Over the years Doug Wicklund has earned the nickname “the Gun Whisperer.” And once you meet him, you’ll know why. As a senior curator at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., Wicklund oversees thousands of guns that span hundreds of years of history. We recently spoke with him about the museum’s extensive collection of Civil War weapons.
1. There was a growth of repeating rifles in the Civil War. Tell us a little more about that.
Several models emerged over the course of the war. For example, you had the Maynard carbine, which was available in .35, .50 and .52 calibers. These rifles were used by both the Union and the Confederacy and had a solid reputation for long-range accuracy (about 600 yards). They used semi self-contained metallic cartridges, meaning the ammunition did not include the primer at the base of the bullet. The shooter had to place the percussion cap on the nipple before firing, and, at this rate, he could take about 12 shots per minute. This was a lot better than the three shots most muzzle-loading riflemen could fire in the same amount of time.
Two other rifles that saw a decent amount of service during the war were the Spencer carbine and the Henry lever-action. Both were great guns. Union cavalry used the Spencer, which used internally primed self-contained cartridges and held seven shots. President Lincoln himself approved this rifle for military use. The Henry was a beautiful gun. Countless soldiers purchased Henry repeaters with their own money, but only 1,700 were actually issued by the federal government, primarily to the 1st Maine and 1st District of Columbia Cavalry Regiments.
2. The Smith & Wesson tends to get overlooked in many Civil War accounts. It’s hard to believe that gunsmith Rollin White came to Samuel Colt in the 1850s with this great idea for a bored-through cylinder, which is so essential to the self-contained metallic cartridge, and Colt turned him away.
That’s right. Rollin White’s concept didn’t fly with him. Mr. Colt felt that it was generally impractical. In fact, Colt thought he was going to be able to sell percussion-cap revolvers forever, and up to the time of his death in 1862 that seemed absolutely true. But as time would tell, it wouldn’t always be that way.
3. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson were fortunate Colt made that decision. They seized on Rollin White’s technology and ended up doing very well with it, of course. What, however, were the early drawbacks of the self-contained metallic cartridge?
The benefits were numerous; however, the .22-caliber rimfire was not a very powerful round, especially with the first model. Mark Twain, who owned one, quipped that the Model 1 fired a small homeopathic pill, all seven of which equaled a single dose for an adult. But early on, you had a tradeoff—it was a seven-shot, self-contained metallic cartridge revolver that fired a low-pressure .22-caliber round.
4. What other handgun do you consider a frontrunner when it comes to Civil War firepower?
The first that comes to my mind is the LeMat. This was a big gun, a percussion-cap, nine-shot .42-caliber revolver with a 10th shot that came from a roughly 16-gauge shotgun positioned under the main barrel. Most notably, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart carried one as his sidearm, and it undoubtedly came in handy in combat.
The closest match to the LeMat was a New Haven Arms revolver called the Walch, one of which we have on display here at the museum. It’s a fascinating design—a .31-caliber cap-and-ball pistol with two shots in every chamber. Essentially, each chamber took a double load, meaning two percussion caps for each chamber, with two hammers to strike them. When you pulled the trigger, the first hammer would fall; pull it again, and the second hammer would go down. So, with a five-chamber cylinder, you had 10 shots.
5. We know there are military personalities who owned guns that are now part of your museum’s collection. Are there any guns here once owned by unlikely characters?
Oh, yes. We have a pair of Colt revolvers owned by Sammy Davis Jr., from Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. And probably most surprising, we have a Gatling gun that used to belong to comedian Buddy Hackett. He definitely surprised people with that.