Sunday, February 14, 2021

Firearm Factory of the Month: Burnside Rifle Co.

Happy "buy your girl a gun day".....rather than buy her over-priced flowers that will die or chocolates that will make her fat, buy her a gun that will protect her. 

The story of the Burnside Rifle Company begins with the man who founded the company and designed the rifle which it is known for: Ambrose Everett Burnside.

A.E. Burnside was born on May 23rd 1824 in the town of Liberty Indiana. His story has a few twists and turns and is quite interesting.

...and yes in case you were wondering the term "side burns" is indeed named after Burnside. Somewhere along the line the words got reversed.

After his schooling Burnside was apprenticed to a tailor, that business didn't suit him (pardon the pun) and he sought to attend West Point Military Academy.

It was during this time that he fell in love with a woman named Charlotte "Lottie" Moon, who left him at the alter after answering "no siree Bob" when asked if she took this man in marriage. 

Lottie, her sister and mother were later arrested by Burnside himself for espionage, they had acted as spies for the Confederacy, but we are getting ahead of the story.

Burnside then entered West Point Military Academy where he graduated 1847 earning a commission as brevet second lieutenant.

After receiving his commission he served in Veracruz Mexico at the tail end of the Mexican-American War (post-hostilities), he then served out west in California, Nevada and New Mexico. It was during this time, 1849, that Burnside was wounded in the neck by an Apache's arrow. He was apparently unable to reload his muzzle loading rifle fast enough while on horseback. This led him down the path of developing a breech loading rifle that would be faster to reload.

In 1852 he was stationed at Fort Adams in Newport Rhode Island. It was here that he fell in love again and was married to Mary Richmond Bishop, a Rhode Island native.

It was also during his stay in Rhode Island that he came up with a new design for a breech loading rifle.

There was a problem with several breech loading rifles of the time, it was how to seal the breech when the rifle was fired. Many designs allowed the gases to escape the chamber, resulting in numerous issues.

Ambrose invented a system that used a unique paper and brass cartridge, yet still required a percussion cap for ignition. The pleased the US Military top brass as many of them feared a cartridge that had both the gun powder and an ignition system integrated together. Something which we now take for granted.

He used his military contacts to have some samples of his rifle built at the Springfield Armory.

Convinced that he was on to something big, Ambrose resigned his commission in October of 1853 and worked on getting government contracts for his rifle. 

He purchased a shop near the shores of Bristol Harbor, south of Providence, on a street that would later renamed Burnside Street. He named the company The Bristol Arms Works.

In 1855 Burnside applied for and was awarded a patent for his carbine the following year.

In 1857 his carbine entered a government trials at West Point, The Burnside beat out 17 other competitors. On September 30th, the Ordnance Board recommended the Burnside for Military Service. He did get a contract for 200 carbines, but it took him a long time to fill the order.

A contract for 1000 Carbines was initiated, but Burnside felt he could not meet the deadline for production.

I had read that a fire at the rifle works helped end his days in the gun business.

He assigned (or sold) his patents to some of the gun works employees, who after getting financing in order, rebuilt the factory and named the re-organized company as The Burnside Rifle Company.

Meanwhile Burnside found employment in the Railroad industry

Then Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected and the Democrats  started what would become the deadliest war in U.S. history.

Burnside returned to Military duty as a Colonel in the Rhode Island First Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

During the Civil War Burnside was eventually promoted to General of the Potomac.

Back in Bristol the work on improving the carbine had been underway by a man named George Foster Pratt. He kept improving the rifle while others at the company were securing contracts to supply Union soldiers with the Burnside.

By 1865 more than 55,000 Burnside Carbines (all five variations, although most were the 5th variation) had been issued to Union Calvary Soldiers. That same year Burnside Rifle Company received an order to manufacture Spencer Carbines. They ceased production of the Burnside....never to be made again. Once the War ended, there were no more contracts, the Burnside Rifle Company closed its doors.

In 1866 Burnside was elected as Governor of Rhode Island, he was elected two more times, serving three one-year terms.

Along with running a few veteran organization, he was one of the founding members of the National Rifle Association and in 1871 was elected the first president of the association.

In 1874 Burnside was elected to represent Rhode Island in the United States Senate, he served as Senator until his death in 1881

Time Line of Events

1824 - Ambrose Burnside in born

1847 - Burnside graduates from West Point

1849 - Burnside is struck by an Apache's arrow

1852 - Burnside invents a new breech loading carbine

1853 - Burnside resigns his commission to focus on building his rifle

1856 - Patent awarded for the Burnside carbine & cartridge

1857 - The Burnside carbine wins a competition at West Point

1859-1860 - Burnside appoints his patents to former employees at Bristol Rifle Works

1860 - Republican Abraham Lincoln is elected President

1861 - Civil War begins, Burnside re-joins the military

1865 - Burnside Rifle Company gets an order for Spencer Carbines

1865 - Civil War ends

1866 - Burnside is elected Governor of Rhode Island

1871 - Burnside helps found the NRA and is elected the 1st President

1874 - Burnside is elected t the U.S. Senate

1876 - Burnside is sent to D.C. as the Commander of the New England Battalion of the Centennial Legion, a ceremonial duty to celebrate the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence 

1881 - Burnside dies of heart failure

What Remains

Besides his last name being upended and used as a description for the fanciful facial follicles he was famous for sporting, Burnside's rifle factory did survive. 

During the time the Burnside and Spencer Carbines were being built in Bristol, a block away, on the water were some boat builders named Herreshoff & Stone., this picture, taken in 1866 shows the old rifle factory in the background, it appears the Herreshoff's were already renting or owned the building at this time. Note what looks like a chimney is a Cupola on the roof of the rifle works. Some 12 years after this picture was taken the two sons of Herreshoff started a new boat building business

The old rifle co building in 1882, again note the cupola

 The company thrived and went on to build the boats that won the America's Cup eight times. Today the campus is a museum.

Thanks to the efforts of a great many people, the building still stands at 22/26 Burnside Street in Bristol, RI


Ambrose Burnside - Wikipedia

Ambrose Burnside - Ohio History Central

Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress - Retro Member details

American Locomotive Company / ALCO | Rhode Tour

Burnside carbine

The Burnside Carbine: The man who made the gun (and the gun who made the man) ::

Burnside Rifle Co. (

The Burnside Carbine: Inventor & Company | menmachineandcarbine (

This Week in Herreshoff History: May 4 - Herreshoff Marine Museum

A Golden Milestone (

Herreshoff Sailing Museum — Glen S. Fontecchio, Architect (

Bristol Rifle Works : RhodeIsland (

The Civil War Burnside carbine - shooting, history and impact -

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