The Richmond Arsenal Officer’s Bridle Bit

Richmond Arsenal Confederate Officer’s bit. Cast brass cheek pieces with iron curb mouthpiece. Very few of these are found completely intact. Surviving primary evidence suggests it was made by the Raleigh North Carolina firm of Shay, Williamson & Company.

Riding bits used by the mounted arm of the Confederate cavalry and artillery have long been an area of widespread research and speculation. However, an unfortunate lack of documentation and the endless varieties of period bridle bits have made individual identification very difficult indeed. Several broadly identifiable bit patterns are believed to have been routinely manufactured by the Confederacy for issue to troopers and adequately covered in earlier treatments on the subject including the article CONFEDERATE CAVALRY RIDING BITS (NSTCW Mar-Apr. 96) written by noted author and historian Howard Crouch. However, some recently discovered information sheds a “suggestive light” on the origins of the brass bridle bit commonly referred to as the “Richmond Officers Bit”. 
The so called Richmond Officer’s bit is made of two solid cast-brass cheek pieces joined by a mouth piece of round iron bar stock. It is a double rein bit and has been correctly identified as intended for sale only to officer’s. Private’s bits issued from the Richmond Arsenal were usually of simple hand forged iron either with a single or double “loose” rein ring and commonly referred to today as a “trooper’s bit”. Several bit patterns were made or purchased for officers at all of the South’s major horse equipment producing arsenals but this unique brass bit pattern is only excavated in and around the mid-war Army of Northern Virginia sites in Virginia. Interestingly, the vast majority of them bent or broken into pieces.

A study of the surviving Confederate records found in the National Archives suggests that  these bits were likely manufactured by the Raleigh, North Carolina firm of Shay, Williamson & Co. The evidence for this is circumstantial but compelling. Specifically, Ordnance Department contracts and correspondence show that from the fall of 1862 through early 1864 Shay & Williamson, also known as the North State Iron and Brass Works, supplied the Richmond Arsenal with large numbers of bridle bits, spurs, saddle mountings, belt mountings, wooden valise ends and an unknown amount of artillery harness. However, what is of most interest here is that Shay & Williamson was the only contractor noted in all of those records to have supplied that arsenal with “brass” bridle bits during the war.

This pattern cast iron, double rein bit was common prior to the war. An entire box of a nearly identical bit and a host of other period items were retrieved from the wreck of the “Arabia” sunk in the Missouri River in 1856. Note its similar configuration to the Richmond Arsenal Officer’s brass bit.

On September 30th, 1862 Shay, Williamson & Co. signed a contract with the Richmond Arsenal’s Superintendent of Armories, Major William S. Downer for 10,000 sets of brass belt mountings (with and without hooks), 5,000 brass spurs and “5,000 brass bridle bits”. The contract language refers to the bit as a “common bit…. as per sample furnished” which suggests its configuration was at least similar to that of civilian patterns of the period rather than an inherently military one, a’la the familiar U.S. Dragoon or the 1859 Federal patterns. Coincidently, it is important to note that the excavated Richmond Officer’s brass bit closely resembles common civilian iron bits known to be popular in the mid-19th century. But, the similarities do not end there.
Arsenal vouchers indicate Shay & Williamson deliveries made by April 17th, 1863 included 2,200 brass bits and 4,100 pairs of brass spurs but it is obvious the bits were not meeting the proper standard. That April, a shipment was rejected as “defective” and Major Downer warned the company against any further deliveries of the kind. No other relative correspondence is found but shortly thereafter the deliveries abruptly end without fulfilling the contract. Total deliveries by June 19th are exactly 3,000 brass bits and 4,800 pairs of brass spurs.

As noted by long-time relic archeologist and author Howard Crouch, the firm’s large numbers and the time frame of their contract deliveries seem to correspond to the same mid-war period site excavations of these solid brass cheeked bits made by relic hunters in Virginia. Evidence which further suggests they could be one in the same.

It’s apparent from the unearthed examples that the inherent defect of this bit was its solid but fragile or soft brass cheek-piece construction which left them subject to easy bending and breakage. A flaw which naturally begs the question as to why the usually extraordinarily capable Confederate Ordnance Officers knowledgeable as they were in metallurgy, ever allowed such an item to pass inspection.  Nevertheless, no more brass bits were hereafter made or received by the Richmond Arsenal.

On May 9, 1863 another contract was signed with Shay & Williamson for 15,000 more bridle bits to be delivered at the rate of twenty-five hundred a month. However, subsequent correspondence, vouchers and their price suggest these were probably made entirely of iron. Were the bits now made under this new contract similar in appearance to the earlier brass pattern?  The surviving record leaves no certain answer but some crude cast iron bits believed to be of the period show some very strong similarities. Unfortunately, it is apparent by mid-winter 1864 Shay & Williamson was not meeting the delivery requirements under the new agreement leaving it doubtful they made good on this contract either

Common “civilian” cast-iron bridle bit often referred to as a “mule” bit.. Note its similarities to the iron bit in Figure #2. Still found today in great quantity and various sizes it was a popular catalog sale item well into the twentieth century.

In both of these contractual agreements brass and iron was to be furnished by the government However, as correspondence clearly illustrates Shay and Williamson was afflicted with problems similarly found by other contractors working for the C.S. Government. Including difficulty in getting adequate materials, transportation and shortages found in the shipments they did receive. Circumstances which no doubt affected their ability to make timely deliveries and may have contributed to the poor quality of their brass bits. Nonetheless, in their last piece of surviving correspondence of February 9th, 1864, Shay and Williamson Co. hurriedly wrote to Major Downer seeking still more contracts for brass belt mountings and spurs before Downer’s resignation from the Ordnance Department became effective later that month.

No further information is available to completely resolve all speculation. However, while not entirely conclusive the primary records from the Richmond Arsenal, modern day excavations and their corresponding circumstantial evidence all strongly suggest the Shay, Williamson & Company of Raleigh North Carolina were the likely manufacturers of the well known brass Richmond Arsenal Officer’s bit.

AUTHORS NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Crouch and Steve Henry for contribution of their valuable time and vast experience in the completion of this article.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: For more information on Confederate cavalry and artillery saddles, bridle bits, imported British equipment,  bits, stirrups, excavated relics and other horse equipment items look for Ken R. Knopp’s new book CONFEDERATE SADDLES AND HORSE EQUIPMENT to be published this fall by NSTCW.



A. Vol. 90, Richmond Arsenal Correspondence; Vol. 96, Contracts for the Clarksville Depot and Richmond Arsenal.
B. SHAY & WILLIAMSON, M346, Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms.

2. RIDING BITS IN THE CONFEDERATE CAVALRY SERVICE, By Howard R. Crouch, North South Traders Civil War, Mar.-April 1996, Pgs. 42-45.

3. THE BITS OF THE ARMY OF NORTHERN VA. 1861-1865. By Stephen M. Henry, Military Collector & Historian, Journal of the Company of Military Historians, Washington, DC, Vol. XLI, No 4, Winter 1989, Pgs. 212-213.