Saturday, July 25, 2020

Rifles and Carbines on the American Frontier by Zina Abbott

As part of the research, I came across a weapon with which I was not familiar.

This from 1864-69 Defense of the Kansas Frontier by Garfield, 1932

…Newspaper accounts of the battle stated that there were from six hundred to seven hundred Indians well-armed with Spencer carbines and heavy rifles….

1865 Spencer repeating carbine - .50 caliber


… On September eleventh the Governor had telegraphed Sheridan as follows:

         "Will you issue to me five hundred stand of Spencer carbines with           accoutrements and ammunition?...

From Atlas of Cheyenne Wars Atlas by Charles D. Collins, Jr.

…Believing it would be two or three days before he linked up with his main trains again, Custer distributed supplies from the wagons to the troopers. Each soldier carried 100 rounds of ammunition for his Spencer carbine and enough hardtack, coffee, and forage to get by for a couple of days….


…Godfrey frequently had to face his soldiers about and form a skirmish line to drive back the oncoming Indians with carbine fire,…


…The soldiers’ .50 cal. Spencer carbine, a seven-shot repeater, was a good weapon, but its effective range was, at the most, only 300 yards….


…Equipment [distributed by the quartermaster] included a leather saber belt with a pistol holder, percussion cap pouch, pistol cartridge box, carbine cartridge box, and a leather carbine sling. Weapons included a carbine, pistol, and saber. The issue carbine was a .50-caliber Model 1865 Spencer seven-shot-repeating carbine….

And from "Hostile Actions with Indians" (

The herder, named as Charles Teck, went down fighting; being well armed with a Winchester carbine or rifle which unfortunately for him jammed on the sixth shot…

From Wikipedia, the specifications for a Spencer Repeating Rifle are as follows:
         47 inch (1,200mm) rifle with a 30 inch barrel
         39.25 inch (997mm) carbine with a 22 inch barrel

From Wikipedia: a Sharps rifle weighed 9.5 pounds and was 47 inches in length.

A Sharps carbine, like all carbines, weighed less and the barrel was shorter.

Large quantities of breech-loading carbines were procured by the military because they gave cavalrymen the firepower they needed while 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.

The greatest quantity of carbines produced for the American Civil War were the Sharps, followed by the Spencer, and third, Burnside carbines.
1863 Sharps breech-loading carbine - .50-70 caliber

The military Sharps rifle was used during and after the American Civil War in multiple variations. Along with being able to use a standard percussion cap, the Sharps had a fairly unusual pellet primer feed. This was a device which held a stack of pelleted primers and flipped one over the nipple each time the trigger was pulled and the hammer fell—making it much easier to fire a Sharps from horseback than a gun employing individually loaded percussion caps.

Berdan Sharps Rifle

The Sharps Rifle was produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Hartford, Connecticut. It was used in the Civil War by multiple Union units. The Sharps made a superior sniper weapon of greater accuracy than the more commonly issued muzzle-loading rifled muskets, primarily due to the higher rate of fire and superior quality of manufacture. It could easily be reloaded from a kneeling or prone position. However, Sharps never sold as many standard rifles to the military as they did their carbines.
Unlike the Sharps rifle, the carbine version was very popular with the cavalry of both the Union and Confederate armies and was issued in much larger numbers—almost 90,000 were produced—than other carbines of the war. More were produced than either Spencer or Burnside carbines. By 1863, it was the most common weapon carried by Union cavalry regiments, although in 1864 many were replaced by 7-shot Spencer carbines. The falling block action lent itself to conversion to the new metallic cartridges developed in the late 1860s, and many of these converted carbines were used during the Indian Wars in the decades immediately following the Civil War.

The Model 1873 Winchester was produced in three variations: a 24-inch barrel rifle, a 20-inch barrel carbine, and a "musket"—which was aimed at military contracts and only made up less than 5% of production. The standard rifle-length version was most popular in the 19th century, although Winchester would make rifles to order in any configuration the customer wished, including longer barrels or baby carbines with barrels as short as 12 inches and other features.

The short version about carbines is this: many people think soldiers (and some civilians) carried a standard rifle in a holder attached to their horses’ saddles. Most of them were technically carbines, or saddle guns, as opposed to the heavier rifles with longer barrels.

Since my current work in progress, Mail Order Penelope, involves a military escort patrol traveling with the stagecoaches from the railroad's "End of Track" at Wilson's Station, I mention carbines. This book is on preorder now and will be released August 14, 2020.

My other two recent books, Mail Order Roslyn and Mail Order Lorena, are currently available. Please click on the book titles above to find the book descriptions.

1 comment:

GiniRifkin said...

Hi and thank you for the interesting and informative post. Your Mail Order series sounds great.