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Military Rifles in the Age of Transition
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1865 to 1890
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M1868 Russian Berdan I
(Pekhnotniya vintovka Berdana obr. 1868g)
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M1868 Russian Berdan I
M1868 Russian Berdan I
Note to Visitors: This rifle, along with the M1856/69 Russian Krnka and the M1856/69 Russian Albini-Baranov were all developed more-or-less concurrently over the same several years, hence this HISTORICAL CONTEXT section as well as the bulk of the DEVELOPMENT section will be substantially identical for all three rifles.
Peter the Great’s rule, from 1696 until his death in 1725, was a great turning point in Russia when, by virtue of Peter’s reforms, a strong trend of European influence developed, gradually replacing the earlier influence of Byzantium and the Tartars. Catherine, wife of Peter III (Peter the Great’s grandson), succeeded him in 1762. She had been an obscure German princess but eventually proved to be one of Russia’s most successful leaders and, by the end of her reign in 1796 was called Catherine the Great. Catherine continued westernizing Russia, introduced French culture into Russia and greatly improved education of the Russian nobility. She extended Russian territorial gains through additional conquest,, making Imperial Russia one of the great European powers. In early wars with the Turks, Russia gained a firm foothold on the Black Sea for the first time. During the Napoleonic wars Russia used the power of its winters to bleed Napoleon white and Russia became the leading player in the coalition between Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and Russia which led to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
The death of Alexander I in 1825 brought Tsar Nikolas I, one of Russia’s most reactionary Tsars, to the throne. Nikolas persecuted large segments of his population, suppressed publications, forbade foreign travel and generally tried to eliminate progressive thinking and reverse the westernization of Russia. However, Alexander II (1855-1881), Nikolas’ son, reigned principally as a reformer freeing the serfs, providing allotments of land establishing local legislatures and reforming the legal system. Unfortunately, revolutionary pressure continued to build and in 1881 Alexander II was killed by a terrorist bomb in the center of St. Petersburg. This generated a new era of repression lasting through the reigns of Russia’s last two Romanovs, Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nikolas II (1894-1917).
As the Ottoman Empire was breaking up, France, Great Britain and Russia all had interests in its territories. The rivalries among these countries reached its climax in the Crimean War (1853-1856) where Russia fought an alliance consisting of France, Great Britain Sardinia and Turkey. The Russians sued for peace in 1856 giving up Bessarabia (part of present day Romania ). Twenty years later Russia again went to war with the Turks attempting to regain Bessarabia and, although they defeated the Turks (see M1866 Turkish Winchester and M1872 Turkish Peabody-Martini ), British and Austrian forces interceded forcing Russia to give up most of its gains.
Failing to make any gains in Europe, during the late 1800s Russia turned toward the east, expanding Russian territory during this period and eventually bringing Russia and Japan into intense competition, and eventual war in 1905.
In the early 1860s virtually all of the nation-states of European were engaged in massive small-arms rearmament programs. The Russian experience in the Crimean War (1853-1856) had set the stage by bringing into sharp relief the dire military disadvantages to be faced any nation bearing arms from an earlier generation. This conflict was soon followed by the closely watched destructiveness of the American Civil War (1861-1865) coupled with the Second Schleswig War (1864) fought between the combined forces of Prussia and Austria allied against Denmark for control of the Schleswig (or South Jutland) region between modern day Northern Germany and southern Denmark. The Second Schleswig War was over in 8 months, during which the muzzleloader forces of the Danish Kingdom were decisively outmatched by the breechloader (Dryse) armed Prussians. None of this was lost on the Russians, who set about to completely remake their arms manufacturing and procurement systems from an essentially feudal one powered primarily by small-scale serf labor building rifles by hand, to a modern, centralized, mass-production system building rifles extensively by machine. The Berdan would be their first foray into this new world.
The American Civil War had seen the first introduction, wide-spread deployment and military use of small arms utilizing breechloading metallic cartridges, and the results left no doubt as to the future of arms. European military representatives in America during the war, including Russian officers, returned with a variety of examples of new systems. Even before the conclusion of the Civil War, the Russians had dispatched Colonel Alexander P. Gorlov (1830-1905), an artillery engineer, to study the US arms industry. Gorlov’s first foray to America resulted in a highly influential Russian report, coupled with sample rifles and machinery to enable Russia to first begin manufacturing metallic cartridges. This action sealed Russia’s decision to adopt metallic cartridges as its small arms ammunition standard and conversions of existing patterns to metallic cartridge breechloaders was quickly undertaken. But it was fully acknowledged that the conversions were only interim measures. A newly made, dedicated cartridge rifle was still needed. And ultimately Russia was committed to being able to manufacture it at home.
Uniquely among the Great Powers of the time, Russia embarked on an effort to find the best possible cartridge available, and then to adopt an arm around the cartridge. In 1867 Gorlov was dispatched back to America to spearhead this effort. Gorlov, accompanied by Captain (then Lieutenant) K.I. Gunius decided to headquarter their research in Hartford, Connecticut, then the very heart of American manufacturing and arms industry. In what was ultimately an excellent PR move (although not universally profitable as will be seen), the Colt company offered the Russian officers the use of Colt’s facilities for their testing and considerations.
The Russians were relentless in their evaluation of every promising breechloading system then being considered in America. None perfectly met their needs, but they were nonetheless impressed by the most advanced evolution of the designs of an already prolific inventor, Colonel Hiram Berdan (1823-1893).
Berdan had already designed a conversion system adopted by Spain for converting its capping breechloading long arms, the Spanish Berdan series, and was claiming credit for designing the US’s implementation of a system of converting its Springfield capping breechloaders to metallic cartridge, what would come to be known as the Allin Springfield. Further, Berdan had developed a metallic cartridge that would go from near universal service during the early metallic cartridge era to become the world standard for military ammunition to the present day.
The Allin-Springfield is commonly referred to by American collectors as the “Trapdoor Springfield.” Erskine S. Allin, the Supervisor of the Springfield Arsenal, was charged with the task of developing the most effective method for converting the hundreds of thousands of American Civil War muzzle loading rifles to cartridge use, regardless of existing patents. In 1865 he patented his “first Allin” conversion system, which borrowed in significant respects from Berdan’s patent. Decades of litigation ensued, being finally resolved only by a US Supreme Court decision in Berdan’s favor in 1895, well after Berdan’s death. Governments being governments.
Further, and even more importantly for the Russians, Berdan had developed a metallic cartridge that would go from near universal service during the early metallic cartridge era to become the world standard for military ammunition to the present day.
In developing his next new rifle, Berdan consulted and worked with the Colt company in the prototyping and later manufacture of this rifle.
The new Berdan rifle offered significant improvements over the Russian conversions then being undertaken. Additionally, by altering the caliber to the .42 desired by the Russians, Berdan’s cartridge became the best military cartridge of the period, not improved upon until the M1887 Turkish Mauser, adopted at the very end of the black powder era and not significantly bettered until the French smokeless Lebel cartridge of 1886.
Working together, from 1867 to 1868, Berdan, Gorlov and Gunius consulted regularly with Colt’s and made multiple refinements to the design, substantially improving it, to the point that some authors have suggested that the rifle should more properly be referred to as the Berdan-Gorlov.
In 1868 the Berdan I rifle was officially adopted by Russia as the “4,2-линейная стрелковая винтовка образца 1868 года (4.2 line infantry rifle model 1868). At that time, Russia also purchased from Berdan the full rights to have the rifle manufactured anywhere, including the right to manufacture it themselves. An initial order for 30,000 rifles was placed with Colt’s along with an order for 7.5 million cartridges of Berdan’s design from the Union Metallic Cartridge Company located in Bridgeport, Connecticut.. Gorlov was placed in charge of overseeing inspection of the order. Interestingly, by dint of his high standards and insistence on strict quality control of the arms which he was charged with approving, not only was a higher standard of parts interchangeability achieved than expected, but Gorlov was to become a significant force in shaping the quality standards of the American arms industry in the post-Civil War era.
Most of the surviving examples seen in the US are Colt sales samples marked in English rather than in Russian and are not Russian inspection stamped. Some examples remain as chambered in Berdan’s original .45 caliber. These examples are often encountered with a totally polished (“in the white”) finish, without blue.
The Russian M1868 Berdan I is an elegant and particularly sleek rifle, with the receiver being almost the same diameter as the barrel and with only a very small pear-shaped knob for a lifting bolt head protruding to the right of the lifting breech-breech block and an equally unobtrusive cocking lever, giving the rifle a particularly clean line. There is no “bolt” in the sense of a turning bolt action rifle, but only a cocking spur jutting up out of the rear end of the bolt body. Of note, the action is thus noticeably long.
This rifle has two screw-retained barrel bands and a small nosecap, with the swing swivels being attached below the top band and at the front of the trigger guard. It mounts a cruciform blade socket bayonet to a small bayonet stud fixed to the right side of the barrel. The windage-adjustable front blade sight is mounted well back from the muzzle allowing plenty of room for the bayonet socket. A serrated, cylindrical-head cleaning rod, with single transverse hole through the head, is carried below the barrel in a conventional cleaning rod channel partially inletted along the bottom of the stock. Unexpectedly, the rod is secured not at the receiver via its lower jag threads, but rather by utilizing a shoulder in the rod 3.75 in. (95mm) back from the front, which locks against the bottom of the nosecap, a system used by the contemporary Russian M1869 series Krnkas, the U.S. Springfield series and later followed by the British Martini-Henry series of rifles.
The trigger guard has an integral lower trigger guard tang with a substantial finger spur forming a hand grip, somewhat more prominent than that found on the Russian M1867 Krnka but less so than those on either the contemporary M1867 Austrian Werndl or the later M1886 Portuguese Mauser-Kropatschek.
The rear sight consists of only a single elevating leaf with slider and sight notch for use with the leaf lowered. The sight is hinged at the front so that the leaf lifts from back toward the front, in the manner of the contemporary M1868 Egyptian Remington. The placement of the rear sight is somewhat curious, however. The sight has no dedicated base; rather it is mounted on top of the breech block hinge. As the breech block does not swing through a full half arc when the breech is opened, the block never contacts the sight directly. However, the sight is nevertheless subject to all movement to which the block and hinge base might be subject. It appears that placement of the sight in this location may be a trade-off between security of the sight, and the already significant distance from the shooter’s eyes (about 14 in (355.6mm)) to the sight. Fixing the sight forward of the hinge base would put it at least 16-17 in (406 4 to 431.8 mm) from the shooter.
Note: This Berdan I’s sight placement is correct, but this is not an original Berdan I rear sight leaf. An original, correct leaf is a bit shorter.
The basic principle of the Berdan I action is that of a forward lifting breech block which is locked behind the chamber by the passage of the longitudinal striker through the rear of the receiver into the breech block. There is no separate, outside hammer or lock, firing being actuated by a coil-spring powered striker that moves along the axis of the bore into the hollow back of the breech block. The striker locks the block in place as it moves forward striking the back of the firing pin causing the firing pin to hit the central primer of the cartridge. This is the exact principle utilized in the Belgian Albini-Braendlin series rifles, later copied in the contemporary Russian M1856/69 Albini Baranov, except for how the striker is powered.
The lifting breech block portion of the design is much like Berdan’s previous conversion system adopted by Spain (the Spanish Berdans) and, unsurprisingly, similar in principle to the U.S. "Trapdoor" Springfield rifles. The top of the barrel is cut out at the breech to allow the cartridge to be introduced into the breech and thumb-pressed into the chamber. The cut is nearly 160o, about 3/4 in. (19mm) across the diameter of the barrel but asymmetrical, with more of the barrel open on the right than on the left (allowing ejection to the right and easier reloading with the right hand). Additionally, the cartridge trough is surprisingly long, 3 1/8 in. (79mm), but necessarily so to accommodate the advanced-for-its-time Russian 10.75x58R bottlenecked cartridge. This places the receiver some 7.5 in. (190 mm) back from the cartridge base. As the receiver is itself 9 5/8 in. (244mm) long, this makes for an overall exceptionally long action at about 10 in. (254 mm) with the bolt closed.
With the breech-block raised for access to the breech, view left of the striker with cocking set, ready to fire, and on the right, with the striker “fired” as it would look through the breech-block having struck the firing pin.
The bolt has a thumb or palm-operated cocking spur which juts upward from the back end of the bolt. To cycle the rifle, the striker is retracted by rearward thumb or palm pressure against the cocking spur simultaneously unlocking the breech block and cocking the rifle. Utilizing a small knob affixed at the right rear of the breech block, the block is lifted up and forward, pivoting on a transverse hinge screw at the top front of the block. When fully open the breech block does not rest against the top of the barrel or its hinge but instead arcs through only about 120 of travel, resting at about 60o forward.
As the breech block is laid on top of the barrel it engages a strong spring assisted extractor which doubles to perform primary extraction and, as the cartridge rim clears the pivoting breech block, powers secondary extraction sending the empty case sliding rearward where it encounters a small ramp in the bottom back of the receiver trough which guides the case out of the action. When the bolt is closed, this ramp fits into a dedicated hole in the bottom of the breech block. A fresh cartridge is then thumb-pressed into the chamber, the breech block is flipped back into place, and the rifle is again ready to fire.
The breech block is a separate assembly consisting of a block hinged at the front and pinned to the back of the hinge, which itself is secured to the top of the barrel via a locking spring hidden within the hinge top. This mechanism is nearly identical in concept to that of the cartridge conversion system utilized in the Spanish Berdan conversions, except that instead of the Spanish conversion’s cammed screw securing the breech block mechanism to a spur on the barrel, a locking spring is used. The hinge is attached by sliding it rearward from the front along a beveled rail and secured in place via the transverse screw that acts as the hinge pin of the breech block.
The plate on which the breech block is hinged is not fixed rigidly to the barrel but retains a slight bit of play. Whether deliberate or not, this play provides the breech block a very small bit of movement along the axis of the barrel. At firing, this slight play allows the firing pin-locked breechblock to bear firmly against the rear of the breech at firing and allows the breech block-hinge assembly to move as a unit, preventing degradation of the hinge from repeated firing. A bonus in this early manufacturing age is that production and assembly could still be achieved without the final hand fitting required of nearly all previous generations of arms. All-in-all, both a secure, and a forgiving design.
The receiver and breech block are case hardened, the cocking spur is left polished, the barrel, nosecap and breech block hinge are blued and remaining parts, including cleaning rod, are left only polished.
Top of the barrel forward of the rear sight. The Cyrillic inscription on this Berdan I rifle reads “Кольтовскiй Оружейный заводЪ. г. ГартфордЪ. Америка No.” [serial number] which may be translated as “Colt's Armories, Hartford, America, No. ..." or alternatively also as "Colt Arms Factory (or Colt's ordinance works) City of Hartford. America." or in the Latin for spoken as: “Koltovskij Oruzenyj zavod gorod Hardford, Amerika , city Hartford, Amerika"). Some sales samples seen in the U.S. are marked “COLT’S PT FIRE ARMS MF & CO HARTFORD CO”.
Thank you Ilija Stanislevik (firstname.lastname@example.org) for providing this information.
Serial numbers were applied locally in Russia after delivery and were stamped by hand, one digit at a time, and thus are usually somewhat uneven. If the rifle is not serial numbered then it is likely that the rifle was never delivered. An Imperial Tsarist eagle stamped after the serial number would have signified acceptance for Russian army service. M1868 Berdan I rifles with Russian serial numbers and Imperial Tsarist acceptance marks are extremely rare and few have ever been seen in the west.
Russian serial numbers and Imperial Tsarist eagle shown on a Russian army accepted M1870 Berdan II rifle for illustration only. Similarly marked Berdan I rifles are very rare.
An example of a Colt Berdan I marked in English/Latin Letters.
The markings say: ----- COLT’S P_ Fire Arms C_ Hartford CO__ ----
Photo Credit: https://www.joesalter.com/
No other markings, including cartouches of any kind, have been observed.
SPECIFICATIONS, STATISTICS & DATA
Overall Length: 53 inches (1,346 mm)
Barrel Length: 32.5 inches (825.5 mm)
Weight: 4.2 kg (9.26 lbs.)
Rifling: 6-groove; RH, concentric
Sight: Sight: Leaf-type rear sight with base graduated to 500 arshin (356 m, 389 yds), leaf graduated from 600 - 1,400 arshin; (427 m - 1,067 m; 500 - 1,089 yds).
The arshin came into Russian use in the 16th century, and was standardized by Peter the Great in the 18th century to measure exactly twenty-eight English inches (or 2 1/3 feet, 71.12 cm). Until 1925, it was the basic unit of distance measurement in Russia (then the Soviet Union). The Soviet Union switched to the metric system in 1925.
SHORT RIFLES, CARBINES & SPECIAL VERSIONS
No fielded versions of any M1868 Berdan I arms are known. There were no other Colt contracts for the Berdan I aside from the 30,000 initially ordered, although the Russians reportedly produced it domestically briefly. Some shortened versions of the M1868, stocked to the muzzle with a barrel length of 18.3 in (465mm) have been reported, but these are thought to number only 30 to 40 and to have been experimental samples only.
Obr. 1868g socket bayonet, unique to the Berdan I, and scarce.
Overall Length: 23 in
Blade Length: 20.75 in
Socket Length: 3.0 in
Inside Dia: 0.73 in
A Berdan I Bayonet. Unlike the Berdan II, The Berdan I bayonet has an exceptionally short shank, and the bayonet lays below the barrel when mounted.
Berdan I rifle with bayonet mounted.
The bayonet of the M1868 Berdan I rifle barely fits above the cleaning rod. To use the rod to release a stuck case the bayonet would have to be dismounted. M1870 Berdan II rifles were produced with a bayonet lug on the right side of the barrel, and when mounted the bayonet lays to the right of the barrel.
M1868 10.75x58R (Винтовочный патрон к 4,2-х линейной винтовке Бердана обр. 1868/1870 гг.)
aka: .42 Russian Berdan, 10.6x58R, 10.67x57R
The M1870 Berdan II rifle shares the same groundbreaking cartridge that was developed by the American Colonel Hiram Berdan together with Russians Colonel Alexander Gorlov and Captain K.I. Gunius for the immediate predecessor M1868 Russian Russian Berdan I rifle and reference is made to that rifle’s webpage via this link for in-depth discussion regarding this cartridge.
Building on Berdan’s development of his new and highly practical system for priming a drawn brass cartridge case, the group evolved a “unitary” (self-contained) bottlenecked cartridge that was widely fielded for military use, all in a caliber that was the most efficient (in terms of range, power and accuracy for its energy) until Mauser fielded the 9.5mm Turkish Mauser of 1887.
The .42 Russian Berdan cartridge consists of a rimmed, bottlenecked, drawn brass straight-walled brass case loaded with 4.95 grams of black powder beneath a 23.7 gram, round-nosed, paper-patched lead bullet. The caliber of this cartridge is 4.2 Russian lines (more precisely 4.23 lines), which corresponds to 10.67 (or, more exactly 10.75) mm, or .423 caliber.
An interesting note: Ammunition for the infantry rifle was loaded to full power while cartridges for the carbine and short rifles were loaded with reduced loads. The cartridges were distinguished by different cartridge pack colored paper; the color wrapper of infantry cartridges being either white (tan or buff) or light blue, that of reduced charge cartridges being pink.
Muzzle velocity: 427 m/s (1400 ft/s)
Bullet diameter: 10.95 mm
Neck diameter: 11.46 mm
Base diameter: 13.10 mm
Rim diameter: 15.18 mm
Case length: 57.6 mm
Total length: 74.6 mm
Total weight: 41 grams
Berdan (both I & II) infantry rifle cartridges were factory wrapped in packs of 6 cartridges
Photo Credit: Gunbroker.com
Side cut view of Berdan Cartridge
Russian cartridges were manufactured by several European firms in addition to the Russian ammunition factory in St. Petersburg.
Photo Credit: cartridgecollector.net
About 30,000 were contracted for in the United States by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Mfg. Co., Hartford, Connecticut, with the first rifles being completed in December, 1868 and the bulk completed in 1869 and 1870, but it is a bit unclear as to whether or not all 30,000 rifles were actually manufactured. Marcot indicates that 15,000 of these were delivered to Russia in 1869, but does not indicate when (or even if) the remaining Colt-built rifles were delivered.
Russian sources have indicated that in about 1873 some 8,800 were built at the Russian State Armory at Tula and another 7,772 were manufactured at Sestroryetsk, but these stories are almost certainly incorrect as Russia was by then fully engaged in ramping up for domestic mass manufacturing of the Russian production of M1870 Berdans. Also, no Tula nor Sestroryetsk marked Berdan I rifles have ever been identified. This reference is most likely to early M1870 Berdan II production.
Alexey reports that “By the beginning of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 the Imperial Russian Army had about 18,000 rifles of this model on hand.” Unlike M1869 Russian Krnka series rifles, and M1870 Russian Berdan II rifles for that matter, it does not appear that any Berdan I rifles were ever supplied by Russia to its allies, such as Bulgaria.
UTILIZATION BY OTHER COUNTRIES
Colt clearly had hoped to make a significantly larger sale to the Russians than a meager 30,000 production run, and had also hoped to secure other European orders. But the furious pace of small arms development in this time frame, coupled with both the success of the Remington (Rolling Block) abroad and the preference of larger nations for indigenous designs, meant that no significant further orders were forthcoming. Further sealing the Berdan I’s fate, Hiram Berdan had traveled to England in 1868 to continue development of his new turning bolt design (which would become the Berdan II ) and contracted with Birmingham Small Arms Company to manufacture these rifles to his order. In October of 1869, before Colt had even completed delivery on its Berdan I contract, Russia had signed a contract with BSA, for the manufacture and delivery of 30,000 M1870 Russian Berdan II rifles. Gorlov was clearly incensed and lobbied vigorously for the Berdan I, but the nature of the numerous delicate parts of the Berdan I, contrasted with the robust simplicity of the Berdan II, meant that the Berdan II would be considerably simpler for the Russians to manufacture themselves (always the plan) and this tilted the Russian War Ministry.
France: French records indicate that 5,700 (some say 5,800) “Russian Berdan” rifles, which Colt still had in stores, were supplied to the French 'Commission d'Armement' during the height of its Franco-Prussian War buying frenzy, and were used to arm General Frapoli Corps d'Armee de L'Etoile based in Lyon. Unfortunately, the rifles arrived in port December 15, 1871, too late to have made it into combat before the January 28, 1872 Armistice.
Why Colt still had these rifles is unclear, but they may have remained un-paid-for in Colt inventory at the conclusion of the Russian order. Berdan I rifles exist in Western Europe which are fully Russian marked in Cyrillic but are non-serial numbered and non-Russian accepted. While the Colt manufactured rifles were fully Cyrillic marked with Colt’s Patent information, serial numbers were not applied at the Colt factory but were to be applied by the Russians in Russia. The lack of serial numbers and Russian acceptance marks on a rifle suggests that it was never delivered there.
Believed to be one of the scarcer Colt-built Russian Berdan I rifles delivered to the Gouvernement français de la Défense nationale (French Government of National Defense) during the war as noted above. This rifle is Russian Cyrillic-marked, and not English/Latin alphabet marked as are some Colt examples sometimes found in American collections.
Aside from Russia and France, no other nation is known to have employed this Berdan model.
PREDECESSOR & FOLLOW-ON RIFLES
Predecessor Rifle(s): M1856/69 & M1858/69 Russian Krnka
The Russian Krnka rifles are not technically, or even actually Predecessors to the M1868 Berdan I as both rifles were actually developed concurrently by different Russian / Russo-American "teams" and adopted almost simultaneously. But the technological difference between the two rifles, indeed, the generational differences between the converted muzzle-loader and the just designed, new-built "small-bore," bottlenecked cartridge rifle is so great that they might as well be predecessor and follow-on.
But to be scrupulously accurate, the M1856/1859 6-Line rifles (discussed under M1869 Krnkas) are the true predecessor to the M1868 Berdan I.
Follow-On Rifle(s): M1870 Russian Berdan II
A special thanks to Ilija Stanislevik (email@example.com) and Alexey ("К.А.Н." <firstname.lastname@example.org>) for their information!
Marcot, Roy, Civil War Chief of Sharpshooters, Hiram Berdan - Military Commander and Firearms Inventor, 1989
Puaud & Mery, Les armes à feu de la Défense nationale et leurs baïonnettes: 1870-1871, 1996
Page first sketched out February 7, 1999
Revised May 9, 2000
Revised July 30, 2000
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Updated: July 18 2022
Updated: December 22, 2022