Information and Articles About Civil War Guns, a weapon used in the American Civil War
Many guns were used in the civil war, including rifles, handguns, muskets and bullets. Many technological advances in weaponry occurred during the Civil War, rendering the weapons far more lethal and contributing to the enormous casualties of that war.
Civil War Rifles
Rifles used in the Civil War include the Springfield rifle, the Lorenz rifle, the Colt revolving rifle, the Smith carbine, the Spencer repeating rifle, the Burnside carbine, the Tarpley carbine, the Whitworth rifle.
Civil War Pistols
Rifles used in the Civil War include the Colt model 1860, the Colt Dragoon Revolver, the Remington 1858, the Smith & Wesson Model 1, the Starr revolver, and the Elgin Cutlass pistol.
Civil War Bullets
Bullets used in the Civil War include the .58 or .69 caliber Minie Ball, the .58 caliber Gardner, the .577 caliber Enfield, the .52 caliber Sharps, The .69 caliber Round Shot, The .58 caliber Williams Cleaner, and The .44 caliber Colt Army.
The Minie Ball: The Minie ball, or Minié ball, was a revolutionary bullet design used extensively in the Civil War because of its ease of loading, range and accuracy. Learn more about the Minie Ball.
Read more about other civil war weapons
Articles Featuring Civil War Guns From History Net Magazines
Rapid Fire Guns
Load the Hopper and Turn the Crank: Rapid-Fire Guns of the Civil War
By Joseph G. Bilby
Doctor Richard Gatling ecstatically received the reports that were being sent from the Petersburg, Virginia, front regarding his eponymous weapon, a rapid-firing six-barreled beast. The “Gatling Gun” had become a favorite weapon of Major General Benjamin Butler, and Gatling enthusiastically wrote that “Ben Butler took the guns… to the Battle of Petersburg and fired them himself upon the rebels. They created great consternation and slaughter, and the news of them went all over the world….”
Gatling was engaging in a bit of exaggeration, of course, but his weapon and others similar to it did lay the gory groundwork for “great consternation and slaughter” on future battlefields. For hundreds of years before the Civil War, the typical infantryman carried a cumbersome musket that he could load and fire two to three times a minute under the best of circumstances. Inventors had tried to produce weapons that could be loaded from the breech and fired rapidly, but fragile paper cartridges and glitchy matchlock and flintlock ignition systems hampered the development of such guns.
By the mid-19th century, however, the introduction of percussion ignition and metallic cartridges increased the potential of such weapons. Such developments, coupled with the outbreak of the Civil War, invigorated American inventors’ interest in multiple-round weapons. The rapid-fire rifled caliber arms introduced during the Civil War were not true machine guns, since they did not use recoil or gas from the firing of one cartridge to load and fire another round like the automatic guns in service a half-century later, but the weapons did represent a large leap forward in firearms technology.
Doctor Josephus Requa, a Rochester, N.Y., dentist once apprenticed to the prominent gun maker William Billinghurst, was one of the first tinkerers to design a multibarrel breechloading gun after the Civil War began. He had Billinghurst make the prototype.
Billinghurst and Requa’s gun featured 25 horizontal barrels mounted on a light artillery carriage. The barrels were loaded at the breech with a “piano hinge” magazine holding a row of 25 .52-caliber brass cartridges with no integral priming, but with a hole in the base of each round. A hammer triggered by pulling a lanyard fired a percussion cap on a single centrally located nipple that detonated one round, causing the flash to pass from one cartridge to the next until all had been fired. When the chain reaction process worked properly, the barrels fired almost simultaneously.
If an operator had several loaded magazines at his disposal, he could ensure a fairly rapid rate of fire. A lever under the gun’s carriage controlled the spacing of the barrels, which could be spread apart or moved together like the fingers of a hand and raised or lowered to control fire dispersion and range.
A three-man crew at an 1861 demonstration of the “Requa Battery” in New York City fired the weapons at the rate of seven volleys, or 175 shots, per minute. In one Army test the gun’s rate of fire reached 225 shots in one minute and 15 seconds. Billinghurst and Requa claimed an “effective range of 1,200 yards,” and Army and Navy records appear to have verified that claim.
Captain Albert G. Mack, a Rochester associate of Requa who encouraged the development of the Requa Battery, wanted to be the first to deploy one in combat. In the summer of 1862, Mack raised the 18th Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery. Captain Mack intended that his “Rochester Rifle Battery” be equipped with Requa guns, a “Rochester invention.” Another Rochester unit, Captain J. Warren Barnes’ 26th Independent Battery, used Requa guns as a recruiting enticement. Both batteries were sent to the Department of the Gulf, but the Requas were sparingly used at best. The 18th’s guns were shipped south without ammunition or spare magazines, and Mack’s gunners ended up servicing 20-pounder Parrott rifled cannons.
Brigadier General William F. Barry, a hard-to-please Regular Artillery officer, tested the Requa in January 1863 and found it “extremely serviceable.” Requa guns were also used by Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore in Charleston, S.C. He obtained five for field testing, and they were manned by crews from the 3rd New Hampshire, 39th Illinois and 9th Maine Infantry regiments. During the siege of Battery Wagner on Morris Island, the guns were used to suppress enemy sharpshooters, cover advancing trench lines and, on at least one occasion, in support of an infantry attack by the 24th Massachusetts. A Confederate defender maintained that the Requa guns gave “very little trouble,” but a Federal officer reported that they were “used against the enemy’s sharpshooters and working parties, apparently with good effect.”
Ben Butler was an enthusiastic proponent of new military technology, and in July 1864 he ordered two Requa guns for his Army of the James, then engaged in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond. The guns were assigned to the 16th New York Heavy Artillery and were still in use in October, when an after-action report noted the “Requa gun section” lost three horses killed and three wounded.
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Although the Requa proved the most combat-effective Civil War machine gun, further development of internal primers for brass cartridges quickly made the Requa Battery obsolete in the postwar years, and Dr. Requa returned to dentistry.
In contrast to the Requa, the “Union Repeating Gun” used a revolving breech to achieve rapid fire. A feeding hopper sat atop the gun’s firing mechanism, and when a handcrank was turned, internal gears forced cartridges from the hopper into grooves atop a revolving drum. The crank action then cammed the cartridge chambers against the gun’s barrel; this tripped a firing hammer and then ejected the empty cartridges activating a fan like device to blow away firing debris and cool the barrel. Users claimed the gun was capable of firing up to 120 shots a minute.
The barrel was mounted on a light artillery carriage like the Requa and could be elevated and traversed. A spare barrel, which could be quickly changed in case the original overheated, was included with each gun. The Union gun’s steel cartridge chambers could also be reloaded by hand with conventional .58-caliber paper rifle-musket cartridges when fitted with a nipple primed with a percussion cap.
Several men—Wilson Ager, Edward Nugent and William Palmer—battled over taking credit for the Union Gun’s development and patent rights. But it was actually a salesman, J.D. Mills, who displayed a prototype to President Abraham Lincoln in June 1861. After a look at the gun’s hopper feeding device, Lincoln reputedly dubbed the weapon the “Coffee Mill” gun, a nickname that stuck.
Arsenal tests of the Coffee Mill before the president, generals and other dignitaries were impressive, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Mansfield requested the guns for the defensive works around Washington. There were some early indications of potential problems with the weapon—for example, the mainspring of a Coffee Mill gun independently purchased by the technologically adventurous General Butler broke in testing. Despite those problems, the Ordnance Department ordered 50 of the guns in December 1861.
In January 1862, two of them were issued to Colonel John W. Geary’s 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which allegedly used them on Rebel cavalry in March near Middleburg, Va. The only evidence of what apparently was the first use of a machine gun in combat, however, is a casual remark by one of the regiment’s captains citing their effectiveness. In seeming contradiction, Colonel Geary returned his Coffee Mill guns in April, describing them as “inefficient, and unsafe to use.”
Despite Geary’s opinion, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of that year, requested 16 Coffee Mill guns, but they did not arrive before his June resignation. Rebel General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson appears to have captured the lot at Harpers Ferry in September 1862, but what happened to them after that is unknown. They were apparently not considered a vital asset by their captors.
A number of Coffee Mill guns went to the Virginia Peninsula with the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1862. One report cites the 56th New York Volunteers as fielding “a large sized rifle with a hopper and machinery at the breach, which loads and fires by turning a crank….” When the 56th advanced up the Peninsula following the fall of Yorktown, however, the regiment left its Coffee Mill behind. Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania made sure that many of his state’s infantry regiments approached Richmond armed with machine guns. A private in the 83rd Pennsylvania wrote that “all the Pennsylvania regiments have them.” The 49th Pennsylvania employed a Coffee Mill at a skirmish at Golding’s Farm on June 28, 1862.
Federal Lieutenant Edward Burd Grubb recalled that at the June 27, 1862, Battle of Gaines’ Mill, “lying between the Fourth and Third [New Jersey Volunteer Infantry] regiments…was a battery of seven machine guns…called the Union Coffee Mill Guns.” Lieutenant Grubb went on to say that the guns deployed with the 1st New Jersey Brigade were loaded with combustible Johnson and Dow paper cartridges that were made with paper saturated with a chemical that would cause them to burn, and the cartridges had also been issued to the brigade’s infantrymen at Gaines’ Mill. Using the Johnson and Dow rounds with the Coffee Mill made sense, since loading with conventional musket cartridges would take longer and might result in misfires if the paper was not completely removed.
The fate of the New Jersey Brigade’s Coffee Mill guns at Gaines’ Mill remains murky. It is unclear whether they were successfully withdrawn from the battlefield or captured by the Rebels as the brigade retreated. Other than Lieutenant Grubb’s recollection, information is scant.
Reports on the effectiveness of the guns on the Peninsula are ambivalent as well. A soldier in the 49th Pennsylvania characterized his regiment’s Coffee Mill as doing “good work,” but Colonel E.C. Pratt of the 31st New York opined that the gun issued to his regiment was “very defective in several particulars.” Colonel Charles Kingsbury, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s chief ordnance officer, reported that the field performance of the coffee mill was “not equal to the results obtained at the Washington Arsenal” tests.
The main difficulties of the Coffee Mill gun appear to have been barrel overheating, failures to feed ammunition and gas escaping from the breech during firing, which reduced the weapon’s velocity. These problems were, as Kingsbury noted, not initially evident but appeared during use in the field, providing an instructive case study in apparently innovative ordnance. Initial prototype weapon tests could not predict results in combat, a fact that is often disregarded by modern writers criticizing the conservatism of the Union Ordnance Department— which, in at least some cases, indicated good sense.
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Although the Coffee Mill guns were seldom used after the Peninsula campaign, J.D. Mills continued to push his product, staging demonstrations for state officials and foreign governments. Venezuela reportedly ordered one gun, and the U.S. Navy gave the Coffee Mill a limited and apparently unsuccessful trial on western riverboats. In March 1863, Scientific American reported that Coffee Mill guns had “proved of no practical value” and noted that surviving specimens were in storage in Washington.
Despite the bad reviews, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, a commander attuned to tactical innovation, ordered 10 of the guns that summer, but they did not arrive before his September 1863 Chickamauga disaster. In February 1864, General Butler, still seeking a secret weapon for his Army of the James, requested 10 for use on river patrol boats.
The third machine gun to see active service, and the only one to survive the war as a viable weapons system, was the Gatling gun, the invention of Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, a North Carolinia dentist who had moved north before the war. Gatling’s invention, patented in November 1862, shared a hopper feed, crank-action revolving breech and steel cartridge chambers with the Coffee Mill. He claimed, however, that his gun was not “the inferior arm known as the ‘coffee mill gun.’” His significant design departure was replacing the earlier weapon’s single barrel with six barrels revolving around a central axis, reducing barrel heating and raising the rate of fire. Like most firearms ideas, however, the concept of revolving barrels was not a new one. A similar concept had been patented in 1861 by Ezra Ripley, who never followed through on his idea.
Gatling contracted with a Cincinnati firm to manufacture six guns, which were destroyed in a factory fire in 1862. In 1863 he had 13 more weapons produced at another foundry and shipped to Baltimore, where his agent failed to interest the military. By that time, government officials were wary of buying or even testing any new wonder weapons.
Enter again General Butler, who happened to be in Baltimore at the time. The general took some of the guns to Petersburg, and Butler actually fired the Gatling personally. While it worked well, it did not quite generate “consternation and slaughter” among the Rebels as Gatling exuberantly had claimed. It did seem to make them angry, though. On May 30, 1864, Lieutenant J.B. Morris of the 4th New Jersey Battery wrote his friend James S. Yard that, “Gen. Butler brought one his favorite Gatling guns, which throws 200 balls per minute, in this Battery on Friday, and pointing it through one of the embrasures, began to ‘turn the crank.’ This drew the fire of the Rebs on us, and one captain and a private were severely wounded.”
Although a late arrival on the scene, the Gatling survived the war and prospered, due to the appearance of the self-contained metallic cartridge for which the gun was chambered in 1865. Synchronization of the Gatling’s barrels with the cartridge chambers was a tricky business, and the necessarily loose tolerances apparently led to some gas loss at the gun’s breech. As in the case of repeating rifles, cartridges containing primer, powder and projectile inside copper or brass cases created an instant breech gas seal on firing and assured smooth feeding through the action of a repeating rifle or machine gun.
Verifiable deployment of machine guns in the field during the Civil War was primarily limited to Union forces. Captain R.S. Williams invented a rapid-fire repeater for use in the Confederate army, but although it was an ingenious design and fairly successful, the Williams gun was not a true machine gun. It was a manually operated, single-shot, breechloading, small-bore cannon served by a three-man crew. The loader controlled the rate of fire by inserting a paper cartridge in the breech and placing a percussion cap on a nipple when a lever was pulled back. Pushing the lever forward closed the breech and fired the gun.
Other Confederate rapid-fire designs like Josiah Gorgas’ revolving turret cannon and the Vandenburg volley gun were limited to prototype models with no recorded use in combat. One source asserts that Confederates used a large-bore version of the Requa at the siege of Charleston, however, and a list of captured ordnance following the January 15, 1865, capture of Fort Fisher has an intriguing reference to one “volley gun” described as “disabled,” which was either a captured Requa or Rebel version of that arm.
The tactical use of machine guns was never committed to the doctrine of either army, but, as with repeating rifles, officers developed local ad hoc methods of employment, most notably with the Requa gun, based on experience.
For the most part, although Requa and Coffee Mill guns were issued to infantry units, as were later machine guns, they were employed as artillery pieces, usually in roles better served by actual artillery. In the end, however, imperfect ammunition combined with a lack of tactical ingenuity assured that the machine gun would fulfill no more than a novelty role in the Civil War.
Joseph G. Bilby is a member of the North-South Skirmish Association, an organization dedicated to the study and use of Civil War firearms. His most recent book is A Revolution in Arms: A History of the First Repeating Rifles.
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The Widow Makers
BY ALLAN W. HOWEY
The Civil War’s deadliest weapons were not rapid-fire guns or giant cannon, but the simple rifle-musket and the humble minié ball.
By the time the smoke had cleared and the veterans headed back to their homes, the American Civil War had exacted a terrible human cost. In four long years of bloody fighting, half a million of the three million men and boys in blue and gray had been wounded in combat. Two hundred thousand others had been killed.
These staggering figures may be less surprising after considering all the macabrely ingenious killing machines taken onto Civil War battlefields–rifled cannon, multi-shot arms, crude machine guns, and repeaters, to name a few. But it was not these spectacular weapons that drew the most blood during the Civil War. Ninety percent of the soldiers killed on the fields of battle owed their fate to a deceptively simple hand-held gun and its companion projectile: the rifle-musket and the minié bullet.
The rifle-musket and minié bullet together changed the face of warfare forever. For the first time in history, infantrymen could aim their weapons at a target a fair distance away and actually have a chance of hitting it. The days of successful frontal assaults by infantry and cavalry were over; defenders armed with the new rifle-musket could fire from a safe place and knock down attacker after attacker before they got close enough to do damage.
All this is quite a bit of notoriety for a humble-looking firearm with few visible characteristics to distinguish it clearly from its 1850s predecessor. But in many ways the Civil War rifle-musket was a brand new weapon that boasted the best features of its predecessors. It also had a more reliable ignition system and, more important, it fired a greatly improved projectile, the minié bullet.
The lineage of the Civil War rifle-musket reaches back to early-17th-century France. About 1610, the muzzleloading, smoothbore flintlock musket was invented as an improvement on the matchlock musket, a similar firearm that depended on a lit match for ignition. As the name muzzleloading, smoothbore flintlock musket suggests, the gun was loaded (with loose gunpowder and a round ball) at the mouth of its barrel. The bore, or inside of the barrel, was smooth; unlike the later rifle-muskets, it contained no spiral rifling grooves to force the projectile to spin evenly and thus travel rapidly in a straight line like a spiraling football. The ignition system featured a hammer–called a cock–that held a small piece of flint. When the shooter pulled the trigger, the cock fell and scraped the flint against a rough piece of metal known as the frizzen pan cover. This showered sparks onto loose gunpowder in the frizzen pan, which then ignited the main powder charge inside the barrel, behind the projectile. The British army beat the French army to the punch and officially adopted the weapon in 1682. It eventually became the standard infantry firearm of Europe and America and remained so until the muzzleloading rifle-musket replaced it in the 1850s.
What made the smoothbore flintlock musket so dominant an infantry weapon for so long was that it was easy to load; an experienced soldier could load and fire up to four times a minute, a rapid rate of fire for the time. Since the gun’s barrel was not rifled–it had no grooves that a bullet needed to fit snugly against–the projectile could be cast slightly smaller than the bore diameter. That allowed the ball to fall to the bottom of the upturned barrel with little resistance. To load the weapon, a soldier pulled a paper cartridge containing both powder and ball from his cartridge box and tore off the powder end with his teeth. He primed the flintlock by pouring some of the loose gunpowder from the cartridge into the frizzen pan and closed the pan cover to keep the priming charge in place and dry. Next, he poured the remaining powder down the barrel and rammed the ball down on top of the powder with a metal ramrod. Finally, he stuffed the empty cartridge paper down the barrel to serve as a plug, a stopper strong enough to keep the ball from rolling out by the force of gravity, but weak enough not to obstruct the travel of a fired ball.
The ease of loading the smoothbore musket allowed soldiers to fire quickly, but the shots were not likely to hit their targets. Accuracy and range were not the weapon’s strengths. In fact, firing one of these guns would be similar to shooting a marble from a modern shotgun. The weapon did not even have a rear sight for precise aiming because aiming was a fruitless effort. The statistics boil down to this: at 40 yards, the flintlock smoothbore could usually hit a target measuring 1 square foot, but at 300 yards, only 1 shot in 20 would hit a target of 18 square feet. As Colonel George Hanger, a British officer who fought in the American Revolution, wrote in 1814:
A soldier’s musket if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards, perhaps even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as for firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you might just as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting your object. I do maintain and will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier’s musket by the person who aimed at him.
The chance of firing a smoothbore musket and hitting something beyond rock-throwing range was slim, but there was an alternative weapon: the rifle. The venerable Kentucky flintlock rifle, for example, the weapon favored by frontiersmen and by sharpshooters in the American Revolution, was extremely accurate at long ranges. Common practice targets were the head of a tack at 20 yards, the head of a turkey at 100 yards, and the body of a turkey at 200 yards–challenging targets even for today’s sharpshooters with modern rifles and telescopic sights. At 400 yards, an American soldier with a Kentucky rifle could easily hit a target as large as a horse, a fact that made British cavalrymen very uneasy.
The problem with the rifle of the time was that loading it was a difficult and slow process. Because the ammunition had to fit inside the barrel tightly in order to fit in the spiral rifling grooves, soldiers had a tough job forcing it down from the muzzle, especially under combat conditions, when repeated firing quickly filled the grooves with the residue of burnt powder. Before long, the rifleman literally had to pound the tight-fitting bullet down the barrel. As a result, the rifle’s rate of fire was only one-third of the smoothbore’s, making the gun impractical for general military use. Soldiers were better off firing three or four shots a minute in the general direction of an approaching enemy unit than firing once a minute with pinpoint accuracy at individual targets.
What the infantryman needed was a firearm that combined the best of the smoothbore flintlock musket with that of the rifle–a gun that was easy to load and could hit a small target at 200 yards. That gun was the muzzleloading rifle-musket, and with it came the improved bullet that made it possible. Known to common soldiers as the minié ball (which they pronounced "minnie ball"), the conical bullet could be loaded quickly and easily down a rifle’s muzzle and still fit the barrel’s rifling grooves tightly when fired. But before all this came to bear, inventors and sportsmen were working to perfect a new ignition system.
In 1807, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth, a Presbyterian minister from Belhelvie, Scotland, patented a new, more reliable ignition system than the flintlock system. Rather than have a shower of sparks ignite loose gunpowder, Forsyth employed a flat-nosed hammer to strike powdered fulminate of mercury, which detonated on contact, setting off the main charge of gunpowder inside the barrel. In 1814, Joshua Shaw of Philadelphia improved on Forsyth’s system by packing the fulminate inside a small iron cap and placing it on a hollow nipple fixed to the gun barrel, and in 1816, he replaced the iron with copper. The copper percussion cap was easy to use and virtually impervious to water and wind.
European and American armies embraced the new percussion, or caplock, system because of its reliability. The British army adopted it in 1834 after comparing the results of 6,000 test rounds fired from flintlock and percussion firearms. The flintlocks misfired 922 times (15 percent of the time), while only 36 (0.6 percent) of the percussion weapons misfired. The U.S. Army followed the British lead and adopted the percussion system in 1841. The following year, American armories began building smoothbore percussion muskets and converting older flintlocks to percussion weapons. Progress was slow, however, and the vast majority of American soldiers carried flintlocks in the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. Even 13 years later, at the beginning of the Civil War, Union and Confederate authorities issued smoothbore flintlock muskets to thousands of unlucky soldiers.
The percussion ignition system made infantry weapons fire more reliably, but there remained the challenge of coupling easy loading with long range and accuracy. And it was here that the minié bullet entered the scene. Developed over a generation, its final design was the fruit of independent work by men from Great Britain, France, and the United States.
Great Britain took the lead. As early as 1818, Captain John Norton of the British 34th Infantry began experimenting with bullet design. Norton shaped the nose of his new bullet like a cone with a rounded point and made its cylindrical base hollow. The hollow base was the bullet’s definitive feature. It allowed the bullet to be cast a bit narrower than the bore’s diameter to allow easy loading, since when the gun was fired, the pressure expanded the base to fit the barrel’s rifling grooves tightly. The inspiration for the bullet came to Norton while he was stationed in India and observed natives using blowpipes as weapons. He discovered that the base of the blowpipe arrow was made of elastic locus pith. When the natives blew, the pith expanded to form an airtight seal against the pipe’s inner walls. It seemed a small jump from there to making a bullet with a base that would expand from the pressure of firing.
In 1836, a London gunsmith named William Greener found a way to improve Norton’s design for expansion of the bullet base. He inserted into the hollow area a wooden plug that would push forward when the gun was fired and force the bullet’s base outward. The result was that the bullet fit more uniformly inside the barrel, producing more reliable and accurate fire.
Norton’s bullet with Greener’s refinement eventually came before the British army for approval for use in the field, but the army’s old-school officers rejected it. It was an overly conservative decision that squandered the opportunity to develop this innovative design into a truly remarkable weapon.
Several years after Norton had begun developing his hollow-base bullet, French weapons experts began working on a similar design. Eventually, three French army officers would share the credit for what would become the minié bullet: Captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne, Colonel Louis-Etienne de Thouvenin, and Captain Claude-Etienne Minié.
Delvigne led the way when he designed a muzzleloading rifle to fire a new type of bullet. In 1826, Delvigne built a unique rifle barrel with an independent gunpowder chamber at its breech. This chamber was separated from the rest of the barrel by a strong lip, beyond which the powder could pass, but not the bullet. In the earliest models, after the chamber was filled with gunpowder, Delvigne rammed a standard soft, round lead ball down the barrel and pounded it against the lip with the ramrod until it flattened just enough to grip the rifling grooves. He soon discovered, however, that the pounding disfigured the ball and greatly reduced its accuracy, so he designed an elongated, cylindrical bullet with a flat base that would expand more evenly under the ramrod blows. In 1840, Delvigne even received a patent for an explosive bullet of this general design. (Imagine pounding that down a rifle barrel!) In time, Delvigne’s design proved unsuitable for general military use; the powder chamber quickly became clogged, and the bullet still ended up too deformed for accurate flight.
In 1828, Thouvenin modified and improved upon Delvigne’s gun design. He replaced the lip and powder chamber inside the barrel with a hard metal post that screwed into the gun’s breech. After loading, the flat base of the elongated, cylindrical lead bullet rested upon the post in a position to be easily and uniformly forced into the rifling grooves when compressed by the ramrod. The Thouvenin design was a moderate improvement over Delvigne’s, and the French army selected it for trials in 1846. The gun and bullet combination was still not practical for widespread military use; the rifle breech was very difficult to clean, and the metal post was prone to breaking.
Delvigne’s developments inspired Minié, who had served with the French Chasseurs in several African campaigns, to do further work toward making an efficient, effective bullet. In 1849, he came up with one that more closely resembled Norton’s than Delvigne’s. Like Norton’s bullet, Minié’s had a hollow cylindrical base and a rounded conical nose. Minié also incorporated a plug in the bullet’s hollow base to assist expansion, just as Greener had done to Norton’s design. Instead of a wooden plug, however, Minié used an iron cup, which in effect served the same purpose as Thouvenin’s metal post. The explosion of the gunpowder would drive the iron cup forward and expand the bullet’s base to fit the rifling grooves snugly.
By this point in the story, it should not be surprising to learn that the French army never adopted the new bullet. It took the British army to use it in their new 1851 Enfield rifles, paying Minié 20,000 pounds for his patent. The army also had to pay Greener 1,000 pounds, after he won a patent infringement lawsuit over the bullet’s plug design. The bullet as it would be used by the soldiers in blue and gray was now virtually complete. It had also acquired the name that stuck among English-speaking troops–minnie ball, even though the captain’s French surname was properly pronounced min-YAY and his innovation was not a ball but a cone-shaped bullet.
In the early 1850s, James H. Burton, a master armorer at the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, gave the minié bullet the form it would take into the Civil War. By lengthening the bullet slightly and thinning the walls of its hollow base, Burton was able to dispense with the iron plug. The base of the improved bullet expanded just as well as Minié’s but was much easier and cheaper to mass-produce. By the mid-1850s, the fully evolved minié bullet made it possible to build an infantry weapon as easy to load as the old smoothbore musket but with the accuracy and range of a rifle. The term rifle-musket reflected the weapon’s lethal combination of attributes.
U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, adopted the rifle-musket and minié bullet for the U.S. Army in 1855. An improved version of the rifle-musket–the 1861 model built by the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts–became the principal infantry weapon of Northern soldiers in the Civil War.
Hundreds of thousands of Union troops carried the 1861 Springfield onto the battlefields of the Civil War, and untold numbers of Confederates captured the weapon and used it themselves. Between 1861 and 1865, the Springfield armory manufactured nearly 800,000 of the guns; private contractors built 880,000 more; and slightly modified 1863 and 1864 models accounted for an additional 500,000. That put the total number of minié-bullet-firing Springfield rifle-muskets at more than 2 million.
The Springfield rifle-musket was a .58-caliber percussion weapon that weighed nearly 10 pounds and cost about $15. It was 58 inches long with a 40-inch barrel, and came with an 18-inch bayonet. On the negative side, bullets exited the Springfield’s barrel at the relatively slow speed of only 950 feet per second (about the same as a modern .22-caliber rifle), but the gun’s deadly accuracy at long ranges outweighed that shortcoming. Armed with a Springfield, a competent shooter could hit a 27-inch bull’s-eye at 500 yards, the best performance to date for a standard-issue infantry weapon. A trained marksman could consistently hit a 4-inch target at 200 yards and a 6-by-6-foot target at 500 yards. At 1,000 yards, he could even hit an 8-by-8-foot target half of the time. That did not mean that the average Civil War soldier could hit anything at the more extreme distances, but improving the old smoothbore’s 75-yard range by 125 yards dramatically increased the effectiveness of even the most inept infantryman.
On the Confederate side, the Enfield rifle-musket was perhaps the most common of a wide assortment of firearms. It was widely considered to be the equal of the Springfield. The Confederacy purchased about 400,000 of these 1853 model .577-caliber weapons from private manufacturers in England. (The Union imported a similar number for its troops.)
Studies done by weapons analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense 100 years after the Civil War proved that the rifle-musket was three times more deadly than the most lethal infantry weapon to that point in history. Taking into account factors such as range, accuracy, rate of fire, and battlefield mobility, the researchers awarded the rifle-musket a "lethality index" of 154. Its next closest competitor was the smoothbore flintlock musket, with an index of 47. That was followed by the flintlock rifle, with an index of only 36.
The deadly effectiveness of the rifle-musket loaded with a minié bullet was largely to blame for the Civil War’s appalling casualty rates. During the nearly 10,500 skirmishes and battles of the war, more than 110,000 Union soldiers and 94,000 Confederates were killed, and an additional 275,000 and 194,000, respectively, were wounded. Rifle bullets, primarily the minié bullet, caused 90 percent of all these casualties. Artillery projectiles accounted for less than 9 percent, and swords and bayonets, less than 1 percent. Considering all this evidence, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the rifle-musket and minié bullet greatly affected the overall course of the Civil War and foreshadowed 20th-century warfare.
The rifle-musket and minié bullet revolutionized warfare by drastically altering the tactical balance between an attacking army and a defending one. Frontal assaults by infantry on a waiting enemy suddenly became suicidal. During the Napoleonic era, attacking infantry could safely approach to within 100 yards of an enemy line with little danger of being shot down. During the Civil War, however, because of the rifle-musket’s accuracy at long ranges, stationary defenders could load and fire quickly and hit their attackers. Since advancing infantrymen could not easily stop to take aim in return, their losses were much heavier than the defenders’.
The combination of the rifle-musket and minié bullet also made the bayonet nearly obsolete. In earlier years, the bayonet was often the most decisive infantry assault weapon, because the smoothbore flintlock musket’s short range allowed attackers to approach close enough for hand-to-hand fighting. In the Civil War, however, firepower almost always decided an assault’s outcome before charging troops came within stabbing distance. In fact, very few Civil War surgeons reported bayonet wounds. During Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the summer of 1864, for example, Union medical directors recorded only 37 bayonet wounds. Of the several hundred thousand wounded men treated in Union hospitals over the course of the war, surgeons noted only 922 bayonet wounds!
As they had done to the bayonet, the rifle-musket and minié bullet also reduced the effectiveness of field artillery. In the early 1800s, Napoleon often placed the artillery forward in his battle lines, even during advances, to provide direct fire in support of the infantry. During the Civil War, however, it was too easy to shoot down an exposed cannon crew operating in the front lines. The artillery was forced to seek protection in the rear, a position from which it was more difficult to hit enemy targets without endangering friendly troops in the front.
The cavalry was similarly ousted from its former role by the rifle-musket and minié ball. Napoleon often used his cavalry as a surprise offensive weapon, sending his horsemen on charges to trample infantrymen armed with smoothbore flintlock muskets. But the Civil War soldier armed with a rifle-musket and minié bullets could hit a man at 100 to 200 yards; a horse and rider made an even more inviting target. Consequently, the colorful cavalry charges of the Napoleonic era became all but obsolete. In fact, as the war continued, more and more cavalrymen fought as mounted infantry, using their horses for mobility and then dismounting to fight on foot. In effect, they became the forebears of today’s mechanized infantry.
Unfortunately, it took most Civil War generals too long to realize that some critical tactics they had learned at West Point or from military manuals were obsolete, particularly the frontal assault. Generals on both sides continued to send their men on these suicidal attacks. In Pickett’s Charge alone, almost 6,000 Rebels were killed or wounded as they advanced uphill over a mile of open ground toward entrenched Union positions at Gettysburg. The equations and formulas of warfare had been changed completely, mostly by a simple firearm and bullet: the rifle-musket and minié ball.
Allan W. Howey, the director of the Air University Press at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, has taught Civil War military history at the Air Force Academy and other military colleges.
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