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Various muzzle-loading arms, to scale; numbers 1, 10, and 11 are identified as carbines. (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1910)

A carbine (/ˈkɑːrbn/ or /ˈkɑːrbn/),[1] from French carabine,[2] is a long arm firearm but with a shorter barrel than a rifle or musket.[3] Many carbines are shortened versions of full length rifles, shooting the same ammunition, while others fire lower-powered ammunition, including those designed for pistols.[citation needed]

The smaller size and lighter weight of carbines makes them easier to handle. They are typically issued to high-mobility troops such as special-operations soldiers and paratroopers, as well as to mounted, supply, or other non-infantry personnel whose roles do not require full-sized rifles.


Word origin

Some sources derive the name of the weapon from the name of its first users — cavalry troopers called "carabiniers", from the French carabine, from the Old French carabin (soldier armed with a musket), perhaps from escarrabin, gravedigger, which derives from scarabee, scarab beetle.[4]

Early history: before the 1900s

Carbine model 1793, used by the French Army during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Left image: Jean Lepage flintlock carbine named "du Premier Consul" in honour of Napoleon , circa 1800.
Right image: Rifling of Lepage carbine.

The carbine was originally a lighter, shortened weapon developed for the cavalry. Carbines were short enough to be loaded and fired from horseback but this was rarely done – a moving horse is a very unsteady platform, and once halted a soldier can load and fire more easily if dismounted, which also makes him a smaller target. The principal advantage of the carbine's length was portability. Troops could carry full length muskets comfortably enough on horseback if just riding from A to B (the practice of the original dragoons and other mounted infantry). Cavalry proper (a "Regiment of Horse") had to ride with some agility and engage in sword-wielding melees with opposing cavalry so carrying anything long would be a dangerous encumbrance. A carbine was typically no longer than a sheathed sabre, both arranged to hang with their tops clear of the rider's elbows and bottoms clear of the horse's legs.

Carbines were usually less accurate and less powerful than the longer muskets (and later rifles) of the infantry, due to a shorter sight plane and lower velocity of bullets fired from the shortened barrel. With the advent of fast-burning smokeless powder, the velocity disadvantages of the shorter barrels became less of an issue (see internal ballistics). Eventually, the use of horse-mounted cavalry would decline, but carbines continued to be issued and used by many who preferred a lighter, more compact weapon even at the cost of reduced long-range accuracy and power.

During the 19th century, carbines were often developed separately from the infantry rifles, and in many cases did not even use the same ammunition, which made for supply difficulties. A notable weapon developed towards the end of the American Civil War by the Union was the Spencer carbine. It had a spring-powered magazine in the stock which held seven rounds. In the late 19th century it became common for a number of nations to make bolt-action rifles in both full-length and carbine versions. One of the most popular and recognizable carbines was the Winchester lever-action carbine, with several versions using revolver cartridges. This made it an ideal choice for cowboys and explorers, who could carry a revolver and a carbine, both using the same ammunition.

Shorter rifles, shorter carbines: World War I and World War II

M1 Garand and M1 Carbine

In the decades following World War I, the standard battle rifle used by armies around the world had been growing shorter, either by redesign or by the general issue of carbine versions instead of full-length rifles. For example, the Russian Model 1891 rifle with an 800 mm (31 in) barrel was shortened to 730 mm (29 in) in 1930, and to 510 mm (20 in) in 1938; the German Mauser 98 rifles went from 740 mm (29 in) in 1898 to 600 mm (24 in) in 1935 as the Karabiner Kurz (K98k or Kar98k), or "short carbine". The barrel lengths in rifles used by the United States did not change between the bolt-action M1903 rifle of World War I and the World War II M1 Garand rifle, but the 610 mm (24 in) barrel on the M1903 was short for its day. The US M1 Carbine was more of a traditional carbine in that it was significantly shorter and lighter, with a 457.2 mm (18.00 in) barrel, than the M1 Garand rifle. The M1 Carbine was not a shorter version of the M1 Garand, as was typical for rifles vs. carbines in the 19th century, but a wholly different design firing a smaller, less-powerful cartridge.

A Lee–Enfield No. 5 Mk I "Jungle Carbine" rifle, which fired a full-size .303 calibre rifle cartridge.

The United Kingdom also developed a "Jungle Carbine" version of their Lee–Enfield service rifle, featuring a shorter barrel, flash suppressor, and manufacturing modifications designed to decrease the rifle's weight. Officially titled Rifle, No. 5 Mk I, it was introduced in the closing months of World War II, but did not see widespread service until the Korean War, the Mau Mau Uprising, and the Malayan Emergency.

After World War II

Mauser Karabiner 98 Kurz. Translate as Carbine 98 Short or a shortened carbine of the Gewehr 98
FN FAL rifle - (left) full size, (right) carbine/paratrooper variant with a folding stock and shortened barrel

A shorter weapon was more convenient when riding in a truck, armored personnel carrier, helicopter or aircraft, and also when engaged in close-range combat. Based on the combat experience of World War II, the criteria used for selecting infantry weapons began to change. Unlike previous wars, which were often fought mainly from fixed lines and trenches, World War II was a highly mobile war, often fought in cities, forests, or other areas where mobility and visibility were restricted. In addition, improvements in artillery made moving infantry in open areas even less practical than it had been.

The majority of enemy contacts were at ranges of less than 300 metres (330 yards), and the enemy was exposed to fire for only short periods of time as they moved from cover to cover. Most rounds fired were not aimed at an enemy combatant, but instead fired in the enemy's direction to keep them from moving and firing back (see suppressive fire). These situations did not require a heavy rifle, firing full-power rifle bullets with long-range accuracy. A less-powerful weapon would still produce casualties at the shorter ranges encountered in actual combat, and the reduced recoil would allow more shots to be fired in the short amount of time an enemy was visible. The lower-powered round would also weigh less, allowing a soldier to carry more ammunition. With no need of a long barrel to fire full-power ammunition, a shorter barrel could be used. A shorter barrel made the weapon weigh less and was easier to handle in tight spaces, and was easier to shoulder quickly to fire a shot at an unexpected target. Full-automatic fire was also considered a desirable feature, allowing the soldier to fire short bursts of three to five rounds, increasing the probability of a hit on a moving target.

The Germans had experimented with selective-fire carbines firing rifle cartridges during the early years of World War II. These were determined to be less than ideal, as the recoil of full-power rifle cartridges caused the weapon to be uncontrollable in full-automatic fire. They then developed an intermediate-power cartridge round, which was accomplished by reducing the power and the length of the standard 7.92×57mm Mauser rifle cartridge to create the 7.92×33mm Kurz (Short) cartridge. A selective-fire weapon was developed to fire this shorter cartridge, eventually resulting in the Sturmgewehr 44, later translated as "assault rifle". After World War II, the USSR would adopt a similar weapon, the AK-47, which became the standard Soviet infantry weapon. The United States during World War II also had the M2 Carbine, a selective-fire version of the M1 Carbine firing the same .30 Carbine cartridge. However, the semi-automatic M1 carbine was produced in a 10-to-1 ratio to the M2.

Although the NATO countries did not adopt an intermediate-power round, they continued the trend toward shorter and lighter magazine-fed battle rifles. NATO adopted the 7.62×51mm NATO round (which in reality is only slightly different ballistically to the .308 Winchester and .303 British cartridges), along with several rifles such as the FN FAL and M14.

Bullet drop of the M16A2 rifle (yellow) vs M4 carbine (red)

By the 1960s NATO had adopted the 5.56 NATO cartridge. This round was even lighter and smaller than the Soviet AK-47 cartridge, but possessed higher velocity. In U.S. service, the M16 assault rifle replaced the M14 as the standard infantry weapon, although the M14 continued to be used by designated marksmen.

Lighter carbines came to be adopted as the standard infantry long rifle. What changed was that only a certain number of soldiers now needed to retain longer range weapons, serving as designated marksmen. Development of lighter assault rifles continued, matched by developments in even lighter carbines. At the same time the infantry switched to 5.56 mm weapons, carbines like the AKS-74U (which fired a Warsaw pact 5.45×39mm round) and CAR-15 were being developed.

Modern history

Contemporary military forces

Steyr AUG rifle (508 mm (20.0 in) barrel).
Steyr AUG carbine (407 mm (16.0 in) barrel). Carbine conversion is achieved by changing to a shorter barrel.

By the 1990s, the US had adopted the M4 carbine, a derivative of the M16 family which fired the same 5.56mm cartridge but was lighter and shorter (in overall length and barrel length), resulting in marginally reduced range and power.

Meanwhile, many armies are experiencing a backlash against carbines and lighter rifles in general, and are equipping selected soldiers, usually called Designated Marksmen, or DM, with higher power rifles. While firing a higher quantity of smaller bullets makes it easier to hit a target (and is therefore good for beginner marksmen), it offers very little to more advanced marksmen. Furthermore, the additional range of the heavier weapons has proven to be necessary in open environments such as deserts. As a result, the focus on more highly trained soldiers equipped with, for example, 7.62 mm NATO firing rifles, such as the U.S. Marine Corps Designated Marksman Rifle variant of the M14, has increased somewhat. A squad of soldiers armed with assault rifles would have a single soldier assigned as DM who would carry a battle rifle for selectively engaging long range targets. The DM differs from the sniper in that the DM moves with his unit, and engages targets at ranges beyond the 500 meter (about 550 yd) effective range of modern assault rifles, but less than the 600 meter (about 650 yd) range which is the optimal engagement range for snipers.

Special forces

Special forces need to perform fast, decisive operations. A pistol, though light and quick to operate, is viewed as not having enough power. Consequently, carbines have gained wide acceptance among SOCOM, UKSF and other communities.


The smaller size and lighter weight of carbines makes them easier to handle in close-quarter situations such as urban engagements, when deploying from military vehicles, or in any situation where space is confined. The disadvantages of carbines relative to rifles include inferior long-range accuracy and a shorter effective range. Larger than a submachine gun, they are harder to maneuver in tight encounters where superior range and stopping power at distance are not great considerations. Firing the same ammunition as rifles gives carbines the advantage of standardization over those personal defense weapons (PDWs) that require proprietary cartridges.[citation needed]

The modern usage of the term carbine covers much the same scope as it always had, namely lighter weapons (generally rifles) with barrels up to 20 inches in length. These weapons can be considered carbines, while rifles with barrels longer than 20 inches are generally not considered carbines unless specifically named so. Modern carbines use ammunition ranging from that used in light pistols up to powerful rifle cartridges, with the usual exception of high velocity magnum cartridges. In the more powerful cartridges, the short barrel of a carbine has significant disadvantages in velocity, and the high residual pressure when the bullet exits the barrel results in substantially greater muzzle blast. Flash suppressors and muzzle brakes are common solutions to this problem, which may ease their acceptance.[citation needed]

Pistol-caliber carbines (PCC)

Marlin Model 1894C — .357 Magnum carbine

One of the more unusual classes of carbine is the pistol caliber carbine or PCC. These first appeared soon after metallic cartridges became common. These were developed as "companions" to the popular revolvers of the day, firing the same cartridge but allowing more velocity and accuracy than the revolver. These were carried by cowboys, lawmen, and others in the Old West. The classic combination would be a Winchester lever action carbine and a Colt revolver in .44-40 or .38-40. During the 20th century, this trend continued with more modern and powerful revolver cartridges, in the form of Winchester and Marlin lever action carbines chambered in .38 Special/.357 Magnum and .44 Special/.44 Magnum.

Modern equivalents also exist, such as the discontinued Ruger Police Carbine, which uses the same magazine as the Ruger pistols of the same caliber, as well as the (also discontinued) Marlin Camp Carbine (which, in .45ACP, used M1911 magazines). The Beretta Cx4 Storm shares magazines with many Beretta pistols, and is designed to be complementary to the Beretta Px4 Storm pistol. The Hi-Point 995 Carbine is a cheaper, yet reliable alternative to other pistol caliber carbines in the United States and its magazines can be used in the Hi-Point C-9 pistol. Another example is the Kel-Tec SUB-2000 series chambered in either 9 mm Luger or .40S&W which can be configured to accept Glock, Beretta, S&W or SIG pistol magazines. The SUB-2000 also has the unique ability to fold in half.

The primary advantage of a carbine over a pistol using the same ammunition is controllability. The combination of firing from the shoulder, a greatly increased sight picture, two-handed stability, and precision offer a significantly more user friendly platform. In addition the longer barrel can offer increased velocity, and with it greater energy and effective range. As long guns pistol caliber carbines may be less legally restricted than handguns in some jurisdictions. Compared to carbines chambered in intermediate or rifle calibers, such as .223 Remington and 7.62×54mmR, pistol-caliber carbines generally experience less of an increase in external ballistic properties as a result of the propellant.

Also widely produced are semi-automatic derivatives of select-fire submachine guns, such as the FN PS90, HK USC, KRISS Vector, Thompson carbine, and the Uzi carbine. Though less common, pistol caliber conversions of centerfire rifles like the AR-15 are commercially available.

Pistol conversion kits

Shoulder stock kits are commercially available for many handguns, notably including the "Broomhandle" Mauser C96, Luger, Browning Hi-Power, M1911, and most Glocks. These are distinct from full carbine conversion kits, which are at least 26 in (660 mm) long and replace the pistols barrel with one at least 16 in (410 mm) long for compliance with the US law.

Legal issues

United States

File:Browning HP (Finnish) with stock.jpg
A Browning Hi-Power, made for the Finnish military, with attached shoulder stock to turn it into a short carbine

Under the National Firearms Act of 1934 firearms with shoulder stocks or originally manufactured as a rifle and barrels less than 16 in (410 mm) in length are classified as short-barreled rifles. Short barreled rifles are restricted similarly to short-barreled shotguns, requiring a $200 tax paid prior to manufacture or transfer - a process which can take several months. Because of this firearms with barrels of less than 16 in (410 mm) and a shoulder stock are uncommon. A list of firearms not covered by the NFA due to their antique status may be found here[5] or due to their Curio and Relic status may be found here;[6] these lists includes a number of carbines with barrels less than the minimum legal length and firearms that are "primarily collector's items and are not likely to be used as weapons and, therefore, are excluded from the provisions of the National Firearms Act. " Machine guns, as their own class of firearm, are not subject to requirements of other class firearms.[citation needed]

Distinct from simple shoulder stock kits, full carbine conversion kits are not classified as short-barreled rifles. By replacing the pistol barrel with one at least 16 in (410 mm) in length and having an overall length of at least 26 in (660 mm), a carbine converted pistol may be treated as a standard rifle under Title I of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA).[7] However, certain "Broomhandle" Mauser C96, Luger, and Browning Hi-Power Curio & Relic pistols with their originally issued stock attached only may retain their pistol classification.

Carbines without a stock and not originally manufactured as a rifle are not classified as rifles or short barreled rifles. A carbine manufactured under 26 in (660 mm) in length without a forward vertical grip will be a pistol and, state law notwithstanding, can be carried concealed without creating an unregistered Any Other Weapon. A nearly identical carbine with an overall length of 26 in (660 mm) or greater is simply an unclassified firearm under Title I of the Gun Control Act of 1968, as the Any Other Weapon catch-all only applies to firearms under 26 in (660 mm) or that have been concealed. However, a modification intending to fire from the shoulder and bypass the regulation of short-barreled rifles is considered the unlawful possession and manufacture of an unregistered short-barreled rifle.

In some historical cases the term machine carbine was the official title for sub-machine guns, such as the British Sten and Australian Owen guns. The semi-automatic only version of the Sterling submachine gun was also officially called a "carbine". The original Sterling semi-auto would be classed a "short barrel rifle" under the U.S. National Firearms Act, but fully legal long-barrel versions of the Sterling have been made for the U.S. collector market.[citation needed]

See also

Further reading

  • Beard, Ross E. Carbine : the story of David Marshall Williams. Williamstown, NJ: Phillips, 1997. ISBN 0-932-57226-X OCLC 757855022
  • Carbines : cal. .30 carbines M1, M1A1, M2 and M3. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Departments of the Army and the Air Force, 1953.
  • McAulay, John D. Carbines of the Civil War, 1861-1865. Union City, TN: Pioneer Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0-913159-45-3 OCLC 8111324
  • McAulay, John D. Carbines of the U.S. Cavalry, 1861-1905. Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 1996. ISBN 0-917-21870-1 OCLC 36087526


  1. "Carbine". Retrieved October 8, 2014.
  2. "carbine." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010.
  3.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Carbine". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
  5. "Curios or Relics List —Update March 2001 through May 2005". Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Retrieved 2015-11-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Curios or Relics List —Update January 2009 through June 2010". Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Retrieved 2015-11-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "ATF Rule 2011-4 pertaining to Carbine Conversion Units". Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Retrieved 2015-11-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>