The museum's extensive gun collection traces the history of firearm design and construction in the Connecticut Valley, beginning with custom guns made by Nicanor Kendall, David Hall Hilliard, and Asa Story. Moving into the era of the factory-made gun, the collection includes examples of every gun manufactured in the building over its long history, including the Enfield Minie rifle and the 1841 Mississippi Rifle made by Robbins & Lawrence, the Model 1861 Special Musket manufactured by Lamson, Goodnow & Yale, the Jennings rifle, the Palmer carbine, the Ball repeating carbine and the rare Windsor Sharps rifle.
History of the Cartridge
War is the cause of much destruction and loss, but it can also stimulate innovation. American Precision Museum Interpreter, Clay Washburn, finds the evolution of the cartridge to be a perfect illustration of this idea.
Oliver Winchester, entrepreneur and clothing manufacturer invested in Smith & Wesson which was failing due in part to a problematic cartridge they were making called the Volcanic. The Volcanic rifle was a repeater where the powder was glued to the back of hollow based bullets and sealed by a cork primer. The lack of a cartridge case meant that the gun would blow up if the seal wasn’t tight enough. Winchester hired Benjamin Tyler Henry, who worked at Lamson, Goodnow & Yale at the time, to fix it. Henry designed the Rim Fire 44 Henry cartridge and produced fourteen or fifteen hundred of the guns for the Civil War. It was not a terribly popular gun but it demonstrated the effectiveness of using cartridges.
Christopher Spencer applied Henry’s concept to shorter rifles for use by the cavalry. The resulting Spencer rifle with Henry’s design was not as powerful as he wanted. He was interested in being able to knock down a cavalry horse 200 yards away and designed the 56 56 Spencer cartridge with a 56 caliber bullet weighing about 400 grains. It had 56 grains of 2f black powder which would give it the energy similar to a modern 4 inch 44 Magnum.
Albert Ball who was working at Lamson, Goodnow & Yale during the Civil War, put aspects from the Henry and Spencer into his own design. In 1865 he designed a self-contained 56 56 with a seven short magazine. This gun could hold eight rounds and could shoot them all in about 45 seconds. 1,000 of these guns were shipped out, but the war ended and they were not widely used.
The evolution of the cartridge happened very quickly and was possibly hurried along by the Civil War. Before the Civil War the rifle could fire approximately three shots a minute; by the end of the Civil War a rifle could shoot eight bullets in less than a minute. Speed was not the only improvement; by the end of the Civil War improvements in the design of bullets by encasing the gunpowder meant that they were less likely to blow up in the users' hands.
Cartridge History by Anna Grallert, Collections Intern 2015