The Carbine Concept Vanished With Horse Cavalry,
But Was Revived For Mechanized Warfare
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino
The Civil War of 1861 to 1865 was likely the heyday of American carbines. Prior to it, horse—mounted troops were expected to fight mounted with pistol and saber. Then it became evident a better method was to give cavalry troopers a shoulder arm. Horses were the means to get to the battlefield quickly; then soldiers dismounted to fight on foot. A notable example of this is when Union General Buford’s cavalry got to Gettysburg’s high ground ahead of Confederate infantry and held it with carbines until their own infantry arrived.
After the Civil War and until WWII, the route to carbines most often taken was to simply make infantry rifles shorter. For example, United States ordnance people developed Model 1873 .45 Infantry Rifles at Springfield Armory to have 32-5/8-inch round barrels and to weigh about 9-1/2 pounds with their nearly full-length stocks. In turn the same model carbines had 22-inch barrels with half stocks. They weighed about 7-1/2 pounds. Other differences were the sights. The carbine sights were regulated for shorter distances than rifles. Carbines also had sling rings and bars on the left side instead of sling swivels. This enabled a trooper to carry a carbine so it stayed with him if unhorsed.
Worthy of mention is early on in the Model 1873’s history, cavalrymen complained the standard load for .45 Gov’t (.45-70) gave too much recoil in their carbines. As introduced, this new cartridge had a 405-grain lead bullet over 70 grains of black powder. To accommodate cavalrymen, they were soon issued a reduced loading with 55 grains of black powder under the same bullets. The two .45 loadings were totally and safely interchangeable.
The same carbine-from-rifle concept was carried over into the smokeless powder era. Various models of .30 Army (.30-40 Krag) bolt actions came in both infantry rifle and cavalry carbine versions such as Models 1896 and 1898. (However, a Model 1899 carbine was introduced but no Model 1899 rifle.) Barrel lengths were 30 and 22 inches, and again, the only other differences were sight regulation and sling ring and bar. (The Model 1899 didn’t have sling rings.) To the best of my knowledge and research, never was there a separate .30 Army load meant specifically for carbines.
Early in the 1900’s American military doctrine aimed to consolidate weaponry. Instead of having a very long rifle, which past-thinking generals thought was necessary for bayonet fighting, more modern ones felt a compromise between carbines and rifles would suffice. So instead of having rifle and carbine Model 1903’s, only one version with a 24-inch barrel and a weight of 8-1/2 pounds was adopted. For nearly 40 years American martial thinking ignored carbines.
In 1941 the US Army returned to the carbine concept with the M1 .30 Carbine (top). A paratrooper
version was the M1A1 (middle) and then an M2 select fire version (bottom) was developed.
The US Model 1896 .30 Army (.30-40 Krag) carbine was the last carbine used by the horse cavalry.
The next rifle, the US M1903, was deemed short enough for cavalry use without modification.
Industrial-age armies consist of far more troops than just infantry and cavalry. There are crew-served weapons teams, communications specialists, combat engineers, military police and so forth. Their jobs take them into danger, but a full-size rifle is a burden. A partial answer to support troops’ self-defense needs was issuing them handguns. This proved less than perfect because of the inherent difficulty in training people to shoot handguns proficiently.
By 1940 it was realized a small shoulder-fired weapon was needed for support troops. A call went out to weapons inventors and firearms manufacturers that the US Army was searching for a “light rifle.” Tests and trials began but there was considerable difficulty in finding something acceptable.
One minor change did occur during this frustrating search. Someone realized the proper definition for “light rifle” was “carbine.” In the 1930’s someone also got the idea equipment shouldn’t be designated by year but by “model.” For instance, the newly adopted Garand rifle didn’t become Model 1936 but rather the famous M1. Hence when a carbine was finally developed, as designed by Winchester Repeating Arms in 1941, it became the M1 Carbine.
There was one important difference between this new carbine concept from late 1800’s carbines. It was not merely a shortened rifle. It was a totally different firearm chambering a completely different cartridge. Its .30 Carbine in fact more resembled a handgun cartridge in size and power. No way are M1 .30 Carbine and M1 Garand’s .30 (.30-06) ammunition interchangeable.
M1 Carbine production was an amazing feat resulting in 6-1/4 million made in only 4 years. After initial adoption there followed an M1A1 Carbine (folding stock) for paratroopers and an M2 (select fire) Carbine primarily used in the Korean War and an M3 Carbine fitted with infrared night vision scope.
Then American military minds forgot about carbines again for several decades, but the idea reignited in time for the various Middle East conflicts our troops are still fighting. Ironically the M16/AR package adopted in the 1960’s has been remodeled into carbine form and is now serving as the M4 5.56mm.