What Makes A Carbine A Carbine?

What is the definition of a carbine, anyhow? Is it caliber? Sheer barrel length? Firing mechanism?

The most basic definition of a "carbine" is a short rifle, but that seems to be a catch-all term. There are plenty of guns out there that are clearly rifles but are sold as "pistols." Then there are "short-barreled rifles" that require a tax stamp from the ATF, then there are "scout rifles"...what the heck is going on here, anyway?!

The Genesis Of The Carbine


The original carbine was developed and named by the French. The word "carbine" itself is French though the precise etymology (origin of a word) is unclear. The word "carabine" was the word used for a soldier armed with a musket.

In any case, light cavalry were armed with short muskets, with a whole bunch of barrel and a bit of the buttstock chopped off, who were referred to as "carabiniers." These troops were different than heavy cavalry, who in the French armed forces were known as the "gendarmerie."

Now, some of you might notice that these are similar words to the Italian and French federal law enforcement bodies (the Carabinieri and the Gendarmerie, respectively) and you would be spot on in thinking that's where the names came from. Sounds more respectable than plain 'old FBI doesn't it?

Anyhow, the carabinier was light infantry, traveling on horseback but fighting on foot, dismounting just before combat ensued. The rifle was easier to transport in a scabbard than a full-size musket. They also carried a horse pistol (big handgun) should they have to shoot while mounted. When they reached the enemy, carabiniers would dismount, draw their short rifles and commence to getting stuck in.

You could say, then, that the carbine definition was a short long gun invented for what was essentially pre-Napoleonic mechanized infantry.

Evolution Of The Carbine Rifle

carbine rifle

For the longest time, the carbine rifle was basically a chopped musket. They weren't exactly the most common weapon to begin with and began to fall out of use with the advent of the cavalry pistol. Black powder revolvers such as the Colt's Dragoon, Colt Walker and Remington New Model Army were preferred as they had enough punch at close range and held six shots instead of just one.

With the advent of cartridges around the time of the Civil War, however, a new breed of carbine rifle emerged.

Early examples, often issued in limited batches to cavalry units by the Union, included the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles, also known as "that Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week." The Sharps carbine, a shortened version of the Sharps falling-block rifle, was also used in shouting the battle cry of freedom.

Anyhow, barrel lengths for these rifles usually was 20 to 22 inches in length; long enough to be accurate, short enough to make it totable, which is more or less the modern formula for a carbine. The Spencer and Henry rifles fired heavy, slow rimfire rounds (.44 Henry and .56 Spencer) but the Sharps initially chambered a .52-caliber, 475-grain bullet sitting on 50 grains of black, later amended to .45-70.

The Spencer and Sharps carbines continued in US Army service after the Civil War, being replaced in 1873 by the Trapdoor Springfield carbine in .45-70 Gov't. However, that year saw the launch of arguably the most famous carbine ever invented:

The Winchester Model 1873. The Gun That Won The West.

The 1873 was light, accurate, portable, potent at reasonable ranges and - since it was chambered in .44-40 - could be paired with a pistol of the same caliber, allowing you to carry ammo for both. This also introduced the idea of the pistol caliber carbine.

However, the bolt action entered the picture not too long afterwards. With the advent of the Mauser K98 (K for "Karabiner") there wasn't much point in a carbine anymore. Since the standard bolt-action rifle had a barrel length of 24 inches, why bother? While the '73 had a great run, the bolt gun pretty much did for carbines in a military role...for awhile, anyway.

The Modern Carbine

m4 carbine

The modern carbine crystallized in the early 20th century.

The modern "carbine" rifle today is usually semi-automatic and carries up to 30 rounds in a magazine. Barrel length is something like 18 to 20 inches. The round is an intermediate rifle cartridge instead of a full-power rifle cartridge like the .308 or .30-06.

In other words, a lot like the M4 Carbine or AR-15, but the first versions actually emerged in the early 20th century.

The first were guns like the Remington Model 8 and Winchester Models 1905 and 1907. They had shorter barrels than their full-bore rifle counterparts and chambered intermediate rounds like .25 Remington, .35 Winchester…though rifles in .35 Remington and .351 Winchester are hammers at intermediate ranges. That said, having more firepower than a pistol but being easier to tote than a Springfield '03 or Krag rifle made them popular with law enforcement (also with criminals) and as brush guns for hunters.

The military warmed back up to the concept, realizing a need for a light rifle. This led to the M1 Carbine, issued in World War II and the Korean War, and the M2 Carbine variant added select fire capability.

It isn't much of a leap from there to the AR-15/M16 platform. At the same time, the Russians created the AK-47, which - with its 16-inch barrel - fits the same definition. Eventually, the M16 was modified to the M4 and its various iterations, so here we are today.

In case you wonder, the difference between a short-barrel rifle and a carbine is barrel length. The ATF defines a short-barrel rifle as having a barrel length of less than 16 inches, an overall length of 26 inches, or a pistol with a buttstock and a barrel length of 16 inches or less.

So, a carbine could be said to be a short rifle, though the modern format is semi-auto and chambers an intermediate rifle round or pistol round rather than a full-power rifle round. Rather nebulous, but it's not as if the term is regulated by the Office of Weights and Measures.

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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