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Common Guns in the Civil War

Burnside Carbine

The Burnside Carbine was the third most prevalent carbine in the Civil War. Approximately 53,800 Burnside Carbines were made from 1857 to 1865. Nearly all were made during the War for the North, and all production for the Civil War was in 54 caliber.

The Burnside breech loading design used the trigger guard as the operating lever.

Lowering the lever tilted the breech block to expose a cone-shaped cavity.

A tapered cartridge was inserted backwards into the cavity of the tilting breechblock.  The unique Burnside cone shaped cartridge was placed into this cavity. Closing the lever rotated the breech block to tightly cram the sealing ring at the front of the cartridge case into the back of the barrel to effectively seal the breech.

Five substantially similar models of the Burnside progressed through mostly internal improvements.

The external hammer fired a percussion cap. The cap's flame passed through a small hole at the base of the cartridge case to ignite the powder charge. The bullet and powder weights and energies cited below are an average of the typically issued Burnside ammunition. The Burnside cartridge case could hold up to 70 grains of powder, but it was not issued in quantity with that heavy a charge.

Field reports of the Burnside carbine said everything from high praise to condemnation as worthless. The reports were more emotional than analytical. The most serious complaint about the Burnside was cartridges occasionally sticking in the breech after being fired. A plunger was added to the breechblock to eject the fired cartridge case.  A rough estimate of the Burnside is to note that the Federal cavalry of the Shenandoah Valley and around Richmond in the tough Virginia fighting at the end of the Civil War were armed with Sharps and Spencer carbines.

Limited quantities of captured Burnside carbines were used by the Confederates. Although the Burnside leaked (like the Hall) when loaded with loose powder and bullet, it worked, if cleaned frequently, which was not possible with most of the other Federal newly designed carbines shooting the recently invented metallic cartridges.

The carbine's mechanism was designed by Ambrose Burnside. He was the treasurer before the Civil War of the Bristol Firearms Company of Bristol, Rhode Island. The Burnside action succeeded in usually sealing the breech from gas leakage where the service Hall pre-war breech loader was wanting.

Ambrose Burnside resigned from the company for financial difficulties in 1859. He raised a volunteer regiment (First Rhode Island) at the beginning of the Civil War and rose to become the commanding general. His several successes are generally forgotten because the Union Army suffered major disastrous defeats under his command. He was a politician after the Civil War and served Rhode Island as a United States Senator for many years. His name Burnside was adapted to "sideburns" for the style he popularized of growing the hair on the side of a man's face.

A.E. Burnside

The Burnside had been invented just before the creation of self-contained metallic ammunition by Smith & Wesson, Henry, and especially Spencer. The Burnside mechanism could not be readily adaptedto the newer forms of metallic cartridges. The newer cartridges had the primer built in. The Burnside was rapidly withdrawn from service after the Civil War.

The newer cartridges were also popular with the civilians. When a used Spencer in Texas would readily sell for nearly $20 after the Civil War, the Burnside sold at government action for 10-1/2 cents. When President Teddy Roosevelt ordered the arsenals be cleared in 1901 of obsolete Civil War weaponry, the Burnside brought from 3 to 8 cents each. Grandpa, why didn't you buy one then? Today, a Burnside in good working order on the collector market now brings $2,000 and up.

For more information, consult "Flayderman's Guide To Antique American Firearms" by Norm Flayderman, and "Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry" by John D. McAulay.

Technical Information

Length 56 Inches
Weight 9 pounds
Caliber 54
Bullet Weight 500 grains
Power Charge 65 grains
Muzzle Velocity 950 feet per second
Muzzle Energy 1,000 foot pounds

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