T. Logan Metesh
Trapdoor Rifles, Marines, and the USS Massachusetts
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
When USS Massachusetts was commissioned on June 10, 1896, this photo was taken to commemorate the occasion. In it, we see eight Marines holding Springfield M1884 "trapdoor" rifles. [Side note: Yes, those are, in fact, United States Marines and not British Royal Marines, despite what you might be thinking about their headgear. They are wearing the M1887 Sun Helmet.]
The photo in and of itself is unremarkable; just a handful of Marines posing proudly on their new vessel. However, a closer look at the history of the ship and of arms development and adoption by the US military tells an interesting story.
So-called trapdoor firearms initially emerged at the end of the Civil War in 1865. At that time, they weren't purpose-built guns. Instead, they were breechloading conversions created from standard muzzleloading arms used during the war. A variety of different purpose-built models were eventually produced and adopted by the various branches of the US military up through the M1888 variant.
The 7th Cavalry were armed with trapdoors at the now infamous battle of the Little Bighorn. Even then, in 1876, these guns were already antiquated. Nonetheless, the government moves slowly, regardless of the potential cost of lives lost.
By the time the photo of the Marines was taken in 1896, the M1884 - and all single-shot arms, for that matter - had been considered functionally-obsolete for many years.
Finally ready to embrace some change, the United States Army adopted the Krag-Jørgensen rifle in 1892. This bolt-action rifle fed from a five-round magazine, which made it much faster than its single-shot predecessors. Even so, the United States Marine Corps held out a few more years before making the Krag-Jørgensen their new official longarm.
USS Massachusetts was the second modern-style battleship ever produced for the United States Navy. When construction was authorized in 1890, her design was based on the cutting edge of naval technology and warfare ideals.
Through the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the six-year window between her authorization and commission saw a tremendous shift in the construction of naval ships based upon an evolving mindset regarding the purpose of ships in modern warfare.
An Indiana-class battleship, Massachusetts was armed on the offense with four 13" guns; eight 8" guns; four 6" guns; two 3" guns; twenty 6-pounders; six 1-pounders; and six 18" torpedo tubes. On the defense, she sported armor plating that was up to 18" thick in some places.
Unfortunately, all of that firepower and armor was heavy. So heavy, in fact, that there are reports of the ship listing to the point of putting the deck underwater when the guns were aimed out over the port or starboard sides.
Coming into Focus
Thankfully, the Marines weren't too far behind the Army in terms of upgrading their standard issue longarms. The USMC adopted the Krag-Jørgensen as their official rifle in 1898, right as the Spanish-American War began.
Just 10 years after her commission, Massachusetts was taken out of service in 1906. Two more recommission-decommission cycles followed through World War I, but she was eventually scuttled in 1921 and used as target practice.
So, after exploring the history of the USS Massachusetts and the military's slow adoption of new arms, it begins to look almost entirely appropriate that a functionally obsolete vessel carried Marines armed with functionally obsolete trapdoor rifles.
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