Thursday, December 20, 2007

Obsolete vs. Obsolescent

To begin with, let's get the dictionary definitions out of the way. Oxford American Dictionary says - -
Obsolete adj. no longer used; antiquated
Obsolescent adj. Becoming obsolete, going out of use or out of fashion.

Obsolete is often used as a term of derogation, mostly by those with some stake in the nifty new model something or other.

A lot of people confuse the two words, but in their place they are very useful and descriptive terms. It'll be no surprise that this blog entry deals with the application of these terms to firearms. In my mind, a firearm is only obsolete when it is completely superseded by something that does the job better.

Back in 1994, I watched the movie “Legends of the Fall” with my girl friend (later to become my Beloved Bride.) Toward the end of the movie, the now-aged protagonist hunts for and shoots a great bear. While he was maneuvering for the shot, I remarked, “Model 1886 Winchester.” She asked later, “Would that model rifle have been proper for the period?” I figured that if Tristan had been twenty in 1915, then to be about 70, the final hunt would have been in about 1965. The oldest the rifle could have been was 79 years, and Winchester produced the '86 until about 1927.

The answer to BB's question, of course, was yes, it would have been proper. NOT the latest and greatest hunting rifle perhaps - - There had been a dozen more modern sporting arms produced by 1965. However, a well-cared-for '86 in, say, .45-70, will kill a bear in 1965 as well as it would have in 1900. An owner satisfied with an old model rifle, who cares naught for “the newest style,” might well decline to spend good money on a modern bolt action rifle. That particular rifle would certainly have been considered obsolescent, if not truly obsolete by 1965, but it would still work quite well for the intended purpose. People seldom toss away a still functional and reliable tool.

Another example might better define an “obsolete” arm. In its day, the Colt 1860 Army revolver was considered by many to be the finest combat sidearm available. Far lighter than the previous .44 caliber revolvers, it had a much-improved loading lever system, and it was powerful compared to the Navy caliber (.36”) revolvers. This fine arm was immediately rendered obsolescent with the advent of reliable revolvers using metallic cartridges. It avoided being obsolete for a time, only because there were so many thousand '60 Armies in everyday use, and because large caliber metallic cartridge sidearms were in short supply for some years. Several things occurred in the next several years, though. The U. S. Army adopted the Colt's Peacemaker, the famous Single Action Army .45 revolver. Smith & Wesson was producing the Russian, American, and Scofield revolvers. Colt's introduced the SAA in the .44 Winchester Center fire cartridge. These factors combined to render the 1860 Army obsolete as a combat revolver. Something far better was at hand, economically and readily available.

Military arms tend to obsolesce with some regularity, at least until recent years. The smooth bore flintlock musket, typified by the French Charleville and the British Brown Bess, were the world standard for generations. With the advent of the reliable, nearly waterproof, percussion cap, the flinters were immediately obsolete. Then the smoothbore percussion cap arm was destined for the scrap heap with the advent of the rifled musket and the self obturating hollow base conical ball invented by the French Captain Minie. For the first time, a rifle could be loaded as rapidly as the smoothbore.. The Springfield Models of 1861 and 1863, and the British Pattern 1853 Enfield were the infantry mainstay long arms in the mass fratricide of 1861 – 1865.

Despite the wholesale carnage wrought by use of rifled muskets, the handwriting was already on the wall with thousands of breechloading arms in use before war's end. The US Army and Navy also adopted the Spencer Repeating Rifle and Carbine. Slowness of production and distribution prevented this repeater from being a decisive factor in the war.

The US Army “obsoleted” the rifled muskets immediately upon the end of hostilities, with the Springfield “trap door” series, chambered first for the .50-70 cartridge and later in .45-70. during 1870 – 73.

Many thought the lever action repeating rifle, exemplified by the Henry and Winchester 1866, would render single shot rifles antiques immediately. It was clear, though, that the short, low-powered cartridges of these arms would not meet the military need for longer range riflery. Even the .52 Spencer was underpowered, and was soon replaced by the trap door Springfields.

This latter arm lasted for over 20 years until replaced by the bolt action Krag rifle, which served 1894 – 1903. A new Springfield rifle was adopted in 1903, using an already-obsolete cartridge. But three years later it was rechambered for the US Cartridge, caliber .30, model of 1906. The .30'06 round was our military standard for 50 years, being retained when the M1 Garand rifle was adopted in 1935.

Do we see a pattern here? A given design arm or load serves its role well for a shorter or longer period. Then something else comes along, not only newer, but basically BETTER SUITED to the job. This is when the old one is obsolescent, and in due course, if the new item is proven satisfactory, the old one is phased out entirely, and becomes obsolete.

This is getting to be too long. We're at a good stopping point, so I'll close it for now. Stay tuned for more later.



Anonymous said...

I'm learning more and more from you about firearms. Thanks.

Great blog!

Tam said...

We need to go shootin' again sometime...

Old NFO said...

Excellent post!I would propose this example if I understand correctly... The M-16 is the current military rifle, the M-14 is obsolescent, and the M-1 is obsolete. However in other countries the M-14 is still the current rifle, so the M-1 is obsolescent and the 03-A3 is obsolete.

SpeakerTweaker said...

"This is getting to be too long."

With an encyclopedic knowledge like that, you effectively covered the history of US standard-issue long arms from before the country's conception all the way through WWII.

Too long, my foot;)

Very nicely done, sir. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I'm looking forward to more!


Anonymous said...

Firearms are unique in that for as long as a good model is around there will be someone producing ammo and parts, even if it's not the original manufacturer. In most other fields, such as cameras and computers, manufactures will "obsolete" the equipment, ceasing product support and service after only a few years to force customers to buy the new model.

Not so firearms. And of course people feel sentimental about gramdad's gun and want to keep using it out of sentiment alone. As long as there is any demand at all there will be gunsmiths who can make a part or two at a time, unlike any other industry.

Seth from Massachusetts

J.R.Shirley said...

Great post, thanks. :-)

Happy New Year!