One afternoon just a month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, Christopher Spencer, the creator of a seven-shot repeating rifle, walked Abraham Lincoln out to a grassy field near where the Washington Monument now stands in order to demonstrate the amazing potential of his new gun. Lincoln had heard about the mystical powers of repeating rifles at Gettysburg and other battles where some Union troops already had them. He wanted to test them for the rest of his soldiers. The president quickly put seven rounds inside a small target 40 yards away. He was sold.
But to Army bureaucrats, repeaters were an expensive, ammunition-wasting nuisance. Ignorant, unimaginative, vain, and disloyal to the point of criminality, the Army’s chief of ordnance, General James Wolfe Ripley, worked to sabotage every effort to equip the Union Army with repeating rifles, mostly because he couldn’t be bothered. He largely succeeded. The Civil War historian Robert V. Bruce speculated that had such rifles been widely distributed to the Union Army by 1862, the Civil War would have been shortened by years, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ripley’s bureaucratic victory over Lincoln was the beginning of the longest-running defense scandal in American history. I should know. I was almost one of Ripley’s victims. In June of 1969, in the mountains of South Vietnam, the battery I commanded at Firebase Berchtesgaden had spent the day firing artillery in support of infantry forces dug into “Hamburger Hill.” Every person and object in the unit was coated with reddish-brown clay blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition. By evening, we were sleeping beside our M16 rifles. I was too inexperienced—or perhaps too lazy—to demand that my soldiers take a moment to clean their guns, even though we had heard disturbing rumors about the consequences of shooting a dirty M16.