The Greene Carbine: Too Tricky for the Cavalry

James Greene patented this unusual breechloading carbine design in 1854, and arranged to have it manufactured by the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls. He managed to sell 300 of them to the US military, in .54 caliber and with 22 inch barrels. Field testing was done in 1857, although it was found that they were too awkward for use on horseback, and no further guns were purchased. However, a much larger order was placed by the British military, apparently with the intention of arming the Cape Mounted Rifles.

The guns ordered by the British, including the one in today’s video, had 18” barrels but were otherwise identical to the American guns. The Greene uses a locking system in which the barrel rotates 90 degrees to lock two large lugs into locking shoulders on the frame of the weapon. A paper or linen cartridge is used, and a tapered needle at the center of the breechblock penetrates the base of the cartridge when the action is closed. This needle channels the fire from the percussion cap (the Maynard tape priming system was licensed and built into the carbines) into the cartridge powder charge.

The British spent several years testing ammunition for their Greene carbines, but were unable to find a construction method which was light enough to be punctured by the firing needle but also sturdy enough for field use. But the early 1860s a superior Westley-Richards breechloader had been adopted, and the Greene carbines were put into storage in the Tower of London until eventually destroyed or sold – having never seen field use.

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[ Greene Carbine (British Contract) ] Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on Forgotten I’m Ian McCollum, and I’m here today at the Rock Island Auction House taking a look at some of the guns They’re going to be selling in their upcoming December of 2017 Premier Firearms Auction. And today we’re taking a look at a Greene carbine. Specifically this is a British contract Greene carbine, And not to be confused with the Greene rifles Which were also used by the United States during the Civil War. Those are also really weird and interesting … rifles, and we’ll take a look at them in another video later. But for today we’re taking a look at the carbine, Which has a bunch of unique mechanical features of its own. Now this was patented in 1854 by an American by the name of James Greene. It was then manufactured by the Massachusetts Arms Company of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. And in a grand total, 300 of these were sold to the US military. They ended up using a little over half of those, like 170 of them, for field trials in around 1857. And they didn’t end up getting adopted. Now 300 of these guns isn’t really enough to sustain a profitable production enterprise, And these guns were actually manufactured for about two full years, Sometime between 1855 and 1857. And what happened, as best I can tell, is the American production ended When the British government placed an order for 2,000 of the carbines. That is a pretty substantial order, and that was going to occupy the factory for a little while. And so the American stuff got set to the side, there wasn’t a whole lot more demand for them anyway, And they started making these for the British. Apparently the British plan was to issue these out to a unit called the Cape Mounted Rifles, Presumably for use in the Crimean War, or at least that’s why they were arming this unit at the time. However, that never ended up happening. And before I can really effectively explain why it didn’t happen, I need to show you how this thing works. We have a bunch of different markings to work with here. At the very back of the lock plate we have Massachusetts Arms Company, Chicopee Falls, they’re the manufacturer.

We have a British military marking there, that of course is for Queen Victoria. We have a Maynard’s patent and date here, And that is specifically for the tape primer that was used, we’ll come back to that in a moment. We have Greene’s patent, That is the actual patent for the operating mechanism of the … carbine, note that it is 1854. And then lastly we have British proof marks on a number of the components, The breech block and the barrel for example here, and also on a bunch of other places. We do have this number ”1” stamped in the stock ahead of the patch box, … well, we’ll touch on that a little bit later. Now this is a percussion cap fired weapon, and it actually uses a Maynard tape primer. So if you lift that lever up you can then open this little door. This is a system, invented obviously by Maynard, Which is basically like the paper caps you would see in cap guns today. It’s a roll of paper tape with priming compound in individual sections. And when you cock the hammer this little gear rotates, And feeds that tape up one primer unit at a time So that you don’t need to mess around with handling, And trying to put individual caps on the firing nipple there. So that in theory makes this a much faster system to use. Now, whether the British were planning on using that or not, I don’t know, But it’s a valuable enough innovation that guys like Greene Would go ahead and licence the technology from Maynard to put in their carbines. Of course you’ll notice this has two triggers. The rear one is for firing, the front one is for unlocking the breech system. And in order to load this rifle I’m going to pull this trigger, I am then going to rotate the barrel (there is a nice segmented grippy bit right up here). I’m going to rotate that 90 degrees, then I can pull it forward, And then the whole thing pivots down and over. By the way, we have a serial number down in here, this one is 1790. So of the 2,000 made, this is one of the very last ones. So at any rate, once you have … access to the rear end of the breech here, you then load your cartridge. This wouldn’t be a metallic cartridge as we’ve come to think of today, This would be a paper or a linen cartridge most likely. And when I say cartridge, what I mean is basically a bullet at the front

And a charge of powder wrapped up in some sort of containment vessel. So wrapped in paper, wrapped in linen. Something that … means you have a pre-measured charge of black powder combined with your bullet, And you don’t have to be messing around with something like a powder flask. You just put the whole assembly in there. And then there is this conical needle-shaped deal here. And when you rotate this back into place and then press the barrel back, That needle is going to puncture the base of your cartridge. And that needle is actually a tube that channels up here to the primer. So when the hammer hits the primer, the fire from the exploding primer compound Is going to come through that tube, down out the tip of that needle. And if that needle has punctured through the base of your cartridge, It goes straight into the powder charge and ignites it, and everything fires. So … when you go to load it you press that back, Puncture the cartridge, and then rotate the barrel 90 degrees clockwise. Which locks these two lugs into these two nice large locking shoulders To make sure that everything stays nice and tight and in place when you fire. A couple of other features here: there was a patch box in the stock of the rifle. Both the American and the British ones had these. I believe on the American ones, this was made out of brass. It was blued iron on the British ones. We do have a sling ring back here. Remember that these were all intended for cavalry use on horseback. We have actually fairly remarkably good sights on these guns compared to others of the time. So there’s a notch sight there. And then you can flip this up to shoot at extended ranges out to, I believe, 600 yards. And then a fairly large front sight blade. You can see the rather heavy barrel profile here, three groove rifling, And these are .54 calibre guns, both the British ones and the American ones. The Americans did actually run some trials on .45 calibre version ones, But the mass production was all .54. The British contract Greenes like this one had 18 inch long barrels, The American Contract ones had 22 inch barrels. So as rifles of the time go, this was a quite short and handy weapon.

It had a remarkably heavy-walled barrel though, so fairly front heavy. Probably would have been very comfortable to shoot. I am sorry, one last marking to touch on, That is the British broad arrow stamped twice tip to tip. That indicates that the rifle has been sold out of military service onto the civilian market. So that explains how a gun like this one got into private hands. … The British, for reasons we will touch on in just a moment, The British didn’t end up actually equipping these out to any units. So ultimately the US didn’t adopt these Because they found them rather difficult to use on horseback. This manipulation of the trigger, and the swinging bit, and the bolts, And … they just didn’t really like them. The British ended up not … using them Because they couldn’t manage to get a cartridge that worked quite right. The problem was if they made a cartridge that was thin enough (these being paper, skin, linen, something like that), If they made a cartridge thin enough that it could actually be effectively chambered and loaded, Getting that little primer needle through the base of the cartridge, Well in that case the cartridges turned out to be too fragile for effective field use. The British military was planning on trooping these things all over the place, In Africa, the Crimea, and they needed a cartridge that would be durable enough To withstand some relatively harsh transport conditions. The problem was if they made a cartridge that was strong enough for that, Well it turned out to be too tough to actually chamber the barrel onto that cartridge. So the British experimented for a couple of years trying to get a cartridge design that would work. When they were not able to, the rifles ended up in storage in the Tower of London. And the majority of them were … destroyed, they were taken apart and sold for parts. Apparently you could get minty condition Greene carbine locks in England for a long time, Because they disassembled the rifles and sold off what could be used. This is a particularly fantastic condition one, Which does not bear a typical unit mark here, Which suggests it was one of the … carbines that was sold off earlier in this process. It seems that some of them were issued out to a specific unit for field trials. Probably the guys who were testing the different cartridges.

And so a lot of … the Greene carbines that show up have unit marks from those guys. And that is the … RDMR, possibly the Riverdale District Mounted Rifles, But no one’s really entirely sure. At any rate, if you’d like to have this one yourself, Take a look at the description text below. You’ll find a link there to Rock Island’s catalogue page for it. You can see their pictures, and description, and provenance, and all that sort of stuff. And if you’re interested, you can place a bid right there through their website. Thanks for watching.

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