Dragoon Tactics and Early Weapons

Researched and Written by Wally Tomtschik

Dragoons used different tactics than Cavalry. In the old history of the 2d Dragoons, very few of their number actually were killed. They were masters of using the land and could live off the land very comfortably.

The horses were treated with loving care and protected from harm, being used for transportation rather than in battle, with a horse holder holding the horses out of sight, hidden in the background. The horse holder would hold 4 horses. Dismounted, the other 3 Dragoons would fan out and cautiously approach the enemy.

Unlike light Cavalry, that went in with sabers clanking and the bugler blasting away, Dragoons went in very heavily armed and were masters of stealth, kind of like the “Navy Seals” of the Everglades. The Dragoons took great pride in their orange piping and hat cords, which differentiated them from Cavalry.

Learning their trade from the Seminoles in Florida, the Dragoons would quietly sneak up on an enemy, many times surrounding them. They would find cover and wait. When the time was right, they would close in and “tighten the noose” in unison with massive firepower, subduing the enemy. It was not easy for a white man to sneak up on an Indian, but the Dragoons could. Being the original policemen of new territories, there was not wanton killing of innocents, but those that chose to not live peaceably were killed in battle or brought to justice.

In 1836, the 2d Dragoons were issued the .54 cal. 1817 Common (Derringer) rifle, which was converted to percussion, and the .36 cal., 5 shot Colt Patterson with loading lever (the same as the Texas Rangers). The rifle was effective to over 100 yards and the Colt Patterson could quickly be reloaded in the field. This gave the Dragoon five times the firepower at close range than that of a single shot pistol.

Some were issued the 1819 “Hall” breech loading carbine which was not very popular due to gas leakage. Some were also issued the Kentucky long rifle, either .38 or .50 cal. Although .50 cal. was standard for the Kentucky long rifle, the Ordnance Department ordered some in .38 cal. with a side patch box in the stock. This was an attempt to standardize ammunition, where the round ball used for the Colt Patterson pistol could be wrapped in a patch and used in the rifle. Since their lives depended on it, they were expert shots, making each round count.

In 1842, some 2d Dragoons were issued test models of the new Sharps rifles. They were allowed to keep their Common rifles until they became acclimated to the new Sharps. This earliest model of Sharps contained a “box lock” mechanism like a shotgun, and not the “falling block” mechanism of the 1848, 1855, and 1859 models. The 1842 model had problems with gas leakage around the breech and misfires, and was not well accepted.

In 1846-47, during the Mexican War, the 2d Dragoons were reissued the Walker Colt (again being allowed to keep their Colt Patterson’s as backup). After the Mexican War, the 2d Dragoons were given the task of subduing the Comanche raiders in the New Territories. This was not an easy task. The Comanche were also masters of stealth, the best light Cavalry in the world at that time. They had raided the Spanish for over 300 years and knew their trade. Unlike Cavalry, the Dragoons approached quietly, surprising the Camanche in their villages. Although the Dragoons loved their horses, the Dragoons had little respect for Texas ponies or AKA “Indian ponies.” If attacked by Camanche’s while mounted, the 2d Dragoons would pull out their Walker Colts and shoot the ponies, hopefully killing or wounding the Camanche. The story of the 2d Dragoons using this tactic is engraved on the cylinders of all Walker Colts.

Once a village was surrounded, the first and main targets were the ponies used to carry out the raids. Some Comanche would try to ride off, and the 2d Dragoons would chase, aiming for their horses with their massive Walker Colts. Known as the “first horse pistol”, the Walker, with it’s tight twist barrel, massive powder charge of 60 grains per shot and .44 cal. bullet, would burn a hole right through a horse, killing the horse with one shot, and either killing, wounding or dismounting the Comanche. You see, the Comanche didn’t ride on top during battle, but hung from the side of the horse, and could fire arrows from under the horses neck at full gallop with deadly effect. After shooting the horse, the trooper would keep riding off into the distance. They would then pull out their Mississippi rifles or Sharps, and shoot any of the Comanche on the field from a distance.

J.E.B. Stewart once made an almost fatal mistake, by riding up to and surrounding a Comanche that appeared dead. The Comanche jumped up and fired off four arrows before he was shot dead. The first three arrows killed three troopers. The fourth arrow hit Stewart, going through his shoulder and coming out through part of his neck. Stewart learned not to get too close or underestimate his enemy after that.

8 Replies to “Dragoon Tactics and Early Weapons”

  1. I enjoyed your Dragoon site–take a look at mine. You have done a whole lot of work. Fauntleroy Blake and Beall are two of my favorite former 2d Dragoons. George Blake and Thomas Fauntleroy were not liked in the 1st. Fauntleroy allegedly bugged out at Monterrey and Blake treated the enlisted men like dirt and was court martialed. Beall was a gem.

    I am especially interested in anything you might have on any of these fellows.

    Will

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  2. I am looking for someone who knows a lot about Ft. Belknap in the 1850’s especially the Second Dragoons there…I’d love some information as my great-great grandfather was there in the “2 Drag. BFSB” in 1855. Any historians out there who have information on the Dragoons from that time period????

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  3. Sir I have been metal detecting a river crossing in Oklahoma(1st and 2nd Dragoon’s) where I have been finding numerous Dragoon Eagle buttons from the 1840’s. I have been finding a bullet from what I have been told is called a ringtailed sharps.. also finding several 38ish caliber pistol bullets from that era also. I know the dragoons used the Paterson model pistol. The reason for my correspondence is your posting of the the history of the 1842 lock box new sharps(test model). All of my research is Sharps first patent was in 48 and the first lockbox was in 51.. Can you direct me to where you got your info for the 42 new sharps.. I with your information, will be able to piece together the finds that I have been making. I would appreciate any help. Thanks… Evan

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    1. There were no Sharps carbines until 1848. The first ones were made in Philadelphia by a contractor, Nippes. I believe someone has mixed up the 1842 Hall-North carbine with the Sharps.

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  4. If JEB Stuart learned not to underestimate his enemy during the Comanche Wars, it’s a lesson he subsequently forgot. He seriously underestimated the Union cavalry at Brandy Station in 1863, and again during the Gettysburg campaign.

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  5. Evan and other interested parties,

    I have been metal detecting in Kansas. I found what I believe is a .52 caliber lead shot from a Hall’s rifle. Were the Dragoons ever in southwest Kansas?

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