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The Hated Smith Carbine

This unusual breechloader was one of the Civil War’s most enigmatic firearms. Hated by many, it nevertheless offered an innovative solution to ammunition shortages. By Garry James Posted: 2010-10

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01 02 03 04 05 Trim and handsome. . with a 39.5-inch overall length.

this was not as much of a problem as it is for today’s shooter. This raised a heavy spring/latch. Smith Carbines will be found with the manufacturers’ marks of the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls. known to modern collectors as Artillery models. have dual sling swivels. The inventor of at least one arm. all the shooter had to do was press up on a brass lifter sited inside the triggerguard in front of the trigger. Or flipped up for shooting at longer yardage. Maryland. As well. though his efforts seem to have been somewhat underappreciated. a . Hated by many. Early guns. The author used Smith cases from Dixie Gun Works. the gun’s agents. freeing it from a stud on the top of the receiver.The Smith had a receiver-mounted ring (inset) that testifies to the fact that nearly all of them were issued to Union cavalry. Of course. of GOEX FFg black powder and a beeswax/Crisco lubricant. spring/latch and other sundry other parts blued.515-inch 365-grain cast lead bullet. 39½ inches in overall length with a 21⅝ -inch barrel. as was the reception of the gun that bore his name. The rear ladder sight of the Smith could be employed folded down. as seen on most breechloaders of the period. The Smith was a handsome piece. Massachusetts. and even rolling paper or linen cartridges for a Sharps or Gwyn & Campbell would have presented considerable difficulties for cavalrymen on the move. 35 grains of GOEX FFg and a beeswax/Crisco lubricant. The Hated Smith Carbine This unusual breechloader was one of the Civil War’s most enigmatic firearms. too. for the period troopers who had their ammo delivered to them ready-made. The lifter was brass to eliminate the chance of rust affecting the mechanism. Smith opted to have his gun break in half to expose the chamber for loading. or the American Arms Company in Chicopee Falls. as far as is known all Smiths were issued to cavalry.50 caliber. it nevertheless offered an innovative solution to ammunition shortages. . while later guns have the standard receivermounted ring and bar setup. By Garry James Posted: 2010-10 . Making cartridges for most Civil War-era breechloaders can be a real pain in the butt. To fire a Smith. To try and reload a Burnside cartridge in the field would have been nigh on impossible. Sights involved a ladder-style rear and German silver blade front. Poultney & Trimble of Baltimore. Instead of employing a lever-activated falling or rising block. The gun could now be folded almost double to receive a cartridge. tried to address the problem. It was then snapped shut. New York. but shortages and bad supply could cause consternation in the 1860s. Interesting Innovation The Smith Carbine was an interesting piece of machinery in a time when there was no dearth of interesting pieces of machinery. a musket cap placed on the nipple and fired. the American Machine Works in Springfield. Despite the Artillery designation. the hammer cocked. Gilbert Smith of Buttermilk Falls. will also be seen stamped on the guns’ receivers. Massachusetts. The receiver and hammer were case-hardened and the barrel.

but the other employed an innovative Indiarubber case. Problems Afield Smith cartridges fell into two basic varieties. allowing it (in theory) to be reloaded in the . 5. Close the action and cap the nipple. Insert a cartridge. Break open the action. into which the bullet could easily be pressed. 3. though there were variations within variations. 4. Cock the hammer and press upward on the brass lifter. One was a more-or-less standard-looking paper-covered foil affair. 2.01 02 03 04 05 1. Seat it fully.

after repeatedly trying to get his Smith to go off. Still. soldiers apparently rarely. in fact. Still. It became so popular. the Smith has low recoil and a high fun factor. By Garry James Posted: 2010-10 Although not very accurate compared to other Civil War carbines. let’s be honest. it nevertheless offered an innovative solution to ammunition shortages. The Hated Smith Carbine This unusual breechloader was one of the Civil War’s most enigmatic firearms. As spiffy and well made a gun as it seemed to be. picket duty and caring for their gear and horses. more than 30. 3rd Maryland. that replicas have been made. 17th Pennsylvania. As well. This prompted one New York trooper. Both types of cartridge had small holes in their bases to allow the flash from the percussion cap to detonate them.000 were ultimately manufactured between 1861 and 1865. As they could get ready-mades from Uncle Sam and they had plenty to do dealing with pesky Confederates. to complain. How many cavalrymen are going to carefully retrieve their spent cases during the heat of battle? Probably none. reports from officers and men were often less than flattering. despite the inventor’s good intentions. There were complaints with the early rubber rounds that the hole was too large. “What a damned fool I am spoiled six caps and haven’t hurt a cussed reb. causing the gun to blow open when fired. 7th and 11th Illinois. Hated by many. if ever. Photo by Rick Hacker . this is perhaps understandable. and while most were purchased by the government.” There were also complaints of the top spring/latch breaking and at least one report of fouling not permitting the latch to drop all the way down. some were also sold commercially during and following the war. this seems never to have been satisfactorily dealt with.field. because of the ease of making up cartridges. the gun performed well enough in tests that a large number were ordered and sent to the field. allowing powder to escape and collect in the bottom of the troopers’ cartridge boxes. officers. Most of the complaints involved the gun’s tendency to misfire—not a great trait in the face of the enemy. Today. and 1st Massachusetts. took advantage of the cartridge’s easy reloadability. where they were ultimately issued to a number of cavalry units including the 3rd West Virginia. the Smith is one of the favorite period carbines for use in Civil War competitions. 6th and 9th Ohio. Curiously. Plus.

Accuracy was in the OK category.At the Range For our evaluation we were able to come up with a very nice-condition original manufactured by the Massachusetts Arms Company.515-inch 365-grainer cast from a Rapine bullet mold. Guess things haven’t changed much. There are various .to 10-inch rested groups at 50 yards. groups could be trimmed down somewhat.100 and 1. You can obtain “space -age rubber” (the dealer’s words. Interestingly enough. As mentioned earlier. even after repeated shots without cleaning. though 100-yarders had a tendency to spread all over the board.200 fps. The Smith ended up being one of the war’s most-issued carbines. reloading for the Smith is a snap. Lubricant was a beeswax/Crisco mixture. In range conditions the Smith performed flawlessly. especially after the gun became fouled.com). To load the round. and the bore was nearly pristine. and the powder charge was 35 grains of GOEX FFg black powder. and we had no misfires. It retains much of its finish. Burnside and Spencer. running fourth behind the Sharps. this would indicate that the gun couldn’t have been all that bad. running from just under 350 grains into the low 500s. it wasn’t the most inaccurate either. www. I suppose with a little tweaking. giving us eight. the rifling seemed to be unnecessarily shallow and had a rather slow twist of 1:62 inches. While the Smith wasn’t the most accurate Civil War carbine I’ve ever fired.50-caliber bullet weights and styles available. Recoil was light and the fun factor high. but I opted for a . Velocity with this load pretty much ran between 1. but then again the federal government made some pretty questionable purchases between 1861 and 1865. And the cases can be cleaned and reloaded many times. . not mine—they look like some sort of plastic to me) Smith cases from Dixie Gun Works (800/238-6785. Original bullet weights varied considerably. all you have to do is pour in the powder and press the bullet in with your thumb to the desired depth—it’s that simple. On the face of it.dixiegunworks.