Historic Carbines

Trips Into History had the opportunity to visit historic sites of the old west that today display some amazing collections of old carbines and other firearms that saw action during the frontier days.

Below is a collection of old carbines popular with the cavalry that are on display at Fort Garland in southern Colorado. Like many of the old frontier forts, Fort Garland was established to protect settlers and foster the growth of towns and commerce.

frontier carbines

The four rifles displayed here are the Merrill Carbine 1861, the Sharps and Hankins Model 1862, the Burnside Carbine 4th Model 1864 and the Model 1858 Starr Carbine. Some of these carbines may be more familiar to you than others.

The Merrill Carbine Type 1

The top carbine shown in the photo, the Merrill Carbine, manufactured in Baltimore Maryland, was said to be not too popular with the troops. The carbines were originally designed for sport use and didn’t adapt well to the rigors of cavalry use. Sights and hammers were also said to break off during rugged use.

The Merrill 1st Type .54 caliber was first issued to the army in 1861 and it’s estimated that just under 15,000 were produced. These carbines saw action during the war in both the east and the west. Additional Merrill models were introduced during the Civil War. The carbine had a breech system with a long lever released by a spring latch. It was percussion primed using a paper cartridge. Features with this firearm included a brass buttplate, brass patch box, brass trigger guard, single brass band, and a saddle riding ring.

The Sharps and Hankins Model 1862

The second carbine from the top is the Sharps and Hankins Model 1862. This single shot breech loading percussion carbine was manufactured by a partnership between Christian Sharps of popular buffalo rifle fame and a man named William Hankins.  The Model 1862 rifle has a 24 inch barrel and a hexagon bore. It’s estimated that about 6,000 of these were manufactured during the Civil War. Christian Sharps also produced several popular sporting rifles after the Civil war, the Sharps 1873 Sporting Rifle being one of them.

The Burnside Carbine Model 1864

The third rifle from the top down is the Burnside Carbine 4th Model 1864, often said to be one of the finest carbines used during the Civil War This firearm was produced by the Burnside Rifle Company in Providence Rhode Island.The rifle was designed by Ambrose Burnside, an ex-Army officer who left the military to devote all his time to designing the carbine.

Returning to service with the Civil War, Burnside’s command didn’t fare as well as the rifles with his name did. He and his troops lost the Battle of Fredericksburg and retreated. The story is that afterward many of his men complained directly to the White House about Burnside’s ineptness in battle.

About 7,000 of these carbines were manufactured. They used an unusual cone shaped metal cartridge for use in a percussion system. Features with this rifle included an  iron buttplate, a single iron barrel band, saddle riding bar and ring on left side, strap hook on bottom of the butt, a double hinged iron loading lever and a hinged sight. This rifle system used a rotating block, released by a loading lever that was activated by a hinged, clamping catch.

The Starr Model 1858 Carbine

Here was a breech loading, percussion, paper cartridge single shot rifle that was purchased by the U.S. Army during the latter years of the Civil War. The rifles were manufactured by the Starr Arms Company of Yonkers New York. The company also built revolvers and it’s been said by some that the revolvers were a bit more popular than the carbines. The reviews of the carbine depended on who you asked. Some cavalry officers seemed to like the Sharps better while many of the non combatants in the war department favored the Starr. One story that circulated was that the the troops were often issued Sharps ammunition which didn’t work well at all with the Starr rifles.

As a side note, the Starr Arms Company manufactured three revolver models that were used during the Civil War. These included the .36 caliber Model 1858 Double Action Navy, the .44 caliber Model 1858 Double Action Army, and the .44 caliber Model 1863 Single Action Army.

These carbines based on Starr’s 1858 patent were produced in fairly large quantities during the Civil war. It’s estimated that over 20,000 of these carbines were built from 1862 to 1865. Standard features found on the 1858 Starr Carbine included a brass buttplate with squared tang, iron loading lever that doubles as a trigger guard, a single brass band, a single leaf hinged sight and a saddle ring on the left side.

Below are links to additional Trips Into History photo articles you may find interesting…

Fort Union’s Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts

The Military Cannon

Western Frontier Doctors

fort sumner new mexico museum

Firearms on display at Fort Sumner New Mexico Museum

Some Excellent Sites to View Historic Carbines

During our travels we’ve come across several historic sites which in themselves have marvelous displays of frontier firearms. These include, but certainly are limited to, the sites listed below.

Fort Garland Colorado– Fort Garland was established in 1858 to protect settlers in the San Luis Valley.  This old frontier fort has a large display of carbines and revolvers dating to the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Garland is located about 78 miles north of Taos New Mexico and about 90 miles southwest of Pueblo Colorado.

fort garland colorado barracks

Cavalry Barracks at Fort Garland

Fort Stockton Texas– This is a finely preserved western fort in southwest Texas in the town of Fort Stockton. Easy to reach via Interstate 10, Fort Stockton has a large collection of rifles and carbines used during the mid to late 1800’s. Sharps rifles and many other firearms are on display including artifacts retrieved from the fort and a lot of history regarding the buffalo soldiers who at various times were stationed there.

Fort Union New Mexico– Located just north of Las Vegas New Mexico and a few miles west of Interstate 25 and along the old Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union was an important fort protecting commerce traveling the Santa Fe Trail. Lots of artifacts and frontier rifles are on display along with the ruins of fort buildings. Fort Union also has original wagon ruts dating back to the Santa Fe Trail days. It’s a must stop if you’re traveling between Denver and Santa Fe.

santa fe trail wagon ruts

Fort Sumner Museum New Mexico– Fort Sumner’s fame includes being the site where Billy the Kid is buried. The museum has a very large collection of frontier firearms as well as artifacts dating back to when the fort was operational during the mid to late 1800’s. Fort Sumner is located about 44 miles south of Santa Rosa New Mexico and Interstate 40. Fort Sumner is also about 150 miles east southeast of Albuquerque. If you’re traveling Interstate 40 between Amarillo Texas and Albuquerque it’s a great stop.

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)

The Successes and Trials of Samuel Colt


Samuel Colt is known to many as the father of the repeating firearm. His successes and setbacks were many. The story of how he overcame adversity and tragedy is one of the most remarkable you’ll find.

samuel colt

Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt’s ultimate success in patenting and producing repeating firearms came only after many false starts and failures. It was a rocky road. The story is not as simple as that however because along the way Samuel Colt experienced personal trials and tribulations that many may not be aware of. Aside from the fact that his life was short, having died from gout at the age of forty-seven in 1862, Sam Colt found himself embroiled in family tragedy some people don’t experience even if they lived to be one hundred. Following are a few of the least known things about Samuel Colt on his way to being king of the repeating pistol.

The Nitrous Oxide Entertainer

Samuel Colt was merely in his late teens when he traveled the east and south entertaining crowds with nitrous oxide demonstrations. Colt did this to earn money to send to his gunsmiths who were working on building prototypes for his repeating weapons. Being an entertainer was a way to make a slim living and keep his larger dream alive.

Nitrous oxide was also known as “Laughing Gas“. Sam Colt would typically run an ad in the local paper, charge perhaps twenty-five cents per ticket, and after calling himself Dr. Colt (he often used the ancestry spelling of Coult) would demonstrate with volunteers from the audience the crazy and funny things people would do after inhaling the gas. Entertainment choices were not nearly what they are today and the nitrous oxide show was a huge hit.

1843 colt pistol

1843 Colt reproduction pistol

It was estimated that Colt may have demonstrated the gas on over 20,000 people and on himself perhaps a thousand times. There are no records as to how much Colt earned as a nitrous oxide entertainer but it appeared to be enough to keep his gunsmiths working.

Perfecting the Underwater Explosive Mine

Sam Colt had experimented with chemistry since he was a boy. While he tried to both patent and sell his repeating pistol during the early years the going was slow. While not being able to convince the army of it’s effectiveness or need, Colt began working on underwater mines using electric current to help protect the nation’s harbors, especially from possible invasion from England.

Sam Colt actually made this weapon work on a small scale when he demonstrated the underwater bomb as a youth during a Fourth of July town event. While his firearms business was stagnating, he took up this effort again in a serious way and even did procure experimental funds from Congress. In all, Colt put on a series of demonstrations for the army and other government officials, mostly in the waters of New York Harbor, and did succeed in impressing his audience. Each demonstration showed how his underwater mine, connected by insulated wire, could demolish some of the biggest vessels the government supplied him to use as targets.

colt lightning pistol

Authentic .38 Colt Lightning

While Colt’s experiments succeeded the government lost interest in the project, mostly because the threat from England had diminished, and the underwater devices were never ordered up by Washington. Never however, during his work on the underwater weapons, did Sam Colt give up on promoting and refining his repeating pistols.

Sam Colt’s Older brother and a Sensational New York Murder

Samuel Colt had three brothers. Christopher, John, James and Samuel were the sons of Christopher Colt Sr.

Older brother John C. Colt was involved in killing a New York printer by the name of Samuel Adams in 1838. John Colt had a degree of success in writing and lecturing on the subject of “double entry bookkeeping“. Not exactly the most exciting subject matter but in the early 1800’s it was something merchants and companies in America’s rapidly growing economy were in need of and could put to practical use.

The murder of Samuel Adams on September 17, 1841 who had been involved in printing a set of Colt’s books was bad enough, but Colt had tried to crudely hide and ship away the corpse in a small box and was ultimately caught and arrested. The crime was horrible and became a big sensation with the New York press. Stories of the crime even spread to papers all across the country.

Samuel Colt, struggling with his firearm manufacturing company (selling firearms on a retail basis without big government contracts) and in the midst of developing the underwater explosive mine, stood by his brother and helped financially and otherwise with his defense. In fact, Sam appeared as a witness for the defense with a pistol demonstration shooting balls with cap detonators without gunpowder. This has gone down as one of the more unusual courtroom demonstrations in history.

1851 colt navy revolver

1851 Colt Navy Revolver

John C. Colt was ultimately convicted and sentenced to hang on November 18, 1842. All subsequent appeals had failed. On the day of the scheduled execution at the Tombs jail in New York City, John took his own life in his cell by stabbing himself just an hour or so before the hanging was to commence. The means by which he obtained the knife was never solved.

There is much more to this story. There are revelations concerning Samuel Colt and a prior marriage producing a son that is all connected to an unusual wedding in John Colt’s jail cell on the day of his scheduled execution in 1842. I would recommend the fascinating book Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend by author Harold Schechter. While the book goes into great detail about the murder and trial it also gives a sweeping background about the Colt family and Samuel Colt’s efforts to make a success of his repeating pistol and rifle. You’ll find it a great read.

colt armory hartford

Colt Armory

Links to two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy include;

Western Frontier Generals / Crook and Miles

Pullman Railroad Cars

The Firearms of Annie Oakley

When Samuel Colt passed away in 1862 during the midst of the Civil War he was one of the wealthiest men in America. His Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company was an industry leader. He was at the forefront of America’s early industrial revolution. As a side note, the wife of Samuel Colt, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, experienced not only the death of her husband in 1862 but also the tragedy of having two sons and a daughter dying in infancy just a short time earlier. Another son born in 1858 did live until 1894.

Upon Samuel Colt’s death, Elizabeth took over the management of the company and the years from the Civil War through the end of the 1800’s were some of the company’s best.

armsmear hartford


Sites to Add to Your Travel Planner

Armsmear, the mansion built by Samuel Colt in Hartford Connecticut is an excellent example of Italianate architecture. The home is now a National Historic Landmark. The home is located at 80 Wethersfield Avenue and is used today as a “51 unit apartment complex for retired single women.” Also on the same street is the James Colt Home which is also another example of Italianate architecture.

The Museum of Connecticut History is located at 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. The museum includes the Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company Factory Collection which was given to the museum in 1957.

Along the Connecticut River is the old Colt Armory where Samuel Colt manufactured his firearms. The site is a National Historic Landmark. The building today includes the original forge shop and foundry. Another excellent book on this subject is The Colt Armory: A History of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc. by author Ellsworth S. Grant.

(Photos of Colt firearms are from the author’s own collection. Remaining photos and images are from the public domain)



The Firearms of Sharpshooter Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley no doubt gained her shooting ability while hunting as a child. Some believe her father may have introduced her to firearms at a very early age.

One story is that Annie’s first shot taken at a squirrel with her father’s old Kentucky rifle. This probably would have been before even eight years of age. Shooting contests were quite popular when Annie was young and she entered many of them. The story there is that she won so many of these contests that many of the events began to bar her from entering. It was at one these popular events that Oakley met her future husband, Frank Butler.

Annie Oakley’s Firearms

So what were the guns that Annie Oakley liked?

Many people who try to find out what models of guns Oakley employed during her long career find out that the list was quite long. Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter and star performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, used a wide variety of firearms during her life.

In fact, years after her life, one such gun was sold for a mere five dollars by a relative in 1940. The gun sold was a Remington Beals. The Remington Beals was a very rare rifle. Supposedly only 800 hundred were manufactured during the two year period 1866-1868. Remington actually manufactured a few different models of the Beals, such as the Navy Beals and the Army Beals, however the model that Annie Oakley was known to use was produced in this small number. The rifle was a .32 caliber, single shot gun. This particular Remington model was used by Annie Oakley often in Cody’s Wild West.

As I mentioned above, if you’re trying to figure out what that “special rifle” was that Oakley used, it’s going to be difficult.

In addition to the Remington Beals model, Oakley used a large assortment of both rifles and pistols. These include both Smith and Wesson and Colt revolvers, a large assortment of shotguns including the Hibbard double barrel and several .22 caliber rifles.

As a side note, during her long career with the Wild West, one of Oakley’s more popular shooting demonstrations while performing with Cody’s Wild West was hitting a dime tossed ninety feet away. She generally used a .22 rifle for this one. Often she reportedly used a Marlin lever action .22 caliber rifle similar to the close-up photo below right. This photo is courtesy of www.adamsguns.com. In regards to shotguns, there’s a story that circulated that Annie was having trouble using the shotgun and supposedly was fitted with a better model in England. It is known that in addition to the Hibbard shotgun, Annie also at one time tried Lancaster and Francotte models.

Oakley was also known to give out some of her guns as souvenirs.

Whether it was a pistol, rifle, or shotgun, the legendary Annie Oakley was masterful with them all. Some of these guns have made it back over the years to the National Firearms Museum in Washington D.C. for public display. The Garst Museum in Greenville Ohio which features the Annie Oakley Center also has some of her authentic guns on display.

My understanding is that an Annie Oakley gun is also on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming.

Annie Oakley purchased a Model 3 Smith and Wesson handgun in 1888. This would have been while she was touring with Buffalo Bill. The Smith and Wesson design pioneered the use of sealed cartridges for quick loading and rapid firing. The Smith and Wesson Model 3 shown in the photo below is courtesy of www.adamsguns.com. There are also flyers that pop up every so often that point to Annie Oakley preferring this gun or that. Colt ran advertisements around the year 1913 regarding Oakley preferring that firearm during her daily performances. Although, by 1913 Annie had retired from the Wild West and was putting on demonstrations sporadically.

Below are links to our Trips Into History article regarding Samuel Colt, his repeating pistol invention and a family tragedy involving his brother. Also the article, The Woman Called Calamity Jane…

Samuel Colt, His Personal Successes and Trials

The Woman Called Calamity Jane

Another related and very interesting article is the story of Frank Butler and Annie Oakley, the sharpshooting duo. On our Western Trips site we also have an interesting article with photos about the 1800’s Frontier Firearms.

Annie Oakley honed here sharpshooting skills at an early age. Annie was born in 1860 and lived in poverty after her father passed away.

Annie actually began hunting and shooting at the age of eight. It was necessary in order to  support her siblings and her widowed mother.

The game she obtained from hunting around Greenville Ohio allowed her to bring in money by selling it to both restaurants and local townspeople. The story is that the proceeds from Annie’s hunting allowed her mother to pay off the mortgage on the farm. This all happened when Oakley was a mere fifteen years old.

Annie was quoted in a publication of hers “Powders I Have Used” as stating, ” When I first commenced shooting in the field in the Northern part of Ohio my gun was a single barrel muzzle loader, and as well as I can remember was a 16 bore”. She further states in ” Powders I Have Used” regarding her first guns, “My first real gun was a breech loading, hammer, 16-gauge made by Parker Brothers. I was proud of that gun. One hundred brass shells came with it. These I loaded with DuPont black powder, and continued to do so after I joined the Wild West Show, always using wads two sizes larger, so that the shot would not loosen in the second barrel”.

Concerning the various powders Annie used, she states that the first smokeless powder was called “Ditmar“. She then tested another from England which was named “Schultz“. In fact, while the Wild West was touring England, Annie’s husband, Frank Butler, went to the Schultz factory to learn more about using it. Annie Oakley was known however to try just about any new powder that came to market including a French powder when performing there. From my research it appears that the American Schultz powder manufactured by DuPont in the U.S. may have been Annie’s favorite.

Annie Oakley used many different firearms and powders during her career. There is not one firearm that Oakley used exclusively. It appears that she actually used or at least tried out almost every model gun manufactured. I’m certain she had favorites but with her sharpshooting skills she probably was a sure shot with just about any.

(Photos and images from the public domain)