The Civil War Smith percussion carbine

While the US Government was conservative in arming the infantry, and focused solely on muzzle loading arms, the cavalry was a kind of research laboratory for the Ordnance Department, allowing new concept to enter the military system. The cavalry had its special needs of course, and the breech loading concept did fit the mounted use much better than loading any arm from the muzzle. Beside this practical reason it was also important that arming the cavalry initiated with a white paper, as only very few, obsolete breech loading cavalry carbines were available in the beginning of the war, so the Ordnance Department had to be open for new firearms concepts just to be able to give something to their horsemen. This resulted a wide variety of cavalry carbines and revolvers issued to the troops.

The Smith carbine was the 4th most issued carbine of the conflict after the Sharps, Burnside and Spencer, and probably the best construction. The Board of Ordnance bought 30,362 carbines till 1865.


Gilbert Smith was working on his solution to solve the gas leakage at the breech since the 1850s, and his solution was probably the most suitable for percussion breech loaders. His idea was to split the chamber in to two halves and use flexible material – India rubber – for the cartridge case to seal the joint.[1]

It was 1855 when Gilbert Smith submitted his first breech loading carbine to the Board of Ordnance at the Washington Arsenal for testing. This breech loader was not the break action design but an earlier version of his concept. These first tests proved that his concept was unfit for service, therefore his arm was rejected.[2]

Patent No 15469, one of the first attempts.

The negative feedback did not stop Smith. In the following two years he submitted four patents connected to breech loading arms. The third, No. 17,644 patent granted on 23 June 1857 described a breech mechanism that accepted cartridge with case formed from an elastic material. The barrel of this gun slid forward for loading; it was not the same mechanism that we know today as the Smith breech-loader. His fourth patent, No. 17,702, 11 May 1857, described the cartridge itself: “in making the cartridge case, or, at least the cylindrical portion of it, of india-rubber cloth, or vulcanized india-rubber, for the purpose of serving as packing by its lateral expansion of the charge, consequent upon the explosion of the charge, against a joint near the middle of the chamber of, or at a distance from the breech of, a breech-loading fire-arm.”[3]

Patent No. 17644 The split breech design.


Upon firing the case expanded into the chamber and sealed the joint, while as the gas pressure dropped, it contracted and was easy to extract. The case was a piece of india-rubber cloth rolled up on a wooden or metal mandrel same in size as the bore. A side of the cloth was covered with adhesive, and a leather bottom with a touch hole was glued to the bottom.

The first military trials

His system was submitted for trials in 1857. The rifle was a .48 cal firing a 330-grain elongated projectile with 40 grains of gunpowder. The report of the Ordnance Board stated “The joint seems to be completely closed by the packing of the India rubber cartridge case, and the parts seem to be simple and strong. … The firing was very uniform and very accurate. This arm loads with great facility.”[4]

Smith did not have proper facility to produce his arms, nor he had a sales network, so he used contractors to deliver the Government orders. First, he teamed up with Thomas Poultney from Baltimore, and submitted a new rifle concept for the official trials in 1858 in the Washington Arsenal. This was the hinged break-action type we associate today with Smith’s name. The .488 cal rifle fired a cartridge holding 402 grain bullet and a 41-grain powder charge. The heart of the action is a brass button located forward the trigger. By pressing this button up, the strong spring on the top releases the catch, and allows the rifle to break into two halves, and the action opens cca. 90 degrees. The joint is strengthened by a male and female cone. The barrel and receiver are turning on an axis. This offers an excellent access to the cartridge, and as the case is protruding from the chamber, it is very easy to remove the spent case.

The same year Smith asked for a patent reissue, implementing some minor modification to the original text. Probably the most important was to expand the type of materials to form the case from. The reissue No. 598 of 1858 uses the words “some impermeable and elastic substance” to form the cases from, instead of limiting it to India-rubber. The breech-loading system and the cartridge was patented in England as well in 1859. This was already the break-action rifle that was later issued to the cavalry troops during the Civil War. The Ordnance Department was not interested in the carbine for a year, but in 1860 they finally placed an order for Poultney and Trimble for 300 carbines at $35 apiece.[5]

The company failed to deliver, as it did not have proper production capacity, so Thomas Poultney looked for contractors who have large enough capacity for thousands of rifles. Massachusetts Arms Company seemed like a good solution, but it was completely destroyed by a fire in January 1861. The same year in August Poultney received his first large contract for 10000 carbines at a cost of $32.25 per piece. Another subcontractor was involved till the factory of Massachusetts Arms was rebuilt. Parts were supplied by American Machine Works in Springfield.[6] The deliveries finally started but the order fulfilment was below what Poultney confirmed when accepting the order. Not only the deliveries were slow, but there were objections against the cost, while there were quality issues as well.

The most common defects of the arm were the break of the closing spring and the break of the trigger guard. Both could easily render the gun useless. As if the spring was broken, the action could not be closed, and if the trigger guard was broken, the brass lifter button could be lost, and the cation could not be opened anymore. Major Peter Valentine Hagner of the U.S. Board of Ordnance had an opinion in 1862, that these breakages were caused because of the use of inferior metal material for these parts. The contract was forfeited, but the department purchased all assembled guns at a price of $30 later $27 apiece. Poultney tried to fight the decision, and begged for additional lead time, to deliver the remaining 4000 pieces.

His request was accepted, so he could fulfil the order in 1862.[7] In August 1863, the Massachusetts Arms decided to concentrate on the production of the Maynard carbine, and passed part of Smith carbine business to American Machine Works. Thomas Poultney still had plans with the Smith, so from September 1863, he moved the later contracts to the American Machine Works. The company started producing gun making machinery, castings and forgings from in 1861. Based on a newspaper article of the Springfield Daily Republican, October 15,1863, cited by Santarelli, the company manufactured 5000 Smith carbines as a subcontractor of Massachusetts Amrs, and later obtained an individual contract for 12,000 pieces in 1863.[8]

Each Smith Carbines therefore has three brand names stamped on the receiver: Smith as the patent owner, Poultney and Trimble as the principal contractor, and one of the three makers as the company responsible for making the rifles. All three manufacturers had its own serial number ranges, meaning that the existence double or triple serial is mostly probable.[9] Massachusetts Arms Company was ‘marked Mass Arms Co’, American Machine Works was marked ‘Amn.M’ch.wks’ on the receivers.

The early models had a sling swivels attached to the front band holding the forestock and screwed into the stock. These models are often called artillery models, but in fact they were cavalry arms. Later models have sling bars attached to the left side of the receiver.

Opinions about the Smith carbine

The Smith rifle seemed like a perfect carbine, but in fact its fit for military use was considered controversial. Major Raleigh Edward Colston of the Virginia Military Institute was not in favour of the carbine. After tests in 1860 he stated that although the rifle is easy to operate if clean, after 60 shots the action will be so clogged that it rendered the carbine useless. He also had objection against the India rubber cases, stating that the carbine will not operate without the case (cannot be loaded with lose powder and ball), and the soldiers will certainly loose the cases in the heat of the battle, that they supposed to save for reloading. He also had objections with handling the gun on horseback. Being a horse soldier, he had experience with different carbines, and noted that “if the rifle is placed in the hollow of the arm for loading, it deranges the position of the bridle hand, and at last the gun has to be placed in this hand for priming.”[10]

The board of the Washington Arsenal, that also tested the gun the same year had much better opinion, stating that “the Board entertains a more favourable opinion of this arm than of any breech loading arm presented, and therefore recommends it to be adopted…”[11]

The Smith carbine was put on trials at the U.S. Navy as well. Rear admiral David Dixon Porter used the carbine for two years without cleaning it. He wrote to Smith that “in accuracy and range it is superior to the Spencer rifle which I consider one of the best guns”.[12]

The Ordnance Department faced constant challenges due to the large number of arms serving in the Union Army. Cavalry carbines were not exemptions. In 1862 nineteen different breech loading carbines were in service. The Department had its will to limit the number of contracts, but the first war years requested a very flexible approach to be able to arm the newly raised units. By 1862 the logistic chaos of the first period of the war eased, therefore efficiency, economy and standardization became the main goals of the organization. The Congress established a commission for auditing all existing contracts in 1862 with commissioners Joseph Holt and Robert Dale Owen. Their report was submitted 1 July 1862 after a three-month audit period.[13]

The report made suggestions on choosing contractors and also suggested maximum purchasing prices for small arms, while also emphasized the necessary reform of adaptation of new arms:[14]

“The Commission respectfully urge, therefore, increased restrictions upon the multiplication off patterns of arms for use in the service:

  1. That the same arm shall be tried, by competent officers, in comparison with the best in use; that it shall be proved superior in essential qualities, or in probable cheapness of manufacture, to such.
  2. That after a sample has been approved, as above, 1,000 be ordered for trials by troops, and that no larger numbers be ordered until satisfactory trial has been made by them.
  3. That general orders be given requiring all captains of companies to report quarterly to the chief of ordnance the kind of arms in use by his company; his opinion of the suitableness of the arm and the general extent of service, and the number requiring repairs since last report. Such reports, regularly and carefully made, would best check the purchase of unsuitable arms, and soonest show the best and strongest for service.”

The situation of cavalry arms were probably the worst among all arms. Both the carbines and revolvers were supplied by many private contractors simultaneously. The field reports, flowing in to the Department, however, were anything but useful: completely contradictory reviews arrived from the officers. The evaluation of the Smith carbine among the field officers seemed to be a good one. According to Joseph Bilby, 17 officers rated it as the “best”, fourty-six as a “good” arm, eleven as a “fair” carbine, four az “poor” and eight considered Gilbert Smith’s patent arms “worthless”. This is not a bad balance at all![15]

On 12 September 1863 P. H. Watson, Assistant Secretary of War directed the Chief of Ordnance to establish a board of the ordnance officers in Washington, “to consider and report upon the proper calibre and length of bore of carbines for the use of cavalry in the service of the United States.” The report was submitted on 24 September 1863, with the following result: “The diameter of the bore of the barrels should be .52 inches. Length of the barrel should be 22 inches. Weight of piece not to exceed eight pounds, nor to be less than six pounds. The weight of powder in the charge should be, in every case, at least of one-tenth of that of the ball.” The board also named five cavalry carbines, that should be manufactured with the .52 cal bores. The Sharps, Gibbs and Starr, because they can all be fired with the same paper or linen cartridge, and the Sharps & Hankins and the Ballard, as they can then fire the cartridge of the Spencer. All other carbines in service remained unchanged as their cartridges were unique, and any other modifications would only increase the confusion.

But it was still not decided which model was the best among the 19 types in service. To make things more difficult, a new competitor appeared on the scene, offering a highly effective breech loader repeating rifle for the cavalry and infantry as well. The Spencer rifle was clearly superior compared to any other models in service.

To coordinate all the question related to the cavalry arm of the U.S. army the Cavalry Bureau was formed to work closely with the Quartermaster Department on purchasing horses and equipment. A Bureau investigated the available carbines in 1863, and published the “Report on arms” document for further use. On February 17, 1864 Brig.-gen. James Harrison Wilson was assigned as chief of the bureau, who was a great supporter of the Spencer repeating rifles. The cavalry arm was in transition by these times. The breech loading arms and the repeaters were favoured by the Wilson, so the Spencer was the clear winner of the evaluations. Indeed, Wilson was right. The repeaters increased the fighting capabilities of the horse soldier, and paved the way to the enforcement of the dragoon  (or more precisely the mounted riflemen) concept, that already proved useful on the North American continent well before the Civil War.

The Ordnance Department decided to cut the process short and conducted a survey led by Brigadier-General James Harrison Wilson in 1863 to examine all cavalry carbines in service. Each contractor was requested to submit a typical production carbine to the Washington Arsenal where qualified inspectors examined each and every single arm. Wilson submitted his report in February 1864.

The next step was to examine closely the question of ammunitions. Large portion of small arms ammunition was supplied by private contractors, but the products of various US Arsenals also varied. To initialize a standardization process, major A. B. Dyer, Chief of Ordnance instructed to make a complete series of experiments to determine the best calibre and charge for cavalry carbines. The order was issued on 4 February 1864, but the full standardization never happened, as the war ended before a conclusion was reached.

The Smith carbine cartridges

It was not only Poultney & Trimble who delivered cartridges for the Government. India-rubber cartridges were manufactured by Schuyler, Hartley and Graham and W. J. Syms & Bro as well.  As in the case of nearly all Civil War firearms, the evaluation of this breech loading carbine was just as controversial as in the case of all the other: some loved it, some hated it. The cause of the negative feedback was mainly the cartridge itself, that could not withstand the field circumstances. The case tended to lose the powder that spilled out into the cartridge box through the touch hole while riding. First Lieutenant Francis J. Shunk from the Army of Potomac stated that “The arm I believe to be a good one, but the change is absolutely necessary in the cartridge.”[16]

Smith’s cartridge patent

Several ideas were considered to correct the problem, like making a smaller touch hole, using larger grain powder, obstruction the touch hole with lubricating material, covering the touch hole from the inside with thin paper. B. C. English from Hartford, Connecticut realized that the cause of the problem was the enlarged touch hole of the rubber case. He patented his idea in October 1861 No. 33,429. He suggested to put a metallic disk into the bottom of the cartridge case to prevent the flash hole from burning out. This invention was never implemented in the rubber cased cartridges.[17]

The India-rubber cases were advertised to be reloadable 15 times, but I doubt that under field circumstances the soldiers did eventually reload the cases. These cases were supplied to the Army till April 1864, but from December 1863 a new type of cartridge was also issued to the soldiers based on Silas Crispins’s “wrapped soft metal cartridge” patent No. 40,978, granted on 15 December 1863. Crispin was assignor to Thomas Poultney. These cases were rolled from a brass sheet covered with sulphured paper. The cartridge was lighter and cheaper than the rubber cased cartridges and were just as good in sealing the breech.

The same year Crispin was granted a second cartridge patent under No. 40,988, 15 December 1863, signed by Thomas J. Rodman and Silas Crispin, assignors to Thomas Poultney. This cartridge construction was simpler than the original Crispin patent cartridge. The thin sheet metal was rolled without the paper layer on a metal or wooden mandrel, and then formed in a die to match the form of the bottom of the chamber. Optionally a paper, metal or any elastic material cup could be pressed into the bottom, or soldered/glued from the outside of the case to the bottom to strengthen the cartridge.

Crispin’s patent of the metallic foil cartridge

Silas Crispin was granted his third patent on 12 April 1864. US Patent No. 42,329, describing exactly the construction of the Smith carbine cartridges we know today as the Poultney patent cartridges:

“From sheets of United States No. 1 laboratory paper, by machinery or otherwise, cut of the size desired for a cartridge, and of a trapezoidal shape, as shown at A in Fig. 1. Cat also from brass, or other thin sheet metal, of about .002 of an inch in thickness, annealed or not, and of the same width as the paper, but one circumference of the former less in length, a trapezoidal-shaped piece, like B on No. 2 of the drawing, so that the angular ends and sides of the paper and metal piece shall neatly register, as seen from the dotted line at a? to the line b b in Fig. 1. To prepare the cups or disks of paper for the bottom of the cartridge, moisten one side of strong paper with paste, gum, or some adhesive material, and roll the sheet together until it becomes solid and attains the diameter of the former. Cut the roll thus formed transversely into disks, like No. 5, of a right thick ness, and by the application of pressure from either a press or punch and die shape these disks into cups of the form shown in Figs. 6 and 7, perforating them in forming or after. ward with a small hole in the center sufficient to permit the explosion of the charge, but protecting the hole, to prevent the escape of pow der, with a film of bees-Wax or tallow. A common Wooden cylindrical former, having one end rounded to match the base of the chamber of the arm for which the cartridge may be designed, and of a gage that Will permit the finished cartridge to fit its bore neatly, is placed upon the straight end of the paper, the rounded end being kept far enough from the longest side of the paper to permit it to project when rolled far enough beyond the former to be crimped upon it, and rolled with it until the former is covered with a single thickness of paper, when the thin metal piece is placed on the paper so as to register with it, as above described. The former is now pressed and rolled forward until both the paper and the metal are Wrapped together upon it, and the metal is entirely enveloped in paper. The end of the cartridge is now compressed over the end of the former and chocked with a chocking-string, which is replaced by a thread after the string is withdrawn, as in making the com mon cartridge. The case, yet upon the former, is inserted into an iron or steel die and a smart blow is given to the former by a hammer or mallet. The former is now withdrawn and a cup, having first been dipped in any adhesive material, is inserted and forced to the bottom of the cartridge, which is now ready to be charged.”

Patents No. 40,978 and No. 40,988 provided a flexible frame for making cartridges for nearly all Civil War time breech loading arms regardless if it was a capping breech loader or fired a self-contained cartridge. The most common Smith carbine wrapped foil cartridge case was rolled from the following parts: two trapezoid or rectangular paper sheets, a trapezoid or metal foil and a pierced paper disc.[18] Interestingly the wrapper on Poultney’s patent Smith cartridge bundles refer to the 15 December 1863 date, Patent No 40,988, while these cartridge cases have the paper layers as well.

Both the India-rubber and wrapped foil cartridges were charged with 50-52 grains of black powder and a .512” diameter, 370-380-grain elongated bullet with one deep grease groove. The powder granulation was finer than musket powder, a close equivalent of today’s FFg powders. Based on the drawing of Brigadier General John Pitman[19] in 1909, the touch hole of the India-rubber cartridge was obstructed with a thin paper disk of .445” diameter, so in fact they did solve the problem of powder spilling of the rubber case.[20]

We have other sources also for the main charge of these cartridges. Lt. Henry Metcalfe created collection of American cartridges assembled in the Frankford Arsenal for the World Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1874. The third drawer of this collection lists four Smith cartridges under No. 74-78, all charged with a .50 calibre 380-grain ball and 40 grains of powder.[21] The same books also lists other Smith cartridges from the Poultney patent:[22]

No. Cal. Firearm Bullet dia. Bullet weight Powder charge Overall weight Case length Full length Remarks
207 .50 Smith Carbine .522 377 52 468.8 1.37 1.84 Straight seam
208 .50 Smith Carbine .525 376 40 461 1.34 1.75 Straight seam, 45 grain case
209 .50 Smith Rifle .52 376 62 503 1.44 2.0 Diagonal seam, 60 grain case
217 .56 Smith Carbine .565 425 50 552 1.44 2.09 Rubber case

from the India-rubber type:[23]

No. Cal. Firearm Bullet dia. Bullet weight Powder charge Overall weight Case length Full length Remarks
217 .56 Smith Carbine .565 425 50 552 1.44 2.09 Rubber case
218 .52 Smith Carbine .525 368 50 504 1.54 2.06 Rubber case
219 .50 Smith Carbine .50 350 40 468 1.47 2.00 Rubber case
220 .48 Smith Carbine .48 407 50 542 1.52 2.13 Rubber case

with soldered foil cartridge:[24]

No. Cal. Firearm Bullet dia. Bullet weight Powder charge Overall weight Case length Full length Remarks
214 .50 Smith Carbine .52 380 50 461 1.38 1.9 Soldered foil case

and some Crispin patent self contained cartridges for the Smith carbines:[25]

No. Cal. Firearm Bullet dia. Bullet weight Powder charge Overall weight Case length Full length Remarks
287 .50 Smith Carbine .52 ? ? 477 1.31 1.75 Crispin patent case
288 .50 Smith Carbine .52 ? ? 417 1.38 1.88 Crispin patent case
289 .44 Smith Carbine .45 ? ? 465 1.31 1.97 Crispin patent case
289a .50 Smith Rifle .50 ? ? ? 1.44 2.03 Crispin patent case

In the collection listed above there are certainly cartridges that are not military cartridges. The .56, .48 and .45 calibre cartridges could be civilian or experimental pieces. The .56 cartridge can be the cartridge of the tests of 1855, while the .48 caliber cartridges probably can be associated with the tests of 1858. The .50 and .52 nominal calibres can be considered military pieces.  Another information is also added to the Smith cartridge question as well, with noting the soldered foil cartridges. These are certainly a version of the Crispin-Rodman patent (US Patent No. 40,988) cartridges, without paper sheet between the layer of metal, and with soldered side.

No 287, 288, 289 and 289a are self-contained cartridges, meaning that the case unites the powder, ball and priming compound as well. We know that Crispin intensively worked on this concept, and all his patents mentioned the ability to add the priming compound or primer to the cartridge assembly. We also know that Crispin modified a Smith carbine to accept primed cases, and his trials with the new rifle and new cartridge were satisfactory. However, the Smith carbine remained a capping breech loader through its service time. Crispin’s perfected cartridge was patented in 1865. This was his fourth cartridge paten.[26]

Until the end of the war 5.6 million rubber and 8 million wrapped soft metal cartridges were delivered to the U.S. Government.[27]

My Smith rifle

My Smith rifle is from the first 10000 pieces delivered by Massachusetts Arms. It has the swing swivel screwed into the stock, but the one on the front band is missing. No saddle bar is present on the carbine. The serial number is 8318, delivered to the US Government in 1862.  There are no sub-inspection marks visible on the rifle.  The full length of the carbine is 39 1/2” with a barrel length of 21 5/8”. The weight is 7 pound 8 ounces. The twist rate of the bore is 1:62”, with 3 shallow grooves.

The carbine is definitely war weary, but the barrel is in good condition, except for one little problem at the breech area. The forestock is secured to the barrel by a screw, but that screw hole is so deep that it pushed the metal into the rifling creating a little obstruction in the grooves. Otherwise, the carbine is in good shooting order.

Making the Crispin cartridge

If we wish to shoot the Smith carbine today, we have quite a few options regarding the cartridges, but one thing for sure: the gun cannot be loaded with lose powder and ball, because of the split chamber design, so we will need a cartridge case. I purchased two kind of cases from Lodgewood: the cheap plastic cases, that are probably the best available repros for the India-rubber cartridges, and some brass cases as well, that are favoured by target shooters, but in fact does not have anything to do with any of the original designs. The plastic cases hold 40 grains of powder, while the brass cases have 24 grain capacity. Considering that the original cartridge case was charged with 50 grains, we can state that even the plastic case can be considered faithful for authentic historical shooting projects.

This is why I began planning the reproduction of the Crispin cartridge. Besides the Crispin patents, we have excellent sources for these project Published by Dean S. Thomas in his excellent series of books titled Round Ball to Rimfire. Thomas shares two important images in this subject. One is John Pittman’s drawing of an original cartridge from 1909, the other is an unwrapped Crispin cartridge showing the layers of the construction. These were my guidelines for recreating the case. The bullet was an easier question, as Eras Gone in manufacturing excellent quality moulds dropping the original bullets.

The case is constructed from 3 layers: the inner paper sheet, the metal foil and the outer paper sheet. According to Crispin’s patent, the recommendation is “United States No. 1 laboratory paper”. This type of paper is described in the Ordnance Manual of 1841 as the type of paper for making musket and rifle cartridges and it “should be well sized, smooth, strong, and of even thickness; thickness of bundle pressed, 4 inches.” We also receive some information about its strength, indicating what weight a looped 4” strip has to hold before braking. The No. 1. paper had to hold 85.5 pounds of weigh, being the second weakest among the six types.[28] Not much if we wish to find the best matching paper today… In this case I followed a more practical approach: as the case is sealed by metal foil and paper is present only to increase the thickness of the case, I fine-tuned the paper thickness and size, so at the end I can arrive to the desired cartridge diameters. Here is the list of components I used:

  • 10 mm (0.004”) aluminium sheet from beer cans, size: 65×41 mm
  • 35 mm (0.014”) carton sheet as the inner paper, size: 95×35 mm
  • 10 mm (0.004”) heavy wrapping paper as outer paper, size: 110×41 mm
  • 7 mm diameter (0.5”) cardboard disc (approx. 2 mm thick, 0.079”) in the base
  • 7 mm diameter (0.5”) cigarette paper circle, from covering the flash hole

We will also need a mandrel for rolling the layers, so first I turned a 0.5” diameter mandrel, and rolled my first cases. The first shooting was satisfactory: I had no misfires, and most of the shots hit the target in a fair group, while the action was properly sealed. I had one case split, caused by improper case length. As I forced the action to close the case must have cracked so the seal was imperfect, it did spit some gases on my hands. I also realized that case length is crucial, when force was necessary to close the breech, the group increased. The case diameter is also important, to place the bullet in the forcing cone as in line with the bore axis as possible.

This happens when the case dimensions are not right

After the first session I realized I will have to roll more tight-fitting cases, closer to the original size. We have to arrive to a case length of cca. 1.4” and a diameter of cca. 0.652”. So, I turned a proper size mandrel of 12.96 mm (0.51”) diameter and 33.2 mm (1.307”) length with a shoulder ad a guide. This little tool resulted highly uniform cases, very closely matching the measurements of Pittman. Here is the process I developed. It is easy and fast; you’ll have a case in less than 3 minutes.

First the two paper layers are glued to the metal sheet in the following layout:

Sheet sizes by Capandball to recreate the Crispin cartridge

Rolling starts with the inner paper layer, that has to wrap the mandrel once completely before rolling the metal sheet with the outer paper. The rolled end of the outer paper is glued to the case. There will be only one layer of paper holding the assembly together, so when the pressure of powder gases will expand the case this thin paper layer will break and allow the case to expand easily. We don’t want stronger attachment, as it will cause the case to split, instead of the paper to tear.

When the assembly is rolled and secured with glue it is time to fold the end. Start at the point where the end of the rolled metal sheet is, then the opposite, and then the two remaining ears. Hammer the base on flat wooden surface with the mandrel in the case to flatten the base. Now glue the carton disk into the bottom, let it dry overnight and drill a 2.5 mm hole on the bottom as the touch hole. Put the cigarette paper circle into the bottom of the case. This will prevent the powder from spilling out the touch hole, while it will be easily penetrated by the flames of the cap. Charge the case with 50 grains of 2Fg powder, and insert the dip lubricated projectile in the case mouth. Push it firmly on the powder with your thumb, and your Poultney/Crisping cartridge is ready.

Historical shooting

To be honest, I was quite afraid that the problem in the breech area will effect the accuracy significantly. Usually, the closer a damage is to the breech the less problem it will cause, as the most important part of the rifling is the last 10-15 cm from the muzzle. But this protruding metal pin was so high, it carved a 0.5 mm deep scratch into my bullet as I drive it through the bore with a wooden mandrel. I am pretty sure that there are more accurate original Smith carbines out there, but I was anything but disappointed. That little damage was not that severe as I first thought. I fired the rifle with three different cartridges: my Crispin repros, and with plastic and brass commercially available cases.

The rifle did work well with all the cartridge types, although the construction of the Crispin cartridges needed quite a few experiments. The proper diameter and length of the case are essential, as if the case is too long, the wall can crack, while if the diameter is too thin, the bullet will not be chambered in line with the bore axis. This is why I had to play with the thickness of the paper sheets enveloping the metal layer.

The plastic cases are useable as they are sold, and they are a very good and cheap option to modern time shooters. I suggest the addition of a cigarette paper disc into the bottom, to prevent the powder from spilling. Be prepared that the plastic case will not last forever as the touch hole will certainly burn out. Lining the hole can be an option here. They hold 40 grains of powder. It was interesting to note that the 20% less charge compared to my Crispin cartridges resulted only 3% less muzzle velocity, probably due to the better seal.

The brass cases were the least accurate of all with the Eras Gone bullet. The maximum charge is only 24 grains, half the size of the original load. The cases are easy to handle, but I had to use my lathe to open the mouth to accept the .518 diameter bullets.

All cases were easy to load and easy to extract from the chamber. The only difficulty I faced was when changing from the brass case back to my Crispin cartridges. The bass case did to expand completely in the chamber, so black powder residue built up in the chamber. The first spent Crispin case was hard to remove, but as it cleaned the residue, all the others worked flawlessly.

Crispin Plastic Brass
Powder charge 50 gr 2Fg Swiss 40 gr 2Fg Swiss 24 gr 2Fg Swiss
Bullet Eras Gone (.518”, 354 gr) Ears Gone Eras Gone
Muzzle velocity 283 m/s 274 m/s 214 m/s
Velocity @ 25 m 274 m/s 256 m/s 204 m/s
Muzzle energy 919 J 861 J 525 J
Energy @ 25 m 861 J 752 J 477 J
Group @ 30 m 20.5×54.9=1125,5 mm2 (best group) 32.5×23.6=767 mm2 40.2×73.8=2966,8 mm2

I had no misfires during my shooting relays. From the three cartridge types, the plastic cases had the best seal, but none of the cases were as bad as the gas escape of the percussion Sharps rifles. The clear winner among the three cartridge variations was clearly the plastic cased version. Both the sealing of the breech and the accuracy was superior to the other two methods. But the biggest fun was recreating the Crispin cartridge.


The carbine was not only marketed on the military market, but in limited number it was sold to the public as well. Large trade arms companies, like the Shuyler, Hartley & Graham listed the Smith carbine in its catalogue as early as 1864.[29]

The Smith carbines, and the capping breech loading concept quickly became obsolete in the late 1860s with the wide spread of rimfire and centrefire cartridges. As the war ended the mass-produced weaponry flooded the army stocks, so the Ordnance Department did everything to sell out as many guns as possible. One option was to leave the guns with the users. On 5 June 1865 Brigadier-General A. B. Dryer, Chief of Ordnance issued a circular that allowed the volunteers going out of service to buy their arms. Any musket was $6, a Spencer rifle $10, all other carbines and revolvers $8, while sabres and swords could be bought for as little as $3 with or without accoutrements.[30]

The US Government still had large stocks of surplus guns on stock that had no use at all. Many of the surplus material were exported to the largest conflict of the South American continent, for the Argentine army of the Paraguayan War, also known as the War of the Triple Alliance. It was fought from 1864 to 1870, when Argentine, Brazil and Uruguay signed an alliance against Paraguay, resulting a bloody war. The Smith was used by Argentine cavalry at the end of the war. One specimen is exhibited at the Museum of the Argentine Army in Buenos Aires. Spencer, Smith, Merill, Sharps.[31]

Probably the last action of the Smith carbine is related to the Fenian Brotherhood, and Irish republican organization founded in the United States to put stress on the British Government. The organization was founded in 1858 in the US, and became aggressively active after the Civil War. In 1866 its two fractions planned invade Canada, so they started to build up large weapons stocks purchased from the US Government. Most the of 1866 raiders were armed with rifle-muskets and Smith carbines. The members of the Fenian “Army” were mostly Irish veterans of the Civil War, both from the Union and Confederate side. The most successful action of the Brotherhood was crossing the Niagara river on 31 May 1866, capturing Fort Erie and defeating the Canadian forces at Ridgeway. The 800-men group however failed to reach its strategical goals, as the US Government quickly cut the supply lines of the raiding party to aid Canada.

According to Francis Bannermann’s surplus military catalogue, they sold many thousand Smith carbines to department stores in 1902, so by the time of publishing the 1903 catalogue, the Smith carbines were considered rare. Bannerman offered them at a price of $2.75. As a comparison, a Sharps carbine was nearly four times more expensive, at $10 apiece.[32] Bannerman was not an ordinary arms dealer. He was born in Scotland and brought to the Unites States at the age of three. His father had a chandlery in New York. Until his dad served in the US Navy, he took after the business. After the war he convinced his father to buy surplus guns and cannons to turn them in to scrap metal. But the story continued on a different path: by the 1870s he was already the largest arms, accoutrement and uniform supplier to theatres, Civil War re-enactments, western shows like Buffalo Bill’s wild west show, veteran organizations, circuses, cadets, marching bands. His prices were low and he had nearly endless supply for the goods. The business was running like there was no tomorrow. He teamed up with his sons. In 1900 he bought the Pollepel island on the Hudson river to store the surplus ammo and explosives and built a castle for himself. Francis died in 1918, and in 1920 the castle blew up.


As for a comparison with the Burnside carbine, I really have to say that the even if my Smith was less accurate than my Burnside, I still consider it a better military arm for a horseman. Both carbines are good arms in my opinion, but the break action Smith is easier to handle while riding. The action can be opened with the right hand holding the rifle, while the left hand is completely free to handle the cartridge. The Burnside needs both hands to open the action: one to hold the carbine, the other to move the trigger guard downward. The break action facilitates the access to the spent case, and in my opinion, the soldier had a better grip on the cartridge.

Balazs Nemeth, February 2021.



Bilby, Joseph G.: Civil War Firearms. Combined Publishing, 1999.

Bilby, Joseph G.: Small Arms at Gettysburg. Westholme Publishing, 2008.

Leoni, Juan Bautista: Armar y vestir al ejército de la Nación. Access: 2021.01.01. 8:09

Lewis, Berkeley: Small Arms and Ammunition in the United States Service. Wahsington, 1956.

Marcot, Roy: Marcellus Hartley-Merchant, Financier, Millionaire and Philanthropist Access: 2021.01.03. 9:23

Santarelli, Michael: The Smith Carbine in the Civil War. Unknown publisher, 2019.

Schiffers, Peter: Civil War Carbines. Mowbray Publishers, 2008.

Thomas, Dean S.: Roundball to Rimfire Part II. Thomas Publications, 2002.

Ware, Donald L.: Remington Army and Navy revolvers. University of New Mexico Press, 2007.

Walter, John: Weapons of the Civil War Cavarlymen. Osprey, 2020.



[1] Schiffer 2008. p95

[2] Thomas II. p226

[3] U.S. Patent No. 17702

[4] Schiffer 2008. p96

[5] Thomas II. p229

[6] Thomas II. p232

[7] Thomas II. p235

[8] Santarelli 2019. p39

[9] Santarelli 2019. p111-114

[10] Schiffer 2008. p97

[11] Schiffer 2008. p98

[12] Schiffer 2008. p98

[13] Ware 2007. p368

[14] Ware 2007. p194

[15] Bilby 1999. p139

[16] Schiffer 2008. p99

[17] U.S. Patent No. 33,429

[18] Thomas 2008. p242

[19] John Pitman (1842-1933) fulfilled many ordnance related positions in the US Army. During his service and after retirement he carried on documenting small arms ammunitions. His data collected filled 16 volumes, five of them were published as The Pitman Notes.

[20] Schiffer 2008. p100, Thomas II. p237, p242

[21] Lewis 1956. p207

[22] Lewis 1956. p226

[23] Lewis 1956. p227

[24] Lewis 1956. p226

[25] Lewis 1956. p229

[26] Thomas II. p245

[27] Thomas II. p246

[28] Ordnance Manual of 1841. p174-175

[29] Marcot, Roy: Marcellus Hartley-Merchant, Financier, Millionaire and Philanthropist Access: 2021.01.03. 9:23

[30] Circular No. 13. – Series of 1865.

[31] Access: 2021-01-01

[32] Bannermann catalogue 1903. p14