Confederate Morse Carbine: Centerfire Cartridges Ahead of Their Time

George Morse of Baton Rouge patented a design for a remarkably modern centerfire cartridge and breechloading rifle action in 1856 and 1858, using a standard percussion cap as a primer. This was coupled with a gutta percha washer for sealing and a rolled brass cartridge body that was strong and robust – easily reloaded, if somewhat complex to manufacture.

After positive trials by the Army and Navy, Morse received a contract to make first complete guns and then a royalty contract for the conversion of existing muskets to his system. Work began at the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal, but money ran out with only 60 conversion completed. When the Civil War broke out, Morse chose to side with the Confederacy, and the tooling for his conversions was taken from the captured Armory to be put to use. He initially set up in Nashville, but the city fell to the Union in 1862, and he was forced to relocate to Atlanta and the Greenville South Carolina. It was in Greenville that Morse was finally able to manufacture guns in quantity, and he built approximately a thousand brass-framed single shot cartridge carbines for the South Carolina state militia.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the infrastructure to supply a modern type of cartridge ammunition really did not exist in the South, and this crippled any chance of Morse’s carbines becoming a significant factor in the war. The best technology in the world is still of no use if ammunition cannot be provided!

This Morse carbine is of the third type, using a sliding latch on the breechblock to hold the action closed when firing. Two previous versions used different and less secure systems, but this third type was introduced around serial number 350 and would comprise the remaining 2/3rds of the production run.

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[ Confederate Morse Carbine ] Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on I’m Ian McCollum, and I am here today at the James Julia Auction House up in Maine taking a look At some of the guns that they’re going to be selling In their upcoming fall of 2017 Firearms Auction. Now normally we don’t think of the Confederacy As really being a hotbed of Innovative weapons development. For the most part the Confederacy struggled to Manufacture firearms of any sort during the US Civil War. It was really the North, the Union, that had … the Vast majority of the industrial infrastructure during that time. However, what we’re looking at today is kind of the exception to that rule, And … this is a Morse carbine. Now Samuel Morse originally patented this idea in 1856 and 1858, And he originally actually looked for, and acquired, a contract From the United States Federal Government for development of these carbines. They were tested by both the Army and the Navy, found to be really quite good, Because what Morse had developed was in many ways A very much ahead of its time self-contained metallic cartridge. A centrefire metallic cartridge no less. What Morse had was basically a rolled brass tube with an attached base plate. The base plate had an anvil in it, to which you could fit a standard percussion cap. And then that percussion cap was kind of held and [waterproof] sealed in place, … By a gutta-percha or, as they said at the time, India rubber washer. … The fact that it was a centrefire case Allowed the cartridge to be a lot stronger than the early rimfire cases. The rimfire cases had to have a fairly thin brass base in order to both hold priming compound, And also allow it to be effectively crushed by a firing pin. … Morse’s idea didn’t need any of that Because he used a standard percussion cap in the middle of the base With just a vent hole going through into the powder charge, very much like a modern centrefire case. He really was ahead of his time,

The military did actually recognise this when they tested the guns. And Morse got a contract to manufacture 100 of his carbines for $40 apiece. A little bit of time went by and this wasn’t working out well for Morse, He wasn’t able to deliver any of the guns, although I don’t actually know why. But what he did was he came back to the government and he said, ”Tell you what, instead of making new guns, Why don’t we instead convert existing old percussion muskets that are in army inventory, Why don’t we convert those to my pattern of breech-loading cartridge-firing gun?” Instead of wanting $40 apiece for new guns, He just wanted $3 apiece in royalties for those guns. The government actually thought, ”Well, that’s a fine idea.” They were willing to use up some old stocks of obsolete guns to do this, And they went ahead and set up production at the Harpers Ferry Arsenal To convert guns to Morse’s breech-loading pattern. Well, unfortunately the money that Congress had allocated for actually 2,000 of these guns ran out. They got 60 of the guns converted, They had another 540 in various stages of conversion, and the funding ran out. Well, this project didn’t really have a chance to go any further Because around this time the US Civil War breaks out. Southern troops managed to capture Harpers Ferry, And with it they actually get most of the tooling for Morse pattern breech-loading conversions. And they set this up in Nashville and Morse is sent there, And he’s the superintendent of the Tennessee Armoury in Nashville Until 1862 when the city is overtaken. However, they were able to salvage the tooling from Nashville. It went briefly to Atlanta, and then finally found its home in Greenville, South Carolina. Where Morse was once again set up to run the arsenal, and he actually got guns built this time. He never did get an order from the … Federal Confederate government, But he did get an order for 1,000 of his guns … for the South Carolina … State Militia. And in this case, we’re back to now these being complete built guns instead of conversions. The Confederacy didn’t really have a whole lot of extra firearms Laying around to convert to other patterns. So Morse set up to make a brass-framed single-shot breech-loading carbine, Calibre .50, of his own design.

And actually manufactured 1,000 of them in South Carolina Before the whole project fell apart with the end of the Civil War. This is a bit of an odd-looking gun with its forward-leaning hammer when it’s all the way down, And what appears to be a lever here which is actually not a lever at all, it’s … basically a brass grip frame. And then we’ve got the actual working bits here on the top of the action. So we normally start with markings on guns like this, However this one has virtually no markings at all. You will occasionally find them marked ”Morse” on the side, this one does not have that. The only thing it has is a serial number. About 1,000 of these were made, and this is number 724. It is a third pattern gun, there were two previous iterations. Third pattern guns started at about 350 and went to the end, They were definitely the best iteration of the gun. The changes in those three versions are basically changes to how the breech block is held closed. I can demonstrate this by putting the hammer here back to half-cock. And then to open the breech I’m just going to push this catch backwards, And then the whole thing lifts up like so. We then have a little loading track here. You would drop a cartridge in here, which gets pushed into that chamber. And then in the action we have a steel, or I believe it’s actually probably iron, breech block here With this cast brass, basically locking block behind it. So this is going to push the cartridge into the chamber. This flat steel spring at the bottom is actually an extractor. And then this piece right here is the firing pin, and it was pushed forward. So right down underneath it, right there, you can see what functioned as the extractor. The Morse cartridges had a nice big rim on them, so that extractor would pull them out. When we close this, it’s going to go all the way forward, And then this block drops down in, kind of like a knee joint sort of thing. And it’s going to lock the action in place so that it can’t lift when the gun fires. And if this can’t lift, then this breech block can’t move back. The solid brass case does a nice job of sealing all the gas in the action. Which is of course the reason that we still use solid brass cases today Is their obturation effect, the fact that they provide the gas seal at the rear of the firearm. This was the main problem with all of the Civil War era breech-loading … paper-cartridge guns,

… things like the early Sharps rifles. Because there was no brass case to seal the chamber, they had to Come up with some other way to try and prevent gas from leaking out the back of the gun. Well, Morse had a nice advanced cartridge, and it did that very well. Now the locking piece on this third pattern Morse is this guy, right here. There is also a secondary lock, which was the primary lock on the earlier versions, And that is this bar down in the bottom, which I can release by pulling the trigger. So that bar is kind of the striker, I suppose. That bar hits this bar in the … locking block, Which then hits the firing pin here, and fires the cartridge. But when this comes forward, it’s going to extend into the base of this block here, Which is going to also additionally prevent this from lifting up when the gun fires. This was a fairly fast gun to shoot, apparently 5 to 8 rounds per minute, Massively faster than a muzzle loader, of course. I don’t have a good number on the velocity, But the cartridge used a 300 grain bullet over a 40 grain charge of black powder. That is not a pipsqueak round by any means. In fact that’s fairly similar to the .44-40 cartridge that would come … many years later. The rest of the gun is pretty simple. We have a fixed rear sight here. We have a fixed brass, or bronze, front sight there. There is a cleaning rod underneath the stock of the gun. The receiver and the main components here are all cast brass, Cheaper to make, and more available than iron. And I can also take out these three screws, which I’ve already loosened, And show you the inside of this action. Although there’s not a whole lot going on there. So this cover plate is obviously a cast piece as well. You’ll notice a number of these guns, including this Morse, Have Roman numerals on the inside which I believe were assembly numbers, Just to kind of keep track of parts during the manufacturing process. The inside plate here is also numbered 724, matching the receiver of the gun. And inside … that’s all you’ve got is basically a hammer. You’ve got a sear down here at the bottom connected to the trigger. And that hammer is just connected to this bar that acts as the striker. There’s a big flat spring here to put tension on it.

And that’s all you got, very simple. It is of course a single-shot gun, so there doesn’t have to be a whole lot going on inside. One last thing I want to point out that really jumped out at me when I picked up this carbine, Was just how incredibly … narrow the stock is. This is a really, really narrow stock. The front end of the gun is pretty svelte itself, but it is wider. It has to be wider to actually contain the barrel and the breech assembly, And have enough metal there to not explode when you fire it. Which, by the way, it does. I’ve never seen any reports of these being unsafe. But the stock in particular is very skinny. It really is remarkable how far ahead of its time Morse’s cartridge was. And unfortunately for the Confederacy, they really weren’t able to take advantage of this. They simply didn’t have the industrial base, First of all to manufacture a really substantial number of these guns. And perhaps more importantly, they didn’t have the industrial base To manufacture the fixed-case ammunition for these guns. The cartridges that do survive today you can see are … not really all that well made. This was a cartridge that required a bunch of different manufacturing steps, Rolling the case, soldering the seam in the case. If that wasn’t done well you would get gas leakage and problems. Then attaching the base to the main body tube of the cartridge, making anvils. This was not a project that was well suited to the state of Confederate infrastructure at the time. So it’s interesting, … it’s almost easier to find Morse carbines today Than it is to find their cartridges, which are extremely rare and expensive. And interestingly, Morse would go on to continue his development after the war, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. He did actually after the war attempt to sue the Federal Government, The Union government, for patent infringement. He felt that all 170,000 or so breech-loading cartridge-firing carbines That the Union had procured were all violations of his cartridge patent. And tried to get $5 apiece for all 170,000 guns, Which would have equated to the better part of a million dollars in the late 1860s. His case failed, but that was a valiant effort I suppose on his part. He did have a hand in some experimental development of the .45-70 cartridge, Although it wouldn’t ultimately be his designs that would be adopted by the United States.

Anyway, while the cartridges may be the hardest thing to find, The carbines are not exactly super-common today. If you would like to add this particularly nice example to your own collection, Take a look at the description text below. You’ll find a link there to the James Julia catalogue page for it, Where you can take a look at their pictures, and their description, And provenance, and all that sort of stuff. And if you decide you just can’t stop yourself, you can place a bid online, or over the phone, Or you can come … up here to Maine and participate in the auction live. Thanks for watching.

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