A Concise Look at the Carbine

The carbine is a curious weapon. The development of the carbine in the early 19th Century was an admission that warfare was turning more towards firepower and away from manpower and horsepower. In the development of military tactics, soldiers mounted on horseback (cavalry) at first were used to break holes in the ranks of foot troops. Later, the cavalry was armed with pikes, and even later swords, to engage the enemy at close quarters after ripping large holes in their ranks. As the advances in the use of mounted troops were evolving, so too was the armament of the foot soldier. Muskets allowed the foot soldier to reach out and engage the mounted troops before their horses arrived to tear open the ranks, diminishing the desired effect of cavalry. A soldier on the ground armed with a flintlock musket had the advantage over a man on a horse with a sword. In the era of muzzleloading arms, even single shot pistols did not equip the cavalryman with enough firepower to take on companies of foot troops. Loading and using muskets with 40 inch barrels, especially in cavalry formations on horseback, proved very cumbersome. The French Army was the first to arm their mounted troops with short barreled long arms, and the word "carbine" is actually a slang expression from the French word "escarrabin" meaning, loosely, one who associates with dung beetles. Apparently, the French Cavalry felt less then competent when armed with the new short rifle.

Military wisdom had not evolved sufficiently in America by 1855 for the Army leadership to have settled on any one tactic for the use and armament of mounted soldiers. The 1st and 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiments continued to be armed with sabres as their primary arms, although pistols, revolving and single shot, were also issued as secondary arms. The units of these Regiments trained to fight on horseback with their swords. The 1st and 2nd U.S. Dragoon Regiments were to be armed with various carbines then in use or development. The only approved breech-loader in use by mounted American troops at this time was the Model 1833 Hall-North Carbine. Only one other arm had been adopted for mounted use before 1854, the Model 1847 U.S. Cavalry Musketoon. Both of these approved arms were smoothbores, at a time when infantry arms were turning to the improved accuracy of rifled-muskets. A fifth regiment, the U.S. Mounted Rifles, trained to be mobile soldiers who would travel on horseback and fight on foot with rifles.

In 1854, Congress appropriated $90,000 to test various breech-loading designs to replace the antiquated Hall system. And you know, if they hadn't, we probably wouldn't have so many wonderful carbines to shoot with. The Congressional appropriation was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the manufacturers of breech-loaders like the Sharps, Burnside, Gallagher, Maynard, and Smith carbines. Designs which were approved by the Ordnance Bureau in tests at West Point or the Washington Navy Yard received orders for up to 200 carbines with ammunition. These guns were then issued to mounted troops for trial, and the reports received based on field use tests could make or break many a manufacturer. The onset of armed hostilities in April 1861 found the Army acquainted with many carbine manufacturers, and orders skyrocketed. By April 1865, the U.S. had purchased the following totals of approved breech- loading carbine designs:

CarbinePurchased CarbinePurchased
Spencer73,196 Merrill14,495
Ballard 1,509 Maynard25,202
Burnsides55,567 Remington 2,000
Cosmopolitan 1,140 Sharps86,512
Gibbs 1,052 Starr20,601
Hall 3,520 Warner 4,001

Of the models listed, the Smith Carbine and Sharps Carbines are the most popular among skirmishers shooting breechloading carbines today, although there are plenty of Maynard, Gallager and a few Burnside Carbines noticeable. As far as I can tell, only the Sharps, Smith and Gallager have ever been issued as reproduced replica arms. You can still get repro Smiths and Sharps, but the West German repro Gallager is only available used, and rarely at that.

These large quantities of breechloading carbines were procured for a simple reason - they gave the cavalryman the firepower he needed in the saddle. The simple to use cartridges of these carbines meant that soldiers could carry two dozen rounds or more on their belts, plenty of rounds for a quick fire fight while the cavalry feels out the strength of the enemy before him.

N-SSA skirmishers know that the carbine is a recognized separate arm. We compete in individual classes, and as carbine teams, against other carbine shooters. The carbine was the second arm approved for N-SSA skirmishes, and for decades only the carbine and musket were approved for team events. I have personally shot both a Sharps (repro) and an Enfield Musketoon as a carbineer, and this year I began work on resurrecting an old Fifth Model Burnside for use next year. Carbines can be great shooters, and I also endorse the muzzleloading carbines as a great choice for black- powder deer hunting. I use a double N-SSA load in my Musketoon for my pursuits, and find that it hits to the same point of aim at 100 yards as my N-SSA load. I was even using my deer load this summer at some of the skirmishes, and it moves out accurately and quickly. Most states have minimum caliber and load requirements, and doubling my load satisfies these statutes here in the Old Line State. The short overall length of the carbine, combined with the fact that I shoot about 1,000 carbine loads a year so I am quite familiar with its' handling, make it a great choice for my deer skirmishing endeav- ors. Remembering that the carbine was designed to be easier to handle and quick to load in pressure situations, I'm really just applying old technology to a new problem.

Carbines in general, and American breech-loading Carbines in particular, shared a brief existence in military acceptance. The development of breech-loading cartridge arms at the close of the Civil War spelled doom for most of the design patents. No other conflict saw the use of so many breech-loading arms. By the next American military endeavor, mounted troops would be issued the same field weapon as foot troops, and the equestrian cavalry would be replaced in succession by vehicular and flying cavalry. The historical oddity of the carbine only serves to make it more interesting to so many students and skirmishers.

As you gather with your friends and family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, remember that it was responsible gun ownership that has perpetuated our right to do so. Whether you wear blue or gray, Jefferson shoes or boots, I wish you all the best of the holiday season. When I count my blessings, I number among them my friends at the Civil War News like Pete and Kay Jourgensen and my pard' Joe Bilby. I hope you can have the warm friendship that they have shown me over these years in 1996. Until the next time, shoot safe and have fun.

(C) 1995 Tom Kelley
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