May 07, 2021
By Garry James
At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, like most European countries, categorized its cavalry units as either light, medium or heavy. How they were employed, as well as the weaponry with which they were issued, could differ considerably.
Light cavalry, which included such units as hussars, light dragoons and lancers ideally were employed for scouting, vedette duties and pursuing a fleeing enemy.
Medium cavalry — not seen in all armies — could be something of a mixture of light and heavy, with sometimes the other two filling the medium role as needed.
The heavies, which included dragoons and cuirassiers, were generally intended to be used more as shock troops, though when required they could also be used for scouting and patrols.
Light, medium and heavy cavalrymen, with the exception of lancer units which eschewed carbines, carried swords, carbines and pistols. Most military theoreticians agreed that the curved sabre was best for lights as slashing and cutting was more their forte. Carbines, too, were lighter and shorter than those wielded by heavies, and pistols, while normally differing in design, were often of the same caliber.
The 1796 Heavy Dragoon Carbine, or Heavy Cavalry Carbine, was one of a number of new arms owing to the efforts of the Duke of Richmond who, some 14 years prior to the adoption of the carbine, had been appointed Master General of Ordnance.
In the early 1790s, he approached respected London gunsmith Henry Nock with a proposition. Nock, as well as producing fine sporting arms, had also dealt with military arms upon occasion, perhaps his most interesting product being a seven-barreled flintlock volley gun he produced for the Royal Navy. Though the volley gun itself was actually designed by James Wilson, Nock was given the contract for building some 500 of these formidable weapons. As he was the maker of the piece, and it had his name on it, the arm was referred to as “Nock’s Volley Gun.” Nock also furnished Ferguson-style breechloaders to the East India Company.
The Duke of Richmond’s pet project, and the main reason he contacted Nock, revolved around the development of a new-style flintlock musket. The most common variant featured a bore reduced from the standard .76 to .75 and employed a barrel with a break-off, or “hooked,” breech designed by Nock. The arrangement enabled the barrel to be removed without unscrewing the tang. Most importantly though, the piece was fitted with a revolutionary screwless lock, also by Nock.
Nock’s lock was an ingenious device. The only screws used in its design were a single “sidenail” to fasten the lock to the stock and flint jaw screw on the cock. Otherwise, all components, such as the cock, steel (frizzen), steel lever, mainspring (which was used to operate the cock and also to provide pressure on the steel lever), and sear are held in place by pins. The cock and steel are sited internally in the plate as is the steel spring providing for an extra bit of protection for the moving parts.
Nock’s lock operated in basically the same manner as a standard flintlock, however, because of the construction of the mechanism, there were a few slight differences. Probably the most interesting functional variance is the cock and sear arrangement. Once the cock has been fully pulled to the rear, it cannot be lowered manually, or inadvertently, as it catches on the half-cock notch. This was apparently intended to be a sort of safety device, probably most valuable during the loading process when the gun was put on half-cock and the pan primed before the main charge was loaded into the barrel.
When viewing a Nock screwless lock, besides the obvious positioning of the cock and steel, the main thing that catches the observer’s eye is the steel flash guard emblazoned with the royal crown and initials “G.R.”, for “Georgius Rex,” of King George III. While it is a common practice of today’s reenactors to affix flash guards to their muskets, I must admit I have been unable to find any period reference to the common use of such a component by the rank and file. It is my supposition that Henry Nock devised it to be used solely on his screwless lock and the concept was appropriated some 200 years later as an added safety measure when shooting a more conventional flintlock. I will admit I may be in error here and would welcome any further verifiable information that flash guards were used on other arms in the 18th or 19th centuries. If examples exist, I would welcome being enlightened. Interestingly, some of the earlier screwless locks did not have the flash guard, it being added some time after the lock’s introduction.
The plate is engraved with the inventor’s name “H. NOCK” and stamped with a small crown and broad-arrow ordnance inspection mark.
To service the lock, the cock is first placed on half-cock. Then one simply unscrews the sidenail. The lock may now be pivoted away from the stock and the forward portion of the plate unhooked from a flathead screw inside the front of the lockplate cavity.
Once the lock is removed and the rear revealed, a small latch may be flipped open at the front of the backplate, which is then rotated downwards and then lifted off the sidenail screw hole. This exposes the innards. One then employs a mainspring vise to slightly pinch the mainspring. Next, the sear is compressed and the mainspring lifted free. All the other parts may now be easily removed from their pivots, pins and pin holes in the plate.
Nock’s mechanism reduced the eight or nine screws employed in a conventional flintlock to just two. Considering that the screws are oftentimes the weakest links in a lock, the advantage provided by his method is obvious. Unfortunately, it was also much more expensive and labor-intensive to produce so, good as it was, employment of the screwless lock was limited despite good reviews. Ironically, this began with the Duke of Richmond’s Musket, which was sidelined because, as well as sporting Nock’s pricey lock, the gun was something of a redesign of the standard issue Short Land Pattern “Brown Bess” musket. With the crisis of the Napoleonic Wars to deal with, the British government was not in a state of mind to deviate too much from the tried-and-true. Still, Nock produced a number of these muskets from around 1794 to 1797, after which time the project was put into abeyance. A variant of the Duke of Richmond’s Musket would reappear for a short time following the Peace of Amiens, 1802, sans Nock’s lock, as the “New Land Pattern Musket.” When Europe was again plunged into war only a year later, the New Land Pattern was put on hold and very few were made.
Despite the maintenance of the Brown Bess for infantry, there was some movement concerning cavalry arms at the Board of Ordnance. As previously noted, there were different types employed depending upon the needs of specific units.
Though carbines were loaded and fired from horseback, their principal value was in being used by troopers dismounted when they were acting as skirmishers, scouting or on guard duty.
Measuring some 41 inches overall, and of musket bore (.76), the 1796 Heavy Dragoon Carbine often had a separate rammer and was normally — but not always — carried vertically in a saddle bucket to prevent the rammer from being lost. Too, this kept loads from working loose in the barrel.
Though the 1796 was a specific model of carbine, there were variations, depending upon who manufactured the arm and for which unit it was intended. Probably the most distinctive difference was the lock. The most common style seen was the standard 1777 Pattern that had been used on muskets and other types of arms for a number of years. However, there were a number of surplus Nock locks from the aborted Duke of Richmond’s Muskets fitted onto ’96 Carbines, in the manner of the one we see here. Other major differences in the carbine were length variations and different styles of carbine sling bars, or the absence of a bar altogether.
Heavy Dragoon Carbines were intended to be fitted with a bayonet similar in appearance to that used with the Bess, but, unlike the infantry musket bayonet that was secured to the barrel solely by an angular channel, the carbine version had a locking ring, shortened socket and slightly reduced-length 15-inch blade. A square retaining lug was brazed to the top of the barrel 2 inches behind the muzzle.
Whatever the style, the 1796 was regarded as a robust arm, and while there were some complaints about its large bore and rather hefty charge of 110 grains, it remained in service for some 30 years into the 19th century.
As an aside, in 1796 a number of other cavalry arms were also adopted including a pistol which mounted a reduced-size Nock screwless lock and a stout, straight sword adapted from one used earlier by Austrian heavy cavalry.
Firing The 1796
Though quite scarce, 1796 Carbines do turn up on occasion. We were fortunate to happen upon one that was in excellent condition. It’s Nock lock was in perfect mechanical condition, and the bore bright and unmarred. This particular gun was fitted with a straight ring bar and, other than the standard Nock and Ordnance view and proofmarks, was unmarked with the exception of rack number, “D/27” on the ramrod above its retaining swell. This indicates the piece was issued to trooper 27 of D Troop, regiment unknown.
Paper cartridges were prepared containing a .715-caliber round ball, weighing about an ounce, and a charge of 95 grains of Fg Swiss blackpowder. The load was reduced slightly from the regulation specs to compensate for the priming charge, which would have been, as per the period loading drill, poured into the pan from the cartridge prior to ramming the ball and charge down the barrel. For historical purposes, we have illustrated the period loading drill in the article, but for safety’s sake at the range, the barrel was charged first and the pan separately primed.
As flintlock carbines of the period were generally intended for close-range work — their smooth bores and short barrels not providing the optimum accuracy — we devised a target consisting of a square blank paper, on the center of which was affixed an 8-inch bullseye as an aiming point. The range chosen was 25 yards, and all shots were fired offhand.
The carbine was duly loaded and primed, the whole process taking about 30 seconds. That time would have been at least 5 to 10 seconds shorter using the original priming method. The gun has no rear sight, though the bayonet lug serves as an adequate front sight when lined up with the smooth top surface of the barrel tang.
Our 1796’s trigger was horrendous. It was unmeasurable using a standard trigger-pull gauge. Still, once we got used to it, it was at least manageable. Recoil was really not all that bad, and ignition fast and sure. Out of 20 rounds, there were no misfires.
Our first couple of shots struck the lower right of the target at about 5 o’clock to 5:30. This gave us the impression that the carbine was going to be more accurate than expected. As the bore became fouled, our hopes were dashed. While all 10 shots were kept on the paper, the group spread out to 29 inches, the majority of balls striking around the perimeter of the bull. This was not competition accuracy by any means, but acceptable by Napoleonic military standards and potentially lethal.
Generally, the 1796 Heavy Dragoon Carbine met, and perhaps slightly exceeded, our expectations. Really, the only difficulty we encountered was with the ramrod, which failed to stay in place during firing. This was undoubtedly caused by some slight changes in the stock and ramrod channel that have taken place over the last 220 years of wear and changing climate.
There is no question the 1796 Heavy Carbine is a robust arm, well fitted for the role it was intended to fill. Though the Duke of Richmond may have been thwarted in his plan for a new infantry musket, the heavy cavalry, at least, ended up with a first-rate carbine.
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