During the Civil War, breechloaders were confined almost entirely to cavalry. Among Ordnance leaders, breechloaders were seen more for their convenience of loading an arm on a horse than actually for their increased rapidity in firepower or their simplicity when loading. However, as more and more troops used them, soldiers appreciated the other qualities, especially in comparison to muzzleloaders. Yet, in testing, particularly in the 1850s, accuracy was not the highest quality that a good gun could have.6 According to historian Carl Davis, “In the matter of safety, all of the breechloaders which got as far as field trials in the hands of the troops appear to have been safe. Gas leakage at the breech occasionally caused discomfort, but rarely injury.”6 Safety and range seemed to take precedence over accuracy when the military evaluated an arm.
Although breech-loading was becoming more and more popular among troops due to the clear advantages of a good breechloader, the breech mechanisms were still far perfect. Throughout the Civil War inventors strove to improve their models as they tried to meet requirements to obtain government contracts. The biggest problem with the breech was that it leaked gas that resulted in the shot losing some of its power before the bullet even left the gun.7
Inventors tried to fix the gas leakage by changing the breech mechanisms as to how the breech open and locked and particularly how the breech fit with the top of the barrel. For the Spencer and the Gwyn & Campbell that seal came from a shoulder, or a metal ring, attached to the breechblock that was inserted snugly into the barrel when the breech closed.
Yet others, such as Hezekiah Conent, took the gas block a step further for the Sharps Carbine. Conent invented a ring that expanded due to gunpowder during the explosion and that sealed the joint between the top of the barrel and the breechblock. The advancement did not stop there. Richard Lawrence lengthened the ring and added a cone feature in the middle of the ring, which increased the effectiveness of the gas block. Moreover, he attached a plate to the ring so that the expanding ring did not harm the barrel or make the breechblock difficult to move.
Other inventors would seek to stop the leakage in a different way. Around 1856, Ambrose Burnside, who patented the Burnside Carbine, and Gilbert Smith, who patented the Smith Carbine, used the ammunition. Burnside’s metallic cartridge wrapped in paper had a specially designed greese ring, which helped to seal the breech.6
By the end of the war, breech-loading was greatly refined and seemed more practical with metallic self-contained cartridges and a percussion ignition system.8 The War brought the advancements of breech-loading to the attention and demonstrated the mechanisms’ importance on a large scale. The government turned its full support behind the breech-loading system following the war and looked to the new mechanisms requiring an easy-to-load, self-contained cartridge.9
Breech-loading and its Mechanisms
ARTIFACT AND PHOTO:
CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER
open breech of the 2nd Model Gwyn & Campbell, 1862 Carbine
The first recorded American patent for breechloaders and, in fact, for American firearms in general came on January 24, 1815 from inventor John H. Hall.1 His rifle was a flintlock whose breech lifted to load. The rifle was also made out of interchangeable parts.2 The Hall would be the last breechloader to use a flintlock priming system.3
After a Frenchman created the percussion ignition system for breechloaders, Inventor John Hall created the smoothbore Hall carbine in 1833.4 The Hall Carbine was such a success with the government that John Hall was given a job at Harper’s Ferry, where he would inspire the next generation of arms makers, such as Christian Sharps.5 Men like Hall and Sharps, along with the other breech-loading carbine inventors during the Civil War, pioneered the breechloading advancement.
Just as there was no universal breech, there was not even a standard breech movement. Breeches maneuvered in many different ways to allow the loading of a cartridge. The Gwyn & Campbell’s breechblock pivoted up and down like a hinge. The Gibbs Carbine’s barrel pushed out and up. The Sharps and Hankins’ barrel slid horizontally out. The Smith essentially split in half, was loaded, and pushed back together. The Warner Carbine breech’s top flipped open. The Starr and Sharps had breeches that dropped down. The Burnside had a double-pivoted breechblock that droped down as well. And the list continues. had a double-pivoted breechblock that dropped down as well. The list continues with breeches of different motion and technical complexity.b
a The muzzleloading to breechloading conversions will not be dicussed within this website because those conversion deal more with rifles than with carbines as well as take place after the war due to the popularizing of breechloading during the Civil War.
b The time limit on this project has not allowed the author to explore in detail all of the carbines used in the Civil War. The author has examined four: the Spencer, Sharps, Burnside, and Union. The first three were widely used and popular during the Civil War as well as made by larger factories, and the latter demonstrated a more obscure carbine made by a smaller company.
1 Charles R. Norton, compiler. American Inventions and Improvement in Breech-Loading Small Arms, Heavy Ordnance, machine guns, magazine arms, fixed ammunition, pistols, projectiles, explosives, and other munitions of war, including a chapter on sporting arms (Springfield, Massachusetts: Chapin & Gould, 1880); Joseph G. Bilby, A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2006),31.
2 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 30-31, 34.
3 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 34.
4 Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 34-35.
5 Norton, American Inventions and Improvement in Breech-Loading Small Arms, 12.
6 Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Civil War (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1973), 120.
7 Winston O. Smith, The Sharps Rifle: Its History, Development and Operation (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1943), 47.
8Davis, The Sharps Rifle, 763, ix; Bilby, A Revolution in Arms, 34.
9 Bibly, A Revolution in Arms, 40.
A Variety of Breech Mechanisms
During the Civil War, the multitude of breech-loading mechanisms were far from standardized. Each carbine brand had at least a slightly different breech and most, if not all, were patented. There were multiple incentives for the inventors to create and update their breech-loading guns. Because the breeches were patented, the inventor and company could make a profit. Also, inventors obtained patents, because they thought that their breech was the most cutting-edge and innovative. Possibly if the inventors and the companies did not believe that, then they could have tried to gain a contract with another inventor of a different carbine to manufacture a more advanced gun, filling the government need. For example, the Burnside Rifle Company manufactured Spencers for the government at the end of the Civil War.
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
5th Model Burnside Carbine's opened breech
ARTIFACT: NATIONAL FIREARMS MUSEUM | PHOTO: ALLISON AND BRITTANY VENTURELLA
New Model 1865 Sharps Carbine's Open Breech
Although this advancement preceded the Civil War, the Civil War popularized it as a solution to cavalrymen's struggle to load a gun on horseback.