Cavalry Logistics lesson – Carbine ammunition, parts were not universal

Monday being my day to discuss cavalry operations, and my opening steps on this convention being focused on ammunition expenditure, let us take up a logistical question in that regard.  Troopers went into action with a wider selection of arms over their infantry or artillery counterparts.  He often had the choice of using the saber, the pistol, or the carbine (or… for some of you… the lance!).  Of those, technology advances in the years running up to the war most improved the carbine.  I’ll touch upon the pistol and the saber at other times.  Today let us consider the carbine and what it was “fed” when used on the firing line.

For the most part, ordnance officers assigned to the infantry might focus on two calibers, .577- and .54-inch, unless issued some exotic import or new-fangled repeater.  But the ordnance officer supporting the cavalry had a headache to contend with.  Consider the list of popular cavalry carbines used in the war:

  • Spencer Carbine – .52 caliber brass cartridge
  • Sharps Carbine – .52 caliber linen cartridge
  • Burnside Carbine – .54 caliber brass cartridge
  • Smith Carbine – .50 caliber rubber cartridge
  • Henry Rifle – .44 caliber brass cartridge
  • Colt Rifle – .56 caliber paper cartridge
  • Muzzle loading rifled carbines – .54 caliber paper
  • Sharps & Hankins – .52 caliber brass cartridge
  • Maynard Carbine – .50 caliber brass cartridge
  • Joslyn Carbine – .54 caliber brass cartridge
  • Cosmopolitan (Union or Gwyn & Campbell) – .52 caliber linen
  • Hall Carbine, Percussion – .52 caliber paper cartridge
  • Merrill Carbine – .54 caliber paper cartridge
  • Ballard Carbine – .44 caliber brass cartridge
  • Gallager Carbine – .50 caliber brass cartridge
  • Gibbs Carbine – .52 caliber linen cartridge
  • Starr Carbine – .54 caliber linen cartridge

Again, this list is just the “basic” offering. We could spend days identifying more of the imports, exotic limited-use, various impressed weapons, or modified types.  I’ve not included shotguns, as those being impressed civilian arms were not of any standard military caliber.  As it was, any definition of “standard military caliber” as it referred to cavalry carbines would stretch the concept of the word “standard.”  Even where the caliber measure matched, the type of cartridge or even the type of ignition (percussion cap, percussion disk, Maynard tape, or on the cartridge – rim fire or center fire) differed.  So while the infantry might just request “ammunition”, a cavalry formation had to be picky.

This is, of course, nothing new to the student of Civil War cavalry.  Many will recall the armament of Buford’s division on the first day of Gettysburg – a mix of Sharps, Smiths, Burnsides, and Sharps & Hankins.  After a full day of action, each formation required resupply from their own trains.  None could borrow from the other.  And certainly none could draw from the infantry.  But that is one battle – indeed one day of one battle – and not a campaign.  Field formations were not supplied for just one “mad minute” of battle, but rather stocked for a series of actions.

What would make sense, from a logistical standpoint, would be some uniformity to the issue of carbines.  But as with much in life, what starts as a simple, practical solution would break upon the rocks of reality.  From the start of the war, units were equipped with what ever was available.  New equipment was issued when supplies and situation permitted.  Still, even at war’s end the Federal troopers had a mix of Spencers, Sharps, Burnsides, and Smiths.

Beyond just the “square peg in round hole” problem, the variance of ammunition carried other implications.  Consider that a Sharps linen cartridge weighed a little less and was packaged differently than a Spencer brass cartridge.  A standard Sharps round weighed 533 grains.  A Spencer round weighed 549 grains.  One by one, the difference is not significant.  But multiply that difference by thousands and suddenly there are planning factors to consider.

Convert grains to pounds here.  One pound is 7000 grains.  So do all the math and we find 1000 rounds of Sharps cartridges weighs a shade over 76 pounds.  The same number of Spencer rounds weighed just under 78.5 pounds. And that is not counting packing materials and the wood crate used to transport the bulk, which should be similar between the types.  Let’s say that resupply requirements call for 200 rounds per trooper on the supply wagons.  For an 80 man troop, that’s a difference of forty pounds when considering Sharps vs. Spencer.  Forty pounds does not sound like a lot when balanced against the typical army wagon, which could carry 2,800 pounds.  But continue to extend those forty pounds from troop to troop, up to the regimental and brigade level.  By the time the pounds accumulate up for a three squadron regiment, the difference is close to 500 pounds.  By the time the figures are complied for a full brigade, we have nearly a wagon-load difference between a Sharps-equipped unit over a Spencer-equipped unit.

Even more to the point, what YOU would carry.  Eighty rounds of Sharps ammunition weighed about six pounds.  Eighty rounds of Spencer ammunition weighed four ounces more.  Again, not a lot when you first think about it. But that’s four ounces carried around all day.  And four ounces of “bullet” carried in stead of four ounces of something else… like water or food, for either horse or man.  How many calories in four ounces of hardtack?

And that four ounces only accounts for the rounds themselves.  Troopers with Spencer carbines often carried additional magazine tubes and carriers.  So add more than just those four ounces to the amount of displaced hardtack.  Are you getting hungry yet?

Another under-appreciated factor with these carbines is repair parts.  Again, the infantry leaning on a lot more standardization (though not even close compared to today’s armies), the ordnance officer for the foot soldiers could keep the number of line items needed to a minimum.  For the cavalry, every single one of those carbine types required a different set of non-interchangable parts.  Due to the advanced nature, for the time, of the carbine, there were more moving parts that might break.  And again, none of which were standard infantry rifled-musket parts.

Yes, these shortfalls might have been resolved by adopting a standard carbine for mass production (as was done with the Springfield Model 1861 rifle during the war for the infantry).   But which one?   Sharps, which was established at the start of the war?  Spencer repeater, with its tactical advantages?  Or the Smith or Burnsides, which received complaints about reliability?  The reality was none of these types, or the lesser used weapons, was refined to the point that mass production was an option.  So the Civil War carbine was very much a “what we have” issue.  And unfortunately that was a regiment-by-regiment, if not trooper-by-trooper, issue.

And with that issue of carbines, the cavalry commander had considerations beyond what his infantry counterpart usually encountered.   The trooper’s ability to maintain a fire line relied upon many more question marks concerning ammunition and even the ability of the weapon to perform.

One thought on “Cavalry Logistics lesson – Carbine ammunition, parts were not universal

  1. I’ve read where some Confederate cavalry units would equip themselves with captured weapons, particularly carbines. I can’t imagine the difficulties associated with trying to procure ammunition for captured weapons over the long haul, short of specifically setting out to steal ammunition, which would seem like a dicey proposition given the wide range of weapons in use.

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