The history of the carbine is tied to the rifle at its beginning, however, it evolves into its own version of the rifle through time. The first carbines were essentially shorter barrel muskets designed for cavalry use. Even the term carbine is sourced from its first users, cavalry troops called “Carabiniers”. Commonly called Dragoons, these troops would ride into battle and dismount to fight. Their muskets had to be short enough to be carried on horseback and generally were the same length as a sheathed cavalry saber, this allowed them to carry the firepower, but still engage in sword melee. Firing from horseback was difficult, especially with the inaccurate muskets of the day, so mobility and portability was the name of the game. The high mobility theme of smaller and lighter designed weapons continued until the present. The smaller size and lighter weight of carbines made them easier to handle. They are typically issued to high-mobility troops such as special-operations soldiers and paratroopers, as well as to mounted, supply or other non-infantry personnel whose roles do not require full-sized rifles.
I covered the evolution of rifles in my article “The History of the Rifle,” which gives a more detailed explanation of the changes and progress of shoulder fired weapons. Rifling was to be developed and used in the late 1700s and carbines were simply shorter length smoothbore musket until rifles were common. A main disadvantage of the reduction in length was a decrease in sight radius, or the distance between the front and rear sights, and the reduced barrel length that decreased velocity of the musket ball. A good example was a modification of the standard British “Brown Bess” infantry musket. With a standard barrel length on its “long form” of 62 inches and weighing 10.4 pounds, it was designed for massed formations and volley fire. The “sea service pattern” of the Brown Bess issued to Marines in 1778 had a barrel length of 37 inches and weighed 9 pounds. This allowed more use in the confined space of the sailing ships rigging, as well as in hand-to-hand combat common in boarding actions. Later on in 1796 a “Calvary Carbine” version was adopted by mounted troops with a barrel length of 26 inches and weighing in at 7.4 pounds. The British would refine this design in several models and in addition to the carbine versions, the standard infantry muskets dropped in length as well down to about 32 inches.
The 19th Century
A few innovations during this period changed firearms dramatically. Smokeless fast burning powder took advantage of the rifling technology started in the late 1700s and helped reach its full potential. Breech loading, lever action and even revolver action rifles were created as metallic cartridges became common. Carbines were developed during this period which matched existing rifle designs as well as being designed from the ground up. The Spencer rifle/carbine was one of the former. The Spencer was a tube magazine lever action gun that held 7 rounds of .56-.56 caliber. The Spencer Carbine was the same action in a smaller version, with the barrel length shortened from 30 to 20 inches. Used with cavalry troops it was very popular.
Spencer Rifle Spencer Carbine
An excellent example of a purpose designed carbine is the Burnside Carbine developed in 1857. The Burnside was unique in its operation and specially designed brass cased 14 mm ammunition. The Union Army bought this design specifically for their cavalry units, where its reliability and overall length of 39.5 inches made it the third most popular carbine design of the Civil War, with the Spencer and the Sharps carbines being the leaders.
Post Civil War, the Winchester and the Henry lever action rifles became legend, with many models using pistol caliber cartridges. For the cowboys of the day, having the same ammunition in common with your revolver made logistics much easier. The Winchester lever action repeater is known as “The gun that won the west,” for its common use by western settlers and cowboys alike.
20th Century post WWI
The next biggest change in the history of the carbine and in military rifle in general was that the standard length of an infantry rifle dropped dramatically. Common barrel lengths of 31-32 inches dropped to as short as 24 inches. One good example being the United States Springfield M1903. Advances in both ammunition and metallurgy meant the short barrel length did not effect velocity as dramatically, and the rate of fire became more important than distance.
Cavalry units were on the decline, but the trench warfare of World War I showed that the expected ranges in an engagement had shortened. The longer barrel was also a hindrance in hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. The niche of long distance shooting would evolve from marksman to snipers, using modified existing or specially designed rifles and optics. The need for more compact rifles evolved from horse to vehicle mounted and ended with the first armored vehicles. As advances in communications came about unit leaders now became as mobile as their troops and carbines became the alternative to pistols and sword to arm them, Support troops edged slower to the front lines and also needed weapons to suit their needs. This would come to its own in WWII where the hard learned lessons for the previous war changed the doctrine of armies worldwide. New found uses for carbines arise; paratroops, mobile infantry, changes from static massed formations to fast moving tactics required hard hitting small light weight rifles. The United States issued its M1 Carbine with 18-inch barrel, commonly associated with the M1 Garand. Though it is actually a different operating system and fired a different cartridge of similar caliber. The M1 evolved into the M2, which added a “select fire” option from semi automatic to fully automatic, and platoon leaders and airborne troops preferred the smaller but still hard hitting carbines. The Germans and the British also used their own carbines such as the Kar 98k, as their primary infantry rifle, and the Enfield “Jungle Carbine” respectively. A side note in the history of the carbine is the submachine guns and the first “assault rifles” came into the scene at this time and many of the features of both would be adopted into the modern carbines of today.
Modern day, Vietnam to present
Two of the best examples of modern carbines are the M4 and the AKM, evolutions of the famous M16 and AK-47 series rifles. They are by no means the only two, but they are the most prolific, modified and copied designs. When most people think “assault rifle” today these two come to mind.
The M4 traces its heritage back to the M16 rifle, when Colt bought the rights to the AR-15 from Armalite. Using a 5.56 mm cartridge in a 20-inch barrel, the M16 was first shortened down in the XM-177 with a 10-inch barrel. Sometimes known as the CAR-15, it was designed for use with Special Forces troops and support entities. using a 20 or 30 round magazine, it also had a select fire capability like the M16. In 1972, the M231 variant was designed as a “port-firing weapon” shooting out specially designed ports in armored vehicles, taking the mobility and compact nature of the carbine to a new level. Today most of us are familiar with the M4 carbine, either in the military or in one of the civilian AR-15 platforms. With a barrel length of 14 inches and a select fire capacity of either three round burst or fully automatic, the M4 became the standard issue of most U.S. Special Operations Forces for both Close Quarter Battle and other missions. With its controversial “direct gas impingement” operating system, many companies have created “gas piston” designs, such as the HK-416, which takes advantage of the AR-15 excellent ergonomic design and match it with the more reliable operating system of its biggest rival, the AK series.
The AK 47 was designed in the years after WWII and was adopted in 1949. This second-generation assault rifle, after the Germans STG 44. Like the AR-15 platform, has spawned many variations, and is arguably the most copied, and prolific weapon of the modern age. The first carbine type, was the addition of a folding stock to the AKS for use with airborne and mounted troops. With no reduction in barrel length, it is essentially a rifle but filled the same niche. The AKMS was a simplified lighter version of the AK using lighter receiver and with the same folding stock. Realizing the 7.62 Caliber round was heavy for a true carbine the Russians created the AK-74 system in 5.45mm, with the AKS-74U being designed as a “compact carbine” with a shorted barrel of 8.3 inches and a folding stock. It was a response to the United Sates introduction of the M-177 in Vietnam and bridged the gap between submachine gun and assault rifle and was used heavily by Soviet block special operations forces.
As with rifles, there are many other examples of carbines used by countries all over the world. Many are redesigns of the two we talked about above, but you can find almost any rifle in a shorter version. SpringField Armory has the SOCOM 16, a 16 inch barreled version of their M1 (M14), The Isreali’ Galil, which heavily borrowed from the AK-47 has a carbine version.(SAR) Some military’s such as the British issue “BullPup” designed rifles, with varying barrel lengths could be considered carbines by their overall size and use. For the most part in the U.S. Army and Marine corps, the M4 was preferred to M16 rifles for its portability and light weight. This has changed a bit as from Vehicle mounted operations in Iraq to mountain warfare of Afghanistan, troops wanted larger caliber or full length rifles to reach out and hit hard past 300 meters. The goal now of firearms makers is to meld the best of both worlds together and meet the needs of combat. Originally designed for Calvary units, as a tool for special operations, and mobile troops, the carbine has evolved into the standard issue weapon of many if not most militaries. Like the rifle, the history of the carbine will continue to change as its uses and designs evolve, and who knows what the next innovation will bring us.
~ Aegis Academy Staff
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