Cavalry Use of Pistols?

Here’s a subject I don’t know much about, and I’m hoping some of the folks reading this can help educate me: cavalry use of handguns. How many groups actually experimented with handguns as a primary armament for cavalry troops? Were they just backup weapons? Were mounted soldiers expected to be able to fire carbines accurately while mounted, as opposed to using they horses simply to get to a point on the field and then dismount and fight as infantry (ie, dragoons)?

It seems like people would have considered the possibility of one-handed shooting with handguns from the saddle (including both older flintlock/wheellock era guns and early 20th century cartridge guns), but I don’t know if anyone actually did. I am told that this was the primary use for the Steyr 1907 selfloader, but corroborating that has been difficult.

The question came to mind when I was looking for information on the JoLoAr I just recently purchased. Apparently the single largest order of those pistols went to Peruvian mounted police. The JoLoAr’s defining characteristic, of course, is its ease of use single-handed, for the mounted shooter. I have not been able to determine, though, if those police units were armed exclusively with JoLoAr pistols or if they were supplemental to a carbine.

So, if anyone can help educate me on this, I would appreciate it! Any book recommendations on the subject would be very helpful too – thanks!


  1. Use of handguns by Cavalry goes well back into history. Many of the examples of European wheel lock pistols are clearly too large to be used by soldiers on foot. I would suggest that the pistol took over from the short bow in many cultures…

    In classic times, the Parthian cavalry were famous for their tactic for riding up to the enemy, taking a single bowshot and then riding off.. from which we get the expression – taking a Parthian (or Parting) shot..!

    • Bryden points into the right direction, I believe.

      Sadly I am really myopic when it comes to history, so I can only point out the German “reiter” (funny that the term is also used in English, had to look it up), horse-mounted pistoleers of the 16th century.
      The pistols, generally two (maybe six?, where the first of the primary arms, the second being the sword.

      Side note: Now that I think about it: “Reiter” (=Rider) was used in parallel to “Ritter” (=Knight), which is based on being a rider, too. Language is weird.

      Talking about language: ” early pistols were carried by cavalry in holsters hung from the pommel (or pistallo in medieval French) of a horse’s saddle” – – though I am skeptical considering that I heard this argument mainly among Viollet-le-Duc and friends.

    • Everyone – you’re all missing the most famous mounted warrior in US history. Col Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers, who fought numerous battles protecting civilians and saving the lives of thousands. In these battles Hays and his rangers were usually outnumbered by their Indian adversaries, but their effective use of revolvers revolutionized mounted warfare. Col Jack was the first to utilize multi-shot pistols on horseback, training his Rangers to throw down their single-shot rifles and use Colt’s new invention, the repeated pistol to make mounted warfare an offensive force. Before him, cavalry was basically just an extensive of infantry, carrying one-shot rifles with the difference of getting somewhere faster. Col Jack had a hand-picked 40-man team of the toughest riders and gunmen he could muster. Most were Texans, but he also had plenty of Apache, Comanche, Mexican, and Tejano Rangers riding alongside his crew. He trained his men day and night to shoot and ride, drilling them in daily exercises where they had to shoot a man-sized target at 40 yards while at a full gallop. He and his men took on nearly impossible odds, and won virtually every time. Look him up – he was quite a guy, and one of the few in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.

  2. The pistol is very effective weapon for horseman, much effective, than the sword… See the russian Civil War memories: M1911, Nagant (only seven shots, the S&W Russian Model much better for horseman), Mauser C96, Steyr M 12, Luger.

  3. This is a topic with a very long history – almost as soon as handguns appeared on the battlefield, people were wondering how best to use them in a cavalry context.

    Matchlock handguns were possible (the Japanese used them), but inherently impractical for European cavalry use. Handguns really only became useful with the arrival of the wheel-lock and then the dog-lock.

    In the 30 Years War there was a good deal of debate on how cavalry should use the new-fangled weapons. Some suggested that they should be for emergency use only, with the lance and sword remaining the main weapons.

    Others suggested use in a process called “caracole”, in which small groups of cavalry would ride up to their opponents, discharge one or two pistols, then ride off to reload, making room for the next wave.

    Obviously, this changes the role of cavalry from a shock force to a shooting force. It is also hard to co-ordinate and it wastes the speed of the horses.

    By the time of the English Civil War, the caracole was falling from favour – Prince Rupert, perhaps the best cavalry commander in Europe at the time, favoured shock action … although this did not always go to plan.

    The sword and lance remained the main cavalry arms right up to the Napoleonic Wars and only the arrival of repeating handguns brought any change.

    • Napoleonic cavalry most certainly carried single-shot carbines. This put the dragooned at a significant disadvantage, as their weapons were far less accurate (such as it was) than their light infantry adversaries.

      • It was Col Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers who was the first to utilize multi-shot pistols on horseback, and changed mounted warfare forever.

        Look him up – he’s famous among historians, but virtually unknown to the general public. He was also the first sherif of San Francisco, and co-founded the city of Oakland (Cal Berkeley was built on his land!).

        See Roger N. Conger: Rangers of Texas, 1969; James K. Greer: Colonel Jack Hayes: Texas Frontier Leader and California Builder, 1974; Walter Prescott Webb: The Texas Rangers, 1935; Frederick Wilkins: The Highly Irregular Irregulars: Texas Rangers in the Mexican War, 1990.

  4. During the US Civil War revolvers came into their own among the cavalry and irregular units. The partisan ranger units organized under John Singleton Mosby typically went into battle with revolvers only, Mosby even forbade them to carry sabers, which he felt were useless. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry went into battle armed with revolvers and shotguns, and dismounted when it came time to fight. Novelist Forrest Carter described the Missouri guerrilla forces led by Quantrill and Anderson as the land equivalent of Navy battleships, both the rider and horse bristling with revolvers; Carter’s most enduring creation was Josey Wales, whom Clint Eastwood made into a memorable screen presence.

    • Hi Robert!

      Dismounting was a BIG mistake – it destroyed the advantage of being a mounted and mobile force. AND – 30 years before the Civil War Col Jack hays of the Texas Rangers revolutionized cavalry warfare by introducing multi-shot revolvers carried by horsemen for the very first time, and surprised the daylights out of their Indian adversaries.

    • Hi Robert!

      Dismounting was a BIG mistake – it destroyed the advantage of being a mounted and mobile force. AND – 30 years before the Civil War Col Jack hays of the Texas Rangers revolutionized cavalry warfare by introducing multi-shot revolvers. Shocked the daylights out of anyone they were fighting!

  5. Well, in the 1700s in Santone/Béxar in what was then Tejas, and now Texas, Spanish dragoons/mounted infantry would ride swift horses to pursue Nehmene/Comanche and Tinde/Lipan Apache raiders.

    They carried a moorish-derived leather buckler/shield called an adarga, an 8ft. cavalry lance and espada ancha/short sword. In addition, they carried a smooth-bore “escopeta” or musket/carbine/shotgun and a brace of pistols.

    I think from the outset, dragoons carried pistols, as did naval boarding parties for that matter. Don’t forget that early heavy cavalry carried huge pistols mounted on the saddle pommel. U.S. dragoons had the large size pistol with detachable shoulder stock or the Hall breech-loader way back in the 1840s/1850s!

  6. The lance and/or saber were always primary MOUNTED weapon until the 20th century and even that depended on the country. Example: in WWII (early) the US Cavalry’s primary “mounted” weapon was the pistol, Poland’s was the lance.

    In the heyday of the cavalry, of the body mounted cavalry handgun holsters many/most were left handed…the saber was in your right…

    Carbines were for dismounted action.

  7. There always was a clear distinction in cavalry use – scout, mounted infantry and battle cavalry. Light troops typically carried one or two pistols, based on the concept of quick strikes without engaging in heavy melee. Carbines for dragoons, chasseurs etc. Units like cuirassiers and lancers, designed to engage opposing cavalry on the field of battle didn’t have time effectively use a handgun before needing to use their primary weapon. If you’re riding at each other even at moderate gallop (15 mph) you’re approaching at something like 15 yards/sec. So firing a pistol at reasonable distance or 30 yards or less would give you only a couple of seconds to switch to saber or lance – cutting it (too) close if your life depended on it. If you read injury descriptions of major cavalry battles it’s typically saber cuts and lance penetrations, rarely bullet wounds unless infantry joined the encounter.
    The US, to my knowledge, never fielded heavy cavalry, mostly relying on dragoon type units. As such it was always heavily equipped with firearms and disregarded the use of the saber. Understandably as it was mainly a cavalry vs. cavalry weapon, and they did not fight anybody employing cavalry in the traditional sense.

  8. Interesting questions and comments… Mr. Evans raised a couple of good points regarding the Civil War. Many Confederate units, including the forces under J.E.B. Stuart, carried as many as six revolvers per man; I’ve read that this had a lot to do with the emergence of the smaller and lighter .36 “Navy” revolvers. Stuart also pioneered the innovation of smaller artillery being towed and fired hither and yon across battlefield, in coordination with the cavalry. This was a huge switch from the “battle line” of heavy artillery that would remain in one place throughout the battle. Supposedly, Stuart’s innovations of mobile firepower had an influence on the development of the German “blitzkrieg” doctrine 70-some years later. Also worth noting that Forrest Carter, whose outstanding “Gone To Texas” is both the basis of “Josey Wales” and a very well-researched novel of the Missouri border war, was a notorious Klan organizer in the 1950s. I don’t recall the details but Carter died some kind of sordid redneck death – punched in the throat during a brawl in a beer-joint parking lot, I think.

    But on cavalry charges and well-researched fiction. David Morrell, whose early 1970s novel “First Blood” introduced the world to the Rambo character, wrote an outstanding dusk-of-the-West novel called “The Last Revelrie.” (As an aside, I’ve got a 20th-aniversary paperback of “First Blood” with an author’s forward noting how ironic it was that a rather liberal novel protesting the treatment of returned Viet Nam vets became movies that celebrated Reagan’s foreign policy.) Anyway, “TLR” is a great tale of a young Southern lad, orphaned during Sherman’s march to the sea, who becomes a cavalryman and scout during the Indian and Spanish-American War. Old beyond regulations, he still winds up as a scout and translator during Pershing’s incursion into Mexico after Pancho Villa in response to the Columbus, NM raid in 1914. It was an interesting campaign – cavalry and horse-drawn supply trains in conjunction with truck transport (which broke down a lot) and observation aircraft (JN-2 Jennys, which crashed a lot.) At any rate, the Mexico campaign marked the last pistol charges by US cavalry. A wide line of horsemen at full gallop toward the enemy putting out volley fire with 1911 pistols, leaving a trail of expended magazines behind them. It’s an interesting read, easily my favorite Morrell novel.

  9. First revolver use I’m aware of was the Colt Patterson 5-shot .36 by the Texas Rangers against Comanche Indians. Some of these early Colt Pattersons went to the Texas Navy and were used in combat versus the Mexican fleet in a couple ship-to-ship engagements and landings. Word of this got back to Samuel Colt, and that is why he engraved one of the Texas naval battles on the cylinder of the .36 Colt Navy!

    When contemplating cavalry, keep frontiers and irregular/regular frontier constabulary in mind!

  10. The pistol as a primary weapon for cavalry goes back to at least the 17th century. That is when we see the introduction of large ‘dragoon’ style saddle pistols. This tradition of large horse pistol continued on to at least the Colt model dragoons in the 1850s and basically disappeared: 1. as cavalry fought less as pure horsemen. 2. as pistol frames shrank to ‘belt’ size.

    • I forgot to say, at least in the late 16th-17th century, pistols were designed to be used in the charge by cuirassiers as a quasi-replacement for the lance. Lances did not see a major in Western Europe until the were resurrected as light cavalry in the 19th century.

  11. At the beginning of the ACW carbines were in short supply. Many US Cavalry units up to the regimental level were conceived as using revolvers and sabres only. Their effectiveness was proven to be poor when they came up against CS Cav units and infantry that were armed with rifles, carbines, and even occasional shotguns. The switch was then on to use carbines as the primary weapon. They US adopted or used many, many different carbines, with the Sharps being apparently a preferred on. Late war saw the Spencer releater beckme dominant, though many more Sharps were in the field.
    In the ACW, cavalry was primarily used for screening and reconnoitering, with obvious notable exceptions. In general, cavalry fought as mounted infantry for most of the war. Every 4th man was designated at a horse holder at the rear of the formation. At least by the time of the ACW, revolvers – fine as they had become – were already secondary weapons.

    Mosby and his like were raiders, not traditional cavalry. He carried 6 to 8 of them on his person and saddle, but this was in no way typical. Primary use of revolvers seems to have been much less than we assume, though irregular troops and partisans may have used them more than cavalry units did.

  12. As these weapons have come down to us, we can ascertain the use and its value largely by how we have adapted them.
    As our Nation assembled we’ve watched the Indians adapt to the rifle from its very introduction, and the horse completely altered the means and mode of war between and among them.
    We received horses from Europe, complete with braces of pistols across the saddle, carbines began rifle use, and the Indian shows the facility of “carbines”, single shot or as per the Winchester model 64, multiple well aimed shots, fired at full speed, with deadly accuracy.
    A “brace of pistols” demonstrates their intent as an offensive weapon, a single pistol being sufficient as a defensive. We have the picture of earliest “cowboy” riding into action, reins in teeth, pistols out, and the least they are worth is the volume of firepower aimed all around, and forcing heads down at the very least.
    “Charging” into an armed, fixed force is something to be avoided unless you expect to win. If you aren’t prepared to, it will be your last good run. That this remains a solid, continued use tactic tells us it is a winning one when the situation is right.
    Our own history of the west demonstrates the clearly valuable use of both hand guns and rifles in mounted charges, were truly effective in real combat, and despite the “armchair quarterback opinions”, history is replete with the evidence “two braces of horse pistols and a well built, properly designed carbine” was a truly effective combat skill, format, and unit to build a force upon that was truly effective.
    While it is true most people barely manage to become proficient at hitting a “basic target” with quality training and hard work, for those who immerse themselves in the “art of war” and choose that form, tactic, and identity, firing from a moving horse was skill, not luck, success was routine, not chancy, and it was only the war tactics that accompanied autoloading rifles which made “cavalry” armor instead of horses.
    History shows there was no shortage of equal if not superior skill with weapons wielded on horseback, by Genghis Khan and his hordes, they were undefeated in war, and depended to a great extent on their horsemanship and skill at arms from horseback.
    Semper Fidelis,
    John McClain
    GySgt, USMC, ret.
    Vanceboro, NC

    • Gunny – Sounds like you night know the answer to a question that has been nagging me for years. When I was in grade school in the 60s, music class consisted of going once a week to the room where the music teacher played the piano as 25 kids, off-key and not in unison, read lyrics aloud from a book entitled “Really Lame Songs You Will Never Get Out of Your Head.” There were quite a few songs that were military/ patriotic in nature and one that has made me wonder for years had a chorus that went “I’m Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines/ I feed my horse on oats and beans…” I know in the late 1800s/ early 1900s the Corps was fairly small and largely shipborne… did the USMC ever have dedicated cavalry units?

      • U. S. Marines never called mounted Marines cavalrymen. Various rifle platoons and companies acquired local mounts in China, Haiti, and Nicaraugua and made themselves useful. Peking Mounted Detachment was pretty dedicated, but they weren’t cavalry, they were Marines on horses.

        • Thanks! Fascinating article and web site… I got lost there for a while. Sounds like some farm-boy privates wound up with really good duty because they could ride a horse. For an interesting read about that era – “The Sand Pebbles” is my favorite Steve McQueen movie, but the early-60s novel it was based on (written by a Yangzee Patrol gunboat veteran) is a wonderful book.

          • I think you may be referring to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Hersey, who also wrote “Hiroshima” and “The War Lover”, both of which were powerful condemnations of the futility of war in their own right.

          • Whoops, my faulty memory at work here! Thanks for the correction — it has been many years since I read the book ( and watched the movie ).

      • “Horse Marine” was used, at least in the Army, as a pejorative term for a bullshit artist. The reason it was so used, some of the old soldiers told me, was that the Marine Corps did not have cavalry. While there were some small mounted units, there were none officially called “Horse Marines” so anyone claiming to be a Marine cavalryman was obviously a phone.

  13. It is interesting to note that the Hollywood image of the plains Indians whooping and firing from horseback probably only happened once. The more formidable tribes fought as mounted infantry just like Bedford Forrest’s men. They had probably learned the hard way that the barbarous US Army did not appreciate the daring and beauty of ‘counting coup’ on a mounted opponent at full gallop!
    I think it was the veteran General Howard who paid the Nez Pierces of Chief Joseph the complement of “finest light cavalry in the world.”

    • How very true, Thomas. I certainly remember reading about the Nez Pierce tribal nation and the unparalleled skills of its mounted warriors.

  14. About the JoLoAr: It is believed that Jose Lopez Arnaiz designed the pistol to avoid the use of any safety switches, so it was supposed to be safely carried with an empty chamber and so able to be put quickly ready to fire with one hand while draw, discarding the added complication of manipulating safety controls. At least that was the theory. After that, there´s also some legend about that it was specially designed with single-armed men in mind (very common people in Spain during the first decades of XX Century, as there were many vets of the Rif War that had lost their limbs fighting against fierce north-african tribes). Specifically, this pistol is usually linked to single-handed Colonel Jose Millan Astray, prominent founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion, as the pretended main inspiration to the designer. But it seems that all is mere invention and marketing, because of what the JoLoAr was commonly known as “the gun for the one-handed” during the period it was for sale.

    • A note on the JoLoAr philosophy – during the incredible deluge of Chinese arms before the Clinton import ban (the heyday of the $70 SKS and the $130 AK) Norinco was making a single-action 9mm with a curved trigger guard that operated the slide when pulled with the trigger finger. The intention was a quick one-handed transition from empty chamber to loaded and cocked. I never saw one and have no idea how well they worked, but when I looked up the JoLoAr – never cease to be amazed by odd South American .45 ACPs that turn up, especially in submachine guns like the Ingram 7 and the vertical-foregrip MP34 – it stuck me that the Norinco was a refinement of the old Spanish design.

      • There were several other “one-hand” cocking autopistols in the early days. The Lignose “Einhand” (which means just what it sounds like in German) was a .25 ACP “Baby Browning” type with a bronze “hook” forming the front of the triggerguard, which could be used to cycle the action. The idea being that people who didn’t trust safeties could carry it in Condition Three and silently rack it while it was still concealed in event of an incipient “close encounter”. The Norinco pistol worked on much the same principle. One big advantage of the Einhand was that in event of a dud round, you could do a “tap-rack-bang” without having to rack the slide with your off hand; very useful in an IA situation.

        Another pistol with a similar setup was the .45 cal. White-Merrill automatic entered in the 1907 Army pistol trials.It had a lever that looked like a huge external “winter trigger” below and in front of the triggerguard, that was linked to the slide by a ratchet system. It was intended that the shooter wrap two fingers around it and rack it twice, sort of like a modern grip exerciser. Each “rack” moved the slide back halfway, which was the reason you did it twice. The designer specifically stated it was designed to allow cavalrymen to carry the pistol safely with an empty chamber and load it while keeping one hand on the reins. (You’ll find this one on pp.326-327 of Ezell’s Handguns of the World that Ian reviewed a couple of weeks back, BTW.)



  15. Many people already said it before me, but perhaps just to add based on my interest in history and firearms. The first attempt to use firearms by saddled warrior was in beginning of 16.century

    That time pistols (some source claim origin from Italian city of Pistoia) were large and cumbersome. to handle them in some meaningful manner, the cavalrymen had on front of their courass (chest armour) a special adopter into which they hooked rear end of it.

    Later on as pistols became smaller and easier to fire off hand they have found widespread use. There are many paintings from times before photography which show that. In modern history the most notoriously known horse-mounted pistolero was cowboy.

  16. The Finnish Hakkapeliitta cavalrymen under the Swedish army had as a standard tactic fire their two pistols at close range (20 paces for first, 5 for second) before charging with swords onto the ranks of their enemies. While normally cavalry in the 30 Years War would charge into firing range and retreat after firing, the finns just kept going and hacked on. They were feared between the Baltic Sea, the Rhine and the Danube.

  17. Example from the end of 19 century: French Lebel Modèle 1892 revolver. When it was modern swing-out cylinder revolver, the cylinder swing-out right i.e. this weapon was designed for left-handed shooter (because the right hand hold sabre).

      • And the most obvious being the Colt Peacemaker. The loading gate/ ejector rod indicates a design intended for being held in the left hand.

        • From all indications, all of the Colt single-actions were intended for use in the “off” hand by horsemen, because it was assumed that the right hand would be holding the reins, or occupied with the saber.

          My mother trained horses for the U.S. Army back in the 1920s and 30s, when cavalry was still considered a viable combat arm. And in doing so she learned a few things from senior officers who were old enough to have fought with General Crook. One was that the reason the revolver (percussion or metallic cartridge) was carried in a holster with the butt pointed forward, on the right side of the belt, was to allow a cross-draw with the left hand as the saber was drawn with the right when on foot. Another reason was that in event you wanted to use it right-handed, you could do a “twist-draw” by turning your hand inside (palm away from your body), grab the revolver, pull it straight up, sweep the muzzle forward, and then flip your hand and the piece “right side up” without at any time pointing the muzzle at any part of your own anatomy. She taught me the trick with a .45 Colt New Service.



  18. I have ridden across the old “mounted drill” range at Ft. Meade (SD). I think they were still using it for mounted pistol and saber practice up into the 1930s although by then, one would think the saber thing was more of a tradition.

  19. Though considered as developed for cavalry, usage of
    pistols or revolvers for a horserider in mobile form
    in charging or in close combat should be minimal,
    since the user, in rapidly changing instant battle
    conditions, would be subject to hit his own limbs or
    horse with firing that one hand using, short barreled
    firearm and a sword or lance in action, or a carbine
    in steady situatıon, would be much more effective. The
    pistols developed for cavalry use like Roth Steyr 1907
    enabling to be carried with a loaded chamber precluding
    the use of other arm in action, had been mostly used
    in general purposes rather than on mobile horseriding.

  20. The pistol was the primary arm of the MOUNTED cavalry…the carbine was for dismounted cavalry (i. e. Dragoons – mounted infantry). I’ve been told (can’t cite references) the the reason for the rounded hammer spur on semi autos was to allow the pistol to be cocked against the saddle as the trooper held the reins in his off hand. The handgun originated as a cavalryman’s weapon…hence the term ‘horse pistol’ meaning a large handgun…the only way to feasibly carry it was in pommel holsters

  21. Firearms as cavalry arms go back even further than the development of the pistol. There are illustrations of mounted men in armor firing hand-cannons from horseback dating to the 1400s; the gun’s tiller had a “t-bar” that fit into two brackets on the breastplate, plus a rod that came down at an angle to a socket at the waist. This allowed one hand to control the reins and steady the piece, while the other applied the slow-match to the touch hole. Somehow I doubt that most armored horsemen thought highly of the exercise.

    While pistols were considered a primary cavalry arm from the 1600s on up to the early 1900s, it was more from a lack of anything else that was practical for use on horseback than any real enthusiasm, at least before the revolver came along. After the Napoleonic Wars were over, the Duke of Wellington advocated equipping cavalry with musketoons and sabers, schooling them in the arts of fighting dismounted (i.e. as dragoons or mounted infantry), and discarding the lance and pistol entirely; he considered the latter two weapons too ineffective to bother with.

    On the other side, the French cavalry stuck to the arme blanche because they had no confidence in the pistol or the carbine, which they considered too inaccurate to be worth carting along. Since (like the British) they were using smoothbores with round ball, they may have had a point.

    It should be noted that at least some of the long-barreled wheellock pistols used in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War were rifled. They can generally be spotted by their possession of both front and rear sights; the smoothbores had only muzzle sights, if indeed they had any at all. Considering that many of these pistols had barrels of 14 to 18 inches in length, they probably hit nearly as hard as an infantryman’s arquebus, and were probably accurate enough to be a credible threat out to 100-150 yards.

    The carbine finally became a viable cavalry arm when the Prussians developed the Dreyse needle gun in the 1840s. It came in both infantry rifle and cavalry carbine persuasions, and was accurate enough to get the job done in both configurations.

    AFAIK, the French never developed a cavalry carbine version of the Chassepot, but after the drubbing they took in 1870-71 the new Gras metallic-cartridge version came in both infantry rifle and cavalry carbine persuasions. The carbine version was still issued to artillery troops as late as WW1.

    The breechloading carbine was the arm that put cavalry on an equal footing with infantry in a straight-up fight. British Army cavalry used Sharps carbines in the Crimea, and of course breechloaders of every description showed up in the Union cavalry’s hands during the American Civil War.

    It was the firepower of the Sharps that allowed Buford’s dismounted cavalry to inflict serious losses on the Confederate infantry on the first day of Gettysburg, to cite only one example of the breechloader’s “force multiplier” effect. The Spencer and Henry repeating carbines simply drove the point home more brutally; in a real sense, they were the “assault rifles” of their day, being rapid-fire arms firing “intermediate” cartridges.

    Incidentally, the U.S. Army paper on rifle procurement from 1865 to 1900 that was linked here a few days ago points out that the Spencer was withdrawn from cavalry service by 1870, no matter what Western movies might show. The reason being that its short .50 or .56 caliber round lacked sufficient effective range for plains warfare. Still, in some fights (notably Little Big Horn) the extra firepower of repeaters could have made a big difference, especially as the range of engagement was rarely over 200 yards according to the archeological evidence.

    Speaking of LBH, the presence of revolvers on the Custer detachment’s side seems to have had little effect. Mainly because by the time the soldiers had resorted to their revolvers (after exhausting their carbine ammunition for the most part) the fight was down to “sweat-and-bad-breath” range, and few of them got off more than one cylinder-full of .45 rounds before being overrun and cut down. Again, if they had used the firepower of the revolvers sooner, when the range was still above 100 yards, things might have been different.

    (Yes, Ian, I read the book you reviewed; I found it quite interesting as I’m a retired “CSI”. Excellent “crime-scene” work, considering the age and “contamination” of the crime scene. ;-))



    • Eon,

      I too bought the Little Big Horn book on Ian’s recommendation. I know nothing of crime scenes beyond what’s in the media, which is probably 90% hogwash, but I was struck by the a feeling that that’s what they were doing.

      Some of my former unit’s and our sister units’ guys have had to do just this at mass graves in the last decade or so. Fortunately they were quickly reinforced by civilian experts before they could disrupt things too badly!

      A friend of mine was involved in casualty recovery (which includes not only te famous Vietnam cases, but also WWII and WWI remains, and our organisation provides technical assistance to European and Asian nations with similar problems). With the technology now available, it might be possible to recover MtDNA from even those Big Horn bones, and put names on some of the markers. ISTR they did this with some of the CSS Hunley dead. In 2013 it’s possible to recover trace nucleic acids that we’d have told you in 2003 just flat didn’t exist.

      • Kevin;

        I was a crime-lab geek back in the “old days”, when blood typing and dermal-nitrate tests were about as high-tech as it got. I look at DNA evidence today, and even disregarding the guff in the CSI shows (which is more like 99% BS), the real thing still makes me feel like I’ve been dropped in Bones’ Sick Bay on the Enterprise.

        Fortunately, my specialty was ballistics evidence (surprise, surprise) and that hasn’t changed much. Young techs coming up still have to use comparison microscopes to match up rifling striations, firing-pin indents, ejector marks, etc., the same way I did going on forty years ago. (Yes, I’m an old codger.)

        If you want to check out a “CSI” type TV show that isn’t mostly BS, I’d recommend Forensic Files on Court TV. They show what it’s really like in a crime lab these days- and it still looks like the 23rd Century to me. 😉



        • Eon —

          The auctioneers James D. Julia just (Oct 15-17) sold a Little Big Horn carbine that was authenticated by matching firing pin and ejector marks to casings recovered on the battlefield. It went for $126k (pretty big multiplier over a trapdoor carbine without the forensically-determined provenance).

          • Kevin;

            It’s interesting to see forensic evidence used for historical purposes, as opposed to putting criminals away. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either…;-))

            As you no doubt know from reading “Da Book”, the 7th was issued brand-new M1873 carbines firing the .45-55 loaded version of the .45 Govt. round just before setting out for the Black Hills. These would have been first model 1873s with none of the later improvements to the rear sight, breechblock latch, etc.

            According to the article “The Story Of Two Guns” by Rick Saccone in Guns of the World (Petersen, 1971- it’s been reprinted by Bonanza Press), the accepted serial number range for “Custer” Springfield carbines is from #39,000 to #44,000. The article was about S/N 41473, which is a verified 7th carbine because it was picked up at the battlesite in 1904. The other “gun” described in the article was a .52 Leman percussion trade musket surrendered by a Sioux warrior in 1877, which pretty much guaranteed that it was at the Little Big Horn, too- on the other side.

            If that Leman could be test-fired, it might be interesting to match up its examplars with some of the .50 to .52 slugs recovered by the dig. You never know.



  22. Any elementary book for cavalery officers, wil tell what you need.
    The danish use of blank pistol cartridges, was to make less holes in the horses ears on exersice.

  23. Note too that the development of heavy cavalry pistol (Reiter) and caracole met a specific tactical need. The heavy cavalry pistoleer used an expensive and delicate wheel-lock pistol and reiter had a specific tactical task. Their job was to act in concert with light or medium cavalry to ‘pin’ a pike block and then use the caracole to concentrate massive firepower to blow a hole in it: normally they attacked a corner of the block. So tactical speed demanded the horse, and as the double or quadruple column of reiter trotted up to the immobilised pike (and we are talking to 10 yards range here) each cavalryman would fire every pistol he had into the pike, then wheel back, reloading a fast as he could.

    Where it worked, it could open the pike up to medium infantry sword-and-bucklermen, other pike, other cavalry or even the Reiter themselves charging into the pike with sabre. Really well-disciplined pike (Spanish and especially Swiss) were not very vulnerable to Reiter.

    One look at Bicocca shows why, with Swiss!

  24. The 1940 version of the M1911a1 manual had lots of training on mounted use (FM 23-35 dtd April 30,1940).

    Chapters 2,4,5 have mounted and dismounted training, and firing. So the US Army up to 1940 expected horse troops to shoot.

    The chase after Poncho Villa in Mexico had mounted troops *probably* shooting at mexican bandits, and ferdeales.

    Hope this helps.


  25. Regarding books on the subject, one I’ve found useful is The Illustrated Encyclopedia of 19th Century Firearms by Major Frederick Myatt, MC. While it looks like a “coffee-table” book, inside it’s practically a doctoral thesis on military land war tactics of the era, with emphasis on the changes caused by advances in weapon technology.

    Myatt also includes such useful data as comparison shot diagrams for the Whitworth rifle and Enfield rifle-musket fired at 500 yards in 1861, and the trajectory table for the Snider-Enfield breechloader from the 1869 Musketry Regulations.

    The last quarter of the 200+ page book describes the effects of pistols and machine guns, starting with flintlock pistols and ending up with self-loaders and the Maxim Gun.

    My copy is the 1994 edition, but it can probably be found on Amazon, etc.



  26. The problem with this sort of question is that (as others have pointed out) not all cavalry were the same. Cavalry would be used for scouting, screening, raiding, pursuing defeated forces, etc. Different weapons each had their advantages depending on the tactical situation, so the cavalry didn’t always do the same thing each time. Regiments were often specialized, which is why in the Crimea as well as the famous Light Brigade, there was also a Heavy Brigade.

    Dragoons however weren’t really “cavalry”. They were really mounted infantry that used horses for mobility.

    The early cavalry pistols were simply replacements for bows or crossbows and were adopted for the same reason that firearms were adopted by infantry (less training required).

    True cavalry generally didn’t attack massed infantry in formation, as if the infantry were any good the cavalry would lose. They acted as scouts, or blocked the enemy’s scouts (screening), or they attacked the enemy’s supply lines. If the enemy army was defeated and retreating in disarray, they would pursue the scattered fragments to prevent them from rallying (a lot of the casualties in a battle would come in this phase).

    When Napoleon’s army was in retreat in Russia, the Old Guard stuck together and sneered at the Cossacks who followed them but knew better than to attack solid infantry. The regiments who scattered though (most of his army wasn’t French and abandoned the main force in defeat) were pursued and chopped up.

    What this meant is that there would be a lot of cavalry versus cavalry engagements, or cavalry versus disorganized foot (or civilians), but there wouldn’t typically be cavalry versus massed infantry engagements. Various armies at various times tried sabres only, pistols only, lances, etc. They all had their pros and cons depending on the details of the tactical situation.

    • All good points. I might add these quotes from “ones who were there” during the American Civil War;

      “If the reader will only imagine a regiment drawn up in single rank, the flank companies skirmishing, sometimes on horseback, and then thrown out s skirmishers on foot, and so deployed as to cover the whole front of the regiment, the rest of the men dismounted (one out of each set of four, and the corporals remaining to hold the horses), and deployed as circumstances required and the command indicated, to the front of, on either flank, or to the rear of the line of horses, the files two yards apart, and then imagine this line moved forward at a double-quick, or oftener a half run, he will have an idea of Morgan’s style of fighting.

      “Exactly the same evolutions were applicable for horseback or foot fighting, but the latter method was much oftener practised– we were in fact not cavalry, but mounted riflemen. A small body of mounted men was usually kept in reserve to act on the flanks, cover the retreat or press a victory, but otherwise our men fought very little on horseback, except on scouting expeditions.”

      – Gen. Basil W. Duke, The History of Morgan’s Cavalry (emphasis mine.)

      General Henry Havelock had this to say about Union cavalry, specifically Sheridan’s attack on the Rebel rearguard at Sailor’s Creek;

      “The mode in which Sheridan, from the special arming and training of his cavalry, was able to deal with this rear guard, first to overtake it in retreat, then to pass completely beyond it, to turn, face it, and take up at leisure a position strong enough to enable him to detain it in spite of its naturally fierce and determined efforts to break through, is highly characteristic of the self-reliant, all-sufficing efficiency to which the Northern horsemen had been brought… and had enabled Sheridan, and one or two more of similar bent of mind, to shake themselves free of the unsound traditions of European cavalry theory, and to make their own horse not the jingling, brilliant, costly, but almost helpless unreality it is with us, but a force that was able, on all grounds, in all circumstances, to act freely and efficiently, without any support from infantry.”

      Both quoted from the Cavalry chapter of Arms and Equipment of the Civil War by Jack Coggins (1962, but reprinted several times). You used to be able to buy it in the gift shop at Gettysburg. While intended for a junior-high or high-school level, I find it an invaluable reference on the military technology of the era.

      Another often-overlooked role of the cavalry in the ACW was convoy escort. Union cavalry in particular were often detailed to protect supply units moving up to the front, especially in areas where raids by Confederate irregular cavalry might be expected. You might call this the “set a thief to catch a thief” principle.

      As to their own supply, Union cavalry traveled light. Most supplies were carried by pack animals or by a following wagon train, according to Coggins. On Wilson’s Alabama raid, for instance, 12,000 horsemen set out with each man (or rather, his mount)carrying five days’ worth of light rations in their haversacks, 100 rounds of carbine ammunition, 24 pounds of grain, and two spare horseshoes. everything else was hauled by the supply train of 250 wagons drawn by mules, with the remounts following along.

      Cavalry relied on speed in the sense that they used their high rate of advance compared to infantry to get to where they were needed ASAP. But once there, they tended to dismount, unlimber their carbines, and get down to business like light infantry. It’s not that they couldn’t charge with saber (they discarded the lance early on) or revolvers blazing, but they generally preferred a more pragmatic approach.

      Going back to Coggins, the reason for that “pragmatic approach” was summed up by Confederate infantry in the early battles, who according to one of their generals reacted to Union cavalry charges like this;

      “Boys, here come those fools with their sabers again — give it to ’em!

      Cavalry doctrine of the American Civil War may have been the first mass expression of Keith’s Second and Third Laws in military history;

      Never bring a knife to a gun fight.

      Never bring a pistol to a rifle fight.



  27. If anyone is interested, I would be happy to provide the paper I wrote concerning cavalry operations during the Russian Civil War and Polish-Soviet War. I’m rather proud of it 🙂

  28. famously Winston Churchill ascribes his survival in the mounted charges of the river war to his Mauser C96 in his biography “My Early Life: A Roving Commission”.

    • Very true. Churchill had purchased the Mauser in London before shipping out, IIRC, and at the time was using it due to a shoulder injury which made use of either the saber or the Lee-Speed carbine pretty much impossible. Also, Churchill’s marksmanship was a factor; he tended to prefer head or heart shots, which pretty much decide the issue with one hit with the 7.63 FMJ round.



  29. If for any reason you are thrown from your horse and your foot is locked up in the stirrup, you may have to shoot the horse, with your hand-gun, to save your life. So, you had better be a good shot. Maybe that is why the Indians did not use saddles so much. Ancient Proverb!

  30. Thanks for also speculating on how cavalries would have used guns back in the day. I’m interested in looking for a good wheel-lock pistol soon because I’m thinking about collecting antiques. Weapons would surely be nice to collect in the long run.

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