Guest Column: Letter to the Civil War collector

Dear Collector,

I want to address some prejudices and presumptions experienced by me over the past 20 years caused by you, the collector of Civil War artifacts. I fervently believe you have no idea how patronizing your behavior can be; allow me to educate you.

As you enter my shop, I recognize the “look.” Your eyes gleam with anticipation, lust and just plain envy. Your subsequent disappointment is tangible when your gaze leaves the racks of merchandise and lands on me. Sorry I’m not what you expected.

I’ll ask where you hail from and receive a mumbled response that usually includes a question about how long we’ve been in business, insinuating I haven’t been around for very long.

My answer usually results in a disdainful snort from you. Please don’t deride me because I only have two decades’ worth of experience and you have three. Maybe you’ve been collecting longer, but I’m a quick learner. I had to be; I make my living selling military antiques, and I need to eat.

What I know about Civil War rifles

Believe it or not, I can distinguish between a percussion and flintlock and may shed some light differentiating the two. Flintlocks were pre-Civil War era and actually date back to the 1600s. Percussion pieces, also known as cap and ball, were invented in the 1840s and were much easier and safer to use. The percussion rifles from the Civil War are usually associated with the South because soldiers left home with whatever weapon the family could spare. The Confederate states had very few armament factories and depended upon British imports for supplies.

To further shock you, I also know the trapdoor conversion was post Civil War, invented between 1865 and 1866. It eliminated the need for a cap and ball by sliding the cartridge into the trap door, allowing the soldier to load much more quickly. But the weapon of choice by the U.S. Army was the Spencer repeating carbine, making its debut in 1862 and considered the first modern-day weapon because of its ability to fire up to seven rounds back to back, versus reloading one bullet at a time.

The next generation of long arms was the Henry repeating rifle, coming in 1864 and considered an improvement over the Spencer. It had a longer barrel and carried 14 rounds, combining a longer range with more firing power.

Shortly after the Henry came the infamous Winchester. The Winchester was the Cadillac of firearms with its shorter, lighter barrel and ability to repeat seven rounds like the Henry. Easier to carry on the saddle, it was the most accurate and easiest rifle to maneuver. The Winchester became the Army’s weapon of choice from 1866 through the 1920s.

Regarding value, I am aware that guns have skyrocketed. I buy them on a weekly basis and try to resell them to folks like you who live and die by your price guides. Knowing this, please don’t try to “chew me down” off the tagged price unless you’re prepared to pay my store’s electric bill this month.

What I know about swords and knives

For our clients’ viewing pleasure, we display our personal sword collection. And yes, I know a dragoon is also a wrist breaker, but did you know the war-dated cavalry swords are referred to as “light” cavalry? They’re actually a shorter, thinner, and, hence, a lighter version of the original 1840 model.

By the way, artillerymen did carry swords; notice how much shorter and straighter the blades are. These swords were made for men on the ground vs. those mounted on horseback. An artillery sword has a simple one-bar grip, whereas the cavalry model sports an elaborate basket-style guard to help the cavalryman hold onto his blade in the heat of battle.

There were several sword manufacturers awarded government contracts during the Civil War to make their goods for the troops, much like today. The most prolific makers were Ames, Roby, Emerson and Silver and Mansfield & Lamb. Even the infamous Tiffany made swords for the U.S. Army.

 On the far wall are bayonets, which fit on the end of a rifle. The term “fix bayonets” means to reverse the direction so the point is now facing outward vs. inward, priming the soldier for potential hand-to-hand combat. That particular bayonet you’re admiring was made for an Enfield rifle, but good luck matching it up with the Enfield you left at home. There were 12 Enfield manufacturers, all in England, so finding one to fit yours will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. If you really want a bayonet to properly fit your weapon, you need to bring it for a proper fitting. You don’t believe me? Go ahead and buy that bayonet then. I could use another sale today.

What I know about a soldier’s life

Foot soldiers had a hard time lugging around their rifles, which were more than 5 feet long. Add 40 rounds of lead, each weighing an ounce, a black powder flask, cap box, a canteen full of water, rucksack filled with personal belongings and mess kit with a bedroll, and you’ll understand how things could get a bit tangled and muddled in the heat of battle.

Grab this Springfield with the bayonet and take this empty canteen and cartridge box containing just 20 bullets. You don’t even have a rucksack, powder flask or bedroll, but you’re already feeling weighed down, aren’t you? Now imagine someone is firing hot lead directly at you, your commander has just ordered you to fall back, and you’ve got to run for your life, praying one of those bullets aimed at your back doesn’t find its mark.

Did you ask me again how long I’ve been in business? Almost 20 years, but I remember my first gun show like it was yesterday. There were probably no more than six or seven people there like me, although it was attended by more than 5,000 people. But times have changed.

What I know about knives and pistols

That knife you’re pointing to may look like a bowie knife, but it is not. The true bowie knife measures almost 18 inches long and about 2-1/2 inches wide. Because of its length, the original bowie knife was believed to have been strapped to the outer side of a man’s thigh for quick and easy access. The one in my display case is modeled after the bowie, but it is much smaller and thinner, making it easier for soldiers to carry in their boot.

Those little pistols you’re admiring were not carried by soldiers but more likely used by a gambler who carried one in his vest, or by a prostitute who tucked it into the bodice of her corset. With only one shot, it is a weapon of last resort.

Many officers carried their personal guns to war, especially small pistols hidden inside their boots, hence the name “boot pistols.” These weapons also carried only one bullet. The boot pistol was not considered standard, military-issued equipment. Soldiers were issued offensive weapons, not defensive ones.

What you now know

I hope you’ve learned something in my shop today. It’s been a pleasure showing you around my store. Next time you come in, though, when I offer to help you find something, please don’t look through me as if I’m invisible and ask to speak to the owner. You already are. ?

Melanie C. Thomas has nearly 20 years of experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa.

You may also enjoy “Popular Civil War Reference Returns”

In our bookstore: 101 Things You Didn’t Know About the Civil War, Places, Battles, Generals – Essential Facts About the War That Divided America


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