The American Civil War saw widespread use of breechloading and repeating guns. Revolvers were a staple of cavalry armament, and Colt continues to be a brand that rings bells worldwide up to this day. The Henry 16-shot repeating rifle using metallic cartridges was allegedly tested by Abraham Lincoln and made Union soldiers who carried it feel superior over their muzzleloading rifle-toting Confederate foes. Colt’s revolvers, though, were still “just” muzzleloading, multi-chambered percussion pistols which used paper cartridges, and they had seen their first military use almost twenty years earlier during the Mexican-American War. Besides, they were mostly a cavalry sidearm. Breechloading repeaters using metallic cartridges like the Henry or Spencer rifles delivered more firepower than traditional military muskets, but they were expensive (a Henry cost $32 at a time when the average Federal private received $13 a month), were of small caliber, used cartridges that the Ordnance Department did not furnish to infantrymen—and for which said department did not offer spare parts—and, especially in the case of the Henry, were not always intended for the rigors of military use on hard campaigns. What spoke most for them was the massive firepower they delivered. It was on the other side of the big pond where the Prussian needlegun—Nicolaus Dreyse’s Zündnadelgewehr—was approved in the 1840s and saw common use during the German wars of unification, therey pointing the way that military rifles would go. The needlegun rifle was a bolt-action like the famous Mauser rifles that would follow in its footsteps and which, in one form or the other, are still used worldwide in military sniper rifles as well as sporting and hunting rifles today.
Therefore, despite the advent of breechloaders, it was another kind of firearm that characterized the American Civil War: the muzzleloading single-shot percussion rifle-musket. It is this weapon in which a two-century old tactical tradition found its culmination but which also pointed to the future of warfare.
Early handheld firearms had been unwieldy, inaccurate implements that rather instilled fear in horses and in those men who had not yet come into contact with them. It was during the 16th and especially the 17th century that matchlock muskets saw widespread use on the battlefield—the musketeers who inspired Alexandre Dumas were more likely to have drilled loading their muskets and stabilizing them on the forked sticks that held their weight than to train with rapiers. Military reformers like the Dutch prince William of Orange introduced uniforms and drill procedures as well as tightly regulated standing armies of professional soldiers that succeeded the rather independent-minded mercenaries of the condottieri during the Dutch-Spanish Eighty Years War and the nightmare that succumbed the German lands and was later named Thirty Years War. According to legend, the defenders of the besieged Bayonne, having run out of powder and balls, put knives into the muzzles of their muskets in 1640, thereby inventing the bayonet. Thus, by the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, it were not ragtag, colorful groups of Landsknechte with two-handed swords, halberds, and the odd arquebuse that dotted battlefields as they did a hundred years earlier, but musketeers moving in formations they had learned on paradegrounds, who were able to defend themselves with fixed bayonets against mounted opposition and who could deliver timed volleys of musketry fire from their flintlock-ignited “firelocks,” organized in regiments that wore the same uniform and obeyed orders of their “chef.”
Building upon the peace-time army that had learned its drill on his father’s—called the “Soldier’s King”—paradegrounds all over Prussia, many of them Prussian conscripts themselves (but with a good number of mercenaries thrown in), it was Frederick II, called “the Great”—or, fondly, “der alte Fritz,” the old Fritz—who perfected the synchronized geometrical movements of his regiments to deliver crushing blows especially to his Austrian enemies. In an army whose discipline was strict—where seemingly minor offenses were punished with the Gassenlauf where the defendant had to walk in-between two lines of his comrades who would strike blows at him with their iron musket ramrods—he had the perfect tool. The school of the soldier consisted of knowing how to move in formation, how fast to go, where to stand and be at a certain command. It told the recruit how to load his musket—called “Potsdam” by English-speaking collectors because its origin was stamped into the barrel, and “Kuhfuß,” or cow foot, by Prussian soldiers because of the shape of its wooden buttstock—in several times and motions: tearing the paper cartridge filled with powder and ball, filling the pan with powder for priming, pouring powder down the barrel, followed by the round ball, ramming the whole load down, cocking the hammer with the flintstone, “aiming” (or rather leveling the musket in the direction of the enemy), and firing on command. This had to be done by all soldiers at the same time so that they could fire a volley of concentrated musketry on the enemy line of battle, eventually charging him with the bayonet (which was always fixed) to carry the field. Strict discpline and drill was needed to form a body of soldiers that would obey under whatever possbible circumstance.
One of the major changes that Napoleon I Bonaparte, a great admirer of the “old Fritz,” brought to the battlefield was that his infantrymen did not only act as “heavy” infantry. Heavy, or line, infantry usually stayed in close formation. Their musket fire was inaccurate at longer range—they relied on firepower and a few volleys before resorting to the cold steel. Light infantry, or what were known in German as “Jäger” units, did exist—they shot patched ball through rifles. The musket of a common infantryman was a smoothbore musket, whose barrel is very much like today’s shotguns. The ball, usually smaller than the diameter of the barrel, could be easily rammed down even after blackpowder fouling had collected after a couple of shots. But when propelled, a round ball would dodge the walls of the barrel, and, when exiting the barrel, move more like a bumblebee than a straight-flying projectile. At 100 meters, it was possible to hit a man-sized target; at 200 meters the optimum range was arrived where a hit might still be deadly. But then, muskets were not about marksmanship but about firepower. For sniping, light infantry soldiers, usually recruited from hunters for whom the first accurate shot on their prey counted, used rifled guns. “Rifled” means that on the inside of a barrel are lands and grooves, or “hills and valley.” A tight-fitting bullet, when being propelled by the ignition of the powder charge and forced toward the opening of the barrel, receives a spin from the rifling, which makes the projectile much more accurate because it is stabilized. The British redcoats felt the effect of well-aimed shots from rifles during the initial stages of the Revolutionary War in their North American colonies, whereby the myth of the American rifleman was born. Instead of operating in tight formations, the rifle-armed American militiamen and their Hessian Jäger counterparts operated in loose skirmish formations, taking cover behind tree stumps and other obstructions to be safe from enemy fire and to be able to take aimed shots at officers and other important military personnel. The shortcoming of rifles though was that they were loaded with bullets that were paper-patched, therefore taking longer to get rammed down the barrel, and they fouled quicker because the blackpowder residue collected in the grooves.
In the armies of Revolutionary and Bonapartist France, infantrymen were instructed in moving both in the tight formation line of battle as well as the more loose skirmish line. Although their primary weapon was still the rather—at least at longer ranges—inaccurate smoothbore musket, infantrymen deployed as skirmishers were successfully used to reconnoiter the battlefield, find the enemy, and engage him while his troops were still deploying, thereby obstructing his advance and warning one’s own forces. Other European armies quickly followed the French example. Still, armies like the Prussian one continued to employ Jäger units, and also the British recruited rifle regiments—most likely because of their experience on the North American continent. It is also during this time that target practice became standard, at least in armies of the German principalities. While not the most accurate type of weapon, muskets could still be employed with some success up to the aforementioned ranges, which is testified by for example Prussian target practice instructions from the 1810s.
While the flintlock had ruled the battlefield for over a hundred years, it had its shortcomings, especially during wet weather. Moisture makes blackpowder quickly unusable, and a heavy rainstorm renders even the most disciplined force armed with flintlock useless, especially because muskets of the day had to be primed in the pan with blackpowder. Also, a flintstone has to be sharpened to do its job of creating friction and thereby sparkles to ignite the priming powder. Therefore, the invention and introduction of the percussion cap signaled a revolution on the battlefield. It rendered the flintstone obsolete and saved powder for the actual charge. A percussion cap is a little brass cylinder with mercury in it. When struck by the gun’s hammer, the mercury ignites, shoots fire through a whole in the barrel, thereby igniting the blackpowder within. The percussion is much less prone to malfunction during wet conditions than the flintlock. And, best of all, it was easy to convert flintlock guns to percussion, thereby easing the transition and saving money.
Shortly afterwards, a new ballistic invention continued the revolution. To cut a long story short, several European officers thought of a way to rifle guns to make them more efficient than the old rifles. Eventually, it was found that grooves could be cut in a barrel and a conical bullet of a little less than caliber-size with a dent at the bottom could be rammed down as easily as a round ball. The new conical ball, which was slightly flattened in the barrel, would then be propelled by the powder’s ignition and forced through the lands and grooves, thereby receiving a spin. As the new bullets were more aerodynamically shaped, they were also helped being stabilized. It was the French who first employed both percussion-ignited and rifled guns during some of their North African colonial wars, and they were quickly followed by other nations. To make aiming more accurate—before, there was usually only a frontsight—rearsights, like on the rifles of the Jäger, were added. As with the conversion from flintlocks to percussion, it was easy to convert musket to rifled muskets—gunsmiths just had to add lands and grooves and a rearsight.
Since most of the old and converted musket were of a caliber around 0.69 inch, and since military sciences and the fascination with natural sciences increased during the 19th century, producing smart military men who thought about ever better and better ways to kill one’s fellow man, new military longarms were devised that build upon the old pattern of muskets but incorporated the latest technological advances in both percussion and rifling as well as eased production. The result was the rifle-musket.
American officers at that time were closely following what happened on the European continent, and their big role model was the French army. Not only were American uniforms inspired by the French army; so were tactics, strategy, and even the design of their guns. Looking at the last Springfield flintlock muskets, Models 1816 and 1822—according to which collector’s definition one follows—the resemblance to the French Modelle 1777 “Charleville” musket is striking. In the 1840s, the United States armories at Springfield and Haper’s Ferry started production of the Model 1842—the last American smoothbore musket, the first American percussion musket, and the first totally interchangeable musket worldwide, thanks to the implementation of the “American system.” In the 1850s, the M1855 Springfield rifle-musket was introduced. It followed the latest trends: a smaller caliber (0.58 inch), a Minié-style conical bullet (named after one of the French ballisticians), and a sophistaced ladder rear-sight going up to a thousand yards.
With the rifle-musket, the need for two types of infantry—heavy and light—was more or less eliminated. One infantryman could perfectly fill out the role of both. He could be part of a line formation, loading and firing volleys on command, or he could take aimed shots as a skirmisher. While the new bullets theoretically increased the effective range of fire, practice proved harder to achieve. The British army, a professional military body, established musketry schools were non-commissioned officers took courses in how to estimate ranges, how to adjust the sights, and how to fire aimed shots; afterwards, they were sent back to their respective units to teach their subordinates the intricacies of accurate musketry. There was also a growing literature on the topic, both in Great Britain and in the United States. But the U.S. Army was a small military body, whose officer corps was torn apart by the secession crisis, and the Civil War necessitated that masses of civilians with no prior knowledge of military affairs became volunteers, were quickly outfitted and received usually practical training in the school of the soldier up to and including the movements of a company or regiment and only rudimentary instruction in how to fire—that is, they learned the century-old steps of loading and firing but more often than not did not fire any live practice shots on a shooting range. Therefore, most Civil War soldiers did not know how to estimate ranges and how to adjust their sights—but these were important skills to effectively fire the new rifle-muskets.
In the beginning, tactics resembled more the wars of Napoleon I or Frederick the Great. “Napoleonic tactics” though confuses most modern students of warfare because the Napoleon who is meant is the III. While the French emperor (and nephew of his more famous predecessor) had a keen interest in military affairs and pushed the introduction of rifle-muskets, the successes of his Zouave light infantry with the cold steel in the 1859 Italian campaign had reversed his opinion. Now, bayonet charges were en vogue again. The notions of Sir Walter Scott-like warfare of chivalry did their part as well. Quickly, though, American warriors found out that with the new rifle-muskets, defensive, intrenched troops were superior to charges of tight formations. Still, most Civil War firefights took place at distances almost equal to those of smoothbore-musket days (it should not be forgotten that in the early days of the Civil War, many volunteer and militia units were outfitted with the old smoothbores because the production and/or importation of rifle-muskets was not yet in full force), and soldiers still needed incredible amounts of lead to kill one enemy. The new concial bullets though were more deadly than the old roundballs, especially at greater distances—what is called a “spent” bullet in contemporary accounts was usually a round ball that had lost its force after 200 yards, while miniés were deadly up to a thousand yards. Despite what speaks for the rifle-musket, the debate among scholars about its effectitivy, deadliness, and impact on tactics continues.
Let us take a look at the rifle-musket from the point of the soldier. Whether it be the U.S. Model 1861 rifle-musket, produced by Springfield Armory and numerous contractors, or the only slightly differing British Pattern 1853 “Enfield” rifle-musket imported by both North and South—of the latter about 500,000 imported, of the former and its 1863 and 1864 deviations around one-and-a-half million produced—the functioning and maintenance are easy. Loading and firing function as mentioned earlier (with the difference that the percussion cap is put in its place only after the load is rammed down the barrel). Disassembly is quick and simple: half-cock the hammer, remove the ramrod from under the barrel, remove the barrel bands, use the government-issued musket tool to loosen three screws to free the lock and the barrel from the stock, take out the lock and barrel. The lock with its mechanics should only be disassembled by a gunsmith. For field cleaning—the aforementioned procedure was only to be proceeded on special order by the commanding officer—it was only necessary pour water down the barrel to remove most of the fouling, then screw a wiper, called “worm,” on the ramrod and clean out the remaining residue with a small piece cloth or hemp. Outside rust was to be removed with a oiled rag and some ash, brickdust, or flower of emery. While the British rifle-musket’s barrel was blued to prevent rust, the American Springfields had “armory bright” barrels which are prone to rust but look more martial when glistening in the sun. Another big difference is the rearsight: the “Enfield” uses a sophisticated ladder sight with increments up to a 1000 yards while the Springfield only has a simple leaf-sight with three leaves for 100, 300, and 500 yards. Concerning accuracy, both rifle-muskets—the U.S. in .58, the British in .577 caliber—are basically the same.
Overall, the rifle-musket was the epitome of warfare with muzzleloading blackpowder longarms. A soldier armed with such a gun could be deployed both in the traditional way, firing volleys, or as a skirmisher, taking aimed shots (if he knew how to). Concerning construction, the Springfield with its interchangeable lock, stock, and barrel was ideal to be mass-produced and issued to volunteers who needed a durable and easy-to-maintain gun. But its longrange capability and contemporary breechloaders already pointed to a new style of warfare that had its advent during the Civil War. From the 1860s onwards, fast-shooting, accurate long-range rifles that combined the accuracy of the rifle-musket, the rapid-fire capability of repeaters, and the dependable bolt-action of the needlegun (and later the machinegun) gave the defender the upper hand over the attacker, as the wars after the Civil war would show. And it would take another hundred years until the last “lock, stock, and barrel” Springfield rifle in the guise of the semiautomatic 7.62 mm M14 would be replaced by the space-age aluminum and synthetic M16 5.56mm assault rifle combining an accurate caliber for marksmanship and manageable full automatic function with the firepower of machineguns.