The Model 1872 McClellan Saddle

After the civil war the military was left holding vast quantities of military equipment. Saddles alone numbered in the tens of thousands. They would be a major consideration in the years to come in any decisions to upgrade horse equipment.

After the war, the McClellan again confronted the western frontier environment, and again was found wanting. The problems that had faced the earlier M1857 trial version were noted with the M1859/64 saddle. These problems were further exacerbated by the difficulty in resupply and repair for a more widely scattered body of troops, which had not been the case (in most situations) during the war. The first solution was to try the same tactic that was used with the M1857 trial saddle, to install brass moldings on the pommel and cantle to cover and reduce wear and tear on these stress spots. However, the rawhide cover of saddles is prone to expansion and contraction induced by the wetting and drying of the material. With exposed rawhide, rapid fluctuations in humidity alone cause this action. The rawhide cover required a buffering material to reduce the rapid change in moisture levels in the rawhide.

The most suitable material for this purpose was leather. While the leather is also adversely affected by repeated wetting and drying, it does not dry out in the rapid, self-destructive manner of rawhide. With care, a rain-soaked leather covered McClellan could be returned to essentially the same condition as before. Assuming the rawhide was also soaked, the slow drying leather cover would allow this moisture to gradually dissipate. This gradual dissipation does not have the destructive action to the rawhide that a rapid drying of the exposed material would have. In many cases, a leather cover would absorb most of the moisture, leaving the rawhide fairly dry and unaffected, in this way acting as a buffer for the rawhide. This can be seen in many relic saddles that have been subjected to years of neglect. The leather coverings may be cracked and shrunken from repeated wetting and drying, while the rawhide cover underneath remains fairly stable and intact. ‘Course it also helps when the rawhide was slathered with shellac before being covered…

This was well known to the military authorities of the time, who were also faced with strict budgetary constraints. These constraints were such that they made the repeated issuing of war surplus saddles every six months or so easier than obtaining monies to make new saddles. A happy medium was reached in the M1872 model saddle. After many experiments and trials with various cavalry companies, in which leather covers had been made for saddles by company saddlers, the Army began the issue of the M1872 McClellan, the first (arsenal made) leather covered McClellan.

The M1872 was essentially a rebuilt civil war surplus saddle, using as many parts of the old saddle as possible. The skirts were removed, and dee ring safes were  attached to the rigging. The trees themselves were covered in black collar leather, with all the original hardware being returned to the proper positions. New cinches were obtained. Essentially an interim solution, the M1872 saddle would serve into the late 1870s.

There is some debate as to the shape of the rigging dee safes on the 1872 saddle, which has been further confused by Randy Steffen’s illustrations which are basically pure conjecture. Extent specimens of the 1872 are EXTREMELY rare, nearly to the point of legend, so it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty exactly what this model’s details looked like.