1855 Pistol Carbine

During the Ante-bellum period, the Ordnance Department remained concerned over the reliability of breech-loaders and efforts were made to improve muzzle-loading weapons. One weapon issued to some Dragoons was the Springfield Model 1855 Pistol-Carbine. It was originally intended for the two new regiments of cavalry created in 1855.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis believed that this weapon would also prove useful to the Dragoons. In 1855, he wrote, “No difference will be needed between the arms and equipments dragoons and those of light cavalry; but the whole, armed with this weapon, will be rendered in celerity of movements equal to light cavalry, and in combat to heavy dragoons.”
The weapon was designed to fire the .58 caliber minie ball. Carried in the pommel holster, like the .44 caliber Dragoon pistol, it came with a readily attachable shoulder-stock. This powerful weapon fired a 500-grain bullet and used a charge of 60 grains of powder. Akin to the Model 1855 rifled musket, the pistol carbine employed the cranky Maynard taped-primer system.
When fired with the shoulder stock attached, this weapon proved to be reasonably accurate and hard-hitting. But as a pistol, it did not fare so well. The hefty, 12-inch barrel rendered the pistol-carbine unbalanced. Dragoon Captain Richard Ewell, who tested this weapon in 1858, found that shoulder stocks did not always fasten firmly to the pistol and that this adversely effected its accuracy. Although about 5,000 pistol-carbines were manufactured at the Springfield Arsenal, it does not appear that this weapon was issued to any of the troops at Fort Tejon.
The problem of placing a small brass percussion “hat” cap on a nipple of the carbine while aboard a skittish American horse was, at best, a nimble task for steady fingers. The ensuing complaints from the field persuaded the Army to purchase 400 Model 1855 Sharps carbines equipped with the Maynard tape primer system. These weapons were issued in limited numbers, beginning in the year of 1856.
The Maynard Taped Primer system worked in a manner similar to that of a child’s toy cap pistol: the tape featured a paper roll containing bits of fulminate of mercury as primers, which was mechanically fed under the hammer each time that the hammer was cocked. When the hammer dropped, the fulminate would be detonated and the paper cut away. This system had been first tested in 1849 on contract muskets supplied to the Infantry by the firm of Daniel Nippes.
When exposed to harsh wet, or icy weather, the tape became brittle, damp, torn, and would not fire. With age, the fulminate became defunct and would not detonate. Captain Ewell tested the system and found that the tape caps failed to explode two out of three times.

James E. Hicks: U.S. Firearms 1776-1956 (Beverly Hills, Eadco Publishing 1957), plate 48

During the Antebellum period, the War Department was concerned over the reliability of breech-loading weapons and it made efforts to design improved muzzle loaders for use by the mounted arm. Two such weapons were the 1855 carbine and the 1855 pistol-carbine. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis believed that the latter weapon would prove to be a useful weapon for both light cavalry and heavy dragoons. It could be carried either in the pommel holster or, as the ambrotype above shows, attached to trooper’s the carbine sling.

About 5,000 pistol-carbines were manufactured at the Springfield Arsenal.

On 12 September 1859, Inspector General Joe Johnston found Lt. Richard Lord’s Company D, 1st Dragoons, on duty at Fort Fillmore, New Mexico Territory, and observed their weaponry: “The dragoon company is not well armed. All of the men have sabres & Colt’s Navy revolvers–a majority, the pirtol carbine–some Sharps & a few, rifles of the cal. 54 of inch [Yeager Model 1841].” On the 4th of October, General Johnston visited Ft. Buchanan and had this to say about the arms of Captain Richard Ewell’s Dragoon Company D: “There is, however, a great variety of fire arms, Sharp’s, Hall’s & the pistol carbine, the rifle (cal. 54) & musketoon–Colt’s revolver of both sizes [.44 Dragoon and .36 Navy], & the old [Aston M1842] Dragoon pistol. Capt. Ewell advocates Sharp’s Carbine, in comparison with the musketoon, for he has had no opportunity to compare it with others of the same kind. The Capt. has made two requisitions for carbines annually for several years. His sabres are of the old pattern [1833].” Captain Ewell also pointed out that the shoulder stocks did not always fasten firmly to the pistol and this would adversely affect its accuracy.

8 Replies to “1855 Pistol Carbine”

  1. I always enjoy reading your blog. I have a question about this one. In Johnston’s report, when he mentions the old pattern sabre, is he refering to the 1833 or the 1840 pattern? The 1860 sabre comes out in 59 though I am not sure it was so early in the year to have been widely known.
    I would appreciate your thoughts and thank you for the posts.

    1. One very common mistake is to assume that a weapon approved by the army board during the antebellum era was released that same year (much less the next year). Thus, for example the M1855 rifle/muskets did not get into the hand of troops until 1857. When Inspector Joe Johnston refers to the “old model” sabre, he is referring to the M1833. Hard to believe, but many mounted companies rode off to war armed with the M1833s.

    1. Joe

      This image was sold on Ebay about three years ago. I do not have the address of the winning bidder. Can’t say if the fellow is a Yank or Reb, but it is easily the best period image I’ve ever seen of the Pistol Carbine.


  2. I am making my way through this blog and enjoying it greatly. I don’t know where I should stop and say “thank you” but this is as good a spot as any. Thank you.

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