Spanish 1859/67 Berdan Infantry Rifle

  • Country: Spain
  • Ignition System: Centrefire
  • Calibre: 577 Snider

At the end of the Napoleonic wars Spain went through a long period of political instability and civil unrest with many skirmishes between the various factions which also resulted in the loss of the majority of its colonies, yet even through these difficult times the armament of the Spanish army had to keep pace with the rest of the world. Throughout the percussion era Spanish long guns loosely followed the line of British guns of the period with the last major model being broadly known as the Modelo 1857/59 with a calibre of 14.8mm which bore a very close resemblance to the British Pattern 1853 rifle. These were produced not only by the Spanish arsenals but also by private firms in Birmingham and Liège.

In 1866 a committee was set up to study the adoption of breech loading firearms, the main focus being systems that offered a rapid conversion of the existing Modelo 1857 percussion rifles. On the 14th December 1867, the trapdoor conversion by Hiram Berdan was selected. This was a further development of a system he had first protected by the patent US52925 of 1866. A very similar system was patented by Erskine Allin and adopted by the United States on its Springfield M1866 to M1888 rifled muskets and carbines. Hiram Berdan contested Allin’s patent and also took the US Government to court for loss of earnings. Berdan is more famously known for the Berdan I and Berdan II rifles adopted by Russia in the 1870s.

The conversion is quite simple with very little fine machining being required on the original rifle. The top half of breech portion of the original barrel is removed, a chamber is cut into the remaining barrel section and the original breech plug face is machined to form a concave cavity. A recess is machined above the lip of the chamber which is where the hinge of the trapdoor will sit. Two short hook shaped lugs are welded on the top of the chamber. The breech mechanism is made up of a mounting plate and the breech block. The mounting plate has a front notch and a rear slot and a cam located between them which protrudes into the rear slot. The notch and slot include a shoulder shaped to interlock with the tips of the hook-shaped.

Mounting the breech mechanism is performed as below.

1. The large screw head on the cam is turned until a dot on the edge of the screw head is aligned with the rear slot, this lines up a cut-out on the periphery of the cam with the slot.
2. The mounting plate is pushed onto the lugs and then pushed forward towards the muzzle. This forces the tips of the lugs to interlock with the shoulders within the front notch and rear slot.
3. The screw head is rotated 180° such that the cam is firmly pressed against the lug in the rear slot which prevents any movement of the lugs within the slots.

The mechanism is therefore easily removable by simply rotating the cam a further 180° to once more line up the cut-out in the cam with the rear slot so that the mounting plate can be pulled back and off the lugs. The simplicity of the connection has caused many to question the safety of the system. However it can be seen that during firing the stresses are absorbed axially by the breech block, the hinge and mounting plate come under very little stress.

The extractor is a simple triangular shaped piece pivoted about the hinge axis. It is biased in the extended position by an S-shaped spring in the mounting plate. In order not to weaken the extractor when rifle is unloaded with the breech block closed, the breech face has a slot to accommodate the tip of the extractor in its extended position.

The breech block has a firing pin inserted diagonally much like the Snider breech block. Slotted into the rear of the block is a lever which has a convex portion protruding from the rear of the breech block. The lever is spring biased in the down position. When the breech is closed, this convex portion snaps into the concave cavity in the breech plug to lock the breech shut. Lifting the lever against the force of the spring causes the convex portion of the lever to rotate out of the cavity such that the breech can be swung open. The lever has a grip portion which extends under the arch of the hammer to act as an addition safety. The locking system is in fact quite similar to that of the Milbank-Amsler system.

A post is fixed in the middle of the loading space, this post has a concave surface facing the chamber and it appears to be for guiding cartridges during the loading and manual ejection of cases.

The rifle is chambered for 14.5x42R Berdan cartridge also known as .58” Berdan musket in the United States. It can be easily made by simply shortening .577” Snider cases and using bullets also intended for the Snider.

The rear sight is fixed to the barrel by a hinged band and has two steps for 200m and 400m. There is a hole on the slide spring but since no further distances are present on the sight so it is not known if this hole is to function as a peep sight when the sight ladder is vertical or whether it has another function.

The Berdan M1867 conversion was only applied to the M1857 carbines and M1859 rifles. The conversions were performed by the Oviedo armoury and privately contacted firms Ignacio Ibarzábal and Orbea Brothers in Eibar. The stamps on the lock plate indicate that the rifle was made in 1866 at the Oviedo armoury. The breech block is also stamped with AR.O which indicates that the rifle returned to the armoury to be converted. The barrel of this rifle is inscribed with the word Maximo, the significance of which remains a mystery.

The Berdan conversion rifle was superseded by the Remington rolling block rifle from 1870.