In 1855 Colt introduced a spur-trigger revolver with a top strap that featured a fully enclosed cylinder. These handguns were officially named Sidehammer revolvers, but they also were known as "Root" revolvers after Elisha K. Root, who at that time was employed as Colt's factory superintendent and Chief Engineer.
Based on the Sidehammer design, Colt produced the Sidehammer Model 1855 rifles and carbines for military and sporting use, as well as a revolving shotgun. In 1855 it became the first repeating rifle to be adopted for service by the U.S. Military, but problems with the design prevented its use until 1857. The principal problem was that gunpowder would sometimes leak from the paper cartridges in field conditions, lodging in various recesses around the firing cylinder. Hot gas leaking from the gap between the firing cylinder and the barrel would ignite this powder, which would in turn, ignite all of the powder in the chambers waiting to be fired, known as a chainfire. A distrust in the weapon developed as a result.
Field Commanders attempted to get around the problem in a number of ways.
The rifle had to be properly and thoroughly cleaned, since sloppy cleaning would leave residue behind that would increase the risk of a chain fire.
Some commanders instructed their men to fire the weapon only while supporting it directly in front of the trigger guard or by holding the lowered loading lever, which moved their left hand out of the path of danger during a chainfire.
Other commanders instructed their men to load only a single chamber, preventing any chain fires from occurring. Loading a single chamber at a time also reduced the weapon to a single shot weapon, and effectively defeated the entire purpose of having a repeating rifle.
The U.S. government had purchased 765 Colt revolving carbines and rifles prior to the Civil War. Many of these were shipped to southern locations and ended up being used by the Confederacy. After the war began, the Union purchased many more rifles and carbines. Sources disagree over the exact number purchased, but approximately 4,400 to 4,800 were purchased in total over the length of the war.
The weapon performed superbly in combat, seeing action with the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The volume of fire from this weapon proved to be so useful that the Confederate forces were convinced that they were attacking an entire division, not just a single regiment, but still, the Ohioans ran out of ammunition, and surrendered. The rifle's faults would prove fatal for the weapon. A board of officers evaluated the evidence and decided to discontinue its use.
Colt produced the Sidehammer Model 1855 rifles and carbines for military and sporting use, as well as a revolving shotgun.
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