Mr. Smith Goes To War
The Union Supplied A Variety Of Cartridge-Firing Cavalry Carbines And The Smith .50 Was One Of The Successful Ones.
If you had had to fight in the Civil War, there was no better place to have been than in the cavalry. None of that marching shoulder-to-shoulder, cannon fodder stuff, lugging a 10-pound musket around under a searing summer sun only to find yourself getting wiped away by volley-after-volley of Minié balls and canister shot.
No, it was much safer to be riding a fast steed and to be armed with saber, revolver and—most importantly—a cartridge-firing carbine. Light, short, handy and fast firing, the cartridge firing, cavalry carbines of the Civil War signaled the coming end to the single-shot muzzleloader era. Indeed, they were certainly the most attractive shoulder arms of the Civil War.
As a group, there were 19 different carbine brands fielded between 1861 and 1865. In terms of total wartime production, the Big Five were the Spencer (94,196), Sharps (80,512), Burnside (55,567), Smith (30,062) and Starr (25,603). Having covered the Sharps, Burnside and Maynard (20,002) carbines in past issues, I was delighted to uncover a reasonably priced, reproduction Smith carbine at a recent show.
Patented in its final form on June 23, 1857 by Gilbert Smith of Buttermilk Falls, New York, the .50-caliber, Smith carbine was of a simple, break-open design with an enclosed action. It was easy to load, easy to clean and easy to repair.
To minimize gas leakage and to facilitate the extraction of fired cases, Smith split the chamber so that half was in the barrel and half remained with the receiver. Locking the barrel to the receiver is accomplished by spring hinge, which locks down over matching studs on the barrel and the receiver. To open the action, the brass lifter seen inside the triggerguard is pushed up which raises the strap hinge, permitting the barrel to be swung down 90 degrees.
The Smith cartridge was supplied in two forms. Smith’s original cartridge case was composed of India rubber. It was flexible. It successfully sealed the chamber when fired, extracted easily in one piece and was even reloadable, although I suspect few were. The Ordnance Board trials of 1857 reported, “The joint seems to be completely closed by the packing of the India-rubber cartridge case; and the parts appear to be simple and strong… The firing was very uniform and very accurate. This arm loads with great facility.”
The second type of cartridge case which was introduced during the war was composed of metallic foil and sulfurized paper and proved much less durable than the original India-rubber case.
John McAulay’s book, Carbines of the U.S. Calvary, 1861-1900 contains an interesting observation: “The 10th New York rated the Smith as the best because it was easy to clean and more durable than the Sharps. They also gave it high ratings for accuracy and range and ease in loading on horseback. The 2nd Arkansas was of the opinion, concerning the three types of carbines in the regiment, that the Smith was the best for simplicity, accuracy and range.”
Another Smith endorsement quoted in Peter Schiffers’ book, Civil War Carbines is from Rear Admiral David D. Porter who wrote: “I have had in use now two years a gun invented by Smith. This gun has not been cleaned in all that time, nor does it need it… I have kept it under constant trial by firing and pronounced it the best gun for Naval purposes that has ever been made… In accuracy and range it is superior to the Spencer rifle, which I consider one of the best guns.”
While Gilbert Smith was an inventor, he did not have the means to produce his carbine, and by 1860, Thomas Poultney of Poultney & Trimble, Baltimore, Maryland, one of the great arms merchant houses, owned the patent and successfully marketed it to the Union at the going rate of $32.50 per carbine. Under Poultney’s contract, the Smith was produced by the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls (which also produced the Maynard), the American Arms Company of Chicopee Falls and the American Machine Works of Springfield, Mass..
By the end of the war, some of the units armed with the Smith included the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, the 6th and 9th Ohio Cavalry, the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry, the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry, the 7th and 11th Illinois Cavalry, the 10th New York Cavalry, the 1st Connecticut Cavalry and the 7th and 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. We can be too, thanks to the modern reproduction being made by Pietta in Italy.
The Pietta Smith is an exacting recreation of the original and is available as a cavalry model with a saddle bar and ring on the left side of the receiver, as an artillery model with sling swivels mounted on the buttstock and the barrel band and as a hand engraved model. The 21-5/8-inch barrel is correctly rifled with three grooves. Land diameter is 0.500 inch and groove diameter, 0.514 inch. The barrel and buttplate are blued while the receiver is richly color casehardened. The left side of the receiver properly carries the names of the Massachusetts Arms Company, Poultney & Trimble and Smith’s patent date. Overall, Pietta’s rendition is a handsome arm and very popular with the members of the North-South Skirmish Association.
The secondhand Smith that I picked up had two interesting modifications made by the original owner who was obviously a serious shooter. First, he added a secondary latch that locked over the end of the spring strap hinge, and second, he fitted a T/C adjustable rear sight and a homemade front sight over the Smith sights with the use of “GOOP.” I kept the “Gooped-on” sighting system because it offers a much clearer sight picture than the original carbine sights. Using easily removed GOOP for temporary modifications is a neat trick to keep in mind.
Shooting the Smith is a real hoot. Both plastic cases that resemble the original India-rubber cases and machined brass cases are readily available from S&S Firearms and Dixie Gun Works.
Ready cast 350-grain, .515-inch bullets are available from Patrick Kaboskey, or you can buy the exact, proprietary, Lee mold from Lodgewood Mfg. I also have a custom 300-grain, .515-inch mold for both the Smith and the Maynard. The Smith loading tool pictured is simply a bullet-seating tool, which is all you need to load Smith ammunition and is available from S&S Firearms.
The modern ersatz rubber case will hold 30 to 40 grains of FFFg black powder, depending upon the bullet loaded, while the brass cases have a reduced powder chamber and are limited to 25 grains of whatever you can pour in them. From an accuracy point of view, I see no difference between the plastic and brass cases. Velocity is another matter. Using a plastic case stoked with 40 grains of Swiss FFFg and my 300-grain bullet, the PACT Professional chronograph registers 1,124 fps. With the 350-grain bullet, I can only stuff 30 grains of Swiss FFFg in the same plastic case for an average velocity of 909 fps. The Civil War loading was 50 to 52 grains of powder.
Accuracy? As the targets indicate, the Pietta Smith proved to be a reliable 3-inch gun at 50 yards. That’s not world shaking, but it’s perfectly adequate for short range skirmishing.
Pietta’s reproduction of the Smith puts history in our hands. It’s a good looking, quality-built carbine, and cases, bullets and spare parts are readily available. I can smell the horses and the campfires already!
By Holt Bodinson
Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry 1861-1905, by John D. McAulay, hardcover, 144 pages. $35
Civil War Carbines, by Peter Schiffers, softcover, 144 pages, $29.99
U.S. Military Carbines, by John D. McAulay, hardcover, 256 pages, $49.99
All available from: Mowbray Publishing, 54 East School St., Woonsocket, RI 02895, (800)
S. 80 W. 30650 Meadowlark Cir.
Mukwonago, WI 53149
P.O. Box 611
Whitewater, WI 53190
Dixie Gun Works
P.O. Box 130
1412 W. Reelfoot Ave.
Union City, TN 38282
74-11 Myrtle Ave.
Glendale, NY 11385
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