- A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles
Though scholars have debated the veracity of numerous military innovations associated with the American Civil War, Joseph Bilby is certain that "the introduction of repeating rifles firing self-contained metallic cartridges" was "an indisputable American first" (p. ix). A Revolution in Arms is Bilby's examination of this American "first" and his contribution to the publisher's "Weapons in History" series—books designed to explore the historical, technological, and social significance of various weapons. Bilby studied history at Seton Hall University (B.A. and M.A.), served in the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, and worked as a Supervising Investigator for the New Jersey Department of Labor. In retirement he has become a prolific author, writing, co-writing, or co-editing six books and over three hundred online and print articles regarding New Jersey history, military history, and Outdoor subjects.
Bilby begins his study by outlining the early development of projectile weapons. By 1860 American inventors like Samuel Colt, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Oliver Winchester, Benjamin Henry, and Christopher Spencer were on the brink of mass producing magazine-fed, lever-action, repeating rifles that fired self-contained metallic cartridges. Once the Civil War began, two companies dominated the competition for lucrative government contracts—the New Haven Arms Company (maker of the Henry rifle) and the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company (maker of the Spencer rifle and carbine). Officers in the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company were politically connected and quickly secured contracts with both the Navy and War departments by late 1861. Two years later the New Haven Arms Company finally won its first government contract. Consequently, the Spencer rifle and carbine were used more widely during the Civil War than the Henry rifle. [End Page 1131]
In his analysis of the implementation and use of the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles during the war, Bilby makes several important points. First, he argues that U.S. Army Chief of Ordnance General James Ripley stymied the adoption of the new weapons because of his "innate predisposition against innovation" (p. 121) and because of the repeaters' high costs, limited availability, questionable reliability, and cartridge incompatibility. (The Army's muzzle-loading Springfield rifle musket fired a potent .58 caliber projectile while the Henry and Spencer rifles fired smaller, less-powerful .44 and .52 caliber projectiles, respectively.) Second, Bilby argues that the increased volume of fire enjoyed by soldiers armed with repeating rifles did not ensure success on the battlefield. Leadership, discipline, fire control, and tactical doctrine were additional prerequisites for tactical success (pp. 106, 127–28, 145, 163–64, 193, 203). Third, Bilby acknowledges that the use of repeating rifles did not change the outcome of the Civil War; however, he believes that the weapons did hasten the war's end (p. 220). He gives partial credit for Federal tactical success at Hoover's Gap, Chickamauga, Nashville, and Petersburg to the northern soldiers' repeating rifles (pp. 103–7, 127–30, 196–97, 205–6). Finally, Bilby concludes by explaining that the lever-action repeating rifle slipped into military obsolescence shortly after the war because Army leaders wanted "a breech-loading arm that provided the same power, range, and accuracy as the rifle musket" (p. 220).
A Revolution in Arms is a valuable study of the rise and fall of the Henry and Spencer rifles in the U.S. military. Bilby's research is balanced and thorough, his writing is lively and clear, and his illustrations are opportune and instructive. Because of his intimate knowledge of blackpowder weaponry, military history, and the American Civil War, Bilby is one of a select group of writers with the requisite background to author such a study. His multidisciplinary approach gives A Revolution in Arms broad appeal.