The Hunt for Old Guns: A Short History of Carbines
In the “Hunt for Old Guns,” we look at 19th-century American firearms – the rare, the unusual, and the iconic. In this episode, we take a short look at the early history of the carbine.
Almost everyone who collects old guns is interested in the history of the guns they collect. The individual focus is of course highly personal. My special interest is in 19th-century American carbines. This partly comes from an interest in the history of America in the 1800s, and it partly comes from an early fascination with the Goodson family carbine – an old Spencer that our family used to help settle the Texas frontier after the Civil War.
In this introductory segment on American carbines, we’ll look at how the carbine configuration evolved and discuss the major characteristics that define this form of small arms.
Kinds of American Long Arms
There were four major kinds of long arms in America in the 19th century. They were generally distinguished by the length of the barrel.
Muskets: These had the longest barrels for long-range shooting. Their barrels are generally over 34 inches and typically had three barrel bands that attached the barrel to the wooden forearm of the gun. Muskets were almost entirely used by U.S. infantry.
Rifle: These guns have the next longest barrels, generally from about 25 to 34 inches with two barrel bands. They were also primarily used by infantry, as well as very widely outside of the military by ranchers, farmers, and others who opened the 19th-century American West.
Musketoons: These were a short-lived and now-obsolete type of 19th-century military long arm. They were intermediate in size, between the rifle and carbine, and designed in part to serve both infantry and cavalry. The form served neither well, and the musketoon largely fell by the wayside as a long arm configuration around the middle of the 19th century.
Carbines: These are the shortest long arm. They were designed specifically for use by soldiers on horseback. They have the shortest barrels, usually from about 18 to 22 inches, and typically with a single barrel band.
Early History of the Carbine
Throughout human history – from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan – men riding horses into battle were the vanguard of troops that conquered the known world. This endured until the early 20th century when mechanized vehicles finally replaced the cavalry and brought about the end of the “horse soldier.”
Gunpowder was invented around the 10th century. By the late 13th century, the Chinese were making guns of brass and iron. By the 14th century, Europeans were making their own black powder firearms, and they were designing guns specifically for soldiers on horseback by the 1700s. The earliest of these, named after the French horseman or carabinier-a-cheval, had short barrels and were lighter and easier for the cavalry soldier to carry.
The carbine configuration proved superbly adapted to use by the cavalry. So, by the end of the 1700s, carbines were in widespread use in Europe. The form wasn’t adopted in America, however, until the first true martial carbine appeared in 1834. These guns were designed specifically to arm the first mounted U.S. Dragoon units authorized by Congress.
The most distinguishing characteristics of carbines are the short overall length and short barrel in comparison to that of the rifle. Carbine barrels are usually about 18 to 22 inches long. But a few longer-barreled American carbines were made, including the earliest carbines of the 1830s and 1840s – the Hall and Hall-North carbines.
Shorter barrels and lighter weight carbines followed, designed to accommodate the field experience of the early American cavalryman. Very short-barreled carbines, with barrels of just 12 to 18 inches, were designed for use by trappers and didn’t come onto the scene until much later in the 19th century. Most of these were made by Winchester.
The short barrel of the carbine sacrifices both range and accuracy. But they’re a reliable and lightweight arm designed for short-to-medium range use by soldiers on horseback. To reduce the weight of the gun, carbine barrels are round instead of the much heavier octagonal barrels found on many 19th-century rifles and muskets.
The second most distinguishing characteristic of the carbine is a “saddle ring” attached to the left side of the gun by either a ring bar or staple. This nearly universal feature is why these guns are commonly called “saddle ring carbines,” or SRCs for short. The saddle ring was clipped to a leather sling that was worn over the shoulder of the rider to secure the carbine while either on horseback or dismounted.
In a few models – the late 19th-century Evans carbine is one example – sling swivels were used instead of a saddle ring to attach the shoulder strap. A few carbines have both a saddle ring and sling rings, while some others have neither.
Saddle rings aren’t an American invention. They were common on European carbines by the end of the 1700s, and their near-universal occurrence on 19th-century American carbines attests to the utility of the invention. They first appeared here on the first martial American carbine in 1834, and they occurred on almost every carbine made after that until the end of the 19th century. The very last U.S.-made saddle ring carbine was the Model 1898 Krag-Jorgensen, a carbine made by the U.S. Springfield Armory that was based on a Danish design. The end of the saddle ring on the Model 1899 Krag carbine marked the end of the era of the American horse soldier.
A third carbine characteristic – although less diagnostic – is the rounded heel and toe of the butt of these guns as opposed to the sharp heel and toe of the typical rifle butt. This feature was adopted in the middle of the 19th century, and it endured because it mostly fixed the problem of catching the gun on the cavalry soldier’s clothes or tack.
These three characteristics – the short barrel, the saddle ring, and the butt profile – largely define the American carbine. While they evolved over the course of the 19th century, all three features persisted even as military needs for the cavalry changed.
In future episodes of “The Hunt for Old Guns,” we’ll dive much deeper into the 19th-century American carbine and explore some of the rare, unusual, and iconic carbines that drive collectors to the ends of the earth – literally – to bring one home for their collection.