feature By: William P. Mapoles | March, 23
Are there times when you just don’t feel like spending a lot of long hours at the reloading bench? Are there days when you are just too busy to reload some brass for the weekend? If so, here is a slick little breechloader to check out – the Smith carbine. A handloader can load a batch of cartridges for it in less than 20 minutes, or simply load them at the range. No reloading tools are required, except for a simple powder measure, and no great degree of precision is required to make accurate ammunition for it. The inherent accuracy is the remarkable thing about the Smith carbine that seems to defy logic. That is also the reason it has become a favorite of the North-South Skirmish Association and many other gun nuts like me. Here are some more good reasons to own one:
• The sights are easy to see for old eyes and are adjustable with dovetails. The rear ladder sight is easy to modify into a peep sight if that is what you need. The front sight holds a brass blade that is easy to replace if worn.
• The trigger pull is usually very good for a military arm.
• The plastic cartridges cases only cost forty-four cents each and require no lubing, sizing, expanding or trimming of any sort – ever! Plus, they don’t corrode from powder residue like brass.
• The short bullets of about 350 grains are very easy to cast and the alloy type is not critical. Pure lead is fine and was used with the original loads. Or, you can buy bullets ready-made from several suppliers.1
• No bullet sizing is needed because the moulds come in several sizes ranging from .512-520 inch. Apply a little soft lube by hand and you are ready to go.
• There is no need to weigh the powder charge, and no wads are needed between the powder and the bullet. Wads don’t seem to make a difference in this particular model.
• The overall Smith design is simple and very robust with few parts. Spare parts are readily available for both the originals and reproductions. Prices for a good shooter run from about $700 to $1,500. Mint unissued originals sell for about $2,500 to $3,000.
The Smith carbine was invented by Gilbert Smith in the 1850s and it was eventually accepted by the U.S. Army for troop trials under field conditions. In the Civil War, more than 31,000 were produced and it was the fourth in line behind the Sharps, Spencer and Burnside. The earlier Smiths have sling swivels, while the later ones have a single carbine ring.2 Rather than a paper, linen, or brass cartridge case, it used one made out of a laminated rolled rubber that could supposedly be reloaded up to 15 times.
The rubber expanded upon firing to seal the chamber and then contracted for easy extraction. India rubber became scarce during the war, so a paper-and-foil-wrapped cartridge was invented, which was not as good. Today, it would be extremely difficult to recreate the original laminated rubber case, so most shooters use one made out of a medium-soft plastic to emulate the original rubber cases. They don’t melt, are very cheap and are extremely easy to clean. Some shooters simply put the empties into a cloth mesh bag and throw them into the washing machine, but I use soapy water and a test-tube brush. I don’t clean them every time, given the minimal amount of fouling from the small powder charge. The cases last a long time and mine have been reloaded so many times that I have lost count.
The plastic cases fit both originals and reproductions, and I started off using cases that held the original historic loading of 50 grains. With that amount of GOEX FFg, I was pleasantly surprised with the accuracy results. Next, I tried a reduced capacity case for the powder, and I discovered that I could essentially duplicate the original velocity using only 37 to 40 grains of GOEX FFFg. (The exact number of grains depends on how far your particular bullet seats down into your case.) The accuracy was even better with this load and I have stuck with those reduced cases ever since. Be advised that there are still other cases available that only hold about 25 grains, which I consider to be too light for anything but very short-range shooting. There are a number of fellows in my shooting club who own Smiths and we like to be able to clang the steel targets out to 500 meters. For that, the shooter needs a powerful load close to the original velocity.
For cartridges manufactured during the Civil War, the diameter of the flash hole in the bottom of the case was often excessively large and it allowed a considerable amount of powder to run out of the hole, especially while bouncing around on horseback. This was the single biggest problem with the Smith carbine and a major source of complaints. A shooter could lose a third of the total charge, and then it could take multiple caps to ignite the small amount of powder left in the case. Obviously, this could quickly end your life in a combat situation.
With our modern plastic cases, this can also happen if you use fine FFFg powder. If the cartridges are transported to the range nose down in a box, they won’t lose any powder. Or, if you want to prevent the possibility of any powder loss, just cover the hole on the outside with a small piece of scotch tape. Simply peel it off before chambering. However, my preferred method is to drop a thin, circular piece of tissue paper into the bottom of the case, thereby covering the flash hole. To make these little circles I use a one-hole paper punch from my office, along with some tissue paper left over from Christmas packages. Hair curler paper also works well. Fold over several layers of tissue paper and you can punch out several hundred of these small circles very quickly. The powder charge on top of the paper circle and the bullet neck tension will hold each circle in place. The force from the musket cap will blast right through the tissue paper to give good ignition. During the Civil War, it took a long time to come up with a similar solution, which damaged an otherwise excellent carbine’s reputation.
I use a flask for quickly measuring the powder and my favorite spout holds 37 grains by weight on average (GOEX FFFg). Just dump it right in the case – no drop tube required. I like to use the softest lubricant possible depending on the outside ambient temperature. That means everything from solid Crisco in the winter to SPG Lube in the summer. Next, hand-seat the base of the bullet into the mouth of the case, which will be snug, and then push it down onto the powder with your thumb. If it is too tight, start the bullet by hand and then use the edge of your bench to gently press the bullet into place. Try to get the same amount of seating pressure on the powder each time, which is also easy. That’s it – just drop in a paper disc, add the powder, and hand-seat the bullet.
One thing I really like about Crisco is that I can add a little extra lube around the ogive of the bullet above the case mouth to keep the barrel cleaner. I do this at the range right before loading. Upon firing, the extra Crisco on the nose/ogive of the bullet slides rearward, liberally coating the bore and giving more shots without having to wipe. Soft beeswax and tallow mixtures also work. With this method, I usually shoot 10 rounds before wiping, and 20 shots are possible with only a minimal decrease in accuracy. Naturally, a shooter can fire a lot more rounds without cleaning until the bore looks like a sewer pipe, but the accuracy will fall off dramatically.
I have owned four Smiths, one reproduction and three originals. I found that my originals actually shot better than my reproduction, so I immediately sold it. The groove-to-groove barrel diameters ran from .512 for the reproduction, to .515 for two of the originals and .517 for the third. Fortunately, there are many moulds available in this range and most bullets weigh from about 340 to 375 grains. I have tried about six different bullets over the years like the Lyman and Lodgewood so-called “Smith/Maynard” bullets, and they all look similar and shoot about the same, with one exception. Slugs from my Rapine 515370 mould shoot the best by far, and it is virtually identical to the historic pointed bullet design that had only one grease groove. I also prefer this pointed design over the broad flatnose design for long-range shooting. Ray Rapine has retired, but there are at least two other mould makers presently making this design, Moose Molds and Eras Gone moulds come to mind. The bullets from the Rapine mould come out at .517 cast with pure lead. If I were going to a serious shooting competition, I would cast them out of 1:25 tin-to lead as that shoots a wee bit better in my guns. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother with the small difference in accuracy.
Beware of using the solid brass cases sold by some. They are so thick in the side walls that they will not give a good gas seal in a slightly oversized chamber. I have read two accounts of excessive gas leakage happening, both with brass shells. Besides, the plastic ones seal great and are much cheaper.
Be sure to tighten the through-bolt in the buttstock before shooting an original Smith. If it is slightly loose from wood shrinkage or low humidity, you can get a crack on top of the wrist where the stock meets the receiver. This is known as the “typical Smith crack” and it can be easily repaired. In addition, a very slight amount of wiggle in the action is okay, but always have your gun checked for safety by a competent black-powder gunsmith.
For best accuracy, be sure to push the loaded cartridge all the way forward into the chamber until the mouth of the case is in firm contact with the forward shoulder in the chamber. If the case is not seated fully forward, the sharp shoulder edge can shave off lead from your bullet, even with properly sized bullets. This was a problem with the reproduction I sold.
To open the action for loading, push up on the brass lifter rod that is right in front of the trigger, and the receiver opens to about 90 degrees. Some original Smith carbines have an overly strong top receiver spring, which can make opening the action extremely difficult. Some people’s fingers are simply not strong enough to accomplish this. Here is an easy solution. Use a 5-inch piece of wooden broom handle to push up on the lifter, using the strength of your palms instead of your fingers. The diameter of the wood dowel should roughly conform to the curvature of the finger latch in order to prevent bending the curved portion of the lifter.
If your eyesight is not what it used to be and you prefer a peep sight, it is very easy to make one for the Smith. Simply tap out the tiny pin that keeps the slider from coming off of the top of the ladder on the rear barrel sight, remove the slider, and then make another slider with an upright containing a peephole. Replace the tiny pin and you are in business. You can even leave both sliders on the ladder at the same time to keep from misplacing one. It helps to have the gun zeroed first with the original V-notch sight so you can better estimate where to drill the peephole. I even use two peepholes on my sliders – one for 75 yards, and the other for 125 yards. At greater distances out to 500, I raise the ladder and use the original slider. By the way, this peep-sight slider trick also works on other guns with ladder sights.
All shooting was done over a benchrest at 100 yards with sandbags fore and aft. I used the peep-sight slider and a blade front sight and the sight radius was a short 15.2 inches. (For an interesting comparison, the sight radius of the Colt Model 1860 Army revolver is 10.5 inches.) A total of seven, five-shot groups were fired and measured from center-to-center of the two widest shots in each group. Between groups, the bore was wiped with one wet and one dry patch. Next, I shot two, 10-shot groups without any cleaning at all, and the results were quite good. I did not shoot oil/fouling shots into the berm for any of the targets and all shots are included in the group size. Further, the sights were not perfectly aligned for 10X target performance, because I was more interested in group size to properly evaluate the gun and ammunition. The sights can always be adjusted later when the best bullet and powder combination has been found. As usual, for all my tests on our range, wind conditions ranged from 5 to 10 mph, mostly from three o’clock, and I tried to catch the lulls using the same point of aim for each shot.
The 37 grains of GOEX FFFg and the 372-grain original-style pointed bullet gave an average velocity of 986 feet per second (fps) for 10 shots. The extreme spread was 39 fps. RWS musket caps were used throughout. The five-shot groups measured as follows: 1.12, 3.0, 2.37, 3.87, 2.37, 3.62 and 4.87 for an average of 3.03 inches. That is pretty darn good for any carbine, whether antique or modern. The 10-shot groups measured 3.94 and 4.12 for an average of 4.03 inches. I was lucky to have very little wind for these latter two groups.
Just out of curiosity, in order to compare the peep-sight to the original open ‘V’ rear sight, I shot two additional five-shot groups with the open sight and the results were 4.25 and 4.75 for an average of 4.5 inches. While not being enough rounds fired to reach a tight statistical conclusion, I think we all know that we give up a bit of accuracy with open sights, especially of the military type.
For hunting with the Smith carbine, I recommend the flatnose Lyman or Lodgewood “Smith/Maynard” bullet of .515 or .518 inch, which will weigh about 350 grains of pure lead. With 37 to 40 grains of GOEX FFFg, the muzzle velocity will be a bit over 1,000 feet per second. That is plenty of killing power for coyotes, javelina, mountain lion and deer at ranges under 150 yards, which is about the maximum distance for clean heart/lung shots with open sights. Swiss FFFg would spice things up even more.
After the war, some Smiths were bought by the Fenian Brotherhood to arm their Irish army in the U.S., with the intent of conquering Canada, which would in turn have forced the British to leave Ireland. That is the over-simplified version. Some Smiths also went to South America for various cavalry units. However, it seems that most of the Smith carbines were put into storage after the Civil War, which is why there are so many available today in excellent condition. The Smith design did not thrive after the war like the Henry, Maynard, Ballard and Sharps, mainly due to the stigma earned from poor quality ammunition. There is a great reference book that shows the actual types of arms being sold by the major distributor Schuyler, Hartley & Graham to dealers and immigrants “out West,” and I did not see a single listing for Smith carbines.4 Nevertheless, it served well and filled a gap during the war. For shooters today, it is extremely fun to shoot, and no matter what is fed into it in terms of the powder charge and bullet shape, it always seems to perform well. In other words, it is not sensitive to minor load variations, and it does not take much experimentation to hit on a combination that shoots very accurately. In my lifetime, I have reloaded a boatload of precision, carefully-crafted, brass-cased ammunition for my High Walls, Ballards, Stevens, etc., and it is a real pleasure to find a good-shooting gun that isn’t so darn finicky. Plus, the best part is that I can load each round in just a few seconds, which is the point of this story – namely more fun spent shooting with less time at the loading bench.
1. Pat Kaboskey sells a variety of bullets for the Smith and he can be reached at (262) 363-4625.
2. Michael Santarelli, “The Smith Carbine In The Civil War,” 2019 by Michael Santarelli.
3. The peep sight sliders were made by our friend Rick Dunbar of Bisbee, Arizona.
4. Herbert G. Houze, “Arming The West, A Fresh New Look At The Guns That Were Actually Carried On The Frontier (1868-1886),” Mowbray Publishing, Woonsocket, RI, 2008.