A Rare Bit of Civil War Ephemera in America's Firearms Weapons Manufacturing History

Mar 6, 2023

Most have already heard of the famed American Civil War General Ambrose Burnside. He is most popularly known as the originator and inspiration for prominent 'sideburns' facial hair. However, for history buffs and those with a special interest in firearms, he is better known for designing one of America's greatest military rifles, the Burnside Breech Loading Carbine.



Burnside got the idea for this rifle design while serving on the Western Frontier around the time of the Mexican-American War. In 1853 he resigned his military post and got to work making his vision for a rugged, efficient military firearm a reality. By March of 1856 he had secured the patent for his breech loading design and formed the Bristol Fire Arm Company in Rhode Island to begin production. He was on his way to getting a more reliable weapon into the hands of America's fighting men, with plans to showcase his design at an upcoming demonstration at West Point Military Academy and secure a government contract. 

It was around this critical time in his legacy project that this historically significant letter was written, just two months after receiving his patent:
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The letter addresses critical production issues with the initial run of the 1st Model Carbines. Burnside writes the Providence Forge & Nut Company (still in existence today as The Providence Tool Company):
"We regret to inform you that the last of the dies from you has given out they are now all useless to us... ...this is a very serious matter to us as we are in great want of the articles made from them and it stops progress in nearly all our manufactures. Please try and have these covered- go out at once and have them made well, the steel good... Trusting that you will appreciate the unfortunate position in which we are placed and relieve us as soon as you can." - A. E. Burnside, Treasurer
Under such conditions, the Bristol Firearm Company only managed to produce 200-300 1st Model Carbines. Those rifles, however, managed to outperform 17 other designs in the West Point government performance test in 1857, winning Burnside a lucrative military contract of about $90,000. Sadly, the politics involved did not go in his favor and only a small portion of the contract was ever honored. Burnside reportedly returned from a Washington meeting about the rest of his contract complaining of the blatant government corruption:
“I am a ruined man! I met a man tonight, by appointment, and he informed me that if I would pay $5,000 I could get the award, otherwise not. I at once indignantly refused. There is but one thing I regret, and that is, that I did not fell him to the ground.”
His steadfast intolerance for sharing in bad business and bad politics forced him to file the Bristol Fire Arm Company for bankruptcy after just a few years in business, making this letter quite a rare find some 160 years later. Thankfully, his breech loading patent was later put back into production, just in time to furnish cavalrymen during the Civil War and served as one of the most reliable firearms in the conflict between the North and South. In the end, he did see his dream of putting a reliable gun in the hands of US military men. He would go on to serve his country at the personal request of President Lincoln, leading the Union Army of the Potomac and Army of the Ohio, rising to the rank of Major General. He later served the state of Rhode Island as Governor and US Senator, and even continued his passion for firearms by serving as 1st President of the National Rifle Association.
For more great historical ephemera, check out our wide selection of over 10,000 antiques and collectibles at EphemeraFinds.com.
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