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PostPosted: Tue Jul 11, 2023 10:43 am 

Joined: Sun Jan 04, 2009 9:33 pm
Posts: 320
Location: Old Northwest (Michigan)
Civil War Carbines-Myth versus Reality
By Peter Schiffers
Mowbray Publishing. Woonsocket RI

While doing research to recreate authentic Sharps linen cartridges, I was fortunate to find an out-of-print book, authored by Peter Schiffers. Schiffers, a collector and researcher of original Civil War carbines, became frustrated by the inconsistent comments about the effectiveness of these arms when issued to the troopers who used them on the battlefield. What were classified as “effective” arms by some inventors and manufacturers, turned out to be worthless after they were issued. Below are the eleven, most manufactured and issued, Federal carbines that Peter Schiffers evaluated;

Gwynn & Campbell
M1863 Sharps
Sharps & Hankins

Weapons: Schiffers used original, U.S Cavalry carbines from his personal collection.

Powder charge: Schiffers used a controversial approach to discover the gunpowder used in the cartridges. He broke apart originals and emptied out the powder. He then loaded it into a revolver and fired bullets past a chronograph to establish velocity. Schiffers discovered modern Swiss #4 black powder nearly identical to 1860 Government “Musket Powder”. All of Schiffers experimental cartridges were charged with Swiss 1 1/2 Fg black powder.

Cartridges: Schiffers purchased originals to recreate his own cartridges. Because no modern rimfire ammunition exists for Spencer or Sharps & Hankins cartridges, Schiffers used unloaded 9mm Florbert rimfire cartridges, inserted into a Spencer base, that when struck by the firing pin to ignite the powder charge.

Rating system: Schiffers created an extensive and rigorous system of 11 categories to evaluate the performance of each carbine. He was particularly interested in discovering if the complaints by original troopers were valid. In fact, Schiffers discovered some of his original carbines experienced breakages, poor fitting or parts falling off, or inadequate metallurgy used for critical parts. These breakdowns produced delays and required expensive replacements, (or a machinist to make new ones). Not surprisingly, carbines with the poorest design, and manufacturing were the least accurate.

The worst: the Gallagher carbine earned this distinction. During the War, three different cartridges were designed to improve the Gallagher’s accuracy, but none worked. Schiffers concluded that of all the carbine manufactured, the Gallagher should never been allowed to be issued to the troops. During shooting trials, Schiffers found the Gallager’s bullets yawing and key-holing the target at only 55 yards, and completely missing the 24x24 inch target at 110 yards. Schiffers concluded that to attempt hitting the 220 yard target with the Gallagher carbine would just be a waste of time and ammunition.

Targets were placed 55, 110 and 220 yards to measure accuracy. Shooting trials consisted of five series of shooting five cartridges at 55 yards; six series at 110 yards and three series at 220 yards. After each series, the length and width of bullet impacts/series, then categorized into the “best four impacts” and another that rated the mean average of five impacts of the series. Then all three targets(55-220 yards )/series were tallied to arrive at a mean accuracy.

So how did the New Model Sharps perform?
Because Schiffers used paper cartridges, like those produced by the Watervliet NY Arsenal for the AoP’s Cavalry Corps, accuracy suffered. Also, Sharps carbines have a 22 inch barrel length (compared to the military rifles 30 inch barrel), so range and accuracy were effected. At 55 yards, the Sharps performed well, coming in second after the Sharps & Hankin carbine, (firing a brass rimfire cartridge). But at 110 yards, the Sharps performed poorly, rating fifth (between the substandard Joslyn and Merrill carbines). But at 220 yards, the Sharps jumped back to claim the third position (after Sharps & Hankin and Burnside carbines). Schiffers wrote: “it is, indeed,one of the most accurate carbines of the Civil War. It’s fine reputation is not a myth”.

Unfortunately, Civil War Carbines-Myth versus Reality has been out of print for many years. I accidentally discovered my copy wandering around the C. Sharps Arms Company (of Big Timber, Montana), website.

Well designed, manufactured, and accurate carbines and ammunition were critical to the ultimate success of the U. S. Cavalry during the Civil War. Thanks to Peter Schiffers scientific analysis, we can better understand why some regiments were motivated and aggressive, while others were seen as undependable and cowardly. Schiffers has demonstrated that it was likely not the men or leadership that was lacking, but the substandard weapons issued to them, that contributed to their lack of effectiveness on the battlefield.

Bill Skillman
Michigan Companies
Berdan Sharpshooters Survivors Association

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