With all of the trials and tribulations experienced during the life of the Gibbs Carbine, it’s story might best be entitled, “The Carbine That Was Never Meant to Be.” The Gibbs was contracted for no fewer than four times before it actually went into production, experienced major delays in manufacturing, and was finally killed by a factory fire. All of these events combined to make the Gibbs one of the scarcest of the US contract Civil War carbines to see issue and use, and one of the harder US military carbines to find for sale on the market.
The Gibbs Carbine had its genesis as the invention of Lucius H. Gibbs, who was an inventor and gunsmith living in Oberlin, OH. Gibbs had previously received US Patent #5316 on October 2, 1847 for a percussion-repeating rifle. The revolving rifle shown in the patent drawings bears a vague resemblance to Colt’s Patterson revolving rifles but is truly unique. Gibbs’ patent specification describing the unique action reads in part:
“The nature of my invention consists in making the breech-stock of the gun tubular, the tube communicating with the breech of the gun barrel for the purpose of receiving a number of shot-charged cylinders in such a manner that as soon as one is discharged of all its loads it may be easily and quickly taken from the gun, as here in set forth, and another cylinder made to take its place by simply dropping the muzzle of the gun.”
I could find no records of Gibbs’ patent repeating, revolving, percussion rifle having ever been produced. Gibbs’ patent that applied to his Civil War carbine was #14057 and was issued on January 8, 1856. The patent was for a single shot, percussion breech loading arm. At that time, Gibbs listed his residence as New York City. It appears that Gibbs may have produced a few single shot pistols using the same patented breech design, but these are so scarce that Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Arms does not assess a value for them. Gibbs’ design was not particularly revolutionary, in the greater sense of “invention”, but was more of an “improvement” upon existing designs and was patented as such.
The Gibbs system used a lever under the breech to push the barrel open from the breech face of the carbine and tilt it down for loading. The system is in fact very similar to that of the Gallager Carbine, which was patented in 1860, and the Gallager was likely heavily influenced by the existing Gibbs design. The Gibbs patent was probably influenced by the patent for the Maynard Carbine (May 1851), where an under-lever design moved the barrel away from the breech face by tilting it down for loading and unloading. The Maynard system relied upon a brass cartridge case to seal the rear of the barrel against the breech face and prevent the escape of gasses when the gun was fired. This meant that the brass case had to be manually extracted after each shot. Gibbs’ system used a small button shaped projection on the face of the breech to fill the rear of the barrel’s chamber and seal it against gas leaks. This allowed the use of combustible paper or linen cartridges, like those used in the Sharps, and eliminated the need to extract spent cartridge cases. From a purely economic point of view, it also meant that the ammunition was cheaper as no metal case was required to make it. As Gibbs described in his patent application: “…my said invention also consists in combining with a sliding barrel made with the rear or breech end open, a fixed breech pin which fits the bore of the rear end of the barrel, in combination with an annular recess surrounding the said pin to receive the rounded edge of the rear end of the barrel, to prevent as much as possible the escape of gases and in case of any escape to deflect them toward the muzzle.”
Sometime during 1857 Gibbs managed to have approximately 20 sample carbines produced, most likely by W.W. Marston of New York. At least one of these carbines was tested by a US Army Ordnance Board at West Point during 1858, and was considered to be a generally good design, but no orders were forthcoming. The carbine was a simple, single shot percussion breechloader whose action was opened by lowering a lever that was an extension of the triggerguard. The lever resembles a miniaturized version of the classic Winchester lever, with a much smaller loop for the hand and an extension between the loop and triggerguard. The carbine had a 22” round barrel that was .52 caliber and was 39” in overall length. It had a blued barrel, a casehardened lock and furniture, and a walnut stock. There was a long side plate opposite the lock and a short sling bar and ring. The front sight was a simple brass blade, but the rear sight was a standard US M1861 pattern rifle musket sight, with the leaves graduated to 100, 300 and 500 yards.
With the coming of the American Civil War, and the US military’s desperate need to acquire small arms, Gibbs seemed to have finally received his chance. On October 24, 1861 a Thomas Fields, representing Strobell & Company of Washington, D.C., submitted a proposal to the US Ordnance Department to deliver 10,000 Gibbs carbines at a rate of $28.00 each. The Ordnance Department subsequently recommended on November 21 that the proposal be reduced to 5,000 of the guns, and issued a contract to Strobell & Company, to be returned in January of 1862. Strobell & Company never returned the signed contract for this order, and it was cancelled. However, the Ordnance Department had initiated a second contract with Strobell & Company on December 13, 1861 for 10,000 Gibbs carbines; exactly the same proposal that Fields had put forth only weeks earlier! This contract, however, appears to have been either issued by accident, or as a duplicate for yet another Gibbs carbine contract. In any case, the Holt-Owen Commission that investigated US military contracts, as well as all of the problems that seemed to go with them, cancelled both orders with Strobell & Company. The first contract was annulled on the grounds that the original contract had never been signed and returned by Strobell as required, and it was argued that the second contract was really issued to another company! Interestingly, researchers have yet to determine whom Strobell & Company or Fields were, and there is no evidence that either entity ever had anything to do with firearms production or manufacturing. It is most likely that they were simply arms speculators hoping to score governments arms contracts, with the plan of having sub-contractors doing the actual work.
Apparently, the December 13, 1861 contract for 10,000 Gibbs carbines was really intended for William F. Brooks of New York City. Brooks was also the recipient of a contract for 10,000 US Model 1861 Rifle Muskets, issued on the same day as the Gibbs contract. Brooks was another speculator, who had no firearms manufacturing capability. While testifying before the Holt-Owen Commission, Brooks noted that he was a “brass and flue manufacturer”. He further noted that he intended to have W.W. Marston’s Phoenix Armory (Marston had produced the 20 initial sample guns) manufacture both the Gibbs carbines and the M1861 rifle muskets. Brooks was to have the first 1,000 guns under each contract delivered by April 12, 1862 and was to continue deliveries at the rate of 1,000 per month until the contract was completed. By April of 1862 no Gibbs carbines (or rifle muskets) had yet to be manufactured or delivered. The Holt-Owen Commissioners investigated the situation very quickly, and even sent Captain Silas Crispin of the US Ordnance Department to inspect Marston’s manufacturing facility. Crispin’s report noted that Marston’s factory was capable of producing the Gibbs carbines, given the necessary time, tooling and materials. He also noted that they had already sub-contracted for barrels and some small parts and had invested sufficiently in the required machinery to manufacture the necessary additional components and assemble the guns. However, he noted that there appeared to be no progress at all regarding manufacturing of the rifle muskets, and on April 18, 1862 that portion of the contract was voided. The commission did, however, agree to maintain the carbine contract.
On June 21, 862, the Gibbs carbine contract was reissued, the fourth official contact for these guns, with the first delivery of 1,000 carbines to take place on August 1, 1862. As with every previous contract for Gibbs’s carbines, the sellers were once again in default, and not a single gun had been delivered under the contract. For whatever reason, Marston does not seem to have had the ability to get his operations under control and ready to manufacture the guns. On December 1, 1862, the Mayor of New York City, George Opdyke, bought Marston’s Phoenix Armory and the Gibbs carbine contract and went to work filling it. As Opdyke wanted to avoid an appearance of impropriety, and because he was probably busy running the city, he placed the factory in the name of his son in law, G.W. Farlee. They hired new management including two new factory superintendents and a special foreman to supervise the production of the Gibbs carbines. The man hired to directly oversee Gibbs’s carbine production was John W. Keene, who would go on to work for Remington and invent the Remington-Keene bolt-action rifle.
With new management and leadership, the bad luck that followed the Gibbs carbines from their first contract seemed to have been wiped away. After four different contracts and nearly two years of delays, the factory was able to deliver the first 550 Gibbs carbines to the Ordnance Department on May 30, 1863. The next 502 were delivered on June 24, 1863. By July 13, 1863 another 500 were completed and ready for inspection at the factory, prior to delivery, and some 6,000 more were in the process of being built or assembled. That same day, the “curse of the Gibbs” struck again, and this time ended the Gibbs story permanently.
On July 13, 1863 the New York Draft Riots broke out in response to the newly established national conscription act. Rioters tore through the streets of New York looting, burning, attacking, and killing. Whether they attacked the former Phoenix Armory because they wanted weapons or because they knew it was owned by the Mayor is unclear but attack it, they did. The rioters were initially driven off by New York police that had been stationed at the factory to protect it. The factory superintendents issued the 34 policemen Gibbs carbines. After the police shot and killed one of the rioters, the mob moved off. However, the situation in the city had become truly dangerous, and with only the police to try to control the rioters (the New York Militia had been sent to Pennsylvania due to Lee’s invasion of that state), the police stationed at the factory were sent to other parts of the city to help control the situation. Later that day rioters returned to the factory and burned it. In the process they destroyed the 500 completed carbines and the 6,000 others that were being assembled. In the end, all the time, effort and capital spent on the production of the Gibbs carbine only resulted in 1,052 being delivered to the US government. Nearly all of these guns were issued for use in the field, and Gibbs carbines have been documented as being issued to the 13th and 16th New York Cavalry (who were issued 95 and 111 carbines respectively) and the 10th Missouri Cavalry (426), for a total confirmed issuance of 632. Others were likely issued as well, although the carbine was ill thought off in service, especially when compared to the Sharps and Spencer.
This is a VERY GOOD condition example of the scarce Gibbs Carbine. The gun is marked in three horizontal lines on the lock, forward of the hammer:
WM F. BROOKS
MANFR NEW YORK
The lock marking remains fully legible but is somewhat fuzzy around the edges. The top of the breech is marked in three lines as well:
L. H. GIBBS
JANY 8, 1856
This marking is somewhat worn due to the percussion caustic cap flash, as the mark is right next to the bolster and cone seat. A small B sub-inspection mark is present at the left rear of the breech as well. The buttplate tang is clearly marked U.S. Under strong light and from the correct angle the shadowy trace of one of the inspection cartouches is present on the reverse butt of the buttstock, a few inches from the buttplate. However, I could not get a photograph of the extremely weak mark. The gun has seen real world use but still remains fairly crisp look overall and appears to be 100% complete and correct in every way. The barrel of the carbine retains none of its original blued finish and has a moderately oxidized brown patina, turning towards plum, with some mottled gray present as well. The barrel is mostly smooth, with only some lightly scattered pinpricking present along with some scattered minor surface roughness. Some more moderate pinpricking is also present at the breech and at the muzzle, as would be expected. The bore of the carbine is in about VERY GOOD+ to NEAR FINE condition. The rifling remains sharp and crisp, and the bore is mostly bright. There is some lightly scattered pitting along the entire length of the bore, with a few small patches of more moderate pitting present, scattered here and there. A good scrubbing will probably improve the bore, as there is some old, accumulated dirt and grime in it. The casehardened lock has a mottled brownish-gray patina, with some darker patches of age discoloratioin. This same patina is present on most of the casehardened hardware and furniture as well, with the buttplate having a thicker, deeper patina. The lock shows some scattered peppering and pinpricking, as does the buttplate, which also has some more moderate pinpricking scattered around its surface. The lock of the carbine functions crisply and correctly on all positions and is mechanically excellent. The breech lever operates smoothly and opens and closes the barrel, as it should. The spring latch to the rear of the breech lever also functions correctly. The correct, original rear sight is in place on the barrel, with clearly marked sight leaves. The sight retains some traces of its original blued finish. The original front sight is in place as well, on the top of the barrel, near the muzzle. However, the blade has been worn down to the height of the front sight’s base. The original sling bar and ring are in place on the side plate, opposite the lock. The stock of the carbine is in about VERY GOOD condition as well. The stock is solid and complete, and is free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. There is some moderate wear and minor loss in the mortise of the forend where the operating lever moved. There is also the letter F carved into the bottom of the stock to the left of the operating lever. As noted, the stock shows moderate wear and shows numerous bumps, dings, scuffs, and mars that would be expected from a military carbine that saw service and was used during the American Civil War. As noted, the two stock cartouches are not really visible, although some shadowy traces of one can be seen under the right light when the gun is held at the perfect angle. Other than the expected moderate service wear, the stock is really fairly crisp with relatively sharp edges along the comb for a gun that certainly saw significant service.
Overall, this is a very good, solid example of an extremely scarce Civil War carbine, that had a very difficult time being produced, and was then killed by the New York Draft Riots. With only 1,052 Gibbs Carbines delivered, and most seeing real field service, it can be very difficult to locate one of these carbines for sale. When you can, they are often well-worn guns that are in fairly rough condition. This gun clearly saw field service and use but was relatively well cared and never abused. It would be a fantastic addition to any advanced carbine collection, as this is one that many very serious and dedicated collectors do not own. I am quite sure you will be proud to add this scarce Civil War carbine to your collection of rare and fine Civil War military arms.