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From the History Books Historical

Troopers’ Twofer: The U.S. Model 1855 Pistol-Carbine

by Garry James   |  January 20th, 2012 5
Model 1855 Pistol-Carbine

Photo provided by the NRA National Firearms Museum

A number of people have asked me what kind of gun I’m holding at the top of my blog. The answer is a U.S. Model 1855 pistol-carbine, one of the most interesting American arms of the 19th century.

The Model 1855 was an interesting hybrid. Sporting a 12-inch, .58 caliber rifled barrel, as a pistol the arm had all the grace and manageability of an anvil. Like the rifle-musket and rifle, it was set up with a Maynard tape system, an arrangement that fed the fulminate of mercury priming charge to the gun’s nipple via a paper roll contained in a magazine on the lockplate.

Patented by Dr. Edward Maynard in 1845, it was later purchased by the U.S. government, and not wishing to let their investment go to waste, was incorporated into the 1855 arms — with the exception of the carbine which still used a standard percussion cap. The Maynard primer was less than popular with the troops and would be jettisoned six years later with the introduction of the Model 1861 rifle-musket, which interestingly still used the bowed hammer of the M1855, allowing the government to used stocks of older hammers and to avoid new tooling for a more traditional S-shaped component.

The Model 1855 had a full-length stock, brass furniture and a carbine-style swivel ramrod. More importantly, it was also issued with a detachable, brass-mounted buttstock so that it could also be employed as a carbine. To economy-minded ordnance officials, that probably seemed like a dream come true — two arms for one. What could be better?

Though a 500-grain projectile designed by James H. Burton at Harper’s Ferry Armory — which eliminated the expanding plug used in many European Minies and also incorporated three annular grease grooves — was prescribed for the rifles, a 450-grain bullet with deeper internal cavity was found to be more effective with the pistol-carbine.

The pistol, sans the buttstock, measured 17 ¾ inches and weighed a muzzle-heavy 4 pounds, 2 ounces, as opposed to the M1842 which had an overall length of 14 inches and weighed a pound less, and the Colt Navy, which ran 13 inches and hefted but 2 pounds, 7 ounces.

It had a two-leaf rear sight graduated to an optimistic 400 yards, a ring on the butt for hooking on a carbine sling swivel, and standard swivels on the front band and toe of the detachable buttstock for attaching a more conventional, rifle-style sling. When put together, the entire package measured 28 ¼ inches, 12 ¾ inches shorter than the 1847 Cavalry Musketoon, and 9 ¼ inches shorter than the Model 1852 Sharps.

All in all, it looked like a pretty tidy package, one which then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis felt would be just the ticket for both Dragoons and Cavalry; unfortunately, the troopers didn’t agree as some design flaws appeared. The Maynard tape primer was deemed less than reliable by most who tried it, necessitating the use of standard percussion caps. Too, the claw-type buttstock attachment was not particularly effective. Future Confederate General Richard Ewell evaluated the arm in 1858 and found that the wobbly butt-to-pistol fit was detrimental to good accuracy.

Cavalrymen were issued with a set of pommel holsters, one for the pistol and one for the stock, a very rare accoutrement today — in fact, I’ve never seen one.

Some 5,000 Model 1855s were manufactured between 1855 and 1857 and issued to units in the West, where they were found to be at least serviceable, if not particularly popular.

With the onset of the Civil War, the pistol-carbine was given a new lease on life, and many were carried by regulars and state troops, North and South. It is interesting to note, the number of surviving photographs that show troopers with Model 1855s, and the worn condition of surviving specimens, seems to indicate considerable usage — at least in the early months of the war. One can assume that as better arms became available, the 1855 was eventually discarded or returned to stores, though it is possible that arms-hungry Rebels held on to them longer than did their Yankee counterparts.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with the Model 1855 with indifferent results. Because of the overall length and balance of the piece — coupled with a 500-grain bullet backed with a 60-grain powder charge — it is less than the ideal military handgun.

The overall length of the piece with the buttstock attached makes it a bit awkward to shoulder, and recoil is stout. I have never seen one with a tight grip-to-stock fit.

Too, accuracy has been rather mediocre, even at short ranges. Plus, even using proper Civil-War style Minies, the bullets have a tendency to keyhole. To be fair, only 500-grainers have been available, and that may have something to do with the lack of stabilization — but frankly, I can’t see why it should be as bad as it is. I have also tried several different powder charges to no avail.

Still, at up to 50 yards I can generally keep most shots on a target board, which would not be bad accuracy during a typical cavalry melee, though for dismounted use it would be rather dismal.

One thing that cannot be denied, though, is the novelty of the piece. It was the only pistol of its type to ever be issued as primary standard to U.S. troops, and while it might have not been highly valued during its service lifetime, today it is an expensive, sought-after collectors’ piece.

Heck, it only took 153 years to come into its own.

  • Rick Jennings

    Article: "Troopers’ Twofer: The U.S. Model 1855 Pistol-Carbine" — This is interesting and I hesitate to argue with someone who holds the weapon in his hands, but…
    The Colt-Root Revolving Rifle was designated, at least in the materials I can find, as the Model 1855 and were the first repeating rifles adopted by the U.S. Government. The rifle used, as did the pistols, percussion caps. The rifle was available in .36,.44 and .56 caliber. Four barrel lengths were available: 15, 18, 21 and 24 inches. A six shot cylinder was used if the caliber was .36 or the .44. If the caliber was .56, a five-shot cylinder was used. The problem, however, with the design involved a tendency to "flash over" to adjacent cylinders and fire multiple charges simultaneously. Even when this did not happen, lead shavings often were sprayed onto the shooter's hands and/or wrists. Pistol shooters had an advantage as, when shooting the pistol, both hands were usually behind the cylinder. Of course, there was always the resort to plugging the cylinders with grease after loading, but, this was often not practical during battle. There seems to be some confusion here.(?)

  • Garry James

    For the most part everything you say is correct, but I don't see where there is any conflict with what I wrote about the Pistol-Carbine. There were also Sharps, etc. in the system at the same time, not to mention the U.S. Model 1855 Rifle and Model 1855 Rifle-Musket.

  • old vet

    Nice article, I love reading about these old relics, it is something to think of the damage done by those big soft lead slugs, in the days before modern medicine. As far as the comment previously about discharging a percussion revolver without greasing the bullet, have seen it done, the results were spectacular.

  • Garry James

    I've had it happen many times, even with greased chambers. Pepperboxes are also notorious for this. My Allen can be a veritable Roman candle. Mark Twain even comments about the Allen in "Roughing It." One never put his hand in front of the cylinder when firing a Colt Revolving Rifle, greased or not.

  • Muzzlehatch

    This is why the trooper's main weapon was the saber.

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