Anyone with even a passing familiarity with modern firearms knows about the AK-47. In fact, we discussed it here, as part of another series. The AK-47 is so well known because it is so widespread, having been handed out at no- or low-cost to so many rifles, that they now appear on national flags and crests.
But the AK-47 was not the first weapon to have this kind of impact. This article is the first part of a two-part series on the rifles that had a similar impact to the AK-47. One of those is still all over the world. This one, however, is nowhere near as well known today.
Today, we’re going to talk about the Remington Rolling Block.
As the American Civil War raged, weapons using metallic cartridges began to appear, both in the hands of civilians and on the battlefield. While flashy weapons like the Henry and its descendant from Winchester Repeating Arms are better known, those weapons’ use in the military sphere was very limited. Early cartridge revolvers because popular with cavalry, but the Winchester remained almost solely a civilian weapon.
Armies are conservative by nature. The reason for this is understandable, given the stakes – when a business gambles on new technology, and the new tech fails, that is a very inconvenient; it might even be sad, if it causes the company to fail and costs workers their jobs. In contrast, if an army gambles on new tech and it fails, the consequences can be catastrophic out of all proportion to the technology. Case in point, the mitrailleuse.
The mitrailleuse was supposed to be France’s ultimate war-winning weapons system, able to sweep the Republic’s enemies from the battlefield like wheat before the scythe…The problem? It was kept so secret, no one ever trained the French artillery to handle it, and thus no one ever realized what it really was: a simple volley gun that could be loaded moderately quickly, and didn’t have much better range than the regular French rifles.
Result? The Prussians completely demolished the French in 1870-71, and the destruction wrought upon France was immense.
When it came to rifles in the post-American Civil War era, militaries around the world weren’t stupid – they knew that breech loading, metal-case cartridge rifles were the wave of the future…but which one was the best to use? Many countries tried various designs from their arsenals. Many other nations, unable to afford the infrastructure to mass-produce their own internal design, did what states have always done:
They went shopping.
The Remington Company of Ilion, New York, had been making firearms and ammunition since 1816. While it was legendary for its staggering levels of management incompetence (it finally folded permanently in 2020, broken into several pieces), it managed to produce a long and majestic line of firearms. And its first real “smash hit” was the Rolling Block.
The single-shot Remington Rolling Block began in 1863 as a slightly different design. Modified to strengthen the breech mechanism, by 1867, the rifle had matured into a solid weapon. It was rugged, reliable, and – most importantly for armies – was the last word in “soldier-proof”: it literally cannot misfire during loading, and cannot fire unless the breech is fully closed. The action was so strong, it needed virtually no modification when smokeless powder was developed in 1884. The only real danger was the chance of a misfired cartridge “cooking off” while it was being removed from the breech.
Remington’s rifle was made in a vast array of calibers and chambering’s. Remington would happily cut barrels for any cartridge provided by the customer. Mechanically much more simple than some thing like a British Martini-Henry and vastly more reliable than the Prussian needle-fired Dreyse rifle, the Rolling Block quickly took the military world by storm.
Although the Rolling Block was never adopted in any great numbers by the United States (due to a very parsimonious Congress), it was adopted by at least forty-seven nations over its lifespan, a staggering achievement for a time (~1880) when there were only about fifty-five “nations” in the world recognized as such.
From the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, to Peru, Qajar Persia and the Papal States (YouTube link), the Rolling Block fought wars, guarded walls and stood in parades for nearly fifty years. It was party to one of the oddities of the Spanish-American War (YouTube link), in 1898. Its last major war was actually World War One (YouTube link), where it served as a second-line rifle for rear area troops. It served countless hunters as far afield as Canada and the heart of Africa, and was “the other buffalo rifle,” next to the Sharps. The last version of the Rolling Block produced by Remington was the elegant “Number 7” target rifle (YouTube link), introduced in 1907.
But, as we will see next week, the Remington Rolling Block was buried in the public mind by a newly arrived competitor in the military rifle market, a rifle what would continue to serve for nearly a century in active military forces, a rifle so iconic, it will likely still be shooting when all the readers of this article will have passed beyond the Pale.