Shooting Merrill's Carbines

Many skirmishers enjoy firing a variety of Civil War weapons. I must admit that I am among that group. Over the years, just about all of the popular carbines, rifles and muskets have accompanied me to the line. In that time, I have developed some decided favorites. These choices have not necessarily been due to any particular functional advantage, but because they are just plain the most fun to shoot. James Merrill's carbine has displaced the Burnside at the top of my personal fun to shoot list.

Merrill breechloaders are among the earlier Civil War contract carbines. They were issued in large numbers in both the east and west, yet today they are all but forgotten.

Many were delivered along the B&O railroad, which resulted in the capture of large numbers by the Confederacy. They were widely distributed in the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Southerners generally reported favorably on the handy carbines. Federals, on the other hand, seemed to favor them only when no other breech loaders were available. By the fall of 1862 they were rather widely condemned within the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. As more modern weapons became available, Merrills were quickly replaced in eastern federal ranks. Few were still in the Army of the Potomac after the fall of 1863. Less well equipped Confederates and western Federals, however, used them throughout the war.

Merrills did suffer more than other carbines from the typical problems of patent weapons. The arms were designed by a sporting arms company and were not rugged enough for the rigors of cavalry campaigning. In addition, they were not truly parts interchangable. Sights and hammers proved to be a particular problem. They broke off regularly and replacements often had to be hand fitted. On top of this, ammunition was found to be excessively fragile.

I had wanted a Merrill ever since reading the history of my home town unit, the 35th Va. Cavalry. General Ewell personally presented Col. White with a case of brand new Merrills in April of 1862. General Banks had thoughtfully left them in Winchester after his hasty departure from the Shennandoah valley. At one time or other, the 35th carried just about every firearm used in the war and liked their Merrills.

A few years ago, I finally got the opportunity to add a Merrill to my collection. One appeared at a gun show in Arizona, where I was attending school. It needed a good bit of work but was basically sound. Being a broke student, a trade was worked out and I became the proud owner of the forlorn first model carbine.

While I was working on the restoration, a shooting buddy asked if I was going to fire it. Without too much thought I answered "Sure, why not?" That started the "shoot the Merrill" campaign. To make a long story short, I've been shooting it ever since. In fact, that was the first of several Merrills with which I have become acquainted.

Preparation and Inspection

Any antique firearm put into service today should be thoroughly inspected before firing the first time, and Merrills are no exception. If you do not have experience with other Civil War breechloaders, turn this job over to a competent antique gunsmith.

Since this arm originally used paper cartridges, breech sealing depends entirely on the correct fir of the breech pin in the back of the barrel. If the pin itself is pitted, a new one is not too difficult for a skilled machinist to make. If the breech sealing surfaces of the barrel are not in good condition, hang your carbine over the fireplace and admire it, or have the barrel sleeved. It will leak gas. The bore itself can have some pitting and still shoot safely and well. If you are considering the purchase of a Merrill, there is a quick and dirty check of breech tightness. With the consent of the seller, cock the hammer, stop the vent with your thumb and blow down the barrel. If it leaks, shooting is out of the question. After this test PLEASE wipe any moisture from the bore.

Next, inspect the breech mechanism. The most important check here is that the assembly numbers on the breech pin, toggle link, lever, receiver and barrel all match. These parts must lock together to prevent the pivot screws from being loaded by the force of firing. The action was originally hand fitted and the chances of a random replacement part working properly are small. A good gunsmith can make quite acceptable replacements, but if replacement parts are evident in the action, careful inspection for exact fit is absolutely required.

Assuming the mechanism is in good shape, proceed to check the overall soundness of the weapon. This is a good time to fix the trigger. The carbines of my experience have had trigger pulls ranging from very heavy to impossible. One in particular was over 30 pounds! In spite of an excessively deep sear notch, the Merrill lock design is one of the best of all Civil War carbines. It is a descendent of sporting flintlocks. The sear can be shimmed to let off at just a few ounces and it will still be crisp and will not catch on the half cock.

Preparation for shooting should also include raising the front sight. Like most Civil War carbines, Merrills are sighted for the maximum possible point blank range when firing at targets the size of a mounted trooper. They shoot about as high as an unmodified original Smith under N-SSA range conditions. The modification I use is to make a brass sight about .42" high. It slips over the iron blade and is epoxied in place. This modification can easily be removed, restoring the carbine to its original condition.

Ammunition

Another operation that can be done while inspecting your carbine is to slug the bore. All war-time Merrills are 54 caliber, but their groove diameter varies a good bit. The one I shoot measures .555", but they can be as big as .558". Once this dimension is known, order a Burnside mold a couple of thousandths bigger. Merrills show a definite preference for bullets on the hard side. A 50/50 mixture of pure lead and wheel weight shoots very well.

There are two ways to make up ammunition. The first is to roll paper cartridges. This is done in the same way as Sharps rounds. However, the choice of paper is more critical. The Merrill system requires that fire from the cap burn through the powder wrapping to ignite the round. This means that cartridge paper must be rather thin. Hair curler paper seems to work as well as anything I have tried. It leaves very little residue, especially if nitrated. A Sharps shooter introduced me to this paper last year and it is about the best for cartridges. Burnside bullets are somewhat difficult to use with paper cartridges since they are so short.

An easy method of making ammunition is to use typical hard plastic 58 caliber quick load tubes. They are small enough to hold a 54 cal. bullet, as long as they haven't been sitting around loaded with musket balls.

With either cartridge, use about 35 grains of FFFg powder to start. The original load was 45 grains, but for target shooting, this only serves to increase recoil and fouling. The light load is quite accurate out to 100 yards and cleaner to shoot. There are almost as many bullet lubes as N-SSA shooters, start with your favorite and try several. I had very good luck with regular RCBS Bullet Lube in Arizona, but it has been most disappointing in Virginia. Lately, a 50/50 mixture of Tompson Center "Bore Butter" and bees wax has produced excellent results. Its one drawback is that it makes the bullets very slippery to handle while loading.

On the Firing Line

Operation of the Merrill breech system is unique. Therefore, it takes some practice to load quickly from the cartridge box. I usually use plastic cartridges, mostly because I'm too lazy to make up paper rounds. My loading method is to half cock the hammer and open the breech lever. Next, a cartridge is drawn from the box. With the carbine cradled along the right arm and a cartridge in the right hand, pull the bullet with the left and place it in the breech. Then close the breech with the left hand to ram the bullet forward. Reopen the breech and tip the weapon muzzle down. Grasp the piece with the left hand and ahead of the lock. With the right hand pour the powder charge into the breech and close the lever. Finally prime and fire. The procedure sounds more complex than it actually is to execute.

Like all paper cartridge arms, Merrill actions will tighten up after firing several rounds. They do leak, but much less than an unmodified Sharps. By greasing the breech pin with pistol lube before each relay, you can have the action functioning smoothly through a match. If you miss as often as I sometimes do, the grease may not last long enough. The quick fix is to moisten the breech pin. Spitting on it works well in a pinch. (It does for a Sharps too!)

Between relays, wipe the bore and breech pin. The pin is easily cleaned. With the breech open, place a finger under the toggle link and lift gently while closing the lever. The link will come off its guide, allowing the breech pin to be lifted free of the action and wiped. To return it, simply place the pin over the breech opening with the lever about half open. Draw back the lever and the toggle link will drop back onto its guide.

Before your first skirmish, take the carbine out to the range and become familiar with it. Try different loads and lubes until a good combination is found. Then make up about 50 rounds and practice. When the loading method is learned, it is easy to load as rapidly as a Maynard or Smith.

There are some particularly nice features of the Merrill that become apparent when you shoot the carbine. The first is that opening the action removes the spent cap, reducing the number of steps in reloading. Also, the lever is designed so that it is almost impossible to prime if the action is not locked. In addition, the pivot points have been carefully located in such a way that the force of firing tends to close the breech. Recoil with target loads is mild and I personally like the way the gun handles and holds.

One caveat must be kept in mind when shooting this carbine. It was brought to my attention by a couple of fellow shooters at the Spring National. Like a musket or a Sharps, there is a brief period during loading when loose powder is exposed in the chamber. This means that there is the danger of a cook off. Not so much from an ignition source within the carbine, but from stray sparks that may come down the line. Because of this, it is a very good idea to wear shooting glasses.

Parts

Unlike just about any other Civil War arm, Merrills are not entirely parts interchangeable. Actions, stocks, trigger assemblies and lock parts will fit most any gun. However, as mentioned earlier, each barreled action and possibly each trigger group was hand fitted by an individual craftsman. All parts except screws have assembly or batch numbers so that they can be correctly matched after heat treatment and finishing. Similar action parts from different guns will rarely fit correctly. In many cases replacement parts must be individually hand fitted.

Being an early war breechloader, most Merrills were issued and used hard. Many are in need of parts today. The most commonly missing part is the rear sight, which also serves as the lever latch. Luckily, Nick Brevoort (607 Eversole Rd. Cincinnati, Ohio 45230; 513-232-7045) is making excellent reproductions of all three types of Merrill sights.

The first type sight was used on First Models into at least the 8000 serial number range. The second type sights are dispersed through the late 7000 to 9000 numbers. The third type sights appear on Second Models, which begin in the late 9000 number range and continue through almost 15,000. (Note; The author recently encountered a Second model in unissued condition with a 17,000 serial number. This is much higher than generally reported.) Each sight type fits a specific latch design, so they are not interchangeable. Expect to do some hand fitting. Sight positioning on the barrel can vary as much as an eight of an inch.

Another part that is often found bad is the cone. Dry firing over the years tends to split them. Luckily, the standard U.S. musket cone fits perfectly. It will probably be necessary to try several in order to find one where the base flats clear the breech lever when seated. This is because the lever has a projecting finger that removes the spent cap as the action is opened. It fits right against the cone.

Try Something Different

These carbines represent an interesting transition in military weapons. They were the last of the hand crafted guns produced as the industry rapidly changed to machine made, parts interchangeable, pieces. If it had not been for the outbreak of the war, the government would have never bought Merrill arms. The system was obsolescent as the first shells fell on Fort Sumter.

Like other paper cartridge designs, history has shown them not to be the answer to the breech loading problem. However, the two biggest drawbacks of the Merrill do not detract from use in our sport. These are the inability to stand the rigors of extended cavalry campaigning and the fragility of their ammunition.

For skirmish use, the carbines do not deserve the bad reputation developed in the war. So, go ahead and dust off a Merrill. Shooting one will add an interesting new dimension to your carbine competition.

(c) 1998 by A. M. Beck

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