First Virginia Cavalry


 The Cavalry Carbine

The Civil War came at an interesting time in weapons development.  Only a few decades earlier, the standard military rifle was a smooth bore flintlock which was most accurate when thrown.  While rifles had been around for a long time, the "hunting rifle" using a cloth patched bullet forced down the muzzle with considerable effort was not an effective arm for massed armies.  For that reason, the "musket" - smooth bore with an undersized ball was the only reasonable arm allowing rapid reloading through a bore fouled with black powder residue.  It has been said that if you were hit by a smoothbore musket ball, then you were simply unlucky.. for surely it had not been pointing at you when the trigger was pulled.

Two things made a great change in both accuracy and power of small arms: The first was the so-called "minnie ball" named after co-developer, Claude-…tienne Miniť, which came to prominence in the Crimean War. This projectile had a hollow base which expanded upon firing, engaging the rifling and forming an excellent gas seal. This made the infantry rifle powerful and accurate out to hundreds of yards.

The second development was the breech-loading rifle - or in the case of the cavalry, the carbine - in which it didn't matter if the barrel was fouled with black powder residue, because the cartridge was loaded from the rear, or breech.

It is noted that the 1st Virginia Cavalry was originally supplied with the 1859 Sharps Cavalry Carbine, in which a paper cartridge containing a .52 caliber bullet and powder was inserted through the breech, and a musket cap was then added to the firing cone after the breech was closed.  Closing the breech snipped off the tail of the paper cartridge, exposing the powder. This short carbine could be reloaded on horseback and could fire approximately 5 rounds a minute as opposed to the typical 3 round per minute capability of an infantry rifle in which a ramrod needed to be used.  A ring which slid on a short bar on the left side of the carbine allowed it to be carried on a carbine sling which had a free-rolling snap mechanism to secure the weapon from being dropped from horseback. ( see Other Equipment )

This is not to say that every trooper carried a Sharps.  In the early stages of the war, weapons were in short supply, and anything that could shoot was pressed into general service, including ancient flintlocks, smoothbore muskets, and shotguns.  In fact, shotguns were quite popular with the cavalry, as they were highly effective when loaded with "buck and ball" at the relatively short ranges typical of cavalry skirmishes.

Another popular carbine in our unit is the Smith Carbine, which was patented by Gilbert Smith of Buttermilk Falls, New York on June 23, 1857.  This excellent carbine used a metallic cartridge with a small hole in the back allowing the externally loaded musket cap to flash down into the mechanism and into the powder.

Today, excellent reproductions of both the Sharps and Smith cavalry carbine are available, and both are historically correct for the early stages of the Civil War.  The Sharps is most frustrating to clean, requiring considerable disassembly of the loading block, while the Smith - which breaks open like a single shot shotgun of today using a finger plunger inside the trigger guard - only requires a bore cleaning followed by a brushing off of the lock mechanism for a decent field cleaning.

While other, non-breech loading carbines - such as the Enfield Musketoon or it's Confederate copy, the Cook & Brother, are period correct, they are not recommended due to the difficulty of trying to dump powder down the barrel while being chased by a passel of Yankees on horseback.  They are indeed somewhat cheaper and probably more suitable for Dismounted Cavalry, because ramrods are not allowed to be drawn in a reenactment, so all one needs to do is dump a charge down the barrel and cap off.  Not very authentic in actual performance, as one might guess... but that's all the infantry is allowed to do with their long-barreled rifle-muskets.  Stick with a breech loader.. you'll attract more girls with your cool-looking Sharps or Smith slung over your shoulder than by dragging an Enfield around the camp.


Pistols ( more than one ) were highly favored by the cavalry, as the close quarter combat typical of their engagements made them very effective, and the ability to fire 6 shots from each without reloading was a definite edge in sheer firepower.  It was not unusual for a cavalryman to carry one on each hip, plus another pair in pommel holsters attached to the saddle - yielding 24 rounds available without reloading while the poor infantry struggled to get off their 3 shots per minute from their long-barreled muzzle loaders.


By far the most common and popular pistol of the era was the 1851 Colt Navy in .36 caliber, which was loaded using a loading lever secured under the barrel.  Caps were then added to the firing cones on the back of the cylinder and the whole rig was relatively weather-resistant when carried in a flap holster at the waist.
But one of the most popular revolvers in our unit is the 1858 Remington, whose cylinder can be quickly removed and replaced with a freshly loaded spare.  Carrying a single Remington plus 2-4 spare cylinders is far cheaper ( and lighter ) than carrying a double brace of Colts.  Plus, the larger .44 caliber packs considerably more boom for the buck.

Whatever your choice of weapons, remember it was the high mobility and massive close-range   firepower of the mounted cavalry that enabled it to defeat and even capture infantry units which often outnumbered them several times over.

The Cavalry Saber

The saber was nearing end-of-useful life when the Civil War came along, even though crossed sabers have become the icon of the cavalry up to this day.  More useful for breaking bones or knocking someone senseless than actually cutting through heavy wool clothing, the saber steadily declined in popularity during the war as a practical fighting tool... unless you were out of ammunition.  Many saber styles were present (many were European made ) but two models stand out as most common among mounted cavalry enlisted men: the 1840 (heavy) Cavalry Saber - affectionately known as "Old Wristbreaker), because of it's weight - and the 1860 Light Cavalry Saber - by far the most common and preferred for reenacting.  This is shown below.

Ownership of a saber is NOT REQUIRED in all units, and in fact the carrying of same on the battlefield by dismounted cavalry is not allowed per many unit regulations.  The reason is, you are far more likely to trip over the darn thing and hurt yourself, and dismounted saber fights are generally not allowed on the field unless they have been previously approved by the event management and carefully scripted beforehand by experienced duelists.  Mounted troops often engage in mock saber clashes, but we keep them attached to the saddle and do not carry them while dismounted for ground skirmish.

Still, they look nice hanging over the fireplace, and decent copies are not all that expensive, so get one if you want to be 100% fully equipped.  Just don't expect to use it much.

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