Small Arms of the Civil War

By Robert Dunn
AGI Pro Course Graduate, GCA Charter Member

The American Civil War was a dark time for our nation. Since history tends to repeat itself, it is good to know about our history so we can avoid making the same mistakes. There is a lot to be learned from that time period. Many advances in technology and manufacturing occurred through necessity.

Though many of the small arms used during the Civil War are now considered archaic, it would be a mistake to take their firepower lightly. Keep in mind that these weapons and the folks that used them took hundreds of thousands of lives on the battlefield and crippled several times that many more. Over 620,000 lives were lost between the years of 1861-1865 (about 2% of the population).

Most deaths occurred from disease, but the Union suffered over 110,000 battlefield deaths and the Confederates lost 94,000 lives on the battlefield. Recent studies during “modern times” indicate the total number of deaths was closer to 750,000. Many different weapons were used in the American Civil War, such as; cannons, mortars, swords/sabers, and bayonets/knives, but the focus of this article will be about handguns and long guns.

Since moving to Georgia, I have visited two places with wonderful exhibits of some of the weapons used during the Civil War. I began my research at Stone Mountain Park’s Memorial Hall Museum. This park contains a memorial monument in tribute to three important Confederate gentlemen; President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. This stone carving measures 90 by 190 feet and is 42 feet deep. It is the largest relief sculpture in the world. The second museum I visited was at the Atlanta History Center, where you can find the largest and most comprehensive Civil War collections in the world.

When the war broke out, nobody thought it would last for too long, so volunteers went off to fight with gifts from their neighbors and family heirlooms.

Some of the small arms used during the Civil War were rifled muskets, smooth bored muskets, shotguns, repeating rifles, breech-loading rifles, revolvers and single shot pistols. At the start of the Civil War, both sides used every type of firearm they could get their hands on. Everything from muskets that had been used during the War of 1812 to squirrel rifles and fowling pieces (shotguns) brought from the soldiers’ homes were used, as no one was prepared for a major war. The Union had a much larger stockpile of weapons when the war began, as they had the use of the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. American firearms manufacturers like Remington, Colt and Sharps ramped up production but both the North and the South also purchased firearms from European manufacturers as well. Many of the guns used in the beginning of the war were those that the individual state militias trained with. For example, the New Jersey militia used many Model 1841 rifles that were manufactured at the Harpers Ferry Armory in Virginia (now West Virginia) and the South Carolina militia used U.S. Model 1842 muskets that were allocated to them from the Palmetto Armory in Columbus, South Carolina. The Infantry and the Cavalry of both the Union and the Confederacy used the Springfield 1861 and the Enfield Pattern 1853 rifled-muskets during almost every battle during the war.

This old multi-barreled six-shot pepperbox revolver was made by Ethan Allen in 1845 and could have been used in close quarter battle as a last ditch effort to stay alive.

The widespread use of the combination of rifle-muskets and the Minié ball had a devastating effect on the battlefield. The rifled barrels gave the shooter much better accuracy as well as the ability to hit targets at a much greater distance than a smooth bore musket and a ball projectile. The effective range of the long guns went from 60 yards using a smooth bore and ball ammo to around 300 yards using a rifled musket with Minié ball ammo.

The conical Minié ball, invented by Claude-Étienne Minié, was small enough to be quickly loaded into a rifled barrel and its spin stabilized the bullet during its travel downrange. This conical lead bullet had three grease-filled grooves and a conical hollow base. When the gun was fired, the hot gases would push into the hollow base of the bullet and expand the soft lead base into the rifled grooves in the barrel, thus creating the bullet’s stabilizing rotation. This made the decision whether to use the fast to load but inaccurate musket or an accurate but slow to load rifle, moot.

The Minié ball produced a higher muzzle velocity and was of a larger diameter than previously used ball ammunition. The wounds inflicted by the Minié ball were devastating. It would bore straight through flesh, tendons, muscle. It would shatter bones, creating compound fractures that would require amputation of the limb. The entrance would be about the size of the caliber of the bullet and exit would be about the size of a man’s fist.

Small arms laboratories/munitions factories were prominent in the North and South and men, women, and boys loaded over a billion handmade paper cartridges for the rifle-muskets. Workers churned out around 800 cartridges per day in assembly line fashion. They usually worked 10 hour days six days a week and made around $15 a month.

Here is a depiction of a woman in a cartridge assembly room of a munitions factory hand making paper cartridges.

A piece of pre-cut paper was rolled into a tube that was tied at the bottom. A Minié ball was placed on the tip of the tube and another piece of paper was rolled around the bullet assembly and tied. A man would then pour a measured charge of black powder into the tube and fold the paper over onto itself to close the cartridge.

On the battlefield, a soldier would tear or bite off the folded paper tab and pour the black powder down the barrel. The Minié ball was then squeezed out of the paper tube, placed into the barrel and the ram rod was used to ram the bullet down onto the charge. The ram rod was stowed away back into the long gun, the hammer was placed in the half-cock position, and a percussion cap was placed on the nipple. The shooter could then place the hammer in the full-cock position and pull the trigger to fire the gun.

Many times in the heat of battle and fog of war, the soldiers would load the firearm and forget to put a percussion cap on and think they had fired the gun and load another cartridge. In later times, many rifle-muskets were found that had double or multiple charges loaded in the weapon that had not been discharged. There could be many scenarios that could cause this to occur; soldier reluctant to fire, fouled powder or percussion cap, battlefield pickup of a previously loaded firearm, etc.

From top to bottom; a Confederate copy of a U.S. Model 1855 rifle-musket made at Harper’s Ferry, VA in 1858 that used the Maynard tape-priming system, and another copy of the Model 1855 made at the C.S. Armory in Richmond, VA which eliminated the priming system for easier manufacturing.

The Union army had the might of Northern manufacturing on its side and kept their army well supplied. Richmond, Virginia (my birthplace) was the most crucial city for manufacturing firearms, ammunition, artillery and other important accoutrements for the Confederacy.

The state of Georgia also played a key role in keeping the Confederate army stocked with supplies. For most of the war, Georgia was a geographically secure location for wartime manufacturing and also provided good locations for some of the South’s largest and most productive arsenals and munition factories. Georgia had an iron industry, a cotton industry, a railroad industry and linkage to many other parts of the South. Georgia also had the raw materials of sulfur, niter (saltpeter) and charcoal to produce 6,000 pounds of gunpowder per day, which was all vital to keeping the rebel soldier in the fight. It’s no wonder that Union General Sherman and his 60,000 troops burned and flattened the city of Atlanta during his “March to the Sea.”

Many of the guns used by the Northern and Southern Navies were also used by their armies. Some of the handguns used by the U.S. Navy were the .54 caliber single-shot U.S. Model 1842 Navy pistol and the .36 caliber Remington 1863 Navy revolver. The well-designed Whitney Navy revolver was a .36 caliber handgun used by the Union and Confederate Navies.

This solid frame revolver was originally manufactured by the Whitney Arms Company but many manufacturers in the North and the South copied it. The South did not use any specific firearms for their navy, though the Colt 1851 Navy revolver was a popular revolver and many of the Southern guns used brass frames because brass was easier to work with/machine and easier to acquire than iron and steel. Some of the long guns used by the navies were the British Pattern 1853 artillery carbine, the Sharps and Hankins Model 1862 breechloading carbine, and Whitney’s .69 caliber Model 1861 “Plymouth” Navy rifle.

When it came to the Union cavalry, the soldiers needed a short barreled, lightweight long gun that could be fired from horseback. The U.S. Sharps Model 1863 and the U.S. Spencer Breech loading carbines were selected for these mounted soldiers. Both of those carbines were .52 caliber and the breechloading capability was ideal for horseback shooting. The Confederate cavalry didn’t have any good means of acquiring any breechloading carbines, so they mostly used sawed-off shotguns, muzzle loading carbines like the C.S. Armory .58 caliber carbine (made in Richmond, VA.) and revolvers. Some of the six-shot revolvers used by the cavalries were the Colt 1860, the Remington 1863 and the Starr 1863, which were all chambered to shoot .44 caliber paper cartridges ignited by percussion caps. Many of the revolvers the South used were copies of the revolvers mentioned above or were battlefield pick-ups.

Snipers or Sharpshooters were employed on the battlefield to great effect during the civil war. These specialists were selected because they displayed excellent marksmanship. Their job was to take out specific targets like officers, artillerymen and their horses, or other snipers. These shooters were trained to take down targets out to a mile away and this had profound psychological ramifications. Maybe the most well-known regiment of sharpshooters was Hiram C. Berdan’s 1st Regiment, who wore green uniforms that served as camouflage. These Federal troops served as scouts, skirmishers and snipers, sort of like today’s Special Forces units. Though the Union sharpshooters seem to get all of the recognition, the Confederacy had their sharpshooting regiments too. The sharpshooter battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia had a devastating effect in trench warfare and out in the thick forests of the South. These elite Southern troops were the best of the best. Before the war many of these folks wouldn’t eat if they weren’t good hunters and they brought their hunting, stalking, and marksmanship skills to the war.

From top to bottom; a .44 caliber British Kerr rifle, .52 caliber breechloading Sharps rifle and a .44 caliber civilian target rifle with a telescopic sight.

Some of the guns used by these Southern sharpshooters were the Whitworth rifle, which used a six-sided hexagonal bore that accurately spun the bullet to its target and the Kerr rifle, made by the London Armory Company and also using a hexagonal bore. These rifles were imported to the Confederacy through the blockade. The federal sharpshooters used the Sharps breechloading rifles because it was easier to load while laying down and remaining concealed.

Both the North and the South used heavy civilian target rifles with long telescopic sights to great effect, as their long heavy barrels could hold stout powder charges to carry the projectile successfully over long distances. These handcrafted rifles weighed between 17 to 35 pounds and came with their own custom bullet molds, an extra sighting tube and spare parts that were custom made by the rifle maker/gunsmith.

There were also a lot of “experimental rifles” used by both the North and the South during the Civil War. Guns like the Colt Model 1855 revolving rifle and the Lindsay .58 caliber double rifle-musket may have looked interesting but had many problems on the battlefield and when that happened folks got killed, so they were not very popular. The Greene breechloading bolt action rifle worked well for Federal troops and was a bit ahead of its time, but out of the 4,000 rifles produced, very few of them saw use on the battlefield. The .44 caliber Henry lever action rifle held 15 cartridges in its tubular magazine and saw a lot of use during the last part of the war during the Atlanta campaign of 1864. Another repeating rifle that was experimental for its time and was used quite a bit throughout the war was the breech loading Spencer rifle.

One of the experimental firearms used by the Confederacy was the U.S. Model 1819 .52 caliber breechloading rifle invented by John H. Hall. Many of the 60,000 rifles produced were manufactured in Southern State arsenals, so the South had many of these guns on hand when the war broke out. Though Southern manufacturers had limited resources, raw materials, machinery and workers, they still managed to produce a few interesting breechloading rifles and carbines like the Bilharz, Hall and Company .54 caliber carbine which used a rising breechblock mechanism. These guns were too complicated to be manufactured on a large scale though. Another experimental Southern gun that came out of Greenville, South Carolina was the .50 caliber Morse breech loading carbine. It was one of the first guns to use the self-priming brass cartridges, but it suffered from the same fate of being too hard to produce.

The many experimental firearms used by both the North and the South.

There were many different small arms used during the American Civil War manufactured in both foreign and domestic locations. It is my hope “We the People” can learn from our past and prevent another American Civil War. The firearms, ammunition and other war fighting technologies that would be employed in a modern day civil war would yield frightening death tolls. That would certainly be something I would care to avoid!


17 Responses to Small Arms of the Civil War

  1. The North-South Skirmish Association competes in live-fire competition with original and reproduction firearms from the Civil War. This is not a reenactment organization – teams dress in period uniforms and represent actual CW units that existed. We live-fire at paper targets (individual competition) and breakable targets (team/company competition) with Canon, Mortar, revolver, carbine/breechloader, smoothbore musket, rifle-musket, repeater (Henry/Spencer). Check us out at http://www.n-ssa.org/, or better yet, visit us at our National Competition held at our National Range in Gainsboro, VA (just outside of Winchester, VA) from 18-20 May. Spectators are very welcome and encouraged and it is free to attend.

    • Tom, that sounds like a lot of fun! Thanks for telling us about this, cool website! I am back in Oregon, but love my home state of Virginia!

    • I lived in Virginia for a while and enjoyed the history of the region, both the Revolutionary and Civil War Periods.
      I went to Gettysburg to watch the reenactment there and was truly honored to stand on that field of battle.
      I just hope that the People of the United States don’t allow time and political correctness to wash away what we should have learned from our history.

  2. As mentioned many rifles and guns came from England. I have an 1863 Barrett/London that an old soldier asked me to clean up for him. It is .600 caliber and heavyyy. You have to admire what these soldiers hefted for fighting and what a wound from a .66 caliber rifle might be.
    The weapon technology of the Civil War far exceeded the medical knowledge of the armies in the fight. It was a terrible conflict.

    • Yeah that would create a lot of damage. We definitely learned a lot about surgery during the Civil War.

  3. Unfortunately WW III will be nuclear. We have the best weapon for this, and it is called prayer. If WW III occurs, it will be because we did not get the message out that prayer is the only answer. There will be very few survivors anywhere on earth and the world that will be left will not be as we see it today.

    • I presently live in Colorado and am more concerned about the Yellowstone Caldera going off in my lifetime than WWIII.
      Either way, when I hear that Yellowstone has erupted or DPRK has launched a NUKE, I will wander out on the deck with a beer and watch the lights go out.
      They will both be quite devastating.

      • Me too, Martin. I used to live in Colorado, I love the Rocky Mountains, good memories. Saw my first mountain lion there!

  4. I hate to say it but most of the surgical techniques are developed because of war. Up until and during most of WW II the surgical techniques were basically the same as were learned the hard way during the Civil (War of Northern Aggression) war. If you have the chance go to a medical school library(they are open to the public) and dig into the old medical texts. When I was working I could get lost in the 1800s medical books for hours. I need to go back and do it again, but I’m awful busy being retired.

    • Ray,
      I was taught that it was the War of Southern Succession, but either way it was a tragedy that should never have happened.
      We just have to remember how it came about and what the ramifications were for both the North and the South.
      The Civil War is considered to be the Last Old European War and the First Modern War with trench warfare, aviation, logistics, use of railroads, ironclads, embedded press and telegraph as well as strides forward in battlefield medicine.
      We just have to make certain that the circumstances that led to the Civil War never happen again.

  5. The history of firearms is as interesting as history itself. When you find wars, you will find means to fight them improve as the fighting goes on.
    In the Revolution, the British complained about the Colonial snipers. In the Civil War, even though it didn’t really impact the war, there were complaints about the Gatling Gun.
    There are just so many upgrades to weapons over the years to boggle the mind and war just exacerbates the situation. But on the other side, the support side of war works just as hard to keep the fighters supplied with bullets, beans and bandaids.
    Great article and great discussion.

  6. Definitely another cool bit of firearms history! When I was growing up we visited a lot of battlefields up and down the East Coast. We would go far out of our way to visit the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower, where they made lead shot, very interesting process! I was fortunate to grow up and live in many different cities with cool forts and historic sites; Richmond, VA, Pittsburgh, PA, Atlanta, GA, Boston, MA.

    • The forts around Washington, DC and Richmond, VA including Petersburg are absolutely fascinating.
      When I lived in Centreville, I had a chance to visit several forts at both locations as well as Grant’s big logistics base at Center Point. They said that the Union cooks would make hot meals and send them to the troops surrounding Petersburg by a specially built narrow gauge railroad. I’m not certain if the is a record of how many Confederate troops surrendered because of the smell of the hot meals.