Gun Test: Dixie Gun Works Baker Cavalry 20 GA

     The early days of the American Civil War were heady times, with much political posturing and great patriotic fervor. Both the old nation and the new had a “cause,” and both were equally determined to pursue it to the end, equally sure that each was in the right. Once the initial furor and exhilaration of the speeches, parades and rhetoric began to fade, and the actual organization began, it became very obvious to the brand-new Confederate government that their military was out-manned and out-gunned in every conceivable way by the immense industrial capability and war treasury of the long-established United States, or what was left of those “united” states after the Southern secession.

The differences in how both governments prepared for war were notable; in the more “urban” North, recruits were typically equipped at the expense of others, whereas in the more agricultural South, recruits were largely on their own in many areas, one of which was arms. Operating with little money to buy the most basic item an army needed to fight with—a rifle—and almost no manufacturing capability to produce their own, the new Confederacy was forced to adopt a “bring your own” policy from the outset.

Finances and manufacturing were recurring obstacles that plagued the Confederate government throughout the war,and despite later contracts with European arms-makers and limited Southern production of some rifles and pistols, the trickle-down effect on the battlefield was the ongoing necessity for the Confederate ground-pounder to use whatever he could scrounge in the field. Those who were fortunate enough to acquire a standardized rifle using standardized ammunition, through supply chains or by picking them up on the battlefield, were frequently in the minority from unit to unit. For many, as the war dragged on, it was a matter of picking up a dead soldier’s rifle and ammunition, Yankee or Rebel, and carrying on until that ammunition ran out or the rifle ceased to function. This was obviously a logistical nightmare for severely strained Southern supply operations, with so many different types of rifles and so many different calibers being used by different units, and even by individual soldiers within a given unit.

Baker Cavalry Shotgun Historic Picture

“At an overall length of 27.25 inches, this compact scattergun is short, light and very fast handling, even if you don’t have a horse to hang it on.”

At the outset, while few Southern households had anything resembling a military-grade rifle, many had hunting shotguns, and those smoothbores were a common sight among the newly formed ranks in grey. Even later in the war, the shotgun was still a favored weapon among cavalry troopers, although in slightly modified form. The chief disadvantage of the shotgun as a combat weapon for infantry—its lack of long-range effectiveness—was actually a benefit to a man on horseback. Contrary to modern Hollywood depictions, the primary weapon of the mounted soldier was not a rifle—it was a saber. Cavalry skirmishes were highly mobilized, hit-and-run, in-your-face engagements at very close distances, and in that role the shotgun’s limited range and high-impact firepower was devastating.

While Southern and Northern troops were equipped in different ways, even when it came to cavalry—Confederate enlistees had to bring their own horses—both sides needed practical long guns that packed a wallop without being too long to handle on horseback. A shotgun bobbed back to a more practical barrel length could certainly fill that role.

Besides being easier to pack, point and sling after firing, a shotgun with 10- or 12-inch barrels was also easier to reload without dismounting than a set of 30-inch hunting barrels, back when everything loaded from the front end. A further advantage of a muzzle-loading double-barreled shotgun, besides an instant second shot, was that a trooper could fire anything from birdshot to patched ball, including “buckshot” charges consisting of pistol balls in .31, .36 and .44 calibers, at times and places where conventional single-shot rifles or muskets might be running short on ammunition. With attrition among men and horses throughout the Southern forces, tactics changed as the war progressed; cavalry began to adopt more of a mounted infantry role, engaging at longer distances, but not before firmly establishing the “sawed-off” shotgun as a fearsome weapon for horse-mounted Confederate soldiers, and prompting no less than the legendary General Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the South’s greatest cavalrymen, to declare that the shotgun was the best cavalry arm available.

Baker Cavalry Historic Illustration

“The Pedersoli-made Baker Cavalry model…gives something of the feel of history
without the hard-kicking recoil of the originals.”

Gun Details

While most genuine cavalry sawed-offs were 10 and 12 gauge versions, Dixie Gun Works offers a trim little 20 gauge, the Pedersoli-made Baker Cavalry model, that’s fun to shoot and gives something of the feel of history without the hard-kicking recoil of the originals.

Weighing at 5.75 pounds unloaded, with its walnut stock and blued, 11.25-inch-long barrels, the Baker is based on those made by London gunsmith Ezekiel Baker around 1850, with a straight, English-style wrist and case-colored locks, hammers, barrel tenon plates, trigger plate, ramrod “thimble” plate and top tang. The nicely blued barrels feature a low rib, a brass bead for aiming and a brass-tipped wooden ram threaded at the rear for a jag or wad-puller. The shotgun also features a blued triggerguard and a well-fitted steel buttplate. Where you’d normally see two triggers, the Baker uses a single, non-selective one that trips the left hammer first. At an overall length of 27.25 inches, this compact scattergun is short, light and very fast handling, even if you don’t have a horse to hang it on.

external hammer baker cavalry

Case coloring and engraving sets off the elegant lines of the external hammers.

Range Time

References vary, with the Dixie 2014 catalog showing 60 grains of FFG black powder behind a 1-ounce shot load, and the Circle Fly Wads website (circlefly.com) quoting 68 grains of powder and 7/8 ounces of shot, as listed in W.W. Greener’s 1910 book, The Gun And Its Development, for a 20 gauge British service charge. Circle Fly’s wads are considered standards in blackpowder muzzle-loading shotguns, and I used three: an over-powder card to tamp the powder down and create a gas seal, a fiber cushion wad to help prevent shot deformation and an over-shot card to hold the pellets firmly in place.

To cover a good range of sizes in the little 20 gauge, I used #4 buckshot, 00 buckshot and 000 buckshot pellets from Hornady. Sticking to Dixie Gun Work’s suggestion as a maximum, I started out with 55-grain charges of Swiss Supreme FFG with a 1-ounce charge in each pellet size and moved up to 60 grains. The 1-ounce here turned out to be 18 pellets in #4, six in 00 and five in 000. Remington #11 caps sparked everything off, and I tested each load at 7 yards through both barrels and with both powder charges. Both barrels have cylinder bores, but as the chart shows, there were differences in patterning between them, which reflects more of the variable nature of the pellet stacking than the muzzle dimensions. Both muzzles, incidentally, were slightly beveled internally, and that helps with card and wad insertion.

Despite the primitive charges, patterning was still surprisingly tight at the 7-yard test distance, with my personal choice if I were charging a skirmish line or a trench with the Baker unquestionably being five of the 000 buckshot pellets and 60 grains of powder. Five of those .35 caliber 000 buckshot pellets would seriously wallop anything in front of it, and a test charge on a small, steel Action Target moved out to 15 yards produced a 7.06-inch pattern, still holding tight enough to carry out even farther. It also had no problem in knocking the target down.

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The Remington caps, as usual, were 100-percent reliable through the session, and lubing the sides of the thick fiber cushion wads with Thompson/Center’s trusty Natural Lube Bore Butter kept the bores from fouling out and interfering with tamping wads down during repeated firing. The single trigger takes some attention; even though it’s oriented for left-hammer-first firing, if you only cock the right hammer, it’ll fire that one. Concentrate while loading to make sure you don’t get out of sequence (a wad under the powder is more than a minor inconvenience), and pre-measured shot and powder charges speed the process up markedly. Don’t try to get too carried away, either—stick to recommended charges for best results.

During testing, the shotgun performed flawlessly, recoil was tolerable, the screws stayed tight, and the only glitch was the loss of the rear ramrod detent in the rib under the barrels. It’s a minor anomaly, and the rod’s still retained by the front detent. A fun little gun, it’s one “sawed-off” that requires no federal paperwork. The Baker is a handy little piece of history you’ll enjoy making lots of smoke with. For more information, visit dixiegunworks.com or call 800-238-6785.

Specification: Dixie Gun Works Baker Cavalry

Gauge: 20 • Barrels: 11.25 inches • OA Length: 27.25 inches
Weight: 5.75 pounds (empty) • Stock: Walnut
Sights: Brass bead front • Action: Blued • Capacity: 2 • MSRP: $995

This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here. 

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