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Gun of the late unpleasantness: small arms of the cavalry and artillery.

The military establishments of the North and South, in form and proportion, bore a close resemblance to their counterparts in the late years of the Roman Republic. Foot soldiers, cavalry, artillery and engineering got their strategy and tactics direct from Julius Caesar's Gaelic Wars.

Likewise, the firearms of those services followed patterns set centuries before. Equestrian and Artillery alike sought out short, saddle-scabbard carbines. European armies equipped their artillerymen with finely accurate pistols with detachable shoulder stocks and that tradition extended through the Civil War and into the cartridge era.

Union forces invested in as many as 20 varieties of carbines with the Sharps breachloader being the dominant arm. The system, patented by Christian Sharps in the late 1840s, became standard military issue by 1855 with rifles and carbines spread across the continent. Ninety to 100,000 of the carbines were produced for use in the War of Secession. Simple, muzzleloading carbines played a prominent role and were the official Confederate cavalry arm at the beginning and toward the end of hostilities.

Carbine designs varied considerably ranging from muzzleloaders to metallic cartridge repeaters and included a number of intermediate systems already obsolescent at the beginning of the war. I obtained current replicas of two major types from Dixie Gunworks. The S.C. Robinson Carbine made by Pedersoli, is the Confederate version of the Sharps breachloader. The Richmond, Virginia, company produced about 5,000 of these to augment the Sharps captured or obtained by other means. My other sample arm is the Pietta-made Smith Carbine. Designed in the late 1850s, it ranked 4th among carbines used during the conflict.

This one has the usual high standard of fit, function and finish I have come to expect of Pedersoli Arms. Like the original, it weighs in at eight pounds. Overall length is 39" with a barrel length of just less than 22". It is the more recent of two such arms currently in stock at Dixie Gun Works.

The S.C. Robinson Carbine

This variation includes production changes to meet historic specifications acceptable to the North-South Skirmish Association. The original Sharps employed a sliding gas check in the chamber intended to recoil backward during firing and prevent gas from escaping the breach. In practice, the gas check did not work particularly well and just made the weapon harder to clean.

The Dixie/Pedersoli replica eliminates the gas check depending upon a breach plate loading closely against the chamber. As with the originals, some gas does escape the action during firing. It is not an important issue so long as the shooter has eye protection and is careful not to allow loose powder to accumulate in the bottom of the action. (A number of historic Sharps and Robinsons have splintered fore-ends due to accumulated powder in the lever recess being ignited by leakage from the breach.)

The breach mechanism is a lever-actuated sliding block accepting the traditional ammunition--bullet and powder enclosed in combustible linen or paper cartridge and ignited by musket cap. To fire the arm, the soldier placed the hammer at half cock, pulled the lever down to open the action. He then inserted the cartridge and closed the action to shear the back of the cartridge, capped the arm, and brought the hammer to full cock to fire.

The original Sharps came equipped with a spool mechanism to advance roll caps with each function of the hammer. The Confederate copies eliminated this in favor of the simple musket cap. The expected rate of fire was 10 shots per minute--three times that of the standard infantry rifled musket. The carbine was not dependent upon manufactured cartridges and could be loaded with loose bullet and powder. This was a very important feature given the realities of Civil War supply lines.

Sharpshooter

To attain the rank of "Sharp Shooter," the Union soldier had to put 10 rounds into a 10" circle at 200 yards from a rest and demonstrate the same accuracy offhand at half the distance. N/SSA shooters routinely shoot at hanging tiles so sized offhand at 100 yards. I found the S.C. Robinson very nicely balanced for offhand shooting and managed a 7" cluster on a silhouette at 75 yards. The open, fixed sights are highly visible and regulated very well for this range. The load--80 grains of GOEX FFg and 395-grain .544" bullet --churns out about the same energy as some of the currently popular 50-caliber hunting revolver rounds but recoil is unobjectionable.

I had used the Dixie Sharps Cartridge Kit to roll authentic looking combustible cartridges using white household glue to affix the bullets. The instructions with the cartridge kit presuppose loading the bullet separately and creating a powder-only cartridge tube. My gluing in bullets probably explains why some of the nitrated paper didn't catch and remained smoldering in the barrel and chamber. To avoid explosion, I ran a patch through the barrel after each shot and avoided any attempt at rapid fire. I found I could fire a maximum of five rounds between cleanings before the action became hard to work. Wiping the breach mechanism with a solvent-moistened rag every couple of shots was sufficient to allow sustained shooting. A more seasoned Sharps Shooter using Pedersoli metallic cartridge cases would be able to achieve the specified 10 shots per minute.

The Smith Carbine

The Sharps with its falling-block action adapted well to metallic cartridges and, so improved, became a prized buffalo rifle after the war. The Smith carbine on the other hand represented something of an evolutionary dead end by the time of the 1857 patent. Metallic cartridges were clearly the wave of the future though the war delayed full development and deployment.

Obsolescent though it was, the Smith breaching system formed a much more effective gas seal than found on most contemporary breach loaders. The cartridges containing bullet and powder and vented for percussion ignition extended back into the rebated breach. This effectively kept the shooter's face free from escaping gas and the action relatively clear of hard fouling. Original cartridge cases were of India rubber and the Confederacy constructed some of gutta percha for use in captured carbines. It was also possible to load the Smith with loose bullet and powder though this practice did not effectively seal the breach.

The original Smith Carbines and the Pietta Replica are popular with modern shooters including N/SSA participants who use cartridges made of brass, aluminum or plastic. I ordered several oversize brass cartridges and sanded them down to slide into the chamber. I loaded them with 360-grain .515" bullet from Dixie Gun Works.

Thirty grains of FFFg or the equivalent of Pyrodex P constituted a full density load with the various combinations obtaining velocities between 800 and about 1,000 fps. The Smith has virtually the same overall measurements as the Sharps and is perhaps a pound lighter. It is a very responsive arm like the Sharps, suited very well to offhand shooting. I fired five rounds at the head of a B-27 silhouette from 50 yards and managed to hit it four times. Five shot groups from a casual sitting position at just over 40 yards ranged between 3" and 4" striking exactly at point of aim.

I was able to keep up a good rate of sustained fire until excess leading built up where the cartridge case headspaces against the rather abrupt barrel throat. Pressing upward on the barrel latch in the top of the triggerguard unlocks the breach allowing the action to break open like a modern single or double barrel shotgun. Lockup is tight and free of wiggle. That many original Smiths have survived and are in regular use is ample testament to the overall ruggedness of the weapon.

The Pietta treatment of the Smith is excellent. The design requires quite a bit of intricate fitting. On the Dixie sample, metal and metal to wood junctures are done to perfection. The wood is nicely grained walnut with an apparent oil finish. The highly polished breach and barrel assemblies are brilliantly finished in color case and blue. Both of the carbines display very high quality and fly in the face of the long standing poor reputation of Italian replica arms. Dixie Gun Works has a customer-friendly warranty service and currently lists the major action parts and springs for the Smith Carbine.

The 1860 Army

The Model 1860 Army revolver won quick acceptance by the United States Army prior to commencement of hostilities. One factor in its favor was a lugged frame allowing quick attachment of a shoulder stock. It loomed large in the eyes of the acceptance boards. The stocks were standard items in the cavalrymen's saddlebags allowing the soldiers to transform their revolvers into reliable repeating carbines for fighting from cover. One report records Robert E. Lee bought one of the rigs after he resigned from the United States Army and started home to Virginia to head the Confederate military effort.

Since the Army revolver did not have a forward mounted rear sight, the shortened eye relief made for a fairly indistinct sight picture. Soldiers unskilled in using the revolver no doubt benefited from improved steadiness. Those schooled in the atrocious bent elbow shooting stance would definitely find their shooting improved. I find the shoulder stock affords some marginal improvement over one-handed shooting and is dead even with the two-handed isosceles hold. With either option the Army and Navy percussion revolvers are reasonably effective to 75 or 80 yards and will land most of the shots in the upper portion of a standard silhouette target.

Whether the stocked revolvers saw extensive combat use is not apparent in the historic records. It is clear the concept survived in the Artillery Luger and Broomhandle Mauser of the early 20th century. The Cavalry weapons of the Civil war not only survived the war, but continue to grow in popularity 40 years after the Civil War Centennial brought them back into the public consciousness.

DIXIE GUN WORKS

1412 WEST REELFOOT AVENUE

P.O. BOX 130, UNION CITY, TN 38282

(731) 885-0561, WWW.DIXIEGUN.COM.

NAVY ARMS

219 LAWN STREET

MARTINSBURG, WV 25401

(304) 262-9870, WWW.NAVYARMS.COM

NORTH/SOUTH SKIRMISH ASSOCIATION

NORMA COATES, EXECUTIVE SECRETARY

P.O. BOX 4744, GETTYSBURG, PA 17325

WWW.N-SSA.ORG

PARTS FOR CIVIL WAR FIREARMS

S&S FIREARMS

74-11 MYRTLE AVE, GLENDALE, NY 11385

(718) 497-1100. WWW.SSFIREARMS.COM

Photos: Mike Cumpston and Johnny Bates
SMITH CARBINE

Load Charge Powder Velocity
(bullet weight, (weight, grains) (type) (fps)
size)

360-grain .515" 30 Swiss FFFg 929
360-grain .515" 30 GOEX FFFg 846
360-grain .515" 30 (volume) Pyrodex P 799

Load Energy Group Size Range
(bullet weight, (ft-lbs) (inches) (yards)
size)

360-grain .515" 690 3.8 Seated, 40 yards
360-grain .515" 572 3.8 Seated, 40 yards
360-grain .515" 510 3.0 Seated, 40 yards

S.C. ROBINSON CARBINE

Load Charge Powder Velocity
(bullet weight, (weight, grains) (type) (fps)
size)

395-grain .544" 80 GOEX FFg 979

Load Energy Group Size Range
(bullet weight, (ft-lbs) (inches) (yards)
size)

395-grain .544" 766 7.5 Offhand, 75 yards
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Author:Cumpston, Mike
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:1841
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