US Model of 1859 iron buckles for cavalry equipment
In 1859, the McClellan model cavalry saddle specifications were extensively revised from the previously tested Model 1857 McClellan (commonly referred to as the Trial Saddle). One of these alterations was the substitution of the hardware used for the bridle, saddlebags, carbine loop and coat straps with that made with ‘blued malleable iron’.
Many collectors and students of civil war artifacts have debated whether this ‘blued iron’ hardware was even made. Or made for a short time before the obvious shortcomings of the easily corroded finish were discovered. Certainly by the end of the war, the majority of all small iron buckles and hardware had a shiny black japan finish. Given the Rule of Surplus*, this late war hardware is what collectors are most familiar with – as unused specimens are far more common than early war production items.
Here is a photographic comparison of two civil war McClellan 5/8″ coat strap buckles. This size was also used for bridle throat-latches and saddlebag closures. In the foreground is a nice ‘blued’ example, with noticeable areas of coloring still apparent. The other is a typical black japanned buckle.
If you happen to find a iron buckle of this type, look for visible grind or file marks from the manufacturers finishing work. If these rough finishing marks are visible, then you can reasonably assume that it was a blued buckle. Japanning tends to chip, or be worn off in noticeable patches, with visible remains of shiny varnish still clinging to the metal. Just from my own personal experience, I’d say that the blued finish was fairly common, especially in early- to mid-war production. Japanned hardware, on the other hand, I have not found ‘on the loose’ nearly as often. It tends to be attached to late-war production surplus or found as ‘new old stock’, such as the buckles shown above.
* The Rule of Surplus – “That which did not get issued and was sold off as surplus, is what people in the future will assume was the most common.”