I Have This Old Gun: Terry Carbine

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posted on March 22, 2023

William Terry patented his innovative turn-bolt action in 1856, making it one of the earliest breechloading bolt-actions that featured locking lugs on the bolt itself. His resulting Terry carbine, produced by the firm of Calisher & Terry, had a short lifespan, but it saw British military service with the 18th Hussars and showed up in the American Civil War. Watch our I Have This Old Gun segment above from American Rifleman Television to learn more about this unique, enigmatic breechloading rifle.

"You know, a lot of people think that a bolt-action rifle is kind of a modern contrivance, but it's not. It goes back to the mid-19th century," said Garry James, American Rifleman field editor. "There were a number of different companies that made different bolt-actions. There was Palmer, there was a Greene, and to my mind, the most interesting was the Calisher & Terry or just the plain Terry carbine."

The Terry carbine used a unique paper-wrapped cartridge with a greased felt wad at its base. When the breech was opened, the cartridge was inserted into a small cutout on the right side of the receiver. With the Terry being a "capping breechloader," there was no primer embedded into the cartridge, and the inserted round was ignited by a percussion cap hit by an external hammer. The greased wad provided a rudimentary gas seal, while the paper cartridge fully combusted ahead of the felt wad. When the shooter inserted another round, the nose of the new projectile pushed the greased wad of the previously fired round into the bore. Firing the next round would push the greased wad out the bore, thereby clearing out fouling from the barrel and lubricating it to keep the fouling soft.

"The firm of Calisher & Terry in Great Britain in the 1850s designed and manufactured what I consider to be one of the first fairly functional, fairly successful, practical, breechloading bolt-action rifles of their time," said Philip Schreier, National Firearms Museum director. "We often associate the first bolt-action with the Mausers and Samuel Norris in 1867, but here, we're talking about 12 or 13 years earlier with something that looks remarkably like an actual bolt-action with locking lugs on it that is in the form of the Calisher & Terry carbine."

Aside from the nearly 1,000 carbines produced for the British cavalry, the Calisher & Terry firm also did a healthy trade in commercial carbines, and there are several sporting rifles that feature floral embellishments, scroll-engraving and checkered furniture. Though guns were not imported in great numbers, several notable examples of the Terry carbine appeared in the American Civil War. The carbine was the choice of Confederate cavalry general J.E.B. Stuart, and a Terry carbine was found in the baggage of Confederate President Jefferson Davis upon his capture. Despite its popularity with notable figures of the era, the carbine didn't survive the transition to the metallic-cartridge era.

"The problem with the Terry is because of this weird, two-lug locking breech at the rear and this tiny, little loading port, you're not loading straight from the back of the gun like you are with other breechloading designs of the era, like the Sharps rifle," said Evan Brune, American Rifleman executive editor. "So, when metallic cartridges do come to the fore, the Terry carbine isn't suited to load a self-contained metallic cartridge, because it has no direct access to to the breech, and there's no easy way to get that spent case out."

To watch complete segments of past episodes of American Rifleman TV, go to americanrifleman.org/artv. For all-new episodes of ARTV, tune in Wednesday nights to Outdoor Channel 8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. EST. 

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