Printer Friendly

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 a Burnside cartridge in the field would have been nigh 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 Falls, New York, 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 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 cap placed on the nipple 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 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 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 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 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
COPYRIGHT 2010 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Sep 17, 2010
Previous Article:Beretta 1915 auto.
Next Article:Tag team: home-defense duo: your handgun--plus a laser unit--can stack the odds in your favor.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters