Fusil Robert and the 1837 U.S. Army Trials of Early Breech-Loading Rifles
In 1837, the U.S. military tested several innovative new firearm designs in a series of trials at West Point and Fort Monroe. These included early breech-loading rifles designed to improve on the standard muzzle-loading muskets and rifles used by the Army at the time. The tests provide an intriguing look at the state of firearms technology in the 1830s as inventors sought to harness new percussion cap and self-contained cartridge systems.
One of the most advanced rifles assessed was a 1831 French design by Joseph Alexandre Robert, presented by Baron Charles Hackett. Robert’s rifle used a rear-pivoting breechblock to allow a paper cartridge with percussion tube primer to be loaded from the rear. This breech-loading system gave it a major advantage in rate of fire over muzzle-loaders. In testing, Robert’s rifle achieved around 5 shots per minute, similar to the rate for Hall’s breech-loader and far faster than the 3 shots per minute of the standard U.S. musket.
The gas-tight fit of the breechblock also let the bullet be slightly larger than the bore diameter, eliminating windage space and improving gas sealing. As a result, Robert’s rifle achieved superior muzzle velocity and penetration compared to standard muskets with the same size powder charge.
In demonstrations, Robert’s rifle penetrated .46 inches into a white oak target at 100 yards, while the standard .69 caliber U.S. musket achieved 1.00 inches penetration with its larger 134 grain charge compared to Robert’s 73 grains.
Many of the guns were tested at differing distances and loads so it is hard to make exact apples to apples comparisons but Robert’s performance seemed at par or even higher than most of the other candidates.
Detailed tables for all of the guns can be viewed in the full document at the end of the article.
This combination of breech loading and tight bore fit gave Robert’s rifle rapid-fire capabilities and ballistic advantages over both traditional muzzle-loaders and earlier breech-loading designs. For example, Colt’s “revolving rifle” used multiple breech chambers to allow sequential shots, but still loaded from the muzzle, limiting bullet size and velocity compared to Robert’s gas-tight breech system.
At 4 feet 10.5 inches long and weighing 10 pounds 12 ounces, Robert’s .69 caliber rifle was also lighter and more maneuverable than the nearly 5 foot long, 11 pound standard .69 caliber U.S. musket.
Manufacturing costs projected by the Springfield Armory put Robert’s rifle at around $13 per unit when mass produced, similar to the $12-$13 estimate for Cochran’s repeating rifle. And much cheaper than the $18-$20 estimate for Colt’s repeating rifle.
The Army tests did highlight some limitations of Robert’s design, including fouling from paper cartridges and concerns about the safety of its fulminate-based primers when using bulk ammunition. The Board recommended switching to traditional loose powder and ball as a remedy. However, they noted the rifle’s merits warranted purchasing 100 units for further evaluation.
While not immediately adopted, the 1837 trials provided a fascinating early demonstration of the potential of self-contained cartridges and breech-loading systems. Within decades, repeating rifles building on these concepts would transform infantry warfare. But the limitations of these early prototypes also show why the muzzle-loader persisted on battlefields through the Civil War era. The search for the perfect rifle continued, with Robert’s innovative 1831 breech-loader design helping to set the stage for further firearms development.
The Full US Senate documents can be viewed here:
- “Hackett’s Gun.” Army and Navy Chronicle, vol. 5, no. 6, 9 Feb. 1837, p. 89.
- Report of the Secretary of War, transmitting the report of a board of officers appointed to examine the improvements in fire-arms, made by Hall, Cochran, Colt, and the Baron Hackelt; in compliance with a resolution of the Senate of the 27th January, 1837. 25th Cong., 1st sess. Senate Doc. 309. National Archives, 19 Sept. 1837.
- Report of the Secretary of War, transmitting the report of the board of officers appointed to examine the improvements in certain fire-arms; in compliance with a resolution of the Senate of the 27th January, 1837. 25th Cong., 1st sess. Senate Doc. 29. National Archives, 3 Oct. 1837.
- “64 Caliber Colt Model 1855 Percussion Revolving Military Rifle.” Rock Island Auction Company, www.rockislandauction.com/detail/79/1085/64-caliber-colt-model-1855-percussion-revolving-military-rifle.
- “Two U.S. Model 1816 Muskets with Bayonets.” Rock Island Auction Company, www.rockislandauction.com/detail/77/3238/two-us-model-1816-muskets-with-bayonets.