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Incompetence, Corruption, and a Rioting Mob: The Gibbs Carbine

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The Gibbs carbine is fantastic illustration of just how difficult it can be to actually manufacture a new firearm. The gun itself is a breechloading, percussion fired cavalry carbine designed to use paper cartridges. It was patented in 1856 by Lucien Gibbs, and he was joined by financier William Brooks and gunsmith WW Marston to create a company to produce them. Marston made 20 examples by hand in 1857, and one of these was used in a successful demonstration at West Point in 1858. This led to a contract for 10,000 carbines from General Ripley in December of 1861.

Marston had a property in New York (called the Phoenix Armory) that they planned to use as their factory, but assembling the necessary machines and workers in the wartime economy of 1861 proved much more difficult than they expected. With not even a sample produced by the spring of 1862, a new contract was written in June, for the same 10,000 carbines but with delivery to begin in August of 1862. This deadline was also missed completely, and there had still been no deliveries by December of 1862. At that point, the outfit was bought out by New York Mayor George Opdyke, who was surely convinced he could easily make money from this seemingly simple deal. Opdyke was able to put in place a team more experienced in getting things done, and on May 30, 1863 the first 550 carbines were delivered to the Federal government and accepted.

Now things were rolling – another 502 guns were delivered on June 24, and another 500 were at the factory complete and awaiting deliver on July 13, when the introduction of Union military conscription sparked a massive riot in New York. The Phoenix Armory was defended by a group of police officers (armed with Gibbs carbines right off the racks), and when rioters attempted to break down the factory front entrance, the officers fired through the door. They killed the lead man, wounded two others, and the mob quickly decided to move elsewhere. The police stuck around for two hours after that, and then decided all was quiet and left.

Later that afternoon, the riot found its way back to the Armory, and burned it to the ground. The machinery, parts for some 6000 more carbines, and the 500 completed guns were a complete loss. The Phoenix did not, in fact, ever rise from the ashes, and 1052 carbines is the grand total that were ever made and delivered to the Cavalry. All was not a loss for Opdyke, however, as he was fortunately able to leverage his position as Mayor to ensure that the City of New York paid out a claim for $190,000 to cover the losses because of its negligence in removing the police protection.

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