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The Yanks' worst carbine?


During the Civil War, firearm procurement on both sides could be catch-as-catch-can. There were many arms that came in for abuse, and the Gallager Carbine was a particular target. But really, how bad was it?





ON JULY 23, 1862, Union Brig. Gen. Jeremiah T. Boyle, the military governor of Kentucky, fired off a scathing telegram to the U.S. War Department from the field: "General Ripley asks for objections to Gallagher [sic] carbines. They snap often, the cartridge hangs in after firing; difficult to get the exploded cartridge out often with screwdriver; men throw them away and take musket or any other arm. They are unquestionably worthless. Can we get Sharps or Wesson's or Ballard's or some other kind?"

Not exactly honeyed words, and an appraisal that few inventors or manufacturers would find particularly endearing. Over the years, I've read scores of histories of Civil War firearms, and a surprising number--breech-loading carbines especially-seem to come in for their share of criticism, some with reason, others not. Still, the griping about the Gallager appears to be in a class by itself. But was it really that bad. And if so, why?

The much-maligned carbine that bore his name was invented by Mahlon J. Gallager, who, paradoxically for the creator of a gun used by Union forces, was a native of Savannah, Georgia.

As described in the patent granted to him on July 17, 1860, the breechloader had an ingenious mechanism that involved an underlever which, when lowered and moved forward, moved the barrel assembly away from the standing breech, eventually tipping it downward to expose the chamber.

A drawn brass cartridge containing powder and projectile, which had a hole in its base covered by beeswax, was inserted into the chamber. The lever was then moved rearward, returning the barrel to its original position and locking it in. Finally, a percussion cap was placed on the nipple atop the frame to the rear of the breech; the gun cocked and fired--the flash from the cap traveled down a channel to the hole in the rear of the cartridge, igniting the charge. It was, from all appearances, a rather ingenious setup.

But alas, a snake resides in every Garden of Eden. The cartridge itself had no rim, and the carbine lacked the mechanical means to extract the empty. The expended case was intended to be removed manually by the shooter, who, once the action was opened, was required to pluck it from the chamber with their fingers. More about this later.

Gallager arranged to have his brainchild put into production and went into business with the firm of Richardson & Overman, a company originally in the umbrella, grain, wine and cigar trade. Gallager's chosen manufacturer, by all accounts, had no experience in the firearms field. Still, once they got things going, the resultant product ended up being a creditable piece of work.

The Gallager carbine certainly would win no beauty contest. It was ungainly looking and, like several other Civil War vintage carbines (Maynard, Gwyn & Campbell, Greene and Sharps & Hankins) had no forestock. It was thought that such a component could conceivably impede the operation of the action.

The carbine featured a sturdy back-action lock, case-hardened frame and blued barrel, blued furniture and a generous butt box that contained tools and a spare nipple. Its single-leaf rear sight was graduated from 100 to 500 yards, with a Frenchified single 300-yard central large notched aperture, and the front consisted of a dovetailed, rounded blade. Extant examples show minor variations in details and markings, but for the most part the arms reflected the inventor's original vision. Caliber was .50, barrel length 22Vi inches, overall length 39 inches and weight 7 pounds, 8 ounces.

Evaluations by the U.S. War Department were successful enough that the carbine was accepted into Uncle Sam's arsenal in relatively short order; with the emergency brought on by the Civil War, it was necessary to equip a burgeoning Union Army. Many arms that might not have made the cut in peacetime were gladly accepted. Still, this is not to say the Gallager was any more lacking than other designs. In fact, it was superior to many.

Production began in 1861, and the Ordnance Department began to receive samples in early 1862. The cost was $20 per carbine and $25 for 1,000 cartridges. Deliveries continued apace, and carbines began to be sent to the field. Complaints about the arm soon began rolling in; a number of officers felt it was "utterly worthless." The main failure, so said the troops, was the difficulty in extracting the cartridge from the chamber after a few shots had been fired, some soldiers having to resort to knives to pry the brass free. Too, there were charges of screw breakage and burst barrels. To help correct at least one problem, a special wrench was devised, the principal arm of which was used as a turnscrew to remove the gun's nipple, and the other was possessed of a large ring which could be looped over a stuck empty and used to draw it free. The gun was also felt to be severely inaccurate, with one officer at the Frankfort Arsenal claiming, "The Arm is a very inferior one for firing with accuracy; at 300 yards it was not possible to strike a target 10 ft. wide by 12 ft. high."

Eventually, the cartridge was improved, the original being replaced by two different patterns involving paper and brass or paper and tin foil construction, which were apparently more conducive to extraction. Also, in an attempt to improve hits, the pitch of the rifling was made faster.

Though complaints continued to trickle in, the War Department seemed satisfied enough with the Gallager to ultimately purchase some 17,728 percussion versions through 1864. In 1865, another contract was let for 5,000 Gallagers in which the nipple area was modified to accommodate a firing pin and the breech rechambered to accommodate .56-52 self-contained Spencer rounds. An extractor was also fitted. Though shipped too late to see any action in the Civil War, these "improved" models were sold surplus, half of them being purchased by the French government for use in the Franco-Prussian War. Gallagers were offered for civilian sales for years afterward, many being converted by dealers to smaller caliber or even bored out to be used as shotguns.

In his excellent and highly recommended book, "Civil War Carbines Myth vs. Reality" (, 800-9994697), author Peter Schiffers, whose work I greatly respect, performs extensive testing with an 1861 vintage Gallager using brass cases supplied by Dixie Gun Works (, 800-238-6785) and combinations of bullets and powder charges. Results are less than stellar. Shiffer ultimately opined: "The Gallager is the most inaccurate gun 1 have ever shot." He also experienced the stuck case problem.

For years, I owned a Gallager in the 14,000 serial number range. It was probably made in late 1863 or early 1864 and would conceivably have a faster twist than that of an earlier specimen. The condition of the piece, mechanically, is quite good, and the bore is absolutely pristine. The only defects of the gun are cosmetic, as someone in the past decided it looked better all-blue rather than blue and case-hardened.




I concocted loads using the Dixie Gun Works brass and a 356-grain, .525 pointed lead bullet with a single grease ring. Lubricant was a 50-50 mixture of beeswax/mutton tallow and the powder charge, 50 grains of FFg GOEX blackpowder. Bullets were seated using the effective loading tool offered by S&S Firearms (, 718-497-1100).

Based upon period reports of Gallager inaccuracy, I squared four targets together at 50 yards to be safe. The carbine was fired from a rest. After first snapping a few caps on the nipple to make sure the vent was clear, I inserted a cartridge (which slid into the chamber easily) and closed the action. The arm was duly capped, the hammer put on full cock and the first round touched off. Trigger pull, for a Civil War-vintage military arm, was OK, coming in at a crisp 8V2 pounds. Not great--but not all that bad either.

When the smoke cleared, I found the bullet struck 8 inches high, as one would expect when sighting using the 100-yard rear notch. Amazingly, the next four landed within 2 1/2 inches of the first. Honestly, this was not the spread I expected. For the heck of it, I let loose a couple more "control" shots, expanding things to 3 1/2 inches.

Subsequent five-round strings came in between 3 1/2 and 4 3/4 inches, with groups degenerating as the barrel became increasingly fouled. In some 30 rounds, I experienced only slight trouble removing three empties, and at no time was it necessary to use any kind of tool. The gun functioned perfectly, and there were no barrel/action problems. Recoil wasn't all that bad.

There are only four reasons I can discern for a Gallager shooting experience that seems to fly in the face of all other accounts: 1) The period reports were exaggerated (which I must suggest, I don't really think is the case). 2) The rifling twist of the later guns did have a marked improving effect on accuracy. 3) I just had a lucky day. 4) Perhaps my load-to-gun setup resulted in some sort of 50-yard shooting sweet spot.


Interestingly enough, a number of years ago, U.S. Navy Arms imported a replica of the Gallager made by ERMA in Germany. I have never tried one of the copies, but have never learned of any particular difficulties. I noticed several comments on the internet by owners and shooters who seem to be quite satisfied with them.

Based upon my personal experiences with the Gallager, I must say, at this point, I'm really not all that prejudiced against it. To be fair, 1 haven't fired hundreds of rounds through one, nor have I tried to load and reload on a skirmish line or jouncing around on a plunging cavalry steed while Rebels are taking potshots in my direction.

Would it be my first choice as a Civil War rifle? No. Despite my accuracy results, I found the dropping barrel/lever arrangement cumbersome and awkward to use when compared with the Gallager's superior contemporaries--the Spencer, Sharps and Maynard--and I can see a real potential for trouble brewing in the cartridge extraction department. In battle, it would only take one fatally jammed case to spoil the day. Too, the dropping/sliding barrel arrangement still seems not to be amenable to harsh battlefield conditions, nor would it necessarily lend itself to wonderful accuracy.

Taking Boyle's and others' statements under consideration, I'd like to withhold final judgement and do more extensive experimenting with the carbine to see how it performs with different bullets and loads. There's little doubt that the Gallager is an arm that elicits strong passions, and I have a guess I'm still in for a surprise.


Loading a Gallager is relatively simple. First, pull back on the lever latch [1] and lower the lever [2], which cams the barrel assembly forward and down [3]. Insert a cartridge in the chamber [4], raise the lever to close the breech [5] and cap the gun [6]. The gun has no extractor and empties have to be manually removed.

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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Jun 19, 2016
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