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The Smith Carbine: this unusual breechloader was one of the Civil War's most enigmatic firearms. Hated by many, it nevertheless offered an innovative solution to ammunition shortages.

MAKING CARTRIDGES FOR most CIVIL WAR-era breechloaders can be a real pain in the butt. Of course, for the period troopers who had their ammo delivered to them ready-made, this was not as much of a problem as it is for today's shooter, but shortages and bad supply could cause consternation in the 1860s, too.

To try and reload (1) To load a program from disk into memory once again in order to run it. Reload is entirely different than reinstall. Reinstall means that you have to run the install program from a CD-ROM or floppy disk and perform the installation procedure over again.  a Burnside cartridge in the field would have been nigh nigh  
adv. nigh·er, nigh·est
1. Near in time, place, or relationship: Evening draws nigh.

2. Nearly; almost: talked for nigh onto two hours.
 on impossible, and even rolling paper or linen cartridges for a Sharps or Gwyn & Campbell would have presented considerable difficulties for cavalrymen on the move.

The inventor of at least one arm, Gilbert Smith of Buttermilk buttermilk

residual fluid after removal of fat from milk in butter manufacture; a protein-rich supplement fed to pigs.
 Falls, New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
, tried to address the problem, though his efforts seem to have been somewhat underappreciated, as was the reception of the gun that bore his name.


The Smith Carbine carbine

Light, short-barreled rifle. The first carbines, from the muzzle-loading muskets of the 18th century to the lever-action repeaters of the 19th, were chiefly cavalry weapons or saddle firearms for mounted frontiersmen.
 was an interesting piece of machinery in a time when there was no dearth of interesting pieces of machinery. Instead of employing a lever-activated falling or rising block, as seen on most breechloaders of the period, Smith opted to have his gun break in half to expose the chamber for loading.

To fire a Smith, all the shooter had to do was press up on a brass lifter sited inside the triggerguard in front of the trigger. This raised a heavy spring/latch, freeing it from a stud on the top of the receiver. The gun could now be folded almost double to receive a cartridge. It was then snapped shut, the hammer cocked, a musket musket: see small arms.

Muzzle-loading shoulder firearm developed in 16th-century Spain. Designed as a larger version of the harquebus, muskets were fired with matchlocks until flintlocks were developed in the 17th century; flintlocks were
 cap placed on the nipple nipple - Trackpoint  and fired.

The Smith was a handsome piece, .50 caliber, 391/2 inches in overall length with a 215/8-inch barrel.

The receiver and hammer were case-hardened and the barrel, spring/latch and other sundry other parts blued. The lifter was brass to eliminate the chance of rust affecting the mechanism. Sights involved a ladder-style rear and German silver blade front.

Smith Carbines will be found with the manufacturers' marks of the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts; the American Machine Works in Springfield, Massachusetts; or the American Arms Company in Chicopee Falls. As well, the gun's agents, Poultney & Trimble of Baltimore, Maryland, will also be seen stamped on the guns' receivers. Early guns, known to modern collectors as Artillery models, have dual sling swivels, while later guns have the standard receiver-mounted ring and bar setup. Despite the Artillery designation, as far as is known all Smiths were issued to cavalry.



Smith cartridges fell into two basic varieties, though there were variations within variations. One was a more-or-less standard-looking paper-covered foil affair, but the other employed an innovative India-rubber case, into which the bullet could easily be pressed, allowing it (in theory) to be reloaded in the field. Both types of cartridge had small holes in their bases to allow the flash from the percussion cap to detonate det·o·nate  
intr. & tr.v. det·o·nat·ed, det·o·nat·ing, det·o·nates
To explode or cause to explode.

[Latin d
 them. There were complaints with the early rubber rounds that the hole was too large, allowing powder to escape and collect in the bottom of the troopers' cartridge boxes.

Curiously, this seems never to have been satisfactorily dealt with. As well, despite the inventor's good intentions, soldiers apparently rarely, if ever, took advantage of the cartridge's easy reloadability. As they could get ready-mades from Uncle Sam and they had plenty to do dealing with pesky Confederates, officers, picket duty and caring for their gear and horses, this is perhaps understandable. Plus, let's be honest. How many cavalrymen are going to carefully retrieve their spent cases during the heat of battle? Probably none.

Still, the gun performed well enough in tests that a large number were ordered and sent to the field, where they were ultimately issued to a number of cavalry units including the 3rd West Virginia, 7th and 11th Illinois, 3rd Maryland, 17th Pennsylvania, 6th and 9th Ohio, and 1st Massachusetts.

As spiffy spiffy - /spi'fee/ 1. Said of programs having a pretty, clever, or exceptionally well-designed interface. "Have you seen the spiffy X version of empire yet?" This was common mainstream slang during the 1940s.

 and well made a gun as it seemed to be, reports from officers and men were often less than flattering. Most of the complaints involved the gun's tendency to misfire--not a great trait in the face of the enemy. This prompted one New York trooper, after repeatedly trying to get his Smith to go off, to complain, "What a damned fool I am: spoiled six caps and haven't hurt a cussed reb."

There were also complaints of the top spring/latch breaking and at least one report of fouling not permitting the latch to drop all the way down, causing the gun to blow open when fired.

Still, more than 30,000 were ultimately manufactured between 1861 and 1865, and while most were purchased by the government, some were also sold commercially during and following the war. Today, because of the ease of making up cartridges, the Smith is one of the favorite period carbines for use in Civil War competitions. It became so popular, in fact, that replicas have been made.



For our evaluation we were able to come up with a very nice-condition original manufactured by the Massachusetts Arms Company. It retains much of its finish, and the bore was nearly pristine. Interestingly enough, the rifling seemed to be unnecessarily shallow and had a rather slow twist of 1:62.

As mentioned earlier, reloading for the Smith is a snap. You can obtain "space-age rubber" (the dealer's words, not mine--they look like some sort of plastic to me) Smith cases from Dixie Gun Works (800/238-6785, There are various .50-caliber bullet weights and styles available, but I opted for a .515 365-grainer cast from a Rapine RAPINE, crim. law. This is almost indistinguishable from robbery. (q.v.) It is the felonious taking of another man's personal property, openly and by violence, against his will. The civilians define rapine to be the taking with violence, the movable property of another, with the  bullet mold. Lubricant was a beeswax/Crisco mixture, and the powder charge was 35 grains of GOEX FFg black powder. Velocity with this load pretty much ran between 1,100 and 1,200 fps.

Original bullet weights varied considerably, running from just under 350 grains into the low 500s.

To load the round, all you have to do is pour in the powder and press the bullet in with your thumb to the desired depth--it's that simple. And the cases can be cleaned and reloaded many times.


In range conditions the Smith performed flawlessly, and we had no misfires, even after repeated shots without cleaning. Accuracy was in the OK category, giving us eight- to 10-inch rested groups at 50 yards, though 100-yarders had a tendency to spread all over the board, especially after the gun became fouled. Recoil recoil /re·coil/ (re´koil) a quick pulling back.

elastic recoil  the ability of a stretched object or organ, such as the bladder, to return to its resting position.
 was light and the fun factor high. While the Smith wasn't the most accurate Civil War carbine I've ever fired, it wasn't the most inaccurate either. I suppose with a little tweaking, groups could be trimmed down somewhat.

The Smith ended up being one of the war's most-issued carbines, running fourth behind the Sharps, Burnside and Spencer. On the face of it, this would indicate that the gun couldn't have been all that bad, but then again the federal government made some pretty questionable purchases between 1861 and 1865. Guess things haven't changed much.

Photos by Lynne McCready
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Sep 17, 2010
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