Carbines, Revolving Rifles and Repeating Rifles
by Robert Niepert
At the start of the war, the Southern cavalry was as well armed as its Northern counterpart, if not better. Carbines were in short supply in both camps, and so one of the South's favorite weapons was the sawed off shotgun loaded with buckshot, a formidable weapon throughout the war. Some excellent breech loading carbines were produced in the South during the war, but in very limited numbers. When the carbine came into common use during the war, it changed forever the way future conflicts would be fought. Nowhere on Civil War battlefields did American ingenuity and industrial might evidence itself so strongly as in the development and production of rapid firing breech loading carbines. Carbines, short barreled breech loading versions of rifles were conceived and designed with the cavalry in mind. They were much easier to handle on horseback compared to the long arms issued at that time. The carbine itself went through several changes during the war, the most notable the change from paper cartridges and percussion caps to moisture proof metallic cartridges. The development of these brass and copper cartridges led to still other improvements. Adding a flange at the base end of the cartridge made extraction of the spent cartridges easier. Soon the faster firing weapon had magazines that continuously fed new rounds into the breech with just a movement of a lever.
Colt Repeating Rifle.
To load the Maynard, the lever which doubled as a trigger guard was pulled down, which tipped the hinged barrel forward (photo at left) from the breech and tipped it down. A single brass cartridge was inserted in the barrel, which was then locked back into place. Some of the Maynards featured a "rising Block". The most unusual thing about this weapon was the percussion cap. It used Maynard's patented roll of percussion caps, which looked like rolls used in toy cap pistols today. Pulling back on the hammer positioned the next cap over the nipple and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer smashed the fulminate cap and the resulting spark detonated the cartridge (photo at right). Unfortunately, the Confederacy could not keep up with the reloading of the brass cartridges. One Confederate cavalryman said "The Maynard rifle is the favorite with us, and proves a destructive weapon when one becomes accustomed to handling it, mounted, in a skirmish, it is light, simple in structure, and can be used with both caps; the only objection is you have to be careful in preserving the empty brass tubes, or you will not be able to make new cartridges."
At first the seven shot tube fed Spencer was slow to be accepted by the Union army. To prove its sound design and superior construction, C. M. Spencer arranged to demonstrate the weapon to the Navy in June 1861. Initial tests included burying a loaded weapon and immersing it in salt water before firing it. Over a two day test fire, Spencer fired the carbine 250 times without stopping to clean the rifle. During the rapid fire test, the carbine achieved a sustained rate of fire at twenty one rounds per minute. Commander John A. Dahlgren was so impressed he ordered 700 Spencers to be used by the Navy. Brigadier General James W. Ripley was not all that enthused and did not order any of the weapons. However, General James H. Wilson did like Spencer. In his report to the Union army's chief of ordnance, he wrote, "There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best firearm yet put into the hands of the solider, both for economy of ammunition and maximum effect, physical and moral." An excerpt from an official report reads, "We found them simple and compact in construction and think them less liable to get out of order than any other breech loading arm in use and are particularly pleased with the light carbine..." According to procurement records (January 1, 1861 to June 30, 1866) the Union army did finally order 94,196 of the carbines but the initial delivery date of December 26, 1861 was delayed for more than a year due to a production problem with the gun's extractor.
After the improvements were made, the Spencer was reliable and very easy to use. Lowering the operating lever dropped the breechblock and extracted the spent cartridge. The same motion caused the magazine automatically to feed another round into the chamber, closing the breech seated the cartridge. Thus, all the solider had to do was cock, aim and pull the trigger. With the production of the Blakeslee Cartridge Box late in the war, the Spencer carrying soldier had 10 to 13 extra loaded magazine tubes, equaling 70 to 91 rounds at his disposal making him an extremely formidable enemy.
The first Spencers used by Union soldiers, which had been bought privately or by individual units may have appeared on battlefields as early as late spring 1862. The first government bought Spencers were delivered in October 1863 but were slow in getting to the field. The Spencer was so popular among the troops that when units were denied issue of such arms, they occasionally took it upon themselves to personally purchase the guns. When Col. John T. Wilder (of the Lightning Brigade) was refused the Spencer arms, he equipped the men of his brigade with 4,000 of the weapons. His brigade felt such a need for the gun that each man voted to help with the purchase cost of the new carbine. When the war ended, 105,804 of the 200,000 Spencers in use were purchased by private individuals.
The seven shot repeaters saw their first real action at the battle of Antietam. The 7th Connecticut Infantry also used the carbines on November 19, 1863 at the battle of Olustee. Captain Fort, of the 1st Georgia Regulars while he was skirmishing with the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry in the battle of Olustee; referring to the Spencers said that "they were hard to move, as they seemed to load with marvelous speed and never had their fire drawn". Capt. Ford was determined to see what sort of fire-arms were opposed to him so he ordered his men to concentrate their fire on a single skirmisher. That skirmisher was killed and they were able to secure his Spencer. They carried it around for a long time afterwards as a curiosity. The repeating Spencer carbines started showing up everywhere and gave the inexperienced Federal troops the added firepower they needed to turn Lee's first attempt to invade the North. The Confederacy did not have any of the Spencer carbines and those that were captured during the war were virtually useless to them as they had no means to manufacture the weapons cartridges. Sergeant Sidney W. Cox with the 9th Michigan Cavalry was issued his Spencer and used it through two years of campaigning. His unit was recorded as being the Federal unit to fire the last shot of the Civil War east of the Mississippi. He was mustered out in July of 1865 and paid a $10.00 charge to take his rifle home with him.
Henry Repeating Rifle.
The weapon weighed 9.8 pounds and had a 24 inch barrel with a magazine holding 15 rounds (photo at left) located under and running the full length of the barrel. The rifle was chambered for the .44 Henry Flat, a rimfire cartridge which was propelled by 26 to 28 grains of black powder with a 200 grain bullet. It had a muzzle velocity of about 1,100 feet per second. Although that is somewhat underpowered, the Henry still represented a milestone in rifle innovations that ultimately led to the Winchester .44-.40 still popular today.
The Henry was invented at the beginning of the war but the U.S. Army's Ordinance Department had dismissed the new inventions because they thought the rapid firing rifles would cause the soldiers to waste ammunition. In tests, the rifle's 15 shot magazine could be emptied in less than 11 seconds. A rate of fire of 120 shots were loaded and fired in 5 minutes and 45 seconds. The advantage is very clear, keep in mind a well trained infantry solider could load and fire the muzzle loaders only three times a minute. Fire power wasn't the only asset of the rifle, it could also be fired in a very safe prone position. In the Battle of Chickamauga, the retreating Federal army was saved by just 535 men with Henry rifles.
The loading and firing of the rifle (refer to letters on drawing at right) was accomplished by: The breechblock "A" was locked by the toggle, by pulling the trigger guard leaver "C" down the toggle "B" was unlocked, which then pulled the breech block straight back. The hammer was cocked by the block riding over it. The carrier block "E" with a round from magazine was raised into line with the chamber. Raising the lever "C" drove a round into the chamber, dropped the carrier block "E" and locked the toggle joint thus securing the breechblock. Had this extremely accurate close range arm been developed and used earlier, historians of the war believe the conflict could have been shortened by as much as a year, possibly two.
LeMat Revolving Rifle.
The Sharps Carbine was invented by Christian Sharps of New Jersey and was patented on September 12, 1848. In 1852 the firm received its first government contract for 200 of the carbines priced at $30.00 each. The breech loader was soon deemed a necessity for the mounted troops, so it was as a cavalry carbine that this fine weapon saw its most active service. Over 80,000 were used in the war but government purchases of the rifles totaled less than 10,000. However, many troops were armed with Sharps at their own expense or by their state governments. During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used the Sharps. In the South, the weapon was called the "Richmond Sharps." Soon the weapon became the firearm of choice for special regiments known as "Sharpshooters". The cavalry preferred the gun because of its ease of use and accuracy of up to 600 yards.
The .52 caliber carbine was 39 inches long and weighed 8 pounds. The Sharps had a rate of fire of up to 10 rounds per minute. A quick firing breech loading firearm, the Sharps introduced a highly intricate firing mechanism using a lever that doubled as a trigger guard. When the lever was pushed forward, the breech block was lowered (drawing at right) and opened the gun's chamber so that a linen cartridge could be inserted. When the chamber was closed, the sharp metallic edge on the breech block would cut open the linen cartridge (photo at lower left) and expose the powder for ignition by the hammer striking a percussion cap. One major problem with the sharps was blackpowder build up in the fore stock. When the front breechblock cut through the paper or linen cartridge, some powder spilled out and fell between the fore stock and the barrel. This powder build up caused a secondary explosion when the percussion cap was detonated to fire a new round. This additional burn accounted for some minor injuries to the soldier and many split fore stocks. The problem of secondary ignition is still prevalent in the new reproduction Sharps. That is why it is necessary to invert the carbine and blow out the extra powder in the breech block occasionally during use.
The carbine was issued with the customary ring and slide for a sling. An interesting variation was the incorporation of a small coffee mill with a detachable handle in the butt. The idea was to supply one to every company (coffee was frequently issued in the bean), but only a very few were ever so altered. The carbine was also manufactured with and without the patch box (see photo at top) built into the rifle's buttstock.
The Cavalry Musketoon.
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