Gun Test: Classic Civil War Rifles & Revolvers

At the start of the Civil War, the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company was the largest and most successful arms-marker in the country with an entire range of revolvers (and revolving rifles) from small-caliber pocket pistols to .44 caliber Dragoons, the highly regarded .36 caliber 1851 Navy and the new .44 caliber 1860 Army. Although Colt may have perfected and patented the design for the mechanically operated revolving-cylinder pistol, he was not alone in the American firearms business. Instead, he was the catalyst for an emerging industry that flourished throughout the Civil War.

After the Colt patent expired in 1857, E. Remington & Sons in Ilion, New York, introduced the 1858 Remington-Beals Navy and Army model revolvers chambered in .36 and .44 calibers, respectively. Unlike the open-top Colt design, Remingtons featured a solid top strap and a threaded barrel, providing greater strength and ease of operation compared to Colt’s wedge-pinned barrel. One could change a Remington cylinder in seconds without having to remove the barrel. This was a distinct advantage in combat.

Colt 1851 Navy

Original Colt 1851 Navy

Popular Colts

Colt has often been accused of “staying too long at the fair,” building open-top revolvers for decades when it had long been established that a revolver with a solid frame and threaded barrel was a stronger design. Remington knew this when it introduced its first revolvers. Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson knew it as well when they unveiled their first small-caliber cartridge revolver in 1857. Why then did Colt continue to manufacture open-top revolvers until 1873? There are two answers. First, they didn’t, and secondly, sales of established models, such as the 1849 Pocket Revolver, Third Model Dragoon and 1851 Navy, were so lucrative by the 1860s that only a fool would dare tamper with their success. And Samuel Colt was nobody’s fool. He was one of the most gifted designers and marketing entrepreneurs of his time. And he had the government contracts to prove it. The Civil War changed it all. Ordnance Department demands quickly pushed Colt to its production limits on the 1851 Navy and 1860 Army as well as fulfilling military orders for Third Model Dragoons—all while trying to maintain its lucrative civilian market. Of course, many of Colt’s clientele were soldiers or their families purchasing the maker’s popular .36 caliber pocket pistols, to which Samuel Colt had added the Police Model in 1862 and the soon-to-be-introduced Pocket Navy Model. This was to be the last revolver designed by Samuel Colt, who passed away on January 10, 1862, leaving control of the company to his family and chief of operations, Elisha King Root, who became president of Colt for the duration of the war.

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With Colt’s production divided between pistols and long arms, the latter for the military, it was only a matter of time until the dam would burst, but rather than a flood of manufacturing problems, Colt suffered quite the opposite fate: A fire on February 4, 1864, destroyed the original structures erected by Samuel Colt in 1855. Tragically for Colt and the government, among the buildings lost was the factory where revolvers were manufactured and completed for delivery. Colt’s newer factories, located behind the original structure in the form of a capital “H” and dedicated to manufacturing U.S. Model 1861 rifled muskets, were unharmed. The shortfall in handguns, however, would shift the balance in favor of Remington and a handful of smaller U.S. arms-markers.

Remington’s Role

In 1861, the Ordnance Department purchased 3, 950 Remington-Beals Navy revolvers. Between August and March of the following year, 7,250 Navy models were ordered and in June the Ordnance Department contracted directly with Remington to supply another 5,000 Navy models and 15,000 Army revolvers. As the Civil War continued into 1863, Remington was asked for “all the Army .44 revolvers you can deliver within the present year,” resulting in 18,902 guns being produced. This was followed by an order for 64,900 Army models in November. Within a year Remington had delivered 57,003 guns from that order, an average of 4,750 guns a month! With Colt’s handgun production severely hampered by the February fire (only 3,000 1860 Army and 5,000 1851 Navy revolvers were produced in 1864), the Ordnance Department turned to Remington for another 20,000 Army models to be received between January and March 1865. Needless to say, the Ilion, New York, manufacturing facilities were bustling until the end of the war. The net result was that Remington was second only to Colt in arming the U.S. military. Final production totals showed 12,251 Navy and 115,557 Army revolvers of all model variations produced for the U.S. between 1861 and 1865.

Civil War Confederate Guns

Confederate Guns

Starr Power

A distant third behind Colt and Remington, but no less in demand during the war, was the Starr, a uniquely styled handgun patented in 1860 by New York arms-marker Ebenezer T. Starr. His original .36 caliber revolvers featured a double-action trigger and a distinctive top-break design for changing cylinders. The Ordnance Department initially purchased 1,810 guns for trial. They performed well enough to generate a demand from the War Department in 1862 to produce a .44 caliber version for use by the Army.

Sadly, Starr’s innovative revolvers were misunderstood by a great majority of enlisted men who found the double-action design difficult, if not downright confusing, to operate since the trigger was actually not the trigger but a “lifter” used to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer. The hammer was released by depressing a small curved lever on the frame that was struck by the back of the lifter when pulled fully to the rear. The gun was intended to be fired as rapidly as possible by continually pulling the lifter, but it could also be fired by using the lifter to only cock the gun, then letting off, taking precise aim and pulling the lifter the rest of the way. One could also let the trigger finger slip behind the lifter and touch off the hammer release, which actually required less effort. This is what really confused most soldiers who had trained with single-action Colts and Remingtons, and worse, trying to thumb-cock the Starr could easily cause it to jam. One officer in the 12th Kentucky stated, “The man who sold these pistols to the government and the contractor who bought them ought to be hanged as traitors.” Like I said, misunderstood, so much so that Starr was asked to make the gun into a single action, leading to the next model introduced in 1863. The more traditional SA version also came with a longer 8-inch barrel (the DA models had 6-inch barrels). This third variation became the most prolific Starr model, with production reaching 25,000 by the end of 1864.

RELATED: Soldiers & Lawmen: American Warriors

The greater advantage of the Starr was its top-break design. The topstrap was mortised to fit over the standing breech, thus giving the guns incredible strength and ease of reloading with another cylinder by simply unscrewing a large knurled crossbolt that passed through the frame between the recoil shield and hammer, then breaking open the action and replacing the cylinder. The Starr did not use a conventional cylinder arbor; instead, a long ratchet shaft on the back of the cylinder seated directly into the breech. At the front of the cylinder, a conical bolt locked into a corresponding recess in the frame when the action was closed. This took only a matter of seconds unless one was unfortunate enough to drop and lose the threaded crossbolt! The gun could also be loaded conventionally using the traditional under-barrel rammer.

Although it built quality handguns and rifles (Starr also produced an equally innovative breech-loading .54 caliber carbine), when the war ended the company was unable to compete with larger manufacturers like Winchester, Sharps, Colt and Remington. After giving it a good go for two more years, Ebenezer Starr finally closed the doors to his Yonkers, New York, factory in 1867.

Civil War Chiappa Spencer Rifle

Chiappa Spencer Rifle

Rifles & Muskets

When it comes to long arms, outside of the single-shot Sharps, a favorite of Confederate and Union snipers, the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles are unparalleled for their firepower. Designed by Christopher M. Spencer and first patented in 1860, the seven-shot Spencer rifles and carbines were carried by thousands of Union troops and cavalrymen. Spencer started working on the design in 1857. A year later he fashioned a prototype and in 1859 presented a working sample for his patent application for the “C.M. Spencer Self-Loading Fire Arm.”

Built to withstand heavy use, the heart of the Spencer was a rotating block that could feed a cartridge into the breech each time the action lever was operated. Rounds were stored in a spring-loaded magazine tube that fit inside the buttstock. Each time the action lever was lowered, a chambered shell was extracted and a new round carried into the breech by closing the lever. All that remained was to fully cock the hammer, take aim and pull the trigger. While not as fast as Benjamin Tyler Henry and Oliver Winchester’s lever-action design, which automatically cocked the hammer on the backstroke of the bolt, the Spencer was less prone to damage in the field with its cache of seven cartridges safely carried inside the rifle’s stock, rather than exposed to the elements in an open magazine tube like the Henry. Granted, the Henry packed more than twice as many cartridges, but the .56-50 Spencers were nearly as powerful as a .58 caliber musket ball. Spencer rifles were made to fill orders for both the Navy and Army and were produced with 30-inch barrels (three-band rifles with full stocks) and 22-inch barrels (carbines with saddle rings). In 1863 Custer’s 2nd Michigan Cavalry regiment carried the Spencer rifles rather than carbines into battle at Gettysburg.

The Henry rifle was one of the most admired and feared weapons in the hands of U.S. troops, and one of the most coveted prizes for any Confederate soldier (assuming he found cartridges as well). The U.S. War Department never purchased Henry rifles for federal troops in significant numbers; instead, individual soldiers and units purchased them at their own expense. It was the soldiers in the field who recognized the value of the 16-shot repeater in a firefight. A trained marksman armed with a well-cared-for and smoothly operating Henry could inflict more damage to an enemy skirmish line in less than a minute than any man armed with a rifled musket.

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Southern Guns

“Southern guns” in this article refer specifically to arms manufactured in the South after the start of the war and, like all of the makes and models thus far mentioned, are reproduced today. Among the most famous Confederate revolvers is the Griswold & Gunnison. The company was established in 1862 and immediately contracted with the new Southern government in Richmond, Virginia, to take its entire production. Using various Colt models as a basis, the general shape of the Griswold was similar to an 1851 Navy but with an octagonal-to-round barrel and a frame made of brass rather than steel. Griswold & Gunnison produced around 3,500 guns during the war. When you compare that to the number of guns produced by Remington in the same period, the Griswold pales in comparison, but for the South it was a significant contribution to the war effort.

One of the more distinctive-lookingSouthern revolvers was the Spiller & Burr. These guns were originally manufactured by Edward Spiller, nephew of James Henry Burton, lieutenant colonel of the Army, and David Burr, a respected Richmond, Virginia, industrial engineer. Together they formed Spiller & Burr in 1862, receiving a contract to produce 15,000 revolvers in two and a half years. The company had manufacturing problems from the start, and very little was actually accomplished in 1862. By the following year the course of the war had changed—the Confederacy had suffered great setbacks at Gettysburg and Vicksburg—and the need for more arms prompted the Confederate government to purchase Spiller & Burr in January of 1864 and move production from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia. Guns produced in both Atlanta and Macon were also known as the “Whitney” model because of their similarity to the 2nd Model revolvers made by Eli Whitney, Jr., at the Whitneyville armory in Connecticut. The estimated number of Spiller & Burr revolvers made is 1,450, with production divided between Atlanta from 1863 to 1864, and the arsenal in Macon through 1865.

Among the smaller but more memorable makes copied from Colt designs was the Leech & Rigdon, which added another 1,500 revolvers to the Confederate effort between 1863 and 1864. Afterward, another 1,000 models were produced by Rigdon, Ansley & Co. in Augusta, Georgia, before General William T. Sherman and the Union Army’s historic March to the Sea in November and December of 1864, which left everything from Atlanta to the Savannah coastline under federal control.

Civil War Pietta Lemat

Pietta America Remembers LeMat

The most famous of all Southern handguns was the LeMat. Bold in its design and more so in its appearance, being a nine-shot, .42 caliber revolver with a lower “shotgun” barrel cylinder arbor, this massive one-man arsenal was the work of Dr. Jean Alexandre Francois LeMat, and his cousin by marriage, U.S. Army Major Pierre-Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the very same Beauregard who would lead the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861.

The first examples of the LeMat were manufactured in Philadelphia by gun-maker John H. Krider. Though designed and prototyped in America, and initially presented to the U.S. military for evaluation by then Major Beauregard, events would lead to the LeMat being manufactured in Europe for the Confederacy. Production of the LeMat revolvers began in Liège, Belgium, then the biggest arms-making center in the world. LeMats were also made in Paris in 1864, while others were shipped in the white and completed in London. The Paris LeMats consisted principally of those models regarded as the Navy variation with round triggerguards. Never produced in large quantities, there were two principal LeMat models: the Cavalry or C.S. Army version manufactured in Belgium with a spur triggerguard, lever-type barrel release, crosspin barrel selector (primary nine-shot cylinder or lower shotgun barrel) and swiveling lanyard ring; and the Navy variation with a knurled pin barrel release, spur barrel selector and round triggerguard. Both versions are perfectly reproduced today by Pietta.

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Rebel Long Arms

While the South was unable to manufacture the U.S. Model 1861 rifled musket or its later 1863 or 1864 iterations, captured arms added considerably to the South’s inventory. In Firearms of the Confederacy, Fuller and Steuart wrote, “It has been estimated on good authority that the Battle of the Wilderness netted 35,000 small arms, Second Manassas 20,000, Harper’s Ferry 11,000, Fredericksburg 9,000, Antietam and Shiloh 15,000 and the Tennessee campaign of late 1862 netted them around 27,500 small arms, totaling around 117,000 arms. Chancellorsville and Chickamauga added another 35,000 to this so that by the middle of 1863 there were quite likely more arms of this model [1861 rifled muskets] in Confederate service than any other kind.”

Even with that, however, there remained an imbalance in the number of arms available to the South. While many small manufacturers answered the call to make revolvers, the manufacturing of long arms was a far greater task. At the forefront was the C.S. Richmond Armory in Richmond, Virginia. The armory was charged with building new .58 caliber percussion muzzleloaders of the U.S. Model 1855 configuration and the later Model 1861 variation, as well as reconditioning and rebuilding older muskets. Richmond was also home to C.S. Robinson Arms Manufacturing, which produced a very accurate copy of the Sharps Model 1859 carbine. Chambered in .52 caliber, the 21-inch-barreled breechloaders were manufactured through 1865. These two, along with a number of accurately copied Confederate-style and Southern-marked rifles and muskets are reproduced today by Chiappa and Pedersoli.

While this only scratches the surface of guns used in the Civil War, the vast number of contemporary reproductions has made many rare and very collectible models available to the general public, guns that otherwise would only be seen in museums or in private collections. 


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