This report covers:

  • Can’t stop thinking
  • The real question
  • Ferguson breechloading flintlock
  • Pickett’s charge
  • Sharpshooters
  • What about the south?
  • Repeaters for everyone
  • Believe it or not
  • A firearm and tactic that didn’t work
  • Lessons of the U.S. Civil War
  • Summary

Reader Yogi asked for today’s blog. He said

“B.B.

I am hoping that you will do a series of blog articles on the firearms of the Civil War. The US Civil War, lol. I understand that Germany sent over military observers to see what the new firearms and strategies were.

-Yogi”

To that I replied:

“Yogi,

That sounds interesting. There were several things that happened then, like the introduction of the self-contained cartridge in the Henry repeating rifle. I think there were… oh, wait, I guess I’m getting started.

BB”

Can’t stop thinking

Since he said it, this idea has been on my mind almost continuously. I don’t know that I can do a whole series, but several things in this report could engender other reports that would have to be linked, I suppose.

Yes, there were several new firearm ideas that emerged during the American Civil war, which lasted from 1861 until 1865. These ideas would have changed things in the shooting world anyway because they were so revolutionary, but the amount of shooting that went on in what is called the War Between the States (and what southerners call the War of Northern Aggression) was so vast that the changes were far more noticeable.

For contrast, in 1848 when gold was discovered in California, it started the California Gold Rush that went from 1848 until about 1855. Colt six-shot revolvers were very new at that time and they became famous throughout the gold fields. Not that they were used that much, but they were desirable, just for what they could do. But a decade later when the south fought the north and everybody was shooting all the time, there were many firearms, including the latest version of Colt’s revolvers, that were used, copied and talked about.

The real question

But Yogi asked more than just that. He wanted to know what was the firearm’s influence on tactics. He correctly said that other countries came to America to observe how the battles were fought. To explore this question more deeply, let’s back up two entire generations and see something that happened in the American Revolutionary war.

Ferguson breechloading flintlock

A British officer named Patrick Ferguson perfected a breechloading flintlock rifle that allowed up to five accurate shots per minute. It had a screw plug at the breech and turning the triggerguard one full turn opened the breech to accept a ball and a charge of powder. Only just over a hundred were ever made and they were all made by hand so no parts interchanged. But everyone who understood the importance of five accurate shots in a minute, all of which would hit a man at 100 yards, knew that the days of marching in ranks shoulder-to-shoulder to the beat of a drum were over. That was in 1776. And, yes, there were drummer boys in the Civil War, but marching in ranks was not done on the battlefield.

In 1861 most firearms were still loaded at the muzzle, but the adaptation of the Minie ball meant that perhaps 2-3 good shots each minute were possible. The reason for the 2-3 waffle depended on whether the powder and ball were contained in a combustable paper cartridge, or the powder was poured directly from a horn or flask. The percussion cap had replaced the flintlock entirely by the civil war, and only some hunters still used flint.

Pickett’s charge

All the fighting was from behind baracades or other cover because the rifles were too accurate for marching or even running in the open. Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg proved that being in the open was almost certain death, when the south tried to charge across three-quarters of a mile of open field, losing about half of their 12,000 troops.

So, Yogi, lesson one was, take cover whenever possible. This would grow, battle by battle everywhere around the world until by World War I both sides fought for years from deep trenches. At least they did until Wonder Woman charged the German trenches and rallied all the Allied troops behind her.

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Sharpshooters

If accuracy at 100 yards was a good thing why not farther? So thought Colonel Hiram Berdan who organized and commanded two regiments of expert marksmen shooting a mixture of firearms including, you guessed it, early versions of the legendary Sharps breechloading rifle. Some of their rifles, mostly the heavier single shots, were even equipped with telescopic sights. 

At Gettysburg the Sharpshooters delayed the advance of several of the southern units with accurate withering fire. They shot at targets of high value, such as officers and non-commissioned officers, but the south retaliated by picking out their green Sharpshooter uniforms and targeting them in return.

Where the Springfield rifled musket that shot a Minie ball was good for 100 yards and perhaps twice as far in the hands of an excellent shot, the Sharpshooters were accurate twice as far. To be a Sharpshooter you had to be able to place 10 shots inside 10 inches at 200 yards.

What about the south?

The southern shooters had Enfield rifles that were equal in accuracy to the Sharps. But they lacked the telescopes that some Sharpshooters had. So 200 yards was possible, but 300 yards and beyond was mostly luck. The Enfield rifles were loaded from the muzzle, which made them slower. That decreased the number of accurate shots, which played into the Sharpshooter’s hands. General Winfield Scott had insisted that the northern riflemen all use the 1861 Springfield rifled musket that the rest of the army used, but Colonel Berdan insisted on breechloaders when he could get them, and he prevailed.

Being a breechloader, the Sharps outshot the muzzleloading Enfield three shots to one. That was the real advantage, though very few saw it at the time.

Repeaters for everyone

Many soldiers wanted to go to war with a repeating weapon. However, the chief of ordinance, General Ripley, was adamantly opposed to repeaters and even to breechloaders. He was the guy who bought all the guns and ammunition, so what he said carried a lot of weight.

One big reason for his opposition was the fact that breechloaders and certainly repeaters encouraged soldiers to “waste” ammunition — his words, not mine. Even after the civil war, when the Army was testing a new breechloading weapon, General Ripley argued that it had to be a single shot and it had to be made mostly from parts taken from the approximately one-million 1861 muzzleloading muskets that were still in the army’s inventory. As a result of that, the project to develop the rifle that became the trapdoor Springfield was delayed almost five years as engineers tried to comply with the impossible requirement. In the end only a few things like sling swivels carried over but that’s a story for another day.

Both sides had repeating arms in the Civil War. Sidearms were commonly repeaters on both sides, thanks to the work of Samuel Colt and those that followed. But sidearms don’t win wars. It was the long arms that the soldiers wanted to repeat.

The north, having more money and production capacity, also had a greater number of repeating rifles. The Spencer was the most prolific. It was a lever-action rifle that used self-contained cartridges that were stored in a spring-loaded magazine in the butt. Over 200,000 were made (some after the war) and it is still possible today to find one in excellent condition for under $3000. 

The lever-action Henry rifle was the most famous. Confederate Col. Mosby called it “That damned Yankee rifle that can be loaded on Sunday and shot all week”. It held up to 16 .44-caliber rimfire cartridges and when the distance of engagement was not far it was devastating. Some soldiers and officers bought their own Henry rifles, which made ammunition supply something of a challenge. After the war the Henry morphed into the Winchester model 1866 and the ammunition soon became centerfire.

But the greatest repeating firearm of the Civil War was one that could have turned the tide, had it been recognized. The Gatling Gun invented by Richard Gatling was capable of firing hundreds of round per minute. There were no tactics for this at the time, but some commanders realized what was possible, while others didn’t. No doubt General Ripley was livid at the wasted ammo!

The Gatling Gun is not a machine gun. They came later and had their day in World Wars I and II, and even up to today. But the Gatling Gun that is mechanically operated surpassed the machine gun when an electric motor was attached and a firing rate of up to 6,000 rounds per minute was achieved. Just ask anyone who has seen Puff the Magic Dragon fire!

Believe it or not

General Ripley eventually went away, but top-level military conservatism did not. Even in World War I the Springfield 1903 rifle was designed with a magazine cutoff that prevented the rounds in the magazine from feeding. They didn’t want soldiers wasting ammo! This switch made the rifle a single shot until, in the heat of battle, a soldier was ordered to flip the switch to on and use ALL FIVE ROUNDS in his magazine! Yeah, right! Like soldiers are that stupid.

magazine cutoff
The magazine cutoff is in the OFF position. It will not allow a cartridge to be loaded into the chamber from the magazine. Each cartridge must be loaded manually with the switch in this position. Flip it up to ON and you can feed cartridges from the magazine.

A firearm and tactic that didn’t work

The battery gun was a flop. What is a battery gun, you ask? It’s a gun with many barrels aligned in parallel or spread out in a fan and all the cartridges go off at the same time. The Billinghurst Requa gun had 25 .58-caliber barrels mounted in parallel and it sat on a wheeled carriage. Unfortunately for Requa, he showed it to General Ripley who told him it would consume too much expensive ammunition. But when President Lincoln saw it he sent a note to Ripley, telling him to give Requa a second chance. But not on his watch, he didn’t!

Billinghurst Requa battry gun
Billinghurst Requa battery gun, courtesy the NRA National Museum.

The gun was tested and did work well. It was even used in a couple battles, but never rose to fame. Apparently the Gatling Gun and later the machine gun did the same job better and simpler. Besides, until the human wave attacks in Korea, soldiers learned not to charge into the enemy guns unless they had no option.

Lessons of the U.S. Civil War

1. Don’t charge standing up over open ground.

2. Shoot a lot, there will always be more ammunition (sorry, General Ripley).

3. Accuracy does matter.

4. The side with the greatest production capacity always wins, when they have the will.

5. Boots should be made for each foot and not for just any foot. I didn’t cover that in the report, but it was one of the lessons to come out of the U.S. Civil War.

6. Be sure you’re on Wonder Woman’s side! That was actually in WWI, but I couldn’t resist.

Summary

Yogi, yes the firearms that existed during the American Civil War did cause the tactics to evolve, at least some of the time. But firearms themselves were also evolving fast during this period and a lot of innovations were withheld from the battlefield. Outfitting an army is an enormous proposition and not one in which you can expect to jump to the latest and greatest. Depending on the situation sometimes changes can be made and other times they can’t.

Also, the first battles of any war are fought with the tactics that won the last war, because that is what the leaders remember. Like the firearms, the tactics also evolve as time passes. 

I’m going to bring up a new topic, which never should be done in a summary. Air rifles can now group their shots in less than an inch at 100 yards. Other airguns can take deer and buffalo. What will that do to the future of airguns?