Rifles in the American Civil War

Rifles in the American Civil War

During the American Civil War, the rifle was the most common weapon found on the battlefield. Most of the rifles during that time were loaded with a small lead musket ball or with a minnie ball (or Minié ball) and black powder. Most rifles of this era were muzzle loaded rifled muskets. These rifles were used by both the United States of America ("Union") and the Confederate States of America.



In the decades leading up to the Civil War, numerous advances had been made in weapons. The flintlock, which had been in use for almost two hundred years, had been replaced by the caplock in the 1840s. Rifles had been in use for many years, but prior to the civil war had been rare in military use. The black powder at the time quickly fouled the barrel, making reloading slower and more difficult. Round balls did not fit so tightly into the barrel, and therefore did not suffer from the slow loading problem common to rifles. Black powder also quickly obscured the battlefield, which led military leaders of the time to conclude that the greater range of rifles was of little value on the battlefield. Military leaders therefore preferred the faster loading smooth bore weapons over the more accurate rifles. The invention of the Minié ball solved the slow loading problem, allowing smoothbore muskets to be replaced by rifles in the decades just before the civil war. In addition, most existing military doctrine was based around the smoothbore musket. Since the 17th century, infantry normally fought in a tight shoulder-to-shoulder line and fired volleys at each other. When one side gained the upper hand, they would finish off the attack with a bayonet charge. These tactics developed because smoothbore muskets were only accurate at short ranges. Rifles made this type of fighting obsolete because of their much greater range. In Civil War battles, infantry typically fought in a widely-spread out line, with the men using trees, rocks, buildings, etc. for cover. Linear formations were thus rarely seen any more (although it did occur in the Battle of Brawner's Farm the evening before Second Bull Run).

However, most American army officers in 1861 had been schooled in obsolete Napoleonic tactics, especially since many of them had served in the Mexican War, which was still fought in the old way with smoothbore muskets and linear formations. As such, officers typically failed to realize the power of rifles and continued to launch massed attacks against fortified enemies, which invariably resulted in heavy losses. For years, one of the standard manuals used in the US Army had been an 1835 translation by General Winfield Scott of a French work. Shortly before the Civil War, William J. Hardee (later to become a Confederate lieutenant general) updated it to include information on rifles, but he still assumed the use of linear formations in the book. Nonetheless, Hardee's book was produced in a huge variety of editions during the war, often for different types of infantry. For instance, one was produced specially for African-American troops, and another for Zouave units. There were many Southern editions, and at least one Northern edition that omitted Hardee's name from the title page.

Even worse was the state of cavalry tactics. Traditionally, mounted soldiers carried a lance, sword, or pistol and could sweep enemy infantry weakened by artillery or musket fire. Napoleon normally always tried to rout opposing armies from the field after softening their line with massed artillery barrages. The Napoleonic cavalry charge was thus made both obsolete and suicidal by rifles. At least two major battles in the Civil War, Gaines Mill and Gettysburg, saw such attempts, both with predictable results. As a result, cavalry came to be used mainly for raiding and scouting, and seldom participated in major battles. Mounted charges gave way to dismounted combat where men would tie up their horses and fight on foot.

When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, neither the North (about 360,000 small arms) nor the South (about 240,000) had enough weapons to fight a major war.[1]:75 Stockpiles of rifles and handguns carried by individual soldiers were limited. As the war escalated those arms stockpiles were quickly diminished.[2] Soldiers were often forced to use older smooth bore and flintlock muskets, which had been considered to be obsolete, simply because the newer rifles were not available in sufficient quantities. Many soldiers were forced to use their own personal hunting rifles, which were typically Kentucky or Pennsylvania type rifles. These rifles, while more accurate than smoothbore muskets, had been designed for hunting, and fired less deadly smaller caliber ammunition.

To combat the arms shortage, the Union and Confederacy both imported large quantities of rifles from Europe, with each side buying whatever they could get. The relatively poor South only bought 50,000 by August 1862, while the North bought 726,000.[1]:75 Accordingly, during the first two years of the war soldiers from both sides used a wide variety of rifles, including many that were over 50 years old and were considered obsolete. At the same time, Northern rifle and gun manufacturers such as Sharps, Colt, Remington, and the United States armory at Springfield, Massachusetts quickly increased their production of rifles;[2] Springfield alone increased its annual output from 20,000 to 200,000. The North was thus able to supply its own small arms needs while the South had to continue to rely on foreign sources, eventually purchasing 580,000 rifles.[1]:75


Springfield Rifle Musket

An 1863 Model Springfield rifle musket

This was a single shot, muzzle-loading gun that used the percussion cap firing mechanism. It had a rifled barrel, and fired the .58 caliber Minié ball. The first rifled muskets had used a larger .69 caliber Minié ball, since they had simply taken .69 caliber smooth bore muskets and rifled their barrels. Tests conducted by the U.S. Army indicated that the .58 caliber was more accurate at a distance. After experimenting with the failed Maynard primer system on the Model 1855 musket, the Model 1861 reverted to the more reliable percussion lock. The first Model 1861 Springfields were delivered late in that year and during 1862 gradually became the most common weapon carried by Union infantry in the eastern theater. Western armies were slower to obtain Springfield rifles, and they were not widely used there until the middle of 1863.

Rifles were more accurate than smooth bore muskets, and could have been made using shorter barrels. However, the military was still using tactics such as firing by ranks, and feared that shorter barrels would result in soldiers in the back ranks accidentally shooting front rank soldiers in the back of the head. Bayonet fighting was also important at this time, which also made militaries reluctant to shorten the barrels. The Springfield Model 1861 therefore used a three-band barrel, making it just as long as the smoothbore muskets that it had replaced. The 38-inch-long rifled barrel made it a very accurate weapon, and it was possible to hit a man sized target with a Minié ball as far away as 500 yards (460 m). To reflect this longer range, the Springfield was fitted with two flip up sights, one set for 300 yards (270 m) and the other for 500. Along with a revised 1863 model, it was the last muzzle-loading weapon ever adopted by the US Army.

By the end of the war, approximately 1.5 million Springfield rifle muskets had been produced by the Springfield Armory and 20 subcontractors. Since the South lacked sufficient manufacturing capability, most of the Springfields in Southern hands were captured on the battlefields during the war.[2]

Many older Springfield rifle muskets, such as the Model 1855 and 1842, were brought out of storage and used due to arms shortages. Many smooth bore muskets dating all the way back to the Springfield Model 1812 were brought out of storage for similar reasons. These old and obsolete weapons were replaced by newer weapons as they became available.

Enfield Rifle Musket

A British 1853 Enfield rifle musket

The second most widely used weapon of the Civil War, and the most widely used weapon by the Confederates, was the British Pattern 1853 Enfield. Like the Springfield, this was a three-band, single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle musket. It was the standard weapon for the British Army between 1853–1867. American soldiers liked it because its .577 cal. barrel allowed the use of .58 cal. ammunition used by both Union and Confederate armies. Originally produced at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, England, approximately 900,000 of these muskets were imported during 1861–1865, seeing use in every major battle from Shiloh onward. Many officers, however, preferred the Springfield muskets over the Enfield muskets—largely due to the interchangeability of parts that the machine-made Springfields offered.[2]

The Enfield had a stepped flip up sight, which was adjustable from 100–900 yards (91–820 m) (1,200 yards (1,100 m) in later models) in 100 yard increments. Realistically, though, hitting anything beyond 500 yards was mostly a matter of luck.

Lorenz Rifle

A Lorenz Rifle

The third most widely used weapon of the Civil War was the Lorenz Rifle. This rifle was invented in 1854 by Austrian lieutenant Joseph Lorenz. This rifle had first seen action in the Second Italian War of Independence.

The Lorenz rifle was similar in design to the Enfield rifle-musket. It used a percussion lock, was similar in length, and had three barrel bands, like the Springfield and Enfield. The Lorenz rifle was originally .54 caliber. A large number were bored out to .58 caliber so that they could use the same ammunition as the Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets.

The quality of Lorenz rifles during the Civil War was not consistent. Some were considered to be of the finest quality, and were sometimes praised as being superior to the Enfield. Others, especially those in later purchases, were described as horrible in both design and condition. The bored out versions were not consistent in caliber, ranging from .57 to .59. Many of these poorer quality weapons were swapped out on the battlefield for Enfield rifle-muskets whenever one became available.

The Union purchased 226,924 Lorenz rifles, and the Confederacy bought as many as 100,000.[3]

Rifles based on rifle muskets

Many of the "rifle muskets" (which were named for the fact that they were the same length as the smooth bore muskets they had replaced) were also produced in shorter "rifle" versions. These shorter versions were often used by cavalry.

The 1855 Springfield was produced in a shorter two band rifle version. However, the later Model 1861/1863, which replaced the Model 1855, was not produced in a shorter version.

The 1853 Enfield was also produced in shorter versions, called the Model 1856, 1858, and 1860. These were referred to as "two band" Enfields, since they only used two rifle bands to hold the barrel against the stock. The 1858 and 1860 models featured a heavier five-groove barrel with progressive depth rifling and a greater twist, giving them superior accuracy. These weapons were favored by Confederate sharpshooters.

Whitworth Rifle

A Whitworth rifle

The Whitworth rifle was designed by Sir Joseph Whitworth, and was manufactured in Manchester, England. The Whitworth rifle featured a unique hexagonal shaped bullet (with a matching hexagonal barrel) that gave it superior accuracy. This rifle was mostly used by Confederate snipers. The accuracy of the Whitworth was often exaggerated, but it was capable of hitting a man sized target beyond 1,000 yards.

Whitworth rifles were equipped with either Enfield style sights or telescopic sights. The telescopic sights were more accurate, but had a reputation for bruising the user's eye due to the rifle's recoil.

Other rifles used

Other rifles used during the Civil War were the British P-1841-Bored Brunswick Rifle (not common), Burnside carbine (used only by cavalry), Henry rifle (privately purchased by soldiers only), and the Spencer rifle (used almost exclusively by cavalry). There was also the Model 1859 Sharps rifle, a single-shot breechloader. They were expensive to manufacture and only 11,000 were produced, most of which were unissued or went to sharpshooters. However, the Sharps carbine was very common, with over 90,000 produced. The rifles differed from each other mainly in the different "actions" they had. Most all rifles were made with iron barrels, while only some, like the Burnside used the then-expensive steel instead.

Model 1855 rifles were fairly common. Most of the regular army was equipped with them in 1861, and the Confederates had a few thousand that had been stored in Southern arsenals. They acquired more through battlefield pickups and would use them throughout the war (although the 1855 rifle was eventually replaced in the Union ranks by 1861 Springfields).

The Model 1841 Mississippi Rifle, the progenitor of the Model 1855 and 1861 Springfield, was still used in the Civil War to a fair degree, especially by Confederate non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and sharpshooters.

The Confederacy also produced a variety of weapons itself, standardizing on .58 caliber in 1862. These were usually clones of existing designs and tended to be poor quality due to shortages of raw material and skilled labor. Some such weapons included clones of the Sharps carbine, the Richmond/Fayetteville rifles (a Springfield clone) and imitations of Enfield rifles and musketoons.

The only breechloading rifle (not built as a carbine like the Burnside) firing a primed-metallic cartridge (a .50 cal. rimfire) made by the Federal Government (at Springfield Armory) and actually designed for issue to infantrymen was the Model 1865 Springfield Joslyn Rifle, of which only 3,007 were made. In fact, this rifle was the first breechloader ever made in any national armory that fired a primed metallic cartridge. It was basically a Joslyn Carbine action fitted to a 1863 Springfield barrel and stock (though heavily modified). It was issued to disabled soldiers of the Veteran Reserve Corps very late in the war (April, 1865) and likely was never used in action. However, it established the single-shot metallic cartridge breechloader as a standard infantry weapon, which eventually all modern armies adopted in one form or another. The US adopted the breechloading 1866 Springfield "Trapdoor" infantry rifle built from surplus rifle-musket parts after the war.

The new repeater rifles would see fairly limited use in the Civil War. The first such weapon adopted by the US Army was the Model 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle (and a companion carbine), but it had a serious defect in that the gun would often discharge several chambers at once, the extra rounds flying straight into the hand that was holding the barrel up. Some soldiers tried to get around this dangerous problem by loading only one chamber, however this defeated the purpose of having a repeater rifle. Most Colt Revolving Rifles were eventually sold off by the War Department for 55 cents just to get rid of them. The unfortunate experience the army had had with these led to a stigma against repeating rifles, combined with the old fear that they (and single-shot breech loaders) would encourage men to waste ammunition.

Spencer rifles were the first successful repeater used in the United States. After attending a demonstration firing, President Lincoln was impressed enough to give it his approval. The seven-shot Spencer was produced in rifle and carbine versions, although the latter was more common. By 1864, some Union companies were armed with them, although rarely whole regiments. A few fell into Confederate hands, but proved largely unusable due to a lack of ammunition (the Confederacy had insufficient supplies of copper to manufacture the Spencer's rimfire cartridges).

The Henry rifle had a copper or brass cartridge that effectively sealed the breech of the gun so that the hot propellant gases would be held inside of the gun. The ignition source was a folded rim on the inside of the gun. The inventor of the gun was able to mass produce a cartridge that had a powerful powder charge. The power of a Henry Rifle was comparable in power to military pistols, but that was not enough to be used as a shoulder fired rifle for the military. While most shoulder fired rifles during the time fired a bullet between 350 and 500 grains propelled by 40 to 60 grains of powder the Henry rifle shot a small .44 bullet of only 200 grains and 26 to 28 grains of black powder, giving it a quite short range. While the Henry was carried and used by men in the Civil War it was not widely accepted or popular by the military. Nonetheless, Henry and Spencer rifles were used at the December 1864 Battle of Nashville to quite devastating effect.


  1. ^ a b c Keegan, John (2009). The American Civil War: A Military History. Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-307-27314-7. 
  2. ^ a b c d Barnett, Bertram. "Civil War Small Arms". National Parks Service. http://www.nps.gov/archive/gett/soldierlife/webguns.htm. Retrieved 14 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use" By Joseph G. Bilby


  • Bilby, Joseph (2005). Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use. Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306814594. 

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