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October 12, 2018

Civil War Carbines: The Lesser Known and Affordable

By Brian Beck

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If TV and movies are to be believed, Civil War cavalry troops were always bravely charging the enemy head on with banners waving and sabers held high, and always arrived right in the nick of time to save the poor infantry from being overrun. Of course, history shows us that isn’t the case, but for many people, including historians, the image is hard to shake. This has obviously led to a widespread popularity of the cavalry in pop culture and the collecting community that can be difficult to explain, but will likely prove as long-lasting as it is pervasive.

Of all Civil War guns, cavalry armament is extremely popular among the collecting community for many reasons, especially the aforementioned presence in pop culture, but also because cavalry weapons came in a vast variety that can’t be found with collecting infantry weapons.

This is certainly true when it comes to American Civil War guns like muskets and revolvers, but especially cavalry carbines, as numerous manufacturers all vied to fit the sudden and massive demand. With so much variety, there are certain models with very low production numbers, making them quite collectible and their histories easier to trace. There will always be the ever desirable Sharps or the Spencer carbine, but it’s time to give a second look at some of the lesser known carbines and the stories they tell, many of which can be frequently found right here at Rock Island Auction Company.

The Smith Carbine and the 11th Illinois Cavalry

One such Civil War gun of interest is the Smith carbine. It was patented by Gilbert Smith of New York and marketed to the government by Poultney and Trimble, who also contracted the manufacturing. Their names can often be found stamped on the receivers. Almost all of them were produced for government contracts during the war for about $25-35 per unit, with commercial examples being fairly scarce. Sadly, there is little chance of you finding yourself one for $25, however, compared to some of the more popular cavalry arms of the war, they can certainly be considered affordable.

Sold in 2016 for $9,775

The Smith carbine was manufactured by American Machine Works (of Springfield, MA), American Arms Co, and the Massachusetts Arms Company (Chicopee Falls) circa 1861-1865. Approximately 30,000 of these Civil War guns were made during this fairly short time, leading to somewhat favorable availability for collectors, but still leaving them far rarer than some of the better known cavalry longarms of the day. They were a .50 caliber single shot percussion breech loader, with a small latch ahead of the trigger, which when pressed, allows the barrel to swing downward to load. These specifications are fairly standard as far as Civil War cavalry carbines go, however, what makes the Smith very interesting is a type of cartridge that it used.

The Smith was capable of utilizing a round with a reusable rubber case. This India rubber cartridge case created a better seal in the breech than those using paper cases, leading to slightly more power from a load considered mild by modern standards. They were also reloadable, potentially reducing future supply chain issues. Even with this consideration, rubber was in scarce supply and reissuing the rubber cartridges became difficult. Thankfully, it was also capable of utilizing a foil or paper wrapped .50 caliber round with a hole in the base, similar to that used by Maynard carbines and Gallager carbines. Unfortunately, this alleged innovation of the rubber cases was also one of the primary faults of the Smith, as some complained they were difficult to remove after firing. There are also varying reports of excessive fouling caused by the unique cartridges, though these reports aren’t entirely confirmed, and sound very similar to reports given on similar firearms of the times. Even with these issues, the Smith provided notable advantages of the rifled muskets of the era.

The ammunition for a Smith carbine. Below the cartridge is show with its India rubber case, and above the round uses a paper case.

These carbines were issued to quite a few different Union cavalry regiments during the war including the: 7th and 11th Illinois, 1st Connecticut, 6th and 9th Ohio, 1st Massachusetts, 7th and 17th Pennsylvania, and 3rd West Virginia. One of these regiments however is of particular interest for us here at Rock Island Auction as much of the regiment was raised about 30 to 50 miles south of our facility. That regiment is the 11th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry.

The regiment was mustered in on 20 December 1861 in Peoria, Illinois with twelve full companies raised mainly from counties local to Rock Island Auction Company including: Peoria, Fulton, Warren, Knox, and Henderson, under the command of Col. Robert G. Ingersoll. They remained in Camp Lyon in Peoria until the end of February 1862, when they broke camp and moved to Benton Barracks, Missouri. It was here that the regiment was armed with revolvers and sabres, but only one battalion, or four companies, received the Smith carbines. This left roughly two-thirds of the regiment armed only with sabres and revolvers.

A section from “Battle of Shiloh” by Thure de Thulstrup . Library of Congress

The regiment boarded on 25 and 26 March 1862 and headed down the Tennessee River, eventually putting ashore at Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee on 1 April. Only five days later on 6 April, the regiment would suffer its first casualties of the war as the Battle of Shiloh commenced. The 11th was attached to Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss’ Sixth Division which was famously almost entirely destroyed or surrendered in the “Hornet’s Nest” which formed the center of the Union line during the day of the 6th. It is unlikely that the 11th was in this area as they suffered relatively light casualties that day, and a cavalry regiment would not normally be found in the center of an infantry line. However, if they were present around the “Hornet’s Nest” it is likely that being on horseback is all that spared them of the same fate as the rest of the Sixth Division. The next day the regiment suffered much heavier casualties, probably due to being used aggressively in the Union counterattack that day.

The regiment was involved in many more engagements including the Battle of Corinth, a run in with the Confederacy’s famous Nathan Bedford Forrest in December of 1862, operations around Vicksburg, and the Meridian Campaign. The Regiment was mustered out 30 September 1865 having lost 2 officers and 32 enlisted men killed in action, and 8 officers and 237 enlisted men lost to disease during the course of the war.

The Sharps & Hankins Carbine and the 9th New York Cavalry

Another lesser-known Civil War gun of note is the Sharps & Hankins Model 1862. This carbine is fairly easy to pick out of the crowd of Civil War cavalry carbines that often share certain visual similarities. The Sharps & Hankins is of interest because there were relatively few manufactured, with about 8,000 being made between 1861 and 1865. This small number makes tracing their regiment of issuance slightly easier, a huge benefit for the dedicated collector. The carbine was a .52 caliber rimfire and was also a breech loader like many carbines of the time. Their unusual mechanism set them apart however, with the operation of the lever sliding the barrel forward along the frame for loading, rather than tilting it downward, as the more well-known mechanisms of the time did. These carbines are often called the “11th New York Volunteer Model” since this unit is famously known to have used them. However, there is arguably a more famous unit that was issued them that is surprisingly overlooked, that being the 9th New York Volunteer Cavalry.

Lot 2183: Scarce Civil War Sharps & Hankins Model 1862 Cavalry Carbine

In 1861 Colonel John Beardsley raised the regiment in New York, with the companies being mustered in between September and December of that year. Initially the regiment was stationed around Washington D.C. until March of 1862, being used to supplement the Reserve Artillery Batteries and as baggage train guard until May. After returning from the Peninsula Campaign in southeastern Virginia, the regiment was mounted and assigned to the Cavalry Brigade, First Corps, Army of Virginia, with which they took part in the Second Bull Run/Manassas Campaign. During this period the regiment appears to have mostly been armed with sabres, revolvers and some Burnside carbines. By the summer of 1862 the regiment had been almost entirely rearmed with Sharps carbines, one of the most widely used weapons of the war. By the end of September of 1862 the 9th was rearmed yet again, this time with the Sharps & Hankins carbines that used a metallic cartridge and, “were much more efficient and reliable than the Burnside or Sharp.”

From May of 1863 the regiment was in 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. This was Colonel Thomas Devin’s 2nd Brigade of Brigadier General John Buford’s 1st Division, names that may sound familiar to anyone that has watched the fantastic movie Gettysburg. On 1 July 1863 the regiment was stationed near the Lutheran Seminary that Buford had made his headquarters, with their advanced pickets along the Chambersburg road. One of these pickets was made up of Corporal Alpheus Hodges and three troopers, who first spotted the Confederate advance up the road. Hodges, as instructed, sent the all three troopers to alert the rest of the division before advancing to get a better look.

Upon realizing that it was, in fact, Confederate troops moving up the road, Hodges attempted to flee but was fired upon. When he reached a bridge, the Corporal dismounted and returned a few shots at the advancing Southern forces at, according to the regimental history, 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the first. If this is the case, it would make Hodges the first Union soldier to fire a shot at the Battle of Gettysburg. This is a claim that is hotly disputed by the 8th Illinois Cavalry, who claim that it was one of their troopers that fired the first shot. The truth of the matter may never be known, but it can be said without question that the 9th New York armed with their Sharps & Hankins carbines were one of the first units engaged at one of the most important battles in American history. The regiment would lose two killed, two wounded, and seven missing during the course of the battle. One of these killed was Corporal Cyrus W. James, who is believed to be the first Union soldier killed at the battle.

The final charge of the Union Forces at Cemetery Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg

The regiment went on to serve in many more engagements in the remaining two years of the war before being mustered out 17 July 1865. Their casualties during the war include 3 officers and 60 enlisted men killed in action, 5 officers, 29 enlisted men died of wounds received in action, 5 officers and 122 enlisted men died of disease, and 16 enlisted men died as prisoners.

These are just a couple of the cavalry carbines from the American Civil War that are up for offer here at Rock Island Auction Company, and just look at the stories these Civil War guns can tell. These two alone should be proof enough that it’s not just the popular Sharps and Spencers that should be of interest to collectors. Sometimes it is these lesser known  and less common models that can be the most interesting if one just does a little digging.

A Civil War carbine from Starr Firearms marked for the Arkansas 1st Cavalry, surprisingly a Union unit. The Starr Carbine was the fifth-most issued Civil War carbine.

When it comes to experimentation, innovation, and the sheer number of weapon types fielded, it’s hard to match the Civil War era. Most firearms from the period have a rich history to share, so subscribe to the weekly Rock Island Auction newsletter to receive new gun blogs and gun videos that dive deeper into Civil War guns like the Henry rifle, the Gatling gun, and the unique Confederate revolvers produced by a struggling Southern manufacturing base.

A Confederate Dance & Brothers percussion revolver.


“Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values by Norm Flayderman

“History of the Ninth Regiment, New York Volunteer Cavalry. War of 1861 to 1865. Compiled from Letters, Diaries, Recollections, and Official Records by Newel Cheney Captain and Brevet Major

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Rock Island, Illinois 61201

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