Civil War Guns: Union Long Arms (Rock Island Auction)


Rock Island Action has a great article up about Long Arms of the Union from the War of Northern Aggression. You can see an expert below about one of the lesser known but interesting ( to me anyway) Burnside carbine. Burnside is more famous for his spectacular defeat at Fredericksburg by Mars Lee. He invted this carbine and even lesser known is that he was one of the first US officers to start to use layered barbed wire for defensive use. Very innovative at the time. later it would be seen used in massive amounts in WW1. He went on to NOT cover himself in glory at the famous battle of the crater disaster. Burnside was a perfect example of being promoted to your level of incompetency. He wasn’t a bad guy or a dolt he just knew his limits. Unfortunately for him Abe needed some one to command the Army of the Potomac and he was next in line. After that, bad luck invites more bad luck. His worst luck was having to face a true military genius who could almost read his enemies mind. He went on to have a very good life after the war.

Burnside Carbine

Civil War U.S. Contract Burnside Fifth Model Breech Loading Percussion Carbine. Sold in Spril 2013 for $4,025

One of the many innovative breech loading carbines utilized by the cavalry during the war originated from the designs of Ambrose Burnside during the 1850s. Unfortunately for Burnside, pre-war government contracts fell through, so he sold his shares without making a profit. Once the conflict was underway, government contracts came rolling in and his design earned him some renown. He is mostly remembered today for his failures as a general during the war and as the namesake of “sideburns” though his whiskers were something few would consider stylish today. He was also the first president of the National Rifle Association when it formed after the war.

General Ambrose E. Burnside

His design underwent multiple improvements culminating in the 5thModel or “Model of 1864.” These carbines utilized tapered brass cased ammunition with holes in the rear and were primed with percussion caps on external nipples like standard percussion firearms. The flash from the cap travels through the nipple and then into the rear of the cartridge to ignite the black powder within. The lever had a release and tipped the breech block upwards so the spent case can be extracted and a new cartridge can be loaded. The tapered brass cartridges helped eliminate much of the gas leak at the breech suffered by other rifles of the period.

And another one I have always found interesting.

Smith’s Patent Breech Loading Civil War Carbine

Smith breechloader carbine

Sold in 2016 for $9,775

Another innovative breech loading design was invented by Dr. Gilbert Smith and manufactured by Massachusetts Arms Company, American Machine, and American Arms Co. To reload, his design folded open in a similar fashion to a break action shotgun. Designed to use ammunition with a reloadable case, these Civil War guns were not without their handicaps. The main issue with this design was that its reusable cartridge case was made with a special rubber known as “gutta percha.” They proved difficult to supply and problematic to extract, resulting in most being pulled from service before the war was over.

Smith patent Civil War carbine

Without the logistics of war, the design itself is excellent. Collectors, reenactors, and hobbyists are able to still shoot original examples of this attractive design using cartridge cases made from widely available modern materials.

Maynard Carbine

Civil War Maynard Carbine

U.S. Contract Massachusetts Arms Co. Maynard Second Model Percussion Carbine

One of the best breech loading carbine designs was manufactured by Edward Maynard. Yes, the same Edward Maynard of the aforementioned tape priming system. Carbines of his design were manufactured by Massachusetts Arms Company in two variations. Similar to the Burnside, they utilized a reloadable brass case with a hole in the base, and ignition was achieved in the same fashion. However, unlike the Burnside, the cartridges weren’t tapered, but rimmed, making them easier to extract. This carbine design was advanced enough that relatively few changes were necessary to convert the design to fire fully self-contained metallic cartridges after the war. The design is a clever step between self-contained cartridges and older paper cartridges.

Massachusetts Arms Maynard Carbine

This exeptional example brought $5,175 in May 2018

There is a lot more and you can read about them at the link below.


  1. “These carbines utilized tapered brass cased ammunition with holes in the rear and were primed with percussion caps on external nipples like standard percussion firearms.”

    In retrospect, this was really stupid, but lots of weird stuff happens during those kinds of transitions in technology. Look at all the goofy semiauto pistol designs that proliferated before Browning invented the slide.


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