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Old 8th February 2017, 01:49 AM   #1
Jim McDougall
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Default Lances at San Pascual

The battle of San Pascual was a notorious combat between the US Dragoons of Gen Kearneys 'Army of the West' and the Californio forces of commander Andres Pico at a location near San Diego, December 6-7 , 1846.

While the various factors involving the opposing forces have certain complexities, one of the key factors is the fact that these Dragoon troops were defeated by Californio horsemen wielding lances.

Dragoons were of course heavily armed with newly issue carbines as well as pistols and carried heavy dragoon sabres. What has been typically claimed is that heavy rain in the evening had soaked the gunpowder, thus the dragoons could only defend themselves by using these rifles as clubs.

What was surprising is that these 'new' carbines were percussion cap, breech loading guns, and my thoughts were of flintlocks. These would have had cartridges, so how had this happened.

Apparently these new carbines were the M1833 Hall-North breech loading carbine, known as the 'Hall side lever'. These used a .52 cal ball and paper cartridge, but these were carried in a leather pouch which should have kept these dry .

One of the big problems was that this 'battle' took place in darkness, with fog and mist and on unfamiliar terrain to the dragoons, but not to the Californios. The dragoons no longer had their horses and mostly were riding mules, yet they were sent pursuing the Californios in the darkness, and to their dismay, with guns which would not fire.
The Caifornios were actually ranch horsemen and armed with lances about 8 to 10 ft long and lassos (reatas). They were used to using these on cattle, and were brilliant horsemen.

At a given point they wheeled around and attacked the pursuers, now in smaller numbers. The now useless guns nor the heavy sabres were no match for the long lances, and the Californios acting almost in teams with one lassoing riders off their mounts, the other stabbing with the lances.

The Dragoons lost 21 killed and a number of wounded while the Californios and Mexicans lost two dead and about 18 wounded.

I found that the next day and in following actions, these Hall carbines performed well. So what really was the problem? In one reference, it noted that the dragoons were having difficulty fumbling with the percussion caps and loading while mounted.....in darkness.
The breech loading mechanism also seems to have exposed the cartridge to rain and resulted in problems. One account suggested that had these been muzzle loaders it would have been better.

Whatever the case, this battle is much fabled in the tales of the Mexican American War for the amazing victory of these Caifornio horsemen over US Dragoons using the lance. I can recall hearing of this battle from my youth in Southern California, and it remains an intriguing and colorful story.

I have never found a case where any surviving weapons from this battle are known. The Halls carbines seem quite rare, and seem largely undocumented in most gun literature. There are no lances surviving, but we know they must have been the standard form used on the estancias by vaqueros. They were not the regulation lances used later by Californios during the Civil War.

Can anyone offer any further notes or ideas on finding examples of weapons which might have been used in this famed battle?
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Old 8th February 2017, 06:50 AM   #2
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I do not have anything specific to the battle, I do have a picture that is supposed to be from the museum of the battlefields state park but I believe they are two Mexican swords of the second half of the eighteen hundreds, one sword I cannot say and a lance head that looks more like a buffaloes hunters lance all with no provenance given.
I have two Mexican spearheads one of which is for a lance, I think was collected in northern Mexico (modern boundaries) and the other one is a much larger, in my opinion too heavy for a horsemans lance that was supposed to be dug from the Carpenteria area, They are ten and eighteen inches long.
The smaller one has been hammered on the socket as if to drive it into the ground, I have seen this with other Mexican spearheads and have been told they were used to stake horses or tents.
I have seen one other very similar to my large one that was from the San Juan Capistrano area that was twenty inches.
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Old 11th February 2017, 07:09 PM   #3
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Machinist thank you so much for the response and great input!!
I didn't expect much traffic here as this topic is not much of a draw as far as interest, but as I noted, there is so much history here in this part of the U.S. and it is so little understood.
The reason that the lance was so key to Spanish colonial weaponry was mostly that the firearms, even when serviceable , the powder in Mexico was poor quality. In recent reading on the Alamo battle, one of the most overlooked factors was the terrible gunpowder. I have understood that even few of the Mexican cannon shots even reached the target. The Spanish muskets when fired failed to even penetrate, however they did in the attack severely penetrate the Mexican ranks directly in front of those firing.
It was the bayonet which did most of the damage.

Thank you again for you help with this.

Jim
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Old 15th February 2017, 07:27 AM   #4
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Default even if those rifles were operational...

The limited utility of firearms in 19th cent. cavalry encounters, as compared to that of hand-to-hand weapons, was commented on by Lt. Gen. Sir Wm Warre, liaison staff officer for Marshal Beresford in Portugal during the Peninsular War. Observing a number of encounters, he wrote,
"A strong proof of how ineffectual the skirmishing of Cavalry is, except to cover the retreat of larger bodies, and prevent the columns being fired into. Our people and theirs were constantly within 30 yards of one another firing with no effect, though neither party had any idea of fear. When it can possibly be avoided the less powder wasted this way the better. The best arm for the Cavalry is the sword or saber, a well-broken horse, and firm presence of mind...
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Old 15th February 2017, 07:59 PM   #5
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Philip, thank you so much for this very well placed excerpt regarding the conservation of powder and use of edged weapons with cavalry. It is well known that cavalrymen in Europe and England were taught to rely primarily on the sword in the 19th century.
A great book on these topics is "Charge to Glory" by James Lunt, where it is noted that the cavalryman learned that his weapon was always the sword.

In Spains frontiers in northern Mexico and the American southwest in the 19th century, the most effective weapon was the lance, as they fought against marauding Native American tribes. It seems that firearms were often optional as the serviceability of the weapons and availability of powder were primary issues. The well known espada ancha was more a utilitarian implement used more against rugged chaparral than in fighting.

While your expertise is of course immense in so many aspects of arms and armour, I know you have broad contacts through museums and collections in these areas formerly of Spanish dominion. I wonder if you might have seen examples of lance heads used and information on them in the early 19th c.
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Old 17th February 2017, 07:23 AM   #6
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I'm not aware of any systematic attempt to study lance heads from the era, of course that's not to rule out the existence of such effort which has escaped my notice! Seems to me that on specimens without visible markings, or lacking firm provenance, classification may be difficult because these utilitarian and generic-looking things can resemble each other so closely across national and cultural boundaries.

Interesting to read your comment about the role of the lance in the military history of Spanish America. Reminds me of what I've learned about the hunting of wild boar with spears in Continental Europe. In most countries where it was practiced (to this day, in some areas), it was done on foot but in Spain, the favored method was/is from horseback with a lance. Also, Azorean bull handlers are adept at managing the bovines with long staffs with metal ferrules at the end, resembling the pikes of Renaissance armies except that they have no sharp points -- you see these guys in action when bulls are "run" through the streets during festas, or to prompt them to exit the arena alive since killing the animals in bullfights was banned in Portugal centuries ago.
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Old 17th February 2017, 08:39 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Philip
The limited utility of firearms in 19th cent. cavalry encounters, as compared to that of hand-to-hand weapons, was commented on by Lt. Gen. Sir Wm Warre, liaison staff officer for Marshal Beresford in Portugal during the Peninsular War. Observing a number of encounters, he wrote,
"A strong proof of how ineffectual the skirmishing of Cavalry is, except to cover the retreat of larger bodies, and prevent the columns being fired into. Our people and theirs were constantly within 30 yards of one another firing with no effect, though neither party had any idea of fear. When it can possibly be avoided the less powder wasted this way the better. The best arm for the Cavalry is the sword or saber, a well-broken horse, and firm presence of mind...
Good shot, Philip.
May i add that, context is important in these issues; a man trotting or galloping a horse has hardly enough stability to shoot a weapon at target with effectiveness ... whatever the quality of the weapon may be. While on foot all quality miseries arise, despite immobility and discipline bein taken into account. Listen to Peninsular War chronicles written by A.H.Norris and R.W.Bremner: A soldier that gets wounded by a musket at a distance of 135 mts. should be in fact rather unlucky, this assuming that his enemy is aiming at him.The ratio of missing shots could be so high as 13 to 2, even with good weather and, in rainy days, it was improbable that any shot could take place.... gunpowder was very crude, gun barrels had to be frequently cleaned, the French ones more than the British. Heavy rain could simply inutilize the weapon, as the gunpowder got wet and would not explode.
And adding to that, the smoke; there are countless narrations of soldiers mentioning that, the (black) gunpowder smoke in battle was so dense that they couldn't discern where to aim at.


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Last edited by fernando; 17th February 2017 at 08:50 PM.
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Old 17th February 2017, 10:21 PM   #8
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May i add that, context is important in these issues; a man trotting or galloping a horse has hardly enough stability to shoot a weapon at target with effectiveness

...EXCEPT, FERNANDO, IF IT IS HAPPENING ON A HOLLYWOOD FILM SET WITH CAMERA ROLLING!

gunpowder was very crude, gun barrels had to be frequently cleaned, the French ones more than the British.

...THE FRENCH OPTED FOR A SMALLER BORE (.69 inch) BECAUSE A SUPPLY OF BULLETS WEIGHED LESS THAN FOR THE BRITISH .75 in. BORE, AND WITH THE SAME POWDER CHARGE THE VELOCITY AND MUZZLE ENERGY WOULD BE GREATER. BUT THE TENDENCY OF BLACK POWDER TO CREATE LOTS OF FOULING, DUE TO THE SULFUR CONTENT, MEANT THAT SMALLER BORES NEEDED MORE FREQUENT CLEANING.


Heavy rain could simply inutilize the weapon, as the gunpowder got wet and would not explode.

...ALSO FLINT DOES NOT STRIKE AS MANY SPARKS ON A WET STEEL. AS FOR A MATCHLOCK, FORGET IT! CHARCOAL AND SALTPETER, THE MAJOR COMPONENTS OF BLACK POWDER, HAVE A TENDENCY TO ABSORB ATMOSPHERIC MOISTURE EASILY, MAKING THE SITUATION EVEN WORSE.


And adding to that, the smoke; there are countless narrations of soldiers mentioning that, the (black) gunpowder smoke in battle was so dense that they couldn't discern where to aim at.


.[/QUOTE]
...THAT IS WHY MILITARY UNIFORMS WERE BRIGHTLY COLORED, AND UNITS CARRIED LARGE FLAGS SO AS TO BE RECOGNIZABLE .

AND THE SLOW RATE OF FIRE OF MUZZLE-LOADING FIREARMS IS YET ANOTHER ISSUE TO BE TOUCHED UPON. NOT UNTIL THE DEVELOPMENT OF BREECH LOADING GUNS USING CARTRIDGES IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE 19TH CENT. DID MILITARY FIREARMS CATCH UP TO THE BOW AND ARROW FOR FIREPOWER. A REASON THAT MOST ORIENTAL CULTURES THAT RELIED ON CAVALRY KEPT USING THEIR POWERFUL COMPOSITE BOWS WELL INTO THE CENTURY.
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Old 18th February 2017, 11:46 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Philip
...THAT IS WHY MILITARY UNIFORMS WERE BRIGHTLY COLORED, AND UNITS CARRIED LARGE FLAGS SO AS TO BE RECOGNIZABLE .
Somehow a two ends stick; you could better visualize your mates but also make your self better spotted by the enemy, if he was at close quarters; yet the shining safety vest was not yet invented . Michael Glover compared hand to hand shooting ambiance with the dense fog of London. Lieu Tenant Colonel Wilson, during the atack of Erlon (before Waterloo) reported that he could not see the enemy, having then been instructed to direct his fire towards and over the bodies of some death horses laying ahead.

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... AND THE SLOW RATE OF FIRE OF MUZZLE-LOADING FIREARMS IS YET ANOTHER ISSUE TO BE TOUCHED UPON.
It is said that a well trained soldier could reload twice in a minute; such an eternity. Still having to often pause for cleaning the barrel and changing the flint every thirty rounds.
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Old 18th February 2017, 12:33 PM   #10
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most attacks would succeed or fail in 6 volleys or less, ranges were much too short for more, tho one at short range just before bayonet contact were deadly. napoleon's old guard veterans all, broke with 6 at waterloo and retreated.

even after the issuance of rifles and cartridge weapons, most battles ended after a few volleys, not extended firefights. the famous battle of rourke's drift, most zulu were killed at a range of a few hundred yards & very few made it to hand to hand range. unlike the movie. (and they were not yet a welsh regiment). the zulu king had told his brother not to attack fixed positions or he wpuld be defeated. he ignored that and was. the impis that attacked the mobile and split forces at islandlhwana listened and won. also after just a few volleys as they overan the unprepared british and their unfortified camp.

up till the beginning of the american civil war uniforms and flags signalled to units who was who as there were no radios, telephones and as noted, lots of smoke. union and confederate troops at the beginning both wore an assortment of colours, the southern officers, many ex-union, continued wearing blue, especially their hats long after they changed to grey coats. the fog of war still caused many blue on blue casualties. lees' loss of stonewall jackson to 'friendly fire' being one of the most telling. the south changed their national flag a couple of times to avoid confusion with the yankee one in battle.

an aside, polish cavalry with long (14ft. +/-) lances defeated a large swedish army with pikes and halberds. they also slaughtered the turks outside wien (vienna) at the latter part of the 17th c.

edited:somehow swede turned into swiss, fixed now.
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Old 19th February 2017, 04:42 AM   #11
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Philip, Fernando and Wayne, not to add more but just wanted to thank you guys for these outstanding insights into military history and battle aspects. It is fascinating to learn more on the actual conditions and situations experienced in these combats, and the real issues they faced with the weaponry at hand. Really adds perspective!!!
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Old 19th February 2017, 08:45 AM   #12
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you are welcome. i've updated my last post to fix an oops & add some pics. the context that our weapons were used in makes their design even more interesting. the polish lances i mentioned were counterbalanced at the rear end, and had hollow shafts to permit the long length. they broke on initial impact and were dropped, and the hussar reverted to his sabre. the poles retained lances far longer than other europeans tho they switched to a shorter all metal lance more in line with other nations. they were, like the canadian mounties retained for parade use even now. they did NOT attack german panzers with them in ww2, that was german propaganda. a polish cavalry unit DID charge a overconfident german encampment lacking sentries, routing it with rifles, pistols and sabres, but the lances were not used. they were back at their stores. they ran into some armoured vehicles on the other side of the germans , and then retreated in good order, victorious for once. they mostly rode to battle, dismounted, set up with rifles and machine guns to engage the advancing germans before being overwhelmed by the blitzkrieg. brave but hopeless.
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Old 19th February 2017, 02:56 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kronckew
...edited:somehow swede turned into swiss, fixed now. ...
More accordingly with my limited knowledge; the Swiss were reported to be rather efficient with halberds, Sempach and all; notwithstanding that Polish Hulans were so good that their profile ended up inspiring lancers formations in European armies ... Portugal included; and this meant as far as uniforms, including traditional czapkas.

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Originally Posted by kronckew
the polish lances i mentioned were counterbalanced at the rear end, and had hollow shafts to permit the long length. they broke on initial impact and were dropped ...
Speaking of breaking lances, but in a different context, in the battle of Aljubarrota (1385), which has been an episode that marked the consolidation of Portuguese independence, when the Castillian cavalry realized they had no room to advance in a mounted mode, due to a defence built bottleneck, in great part came afoot and broke their long lances to adapt them for eminent hand to hand combat.
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Old 19th February 2017, 06:01 PM   #14
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yes, the swiss made mincemeat of the overconfident austrian knights in a number of battles. they were assisted by skillful use of anti-armour defences like caltrops and lillies (small pits with spikes in the bottom) and use of the terrain to funnel and slow the knights to their doom. once immobile the halberders could hook them off their horses, their western lances were no longer maneuverable and the long hafted spiked axes outreached their swords,maces and hammers. the swiss were well practiced, using their halberds as farm implements when not fighting to build up their skills & muscles... every swiss still takes his weapon home with him when he leaves the army and forms the reserve. there is the old story of a german ambassador to switzerland viewing a shutzenfest with the swiss defence minister, he happened to mention that the germans had a professional army of two million men waiting on the swiss border and switzerland only had a population of one million, what could he do if they invade? the minister said 'shoot twice and go home'. the germans never invaded.


short lances. - boarding pikes!

still a USN issue weapon

Pike drill, USS Constitution, which is still in commission.
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