Object Title

Harcourt Carbine

Development

William Harcourt of the 16th Light Dragoons was not the first member of the military associated with British carbines, nor would he be the last. General George Augustus Eliott and later General Lord Henry Paget also connected themselves with other designs of carbine. This particular carbine is very rare, and the one in the Royal Armouries collection is one of only 500 ever made.

Made by renowned gun maker Henry Nock, the Harcourt Carbine was fitted with Nock's screwless enclosed lock. These locks were surplus following the abandonment of the plans for the Duke of Richmond's Musket in 1786. There were two common 'types' of this lock: a 5.5 in lock that was used for muskets, carbines and rifles, fitted with the distinctive flash guard that semi-waterproofed the pan; and the 4.75 in version without flash guard. The latter was used on certain incarnations of the 1796 Heavy Dragoon Pistol, and the former was used on the Harcourt Carbine. All of Nock's locks could be dismantled by removable pins rather than more time-consuming screws.

The barrel was fitted with Nock's 'break-off breech' feature. Patented by Nock in 1787, this invention combined both a chamber in the breech plug with an extra horizontally drilled chamber from the touch hole, closed on the other side with a screw plug. This allowed powder to be confined loosely in the extra chamber. When the weapon was primed and the powder ignited, it would burn more quickly due to the looseness of the powder, which created higher pressure behind the projectile and thus increased its velocity. This enabled gun barrels to be shortened without a significant loss in performance.

The design also featured the trigger guard and butt-plate of the Duke of Richmond's Musket, a failed model of musket which Nock was heavily involved in designing. The carbine had two tapering brass rod pipes with retaining spring running between them, screwed to a pipe at each end. It included a heavy iron ramrod, the button head being threaded for a jag. The 6.5 in sling bar (sometimes a 7 in sling bar) on the left side was secured at the rear by the single lockscrew and by a screw through the fore-end from the right side at the front. Occasionally sling bars were omitted or removed and sling swivels provided instead.

This carbine was first made with Nock's screwless lock but in 1798, when larger contracts were let into the trade, the use of a standard pattern of lock was sanctioned. Both types continued to be made; the Nock in lesser numbers.

It is intriguing that a light-cavalry commander was involved in the design of a carbine more suited to the heavy cavalry. This carbine had a 0.73 in bore (musket bore), rather than the 0.65 in usually carried by the light cavalry, though it still adhered to the 28 in barrel length of the various models of its light cavalry predecessor, the Eliott Carbine. It has been suggested that the increase in bore diameter was part of an attempt to standardise this light cavalry carbine with the musket bore of the heavy cavalry and infantry. However at the time the heavy cavalry were still equipping their men with the long-barrelled 1770 Heavy Dragoon Carbine with the carbine bore of 0.65 in and it would be three years before the introduction of Henry Nock's 1796 Heavy Dragoon Carbine which had a bore of 0.75 in.

Use and Effect

The Harcourt Carbine was issued to the 16th Queens Light Dragoons, as can be seen in an example within the Royal Armouries collections which is engraved on the barrel with 'QLD'. There is no evidence that this carbine was ever issued to any other regiment. At Waterloo, the 16th made up the 4th Cavalry Brigade, under Major General Sir John Vandeleur.

The 16th were heavily engaged throughout the day, initially to support the heavy brigade under Sir William Ponsonby who had been ordered to charge retreating French infantry but had pushed the charge too far. As a result, they found themselves far from friendly lines being countered by French lancers. It was the intervention of the 16th which prevented the total destruction of the heavy brigade:

'We had no chance......our horses could hardly drag their feet out of the clay.....It was then I caught sight of a Squadron of British Dragoons making straight for us. The Frenchmen at the instant seemed to give way and in a minute we were safe. The Dragoons gave us a cheer and rode on after the Lancers.' Sergeant Major Dickson of the Scots Greys

The thought process behind equipping a regiment of light cavalry with a larger bore than the heavy cavalry of the time is not clear. The heavy cavalry, who would have ridden further into the thick of battle, would have been more suited to a heavy calibre carbine, causing more damage at close quarters, rather than the long barrelled, 0.65 in, 1770 Heavy Dragoon Carbine. With its longer barrel and smaller calibre the 1770 Heavy Dragoon Carbine would have been a weapon more effective in the skirmish rather than at close quarters. Although the light and heavy cavalry were both used for skirmishing during the Napoleonic period, by 1798 and with the introduction of the Heavy Dragoon Carbine, the light cavalry with their longer barrelled and smaller calibre Eliott Carbines would have had the edge for skirmishing over the heavy cavalry, with the 1796 Heavy Dragoon carbine.

The rationale for the Harcourt carbine with its 28 in barrel and its musket bore may perhaps have been a compromise between the needs of the heavy and light cavalry, with the heavy bore for close quarter combat and the longer barrel for skirmishing. When factoring in Nock's 'break off breech' system, which increases muzzle velocity, it is plausible that the designers may have taken this into account in opting for a heavy calibre, making the 16th Light Dragoons a type of 'middle' ground for the British cavalry. However, this is purely conjecture, as no reasoning for this change or the adoption of the weapon by only one regiment has come to light.

It is possible that the Harcourt Carbine was still in use by the 16th at the Battle of Waterloo, although it is thought that no British cavalry engaged in skirmishing on the day. However, it is entirely plausible that when the 16th assisted the Scots Greys after the charge of the Union Brigade later that afternoon, they may have been carrying the Harcourt Carbine.

Statistics

Barrel length 71.1 cm (28 in)
Calibre 18.5 mm (0.73 in)
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service About 1793
Loading Muzzle-loading
Overall length 1.17 m (44 in)
Weight 3.64 kg (8 lb)

Author

Lisa Traynor