Pedersoli Springfield Trapdoor Carbine
- By Pete Moore
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- Last updated: 16/11/2017
The Trapdoor Springfield has its roots in the .58” muzzle-loading rifled muskets of the American Civil War. Erskine S. Allin devised a simple conversion; taking a 1863 Springfield musket, the chamber area was modified for a flip up breech block with blade-type ejector to facilitate breech loading. The side hammer was retained as was the trigger and stock and hey presto a new/ old service rifle. The prototype was called a Trapdoor due to its breech system and in 1873 after a number of prototypes and changes it was adopted as the standard US service rifle and chambered in 45-70 Government. Firing a 405-grain lead bullet, there were two loadings; 70-grains of blackpowder (rifle) and a 55-grain Carbine load to reduce recoil in this lighter model.
At the time, the 1873 was one of the contenders for the US Ordnance Board trials to determine a new rifle, with many makes, both single shot and repeater considered. Unsurprisingly, the Trapdoor was picked, as the board decided that reliability was preferable to capacity. I believe it was always a one horse race and as the gun and ammunition had already been developed, why waste it? After all, the decision makers would not be the ones to use it!
Like many military rifles, the Trapdoor had some initial problems, perhaps the worst was the copper case used on early ammunition could jam in the chamber and the extractor had a tendency to shear through the soft rim. A change to brass remedied this! Custer’s 7th Cavalry were one of the first units to be issued with the 1873 Carbine, when they rode into history in 1876 at the Little Bighorn!
The 1873 was issued as an Infantry Rifle, with full forend and 32 ½” barrel and a Cavalry Carbine with a shorter 22” barrel and half-length forend, with a bar and ring on the left that a cross belt sling attached to. This allowed the empty gun to be dropped without losing it and access to sabre or pistol. Carbines were carried in a socket when on the saddle, though still attached by the sling.
The Trapdoor was further modified in 1884 with a new (Buffington) rear sight that gave windage and elevation correction and the rifle soldiered on until replaced by the 30/40 Krag-Jørgensen in 1892, which was the US’ first smokeless cartridge. However the Trapdoor saw service in the Spanish/ American war in Cuba by reservists.
One of the most useable variants was The Officers Model with better sights, finish, a longer 26” barrel and single-set trigger. As the name suggest, this was made for private purchase by officers that gave them a similar rifle that used the same ammunition and could be used for hunting. History tells us that Tom Custer, General George Armstrong Custer’s younger brother, who was an officer in the 7th Cavalry, carried one at the Little Big Horn.
I admit to being a bit of a Trapdoor fan and bought my first reproduction; a Harrington & Richardson (H&R) Cavalry Carbine way back in 1976 for the simple reason I thought it looked good! I had fun with that gun, which probably set me on the path of both the calibre and the generic black powder cartridge rifle (BPCR). Years later, I picked up a second hand, H&R Little Big Horn Commerative model when I started Western shooting, with my final example being Pedersoli’s excellent repro of the Officer’s Model. I used this gun for Quigley competition until I bought an 1874 Sharps Silhouette (Pedersoli again), which was more suited to the event!
Though not a particularly fast calibre, the 45-70 is well suited for short range hunting on big game; a fact not missed by the ammunition industry, with most US companies offering soft and hollow point loads specifically aimed at hunters. Hornady even went so far as to develop a pointed, polymer-nosed bullet for tube magazine lever-actions called the LEVERevolution. Up until that time, for purely safety reasons, ammunition had to be flat-nosed or hollow point, to avoid the risk of a chain detonation in a tube magazine, where the cartridges are stacked tip to primer.
I no longer own a Trapdoor but rather fancied reacquainting myself with one, so contacted the Pedersoli importers (Henry Krank & Co Ltd) who supplied a standard Cavalry Carbine. Also on offer are reproductions of the Infantry Rifle, Officer’s Model, Deluxe Carbine and the Long Range Target, which is an Infantry with improved sights, set trigger and a grip cap. I have always loaded for my BPCRs, so Kranks also supplied a set of Lee 45-70 dies, Value 405-grain flat-nosed, hard-cast, lubricated lead bullets and Starline brass.
All modern repros are nitro-proofed, so you don’t have to use blackpowder, which frankly is a pain and requires a bit of skill to get it right. With the Carbine, I tended to keep it low-powered, as it’s a light rifle and can be a bit kicky. I have always used Hodgdon H4198 with 27-grains (minimum) with a felt case filler to stabilise the powder charge. It gives around 1250 fps, which is accurate and reasonably pleasant to shoot!
A word of warning here, as there are three levels of loading data that apply to the different action types available. All BPCRs are in the lowest; in the middle are the modern lever-actions like the Marlin 1895 and Winchester 1886 reproductions and at the top modern, hi-strength single shots like Ruger’s No 1 and a few bolt-actions. For example, the minimum H4198 load for a modern lever-action Marlin 1895 is 43-grains behind a 400-grain jacketed bullet that gives around 1850 fps. Whereas the maximum Trapdoor load is just 31-grain for 1495 fps and the maximum for a modern level 3 gun is 50.5-grains and 2089 fps, I hope you see what I am getting at?
The layout shows a straight hand, walnut stock with half-length forend and a curved metal butt plate. All the metal work is well blued and there’s a US Army cartouche mark on the lock plate, overall the Trapdoor is nicely presented! Sights are as US issued, with a large/fixed ½-D-shaped blade up front and a combined tangent ladder at the rear. The top of the ladder shows a fixed V-notch that is used in tangent mode with the ladder flat and elevation applied by sliding the moving notch plate up four side steps in the base. For longer range use, the ladder is flipped up to vertical and the slider moved to suit and is retained by friction only.
The breech block is locked by a rear-mounted lug that engages with the rear face of the barrel cut-out and is operated by a thumb lug on the rear right. The hammer has three positions 1 – the nose just lifted off the end of the firing pin, 2 – half cock, for loading and 3 – full cock, to fire.
To load, place the hammer at half cock, if not you cannot operate the side lever, push up on the unlocking catch and flip the breech block up and forward to expose the chamber. Slide a round in, and ensuring that the rim is engaged, pull the block back down until it locks. Thumb back the hammer to full cock and you are ready! To open up, reverse the process and flip the block open fast and the blade ejector will kick the case out easily enough. Trigger pull is not bad and breaks around 5-6 lbs, the biggest problem is the overly long lock time, as that big hammer swings through an arc of around 120° as it falls, so correct technique and follow through are essential!
I used two loads, my old H4198 Carbine reload and Hornady’s 350-grain LEVERevolution jacketed polymer tip. This is a hunting cartridge but all factory 45-70 ammo is kept at safe levels for guns like the BPCRs. With no real means of adjusting windage, your best bet is to aim off. At 100-yards I had to bring the foresight 6” to the right to hit the middle. Of the two loads, mine was the lumpiest, though easy enough, but I did fit a leather, slip-over recoil pad from Kranks that does not look out of place and adds about ½” to the LOP and makes things a bit sweeter. I was getting an average of 4-6” groups with either load initially, but after I understood the trigger as to its long lock time, things improved a bit.
Rate of fire is between 8-15 rounds a minute depending on your skill. Today, the Trapdoor is really used for classic-style shooting and is very much a niche buy. But there is a tactile pleasure to using this single shot design. If I were to go back to a BPCR, then I’d pick the Officer’s Model, as it gives near the best of both worlds!