24 Aug 19
“ Our military doesn’t teach rifle marksmanship. It teaches ‘equipment familiarity.’
Despite what the officer corps thinks, learning to shoot a rifle is not like learning to drive a car.
Instead, it is like learning to play the violin.”
Ambrose Burnside was the first president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), taking that post in 1871
Burnside was a West Point graduate (1847), but resigned his commission after his brief participation in the Mexican War so that he could turn his attention to the weapon that ultimately bore his name, the Burnside Carbine.
At the time, “carbines” had barrels of twenty inches. Carbines with barrels shorter than twenty inches were called “Trapper Carbines.” The term, “rifle” implied a barrel-length of at least twenty-four inches
Carbines were considered only for use by horse-mounted cavalry, not leg-infantry. Thus, most carbines of the era featured “saddle-rings,” and no bayonet-lug.
Breech-loading carbines were in much demand by cavalry units, as reloading a muzzle-loader, while on horseback, was very difficult. So, the leading edge of firearm development just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War was with carbines, not rifles.
The problem with all breech-loading firearms of the era was inadequate obscuration. That is, developing an adequate seal between the breech-block and barrel.
Burnside, of course, knew all this only too well, and so his carbine was the first ever adopted by American forces that used a (mostly) self-contained metallic cartridge. His copper cartridge sealed the breech and thus eliminated gas “blow-out” that plagued all previous breech-loaders.
Burnside’s creation was revolutionary, but too few recognized it in time for it to be a commercial success.
Burnside went bankrupt in 1858 and sold what remained of his company to new owners.
Then (1861), Ft Sumter is shelled, and Civil War breaks out!
The Burnside Carbine is suddenly in demand, and over the next four years new owners of Burnside’s company would ultimately manufacture 50k copies for Union Forces.
During the War, the Spencer and Sharps carbines, along with the Burnside (all using metallic cartridges), were the three most popular, but Burnside himself no longer had any connection with his former company, are thus realized no personal profit from wartime sales.
Burnside had other challenges!
An exasperated President Lincoln selected him to lead Union Forces in the fall of 1862, after he (Lincoln) had fired George McCellan (for the second time) because of McCellan’s famed vacillation during the Battle of Antietam in MD.
Burnside had indicated on multiple occasions that he did not want the job. He reluctantly accepted it anyway, and promptly handed Lincoln his own signature debacle the following December at the Battle of Fredericksburg, VA.
Burnside was immediately relieved of command and replaced with Joe Hooker (who would fare no better), and quietly shuffled to the rear.
In July of 1864, Burnside got another chance, this time while a subordinate of George Meade (ultimately US Grant) at the Battle of Petersburg, VA. At the infamous Battle of the Crater, Burnside’s shaky leadership, once again, turned a rout into a catastrophe!
The Crater Battle mercifully ended Burnside’s participation in the War.
But, he came bouncing back!
After the War, an ever-affable Burnside was heavily involved in veterans’ affairs and was ultimately elected governor of Rhode Island. He subsequently served at a Senator from Rhode Island until his death in 1881.
In the decade following the War, Burnside’s famous carbine, along with the Sharps and Spencer, were quickly rendered obsolete by the Henry and subsequent Winchester rifles, although the Army went with the single-shot Trapdoor Springfield.
As noted above, Ambrose Burnside, designer of the Burnside Carbine, Civil War General, State Governor, and Senator, was also the first president of the NRA!
The NRA, founded in NY 1871, was a post-war organization specifically tasked with promoting marksmanship, particularly civilian marksmanship.
Burnside was quoted:
“Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manual of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun, nor can hit the broadside of a barn!”
Burnside, and others among NRA’s founders, realized that rifled bores of military arms meant increased range, and that “volley fire” from smoothbore muskets was now obsolete, and had been for some time.
They knew and understood that precise, individual marksmanship would win wars from now on, and that these critical skills had to be relentlessly promoted among American youth, who would be subsequently recruited to fight future wars.
Forty years later in a curious replay, British General Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts, for largely the same reason.
During the Second Anglo-Boer War at the end of the 1900s, youth from industrialized England, subsequently recruited into the British Army as infantry to fight Boers in South Africa, were also discovered to have no field-craft skills, no knowledge of weapons, and again displayed poor marksmanship.
Successive NRA presidents included Ulysses S Grant, Phil Sheridan, Harlon Carter, Joe Foss, and Charlton Heston
“A good shot must necessarily be a good man, since the essence of good marksmanship is self-control, and self-control is the essential quality of a good man.”