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Battle of the breechloaders: Calisher & Terry Gwyn & Campbell: two of the Civil War's most unusual carbines go head-to-head.

OVER THE PAST COUPLE of years or so, I've been comparing various historic firearms by pitting them against one another in a specific battle--and will continue to do so in the future. In the case of this month's unique duo of Civil War carbines, however, I was unable to come up with a conflict in which I felt they would have legitimately met.

Rebel beau sabreur Major General Jeb Stuart and Confederate President Jefferson Davis both owned Calisher & Terry carbines. It may be surmised, as Stuart was one of the South's preeminent cavalrymen and that Davis was a very effective, hands-on U.S. Secretary of War and noted soldier in his own right, that they probably felt this British-designed breechloader had some merit. Additionally, information continues to come forth that seems to indicate that at least a small number of these arms were purchased by the Confederacy for general issue.

Conversely, the Gwyn & Campbell, known in its various incarnations as the "Grapevine Carbine," "Gross carbine," "Cosmopolitan" or "Union Rifle," is one of those guns that just doesn't seem to get a whole lot of respect. It is certainly one of the most unusually configured (some would say downright ugly) arms of the period, and at first glance it seems to be little more than another rather lackluster entry in the lineup of dropping-block percussion single-shots. But appearances can be deceiving.

CALISHER & TERRY

The Calisher & Terry has the distinction of being a charter member in good standing of the Early Bolt-Action Rifle Club, other notable participants being the Dreyse, Nye, Palmer and Greene. Based on an April 12, 1855, British patent submitted by William Terry, it was an interesting arm with an action incorporating a bolt with a swing-out lever that also partially sealed the chamber opening. The gun employed a unique cartridge (a variant of which would also be used in the Westley Richards "Monkey Tail" breech-loader) that involved--depending upon the bore of the weapon--a .539 or .568 hollow-based bullet encapsulated within a nitrated paper wrapper holding the appropriate powder charge and that, at its base, had an attached greased felt wad.

To load and fire the arm, one had to simply pull the bolt lever/handle outward to its full extension, twist it upward almost 90 degrees to align the dual locking lugs with their spaces in the housing and pull the bolt to the rear. The cartridge was then inserted in the aperture in the side of the action, handle lowered and the bolt pushed forward where the plunger seated the cartridge. After the lever was closed, the gun could be cocked, capped, aimed and fired.

Upon discharge, the felt wad sealed the breech and prevented undue escape of gases. When the next round was inserted, the wad was simply pushed forward and served to clean and lubricate the bore.

A slot opposite the chamber opening allowed an unfired cartridge to be pushed from the action. Because of the shape and location of the chamber, it is onerous to extricate a round otherwise. Removing the bolt on the gun is not exactly a joy either.One must use a long screwdriver extending all the way down the bore to remove the plunger head, then slide the bolt out of the rear of the action. As the head eroded due to repeated firing, the screwdriver slot became shallower and shallower, thus making disassembly nigh-on impossible.

In 1856 Terry formed a partnership with Bertram Calisher, and the duo began offering the carbine for public sale and also presented it to the British War Department for possible adoption. It was tested against other breechloaders, including the 1855 Sharps, Leetch and Greene. The Terry performed well according to Hans Busk in "The Rifle and How to Use It" (1859):

"A breech-loading carbine ... the invention of Mr. Terry was tried on board Her Majesty's ship Excellent ... from May 10 until the end of last July (1858), 1800 rounds were fired from it with unprecedented accuracy at various ranges, and that too without cleaning ... The rifle missed fire but twice in the 1800 rounds, and, whether discharged by officer or man, eighty-six per cent were 'hits.'"

The gun was later given to the Marine Light Infantry and 15th Regiment of Foot, who had similar salubrious results. Ultimately, the Terry, Sharps (which the Brits, for some reason, insisted on calling a "Sharpe's") and Greene were adopted and issued to various regiments. As well, the system in rifle and carbine form enjoyed a brisk civilian sale and was popular with colonial military and constabulary units, most notably those of New Zealand.

One would expect that such a seemingly effective arm would be a hotly sought-after item by the Union and Confederate agents who, especially in the early days of the Civil War, were scouring Europe for arms. The North seems to have had scant association with the Terry, and the Southerners, limited by the blockade and other considerations, were not able to obtain the carbine in large numbers. Still, enough Terrys saw their way into the Rebel ranks to be given the nickname "door-bolt gun." Apparently, no rifles were imported during the war.

Jeb Stuart's Terry now resides in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and Jefferson Davis' (which was captured in his baggage train as he was fleeing Union troops at the end of the war) is in the collection of the Confederate White House, also in Richmond. Both are civilian models, as British-issue Terrys were still in service with His Majesty's forces and would not have been available for sale.

Commercial Terry carbines are invariably marked on the barrel with the gun's caliber (most commonly "30 bore") and "Calisher & Terry Makers to H.M. War Department." Lockplates usually display "Calisher & Terry London." British military pieces are barrel stamped "Terrys Patent Patent 30 Bore" and "Breech Loading Armoury Company (Limited)." Locks have "Tower [Date]" and a crown surmounting "V-R" (Victoria Regina.)

Rear sights were of a ladder style, graduated to 1,100 yards, and the front was a standard, nonadjustable barleycorn. The guns were equipped with an underbarrel cleaning rod and butt trap containing a rod extension and cleaning tools. Most commercial and military guns were fairly plain, though engraved; checkered-stock versions are not unknown. All are completely iron mounted, blued and case-hardened, and of excellent quality. Sling swivels were standard on both carbines and rifles. Triggerguard-mounted eyelets for a chained snap-cap were seen on some military arms and a good number of commercial arms, but not always.

Terrys enjoyed a brief popularity, and many thousands were made. Unfortunately, unlike such arms as the Sharps, the C&T was not adaptable to a self-contained metallic round, and when paper cartridges went out of vogue, so did the Terry. The firm closed its doors in 1870.

GWYN & CAMPBELL

The lineage of the Gwyn & Campbell is not quite as simple as that of the Terry. Actually, the company started out as the Cosmopolitan Arms Company, the arms of which were involved embranglement of patents by Henry Gross assigned to Edward Gwyn, who partnered with the money man, Abner C. Campbell.

The Cosmopolitan Arms Company of Hamilton, Ohio, began offering their breechloader in the late 1850s. It was basically a dropping-block mechanism that was, in its standard production model, operated by a sinuous lever, hence the nickname "Grapevine Carbine." It was an odd-looking duck, with a rectangular receiver out of which jutted an 18-inch-long part-octagon, part-round tapered barrel. There was no fore-end, so the thing basically ended up looking like a small steel narwhal. A rounded, deeply curved hammer was mated to a sturdy back-action lock. Caliber was .52. Made until 1862, an order for 1,140 of these carbines was made by the State of Illinois. Most went to the 6th Illinois Cavalry and were carried on Col. Benjamin Grierson's daring raid through Mississippi in April and May of 1863. A few rifles, probably around 50 or so, were also sold by Cosmopolitan.

The company was reorganized in 1863 and the carbine itself somewhat modified. While retaining the general looks of the original, the lever and hammer were changed, as was the breechblock linking mechanism. Originally accounting for some 8,200 arms, the production was divided in half between two variants. The Type I maintained a grapevine-style lever reminiscent of the Cosmopolitan's, though the round hammer was less extreme. The Type II had a flattened lever and bevelled hammer. Like the Cosmopolitan, neither G&Cs sported a fore-end. Receivers were case-hardened and most other parts blued. As well, the lever latching system varied somewhat between the models and was of two distinct styles on the Type Ils, one vertical and the other horizontal, the latter being considered more positive and easy to work.

Gwyn & Campbells fired a fairly simple paper or linen cartridge that incorporated pointed solid-based bullets ranging in diameter from between .525 to .540 and in weight from around 370 to 420 grains. Powder charge was 40 grains of black powder.

Loading the gun was very simple. The shooter merely released the catch and lowered the lever. This cammed the breechblock down and to the rear, exposing the chamber. A groove in the top of the block guided the cartridge into the chamber. When fully inserted, the block was closed and the gun capped, aimed and fired. A rounded button on the face of the breechblock helped to properly seat the round and seal the breech. It was a simple, slick, uncomplicated setup.

As well as being marked on their locks with the company's name, G&Cs had the patriotic stamping "Union Rifle," on the front portion of the right side of the action. The ladder rear sight was graduated to 900 (early) and 600 (late) yards, and the front blade was fixed. A saddle ring on the left side of the receiver completed the package. The stock was of walnut with a concave buttplate. Inspectors' stamps were found on various parts of the guns.

Gwyn & Campbells, despite coming out rather late in the war, saw use with a number of different state troops and was heavily featured in the Atlanta Campaign. Like most military arms, then and now, they had their champions and detractors. Some officers hated them, citing excessive leakage at the breech and difficulty in operating them after successive rounds had been fired. Others found them quite satisfactory. Interestingly, the gun's most obvious departure from other carbines of the period, the lack of a fore-end, like the similarly arboreally deprived Maynard, doesn't seem to have elicited much passion one way or the other.

Following the Civil War, Gwyn & Campbells, along with many other types of Yankee arms, were sold surplus. Some were even stamped with such things as "Creedmore" as a marketing gimmick. Prices were uniformly low. In Francis Bannerman's 1907 catalog, for instance, a "Union Breech-Loading Carbine" in as-new condition could be had for $3.50--a price on a par with other Civil War carbines such as the Burnside, Maynard, Starr and Smith. On the same page, one could buy a Volcanic repeater for $8.75 or a Colt Revolving Carbine for $17.50.

AT THE RANGE

Coincidentally, the first two Civil War carbines I ever owned were a Type II Gwyn & Campbell carbine and a Terry. The G&C was in minty condition and some 50 years ago cost me $54 (I had to mow a bunch of lawns to come up with that princely sum). I bought my first Terry in 1969 while stationed with the U.S. Army in South Wales, UK. It was a cased, civilian model in good shape. Over the years I sold both of them. The Gwyn & Campbell I never saw again, but about five years ago the Terry turned up at the Baltimore, Ohio, Gun Show. Needless to say, it was being offered for many times more than I paid for it originally and was well out of my price range. Still, I did get to fondle it and rekindle past associations.

For our evaluation we managed to scrounge up another duo of worthy opponents. The Calisher & Terry is a British military-issue piece, dated 1865, in very nice shape with a good bore but with a typically pitted plunger and bolt head. The Gwyn & Campbell Type II with horizontal lever catch shows little use. It retains most of its blue and case-hardening, and the bore is pristine.

I made up period-style cartridges, sticking as close to original specs as possible. For the G&C, I used nitrated paper and .522, 370-grain solid bullets cast from a Rapine mold. Powder charge was 40 grains of Goex FFg.

The Calisher & Terry round was a bit more complicated, but after a few false starts, an acceptable product emerged, consisting of a .568, 465-grain hollow-based Minie made for me by Pat Kabosky (262/363-4625, cwbulletman@aol.com), nitrated paper and two drams (55 grains) of Goex FFg. The base was capped of with a .640 diameter, .35-inch-thick fiber wad greased with a vegetable shorting/beeswax concoction.

GWYN & CAMPELL

For the sake of complete disclosure, I have to admit that a Type II G&C was the first Civil War longarm I ever fired. As a kid I shot the heck out of my carbine and loved every minute of it. I must admit my memory is somewhat clouded as to accuracy and load, but I have to admit I never experienced what I considered unacceptable gas leakage. And even after firing a number of rounds, as I recollect, the gun continued to operate just fine.

These were pretty much the same results I got with the test Gwyn & Campbell. I had no problems with it at all. Ignition, loading, etc. were right on, and accuracy results were some of the best I've experienced with any Civil War breechloader--50-yard rested groups coming in at an average of 4% inches, with a best spread of 31/2 inches, pretty much to point of aim. The gun did have a hefty trigger pull, but once I got used to it, it was manageable. Recoil was minimal, and the breech seal was just fine, with gas escape not much worse than I experience with my 1855 Sharps.

CALISHER & TERRY

I'd like to tell you that the first time I tried one of my reversely engineered Terry cartridges, it worked perfectly, but, alas, such was not the case. For the first batch, I inadvertently made the base too small, and when the thing went off, it spat out fire and smoke through the closed breech aperture and permanently tattooed the web of my right hand. This was not the gun's fault, but pure operator error. I tell the story as a caution. Before you embark on any arcane shooting project, it is wise to consult every available source for getting things right, antique and modern.

A simple adjustment in the girth of the fiber wad changed the whole equation. When the proper combination was finally arrived at, the carbine worked perfectly. I will admit, a softer felt wad would probably be a tad easier to push ahead of the cartridge than my fiber arrangement, but still it worked OK. Accuracy was good, with groups, from a rest at 50 yards, averaging about 7% inches, slightly low, with a best spread of 51/2 inches. Recoil was stout, but not prohibitive. Despite the greased wad, the gun did seem to be slightly more prone to fouling than the Gwyn & Campbell, but not enough that it was a problem throughout the run of my 30 prepared cartridges.

Which carbine would I choose if I had to take one into battle? While the Terry is an ingenious piece of work, being an avowed acolyte of William of Ockham, I'd personally go with the simpler Gwyn & Campbell. It's perfectly adequate for any task it would have been called on to perform and is certainly easier to clean and maintain than the Calisher & Terry. It's also a bit more user-friendly. As both guns are valued old acquaintances,.I cannot be accused of playing favorites--at least not this time.

BY GARRY JAMES | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JILL. MARLOW
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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