Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nifty Old Revolvers

Since I'm sort of in the Steampunk/ "Lamplight Adventure" mode these days, I thought that I would show off and discuss a couple of interesting revolvers that have come my way. Sadly I only actually own one of them, but what the heck, it's fun just to be able to enjoy fiddling with them while in one's possession. And when you get down to it, such old things aren't actually OURS anyway, we're just the temporary stewards of them, while they make their way through their existence.

To begin with, I'll show off the Galand-Sommerville revolver, patented in 1868. It's pretty advanced for the day, and had a very reliable extraction system not unlike the later Enfield revolver of 1876, which the British Army adopted for general service and issue. Anyway, check it out. Here it is closed, as one would have it when either carrying it in the holster or readying to fire.

Next it's open, after having fired all of the rounds. Note how it pulls the cartridges out by their rims, and dumps them out, clearing the chambers for the next load of cartridges. The one disadvantage is that if you've only fire one or two shots, you still have to to through the motions of dumping out all of them. One would hope that the bullets still in the loaded cases would prevent (or at least slow them down) from just dropping out, but I haven't tried it with loaded rounds, so I don't know for certain. Hard to come up with Webley .442 ammo these days, I'm afraid.

The revolver itself no doubt has a very long and interesting history, which sadly we don't know. My friend who owns the revolver purchased it at a store in Herrat, Afghanistan some 20+ years ago, and it definitely shows some age and hard use. The grip is quite obviously a local replacement, but probably done some years ago. I'm betting that it's an original Galand, as the proofs and marks seem right, but there is also the possibility that it's a "Khyber-made" piece, based on one that may have been picked up somewhere (read "Dead Englishman") by a local and replicated several hundred times over the past 150 years. No matter, it's still a very cool piece.

The next item is also rather interesting in its possible history, and interesting enough in just its pedigree. It is of the Austrian Gasser design, of the pattern decreed by King Nicholas I of Montenegro to be carried by every male subject in his kingdom. (Handy too that King Nick had financial interest in the Gasser company, what?) Unfortunately for Nick, his decree only stated "Gasser Pattern", rather than manufacture so the Belgians, who are always up for a commercial enterprise, filled the gap with their own versions, as this one here is. What is more astonishing though is that, according to some (though I have not found solid evidence, but what the heck. I go with the "It is almost certainly true, because it sounds good!" theory for now) was purchased by Pancho Villa for his revolutionary army ca. 1912 or so. It DOES say on the top of the barrel "For .44 Winchester Cartridge", which to say the least would be an unusual one for Central Europe, but why in English, rather than Spanish? Or did Pancho's purchasing agents figure that the ".44 Winchester" was sufficient? Or what? Hard to tell, but it IS in .44 Winchester Center Fire (AKA .44WCF and .44-40), so who knows. Might even have been for the US market, though I can hardly credit that. On the other hand, Americans HAVE been known to buy some pretty outrageous things because they look cool (Hmm... I guess I'm guilty of that myself...) so here it is.

You'll note that it's a pretty big gun. It IS big. What is odd though is that for all of it's size, it still is only a 5-shooter. The cartridges only come about 3/4 of the way down the chamber, so I guess that the 11mm Montenegrin Gasser cartridge must have been BIG! Lots bigger than the .44WCF at least, and that's a pretty decent sized round. Anyway, here it is now open, with five nice new .44WCF empties in the chambers. Pretty cool old gun, I have to say.

Anyway, that's it for now. I'll post again when I get something new that's interesting, or go on some new wild adventure.



Saturday, October 31, 2009

SteamCon '09

Last weekend we attended a most amusing and enjoyable event, “SteamCon’09 at the SeaTac Marriott. I had been invited to give a presentation on Victorian-era firearms (the real ones) and was assigned to three other panels for the discussion of various aspects of the genre. It was quite the experience, and definitely worth the efforts we put out for it.

The focus was “Steam-Punk”, which is actually a literary genre developed some decades ago by authors such as Tim Powers (who was in attendance), James Blaylock and others who took science fiction ideas, mixed them with various fantastical elements, and placed the entire mess (usually) in a Victorian atmosphere. Sometimes off-shoots from Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, sometimes taking such period experimentations as Tesla’s ideas and expounding on them, and sometimes just taking modern technological concepts and putting a 19th Century spin on them, Steam-Punk contains a lot of vibrancy and imagination. This energy is felt at such events as SteamCon’09, as most of the participants are passionately interested in some aspect of the genre, and seem to hurl themselves into it with gusto. It’s cute.

We had arrived around noon on Friday at the hotel, as my talk was on Friday evening and I needed to ensure that all of my details were in order. I had brought some 35 antique firearms with me (all of them officially “non-firearms” according to Federal Law, just to be clear on that) to show off and discuss with the audience, so it was important to make sure things were properly arranged.. Lucky for me my good friend Eric Worth and his wife Sarah were some of the top-dogs within the security apparatus, and Graham Ainsley, the Chief of Security is an old acquaintance, so I was comforted by the knowledge that all would be done that could be done to ensure things proceeded smoothly. Which they did, of course..

My first panel discussion however, was “Building an Airship”, which I have to say was rather new to me. Enjoyable to be sure, but my idea of being above the ground usually entails having a horse under me, so I had to do some studying to figure this one out. We had a Physics guy on the panel to keep us firmly grounded in reality (though sometimes a bit too much, alas!), while Cheyenne Wright of “Girl Genius” was the moderator to keep things flowing and draw the ideas out on the white-board. Kaitlin Kitridge, an author, was there for some of the imaginative ideas we could promote, while I was there as the nominal “historian”. Well, I know SOMETHING about the history of heavier-than-air craft, but not enough, I’m afraid. But it was a lot of fun to do this, with all of the audience participation and all, and I think we did a creditable job in “building” Hermione’s Revenge. Might even work!

The firearms talk went very well indeed, though of course an hour is WAY to little time to go through 50 years-plus of firearms development in anything like any detail. I started with the standard British military firearm of the early 1840’s, the smooth-bore, flint-lock Brown Bess musket which was little changed from the muskets used at Concord, or at Blenheim for that matter. But change did come quickly after than, and I went through the development of the rifle-musket, the development of the self-contained cartridges and the the conversions of such rifle-muskets to cartridge, the repeater in the form of the Henry and Winchester rifles, etc. on to the Mauser bolt action of the 1890’s. For handguns, I started with the Colt Paterson “Texas Model”, through various Colt and Remington cap-and-ball revolvers to the early cartridge revolvers such as the Galand-Sommerville, the Colt Single Action Army and the Smith and Wesson break-tops. I ended with the Mauser C-96 “Broomhandle” and the Colt-Browning M1902 auto-loaders. Shotguns were simple: double-barrel percussion, double-barrel cartridge, and the Winchester 1897 pump-action. I think that everyone left the lecture somewhat enlightened and hopefully quite entertained by my antics, as I certainly enjoyed the experience.

Saturday was quite fun of course, my friend Steward Marshall was able to finally get there though unfortunately, as he couldn’t make it on Friday for my talk, without his Gatling Gun. Alas! Well, next year. My panel discussion on Uniforms went fairly well, though I must admit to being totally upstaged by my co-panelist Steve Criss, who wore his Zeppelin Officer’s uniform and (more importantly) brought two of his “crew” with him. The lovely Leutnant and Hauptmann were, shall we say, noteworthy? So whatever we gentlemen of the panel blabbered on about, I suspect that no one really paid much heed to, which is probably just as well.

My final panel, on Sunday was on “Victorian Whiskers”, in which my co-panelist from the day before, Steve Criss was again with me on the panel. It was perhaps the best of the lot, as we had by then worked out a fine banter, and could easily and effortlessly pass the baton back and forth for discussion, and both of us knew enough about the subject to keep the audience reasonably well educated, and I believe quite amused as well. As both of us have fine sets of whiskers, it was of course a subject near to our hearts, and thankfully there were no young beauties to take away our thunder this time. (It would be rather hard to imagine this of course, but one never knows these days!)

The entire convention was enjoyable in the extreme. I engaged in lots of talking to folks whom I either knew well, new a little, or had just met there and then. One gentleman in particular (from Virginia of all places) and I struck up a particular friendship, which was rather as though we had known one another for most of our lives, though we hadn’t ever set eyes upon one another before. Most interesting! Having drinks with the Guest of Honour Tim Powers and his lovely wife Serena was quite nice too. A most enjoyable evening was had by all, I do believe.

One of the things which struck me strongly about the event was that everyone tried very hard (or just about everyone, close enough to it that the very few who didn’t were completely hidden by the masses of people who cared) to capture the spirit of the Victorian age. Not that everyone actually achieved a good Victorian look, and I wouldn’t go about such an event being a thread-counter, but the spirit was definitely in place. Everyone was obviously having a grand time, and were doing their best to look at least ominally “Victorian.” A lot more so than at many of the reenactments I’ve attended, where you are pretty much required to make a good attempt at period clothing! So a tip of the topper to all of those who attended in “proper” Victorian clothing, whether it be in top hat and tails, or in khaki with a pith-helmet and goggles. It worked, and looked good.

Next year’s SteamCon is already in the works, and the good news is that its topic will be “Weird, Weird West”. I think I have a good handle on already. Even better is that I’ve already been invited to speak again, so I’m already very much looking forward to it!



Sunday, August 9, 2009

More Cowboy Mounted Shooting

Last time I spoke at length about my attendance of a clinic for the sport of Cowboy Mounted Action Shooting. Well, I attended another one yesterday, on a different horse. Since my old War Horse Woody just doesn't like the whole idea of shooting off of his back, I decided to try out my little Quarterhorse Gryphon this time. He's kind of a scaredy-cat about a lot of things, but in our practices he didn't seem to much mind us popping off percussion caps around him, so I thought I'd give him a try. I was very, very pleasantly surprised to discover that he is a GREAT little horse for shooting off of! After the first few shots he didn't even twitch an ear when I fired, and did the course flawlessly at all gaits. I'm impressed with the little guy! I guess I've got myself a good shootin' partner now!

But this blog isn't to discuss the merits of horses exactly, but rather to ponder the imponderables of how and why people do the things they do in the pursuit of, or guise of, Historical Reenactment. It is also to vent my spleen with regards to people who seem to have absolutely no idea as to what they're doing, too, so read on, gentle reader, for my rant.

I guess I have to say that first off, I have an odd proprietary feeling towards the sport of Mounted Cowboy Action Shooting, since I was witness to the official debut at the Cowboy Action Shoot "Winter Range" in Arizona in 1992. I thought it was a hoot and a half, watching three guys (one of whom I had worked with previously, and had just sort of showed up for the heck of it to the shoot, only to get dragged into the match because he had his horse with him. Lucky him!) take part in a very exciting display of shooting from horseback. Of course it was with blanks, and shooting at balloons, but it was set in the "Old West Town" stage of the range, and looked incredibly cool to the onlooker. For a bit more of the history of the sport, check out this article by founder Jim Rogers. Anyway, I thought it was very cool, but as I didn't have a horse at the time, figured that it was beyond my resources to get involved. Time passes...

So 17 years later, lots of films and many horses later I finally decide to try it again, just for the heck of it. The sport has changed from it's humble beginnings, with Jim Rogers insisting upon at least a nod to the historical Cowboy in one's dress and whatnot. From what I can tell on Youtube, it's all about speed, very little about horsemanship, and hardly anything at all about history. As I had long thought, it's simply "Barrel Racing with Guns." Sad. But there is hope out there, so who knows where it will lead.

One of the things that I have noticed about all forms of Cowboy Action Shooting, be they mounted on horses using blanks, or standing at a shooting range using live ammo, is that most folks haven't the faintest idea of what a real old-time Cowboy or 19th Century Westerner looked like. There are some wild flights of fancy, but for the most part I think that people are just lazy and don't bother looking at original photo's to even see what the people they think they're portraying looked like. Or if they have, they've made no attempt to modify their outfits to show that they have. So sad! The whole "Cowboy Era" is one of the most engaging mythologies of North America, and to serve it so poorly by not even giving it's reality a nod is a huge disservice to the men and women who worked, lived and often died in the West in that time. I will admit freely that the participants of the standard Cowboy Action Shooting come a lot closer to a true "historical look" than the Mounted Action Shooters do (that I have seen), but it's sort of like damning by faint praise to say it. I'm sure that it's often as not a case of ignorance, and these folks actually think that they're making a serious attempt to look proper and carry the proper arms and leather, but many times it's just that they don't care. They want to win, and that's what it's all about. And THAT attitude is what is REALLY sad!

By the way, I would like to point out that I not only have nothing against the folks who chose to portray "B" Movie Western characters, but I think that it's great! Guys portraying The Lone Ranger, Hoppalong Cassidy, or even pure fantasy characters who are of the "type" are cool as all get-out, and I laud them for their time and effort that they put into it. After all, it takes time, research and money to come up with a cool alias such as that, and that's what I'm all about. Slightly different focus of course, but I can appreciate where they are coming from.

While I'm ranting, I will veer off into some related issues. There was one gentleman who showed up to the clinic yesterday with a gorgeous mare who was obviously more horse than he was able to handle, and who even more obviously didn't want to be there or be involved in this sport. She jumped every time a blank was fired, and absolutely, positively refused to "run the course", even when virtually forced into it. She just wasn't having any of it. That was fine. What wasn't was the fellow's insistence that she BE a shootin' horse, no matter what. I understand that it's poor form to let the horse win, but by the same token, pushing them past their limit is guaranteed to put you well back in your training, and you'll have to work back up to it to get to the same place you already were before you got stubborn and stupid. Gryphon hates jousting, so he doesn't have to do it, Woody loves it so he gets to. Woody hates action shooting, so he doesn't have to do it. Gryphon seems to love it, so he gets to. There are some things that we're good at, some things not. Horses are no different, so why try to force a square peg into a round hole? Damage to both horse and rider may result in such attempts!

So here's my conclusion, or at least my plea. That people who wish to take part in a form of Historical Reenactment of some sort at least tip their hats to the originals that they claim to represent, and that they treat their horses the way they themselves would like to be treated. It's not all that hard, folks.

Okay, rant mode off until my next rant.



Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cowboy Mounted Action Shooting

Did something interesting weekend before last. We went to a Cowboy Mounted Action Shoot clinic in Silverdale put on by the Kitsap County Mounted Sheriff's Posse. It was amusing. Bev, Neb and I showed up in our 19th Century kit (Bev and I in Mex-Tex outfits, Neb in her "Explorer" suit complete with pith helmet, taking photo's). We brought Woody and Darshan, who is fresh from his long stay in Madera, CA. at a trainer learning how to be a Spanish horse. And of course, I brought some guns!

The clinic was set up so that anyone with a horse could show up and participate, which was nice. The folks of the Sheriff's Posse putting it on brought sufficient revolvers and plenty of blank ammunition (part of the rules are that they always supply the blank ammo, which ensures that no idiots load live rounds into their pistols and blast balloos with lead, sending errant bullets in the the audience at the same time), so that they could (and did) loan out pistols to all who needed them. I think I was the only one who used my own stuff completely.

Just for the record, I brought my Colt Single Action Army "Cavalry Model", made in 1885 with the 7½" barrel and my Colt Single Action Army "Artillery Model" made in 1880 with the 5½" barrel (it's a cut-down Cavalry Model, a modification from the turn-of-the-century). I also brought my 1917 Colt SAA with full engraving, silver plating and ivory grips for Bev to use, but she opted to fire the issued Ruger's instead of getting my "Barbecue Gun" dirty with the blanks. Nice of her!)

They started the program out by desensitizing the horses, which was a wise and intelligent thing to do. We rode in a "herd" around the arena, and as the horses got used to it one of the fellows stood in the middle of the arena and fired off some blanks. As they got used to that, they passed out pistols to various folks in the herd, and they (safely) fired off the blanks towards the center of the arena. Eventually everyone fired off at least five rounds from their horse while their horse was in the relative safety of the "herd".

The final part of the clinic was everyone "running a course", which consisted of 10 balloons on poles, which you ride by and blast with the blank. Since the black powder blanks will shoot burning grains of powder for up to 20 feet, it's not as though you really have to aim, or be particularly close to the balloons to hit them. Most folks took it at a walk or a trot, though since the events are timed eventually most folks take the course at a full gallop. Bev and I did it at a nice trot, keeping the horses well in hand.

In reality it's more barrel racing than shooting, but heck, it combines guns and horses, which are the two things I live for, so it's hard to resist. If nothing else, it's excellent experience for the horses, making them put up with shooting from their backs. I think Darshan was more concerned about the popping balloons than he was the shots fired!



Sunday, April 12, 2009

Charge of the Light Brigade

I just finished watching the 1968 film production "Charge of the Light Brigade", directed by Tony Richardson. Beautifully filmed, it's a very odd movie, and of course with it's strongly anti-war sentiment it's bloody and shows battle to be ugly business. Unfortunately it's also very disjointed and quite hard to follow. I actually know what is supposed to happen and when, but even then it's hard to figure out just who is who and doing what and why. Small wonder then that the critics, who Richardson had blasted as "intellectual eunuchs", panned the film. But the worst of the travesties committed by Richardson in this film was that he insisted, for "creative purposes", to fly in the face of all of his advisers and put ALL of the British Light Cavalry, not just the 11th Hussars, in "Cherry Pickers" or "Cherry Bums" trousers. The 11th Hussars were the only regiment in the British Army with crimson trousers (everyone else wore blue), and thus really stood out in a crowd. But for whatever "creative" reason Richardson had, he insisted that ALL of the British Light Cavalry be so attired. Didn't make the members of any of the other regiments who had supported the making of the film very happy, either. Oh well. Interesting film to watch, even though it's often painful at times to endure.

The reason for my watching it is that I just picked up a new book on the subject, entitled "Into the Valley of Death: The Cavalry Division at Balaklava 1854" by none other than John Mollo (with his brother Boris), the gentlemen who had done so much of the research on the uniforms worn by the British forces at the time. So the research did at least result in a fascinating book, well illustrated not only with original paintings and photographs but also modern interpretations of the uniforms as well. Of note are the many sketches drawn on the spot by the French General Vanson, now housed in the musée de l'armée in Paris. Those sketches themselves are worth the price of the book, actually.

At any rate, John Mollo does rant a bit about Tony Richardson's handling of things in his forward, which definitely made me want to watch the film. Alas, though beautiful, it is disappointing in the end. Too bad, it had huge potential.

On the other hand, it has enthused me further to complete my own studies on the dress and accoutrements of British Hussars of the period. So on I go, delving further and further into the quicksand of research, from which hopefully I shall emerge eventually not only unscathed but fully dressed, armed and accoutred as a Serjeant of the 15th (King's) Light Dragoons (Hussars) in a few month's time!



Monday, March 23, 2009

Cavalry, Dragoons and Light Dragoons Pt. II

To continue with our discussion of below...

Okay, now move forward 20 years, with the formation of the new Regiment of Dragoons for the US Army (under legislation submitted by none other than Richard Mentor Johnson, Representative for Kentucky). Although they were officially always referred to as "Dragoons", there is a constant unofficial reference to them as "Light Dragoons", and this is also to be seen in their uniforms, arms and accoutrements. The dress uniform of the US Dragoons was almost a line-for-line copy of the British Light Dragoons (as opposed to the "Heavies"), and in the "stable dress" of the American Dragoon it was even closer a match. They even copied the saber issued to British troops, as the US Model 1833 Dragoon Saber is almost identical, with the exception of the hilt being of brass rather than of iron, to the British Pattern 1822 Light Cavalry Saber. The only real difference between the two when you get down to it is that the US Dragoons were armed with a rather revolutionary new carbine, the Hall's Breech-loading Carbine Model 1833, while the British Light Dragoons were still being issued the older flintlock pattern dating from the Napoleonic Wars. This new Hall's Patent Carbine DID have one rather interesting aspect to it (other than the rather novel breech-loading apparatus), it had a cleaning-rod/bayonet arrangement fitted to the underside of the barrel. That it was awfully spindly suggests that it was only there for emergencies, and it didn't last past 1840, so I don't suspect that it was considered either successful nor particularly useful, or perhaps even needed. But it does suggest that there was SOME attempt to make the Dragoons serviceable on foot, so they weren't completely bound to their saddles.

Another regiment of Dragoons was formed in 1836, and bound for the Seminole War in Florida at that time. They got some horses, but spent much of their time dismounted. In fact, they were dismounted as a regiment in 1842 and "converted" to a Rifle Regiment. But that didn't last long as they were remounted some two years later, and never gave up their horses after that. But in 1846, on the verge of the Mexican War, Congress actually acknowleged that there may be some use for such troops as the Volunteer Mounted Rifles being raised in the Southern states as well as Texas, and authorized the formation of the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. Sadly this regiment during the war only had two of it's companies mounted, the rest of them were, in fact, a rifle regiment. To that effect, when Winfield Scott paraded into Mexico City after it's conquest by American troops in September of 1847, he refered to them as the "Brave Rifles!", a motto which they retain to this day.

Yet again however, we discover that these "Mounted Rifles", once they were actually issued horses for their service on the rapidly expanding Frontier, found themselves reticent to relinquish them for combat on foot, just as their ancestors had done in the years and centuries previous. Time after time we find the Mounted Rifles in combat with the local indiginous population of the Plains being mounted, rather than being some sort of Mounted Infantry. It's a curse.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis convinced Congress to authorise two new mounted regiments to help ease the burden that had fallen on the shoulders of the three older regiments in policing the Far West. Experiments in mounting up Infantry and issuing them revolvers and rifles were only marginally successful, as they usually ended up being mounted on either broken-down ex-Dragoon horses or mules, neither of which were known for being able to catch up with Indian ponies in a pursuit. But these new regiments were to be mounted on blooded Kentucky horses and armed with the latest weapons available, and so they were. In fact the 2nd Cavalry was so doted upon by the Secretary of War that they were referred to as "Jeff Davis' Pets". Not too far from the truth, with their Colonel being Albert Sidney Johnston and the Lt. Colonel being Robert E. Lee, both to rise fairly high in fame a few years later. These were raised specifically as CAVALRY though, with no thought at all to their having to dismount at all during combat.

When the Civil War did finally roll around, Congress actually took stock of the situation as it stood and made sense of it finally: ALL of the Mounted Regiments were converted in name, as well as function, to Cavalry. The First Dragoons as senior became the 1st Cavalry, the Second Dragoons became the 2nd Cavalry, the Mounted Rifles became the 3rd Cavalry, the First Cavalry became the 4th Cavalry, and the Second Cavalry became the 5th Cavalry. Congress, in a fit of generosity also provided for a 6th Regiment of Cavalry. Thus after all these years, name and actual function finally came together in one place, and all of the various US Mounted Regiments were designated Cavalry, as they had acted as from the beginning.

Of course the final irony of it all is that during the course of the American Civil War, mounted troops more and more began to act as true Dragoons and less as true Cavalry as they years went by. Frontal saber charges were noted to be singularly suicidal in the face of rifle-musket fire, while the mobility and extra firepower of mounted units, especially when armed with breechloaders such as the Sharps, or better yet magazine carbines such as the Spencer came into play. So finally, the US Dragoons and Mounted Rifles become Cavalry in name as well as function...only to become morphed into true Dragoons for the first time! Amazing stuff, this...

So next time you read someone pontificating about how the US Dragoons were "trained to fight on foot as well as on horseback" remember that yes, they WERE trained on foot before they were allowed to mount their horses. ALL horse troops were trained like that, and the US wasn't the vacuum that most writers think it was. But more, remember that the US Dragoons were in fact LIGHT DRAGOONS, and fought far, far more often from the hurricane deck of their mounts than they ever did on their own two feet. They were Light Dragoons, By God, not some sort of Mounted Infantry! Until the later years of the Civil War, that is...



Cavalry, Dragoons and Light Dragoons

While I'm on the subject of Dragoons and what not, I thought it an apt time to discuss one of my pet peeves: the complete incomprehension of most modern military writers to understand just what in the heck a "Dragoon" is.

If you crack open a book or a web-page on cavalry (especially American cavalry) you will soon discover the term "Dragoon", and of course the author will make an attempt to define this rather unusual term for the reader. Usually they take it straight out of a dictionary, without ever bothering to check to see if the definition they've chosen to spout is in fact the proper definition for the era which they are writing about. What doesn't seem to be a commonly understood phenomenon is that terms change in their definitions over the years, and while they may mean one thing in one century, often as not mean something quite different in another. Thus the massive confusion.

In the early 17th Century, a "Dragoon" was the proper definition of Mounted Infantry. They were armed as Infantry, with an arquebus/caliver/musket and infantry accoutrements (such as a bandolier of chargers, etc.), were organized as Infantry with corporals, sergeants and ensigns, and acted like Infantry in the field. The only thing they did with horses was to ride to the battlfield and then dismount to carry on their activities. Dismounting one's Harquebusiers/arquebusiers á cheval was certainly commonly done, and the archers of the Kings of England were often mounted on nags for their Chevaucheé's, but as for orgainising mounted infantry on a large scale, the tip of the hat must go to the Admiral Gaspard de Coligny in the French Wars of Religion. He wanted to give some serious infantry firepower to his Cavalry-heavy armies as well as do something useful with his otherwise surplus numbers of Shotte. His successor in the Protestant Cause, Henri de Navarre, later Henri IV of France, followed this lead with his "Equestrian Army" (see the article "All the King's Horsemen" by my old friend Ron Love in the 16th Century Journal, 1992.) By 1600 this was well established, and as such was much discussed by military writers such as Sir Roger Williams, Johan Joachim von Walhausen and John Cruso. In the 30-Years War and the English Civil War they were an important part of any army in the field, both for scouting and skirmishing, but at times also taking part in Cavalry actions.

This seems to be a standard process, in that Mounted Infantry has a strong tendency to try to "improve their status" by doing less and less Infantry, and more and more Mounted as the years go by. There is a distinct disinclination to dismount and fight on foot, at least until another war comes along and the need is appreciated by all and sundry. Then, often as not, yet another new corps of "Mounted Infantry" is raised, and the old Mounted Infantry (by whatever name) gets to be Cavalry.

By the beginning of the 18th Century this trend was pretty obvious, and many of the European powers (such as Russia) had completely disbanded their "Horse" (i.e. "real" Cavalry) and converted all to Dragoons. The English followed suit in the early years of George 1st, interestingly enough because Dragoons cost less to operate than Horse. Thus, with the exceptions of the Household Cavalry, all British mounted units were now Dragoons, Dragoon Guards, etc. With the change in status, there was also a minor change in organization. Here to fore, Cavalry NEVER had a rank known as Sergeant. They had Corporals, and not many of them. Cavalrymen were the elite, and were understood to not need as much babysitting as Infantry were, thus the lack of need for such a rank. Besides, Sergeants were originally there to impose order in the ranks, and not simply discipline. Order as in, Ranks and Files. So along with the new lower status, Cavalry now received a new rank, Sergeant. (You can tell a "Real" Horse unit in the British Army, as they have Corporal, Staff Corporal, Quartermaster Corporal, and even Company and Regimental Corporal-Major, all of which rank with [or above, since they're Household Cavalry] the Line NCO's.) If you hear of a Sergeant of Cavalry, well, he isn't REAL Cavalry, but from a one-time Dragoon regiment.

Since only the ranks, pay scales and names had changed (though the poor Dragoons were now encombered with rather long muskets to use for carbines as well, though otherwise they were equipped as Heavy Cavalry), there was a perceived need for, guess what, someone who would actually perform scouting and screening duties. Thus by the 1750's the Light Dragoons were invented, the first in British service being the 15th (King's) Light Dragoons. They were followed shortly by the 16th and 17th, and some of the earlier Dragoon regiments were later converted as well. On the Continent, the same need was felt, but rather than coverting Dragoons they formed new regiments based upon the rather flamboyant irregular troops employed by the Austrians in the form of the Hungarian Hussars. The duties were the same, the names and uniforms were, however, different. These Light Dragoons performed yeoman service in the American War/American Revolution, and were of course copied by the American forces in the form of such units on the Patriot side as the 1st-4th Light Dragoons, and on the Loyalist side by the British Legion Light Dragoons. They were armed with light carbines, swords and pistols, just like the "real" Cavalry of the English Civil War, sans some armour. But they were termed now "Light Dragoons".

By the Napoleonic Wars, the Hussar rage was riding quite high, and several of the British Light Dragoon regiments managed to, by one means or another, get themselves renamed "Hussars". Some (like the afore-mentioned 15th) were still Light Dragoons, but added Hussars to their name, as in "15th (King's) Light Dragoons (Hussars)". When the War of 1812 erupted between the US and Britain, the US was, of course, sans any Cavalry of any meaningful kind, and had to raise most of them from scratch. They fell back upon the older scheme of Light Dragoons, but for Volunteers, often as not the horsemen were rather termed "Mounted Rifles", as they were expected to do exactly what Dragoons had originally been formed to do: ride into battle, dismount and then fight on foot, in this case as Light Infantry/Rifles. One such unit, Richard Mentor Johnson's Kentucky Regiment of Mounted Rifles did a stellar job as such. However at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, one squadron of the Kentucky Mounted Rifles under Johnson's brother James did the standard switch: they remained mounted, and performed a charge against the 41st Foot and scattered them. The most interesting part of this was that tactically it was brilliant, as the 41st Foot was expecting them to dismount since they had no sabers, and was thus arrayed in skirmish order. James Johnson on the other hand ordered his men to "Draw Tomahawks" and charged them with tomahawks in hand, riding over them and smashing them, winning the battle.

More Later...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cavalry, Dragoons and Hussars

Been WAY too long since I last posted. Sorry to all who check this blog occasionally, if anyone ever will again! Sorry about that...

Anyway, last November we hosted a nice little "Civil War Cavalry Camp" here at Tilbury, mostly to accommodate a couple of friends who want to get back into it. Of course they didn't show, but my other friends who usually do Mediaeval and Renaissance equestrian activities did. And what was most astonishing, they showed up in Civil War uniforms, no less! Bully for them, I was impressed with their industry in doing so. Also friend Stewart who generally does British Engineers came over as well, dressed to the nines in his Victorian "undress" officer's kit. Very nice!

Since then I've been delving back into my studies of the American Civil War and most especially the years leading up to that conflict, mostly in the West. I got into contact with a gentleman who runs the living history program at Ft. Steilacoom, near Tacoma, and thus I've thrown myself headlong into a study of the various Indian-European conflicts in Washington state. And of course even though Ft. Steilacoom was entirely garrisoned by Artillery and Infantry troops, I HAVE to do a Dragoon impression. I even found that there was an ill Dragoon in the fort infirmary during the inspection of 1853, so I think I'm safe in portraying a transient courier from Ft. Vancouver. So here I am portraying a Dragoon from the 1st United States Regiment of Dragoons, ca. early 1850's.

Of course, throwing myself headlong into the 19th Century like this wouldn't be complete without my branching out a bit too. So the afore-mentioned Stewart has somehow maneuvered me into getting rather interested in his own group to study, the Royal Engineers Columbia Detachment. The "big event" to date for the RECD fellows is presently the Pig War event on San Juan Island in July. This year is the Big Year, the 150th Anniversary of the militarization of SJI by the forces of the United States and Great Britain over who owned the San Juan/Orcas islands. The treaty of 1846 merely stated that the boundary between the US and British Columbia was to be along the 49th Parallel, and then through the shipping channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island. The question of course was "which one?" Several channels there, and of course each country chose the channel that best suited it's interests. Things came to a head over the shooting of a Hudson's Bay Company pig by an American settler, thus "The Pig War".

Now, before you start thinking that I've gone stark, raving mad in that I'm actually pondering the idea of picking up a spade and portraying my Irish roots with a will, forget it. As it turns out, the Royal Engineers Columbia Detachment, under Colonel Moody, was supplied with not only Engineering troops ("Sappers"), but also two men from the Royal Artillery, and interestingly enough two Non-commissioned Officers from the 15th (King's) Light Dragoons (Hussars)! Col. Moody thought it might be necessary to organize and train loyal subjects of the Queen as militia cavalry to combat the American Juggernaught, thus the two Cavalry NCO's. Never mind that British Columbia is hardly what one might consider "cavalry country", but still, there they were. And there it is, then! So now I can with a clear conscience portray a Hussar in the wilds of the Oregon Country! Amazing stuff, what?

So now off into the wild and woolly world of researching into the details of just what on earth these fellows may have worn to British Columbia. Would they look like they just got off the boat from the Crimea two years before? Or would they have fully adopted the new clothing and equipments of the regulations published in 1856, just two years prior to their sailing? Ah, the joys of research! It ought to be rather interesting, and it should fill my time rather nicely, I shall presume. Wish me luck!