The Model 1896 was a substantial model change for the McClellan military saddle, as it was upgraded with a fundamentally new tree, and a collection of minor updates that were carried forward for many years. It was also the McClellan model that saw the change in leather color from black to russet, around 1902.
By the early 1890s, the supply of civil war surplus saddletrees upon which the arsenals had been building McClellan saddles with had finally diminished to the point that a new source was needed. Instead of merely reproducing the same design of the past forty years, which was not all that strong to begin with, the thoroughly modern Ordnance Department followed another track.
Lt. Odus Horney (Ordnance Dept, US Army) is credited with developing what was essentially an entirely new saddletree, although dimensionally very similar to the late civil war specification McClellan. Indeed, it retained the McClellan name despite the many changes, as it obviously was so close in appearance to the earlier models.[click here to see his 1897 report]
Lt. Horney’s task was to mechanize the saddle production process. Prior to this saddletrees used were hand made civil war surplus, with minor variances in dimensions. To accomplish the mechanization of the saddletree making process, Lt. Horney had to make some changes in the tree itself.
First, the wood used was changed with the poplar sidebars and beechwood pommels and cantles of the civil war saddles being replaced with basswood bars and ash pommels and cantles. The metal reinforcing plates of the earlier varieties were replaced with a one piece stamped metal bracket, riveted to both pommels and cantles to the sidebars. This strengthened the tree enormously. Iron rivets were used throughout instead of the cut nails, screws or light rivets of the 1859/64 versions. The old hand-shaped cantle, with all it’s variances, was also standardized. The outer cantle edge was now a section of a circle (semicircular), with a flat face on the front, or seat, side. This was to facilitate the turning of this part. The sidebars were turned on copying lathes so that each was identical to the others produced. There were no raised portions, or extensions, where the pommel and cantles attached to the sidebar, as noted on the civil war version. The joining parts connected at flattened areas on the sidebar. The pommels were the least changed, dimensionally speaking, although they did have a somewhat larger, thicker appearance. The wooden parts of the cantle and pommel, instead of a weak dovetail joint (as many old Civil War trees had), were formed with an interlocking mortice joint. These pieces were glued together before being shaped, and then screwed to the sidebars.
The method of rawhiding these trees appears to be different from a majority of the saddles done before this. Most civil war saddles showed that only stitches were used in the seat side of the cantle and pommel. A few exceptions show the use of the external lace that was run under these stitches on the cantle seat side, as in the cantle seat rear and pommel front edges. In the 1896 variant, all these top side pommel and cantle edges used an external lace, over which the lace “holddown” stitches were passed. This served to reinforce the rawhide around the stitch, spreading the strain evenly. If the rawhide cover under the stitch broke or ripped, the lace would serve to hold the rawhide in place. Before this time, the rawhide would have been free to lift away from the saddletree had a stitch pulled through.
The stirrup loops were also changed somewhat, to aid in the ease of mechanical production, as well as strengthen them. Civil war varieties invariably positioned two of three screws or rivets, through the squared folded strap holding the loop, in a straight line parallel to the wood grain. This tended to promote splitting of the wood along the grain, thus weakening the attachment of the hardware. Since this was also a straight metal strap, cut and wrapped around the loop, it necessarily had to be inletted by hand because of the square corners. The new design used a rounded end stirrup loop strap (to facilitate use of routers to inlet the sidebar for it) and offset rivet holes, so that no two rivets passed through the same plane in the wood grain.
The rest of the saddle was completed in much the same way as the 1893, with small refinements in a few areas. These rigging safes were more rectangular in shape (long side vertical) with rounded corners. These were attached by loops around the rigging rings, which were the same as the 4″ cinch rings. Hardware was also refined somewhat, with the saddle fittings being substantially heavier than previous ones. During the summer of 1898, 3,000 sets of cavalry equipment were made at the San Antonio Arsenal – these have the earlier M1893 style ring safes, although they were riveted to the ring ala M1896 pattern. All San Antonio made saddles used Rock Island Arsenal made trees and hardware.
Rivets – the M1896 saddle was the first arsenal-produced McClellan to show the use of jappan-finish iron tubular rivets and caps. These were found at most of the places brass rivets and burrs were used previously, with the exception of the cincha. They presented a fine, smooth appearance, and were most certainly easier to quickly install with.
The wooden stirrups were improved as well with the addition of ‘crescentric washers’ that gave additional support to the rivets holding the transom and reinforced the top bent sections of wood. These 1896 pattern stirrups would be used until the end of the mounted cavalry in the 1940s. Before this time, the larger ‘1885’ pattern 4″ wooden stirrups used two simple iron rivets.
The stirrup straps were constructed with reversed buckles and reinforced sections where the stirrup transom would rest. The reversed buckle allowed the stirrup strap to be twisted when assembled. Depending on the direction of the twist, the openings of the stirrups on both sides could be made to naturally face the rear, reducing the stress on the rider’s legs. A reason for this can be seen in the increasingly heavy weight of strap leather that was being used for stirrup straps. The stiff 14-15 oz. leather used in the earlier models tended to turn the stirrup foot openings outward. The rider, if they dropped their foot from the stirrup, would have difficulty in returning it to a outward facing stirrup, especially in the flurry of mounted action. This was the same designed used through WW1.
The hair cinchas were improved by ceasing to stitch over the horsehair cords, and using a single rivet and burr to restrict the opening.
This saddle pattern was also used by the artillery, although the evolution of the artillery McClellan was convoluted. The Ordnance Dept tended to ‘take care of their own’, and you find a lot of the larger ‘model changes’ in cavalry equipment had been introduced in the development of the artillery gear. As it had been from the beginning, much of the artillery gear was made-to-order for the mounted batteries, and innovations could occur from order to order.
Leather Color Change:
Around 1902, the US Army began a move to use replace their black leather items with russet (or brown) leather. Part of the worldwide trend away from colorful to drab uniforms, this included all leather items, including the McClellan. Collectors find that there seem to be a LOT of russet leather M1896 saddles, for the short time they were produced – from 1902 to about 1906. One of the reasons for this might have been a minor panic that occurred in 1904/05, where the Rock Island Arsenal finally received funding to replenish it’s ‘wartime stockpile’ of 40,000 sets of cavalry equipment. This production was accomplished in about nine months of 1905, after which the rigging was updated to the new Model of 1904 specification.