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Following the Mexican War, after the U.S. Army began to phase out its dragoon regiments, the army’s remaining cavalry units adopted a new model saber to replace the unwieldy 1840 model, dubbed “old wrist breaker” by seasoned officers. The new Model 1860 Cavalry Saber boasted a 33-inch blade and weighed more than three pounds. Exceedingly popular among the Union’s mounted regiments, more than 300,000 such weapons saw service during the war. Although most cavalry combat involved small arms, this saber could inflict death-dealing wounds, and it was often deployed in mounted charges and occasional hand-to-hand clashes.
One of the principle weapons for Union cavalrymen, a carbine was used for dismounted combat. Although some carbines still used muzzle-loading techniques, the War Department purchased a great many carbines that utilized faster breech-loading mechanisms. Many inventors developed their own remarkable technologies, and these could be found in the diverse array of carbines used by the Union cavalry—the Hall, the Joslyn, the Ballard, the Gallagher, the Starr, the Sharps and the Smith—to name a few. The carbine depicted here is the Burnside, named for the Union general who invented it. Ambrose Burnside’s carbine used a sliding breech block. The loader placed a brass cartridge and percussion cap on the block, slammed it shut and could fire one shot before reloading. About 55,000 Burnside Carbines were used in the Civil War.
Unlike the Springfield or Enfield rifled muskets, this antebellum weapon possessed no rifling. It fired a .69-caliber round ball with three buckshot attached. Because of its ammunition, these rifles were nicknamed “69 buck and ball.” Smoothbore muskets proved considerably less accurate than their rifled cousins—they were accurate to about eight yards—but they possessed certain advantages. They were easier to clean, less prone to fouling and caused more damage when fired at close range. Several Pennsylvania regiments and local militia units used versions of these outdated weapons early in the war or during state emergencies. However, very few veteran regiments carried them throughout the conflict.
In 1860, Connecticut-born Christopher Spencer completed his patent on a new repeating rifle. The Spencer rifle—and eventually the carbine model shown here—fired a metallic, .52-caliber, rim-fire cartridge inserted through a spring-loaded, stock-fed magazine. Each magazine carried seven cartridges, allowing the carbine’s user to fire seven times in quick succession before having to reload. Although highly reliable and boasting an impressive rate of fire, Spencer rifles and carbines did not gain ascendance in the Union armies until late 1863. But once issued, they became highly popular among the enlisted ranks. About 200,000 Spencer repeaters were used during the war, a few of them by the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
One popular Philadelphia regiment, the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, organized in 1861 under the leadership of Colonel Richard Rush. It carried nine-foot Norway fir lances into battle. Quickly, the men of “Rush’s Lancers” found these weapons impractical and they soon fell out of use. The lances’ initial deployment, however, reinforced the persistence of military traditionalism in the Civil War and the necessity of recruiting gimmicks to lure volunteers.
Information for this section was contributed by Timothy Orr, The Pennsylvania State University.
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