Four Unusual Civil War Era Innovations In Firearm Design
By Joel Kolander
If you’re a student of firearms history, then we don’t need to tell you that the 19th century was rife with firearms innovation. Inventions and improvements abounded not only in firearms design, but in the ammunition design and propellant as well. In our June Regional Firearms Auction, some of the nearly 10,000 firearms in the sale showcase extremely well the wide range of ideas and development that happened during this relatively brief period, and here they are.
1. Massachusetts Arms Co. Maynard Carbine
Most folks know of Edward Maynard for his priming system. Invented in 1845, it very much resembled the roll of caps in a modern toy cap gun. This roll of tiny mercury fulminate charges would be used in place of standard percussion caps, going over the percussion nipple to ignite the powder. This cycled automatically as the gun was cocked and promised to save shooters valuable time. Maynard made quite a bit of money from the U.S. Government who briefly used his system until it was discovered that the device was not as rugged as field conditions demanded. However, at a royalty of $1.00 per rifle from 1855-1860, he did rather well for himself.
What is lesser known is that Maynard also developed a breech-loading carbine in 1851. Throwing the lever forward pivots the breech end of the barrel upward and allows the shooter to insert a metallic cartridge in the rear. Unlike what we think of today as a metallic cartridge, this was more of a reusable brass cup into which powder and slug could be loaded up to 100 times. It lacked an integral primer and so a small hole in the middle of the base permitted the spark from the Maynard tape to ignite the powder within. The base also possessed a very large rim which not only aided in extraction, but also helped seal the breech better to prevent hot gases from escaping toward the shooter.
Despite their development in 1851, they wouldn’t be tested by Springfield Armory until May 1856. Once adopted by the U.S. Army in 1856, production of the carbine was contracted to the Massachusetts Arms Company. Just as orders began to increase and the positive word was spreading, the Massachusetts Arms Co. factory burned to the ground in 1861 after producing only 5,000 First Model carbines. They rebuilt by 1863, but it was a hard blow during what could have been peak production. Even with the easier to produce Second Models, deliveries only began in June 1864. That said sales of the Second Model totaled around 20,000, far outselling the First Model. The war was over before any additional substantial contracts could be realized.
Several Southern states had purchased First Model Maynards during in the early 1860s. With an estimated serial number range from 1,800 – 4,100, less than 3,000 Maynards were purchased for use in Southern militias. Once the secession had taken place, Confederates armed with the Maynards found the reusable brass “cartridges” quite advantageous and simple to reproduce.
2. Lindsay Two-Shot
Lindsay Two-Shot firearms were actually manufactured by the Union Knife Company in Naugatuck, CT, in the early 1860s. They were the brainchild of John P. Lindsay, who made two different sizes of pistol, a Pocket pistol in .41 and a Large pistol in .45 (smoothbore), as well as a musket. Shown above is one of those muskets that has been cut down from its original barrel length of 41 1/8-inches, but which still bears the two military cartouches on its stock. Sources vary whether or not the muskets ever actually saw military service.
Like their pistol counterparts, the Lindsay musket uses a single trigger and two hammers to fire the two superposed loads that were to be loaded in the same barrel. The first pull of the trigger drops the right hammer, which strikes the percussion cap and sends the spark down a fire channel to the front-most powder charge. Pulling the trigger again drops the left hammer and ignotes the rear-most powder charge, seated much like a traditional percussion firearm. It is easy to imagine the catastrophic problems that could arise from such a arrangement. With a production total estimated at less than a thousand for all pistols and muskets, they remain a rare oddity attractive to collectors in several genres.
3. Whitney Arms Beals Patent Ring Trigger Revolver
These pint-sized pocket revolvers had several innovations that seemed like good ideas, but upon closer inspection really just made it more inconvenient than the popular Colts that already had a strong presence in the marketplace. They revolve the gun via a pitch-fork shaped “walking beam” that hides behind that small metal plate which covers the cylinder. Via a simple “teeter-totter” motion, each side alternately pushes up on the cylinder stops, located at the front and rear sides of the cylinder. While the beam isn’t rugged, it’s simple enough to function well in the field.
Good Idea #1: Offer a half-cock position so users can carry a fully-loaded cylinder.
Reality: Even the half-cocked hammer can be dropped the short remaining distance by pulling the ring-trigger. At least the hammer isn’t sitting directly on the percussion cap as with many popular revolvers of the day, but considering the ring trigger did not have its own trigger guard, the ability to fire the gun while drawing it seems a very real possibility.
Good Idea #2: Using a ring trigger to cycle the cylinder independent of firing.
Reality: This could potentially speed up reloading, especially if the revolver also included a loading lever or been a cartridge revolver. As it is, the cylinder is reloaded easiest after removal, which thankfully is a simple task with the small lever on the front of the frame that releases the cylinder axis pin.
Good Idea #3: The simplicity of the “walking beam” device.
Reality: Having such a mechanism outside the frame of the gun introduces the possibility of dirt, sand, etc effecting a critical part of the firearm. Granted, since it’s outside the frame, it would be easy enough to clean or wash, but its required shield still seems like a good way to trap detritus against moving parts.
The example shown here, to be sold in June, still functions incredibly well and enjoys some good-looking wood grips. It appears to be the Standard .31-caliber model, with an iron frame and 7-shot cylinder. Approximately only 2,300 were ever made.
4. Sharps Metallic Cartridge Conversion
Obviously, the innovation of a cartridge conversion isn’t exclusive to Sharps. Many manufacturers of the era were scrambling to develop their own cartridge-firing weapons or to convert existing weapons to utilize the newfound technology. To do so drastically reduced loading times and allowed users a more durable alternative to paper and linen cartridges, a welcome improvement for Civil War troops as well as military units heading westward. The falling block, breech-loading action of the Sharps, lent itself very well to a simple cartridge conversion. The Lawrence Patent pellet primer could be left in place, the fire channel of the percussion system would be exchanged with a mechanism to transfer the force of the hammer to a firing pin, and the falling block was altered to accommodate an ejector. With the exception of the ejector, no new knowledge was required to field strip the converted Sharps rifles.
The New Model 1863 is essentially identical to the popular Model 1859, with minor barrel marking changes and the removal of some “extraneous” features, such as the patchbox and bayonet lug, to lower the cost during wartime. Sharps carbines were well-trusted for their accuracy and reliability by the men who used them, as well as by the U.S. government who purchased approximately 80,000 Sharps carbines and almost 10,000 of the rifles. Of those, nearly 31,100 were converted to cartridge firing models (including the Models 1859, 1863, and 1865), many of which saw use during the subsequent conflicts with Native Americans. Today they are overshadowed in memory by the Winchester rifles of the era, but Sharps rifles played a quintessential role in Western history and the formation of this nation.
Of course, this selection is not only a microcosm of the development and innovation during the 19th century, but also only a small sampling of the incredible selection in the June 21-24 Regional Firearms Auction. With nearly 10,000 firearms from almost every conceivable era, we know there will be something to add to your collection. Browse and bid the online catalog today, with a handy search feature to help sort through this immense offering, at www.rockislandauction.com.