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"Breech loading carbines at Brandy Station?" Topic

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American Civil War

1,166 hits since 12 Mar 2018
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pushing tin13 Mar 2018 1:47 a.m. PST


Did any troops have breech loading carbines at Brandy Station?


Trajanus13 Mar 2018 4:07 a.m. PST

Er, pretty much everybody except some Confederates, perhaps. Did you mean Repeating Carbines, Spencers that kind of thing.

Nearly all of the carbines use in the war were "Breach" loading but just one shot at a time.

pushing tin13 Mar 2018 4:36 a.m. PST

sorry I assumed most carbines were muzzle loading, but yes I'm talking about the repeating types such as Spencers etc

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 6:21 a.m. PST

Almost all had breech loading carbines, both sides. May have been some Confederates armed with shotguns. But for the most part it was breech loading carbines.

Spencer's were not issued for Brandy Station. It would be after Gettysburg. I don't have my Union Carbine book with me to give exact dates. The one exception is that maybe part of one company which was issued them as a test to see how they operated in action. I am not even sure of that.

I have read on Wiki that two regiments of the Michigan brigade had Spencer carbines during the Gettysburg campaign but I have my doubts. I am sure people more knowledgeable than I will chime in.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 6:40 a.m. PST

Confederates used whatever they had, to include muzzle loading rifles and carbines.

US Ordnance records show that Spencer carbines were not issued to anyone until October 1863. Buford's command was mostly armed with Sharps, although there was also a sprinkling of Burnside carbines. Custer's 6th Michigan was armed with Spencer Rifles.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 6:42 a.m. PST

That sounds about right. If I remember correctly (don't have my sources with me) that later on those Spencer rifles were taken away and replaced with Spencer carbines.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 6:53 a.m. PST

The 5th MI may have had them as well but, on that point, I am not as sure. So, possibly, the 5th and 6th MI of Custer's Brigade.

rmcaras Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 7:48 a.m. PST

October may be the first of the Government records for supplying Spencer repeaters, but specific regiments may have secured them, privately, prior to that.

Wilder's Lightning Brigade is one such example. They started , IIRC, in May of 1863. It took some time to get the entire Brigade outfitted and eventually the Gov't. Agreed to supply them initially the men signed a promissory note for I believe, $30. USD

donlowry13 Mar 2018 8:04 a.m. PST

IIRC, the 6th Mich. and 1 battalion of the 5th Mich. had Spencer RIFLES. But they were not at Brandy Station, still being in the Dept. of Washington at the time.

During the winter of '63-64, Brig. Gen. J. H. Wilson was transferred from Grant's staff to take over the Cavalry Bureau in the War Department -- it was he who established the Spencer carbine as the preferred weapon of the Union Cavalry.

sgt Dutch13 Mar 2018 8:40 a.m. PST

Union Cav used, Smith carbine,Maynard carbine, Star carbine and various other minor breech loading carbines.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2018 9:18 a.m. PST

Wilder's Brigade was mounted infantry -- not cavalry. And it was armed with Spencer rifles -- not Spencer carbines.

Garryowen Supporting Member of TMP14 Mar 2018 5:49 a.m. PST

The CSA had a very high percentage of muzzleloading carbines. They tried to copy the Sharps but it was so defective that the soldiers wouldn't use them. Lee told the ordnance department to make muzzleloaders.

As the war progressed they captured more and more federal breechloaders.

I have done a fair amount of research on CSA cavalry weapons for the Gettysburg campaign. The general rule was that only a couple of companies per regiment would have any long arm. Those that did were called sharpshooters. That had nothing to do with their marksmanship, just the fact that they even had a somewhat suitable weapon. When you read about such and such a regiment deploying its sharpshooters, it meant that they deployed the only companies they had with any skirmish capability. Oftentimes those companies from two or more regiments would be deployed together with the balance mounted in the rear in reserve.

Now you have Robertson's large NC brigade that was well supplied with Enfield rifles, but they were also muzzleloaders of course.


Trajanus14 Mar 2018 7:37 a.m. PST

Now you have Robertson's large NC brigade that was well supplied with Enfield rifles, but they were also muzzleloaders of course.

Which may well account for some authors thinking of them as mounted infantry in terms of their interactions with Union troops. The who and the where of which is going to bug me for the rest of the week!

Bill N14 Mar 2018 8:47 a.m. PST

My understanding Tom was the Confederate problem was with ammunition. They had the same problem with the Spencer, which is why captured ones were supposed to be turned in. Not all were.

Shifting to a more basic question, when operating mounted was there much advantage to having a breach loading weapon over a muzzle loader?

Blutarski14 Mar 2018 11:05 a.m. PST

donlowry is correct, according to "Regimental Strengths at Gettysburg", Busey and Martin -

5th MI Cav Spencer rifles and Colt .44s.
6th MI Cav Spencer rifles, Burnside carbines and Colt .44s.

It appears that all the other Union cavalry regiments engaged at Gettysburg were armed with some sort of breech-loading carbine plus a revolver sidearm.

- -

As regards breech-loading weapons carried by Union infantry regiments at Gettysburg, Busey and Martin cite as follows -

1MN .58, Sharps Rifles, .69 rifled, .69 smoothbore.
1MA SS Sharps Rifles, Merrill Rifles.
14CT .58, Sharps Rifles.
1US SS Sharps Rifles.
2US SS Sharps Rifles.
2NH .58, Sharps Rifles.
13PA Res Enfield .577, .69 smoothbore, Sharps Rifles, .58.

Note – ".58" denotes US caliber .58 Springfield Rifled Musket.


Blutarski14 Mar 2018 11:51 a.m. PST

I just pulled out another reference source, "Lincoln's Choice", J. O. Buckeridge, Stackpole Press, 1956, which suggests that other cavalry regiments, beyond 5MI and 6MI, were armed with Spencer repeaters at Gettysburg. To wit -

> 1WV

> Gamble's Brigade of Cavalry 8NY, 8IL, 3IN, 12IL. The author asserts that this brigade received a shipment of Spencers only a few days before Gettysburg in quantity sufficient to arm "most of the troopers in the flanking companies".

The author gives a figure of 3,500 Spencers in the hands of Union cavalry at Gettysburg.

The author also states that the very first shot fired by a Spencer repeating firearm in battle occurred at Antietam from a single hand-built prototype weapon in the hands of a Sgt Lombard of a MA volunteer regiment.

EDIT – Starr's "Union Cavalry in the Civil War" confirms the issue of Spencers to Gamble's brigade.



Trajanus14 Mar 2018 1:59 p.m. PST

My understanding Tom was the Confederate problem was with ammunition. They had the same problem with the Spencer, which is why captured ones were supposed to be turned in.

Certainly always been my understanding. Making rimfire cartridges was another problem Confederate ordnance factories didn't need!

Shifting to a more basic question, when operating mounted was there much advantage to having a breach loading weapon over a muzzle loader?

Apart from the problem of controlling a horse and dropping items, breachloaders were still faster to load, just the same as they were on foot.

Purpose made muzzle loading carbines had a captive ramrod hinged under the barrel so you couldn't drop it.

However, if you had an Enfield Rifled that was a risk, not to mention the length of the weapon itself.

I have a replica "three band" Enfield and it strikes me as an issue. I think they tried to get the "two band" to the Confederate cavalry, which is 15 inches shorter but I still wouldn't want to try it.

I don't know for sure if the Confederacy managed to lay hands on the Enfield Carbine version, they at least had a swivel ramrod which was an advantage. Old Pre war US muzzle loading carbines had the same thing.

Another thing is that regiments on both sides tended to fight dismounted or partially dismounted, when using long arms, for tactical reasons so the relative advantage/disadvantage probably didn't come up that often. Fighting from the saddle was generally a sabre and pistol event.

Garryowen Supporting Member of TMP16 Mar 2018 7:20 a.m. PST

Carbines and rifles were meant to be fired dismounted. A horse is a
rather unstable firing platform.

I used to do a lot of cavalry re-enactment and can say it would be extremely difficult to reload any muzzleloading carbine or rifle while also controlling a horse. Maybe a Plains Indian or a cossack could do it.

Ammunition would not be a problem for the CSA copies of Sharps carbines. These were percussion guns. They did not fire metallic ammunition like the post war .50/70 did. The ACW version used a linen cartridge just like the muzzleloaders.


Bill N16 Mar 2018 6:35 p.m. PST

Sorry Tom, I have Spencers on the brain.

It appears you are supporting my suspicion that rifles and carbines don't have much of an impact in mounted action, other than possibly to get in the rider's way. Their primary benefit is in dismounted action.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP16 Mar 2018 10:38 p.m. PST

According to John McAulay's book "Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry, 1861-1905"

At Brandy Station:
Union: All breech loading Carbines.
17th Penn Smith and Merrill
3rd WV Gallager
1st NJ Burnside
All other regiments had Sharps.
Confederate's captured 165 Sharps Carbines.

At Gettysburg:
Union: All breech loading Carbines except as noted.
Sharps 4,724
Burnside 1,387
Smith 309
Gallager 271
Merrill 208
Spencer Repeating Rifles 572 (issued to the 5th Michigan and Co. E and H of the 6th Michigan)

pushing tin16 Mar 2018 11:05 p.m. PST

Interesting discussion,and it seems to have covered a lot more ground than my original question.

So to summarise, at Brandy Station would it be fair to say;

the Union all had breech loaders of various makes, but no Spencer carbines

the Confederates had mostly muzzle loaders, either carbines or rifles (mostly smoothbore?), and then only a couple of companies per regiment except for Robertson's Brigade (all Enfield rifles?), with the rest sporting shotguns and pistols.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP17 Mar 2018 12:21 a.m. PST

Are you writing a scenario? Instead of reinventing the wheel, get a hold of "A Clash of Sabers" from Potomac Publications. It is a scenario book which has the Brandy Station scenario.


It has all the weapons listed. Looking at my copy, all the Union Cav. were armed with breech loading carbines. The Confederate Cav. has muzzle loading carbines but some are armed with rifled muskets. It is not unusual for CS Cav. to armed with rifled or smoothbore muskets and often they are armed with shotguns. There were also two brigades of Union Infantry at the battle.

I highly recommend you purchase a copy. I have played this scenario and it plays very well.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP17 Mar 2018 12:35 a.m. PST

carbines or rifles (mostly smoothbore?)

Muskets are either rifled or smoothbore. As far as I know all carbines are rifled.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP17 Mar 2018 12:37 a.m. PST

By rifled I mean there are groves in the barrel which causes the ball to spin. A musket that doesn't have the grooves are smoothbore muskets. Muskets which have the grooves are rifled muskets.

pushing tin17 Mar 2018 1:11 a.m. PST

Thanks, I know the difference between smoothbore and rifled but probably didn't express myself very clearly :-)

My understanding is that carbines are simply shortened muskets more suitable for use by cavalry and can be smoothbore or rifled, but perhaps only rifled carbines were used in the American Civil War?

pushing tin17 Mar 2018 2:28 a.m. PST

well I purchased the Clash of Sabers booklet, it has many interesting scenarios but I can't see Brandy Station in there

donlowry17 Mar 2018 7:42 a.m. PST

actually, a short musket for cavalry was called a musketoon. Carbines were rifled.

pushing tin17 Mar 2018 8:22 a.m. PST

Not always, it is simply a term for a shorter long firearm in origin. For example


Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP17 Mar 2018 4:33 p.m. PST

Pushing in,

"A Clash of Sabers!" by Anderson & Toews, Potomac Publications, 1996.

Brandy Station, 1863, page 10.

Looking at the Wargame Vault, that Clash of Sabers edition must be newer than mine and you are correct about that edition. For some reason they left out Brandy Station in the newer edition. Wonder why?

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP17 Mar 2018 5:21 p.m. PST

Here are flickr links to pictures of the cover to my 1996 edition of "A clash of Sabers" and the table of contents, which has Brandy Station listed.



pushing tin18 Mar 2018 1:05 a.m. PST

Ok thanks Rallynow,

I guess I'll have to try and source the original 'analogue' edition. It does seem a bit odd to leave it out.

Ryan T18 Mar 2018 8:34 a.m. PST

Hello Gentlemen,

Rallynow, thank you for your kinds words about A Clash of Sabers. I have to admit I cannot recall why Brandy Station was dropped from the later PDF version it may have been that George and I wanted an consistent ten scenarios in each book?

Pushing Tin, drop me an e-mail at ritoewsATmtsDOTnet and I'll send you a copy of the scenario.

Garryowen rightly points out the only partial distribution of long arms in the Confederate cavalry. The mention of "sharpshooters" shows up repeatedly in the reports found in the Official Records. And, up until later in 1862 when carbine production ramped up, the Union cavalry was also often only partially equipped with long arms.

But how long did this partial use of long arms/carbines continue? A look at the ratio of troop strength to the number of carbines issued in the forces at Gettysburg on the first day of fighting raises some questions. In the list below both the strengths of each regiment and the long-arms they carried are as follows (the % is that of Enlisted Men carrying carbines):

First Division

First Brigade
8th Ill 537 311 Sharps (58%)
12th Ill (5 Cos) 253 86 Burnside (34%)
3rd Ind (6 Cos) 393 -12 Sharps, 182 Gallager (49%)
8th NY 685 210 Sharps (31%)

Second Brigade

6th NY (6 Cos) 292 232 Sharps (79%)
9th NY (10 Cos) 394 381 Sharps, 1 Smith (97%)
17th Penn (9 Cos) 464 127 Smith, 108 Merrill (51%)
3rd WV (2 Cos) 59 89 Gallager (or 59?) (151% or 100%)

Reserve Brigade

1st US (10 Cos) 443 361 Sharps (81%)
2nd US 407 245 Sharps (60%)
5th US (11 Cos) 306 373 Sharps (122%)
6th Penn (9 Cos) 337 231 Sharps (68%)
6th US 410 367 Sharps (89%)

Note that the Reserve brigade was not present on the morning of 1 July.

It may be possible that the records are incomplete and some companies either did not fill in the required returns or the records have been lost. However, a similar pattern of only partially long arm equipped Union cavalry regiments shows up if a similar comparison is done with the Union cavalry at Chickamauga in 1863 and shortly after the Battle of Trevilian's Station in mid-1864.

Custer's Brigade is especially interesting. The strengths as of 30 June 1864 are as follows:

First Brigade

1st Mich 446 304 (68%)
5th Mich 292 152 (52%)
6th Mich 253 246 (97%)
7th Mich 249 92 (37%)

During the fighting in the Shenandoah later in 1864 Custer repeatedly referred to the 1st and 7th Michigan as his "Saber Regiments". When the other two regiments deployed on foot the two Saber Regiments remained mounted to exploit any opportunity to charge the enemy.

My ongoing question is how widespread was this practice and, more importantly, did this division between mounted and dismounted cavalry extend into regimental tactical deployment?

I don't know the answer to this but I have about a year until retirement and looking into this question is going to be one of my priority retirement projects.


huevans01118 Mar 2018 9:16 a.m. PST

Thank you for your help.

Why do you think that the 5th US Cav had more than 100% carbines when other regts did without?

huevans01118 Mar 2018 9:20 a.m. PST

Also: One of the salient episodes in the G-burg campaign is Buford's holding action on Day #1. This is always portrayed / imagined as a thin blue line of carbine-firing cavalrymen holding off grey infantry.

If the US cavalry was only partially equipped w carbines, this image gets a little questionable. Were the non carbine equipped guys using pistols?

Ryan T18 Mar 2018 10:06 a.m. PST

The simple answer is "I don't know". The enlisted men numbers are from link

The list of long arms comes from page 32 of John McAulay, Carbines of the U. S. Cavalry,1861-1905, (1996). McAuley cites National Archives Record Group 156 (Records of the Chief of Ordnance), Section 110 (Quarterly Statements of Ordnance in Cavalry 1862-1864). From the context I assume this is the report for 30 June 1863. Incomplete records and any time interval between the filing of the numbers could be the reason for the discrepancies.

It was when I started looking at Buford's cavalry on the first day of Gettysburg that this shortfall in long arms turned up. As mentioned, similar shortfalls turn up at Chickamauga and at Trevilian Station (the only two engagements on which I could find the numbers) and I began to wonder if this indicated a tactical trend.

The next step would be to expand the range of sources to other battles and theatres, and to include the numbers and distribution of pistols and sabres. As well, a look at reports, memoirs and regimental histories might reveal mentions of different tactical deployment of differently armed companies, squadrons, battalions, or regiments. Like I said, I have at least one retirement project waiting.


huevans01118 Mar 2018 10:11 a.m. PST

The US was certainly financially able to supply all the AoP's cavalry with carbines by 1863. So the shortfall is not explained by economic difficulty.

For that matter, the CS also had no difficulty issuing firearms to the ANV by 1863, although up to date breechloaders may have been a challenge.

donlowry20 Mar 2018 8:21 a.m. PST

My ongoing question is how widespread was this practice and, more importantly, did this division between mounted and dismounted cavalry extend into regimental tactical deployment?

IIRC, the 2nd Iowa Cav., during Grierson's Raid, had one battalion (out of 3) that was particularly used for saber/mounted fighting, although all 3 could do it.

No doubt Custer using the 1st and 7th Mich. Cav. as saber regiments was because his other two, the 5th and 6th were at least partially armed with Spencer Rifles. So that even if they all were later armed with Spencer Carbines, their experiences and expertise had developed differently.

Ryan T21 Mar 2018 5:35 p.m. PST

The practice of dividing up a unit did happen. The following is from Nosworthy, The Bloody Crucible of Courage, page 291:

However, carrying all three weapons [saber, pistol, and carbine] wasn't all that practical. It was cumbersome, especially during a fast-paced engagement. A more practical way to achieve tactical flexibility was to arm one or two companies in a cavalry regiment with sabers and the remainder with carbines. Then the regiment could employ either saber or long-range fire, depending upon the circumstances. The Second Iowa chose this solution. Its men were divided into several "saber companies" while the remainder fought as dismounted as a "battalion of riflemen". If the situation called for an even greater force to hurl at the enemy, the saber companies from several regiments could be momentarily grouped together into an ad hoc formation, such as that used by Philip H. Sheridan, then colonel of the Second Michigan Cavalry, during an action near Booneville (July 1, 1862). Two saber companies from the Second Michigan and two from the Second Iowa worked their way around the enemy's left flank by a circuitous route and fell on its rear, while those with carbines and rifle muskets engaged the enemy from the front."

huevans01122 Mar 2018 4:05 a.m. PST

Hmmmmm………… carrying a pistol, sabre and carbine was "cumbersome"???!!!!…….

Says who??!!…

Cavalrymen had been carrying exactly the same combination of weapons since 1700!

donlowry22 Mar 2018 8:06 a.m. PST

Well, I've often wondered why they didn't arrange it so that the saber was attached to the saddle, not the trooper, since he only needed it when he was mounted. And a scabbard for the carbine instead of a sling would have made sense.

Ryan T22 Mar 2018 6:42 p.m. PST

Frederick Whittaker, the author of Volunteer Cavalry, the Lessons of the Decade, (1871) seems to suggest that the saber was left with the horses when Union cavalry was fighting dismounted.

"All the fighting is done at a quick run. You could not get an infantry line to move so fast. They know well that if they tire themselves out running they will pay for it on the march. But the cavalryman is not fatigued. He has no knapsack to weigh him down. His sabre was left on his saddle. He fights altogether on a skirmish line and can do much damage without suffering proportionately." (page 17)

donlowry23 Mar 2018 8:10 a.m. PST

aha! Although I do recall reading that one of the horse-less brigades at Nashville was stupid enough to wear their sabers while fighting dismounted.

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