The Curious Chaffee-Reece

Why Didn’t This .45-70 Replace The Trapdoor?

The years between the end of the Civil War and the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen in 1892 was a period of continual experimentation by the Ordnance Department to find a bolt-action, repeating replacement for the 1873 Trapdoor. Eyeing the rapid advance of bolt-action repeaters in Europe, the pressure was intense to identify the best replacement. But funding was short, and conservatism ran deep in the military. It wasn’t an easy task.

The studies, or trials as they were known, were undertaken by a board of officers appointed by the Chief of Ordnance, and there were two phases. The technical studies conducted by the Springfield Armory under laboratory conditions to measure accuracy, strength and mechanical reliability under adverse conditions was one phase. Then there were the rugged and destructive in-the-field trials carried out by active infantry, cavalry and artillery units located mostly west of the Mississippi.

It may have had its faults, but the Chaffee-Reece proved incredibly accurate —
and incredibly long, typical for the day!

A Hitch …

In the fall of 1882, the Board on Magazine Guns recommended a field trial pitting the Winchester Hotchkiss, Remington Lee and Chaffee-Reece bolt-action rifles chambered in .45-70 against the issue Trapdoor. Both the Hotchkiss and the Remington Lee were essentially commercially available models. The Hotchkiss held five rounds in a spring-powered, tubular magazine running through the buttstock, while the Lee held five rounds in Lee’s revolutionary detachable box magazine. A slightly improved model of the rifle was adopted by Britain in 1888 as the “Magazine Rifle Mark I” or, as we know it, the Lee-Metford.

The trial called for 750 rifles of each make to be delivered to the board. The Hotchkiss and Lee were commercially contracted. The Chaffee-Reece presented a problem. Designed by Reuben Chaffee and General James Reece, the rifle design was owned by Colt. While Remington quoted a price of $16.66 for the Lee, Colt demanded $150 (approximately $3,710 in 2018 dollars) for the Chaffee-Reece and further stated they could only supply 200 units.

Colt’s bid was summarily rejected by Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier-General Stephen Vincent Benét. He solved the problem, at General Reece’s request, in 1883 by assigning production of the Chaffee-Reece rifle to the Springfield Armory. Using old Ward-Burton rifle production machinery, Springfield was able to keep the unit cost down to less than $60. The left receiver rail clearly reads in large letters, “US-SPRINGFIELD-1884” while all the usual Springfield proof and inspection marks are also properly in place.

Like most military rifles of the day, the Chaffee-Reece is a large rifle, measuring 49″ overall, with a 28″ barrel, weighing approximately 9 lbs. It holds and feeds five .45-70 rounds from a tubular magazine housed in and loaded from the butt.

With the cut-off switch in the forward position (just above and left of the
bullet nose in this picture), the Chaffee-Reece can be single loaded.

That group measured a mere 1.16” and Holt had Johnny Johnson, the range officer,
certify the target! A .45-70 bolt gun over a century old!

Curious Feed

One of the constant concerns heard from the field was the troops did not trust spring-driven tubular magazines designed so the nose of one cartridge was smack up against the primer of another. Examples would be the Spencer and the Hotchkiss. Chaffee and Reece came up with a very novel, but complex, solution.

Located at the 6 o’clock position in the magazine tube are two long rectangular bars operated by the bolt. The bar on the right is a reciprocating, toothed ratchet fitting the rim of a .45-70 cartridge, advancing the cartridges forward one cartridge length with each operation of the bolt. The left bar secures the cartridges in place as they are advanced by the ratchet bar to prevent their movement rearward when the ratchet bar is picking up another cartridge rim. The cartridges are spaced along the ratchet bar so there’s no bullet nose-to-primer contact. A magazine cutoff switch on the right-hand side of the action controls the feeding system. Pushed forward it deactivates the bars, permitting single loading.

To load five cartridges in the magazine, the bolt must be in the open position to allow the trapdoor in the butt to be opened. Opening the trap depresses the bars so the cartridges can be slipped down the tube. Closing it brings the cartridge advancing ratchet system back into play. Unfortunately, the arm connecting the bolt to the bars is broken on the Chaffee-Reece pictured.

Searching for some instructions on the management of the Chaffee-Reece, I did hit pay dirt at Cornell Publications, that treasure house of print-on-demand firearm publications of all types. It’s titled, To Dismount and Assemble the Chaffee-Reece Magazine Rifle. Keep it in mind if you ever own one.

The rifle is loaded through a trap in the butt. Opening the trap depresses the feeding rods.

Field Trial Results

The Chaffee-Reece, Hotchkiss and Lee rifles were farmed out to 149-plus companies, representing the infantry, cavalry and artillery. The fascinating and critical comments from the field are contained in Appendix 35 of Chief of Ordnance’s 1886 annual report. The report has been digitized and can be read in its entirety on the web.

How did the three contenders measure up against the Trapdoor? Not well. Compared with each other, the Lee was the most favored, the Hotchkiss next and the Chaffee-Reece last but none could compare to those wonderful, old, single-shot Trapdoors.

The Chief of Ordnance’s closing comments are telling. “I have been and am an advocate for a magazine gun, but it would seem part of the reason to postpone for the present any further efforts towards the adoption of a suitable magazine arm for the service. The Springfield rifle (Trapdoor) gives such general satisfaction to the Army that we can safely wait a reasonable time for further development of magazine systems.” That pretty well slammed the door shut!

A modern shooter might have been at home operating this early bolt-action.
All the elements are there, even in this early design.

It Shoots!

But what was the real truth of the Chaffee-Reece? While our example wouldn’t feed from the magazine, it was in very good condition. Obviously, it never made it into the field for trials. My shooting partner, Cyrus McKeown, loaded up some .45-70 cases with 9.5 grains of Trail Boss, a pinch of kapok and a Lyman 457124 405-gr. cast bullet. That’s a standard load for us.

I wasn’t expecting much, but surprisingly at 50 yards, the Chaffee-Reece produced a 3-shot group measuring 1.3″. Curious, I immediately moved the target to 100 yards and fired three shots. That group measured a mere 1.16″ and I had Johnny Johnson, the range officer, certify the target!

The Chaffee-Reece may have had its faults, but accuracy was not one of the them. While the Hotchkiss and Lee models continued to thrive in the commercial world, the Springfield Armory was not in the commercial firearms business and simply remaindered the remaining Chaffee-Reece rifles off as surplus goods to Bannerman in New York City.

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