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  • Writer's pictureT. Logan Metesh

Brig. Gen. Ripley Hated Repeating Rifles

Unfortunately, slow adoption of new technology is not a new phenomenon with the government. When the Civil War began, repeating rifles were on the rise. Men like Benjamin Tyler Henry and Christian Sharps had developed rifles that far surpassed the military-standard muzzleloader’s rate of fire.

James Wolfe Ripley was a seasoned veteran of the War of 1812 and the Seminole War, coming of age in an era of flintlocks and smoothbores. When he became Superintendent of Springfield Armory in 1842, the military had just adopted percussion ignition as the new standard. When he became the Union’s new Chief of Ordnance in 1861, he was just shy of his 67th birthday and deeply entrenched in his ways.

Ripley correctly saw a need for rifled artillery pieces, so he ordered the old smoothbores to be altered and they performed well in their new role. He then ordered the military’s stockpile of older, .69-caliber smoothbore muskets to be rifled in an effort to save some money. Unfortunately, these guns did not perform as well as their .58-caliber counterparts that were purpose-built as rifles instead of smoothbores.

Cost-saving measures were also a factor when it came to Ripley’s opinion of repeating rifles. These new guns often cost twice as much as a traditional muzzleloader, which is not something to be overlooked when the government often awards contracts to the lowest bidder, both then and today.

Ripley disparaged the designs, calling them “newfangled gimcracks” and claimed that their increased rate of fire would cause soldiers to waste ammunition, thereby costing the government more money. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Ripley’s dislike of repeaters had won.

The single-shot mindset remained with the military long after Ripley’s tenure ended in 1863. It wasn’t until 1892 with the adoption of the Krag rifle that US soldiers fielded repeating rifles as a standard service weapon.

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