SMALL ARMS

Although at the beginning of the Civil War the Regular Army was generally armed with rifled muskets, most of the combatants at Bull Run were state volunteers, armed with whatever weaponry that had been purchased by state authorities. These included various types and calibers of domestic and foreign smoothbores, some of which had only recently been converted from flintlock; and various types and calibers of rifles; and the longer rifled muskets.

In 1861 a shortage of rifles on both sides forced the Northern and Southern governments to issue the older smoothbore weapons or purchase weapons from European nations. As the war progressed most soldiers eventually were armed with rifled muskets, although even late in the war some troops on both sides still carried smoothbores.

During most of the war the standard infantry weapon was the .58-caliber rifled musket, adopted by the U.S. Army in 1855 to replace a .69-caliber smoothbore musket. The new infantry arm was muzzle loaded, its rifled barrel taking a hollow-based cylindroconical bullet slightly smaller than the bore. The loading procedure required the soldier to withdraw a paper cartridge (containing powder and bullet) from his cartridge box, tear open one end with his teeth, pour the powder into the muzzle, place the bullet in the muzzle, and ram it to the breech using a metal ramrod. A copper percussion cap was then placed on a hollow cone at the breech. To fire the weapon the hammer was cocked, and when the trigger was pulled the hammer struck the cap and ignited the powder charge. Each soldier was expected to be capable of loading and firing three aimed shots per minute. Although the maximum range of a rifled musket might be over 1,000 yards, actual fields of fire were often very short, the emphasis of musketry fire resting upon volume at close range rather than accuracy at long.

The basic ammunition allowance for each infantry soldier was 40 rounds in a leather cartridge box. When a large action was expected, 20 additional rounds were issued to each soldier, who placed them in his uniform pockets or knapsack. In addition, 100 rounds per man were held in the brigade or division trains and 100 rounds in the corps trains.

Officers generally carried both single- and multiple-shot handguns. Although the types of handguns used by both sides were innumerable, two of the most common were six-shot revolvers produced by Colt and Remington, both in .36- and .44-caliber. Union cavalrymen were initial-

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ly armed with sabers and handguns, but soon added breech-loading carbines. In addition to Sharps and Spencer carbines, dozens of other types of breech-loaders, from .52- to .56-caliber, were issued. Confederate cavalrymen might be armed with a wide variety of handguns, shotguns, muzzle- loading carbines, or captured Federal weapons.

TYPICAL CIVIL WAR SMALL ARMS

Weapon
Effective Range (in yards)
Theoretical Rate of Fire (in rounds/minutes)
U.S. rifled musket, muzzle-loaded, .58-caliber
400-600
3
English Enfield rifled musket, muzzle-loaded, .577-caliber
400-600
3
Smoothbore musket, muzzle-loaded, .69-caliber
100-200
3

Source: MS, Ernest F. Fisher, Jr., Weapons and Equipment Evolution and Its Influence Upon the Organization and Tactics in the American Army, 1775-1963, Office of the Chief of Military History, 1963, file 2-3.7, AB.Z, U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH), Washington, D.C.

 

 

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Last updated 13 July 2006