In late May of 1864, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Hyde, a staff officer in the Army of the Potomac's VI Army Corps, found himself leading a catch-all command of a few hundred cavalrymen, most of them troopers of the First District of Columbia Cavalry. While on a foraging expedition, Hyde's force was fired on by a small enemy patrol.
As the boys of the First D.C. responded with a fusilade of fire, the Rebels scooted away. Hyde's attempts to stop the shooting were futile, and the Yanks didn't cease firing until they emptied their guns. The din startled Major General Horatio Wright, who, believing Hyde's men were seriously engaged, rushed an infantry brigade to their support. When it was over, Lieutenant Colonel Hyde found two dead enemy horses, and ruefully concluded that he had had "quite a lesson in the improper use of rapid-firing arms." 1
The first "rapid firing arms" issued in any quantity in the Civil War were Colt's revolving rifles. Colt's repeating longarms had seen sporadic service in the U.S. army since 1838, when issues of the early Paterson model to the Second U.S. Dragoons during the Seminole War produced mixed results. The Model 1855 sidehammer .56-caliber five-shot Colt revolving rifle issued during the Civil War received much more positive reviews, but has been largely dismissed by modern writers as a failed and obsolete system. In fact, the truth of the matter is somewhat different.
In an 1859 U.S. Navy test, the Model 1855 was fired at a target of unspecified size at a range of 500 yards and only recorded seven misses