Old North State Iron and Brass Works

Confederate Bit


Description and Photograph





      This extremely rare bit was issued by the Richmond, Virginia Confederate Arsenal.  It was made by SHAY, WILLIAMSON AND CO. at the Old North State Iron and Brass Works, Raleigh, North Carolina.  It has generally been referred to as a “Richmond Officer’s Bit” but as you will see, this is a misnomer.

     The Old North State Iron and Brass Works made all sorts of brass castings for the Confederacy and delivered many of them to the Richmond Arsenal.  It is quite likely that some of the buckles we attribute to Richmond were cast in North Carolina, as we know the company manufactured and supplied large numbers of belt mountings, spurs, saddle mountings and these brass bridle bits.  They also supplied wooden valise ends and artillery harness to the Richmond Ordnance Depot.

     On September 3, 1862 this firm signed a contract with Major Downer of the Ordnance Department for 10,000 sets of brass mountings, 5,000 brass bridle bits and 5,000-brass spurs; the brass to be furnished by the Ordnance Department.  This contract was canceled for unknown reasons and a second contract for the same items was signed on September 30th but included 20,000 ends for valises "of the pattern already furnished to the Ordnance Harness Shops, Clarksville."  As you can see this one contract was intended to outfit 5,000 (valise parts for 10,000) cavalry troopers, not just officers.  In the contract these bits were referred to as a "common" bit-not an officer’s bit.  Vouchers indicate 2,200 brass bits and 4,100 spurs were delivered by April 17, 1863, but this same month a shipment of bits from the firm was rejected as defective.  Downer warned the company against any further shipments of the kind and hereafter, only one other shipment was received on June 19th for 800 bits and 700 pairs of spurs.   

     It is no wonder they were rejected; the iron cross piece is inserted into brass, this could not have possibly held up long in service.  And in fact it is almost unheard of to find one that is intact.  When excavated they are always in pieces, because the soft brass could not stand the pressure of the iron cross piece.  Complete examples are so rare that I find the same, one and only, example used in all the various books related to Confederate horse equipage, and it is an excavated example.  I have seen only one other complete bit, minus the curb chain, in my career.  Even though 3,000 of these bits were delivered they are virtually nonexistent because the survival rate appears to hover around 1%.

     The company did go on to produce iron bits for the Confederacy.

     There are of course possible unknowns, but this is the only known non excavated example complete with its curb chain.  It is completely original and has a beautiful deep rich patina.              




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