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Affects of firearms on American civil war tactics

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?

41 thoughts on “Affects of firearms on American civil war tactics”

  1. BB
    Well I have to compliment you. A good read today. And maybe if you would of been my high school history teacher I might of attended class a little more often. 😉

  2. BB,

    Being one who is into history, weaponry and tactics, most of this was not new, however I still managed to learn something I was unaware of. I was ignorant of the magazine switch on the ’03 Springfield. That would have been a piece that would have been removed from my weapon.

    As to the future of airguns, as soon as someone in the USA is fatally shot with one, the “media” will pounce upon it and the ignorant “sheep” will start baahing for them to be taken away from us and their elected representatives will attempt to do just that, with no respect of our rights and privileges.

    Until that time, we will continue to see a rapid growth in the airgun industry as more firearm shooters continue to discover the world of modern airguns.

    • Ah yes, the much maligned cutoff switch. First, you’re not removing it unless you wish to incur the wrath of every NCO up the chain. Second, it is not in the way of anything, doesn’t get bumped on or off and allows for meaningful marksmanship training. During battle, you can maintain a rate of fire, while keeping your magazine in reserve. That last bit is not really practical, since you have to take the rounds out of a stripper clip to feed individually.
      But seriously, shoot an ‘03 sometime, the cutoff is not an issue. Just seems to be something that the internet keeps feeding.

    • RidgeRunner,
      You say, ” as soon as someone in the USA is fatally shot with one, the “media” will pounce…”

      Unfortunately, we get 3 or 4 airgun deaths in a typical year: An American Academy of Pediatrics report counted 39 deaths in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000; 32 of the 39 were children under 15. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/114/5/1357.full.pdf

      This May, there was a fatality in Moses Lake, Washington, near where I live: “A boy died after his brother accidentally shot him with a pellet gun. … A 13-year-old boy shot his younger brother, 8, in the chest with the pellet gun,…”
      https://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/state/washington/article251533238.html

      All of this goes into my airgun safety spiel, though with less emphasis than the discussion of eye protection and the much more frequent eye injuries.

      Guy

        • Ridge Runner,
          Thinking statistically, eye injuries are the big risk with air guns; the media ought to ignore the very rare deaths or serious non-eye injuries.
          Still, I was surprised at the way the local papers ignored the air gun aspect to the Moses Lake shooting: Tragic accident, horrible for the family

          • Guy,

            The media has their agenda. More people are killed in auto crashes every year than with firearms. Why are they not screaming about that? “So many people are killed every year in automobile accidents! These deadly machines should be banned!” I wonder how that would go over?

  3. BB-

    A couple of things-
    Generations are 20-25 years. So, 4 generations between the Revolution and the Civil War.
    Rev War soldiers were drilled to be proficient at providing 4 aimed rounds per minute.
    Civil War soldiers, using the Minie system muskets, upped the number to 5 plus.
    By the time of Gettysburg, most of Berdan’s troops were in Federal Blue but retained their green hats.
    The Spencer rifles and carbines, surplused onto the open market after the war, can arguably be called the gun that made it safe for the Winchester to ‘Win the West’.
    Dittos on the glory of a gunship in a pylon turn. Never saw a Puff/Dragon. More familiar with the Spectre/Spooky.

  4. BB,

    I’m going to side with General Ripley for a logistical reason. The Sharps used a paper cartridge while the Burnside had an ice cream cone like cartridge that used a separate percussion cap. The Spencer used a rimfire cartridge. Supplying three different cartridges to troops would be problematic. By the time WW I rolled around this reason became moot with a standardized cartridge, at least for the US, obviating the reason for a single shot then reload mentality that was carried over. Then again wars are usually fought with ideas gained from the last war that was fought.

    Siraniko

    PS: Shouldn’t the title be “Effects of firearms on American civil war tactics” instead of “Affects of firearms on American civil war tactics”. Affect, when used as a verb, means “to act on or change someone or something.” As a noun, an effect is “a change that results when something is done or happens,” or “a particular feeling or mood created by something.” Effect can also be a verb. As a verb, effect generally means “to cause to come into being” or “accomplish.”

    • Nice catch, Siraniko. To put it another way, the firearms had an effect (noun) on the tactics. It would not be right to say the firearms had an affect on the tactics. Rather, firearms affected (verb) the tactics.

      This blog has affected me greatly!

  5. BB

    Good reading.

    One point not mentioned is extreme accuracy even at 800 yards or more with the imported Whitworth rifle. Officers and artillery crews far behind front lines had something new to ponder. General Ridley should have liked it since it was slow to reload. Also it was the birth of snipers at least on this side of the planet.

    Deck

  6. B.B.,
    I really enjoyed this report, and I liked your reference back to the Ferguson breechloader in the Revolutionary War. I’ve always found that to be a fascinating gun, and it might have had more influence if Captain Ferguson had not been shot in the arm and taken out of action for so long for his recovery. Still, besides the one-turn opening and closing of the breech, I thought that ensuring it could work even despite black powder fowling was pretty cool. (Others who are not too familiar with this rifle can read more here: https://armourersbench.com/2018/10/15/the-ferguson-rifle/)
    And there were so many breechloaders tried in this conflict (the Civil War) that an entire book could be written about them…oh wait, it was; I have the book. LOL!
    Thanking you for a most interesting historical report,
    dave

  7. Thank you to Yogi and B.B. for an interesting report.

    Unrelated- where is Part 1 to the ‘Mondial Oklahoma spring-piston pistol’ blog? The Part 1 link doesn’t seem to work- for me, anyway.

  8. This is right up FM’s “Love History Alley,” B.B.; Mrs. FM frequently reminds the Worse Half “you should have been a History teacher.” Shoulda, woulda, coulda. The two of us visited Gettysburg and Valley Forge last month, something which had been on the Bucket List for years. Both places provided a wonderful experience and perspective on two very important events in our country’s history. FM recommends anyone who is able to visit these hallowed places should do so, sooner and not later. Someday would like to return to Gettysburg and walk the entire battlefield, seeing things from the perspective of the brave men from both sides who slugged it out for 3 days.

    We did a very nice tour conducted by a volunteer retired anesthesiologist working with the National Park Service. Not only did he share some of the more obscure facts about the battle, but added perspective on the treatment of the wounded. For example, he explained there were two anesthetics available then, ether and chloroform. The surgeons preferred to use chloroform, because ether was volatile/flammable. In the days before electric lights, the surgeons had to operate with open-flame lanterns and similar lighting aids; some of the docs liked to smoke a fine cigar during surgery, and if ether was being used…sometimes there were unfortunate accidents which helped neither doc nor patient.

    So many great Rabbit Holes to go down into here, FM needs to conclude and shut up. Did get to see a Ferguson breechloader on display at the Museum of The American Revolution in Philadelphia, which was another treat. One thing which surprises is why no one thought of developing an air rifle along the lines of the Girandoni for use during the Civil War? No matter, Gen. Ripley would have complained it wasted ammunition too.

  9. How interesting, to learn one financial consideration in the business of war.
    No wonder the idea of using airguns to train soldiers.

    A tidbit I read somewhere is that during the Goldrush there was a heightened desire for self defence. Colt’s pocket revolver was particularly popular. More of these little civilian arms were produced than his larger military designs.

    Here is a replica:

  10. BB,

    good history lesson here. Never knew about the Fuqua or the Ferguson. Thanks. Oh, and very clever regarding General Ripley and Believe it or Not! You sly devil.

    Fred formerly of the Peeples Demokratik Republik of NJ now happily in rainy GA

  11. A very good reading indeed.
    I thought it was Friday…
    In any case we have to give Gen. Ripley some credit if we consider the shots per hit ratio, as statistics show us. It seems that marksmanship is losing ground against the spray and pray attitude.
    Maybe Shootski will attest that the same skill downfall led to the Top Gun school. You can launch many projectiles/rockets, but is that all it takes to win a fight?

    • Bill
      It all comes down to making that one direct hit that counts weather your fighting someone or shooting something.

      How you make that hit can go many different ways. It all depends on the situation.

    • Bill,

      Great question.
      It was a twofold problem in that we had a 2 to 1 kill ratio but the cost ratio was more like 1 to 2,000in aircraft and Aviator cost.
      The North’s fighters could out turn us and with the ROE we needed to Visually ID before shooting. We had gotten rid of guns thinking it was all going to be long range missile intercept. What we learned was to optimize the F-4’s power advantage by teaching the VERTICAL of the engagement instead of the horizontal turning air combat manuvering taught in the training commands underpowered trainers of the day.

      So The Fighter Weapons School trained Naval Aviators (pilots) and Naval Flight Officers (RIOs) aka GIB (Guy In Back) to go VERTICAL.

      shootski

  12. All,
    Here is something that surprised me. When I was in 6th grade we went to a old preserved Fort. I thought it was in Missouri but it could of been in Illinois. I don’t remember now. All I know is I was getting away from school and us kids was ready for fun. They had alot of cool activities like how they made candles back then and we all got to make one. We got to see the fort all except one building which I believe was the officers quarters. So they probably wasn’t showing f us that for whatever reason.. and I remember it was somewhat close to the river. They had several canons by the stone wall surrounding the Fort. And I remember this now too. Us kids was asking if the cannons still fired. They said they do occasionally fire one. And back when the Foer was active it would get fired for different reasons. Not only in battle. Also there was certian people dressed in uniforms and the women wore plain white types of long dresses. Also they was going to shoot some guns but we never got to see it because we had to get on the bus to headback home.

    Anyway I figured it would be easy to find the Forts location. And of course I don’t remember the Forts name.

    But look what happened when I searched Forts in Missouri. It blew me away how many there was throughout a time span.

    Check it out.
    https://usregular0.tripod.com/warof1812/id3.html

      • Dave
        I just read through the list again.

        It was Fort Charters that us school kids had our field trip to. I haven’t looked yet but I’m going to see if I can find more info on that fort.

        And what gets me is that was just Illinios and Missouri. Imagine all the other Forts all around the other states.

        Pretty massive movement in using other words.

        I always think looking out in my back yard what these woods and fields that are still here today have seen throughout time. Only if the land could tell thier story. It’s almost unimaginable the more I think about it.

  13. B.B.,

    What a great introduction into the Affects of Firearms on War Tactics. I get the impression you’ve read Joseph Bilby’s book.

    Here are three simple tricks for remembering the difference between affect vs. effect. First, “A” comes before “E“ in the alphabet. The “A“ stands for the action that affects and comes before the effect. Second, if you can replace the word with influence, then you should probably use affect. If you can replace the word with result, you should probably use effect. Third, use the RAVEN mnemonic device: remember—affect, verb; effect, noun.

    • Kevin
      Right something has to be affective before you know if it will be effective.

      It’s about what tense your talking. What will happen if you do something or what happened after you did something.

      BB’s title is all about if he wrote about what was happening or what done happened. And that could be chose how ever he wanted to write.

  14. B.B. mentions N Korean human-wave attacks; the Chinese carried them out too, and earlier the Japanese and the Russians. They all found, after counting the losses, these tactics were not “cost effective.”

    FM’s understanding – he could be wrong as he is about many things – is the German MG-42, with its capability to fire 20 rds of 7,92mm per second was engineered in response to Red Army massed infantry attacks. Of course, firing one at full blast would consume enormous amounts of ammo, not to speak of numerous burnt-out barrels. Overheard some guys at a gun show, about 30 years ago, discussing a conversation they’d had with a German Eastern Front veteran who told them how they were trained to fire 3-shot bursts with the 42 in order to conserve ammunition and barrels for when the critical moment of the action inevitably arrived.

    To think FM had an opportunity to legally acquire one many years ago…but had to decline because $1000 was too much for him at the time. It was pristine, manufactured in 1945. 🙁

  15. B.B.,

    Thank you Yogi and Tom for a great read.

    I must have Shot Pistols on the brain currently for some reason so I was surprised you didn’t list the LeMat .42 cap and ball black powder Revolver shot pistol combination in the Repeaters part of today’s blog. The LeMat nine shot revolver with a 20 Gauge barrel below the revolver barrel used by the Confederacy.

    shootski

  16. BB, Nice report! It might be noted that the south was burnt to the ground by Sherman”s highly mobile horsed cavalry and raiding tactics, against civilians, using revolvers and repeating rifles. Hit and run in the rear while largeer armys surrounded big cities. A good part of the reason the north was hated so. The fog of the battlefield from black powder must have made it hard to see troop movements. Still, Custer had the latest gear, but the best horsed light infantry of the day overwhelmed a decorated civil war veteran. We have to wait for Air cavaly lancers for them to get it right. Rob

  17. B.B.,
    The South just didn’t have enough of many items that could have affected tactics.
    The Whitworth Rifle artillery piece is another item that didn’t do nearly what it might have. With a 5+ mile range it was more capable than any Union comparable field gun but accurate fire required spotters and communications the South didn’t have the ability to provide. So that range advantage in the field was of no use. The Union used one of the stranger developments in artillery. Hot-air balloons as viewing platforms that could communicate with artillery teams via semafhore flags that allowed them to hit targets they could not actually see. This is a form of fire we have termed indirect fire or OHT (Over the Horizon Targeting) in modern warfare.
    Like I said I must have shot pistols on the brain!
    ;^) LOL!

    shootski

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