Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Colt Carbine

Samuel Colt's revolvers were popular by the time of the U.S. Civil War.   Born in 1814, Mr. Colt was an American industrialist who developed and manufactured  mass produced revolvers for civilian, police and military use which utilized interchangeable parts --  something that was relatively new in the 19th century.  Colt's  weapons are  of clean  lines, simple to operate, rugged and relativley inexpensive.  As a result, The .36 calibre Colt's Model 1851 Navy and the .44 calibre Colt's Model 1860 Army service revolvers were immensely popular with both sides during the War Between the States.

The 19th century marked a turning point in military tactics.   The range and accuracy of weapons changed how commanders would use troops in the field.  Much as how the rifled musket had altered infantry tactics, revolvers and breech loading carbines added new dimension to how cavalry fought.  While military planners did not universally accept the notion of placing a multiple shot long arm (musket, carbine or rifle) in the hands of soldiers (many if the brass thought that a soldier with a multiple shot weapon would waste ammunition), some gunmakers developed such carbines and rifles based upon the idea of increasing the individual soldier's firepower.  

Colt began manufacturing  revolving percussion rifles and carbines in the 1830s.  The arm depicted above is a Colt's Model 1855 Revolving Percussion Carbine.   The Model 1855 came in three calibres -- .36, .44 and .56 calibre.  It also came in four barrel lengths -- 15, 18, 21 and 24 inches. In .36 and .44 calibre, the cylinder held 6 rounds.  In .56 calibre, it held 5 rounds.  

The United States government adopted this longarm in 1855.  However, the weapon was not without controversy.   The main problem encountered with the 1855  Concerned involuntary firing.  Firing the weapon resulted in hot gasses lingering around the ammunition chamber.  These hot gases had the tendency  to discharge some or all of the  chambers at the same time; quite a calamity considering that the user's left hand is supporting the weapon by holding it i. front of the cylinder.    Reportedly,  the involuntary firing occurred so frequently that warnings issued to users of the Model 1855 to support the weapon with the left hand in a location clear of the cylinders.   I have also heard that some soldiers supported the weapon by engaging the loading lever (located in front of the cylinder) by folding it downward and holding it.  This would keep the user's hand clear of the cylinders should the weapon involuntarily discharge.  Apparently, this method of self-preservation was only an option on the 5 round models as the engaged loading lever's plunger would not enter a chamber. Rather, it would rest on the cylinder's face.

Although never issued in the numbers of the Spencer carbine, and not prized as much as the Henry carbine, the Colt's Model 1855 had notable use in the Civil War.  At the Battle of Chickamauga (September 18-20, 1863), the 21st Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, utilized their .56 caliber Model 1855s against a Confederate assault with devastating effect.

When is was in law school, I had a good friend who shared my interests in the Civil War and militaria collecting.  He had special way of referring to a very uncommon item.  My friend would describe the scarcity if an item as being "rare as hen's teeth."  I wouldn't say that the Colt's Model 1855 is as rare as hen's teeth, but it certainly not a commonly encountered weapon in the market today.  The example depicted above is not and never has been in my collection.   Maybe one day........

Photo used by permission and courtesy of