Shooting the Burnside Carbine

Last month, I briefly described the history of the Burnside Carbine. During the Civil War era, more than 50,000 Burnsides were purchased by the U.S. Army. However, the Burnside requires a special, truncated cartridge (see photo) with a gas seal to function safely, and it could not be fired safely without the proper cartridge. Other notable carbines -- like the Sharps and Smith - did not share this handicap. As a result, as ammunition surpluses quickly evaporated following April 1865, Burnside Carbines were allocated to the obsolete list of military weapons. Also, the Burnside was a true breechloader, unlike the Sharps and Smith which are actually back-of-the-barrel loaders. It was not easy to convert a Burnside to rimfire or centerfire cartridges, and most Burnsides were not used between the end of the Civil War and the advent of Skirmishing. Gallegers, as an example, were issued in 1865 chambered for the Spencer 56-52 cartridge. And, the Sharps cartridge arms are legendary in American history. The Burnside, on the other hand, did not meet demands of the changing times, and were overtaken by more modern thinking manufacturers.

Not too long ago, a Burnside was a popular arm for those skirmishing events requiring Carbines. However, the increase in availability of reproduction Carbines -- Smiths, Sharps and Gallagers - and their relative ease of operation spelled the end of the Burnside Carbine's popularity. And although they are no longer the most desired Carbine on the line, the Burnside remains the most accurate black powder military Carbine ever designed.

The photo of the open Burnside breech, left, shows the breech rotated up and the gas seal area in both breech and barrel. The genius of the Burnside Carbine rests in the very gas seal which requires special ammunition, and in it's gain twist barrels. When proper alignment between the breech block and barrel are maintained, and ammunition is properly prepared, a 133 year old Burnside still leaks no gas at the breech. And even seriously worn or pitted barrels can shoot excellent groups at 50 yards due to the gain twist used to manufacture this weapon.

A barrel with gain twist rifling starts with a slow rate of twist at the breech of the barrel, but the rate of twist is increased as the bullet reaches the muzzle. Gain twist has been around a long time, and has always been recognized as an option to increase accuracy. No doubt, Burnside's employment of an experienced gunsmith, George P. Foster, as the Factory Manger early in the development of his Carbine played a key role in the use of gain twist rifling. According to my records, the Burnside Navy Rifle, which had a 29 inch barrel, had a gain twist of 1/83 to 1/52. My 21" carbine has a similar gain twist. Because of their design, Burnside Carbines are inherently accurate, and are lethal pigeon poison at 50 yards.

Armed with this information while developing my load, I knew that gain twist is still a favorite round-ball technique, so I started looking for a .56 round ball mould. I actually found one at my local gun shop, a Lyman 562RB. After casting a small batch, I ran a couple through the barrel to check for size and fit. The ball took easily to the lands, and the grooves left just the slightest imprint on the ball, so I was ready to start shootin' my Burnside. I knew safely using the 265 grain round ball in lieu of the 360 grain bullet would increase my projectile velocity, which would help me take advantage of the gain twist rifling. My projectile to powder ratio with the roundball is 7:1, with a bullet it would be 9.6:1. I think the lighter ball gives me a least 25% more velocity without damaging accuracy.

Furthermore, all of the old-timers who have shot Burnsides ask me what I'm shooting, and when I say it's a round ball they shake their heads approvingly. Experience counts, and I know a good idea when I steal it.

After deciding on a suitable projectile, I had to get cases. Brass cases are available, at $2.75 each. However, Bill Osborne at Lodgewood Mfg. (414-473-5444) came up with some plastic Burnside cases last fall. The manufacturer of these cases had recently discovered a box, and Bill bought up all he had. These modern cases are $37.50 for 50 cases. I have been shooting them now for four months, and having compared my case longevity with teammates shooting barrel-stuffers, have found them to be as serviceable as plastic Smith cases presently on the market.

I started my load development out low, for safety's sake, and it took me about three hours to settle on my load. The plastic cases are reduced capacity, so they have thick walls, and will only hold about 40 grains of FF powder. With reduced loads, my ball was running out of steam and dropping off low to the left, and I didn't want the increased pressure of FFF powder.

My standard load for a Burnside Carbine now consists of a .562 pure lead round ball over a .45 Wonder Wad on top of 37.5 grains of FF Goex black powder in a plastic, reduced-capacity tube. Photo 1 shows one of my first groups using this load off the bench, and I think you will agree it is suitable for skirmishing purposes. It is very important to lube your cartridges. I dip the nose in a mixture of 50% paraffin and 50% Len's Lube, covering the ball completely. This lube helps complete the gas seal at the breech mouth when firing, in addition to reducing fouling build-up in the barrel.

It has not been easy getting my Burnside to the line for skirmishing. Since I began my project at the Spring National in 1995, I wanted to have the Burnside ready for Carbine Team at the Spring National this year. Thanks to Tony Beck, who provided me with some excellent tips, I was able to get my Burnside working in April. I carefully packed it to the National, and stopped by Lodgewood and S & S Firearms to show off my project and thank them for their help in completing this ambitious task. Then, while tightening the hammer screw the day before the event, the head of the screw sheared off and left me confounded and frustrated, to say the least. It took me a week after returning to retap the tumbler and install a new hammer screw.

As this photo illustrates, the Burnside lock is a "back-action" lock, which means that the mainspring is behind the tumbler. The Burnside lock uses the lower portion of the bottom of the mainspring as the sear spring, which requires careful tuning of the lock. I managed to get the Burnside to the Mason-Dixon Skirmish, however, I had to retire early when I concluded the lock was firing with less then three pounds of trigger pull. I got that problem corrected with a little fine tuning, and at the Snowball Skirmish on June 29, it functioned flawlessly through 67 rounds of fire in individual and team events.

Speaking of mainsprings, original Burnside mainsprings are as scarce as hens teeth and Dodos. Once again, the Laurel Brigade's Tony Beck provided me with tips for making a Burnside spring from a repro Spencer mainspring, or I would still be waiting to complete and compete this gun. The repro Spencer Springs are a little shorter then original Spencer mainsprings, and they end up just a little long, but workable, in a Burnside.

And, this gives me the platform and opportunity to chastise those idiots who tear guns apart. In my search for parts in good condition, I can't tell you how many valuable items I have seen ruined by stupid hammer and chisel buffoons who don't bother to research and learn about a gun before attempting to dismantle it, usually for parts. It is a sad fact that an original Burnside is worth more when parted out then when kept whole. And, sutlers are businessmen, not museums or collectors. I can live with these economic facts when medicated correctly. However, I have no earthly use for the simpletons who hope to gain monetarily through the destruction of even the smallest historically significant part. Odsbodkins, man, ask a sutler or gunsmith to help you dismantle that Burnside or other valuable weapon. Every part has historical value and significance, and I just wish there was a way I could keep these derelicts from destroying half a Burnside while parting out the rest.

Well, my pursuit of Burnside knowledge will have taken me to three skirmishes in five weekends, with a major reenactment on one of the two other weekends (Man, do I have a great wife or what!). Next month, we'll look at rebuilding or restoring your own Burnside Carbine, which will complete the Burnside saga for now. So, until then, shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1996 Tom Kelley

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