The .50 caliber Maynard percussion carbine as used in the Civil War, and afterwards by civilian hunters well into the late 1800s. The stock design and lack of a forearm look odd to us today, but the ergonomics are actually quite good. This helped keep the weight down to an amazingly low five pounds, 13 ounces, which made it very comfortable to carry.
The Maynard receiver locks up tight with a cam-over link. Note the slight gap between the receiver and barrel, which provides space for the fit of the oversized rim of the cartridge. The receivers were forged from the best quality Norway iron, and the barrels were steel. These same receivers were recycled into post-war models.
Most of the readers of this magazine are familiar with the Maynard target rifles of the late 1800s that were used by a number of renowned shooting champions; however, some might not be familiar with the early percussion carbines that helped make Dr. Edward Maynard famous. Of course, he was also known for his rolled tape priming system, which was incorporated into many military gun locks before the Civil War, most notably the Model 1855 series of firearms. In this article, we will shoot an original Maynard military carbine using historic loading techniques to answer the question, “How accurate were they, really?” In addition, we will explore the reasons why the Maynard was one of the very few successful carbine designs to survive after the Civil War, while over a dozen other brands slipped into obscurity. Finally, we will see that the Maynard carbine ammo is easy to make, requiring no special skills or equipment. You can reload a batch in an hour or less, or you can do it right at the range.
Right up front, I have to admit that I am a sucker for nice Maynards and I have owned several of the Model 1873s and 1882s; however, I just keep coming back to the percussion models for casual shooting and just plain fun.
The Gun Design
Open and ready to load. The arrow shows the beveled breech design.
When you lower the lever, the barrel tips up for loading. The brass case has a tiny pin-hole in the bottom to allow the flame from a musket cap to enter the cartridge, but not large enough for powder to leak out. To fire the gun, you put the cartridge in the chamber, raise the lever, and put a percussion cap on the nipple. The barrel is .50 caliber with three grooves and is 20-inches long. The twist is about one turn in 58 inches. There is a leaf sight for 100, 300, and 500 yards which is adjustable in a dovetail, as is the front sight, and the sight radius is 16.6 inches. This is a plus because some other military carbines have non-adjustable sights. Why are there no 200 and 400-yard leaves you say? Well, for different distances, one can use a “fine sight” with the tip of the front sight blade held low in the rear sight notch, or a “full sight” with the top of the front blade flush across the horizontal top of the ears of the rear sight notch. Well-trained troopers were taught this concept of fine, medium, and full sight pictures to better eradicate the enemy, which was their job after all.
Note arrow pointing to the beveled edges machined into the barrel all around the chamber, which provide room to grasp and remove the spent hull with the fingers, as there is no mechanical extractor. The oversized rim on the cartridge case makes this easy.
The hammer is slightly offset to the right to give the shooter a clear view of the sights. The trigger pull is excellent for a military gun and the lock time is very fast with a short hammer throw. Ignition is very reliable, and I have never had a hangfire or misfire with a percussion Maynard, providing I had snapped three caps on it first to clear the oil out of the flash channel. The buttstock looks dainty and fragile, and there were some spurious complaints about this in the 1860s, but I have never seen one broken, because the upper and lower tangs are extra-long and quite stout. All-in-all, this was a light, handy, reliable breech-loader that hit the market at exactly the right time before the Civil War.
A Short History
Dr. Maynard was a world-famous dental surgeon whose hobby was firearms experimentation. The US Ordnance Department tested his carbine design in 1856 and 1857, with very positive results, whereupon about 650 were ordered by the military. About 400 were sent west to St. Louis, and some even as far away as the New Mexico Territory. A senior officer in the US Regiment of Mounted Rifles said, “for Cavalry service and for light troops or skirmishers, the Maynard is the most destructive war weapon that has ever been invented.” An even weightier endorsement came in January, 1860, from the Master Armorer of the famous Harpers Ferry Armory who said, “I feel no hesitation in saying that I believe it to be the very best breechloading arm in the world.” We know this as the 1st Model, and it came with the Maynard tape primer and a patch box, and some rifles also featured a tang sight.
Original rear leaf sight, which is easier to see than most other military carbines even for tired, old eyes. Note how the hammer is offset slightly to the right.
As tensions between the North and South boiled over, several thousand .35 and .50 caliber Maynards were purchased by Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and probably Kentucky and Tennessee before there was an embargo on gun sales to the Southern States. Still other Maynards were seized from Federal arsenals scattered across the South; these firearms were cherished by the Rebel cavalry and infantry throughout the war, and the 1863 Confederate Ordnance Manual
listed them as a standard issue carbine. The South, lacking sufficient brass cartridge cases, told the soldiers to save their brass, because there were separate Maynard paper cartridges that fit right inside the empty brass hulls. There was also a shorter reusable brass cartridge base, similar to the brass base on a modern shotgun shell (minus the plastic upper part) that could be used with paper cartridges. These provided a gas seal at the breech and they typically had a thong attached from the case rim to the trigger guard so they could not be lost in the heat of battle. This short brass gas seal could also be used with loose powder and ball.
Things were going great for Dr. Maynard, and his guns were in very high demand. That is, until his factory burned down in January of 1861. Some suspected arson. It wasn’t until in late 1863, that production commenced again, with deliveries continuing to the Union from 1864 until May 1865. This was the 2nd Model (aka: Model 1863) and it was a cheaper, simplified version lacking the Maynard tape primer, patch box and tang sight. Interestingly, at least one Union cavalry regiment turned in their Sharps carbines in favor of the Maynard. All-in-all, about 20,000 of these Model 1863s were produced.
On the left is an original Maynard .50 caliber cartridge. Next is an original hull with a soldered-on rim and tiny flash hole in the center. In the middle is the original-style Maynard bullet seater. Next, is a white nylon case which is reusable and they only cost 68 cents apiece (I haven’t tried these yet.) Then comes a spitzer bullet that is very accurate, and on the far right is the bullet I used for this accuracy test.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, and all military contracts were cancelled, Dr. Maynard was left holding complete and partially complete carbines in his warehouse. These became the percussion Model 1865 in both military and sporting rifle configurations, and these guns filled the gap in sales to keep the company afloat until the centerfire Model 1873 came out. Excess percussion receivers were often converted to centerfire and re-used. After all, the receiver design was excellent, so why make new ones? There was even a small number converted to fire the 56-50 Spencer rimfire cartridge and sent out West by Schuyler, Hartley, and Graham. (Having some 56-50 cartridges on hand, I tried one in the Maynard chamber and I can see how it would work. However, I just can’t see much of an advantage for the cost.)
Being a smart businessman, Dr. Maynard also bought back some of the military surplus 1863 Maynard carbines from the government for pennies on the dollar, and many of these were still unissued and brand new, like the one used in this accuracy test. Apparently, they were popular with eastern hunters, and the percussion models were still being sold well into the 1880s, but by 1890, they no longer appeared in the company sales catalog.
The Load Data
Until June 1860, the original service load was 50 grains of musket powder, and this powder was the rough equivalent in strength to modern 1½Fg Swiss, according to tests conducted by Peter Schiffers using powder from an original Maynard cartridge. However, the soldiers complained bitterly about the recoil of this load in such a light carbine, so the Ordnance Department dropped the load down to 40 grains. The brass cases came in several different designs, but most were simple tube-stock with a soldered-on base or rim, which made for a roomy interior. Modern brass is bar stock turned on a lathe and has a thicker head, reducing the powder capacity, but I can still load 40 grains if I want to use a drop tube. Instead, I prefer to use 35 grains of GOEX 3Fg thrown from an 1890s Ideal flask which allows me to fit in a .50 caliber, .030-inch thick Walters Wad under the bullet. Dr. Maynard himself used wads for some of the official military trials, and they actually seem to help with the accuracy in this model. I push the wad down with a short piece of half-inch dowel, and then I wipe off the base of the bullet so they won’t stick.
On the bottom is a modern bullet seater that can also be used for resizing. On the left is the reproduction Maynard-specific nipple wrench and Maynard-specific nipple, followed by the replacement front and rear sight blanks for those wanting a custom peep sight. On the right are two types of case cleaning brushes. Check for availability of all accessories with S&S Firearms, Lodgewood Mfg., and Dixie Gun Works.
The original bullets came in two main types, either spitzer or round-nose flat point, and they weighed about 325-365 grains with a single grease groove. I have tried about six different styles of bullets over the years and they are all similar for accuracy. My favorite for this particular gun is the 350-grain Lyman 515390 (the so-called “Smith/Maynard” bullet) because it comes out of the mould at .516 inch with pure lead, which is perfect for this barrel as it has a .514-inch groove depth. Land diameter is .501 inch. This bullet also has a very slight bevel base that makes for easier loading since the cases are never lubed, sized or belled. Obviously, this really cuts the time it takes for reloading and that’s a great feature. If I’m feeling really rambunctious, I’ll use an alloy of 1:25 tin/lead since it shoots a bit more accurately. The lube was a fairly stiff 50/50 beeswax and tallow mix per Dr. Maynard’s formula, but here in Arizona in the summer heat this lube melts quickly if inadvertently left in the sun, so I also used liquid Alox, and it worked quite nicely. After all, Alox is a mixture of 50% beeswax and 50% thick grease, according to the original NRA tests conducted back in the 1970s. As a matter of fact, my best groups were shot with the liquid Alox, but I didn’t shoot enough of them to reach a tight statistical conclusion. There was no leading with either lube, and the fouling was about the same. I am aware that some other gun writers say that Alox won’t work with black powder, but in this case it certainly did. I also intend to try the “SPG Tropical” which is specifically designed for hot weather.
Best of the 10-shot groups at 3.125 inches, with no cleaning at all. I adjusted the sights after this group to get in the black. There was no wind and the powder charges were weighed, instead of being thrown from a flask. The average 10-shot group was 4.1 inches.
I use a reproduction of the original Maynard bullet seater to push the bullet straight into the case, and they are available from S&S Firearms; or, you can just use a wooden mallet to tap them in, which is an authentic field expedient. However, that last thought makes me cringe as an accuracy nut. Just use the same amount of force each time you load a cartridge with the seating tool for best accuracy. There is a ledge machined/turned inside each case neck which stops the bullet for the correct seating depth, but if you want a longer overall length, just slide a large washer over the case before sliding the case and bullet into the seating tool. No crimping is necessary because friction holds the bullet in place in the case.
Let’s start with the hottest load and work our way down.
• Swiss 3Fg, 35 grains by weight; 1,015 feet per second (fps); extreme spread 16 fps; average shot-to-shot difference/deviation was a low 4 fps. 10 shots total.
• GOEX 3Fg, 35 grains by weight; 938 fps; extreme spread 29 fps; average deviation 4.4 fps. 10 shots.
• Swiss 1½Fg, 40 grains by weight; 862 fps. This data is from Peter Schiffers, and he concluded that the velocity of Swiss 1½Fg is within 3% of the original issue musket powder velocity.
I felt that 35 grains of Swiss 3Fg was a bit too spicy, and I did not feel comfortable running-up the breech pressure curve with this very hot, fast burning powder in an old original gun. The bevels machined into the breech to allow manual cartridge extraction also weaken this area. The Swiss 3Fg load clearly exceeds the original Civil War velocity of 40 grains of musket powder, and probably even the earlier 50-grain load that was discontinued in 1860. By the way, always have your Maynard checked by a competent black powder gunsmith before shooting it.
For this test, a military carbine with the serial number 22578 was used, and it was a government-inspected Model 1863. The factory open sights were used. All targets were shot at 100 yards from the bench using double bags, and the bore was wiped after each five-shot group. The test group sizes were measured from center-to-center of the two widest shots in each group. Some 10-shot groups were fired without cleaning and are noted below. Naturally, I could have shot more than 10 shots without cleaning, but accuracy usually starts to fall off rapidly after ten. However, I have fired up to 20 rounds without cleaning while plinking and the accuracy was still pretty darn good. (The military cartridge box carried twenty rounds.) No oil or fouling shots were fired into the berm, and all shots were counted in the groups for authentic historical results. One .030-inch thick fiber Walters Wad was used in each round to simulate original historic ammo. The sights were not adjusted for 10X target performance since this test was all about group size. The results below were obtained over the course of a number of trips to the range, because sometimes I could only shoot one or two groups before the wind started howling.
Five-Shot Group Results
• SWISS: A five-shot group was fired with 35 grains by volume of Swiss 3Fg and beeswax-tallow lube, and it measured 4.75 inches.
• GOEX: Liquid Alox lube was used for these five-shot groups with 35 grains by volume of GOEX 3Fg, and they measured 3.25 inches, 3.75 inches and 4.25 inches, for an average of 3.75 inches.
• GOEX: Beeswax and tallow was used for these five-shot groups with 35 grains by volume of GOEX 3Fg, and they measured: 3.75 inches, 4.25 inches, 4.375 inches, 4.375 inches, 4.375 inches, and 4.375 inches, for an average of 4.25 inches.
Ten-Shot Group Results
• SWISS: A 10-shot group was fired without any cleaning with 35 grains (each charge weighed) of Swiss 3Fg and beeswax-tallow lube, and it measured 5.75 inches.
• GOEX: The following 10-shot groups were fired without any cleaning with 35 grains of GOEX 3Fg and beeswax-tallow lube, and they measured: 3.125 inches, 4.125 inches, and 5 inches, for an average of 4.1 inches. These were shot on two windless days using individually weighed powder charges, which explains the extra-small groups.
Maynard firearms were known for excellent quality barrels, and I have slugged and measured many over the years, all of which have had very tight tolerances. Not so with some other firearms from this era like the Sharps, Remington, and Springfield (especially Trapdoors). For example, I have measured six military Maynards with mint, unworn bores and they only vary from .514 to .517 inch in the groove diameter, which is amazing given the technology of the time and the fact that there was a war on. Most of the original bullets were made slightly larger than .517 inch so they shot with reasonable accuracy in all of the guns. The bores are very smooth with few tool marks and this helps keep the fouling down, because burnt powder doesn’t stick to the interior of the barrel as much. Indeed, excellent barrels contributed to the success of the company well into the 1890s, when the company was purchased by the J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company.
With respect to hunting with a Maynard carbine, I intend to take this rifle out after deer this year. A friend of mine killed a big black bear with his; one shot that went through-and-through. I’m not sure I would want to try that, but for deer, javelina and coyotes I wouldn’t worry. Back in the day, they certainly performed well on humans.
Clearly, the Maynard was one of the most accurate carbines of the Civil War, being roughly equivalent to the Smith carbine and some early Sharps models. Having bought and sold five of these over the years, I can say with some certainty that they are solid “four Minute of Angle” guns with just about any reasonable load you want to stuff in them. (I once had a solid “three MOA” Maynard carbine.) That may not sound very good to some BPCR silhouette or Creedmoor shooters, but consider the differences between Maynard carbines and expensive BPCRs such as high-end peep sights, front sight apertures, longer sight radius, set triggers, and complex ammunition. Antique or modern, one would be hard-pressed today to find a lightweight carbine with open sights that shoots much better than these. Just the other day I was at the range firing two modern lever-action carbines, one in 38 Special, and the other in 32-20 WCF, and even with my most carefully crafted lead ammo, I could not equal the accuracy of the Maynard. Plus, I can load each Maynard cartridge in well under a minute with only a powder measure and a bullet seater. So, if you are interested in living the good life with a cute little Maynard by your side, prices start at about $700 for a good shooter to $2,800 for a minty one. It will certainly bring a big smile to your face.