Smith carbine, open for loading

A place named Buttermilk Falls doesn’t sound like it should be associated with a deadly firearm, but that New York town was the home of Gilbert Smith, inventor of a .50-caliber breechloading carbine he patented in 1857 that bears his name.

In 1860, the Washington Arsenal Ordnance Board tested the carbine and was impressed with its ease of loading and accuracy, recommending “it be adopted….”

Many Northern troopers liked the Smith. The 10th New York Cavalry, for example gave it high marks for its durability and ease of use. But others complained that the external spring that held the breech closed was sometimes made of inferior metal, and could break and render the gun useless.

In 1860, Raleigh Colston, then a Virginia Military Institute professor who would become a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, tested the gun for his school and found that after 60 shots the Smith “clogged up so that it could no longer be worked.”

Despite its flaws, more than 30,000 Smith carbines were issued during the war, and it was the fourth most widely used carbine in the Union arsenal.

Smith carbine patent drawingA portion of Gilbert Smith’s June 23, 1857, patent drawing for his breechloading carbine. It’s interesting to note that while the U.S. Army was very conservative when it came to arming infantrymen, providing the vast majority of the rank and file with single-shot muzzle loaders, the opposite was true for the mounted arm. Multiple types of breechloaders, and even some repeaters, were issued out to Federal cavalry regiments. Union
cavalryman with Smith carbineA Union cavalryman with his Smith Carbine snapped into his sling, and at full cock. Though the weapon was a breechloader it still used a percussion cap for ignition. The spark from a snapped cap passed through a hole in the base of the cartridge to ignite the powder charge. You can just make out that hole, the dark spot in the center of the base, in the right cartridge below. Smith carbine
cartridgesSmith also patented cartridges made of hard rubber, like the excavated example from Virginia, left, for his carbine. The rubber helped prevent gas blowback, but casings became sticky and hard to extract when the gun got hot. In December 1863, a new version of the cartridge developed by Thomas Poultney of Poultney & Trimble was issued that used a brass case wrapped in paper, right, which helped seal the breech. Smith carbineThe Smith Carbine is light and easy to handle at 39 inches long and 7 ½ pounds. The wooden forestock helped mounted men maintain a grip on the gun after the barrel had heated up from firing. Early models of the Smith used a traditional sling like those found on shoulder arms, but that proved impractical. Most Smiths, therefore, were made with a ring to attach to the standard-issue cavalry carbine sling.

Pop! Pop! Watch a Smith Carbine fire.
See our demonstration of an original Smith Carbine being loaded with .50-caliber bullets and fired at a target.

this article first appeared in civil war times magazine

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