The Humble Trapdoor

Civil War U.S. Springfield Model 1861 Percussion Rifle-Musket


The Trapdoor rifle design is not one you hear about often. It was a breach-loading stopgap between the end of the muzzleloading era and the emergence of bolt actions. Most of the world went straight to the bolt action. Prussia adopted the bolt action Needle gun as early 1841 and in 1866 France adopted the  Chassepot bolt action. Even the US Army was all set to go the bolt action route when they adopted a limited number of Palmer carbines, but after the War Department had its budget slashed following the end of the Civil War, they cut firearms expenditure (who says history does not repeat itself?).

RIA have published a fascinating article on the history of the Trapdoor rifle

After the Civil War, the War Department wanted a breech-loading rifle.  To be specific, they wanted a breech-loading rifle that would chamber a self-primed, metallic cartridge.  This led to the formation of an Army Board who, in 1865, would host trials of different rifles by makers both foreign and domestic.  The idea of the Master Armorer at the U.S Armory at Springfield, Mr. Erskine S. Allin, was to take the existing Civil War muzzle-loaders, of which there were thousands, and convert them by adding the now well known “trap door” to the receiver.

This appealed to the Board for a number of reasons:

  1. It used existing materials, thereby saving money and manufacturing time.
  2. Money was even more important with the War Department’s newly slashed budget.
  3. Single shots were viewed as more reliable and rugged than repeaters or magazine rifles.
  4. It looked like proven guns of the past, especially with its pronounced hammer.
  5. Their priority on long range accuracy over rate of fire.
  6. Single shot rifles were thought to force a more efficient use of ammunition

If you wonder where the Trapdoor got its name from, take a look at the nifty gif animation below (it may take some time to load) …





Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • schizuki

    Yes, there was once a time when government employees sought to save taxpayer money whenever possible. In this case, it would have been nice if they mixed in a few Winchesters for the tip of the spear, though.

    • Zak

      Which resulted in the battle of little bighorn where the Native Americans outgunned the US Army with repeater rifles. And the Spanish American war where we were outgunned by Mausers.

      But hey if you think the Reconstruction era governme…. “firearms not politics” I’m stopping myself now.

      • schizuki

        Guess you tired out before you reached my second sentence.

  • Erik

    I’ve had the luck to handle a couple and fire one when I was younger. I really enjoyed the rifle since I was a black powder shooter at the time and it was as the article says a step up. I just wish now days they weren’t $1,000 and up in price and ammo was more available.

  • Cymond

    We had one of these when I was a kid. The legend was that they were brought in to West Virginia and sold to the miners for use in the “mine wars”.

    Go read about it. It’s a chilling legacy, including an open murder on the steps of a courthouse and mine camps sprayed with belt-fed machineguns on train cars.

    As a kid, that thing was taller than I was, and the sound of the hammer-fall alone was enough to make me flinch. My father did eventually hand load some ammo for it, although I now realize it was dangerously under-loaded. (My father was afraid of putting full loads through such an old gun and the trap door is a notoriously weak action). There was so little black powder in the case that the primer could fail to ignite it. We actually had to point the rifle “up” before aiming so the powder would settle back against the primer. I was amazed at the time how quickly the black powder gummed up the action. It quickly reached the point that you could no longer insert a round, or extract a case without using the cleaning rod. I realize in hindsight that the fouling may also have been due to the under loaded ammo. It probably didn’t have enough pressure to make the cases expand & seal the chamber.

  • WFDT

    I’m glad to have one in my collection.

    • Rickshaw

      Same here, hanging right above the fireplace during the warm months and put away during the cold ones when we actually light fires.

  • Sadler

    There will always be a special place in my heart for all the single shot rifles folks cane up with in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Trapdoor and Martini-Henry in particular are my favorite. I’d love to get a hold of the latter, but for now, I’m fine with at least having a Trapdoor in the family.

  • John G.

    Trapdoors are great because there are so many different variations, even between the dfiferent models. I have a number of them, and have actually found a small website who has quite a few of the different variations in stock.
    If anyone is interested check out
    They have a good selection and update weekly.
    I’m still searching for a Custer range carbine, but hey, you have to dream a little once in a while!
    The most interesting one I have is a very early Model 1873 featuring an 1863 musket stock, as can be seen on the Model 1868 and 1870 rifles as well.

  • Ryan

    That .gif is great. I’d love to see more of these!

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      Its very cool indeed.

  • Aaron E

    Though slowing the progression to bolt-action rifles for the U.S., the trapdoor design is a magnificent example of engineering a workable, manufacturable solution using existing weaponry on an extremely tight budget. As they say – necessity is the mother of all inventions.

  • allen

    I’m lucky enough to have 3 1866 trapdoors in .50-70. my great-great grandfather was an armorer with the Massachusetts Militia, there was an inspector coming, and somehow he had 3 extra rifles…so he just brought them home instead of having to explain where they came from.

    I doubt they’ve been fired since they left the Salem,MA barracks in 1902.I’d love to get one of them restored enough to make it go bang again..alas, that’s an expensive undertaking.