In 1861, the U.S. Army counted 4,076 muzzleloading and breechloading carbines in its inventory. While that was plenty for peacetime use, it was far fewer than needed by the rapidly growing Union Army. Some of those weapons were well-made sturdy firearms, but others like the fragile Cosmopolitan and the innovative but unreliable Joslyn carbines did not measure up as battle weapons.
After the Hall carbine had come into service in 1833, breechloaders with percussion ignition became the preferred arms for cavalry use.By the 1850s a large number of experimental breechloading systems were under development. More advanced cartridges, some of them reloadable,with cases made of materials like rubber and copper,also made their debut during this time.Most of the breechloading carbines and rifles promoted by inventors and speculators in 1861, however, were chambered for the full spectrum of the previous decade’s cartridge technology.They used either combustible paper and linen,or copper and other composition semifixed ammunition.
Because of the dire shortage of carbines, however, the Ordnance Bureau accepted contracts for what were,in essence,mostly experimental designs.In the end,a diverse lot of carbines were purchased in various quantities and issued, but the majority failed to measure up as at least viable military firearms, such as the Cosmopolitan and the Joslyn carbines.
The strange looking Cosmopolitan carbine, also known as the Gwyn & Campbell,was made in Hamilton,Ohio,and was definitely based on outdated technology by 1861 standards. Patented by Ohioan Henry Gross in 1859,it fired a .52 caliber combustible paper and linen cartridge and was loaded by dropping its trigger guard lever,which lowered the front of the gun’s breechblock, exposing the chamber for loading.After raising the lever to close the breechblock, the shooter cocked the hammer and capped the nipple prior to firing.
Prototype tests at Springfield armory and the Washington Navy Yard in 1860 found the Cosmopolitan potentially acceptable for service. Edward Gwyn and Abner C. Campbell, who owned manufacturing rights, appear to have had some political influence.In December 1861 the governor of Illinois specifically requested their carbines to arm one of his units,a solicitation that resulted in an order for 1,140 carbines.As with most “patent” arms proposed for government purchase in the first year of the war, Cosmopolitan deliveries did not begin until June of 1862.The Illinois guns were issued to the 5th and 6th Illinois Cavalry.
Gwyn & Campbell patented a subsequent simplification of their carbine’s breechblock design,and the company obtained a second contract for 2,000 of the updated version in August 1862. Deliveries did not begin until April 1863, however, at which time the Army ordered 10,000 more carbines,although only 6,000 of these guns were ultimately delivered between October 30,1863,and December 31, 1864.Minor variations in the Cosmopolitan production run are of interest primarily to advanced collectors of Civil War arms. For tactical purposes they are all the same gun.
Some Yankee horse soldiers felt those tactical purposes were not well served by the Cosmopolitan. Brigadier General William Averell believed the 8th Ohio Cavalry was “one of the best veteran regiments in service, but is unfortunately armed with the Union [Cosmopolitan] carbine,in which the men have no confidence.I desire to get the regiment together and arm them with Enfield [muzzleloading] rifles.”
At least some of the officers and men of the 8th apparently shared Averell’s opinion.After an October 29,1864,fight with Confederates at Beverly, W.Va., the 8th’s troopers reportedly “did the principal part of their fighting with their fists and butt ends of their guns” rather than by shooting their “worthless” carbines.The regiment’s Lt. Col. Robert Youart reported that “the worthlessness of the…carbine with which my command is armed greatly endangered my success” at Beverly. Another officer characterized the Cosmopolitan as “the worst thing of the kind I have seen, and [it] is an entirely unreliable weapon.”
Gas leakage at the breech was a significant problem,as the men of the 8th complained that the Cosmopolitan “after a few discharges…leaks fire.” Other complaints asserted that the gun “does not carry to the sights” and that “the least jar will break some of its parts or the stock.” Negative views of the Cosmopolitan were not universal, however.While 14 of 37 officers polled by the Ordnance Department over 1863–64 reported it as being a “fair to worthless” gun,the remaining 23 found it “fully satisfactory.”
It could easily be argued that if, from a technological perspective,the Cosmopolitan and its ammunition represented the past,the Joslyn was the wave of the future. A prewar .54 caliber carbine designed by Benjamin F. Joslyn using the same combustible cartridge with external priming as the Cosmopolitan was operated by raising a lever that lay atop the carbine’s butt stock to open the breech for loading. A number of the older style guns, manufactured in Stonington, Conn., may have entered service between December 1861 and July 1862. By that summer,however,the old Joslyn design had been discarded in favor of a brand-new gun and cartridge.
The most common Joslyn carbines extant today are the new Model 1862 and the slightly improved Model 1864.Initially designed to use a unique metallic semifixed cartridge fired by a percussion cap, the new Joslyn was submitted to the Army for trials in June 1862 in two versions, one firing the semifixed ammunition and the other chambered for the same .56-.56 (.52 caliber) self-contained rimfire cartridge as the famed Spencer repeating rifle, which had yet to enter service. Although the gun received a rave review following preliminary testing by Captain Stephen V.Benet,no Joslyns were ordered until June 1863. All those eventually delivered were chambered for the rimfire cartridge.
To operate the Joslyn, a shooter unlatched and lifted the breechblock, which contained a modern style firing pin, and swiveled it up and to the left. This action exposed the chamber for loading and, if a round had just been discharged, extracted the fired cartridge case. From the summer of 1863 through February 25, 1865, the Union purchased 11,000 Joslyn rimfire guns in both the 1862 and 1864 configurations,the latter with an improved breechblock latch.
Although Benet’s tests found the Joslyn “as little liable to get out of order as any breech loading carbine,” that reputation was not sustained in the field. Captain F. C. Newhall, an inspector assessing the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry in the spring of 1864, had a distinctly different opinion and characterized the Joslyn carbines of the 19th New York Cavalry, also known as the 1st New York Dragoons, as “unreliable and worthless.” Another inspector, Lt. Col. Charles Kingsbury, found that not only did the regiment’s troopers “require improvements in uniforms and hair-cutting,” but that their Joslyn carbines were “unreliable and worthless.” Kingsbury opined that “these arms should at once be turned in and the regiment supplied with others.” Eight out of nine field officers from other regiments asked to comment on the Joslyn characterized it as a “poor or worthless” arm.
That was not the case initially.The 19th New York was the first regiment issued Joslyns,in September 1863.The following month Brig.Gen.George D.Ramsay,who had succeeded Brig.Gen.James W.Ripley as chief of ordnance,requested that Colonel Alfred Gibbs provide his impressions of the gun. After a 10-day trial Gibbs reported that the Joslyns were “the longest and hardest shooting gun…better even than the Sharps.” Gibbs added that his new carbines were simple to load, “do not foul easily,and are readily cleansed.”
The initial impressions, as with those of Benet, were not based on any significant field service with the carbines exposed to battle, weather, wear and trooper neglect. Gibbs hints at potential problems, though, noting that the Joslyn “pistons” (firing pins) and breechblock extractor screws were “too highly tempered” and had a tendency to break and that the front sights fell off some guns.Later on,some breeches apparently blew open on firing.
It also should be noted that all of the negative comments regarding the Joslyn were directed at the 1862 version of the gun and that the problems,which were no doubt exacerbated with extensive use in the field, were apparently taken into consideration when the 1864 Joslyn modifications were initiated. A May 1864 Springfield Armory report on the “improved Joslyn” specifically refers to firing pin breakage and breech locking strength as problems that had been addressed. By that time, however, the New York Dragoons had been able to trade in their defective Model 1862 Joslyns for new Spencer repeating carbines.
Despite some unfavorable assessments of the 1862 model, the improved 1864 Joslyn breech action was selected by Springfield Armory as the basis for an experimental run of single-shot breechloading infantry rifles.From January through March 1865, the armory purchased improved actions from the Joslyn Fire-Arms Company and built a number of the weapons.
They were chambered for a new .50 caliber rimfire round manufactured at Frankford Arsenal and loaded with 60 grains of musket powder and a 450-grain bullet, a more potent cartridge than the Spencer round the Joslyn carbine digested.
The new Springfield/Joslyn rifles were probably sturdy enough, but the action, with its swing breech directly in front of the shooter’s eye, does not appear to have inspired confidence. A number of these guns were issued to the 6th Veteran Volunteer Infantry regiment stationed in the Shenandoah Valley toward the end of the war.One soldier in the 6th wrote the Joslyn rifle was “sort of a double-back action concern, warranted to kill the man who fires it.”
Notwithstanding initial drawbacks, the Springfield project reveals that the improved Joslyn was highly regarded and almost made it as a standard service arm. Like the obsolete Cosmopolitan,which was never in the running for any role other than wartime stopgap, the new Joslyn was soon forgotten, however, along with such other hopeful but doomed designs as the Gibbs and Gallager.
The repeating Spencer consigned all other Civil War carbines to the rubbish heap of military and technological history. The Spencer’s subsequent short reign was, in turn, ended by the single-shot Allin “trapdoor” action, chambered for a much more powerful, centerfire cartridge. The Spencer story,however,captured the public imagination, and still does.
Both the old-fashioned Cosmopolitan and the newfangled Joslyn were destined to be remembered merely as technological curiosities—and, ironically, after everyone who used them or remembered using them at all was gone,valuable and desirable collectibles.
Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.