Lessons learned about Civil War pistols.

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major bill

Colonel
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Joined
Aug 25, 2012
There were so many different pistols used during the Civil War that we could have multiple threads about them. The US Army should have learned a great deal about the proper pistol for use by soldiers. The post Civil War years do not seem to show this as the Army struggled to adopt the "right" pistol for soldiers.

After the war both percussion revolvers and matalic cartridge revolvers were looked at, as well as single shot pistols. Still the Army tested and delayed adopting a proper pistol.

Although pistols were not primary weapons for many soldiers during the Civ War, still the US Army should have had some concept about what kind of pistols were the proper choice for use by the Army. This does not appear to be the the case. So what did the Army during the Civil War learn about the best pistol for Army use? Why did the US Army seem so confused about adopting the right pistol?
 

JOHN42768

Lt. Colonel
Joined
May 1, 2015
Location
Upstate N.Y.
What they should have learned, at that point in time, was a revolver using metallic cartridges was the best choice. Some percussion were converted to metallic cartridge. Guessing reason for confusion was the all powerful creature of habit of not wanting change or alliances to manufacturers and the cost of revamping with such a glut of stockpiled arms. Even when change started to occur it was to an under powered cartridge. The facing Philippine Moros helped change that situation of correct caliber.
 
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sourdough

Corporal
Joined
May 29, 2017
Location
Pe Ell, Washington
My $.02 worth.

I think that the forward looking powers that were there at that time knew that the Rollin-White patent for bored-through cylinders had not expired and were left to gear up with revolvers that were extant during the start of the ACW.

The primary military sidearm at the beginning was the Colt 1851 Navy .36 and the Colt 1860 Army .44 was the very new kid on the block, so much so that the Confederate arms producers created copies of the 1851 Navy, whether with brass frames (Griswold & Gunnison, Schneider & Glassick) or steel frames (Leech & Rigdon, Rigdon & Ansley, Augusta Machine Works, Columbus Firearms Manufacturing Company), and none produced a single copy of the 1860 Army .44 nor the 1861 Navy .36. The Texas revolver producers (Dance and Brothers, Tucker & Sherrard, et al) primarily used the Colt Dragoon as a model for their .44 caliber pistols. Some of the "guerilla" Confederate cavalry units (Quantrill, Anderson, et al) used the 1848 Dragoon .44 in numbers in pommel saddle holsters. To think that they had access to spare loaded cylinders is nonsense, as in the fastest reload is another gun and extra cylinders were a pipe dream to obtain and slower to get into action.

As far as the Union was concerned, the guns already in inventory served the purpose (1851 Navy, 1860 Army, and later the Remington NMA/NMN) and to go with another pistol that had no compatability with these would have been a logistical nightmare for the Union bean-counters to deal with. Most of the regiments/companies that used newer technology were basically privately funded outside of the Federal Government and provided their own ammunition.

The metallic cartridge conversions were basically after the War, when all manufacturers saw the writing on the wall and strove to make the best of a poor situation with parts they had. Colt marketed an Open Top conversion for at least two years prior to the 1873 Model P in .45 Colt and .44-40. They were marketed alongside the Winchester 1873 in the same calibers so as to only have to carry one type of ammunition.

I think the S&W was a very good pistol in all of its variations and calibers, but it sort of missed the boat.

You all have a good night!

Regards,

Jim
 

major bill

Colonel
Forum Host
Joined
Aug 25, 2012
I know that .50 caliber single shot-pistols were tested. Springfield experimental single-shot .50 M1869 and Remington M1871 .50 single-shot martial pistol. I take it single-shot pistols might not have been the wave of the future.
 

Reverend Ron

Private
Joined
Dec 11, 2018
Location
Raccoon Ford, Virginia
The biggest issue with percussion pistols is their propensity for chain firing (i.e. when you cocked and fired the first round occasionally the adjacent chambers would also light off.

This was due to sparks either entering from the front of the chamber thru an air gap around the adjacent lead bullets still residing in their chambers, or the second cause were sparks entering thru the rear due to missing percussion caps that had either fallen off or were jarred loose from the recoil of the first round being fired.

This is why modern day black powder shooters are very diligent in applying grease to each chamber of the cylinder or using wads behind the bullet to seal off any air gaps. Smart guys also learn to squeeze and mis-shapen the percussion caps so that they don't fall off while shooting.

This chain firing phenomenon is also why the Colt Revolving carbine was never very popular. The shooter stood the possibility of losing the fingers off the second hand used to steady the long barrel out in front of the pistol chamber.

As a interesting aside. A couple of decades ago some kids found a rusted Civil War era black powder revolver in a barn here in Culpeper County and started playing with it. Unfortunately, the gun was loaded and in spite of the fact that it had been laying around for over a hundred odd years it went off and the bullet struck one of the children. The child survived his injuries but what gave the doctors and surgeons the worse grief, was the infection caused by horse hair that was also found in the bullet wound.

It turns out it was common practice for cavalry to cut some of their horses mane and stuff it in the chamber on top of the powder charge and behind the lead bullet to prevent chain fires. That gives you some notion of how many decades that pistol had been lying in the barn until those kids discovered it. You relic hunters be careful out there! : )
 
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major bill

Colonel
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Aug 25, 2012
Was it clear at the end of the Civil War that percussion revolvers were a thing of the past?
 

Glen_C

Corporal
Joined
Apr 27, 2010
Location
Nipmuc USA
I think the S&W was a very good pistol in all of its variations and calibers, but it sort of missed the boat.
My answer relates the royalty rights S&W (1855 White patent) had for producing bored through cylinders that accepted cartridges. Colt was not able to (not want to pay fees to S&W) begin development before 1869 and subsequent production for the trials in 1872. The resultant Colt SAA was adopted by the US Army.

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What they should have learned, at that point in time, was a revolver using metallic cartridges was the best choice. Some percussion were converted to metallic cartridge. Guessing reason for confusion was the all powerful creature of habit of not wanting change or alliances to manufacturers and the cost of revamping with such a glut of stockpiled arms. Even when change started to occur it was to an under powered cartridge. The facing Philippine Moros helped change that situation of correct caliber.

As to the Philippine insurrection, I believe you are talking about the 1892 .38 long Colt revolver (to become the .38 special in 1899), which followed the Colt saa .45 long Colt and was replaced by the .45 acp. Edited.
 
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mofederal

Captain
Joined
Jun 27, 2017
Location
Southeast Missouri
They found a winner in the .45. I have a Colt SAA in .45LC. It is a manstopper. It could drop a drugged up armored Moro, where the .38 could not. It suited well with the .45-70 Trapdoor, but it was not a repeater. I also like the .44-40 pistol caliber, good when paired with the Winchester 73. Not for the Army though. One caliber for all, not a Smith fan though, it was a popular pistol with many.
 
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