During the War Between the States, as Lester Horwitz wrote in The Longest Raid of the Civil War, “standardization as far as what Confederate troops wore was practically nonexistent…even more serious was the shortage and lack of uniformity of weapons. Colonel Morgan’s cavalry preferred the medium Enfield and the Sharps and Spencer rifles, but most of his men made do with a miscellany of shotguns, sporting rifles and relics of the Mexican War.” A man who later became a brilliant Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was quoted as saying, “the most efficient cavalry officer in this department, informs me that the double-barrel shotgun is the best gun with which the cavalry can be armed.”
By the midpoint of the war, most cavalry units in the North and especially the South had pretty much abandoned the saber and other such obsolete weaponry. As had been demonstrated years earlier by the Texas Rangers, from the back of a horse, the Colt revolver was “bad medicine” for Comanche warriors. It worked out that way for military cavalry units, too—along with short-barreled musketoons and, later, breechloading carbines like the Sharps and Spencer, among several others. In the South, cavalry units like that of Colonel John Hunt Morgan or partisan outfits like Mosby’s Raiders worked under the necessity of “use whatcha brung.” And one weapon that could be found hanging over fireplace mantels or behind the door of rural Southern homes was a shotgun.
One hundred and fifty years later, the ubiquitous scattergun is still in the arsenal of U.S. military units. It’s hard to beat a weapon that can fire anything from a single heavy projectile to multiple smaller projectiles and even specialty munitions like less-lethal chemical and impact rounds. It’s also a “point and shoot” weapon, with its multiple projectiles not requiring the precise marksmanship required of carbines or rifles. Many of these same qualities endeared the shotgun to Civil-War-era troops. The shotgun, especially the double-barrel variety, could be counted on to provide fast, lethal shots when the fighting was up close and personal, which was normally the case during cavalry engagements. A formal or improvised sling or tether would allow the shotgun to be retained after use, freeing the cavalryman to transition to the percussion revolver, which in the South was often a Colt Navy or a knockoff.
RELATED: Classic Civil War Rifles & Revolvers
In both the North and the South, especially early in the war, militia organizations were formed in towns and counties, usually by one of the more well-heeled or politically active members of the community. A Southern cavalryman generally provided his own horse, tack, clothing and weapons. Later, this could be supplemented with items taken from those captured or killed. These outfits, whether regular or irregular/partisan, were comprised of members both genteel and homespun. The individual’s background usually accounted for the type of weapons carried early on. No doubt, the finer the family, the finer the weapons and accoutrements. Therefore, it would not be out of bounds to see quality American and European arms in the hands or across the saddle pommels of gentlemen Southern cavalrymen. I’m also sure that, as experience was gained and the war progressed, barrels became shorter, as fowling pieces sporting 28- or 32-inch barrels would have been quite unwieldy in close-quarters combat.
A modern-day example of this type of shotgun is called the 1850 Baker Cavalry percussion shotgun, made by Davide Pedersoli of Italy and imported into the U.S. by the EMF Company. This 20 gauge, percussion, side-by-side smoothbore is a reproduction of a similar gun made in 1850 by Ezekiel Baker, a London gunsmith. If the Baker name rings a bell, that’s because Ezekiel was the man responsible for the famous Baker rifle that armed five British rifle regiments like the 95th and several light companies of the King’s German Legion during the Napoleonic Wars. Baker, who operated his business out of Whitechapel, also produced sporting guns for civilian use, and as Great Britain had long-established trading ties with the South both before and during the war, it’s within reason to believe that some of his product ended up on a ship bound for Norfolk or Savannah.
I recently tested the Baker Cavalry shotgun from EMF with barrels cropped to 11¼ inches, which would’ve been a likely modification if it were in the hands of one of John Singleton Mosby’s Gray Ghosts. A once-over from front to back and top to bottom showed the high quality of workmanship in the shotgun’s manufacture, fit and finish. The barrels are nicely blued, with a plain rib running the length between them and a brass bead affixed at the muzzle end. Twin nipples are mounted into the barrel’s breech, which mates with cup-shaped shields in the juncture where the barrels meet with the action side locks. These shields are part of the tang that extends back from the breech into the wrist of the stock. The steel on this component is color casehardened and tastefully engraved; four screw-heads are blued, giving a nice color contrast. The lock faces and mule-eared hammers are also color casehardened with blue screw heads and pins, plus the hammers are engraved and checkered on the spurs. The single trigger—which fires the left barrel first and then the right—is blued, and the triggerguard is color casehardened. The forend is tipped with color casehardened steel and forms a thimble for the wooden ramrod that’s nestled beneath the short barrels. Just behind this hardware is a wedge or key that retains the barrels to the stock. At the butt of the stock is a color casehardened steel buttplate. The stock itself is one piece and made from American walnut with the appearance of an oil finish.
With an overall length of just 27½ inches and an empty weight of 5.75 pounds, this handy shotgun would’ve been just what the doctor ordered for a Confederate cavalryman. Despite the short barrels, when the gun is shouldered it points naturally, and I found it fast and easy to get on target. The twin hammers almost form an aperture or window for the brass bead front sight. The stock’s length of pull and comb height were just perfect for my use and helped with the overall “pointability.” Being a back-action, side-lock shotgun with external hammers, there is no safety. The hammers do have a half-cock setting, but this should only be used when placing percussion caps on the nipples. Threading for the nipples is 1/4×28 in case replacements are needed, and they accept #11 caps. The barrels have cylinder bores, so there are no chokes to speak of. This shotgun is actually modeled after a Civil-War-era shotgun found by Davide Pedersoli that used a single trigger to fire both barrels.
There’s not much out there in the way of information on a shotgun such as this, so I came up with my own formulation for a combat shotgun load. Beside the #11 cap, the first ingredient was Goex FFg black powder and, based on some recent experience with percussion muskets, I settled on a load of 65 grains. Next I obtained some plastic shotgun collars with built-in piston/wads at the base, such as those used in modern shotshells. Inside the collars I inserted 00 buckshot. The collars would only take five pellets, and that left such a gap in between that I found I could also mix in five pellets of #4 buckshot to take up the space and add more lethality to the load. To keep everything in place I used large greased wads made with cotton cloth and Crisco shortening. I measured out the powder and dumped it down each barrel, then followed this with the loaded shot collar/wad, which was rammed to the bottom of the barrel and followed by one of the greased patches. With CCI #11 caps in place, I was ready to shoot.
To pattern the Baker Cavalry shotgun, I put up a Shoot-N-C B-27 silhouette target center so that the results of my test could be readily observed. The distance was 10 yards, which I felt would be a realistic range for a man-on-man cavalry engagement once the two sides closed during their charge. I used the X-ring as my point of aim and brought the hammers to full-cock, pulling the trigger twice. About half of the pellets went into the X and 10 rings. The rest were nines with one eight-ring hit; at least three pellets went outside of the target. There were also two oblong holes where the shot collar/wad had struck. Not too bad. This performance would have definitely spelled doom for an opponent wearing the Union blue. Like most blackpowder long guns, the recoil was more of a strong push back into the shoulder, allowing rapid recovery for the second shot. The large puffs of white smoke were quickly dissipated by the prevailing wind at the outdoor range I was using.
For some “practical shooting,” I again loaded up the Baker shotgun using the aforementioned process and made ready to shoot at a swinging steel plate target. I moved up a few yards and fired each barrel at the center-mass of the plate, and the shot charges really made that plate dance on the end of the thick rubber strip that it hung by. I did this a couple more times with the same result, and it appeared that most, if not all, of the buckshot was striking the plate. As anticipated, the shotgun handled well and was easy to control in rapid fire. Of course, the loading process is quite tedious, but I have seen diagrams of pre-manufactured shot “cartridges” that could have been used to speed up the process. I’m sure that in a hand-to-hand type of engagement, two quick shots would probably be all you would get anyway before transitioning to the revolver. Nothing went amiss during my testing, and I even began to formulate some ideas as to how I could use this gun in a Cowboy Action Shooting event.
As the war entered its fourth year, many locations like Richmond and Petersburg saw siege and trench warfare. The rifled musket finally became the king of the battlefield and was used as it should have been earlier in the conflict. Cavalry tactics also began to change. While horse soldiers continued to be the eyes and ears of field commanders, increasingly units on both sides began to skirmish dismounted, using lever action rifles and carbines like the Maynard, Burnside, Spencer and a host of others. A few stalwarts clung to the shotgun as ammunition could be readily obtained or made up. After the war, short-barrel shotguns became the preferred arm of stagecoach guards, express messengers and lawmen, but that’s another story. For more information, visit emf-company.com or call 800-430-1310.
Editor’s Note: Guns Of The Old West staff would like to congratulate author “La Vista” Bill Bell. Bill recently retired from U.S. Customs and Border Protection after 38 years of outstanding service. Along his travels, Bill has found the time to become one of Harris’ most steadfast contributors to Guns Of the Old West as well as several other Harris Publications titles including Combat Handguns, Guns & Weapons For Law Enforcement and Special Weapons For Military & Police. We look forward to having him in our contributor stable for many years to come. Congrats, Bill!
This article originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.