Civil War Rifles

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 The flintlock, which had been in use for almost two hundred years, had been replaced by the caplock in the 1840s.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 smooth bore muskets to be replaced by rifles in the decades just before the Civil War.When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, neither the North nor the South had enough arms to fight a major war. Stockpiles of rifles and handguns carried by individual soldiers were limited. As the war escalated those arms stockpiles were quickly diminished. 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 Pennsylvnia type rifles. These rifles, while more accurate than smooth bore 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. Accordingly, during the first two years of the war soldiers from both sides used a wide variety of rifles, including many that were over fifty years old and were considered obsolete. At the same time, American rifle and gun manufacturers--Sharps, Colt, Remington, and the United States armory at Springfield--quickly increased their production of rifles.

Springfield rifles

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. 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 thought to be important, which also made militaries reluctant to shorten the barrels. The Springfield Model 1861 was therefore just as long as the smooth bore 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. To reflect this longer range, the Springfield was fitted with two flip up sights, one set for 300 yards and the other for 500.

Enfield rifle masket

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. Many officers, however, preferred the Springfield muskets over the Enfield muskets--largely due to the interchangeability of parts that the machine-made Springfields offered.

Other Rifles Used

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. 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). 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.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 3007 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 U.S. adopted the breechloading 1866 Springfield "Trapdoor" infantry rifle built from surplus rifle-musket parts after the war.

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