across anything that might tell us, I will be sure to let you know.

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4 Responses to “Those Colt Rifles”

  1. James F. Epperson Says:

    Am I correct in remembering that the Colt had a tendency to flash-fire all six cylinders at once, to the detriment of the man holding the gun? Could this have tempered the change to Enfields?

  2. Dave Powell Says:

    Jim,

    That is a common story about the colts, though I have come to believe that is more legend than not. Most of the men who were issued colts – the 21st Ohio and a number of Michigan men, mostly cavalry – seemed to like them well enough. Certainly I have not seen a complaint about them from the sources I have.

    Rosecrans took the colts originally (the were being cast off from the Eastern armies as sharps and other carbines were coming into service) to equip his cavalry with some form of repeating arm. It is more likely, IMO, that the colts were stripped out of the 21st because they didn’t have enough to equip the whole regiment and could be of more use in a cavalry battalion.

    Just a guess, of course. It might be worth some time in the Ordnance returns to see if any cavalry came into some colts at the same time.

  3. Stephen Foraker Says:

    To be more correct, the Colts were removed from the 21st Ohio for a number of reasons. First, after the capture of the regiment at the Battle of Chickamauga, too many of the Colts had been lost on the battlefield or lost to the enemy. The fourth quarter returns of 1863 only show 167 Colt rifles in the regimental inventories and being that the weapon was .56 caliber and the common military caliber was .58, it only makes sense that it would have been a waste to stock an odd caliber ammo for such a small number of rifles.
    Second, the old school cronies still running the government and, most of all, the War Department, still believed that repeating weapons were a waste of money and ammo. It was the thinking of the day that if they gave a soldier a single shot rifle, then they could control the amount of ammo he expended. On the other hand, if they gave the soldier a repeating rifle, then he just might panic during a battle and waste all of his ammo at once forcing the government to have to produce more and therefore spend more government funds. It cost the U.S. Government about 1 million dollars a day to fight the Civil War and that was in the 1860s!
    Finally, the Colt, when it was first introduced in 1855, was high-tech for its day but, by the mid-1860s, better repeaters had come along that basically out-distanced the Colt in many ways. For instance, the Sharps, Spencer and Henry rifles were all much better rifles. The Sharps, though it only fired a single shot, was still a breech loader and this made it faster to load than a traditional muzzleloader. The Spencer and Henry rifles on the other hand, were both magazine fed, metalic cartridge firing weapons. Ball, powder and primer were all contained in one. The Colt, even though it was a repeater, was still a cap and ball weapon. When the cylinder was empty each step in the loading process had to still be done individually. This was not fast nor efficient by any means. During a battle, such as the 21st Ohio was involved in on Snodgrass Hill, this loading process must have been really enjoyable while under fire from the charging enemy. And, contrary to popular belief, not all of the soldiers of the 21st Ohio had been issued extra cylinders back in May, 1863, when the rifles were first given to the regiment. Also, unlike the Sharps, Spencer and Henry rifles, the Colt was much more prone to problems. On traditional military muzzleloaders, such as the Springfield and the Enfield, the hammer and precussion cap are to the right side of the breech. In other words, not directly in front of the shooters eye. Not so in the case of the Colt Revolving Rifle. On a Colt the hammer and the exploding precussion cap are in direct line of sight with the shooters eye. It was not uncommon for many a soldier to end up with precussion cap shrapnel inbeded in his eye or face after firing the weapon. Furthermore, the rifle, being nothing more then a larger, shoulder fired version of the Colt revolving pistol, was prone to cylinder chain-fire; in which a spark jumping from the firing chamber to a nonfiring chamber would explode the whole cylinder all at once, sending flame, smoke, burnt powder and bullets in all directions. It was usually the shooter and not the person being shot at that suffered the most from this catastrophic explosion. A line from the wartime account of drummerboy George Canfield of Company K, 21st Ohio, on the escape of the 21st after their capture at the Battle of Chickamauga stated this: “On the way out to Rossville-the new line of Thomas was near this point-we scanned faces continually, and made many inquiries for our men. Only one, in the whole five miles, did we recognize, and that was Bob Forrest. I did not know him, so horribly was his face burned from the exploding cartridges.”
    Even though the Colt Revolving Rifle was a unique and interesting weapon for its time; by the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Government so highly disregarded the rifle that it sold it at surplus auctions for as little as 25 cents a piece.

    • Dave Powell Says:

      Stephen, Thanks for your information on the 21st and the Colt Rifles. One of the joys of writing about the war is having people come forward with even more detail on a subject. I have heard that the colts were prone to chainfire many times, but frankly, there isn’t a lot of actual detail on that – how often it happened, for example. Canfield’s comment about Forrest is revealing, but considering how many rounds the 21st fired – and the fact that they were using Enfield rounds at the end, not .56 colt rounds – suggests that this was actually pretty rare. Have you come across other comments about the problem? Dave Powell

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