The Saga of John's Cavalry Carbine
Why Fools Can't Leave Well Enough Alone
By John Fuhring
IntroductionGuys of my generation (now called old geezers) grew up with cowboy and cavalry adventures that we watched by the hour on early TV and all day long during the Saturday matinee movies. We dreamed of being Davy Crocket, the Lone Ranger or the Cisco Kid and who didn't want to ride with the cavalry troopers to the rescue with the bugle sounding the "Charge?" Many of us grew up with stories of the Civil War too. My great grand fathers, on both sides of my family, had been soldiers in the Union Army and on the military Base where I grew up, there were huge Civil War cannons in front of the Administration Building so big I could fit my young head inside their rifled bores. Maybe I never completely grew up myself because I took the hero worship thing one step further and got myself into the wonderful life of horse ownership.
About 15 years ago I had been actively riding for about 10 years and I was having a lot of fun with my horses when I heard about a large, well organized and authentic Union Army Cavalry reenactment group up in Northern California called the 7th Michigan Cavalry. I've always thought that the best way to learn was to actually get in there and do it, so here was a fantastic opportunity for me (and my horse) to learn about the most important (and in many ways, romantic) era in our Nation's history.
How and why I got my Smith CarbineThe 7th Michigan required its "troopers" to be well turned out, so I bought all the cavalry equipment I needed including uniforms, leather goods, boots, a McClellan Saddle, horse tack and blankets and all the personal items soldiers had back then. In addition to all that, I bought the weapons that a Union Cavalryman of the 1860s would have been issued. I've always been somewhat of a gun-nut with a special regard for black powder firearms and this was a perfect excuse to buy a couple more. My weapons included a rather authentic steel saber (model 1861 light cavalry), a Remington 1858 style revolver and a carbine rifle that hangs from a leather sling that goes around your left shoulder - unlike the phony saddle scabbards shown in the movies. Nothing I owned was an original or a valuable antique, but it was all reproduced to strict standards of authenticity.
Since this was a Michigan Cavalry unit, we were supposed to have Spencer Repeater Carbines because the original unit had them back in 1863. The guys that had joined before me had bought up all the inexpensive old Spencers on the market so that by the time I joined, Spencers were rare and expensive. They were too expensive so I bought a similar looking Italian made Sharps carbine for about $600. I sent away to Dixie Gun Works for my Sharps and when it arrived, I immediately proceeded to get familiar with shooting it before taking it to my first battle reenactment.
The Sharps carbine I bought was powerful. It shot a big .54 caliber bullet weighing about 500 grains with a big powder charge of about 60 grains behind it. The Sharps was a "kick" to shoot and it kicked back too. The Sharps was famous in its day for being one of the few breech loading weapons that didn't blow hot gas back in your face when you fired it. The way a Sharps breech works is as follows: a lever (that also serves as the trigger guard) lowers and raises a steel block within the steel receiver to open, close and seal the breech. When the breech is open, a paper cartridge is inserted and when you close the breech, a sharp edge cuts the paper cartridge open exposing the powder so that it can be ignited by an external cap. The cap is exploded by a hammer off to the right side of the rifle that must be cocked before firing.
The way the Sharps action seals the breech with its block of sliding steel was an excellent firearm innovation, but I soon discovered that after shooting about 3-4 shots, black powder fowling accumulates on the breech-block so that it won't open or it will get stuck half way open. Once stuck, you have to drip water from your canteen or pee on it to get it to work again. Peeing on the breech-block during a battle reenactment would have been .. ah.. awkward so I contacted the folks at Dixie Gun Works about it. The gunsmith at DGW very graciously offered to take the Sharps back and trade me for a Smith that he thought I'd like better (plus a few dollars). Well, he was right, I loved the Smith. With the Smith I could shoot shot after shot and never have it jam. I really love those reusable cartridges too because they are easy to load and the black powder fowling, that normally builds up in the chamber, stays with the expended cartridge. By the way, I can't say enough about the wonderful service and friendly help I've always experienced dealing with Dixie Gun Works over the years.
My Smith Carbine cocked and ready to fire
Notice the graceful lines of this carbine
Three loaded Smith cartridges next to two .357 and two Mauser cartridges.
This carbine can not possibly jam open or closed.
My Smith Carbine's serious manufacturing flaw and how it was fixedOh, but not all was perfect, no indeed. The Smith carbine reproductions are made by the infamous Pietta company in Italy. As with their other products, I found that my Smith's fit and finish was absolutely superb and the reproduction is so exactly done, all the parts will interchange with an original Smith carbine - it really is a beautifully done reproduction. The problem I had with my Smith (so typical of Piettas) was in the unacceptably poor machining and rifling of the barrel. When I shot live rounds through the rifle, I noticed that the holes were all over the target or missed it altogether. Worst of all, I noticed that many of the bullet holes were sideways, so obviously the rifling were not spin-stabilizing the bullets. As an experiment I forced a freshly cast lead bullet down the barrel starting at the breech end and noticed that it started normally, but after an inch or so past the breech, the bullet simply fell through the barrel without touching the rifling and came rolling out of the muzzle on its own. It was immediately obvious that the machining of the bore had not been done properly and my rifle, in this condition, would never shoot well. I was deeply disappointed (and angry), but I wasn't too surprised because long ago I had noticed that other Pietta products had awful barrels and were very poor shooters. The fact is, if I would have known the Smith was made by Pietta, I would not have traded my Sharps for it.
By the way, I have noticed that Pietta has vastly improved their quality in the last couple of years and today I would have no problem buying a recently manufactured product bearing the Pietta brand.
I did not want my Smith just for looks and just for reenactments, I wanted to use it to shoot with too -- maybe even to go hunting with. Having a bad barrel was not an option for me, but I couldn't take it back because I had been using it for reenacting and I had already dinged it up and rubbed the bluing off. I was hoping Navy Arms (who imported the Smith) could help me, so I contacted and got to talk directly with the grand old man who started the Navy Arms Company -- yes, that same august person who started the black powder craze back in the late 1950s. To tell the truth, I sincerely felt humbled and honored to speak with this man --- until we got down to my problem. I was terribly surprised and, to tell the truth, hurt by the ungracious way he spoke to me. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.
Navy Arms was no help, so I started to do some research and found a gunsmith in Pennsylvania who would fit my Smith with a steel liner made with precision cut rifling and do it for a very reasonable price. This excellent gun maker (and his name is lost to me now) made the liner to the original Smith's bore size, rate of twist and depth of rifling and ever since he put that superb liner in, my little rifle has been dead-on accurate. With open military type sights, I can put shot after shot in the black at 100 yards, the rifling he made for me are just that good. I was now so pleased with my Smith that I wanted to share my knowledge with whoever might be having problems with these rifles. In naive good faith, I called the founder of Navy Arms to tell him about my gunsmith and to give him the guy's address, but I rudely got hung up on before I got to finish. I guess I should have known better.
So I finally ended up with a Smith Carbine that was an absolutely superb shooter and for years I used it in Civil War reenactments, in black powder shooting contests and for target practice. As the many years went by I enjoyed owning the Smith, but I became dissatisfied with the low muzzle velocity that the commercially made cartridges limited it to. Dixie Gun Works sold two types of cartridges, inexpensive plastic and expensive brass. Most of my cartridges (I used for reenactments) are made of a tough plastic (the original cartridges were made of rubber - yes rubber) and I also have 20 cartridges made of brass. The plastic cartridges are extra thick at their base and only hold about 35 grains of black powder. Until I modified them, the brass cartridges were extra thick everywhere along their length except the neck where the bullet goes and they only held 30 grains of powder. After doing some research (and measuring the dimensions of a period cartridge case) I discovered that the Smith's original charge held 50 grains of powder, so I looked around for cartridges that would also hold that amount. As it turned out, no other cartridges were available so I was stuck shooting 30-35 grains of powder - less powder than I shot in my Remington .44 revolver.
Ballistics of the Smith CarbineNow fast forward several years. About two years ago I bought an electronic bullet chronograph so I could test the performance of different loads and bullets I use in my .357 & .44 pistols, in my flintlock rifle and my 7X57 Mauser rifle. While I was at it, I shot a few bullets from the Smith through the chronograph and was really disappointed to learn that its muzzle velocity was only about 750 feet per second when shooting 35 grains of BP and a 360 grain Smith bullet. I had long suspected the bullets were slow, but 750 feet per second is only 450 pound-feet of kinetic energy and way too slow and weak to ethically use for killing deer should I ever take it hunting. At the very least, I wanted to equal the original muzzle velocity of the Smith so I started experimenting.
Before continuing, here are the original specifications for the Smith according the best Smith site on the internet and verified from other sources:
Bullet type: conical, solid base ------------ correct.
Bullet weight: 360 grains lead ------------ correct. My Smith bullets weigh exactly 360 grains per my reloader's scale.
Bullet diameter: .515 inches -------------- correct.
OAL of cartridge: 1.870 inches ----------- correct. A bullet too close to the lands may result in excessive chamber pressure.
Powder charge: 50 grains ---------------- correct, cartridge dimensions indicate that 50 grains is exactly right.
Muzzle velocity (MV): 1250 fps ---------- WRONG, tests indicate the MV should be listed at 1000 feet per second. 50 grains
of black powder can not produce velocities higher than that for this weight of bullet.
360 grain Smith bullets with 158 grain .357 bullets above.
My bullet mold was manufactured by the Rapine company specifically to make authentic Smith bullets with the proper profile and weight, so I was good there. My mold was designed to throw bullets that are slightly over-sized so that they can be swaged to the exact diameter for your bore. My bullet sizer swages them down to exactly .515 in diameter, so I was good there.
To get the right volume of powder (50 grains), I put my brass cartridges in my lathe and bored them to .50 inchs along their length (except at the base) until, by slightly compressing the powder, they could hold the required 50 grains, so I was good there too.
When I shot a few rounds of this ammunition and measured the resulting muzzle velocity, I recorded almost exactly 1000 feet per second each time. This is a full 250 fps slower than what the internet site says, so I have to conclude that the internet site is wrong. Regardless, let me tell you that 1000 fps is a whole lot better than 750 fps because the trajectory is flatter and the kinetic energy is almost twice as great at around 800 pound-feet. I should have been happy with this greatly improved performance, but oh no, fool that I am, I just had to try something else. Now, speaking of fools:
The following is not recommended by any sane gunsmiths or ballistic experts and any attempt to repeat what I have done will almost certainly result in severe injury or death. This story is presented strictly for entertainment and not as a guide to how to kill yourself and any bystanders nearby. Do not try this at home, only certified fools and insane people are qualified to perform the following operations.
Now where was I? Oh yeah.
Here, hold my beer and WATCH THIS!!
(Often heard 'Last Words' spoken by your typical redneck dufus just before he becomes maimed for life or killed.)
Some really dangerous and foolish experimentsIn the meantime I was doing some research on smokeless powder. I saw that certain grades of smokeless powder can and are used in old cartridge rifles with weak actions (like the 45-70 Springfield Trapdoor rifles). Yes, we've all heard that smokeless should never be used in black powder weapons because smokeless will always produce dangerous pressures and blow them up, but obviously smokeless powder IS being used by both commercial ammunition manufacturers and by people who reload their own ammunition.
All the warnings aside, the fact is that there are many old cartridge rifles and pistols that are safely loaded and shot with smokeless powder. I've already mentioned the 45-70, but there's the 44-40, the 45 Long Colt, the 38 special and a few others too. It seems that smokeless powder, if chosen very carefully for burning speed and loaded in cartridges in exact volumes, may actually produce the same or even lower pressures than black powder for a given muzzle velocity. I am saying MAY produce the same or lower pressure, but you must be really, really careful and pick the right powder and the right volume of powder or the pressures can explode your rifle right in your face. Smokeless powder is very tricky stuff and if it starts burning too fast and if the bullet doesn't get out of the way of the pressure build-up quite fast enough, the gun goes KAAA-Boom -- out the back end, not the front end where it's supposed to.
One other thing I want to mention, when researching the use of appropriate powders, I learned early not to even consider trying fast burning powders such as used in shotgun shells or pistols. For many technical reasons dealing with volume and compressibility of wads and such things, extremely fast or even moderatly fast burning shotgun or pistol powders work great in large bore shotguns and pistols, but it will absolutely blow up a rifle such as this one. I will say more about burning speeds later.
OK, here are the details of what I did to convert to smokeless powder:
(1) I use a small charge of black powder in the cartridges as a primer charge.
The Smith cartridge does not have a built-in primer. The primer is external and it is an old fashioned musket cap on a steel nipple that is set off by a side hammer hitting it as was the common way of discharging a firearm in the mid 1800s.
Hot gas from the musket cap goes through a tunnel in the rear of the Smith's receiver and is then directed through a small hole at the rear of the inside the receiver. The small hole in the receiver lines up with a tiny hole in the Smith's cartridge so that hot gas goes into the cartridge and sets off the charge.
The only problem is that the gas isn't very hot by the time it enters the cartridge - in fact, it is not hot enough to set off smokeless powder and so a small black powder "primer" charge must sit at the back of the Smith cartridge in order to set off the main charge. For a primer charge I put about 6 grains of FFFG black powder in the bottom of the cartridge case and then compress it with a wooden dowel to form it into a more-or-less solid mass that will stay in place.
(2) I use Reloader7 as my smokeless powder main charge. (I initially used IMR 3031 until I ran out and substituted for the more easily available Reloader7. Reloader7 appeared very similar to 3031 in this application and all my subsequent measurements were done using that brand.)
On top of the black powder primer charge I put 32 grains of Reloader7 smokeless powder. This volume of powder fills up the cartridge to the normal bullet seating level. I experimented with different powders to see which would give me the lowest pressure for the same muzzle velocity and found that Reloader7 was just about ideal. This type of powder may be thought of as a very slow pistol powder or a very fast rifle powder. For large bore cartridges shooting soft lead bullets you need a rather fast powder, but anything faster than Reloader7 is dangerous and must be avoided when used in this application. Likewise, I will never use anything but soft lead bullets, lubricated with ALOX, so that they are easily pushed through the bore without building up dangerous pressure. It is my belief that, in this application, hard, jacketed or paper-patched bullets will generate excessive pressures which will increase the powder's burning rate which will result in even higher pressures. In short, jacketed or patched bullets should not be used in my Smith. So far I have not found a speck of lead in the rifling after cleaning, as you'd expect with a muzzle velocity of only 1200 fps, so using anything but soft lead is completely unnecessary anyway.
(3) I place a 360 grain pure lead Smith bullet in the loaded cartridge case and hold it in there with liquid ALOX.
To complete my loads, I take my swaged .515 caliber Smith bullets and coat the outside and fill the "grease groove" with plenty of liquid ALOX, I then insert the bullets into the cartridge cases firmly on top of the powder. The over all lenght (OAL) of the cartridge with the bullet on top is within a few thousands of 1.87 inches so that I avoid touching the lands of the rifling. I let the ALOX harden and after a day or two the cartridges can be handled without the bullets falling out and they are ready to shoot.
There's no denying that the pressures and recoil under these circumstances are greater than when loading just 30 grains of black powder. Higher pressures and more recoil may cause the closing mechanism to malfunction so I slightly modified it to make sure it doesn't spring open when I fire the rifle. What I did was to very slightly undercut the bottom of the square steel post that the top strap slides over to clamp the action shut and to very slightly bevel the rear part of the square hole in the top strap to make sure it engages the square steel post better. If you look at how the Smith's action is closed and held closed and use your imagination a little, you will know what I'm talking about. This schematic should give you an idea of what I'm talking about: imagine the left slash is the receiver's block of steel and the right slash is the rear of the hole in the top strap: // -- get the idea?. All I can say is don't take off too much metal or the rifle will not close tightly (not that it makes much difference). Now let me say this, if you don't know what I'm talking about here and can't imagine what piece of metal I mean or where to file it, then, for god's sake, don't experiment with hotter loads for your Smith. In fact, if you are already half way satisfied with the performance of your Smith, don't take any chances and fool around like I have.
Results of my dangerous and foolish experimentsWell, how does all this work for me? I think it works really well. There is a noticeable increase in kick, but the kick is not hard or unpleasant and I get the sense that I am shooting bullets that are now very deadly. On shooting these bullets through my chronograph, I was very gratified to see that the muzzle velocity is between 1150 and 1200 fps giving them a kinetic energy of over 1000 pound-feet. A .515 caliber, 360 grain bullet traveling at this velocity, with this much energy and with tack-driving accuracy would be a very serious threat to any deer, wild pigs or bears in my region.
Working out the ballistic table for this load I see that I have a "point blank range" (where I don't have to adjust the sights or elevate the rifle) of zero yards to 125 yards. This means that if I leave the sights alone and simply aim for the "center of mass" of any normal sized game animal in my region, I will hit that animal in a vital part of its body at distances all the way out to 125 yards and the animal will be killed swiftly and humanely. This is as far as my old eyes can see using the open iron military sights anyway, so my Smith would make an ideal medium range, very handy "brush gun" for hunting wild pigs and deer.
Trajectory with sights set to minimum range
One final thing, I can shoot round after round and the bore stays clean when shooting these (mostly) smokeless cartridges. I do make it a point to clean the barrel immediately after shooting but it probably isn't necessary as there seems to be a layer of Alox in the barrel and there isn't anything in there that would cause corrosion or rust.
The big question remains: what is my chamber pressure and am I exceeding the safety limit of the rifle? To tell the truth, I don't know what the exact pressure is. I know this, if I load the rifle through the muzzle with a charge of more than 50 grains of black powder and then put a heavy maxi ball muzzle loading bullet on top of that charge, the pressure is so great that the cap is blown off the nipple and the hammer is thrown to half cock - even when using black powder. I've tried this a few times to get more power out of my Smith, and this is what happens when the pressure is too high. So far, using Reloader7 powder with cartridges loaded as I've described results in the caps staying on the nipple and the hammer staying in place after firing. Right now it is my opinion that my pressures are not excessive based on this criteria - but is it reasonable to make this assumption? Would you yourself be foolish enough to trust this crude method of pressure testing? No you shouldn't. Take this article for its entertainment value, but not as a guide and don't try this at home.
(Now, doesn't that sound ominous?)
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