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CIVIL WAR ERA 1860 WILLIAMS’ PATENT CURB BIT – A VERY RARE FULLY FUNCTIONAL SPECIMEN IN THE ORIGINAL CONFIGURATION:  W.F.M. Williams of Augusta, Georgia was granted U.S. Patent No. 26,804 on January 10, 1860, for a unique system of levers that were designed to replace the standard cheek pieces on a curb bit.  Williams initially intended that his design be adapted to existing bit designs, however from the few extent Williams which have been located, his design resulted in a new proprietary bit pattern.     

As Williams wrote in his patent description, “This invention consists in a combination of lever powers, so arranged as to operate on one or both jaws, (upper and lower) at the discretion of the reins man.”   

While no written record has been found that indicates this design was ever adopted by the Ordnance Department for trial or as a standard feature for U.S. Army Bits, bits that incorporate the Williams patent – including the bit offered here - do exist which are reminiscent of the 1840’s – 1850’s Mays Pattern Dragoon Curb Bits and the Model 1859 Cavalry Curb Bits.  These standard army bits are similar in pattern to known Williams Bits in the profile of the upper cheek piece, the design of the bridle billet eye, and the boss swell of the cheek pieces where the mouth piece is attached.  An example of a Williams Bit bearing a version of the army’s brass bosses is pictured below, a bit which was issued to Company D of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen.   

There is no doubt Williams’ design was harsh, and like the Model 1859 Cavalry Ring Curb Bit, the potential of the levers of this bit abusing the horse’s mouth is very apparent.  However, viewed in the context of the times, when young, inexperienced cavalry soldiers were mounted on green horses, both of which had received minimal training, and that they were then thrown into the chaos of the battlefield, it is easier to understand why these bits were considered necessary.    

While likely to cause any responsible modern horse owner to regard 19TH Century horsemen as unnecessarily cruel, it is worth considering that the horses provided to the army were for the most part wild animals when delivered to the remount depots. The depots had very limited time to break and train the mounts before they were shipped out to meet the critical needs of the cavalry regiments serving in the field.  Assuming that the remounts were even so much as “green broke” before being handed over to the regiments might be overly generous.  I imagine it was a case of “any” horse was better than no horse at all, leaving the final training and finishing of the mount to the individual soldier.   

The other factor which bears noting is reflected in an original printing of a U.S. Army document in my collection.  General Order No. 105, published by the War Department in August of 1862 and authored by Assistant Adjutant General E. D. Townsend, states: 

“The inspection of all cavalry forces, preparatory to their being mustered into the service of the United States, shall hereafter comprise, in addition to the usual personal examination, a test of horsemanship, to be made under the direction of the mustering officer; and no person shall be mustered into the cavalry service who does not exhibit good horsemanship and a practical knowledge of the ordinary care and treatment of horses.” 

Apparently this was a significant problem or the army would not have addressed it with a General Order.   

The wide spread assumption held by modern collectors and students of history – probably fostered by the images from the silver screen – is that 19TH Century men and women were at least familiar with horses, if not accomplished riders.  They MUST all have been early iterations of John Wayne, Ward Bond, Roy Rogers and James Arness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Then as now, managing a saddled horse or for that matter, a horse, mule or ox harnessed to a wagon, was an acquired skill necessitated by access to the animal and adequate training.  If a young man was raised on a ranch or a farm, he probably gained sufficient experience to be a competent cavalry or light artillery soldier.  Conversely, if he was raised in a large city such as New York or Atlanta, he was no more likely to become a skilled horseman than his modern counterpart is certain to learn to be a competent driver.  More than a few New Yorkers I’ve known through the years own neither a driver’s license nor a vehicle – no need.  And so it was the case for the 19Th Century recruits from the large urban areas – their first exposure to caring for and riding horses may very well have been when the soldier joined his regiment.   

With these two factors in mind, the design of this bit bears consideration in the context of the realities of those times.  The dramatic growth of the armies in response to the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, and the lack of training resources to handle the overwhelming influx of recruits certainly resulted in brief, and at times, inadequate, training for troopers and horses alike.  Thus, the need for these severe bits employed during the war years is understandable as compensation for these shortcomings.   

William’s design incorporated separate upper and lower cheek pieces, departing from the standard bit design of having a cheek piece forged from a single piece of metal.  The lower cheek pieces attached to a second mouth piece (see F, Patent drawing below).  When the reins were relaxed, the two mouth pieces rested together as a single bar in the horse’s mouth.  As the reins were gathered, the lower cheek pieces were pushed through the guides in the upper cheek pieces, raising the second mouth piece off of the fixed mouth piece, pressing the second mouth piece into the roof of the horse’s mouth, while the fixed mouth piece pressed on the bars of the lower jaw, exerting a considerable amount of pressure on the horse’s mouth.   

The bit illustrated in the patent drawing, and all of the examples of this bit which have been examined, are equipped with two sets of rein rings – one at the lower end of each cheek piece and one at each junction of the mouth piece and the cheek pieces.  Assuming these bits were used with two sets of reins, the upper set of reins and rings may have been intended to provide a milder alternative to the severe degree of control exerted by the lower cheek pieces when that set of reins were tightened.   

This Williams Bit obviously was affected by exposure over the years to the elements.  While I do not believe it is a battlefield relic – having been buried – it is quite likely that it hung unattended in a barn or shed.  The surfaces of the cheek pieces are uniformly pitted as are the rein rings.  On the other hand, the two piece curb bar has no pitting at all, retaining an overall smooth surface.  The difference in condition is most likely attributed to the difference in the quality and carbon content of the iron used to fashion the individual components.  The cheek pieces are full form with no misshaping, all four rein rings are intact and the upper rein rings turn freely in their ports, the lower bar is intact, and the sliding lever side bars are fully functional, sliding smoothly through the corresponding guides in the upper cheek piece.  The upper cheek pieces are both punched with a pair of holes for mounting the decorative brass bosses such are featured on the Mounted Rifleman’s Bit pictured below – suggesting that this particular bit was manufactured to the standards of the current issue of military bits and intended to be used by a cavalryman.   

This is only the second Williams Bit I have had the opportunity to handle, and one of only three that I know to exist.  I doubt they were produced in any great numbers given that they were a deviation from the norm, introduced immediately before the nation’s resources – North and South - were taxed to their limits with providing the basic military equipment on the eve of the Civil War.  No doubt, at least some of the William Bits saw service during the war, quite possibly on both sides, and yet there are very few surviving examples. 

Despite the obvious signs of aging, this is a fully functional and overall respectable example of the very rare Williams Patent Curb Bit.  SOLD



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