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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 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 The flintlock, which had been in use for almost two hundred years, had been replaced by the caplock in the 1840s.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 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[1]. 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.[1]



Springfield Rifle Musket

The most popular rifle of the Civil War was the American-made Springfield Model 1861 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.

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.

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.[1]

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. Many officers, however, preferred the Springfield muskets over the Enfield muskets--largely due to the interchangeability of parts that the machine-made Springfields offered.[1]

The Enfield had a stepped flip up sight, which was adjustable from 100 to 900 yards (1200 in later models) in 100 yard increments. Realistically, though, hitting anything beyond 500 yards was mostly a matter of luck.

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, Burnside Carbine, Henry Rifle, and the Spencer Rifle. The rifles differed from each other in many ways. Some rifles were made from metal while others were made from a metal mixture. While these guns were made to kill, each one was unique in its own way. The British P-1841 Bored Brunswick Rifle has a barrel that is 36 inches long and was adopted in 1837.

The Burnside carbine is unique because it had a unique cone shaped cartridge. Another thing that made this gun unique was the way it was loaded; a tapered cartridge was loaded backwards into the tilting breech block cavity. That is where the guns unique cartridge was placed. Once the lever was closed it rotated the breech block to tightly place the sealing ring located at the front of the cartridge case to the back of the barrel to effectively close and seal the breech. Five very similar models of the Burnside rifle progressed thought mostly through inside improvements[2].

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 wasn't 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 bullet of only 200 grains and 26 to 28 grains of black powder. While the Henry was carried and used by men in the Civil War it was not widely accepted or popular by the military.


  1. ^ a b c d "Civil War Small Arms." National Parks Service. 25 July 2006. Accessed 14 July 2008.
  2. ^ "Weapon: Burnside Carbine." Antietam on the web. Accessed 15 July 2008.

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