Maybe a silly question, but I'll ask anyway. What kind of steel were the old rifle barrels made of? By old I mean maybe as far back as the 1800's and also to make one today what kind of steel would be used?
Quick edit....specifically, black powder rifles!!!
[This message has been edited by daniel (edited 08-07-2003).]
Barrels made for modern high intensity cartridges are usually made from 4140 (sometimes erroneously called "carbon" steel, to differentiate from stainless steel) or some variation of 416 stainless. But it is the prerogative of the barrel maker to use what he thinks is best, so there will be some deviation from these steels.
Old time barrels were made from much softer steels which had much less control over the actual composition than modern steel making. They were adequate for black powder pressures but erroded quickly when used for smokeless cartridges.
Barrels for lower powered cartridges can use less exotic steel but require different tooling so most barrel makers use the same steel for all barrels to minimize their tooling costs.
In a brochure put out by The Springfield Armory Museum, they describe how the Springfield Muzzle Loader Barrels were made from Wrought Iron "skelp" (a long strip).
The flat strip was forged around a mandrel and then fusion welded by hammering the seam.
The barrels were proof fired in The Proof House with an intentional overload. The welder whose barrel blew up would have to pay for the runed barrel.
Here is a quick history of iron vs steel gun barrels:
I did a Master's Thesis on James Burton. He served as "Acting Master Armourer" at Harpers Ferry in the early 1850's where he developed (among other things) what became the U.S. "Minie Ball" used in the Civil War.
Later, he served as Superintendent of Enfield Armory in England. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Burton returned to Virginia and became one of the major figures in the Confederate Ordnance Department.
Before the Civil War, Harpers Ferry was roughly the "R&D" center for the Ordnance Department. There are several letters in Burton's correspondence indicating that at the time (late 1840's-early 1850's) Remington was experimenting with steel barrels for the "Mississippi Rifles" (U.S. Model 1841 Rifles)the company was manufacturing under contract with for the Ordnance Department.
Sam Colt and the Colt Company probably deserve the credit for introducing the widespread use of steel for manufacturing firearms.
Colt began importing what he described as "Swedish Spring Steel" to use in his pistols. The reason the Swedish product was preferred was because iron deposits in Sweden naturally had a much lower sulphur content than American iron, hence, Swedish ore was easier to refine into good (for the time) steel.
In the 1850's the Colt company had a problem with their .44 caliber revolvers. Namely, they were BIG, CLUNKY beasts. They had to be to take the pressures generated by the .44 caliber. I am referring to such "dreadnaughts" as the Walker and Dragoon Colt .44's.
Obviously, the Colt company realized that to build lighter,handier .44 revolver-a much better metal had to be found. It was the introduction by Colt of "Swedish Spring Steel" that allowed Colt to design and manufacture the Model 1860 Army Revolver. A much more lighter and streamlined .44 revolver than the Walker's and Dragoons that preceded it.
Some of the "Special Model 1861" .58 caliber Rifle Muskets that Colt manufactured under government contract during the Civil War also used steel barrels-matter of fact, these barrels are usually stamped "Steel" on a breech flat! At that time both Springfield Armory and most other government contractors still made their musket barrels from iron.
Steel has been around for several hundreds of years. The first steels that were refined were called "Crucible Steel" and this steel could only be produced in small quantities as the process produced a thin layer of steel that was skimmed off the top of a crucible of molten iron.
Using the "Crucible Process" not only a small amount of steel was produced at a time but the quality was pretty much "hit or miss" and varied widely. Hence steel was a valuable metal that was so expensive that it could only be used for such high value things as clock springs, gun lock parts, cutting edges of axes, etc.
All of that changed in the mid 19th Century when the Bessemer process of producing steel was developed. Using the Bessemer process, large quantities of steel could be produced at reasonable prices. So it was only in the post Civil War era that the widespread use of steel became the preferred material for manufacturing rifle barrels.
Note that the beginning of the use of steel barrels throughout the firearms industry dovetailes nicely with the end of the muzzleloading era.
Even as late as the World War I era, there were still lessons to be learned about using steel in firearms. I am referring to the problems that the Springfield and Rock Island Armories had with their "Single Heat Treated" Model 1903 Rifle actions. Some of these "low (serial) number" actions had an unfortunate tendency to blow up!
This problem was so bad that the Springfield Armory actually STOPPED rifle production during the height of World War I until the problem could be found and corrected!
One last comment-during the 1840's & 1850's "Marshall Iron" was imported from England to make gun barrels-even the government Springfield and Harpers Ferry armories used this imported iron.
Marshall Iron was considered to be much superior to American iron for gun barrels.One of the objectives of the Ordnance Department was to discourage the use of imported iron. The Ordnance Department realized that American armories and defence contractors should not be dependent of foreign sources, especially because these sources could be interrupted or curtailed during future wars.
Keep in mind that during the 1840's and 1850's foreign relations with the British had become strained from time to time.
At the beginning of the Civil War the Lincoln Administration slapped a healthy tax on imported English iron and also discouraged the use of foreign iron in the massive arms contracts the Ordnance Department was awarding to Northern manufacturers. The net effect was to encourage American iron smelters to improve their products-which they did.
So,to sum everything up,credit is due to the U.S. Army's Ordnance Department and Sam Colt for their efforts in pioneering the use of steel in firearms.
Most modern made, reproduction muzzleloading firearms use 4140 or a similar steel. Some of the repro 'cap & ball' Colt and Remington revolvers are even made of stainles steel!
Very interesting info. Great to read a post with some meat to it.
Getz uses 12L14 in their cut-rifled muzzleloader barrels. Of course, this is for black powder only. Kim Steiner