Death By Black Powder

Story by Frank Jardim

April 9th marks the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to US Army General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va., in 1865. News of Lee’s capitulation triggered a series of surrenders across the far-flung battle lines, and a month later, President Andrew Johnson considered the war over.

Model 1860 Savage north percussion Navy revolver (3) – Model 1860 Savage-North percussion Navy revolver; .36 caliber Engraved: SAVAGE R.F.A. CO. MIDDLETOWN, CT H.S. NORTH PATENTED JUNE 17 1856 JANUARY 13 1859 MAY 15 1860 (Courtesy of Memphis Pink Palace Museum – TAMARA BRAITHWAITE)

From the beginning of hostilities on April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked the US Army garrison at Fort Sumter, S.C., the American Civil War lasted just over five years and resulted in a greater loss of American lives than any conflict before or since. Total military casualties numbered 1,125,000, which represented 3.5 percent of the entire US population, in 1861. The total military deaths from all causes, numbered 654,000. Technically, more soldiers were killed in World War II, but the number of soldiers who lost their lives from disease during the Civil War puts that number ahead in overall loss of life. This is the human tragedy of war. The magnitude of this war deeply scarred the people who lived through it.

PHOTO 4 Rifles resting

As was common during the civil war era, rifles were stacked against each other for support. Formed of three central muskets with intertwined bayonets that form a teepee. These stacks are made whenever a unit is at rest after a halt and when in camp but on other duties and a musket is not required. (JIM BAKER)

The Civil War is sometimes described as the last old fashioned, and the first modern, war. It was fought with the final generation of muzzle-loading percussion arms and artillery. These were at the apex of their development as well as other new technologies in the form of breech-loaders, repeating rifles (that used self-contained metallic cartridges) and, of course, the first Gatling guns. The armies fought using linear tactics of previous centuries, but generally with less finesse than the highly disciplined soldiers of Europe.

Some historians now believe that artillery fire may have accounted for 20 to 50 percent of all casualties.

Rifled-muskets were eventually the standard infantry weapon for both the North and South. They possessed the speed-loading ability of a smoothbore musket and the accuracy of a rifle, thanks to the ingenious Minié bullet. Minié balls varied in detail, but the type commonly used during the Civil War had a hollow base that formed a thin skirt at the bottom, similar to a sewing thimble. It was cast smaller than the rifle bore so it could be easily loaded down the barrel. When fired, the expanding gas forced the Minié ball’s base outward  and into full contact with the barrel’s rifling, stabilizing the spin. The result allowed the weapon to fire accurately against individual targets at ranges of 600 yards and against massed targets at 1,000. This increased the range 10-fold over smoothbore muskets.

United States—History—Civil War, 1861-1865; Soldiers; Military uniformsIt is still commonly believed by historians that the horrific casualties of war were the direct result of the range and accuracy of the rifled muskets versus the old fashioned linear tactics. These tactics involved maneuvering large bodies of men in close formations around the battlefield. Each group would line up in full view of each other and fire volley after volley, until one side wavered. At that point a bayonet charge would decide the winner.

At the 250-yard point, the bullet would reach the apex of its arch, rising 48 inches above the line of aim on it’s path to the target.

On the surface, the combination of better weapons and outdated tactics seems like a good formula for slaughter but the reality is less clear. It seems unlikely that the full potential of the rifled musket was realized since commanders rarely took advantage of its range and accuracy. For one thing, the field artillery’s ubiquitous 12-pounder Napoleon combination guns/howitzers were deadly effective at ranges well beyond small arms. Some historians now believe that artillery fire may have accounted for 20 to 50 percent of all casualties. Statistics on the effectiveness of small arms vary. Some suggest about one casualty for every 240 rounds fired, which is hardly more than the old smoothbore musket days of Emperor Napoleon. Other estimates state that Union forces expended over 1,000 rounds per casualty. It is worthy of note that a declining ratio of rounds fired to casualties produced is consistent with results found in subsequent wars as weapons technology improved.

PHOTO 9 casualties-by-war

Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars – 620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts. It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the amount of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War. (Courtesy of

Other factors played a part in limiting the effectiveness of the rifled-musket. The black powder propellants used produced such prodigious amounts of white smoke that at times it completely obscured large parts of the battlefield. The accuracy of the rifled-musket was of little consequence when the soldiers couldn’t see the enemy. Further undermining the myth, military marksmanship training was virtually nonexistent at that time. Soldiers had whatever shooting experience they joined the army with. Rural farm boys grew up shooting while urban laborers had, likely, never handled a firearm before becoming a soldier. Estimates show that 48 percent of the Union Army and 69 percent of the Confederate Army came from farming backgrounds. The figures suggest that the South should have had better marksmen, but keep in mind that the Union fielded twice as many troops as the Confederacy. If the Union had more good shots, it had more bad ones too.

Model 1857 (1) – Model 1857 Smith breech loading carbine; .50 caliber; percussion hammer. The engraving reads: ADDRESS POULTNEY & TRIMBLE, BALTIMORE, USA MANUFACTURED BY AMERICAN MACHINE WORKS SMITH’S PATENT JUNE 23, 1857; 6550; hallmark on stock: JH in small oval (Courtesy of Memphis Pink Palace Museum – TAMARA BRAITHWAITE)

How many of those rural men in the ranks, had experience with long-range marksmanship? There’s no doubt that a shooting background would help, but the real question is, how much?

To this day, typical hunting ranges in the Eastern states are less than 100 yards. To successfully hit a long-range target requires the soldier to understand bullet trajectory and know the exact distance. The Civil War shooter had to compensate for the high arch of the heavy, slow-moving, Minie ball. A soldier shooting at the enemy from what he determined to be 300 yards would have to fire at the target’s waist. The Springfield Model 1861 had a three-tier notch rear sight (one for 50, 100 and 300 yards). The shooter would flip up the 300-yard sighting mecahnism, called a leaf, to make the shot. When he squeezed the trigger, the hammer struck the percussion cap on the nipple and instantly ignited the main 65-grain powder charge in the barrel. This launched the 505-grain projectile on its arching path towards the opponents belt buckle. At the 250-yard point, the bullet would reach the apex of its arch, rising 48 inches above the line of aim on it’s path to the target. That means it would pass over the head of a man standing 50 yards in front of the target. Let’s say the shooter’s windage was off and he missed. The bullet would carry only another 50 yards behind the target before gravity pulled it to the ground. Correct range estimation was key to success and even a 50-yard error in judgment would cause a clean miss.


In January of 1862, the Union had an army of 527,000 infantrymen, and by the end of the war, that number exceeded 1 million. The United States government purchased 1,565,250 weapons of all types. When the war broke out, the Springfield Model 1855 percussion rifle was the standard weapon of the US Army. It was a .58-caliber rifled-musket with a unique Maynard priming system that didn’t use conventional percussion caps, although it could if necessary. In the Maynard system, the primers were bonded to a thin tape, coiled inside its lock that functioned in the same manner as a roll of paper caps in a child’s cap-gun. Only 7,000 of these were available at the outbreak of hostilities, and though an excellent weapon, it was thought that its complexity would be a hindrance in mass production.

The Springfield Armory made a simplified version using an ordinary percussion ignition system and thus the Model 1861 Springfield was born. It became the most widely used weapon of the Civil War, and the main weapon of the Union Army. Springfield Armory made 250,000 from 1861 to 1863, but another 450,000 were made by private contractors. Design changes to further simplify manufacturing resulted in the Model 1863 Springfield, of which 273,000 were made before yet another round of simplifications resulting in the Model 1863 type 2. Only 255,000 of these were made in 1864.

CW Model 1858 Revolver

Model 1858 Revolver – Model 1858 Allen & Wheelock percussion Army revolver; .44 caliber Engraving: ALLEN & WHEELOCK WORCHESTER, MASS. ALLEN’S PT’S JAN. 13, DEC 15, 1857 SEPT. 7 (Courtesy of Memphis Pink Palace Museum – TAMARA BRAITHWAITE)

The U.S. government also bought 428,292 .577-caliber Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets and another 8,000 Short Sea Service Pattern1858 models from the British. The Pattern 1853 Enfield became the mainstay of the Confederacy and was the second most common weapon of the Civil War. The American market quickly became a dumping ground for Europe’s obsolete weapons as both sides scrambled to find enough small arms to equip their armies. The Confederates purchased four blockade-runners (seagoing steam-ships used to make their way through the Union water blockades) to facilitate their imports. The U.S. government had no impediments to importation and bought 453,500 old rifled-muskets of various types in addition to 100,000 smooth boremuskets.

The American market quickly became a dumping ground for Europe’s obsolete weapons as both sides scrambled to find enough small arms to equip their armies.

Smoothbores saw considerable use at the start of the war on both sides. The state armories in the Confederacy only had about 160,000 weapons of the same type as the Union, including many Model 1842 percussion muskets. Even several years into the conflict, smoothbore muskets continued to be used, sometimes with buck-ball loads that combined a musket ball with several buckshot for devastating close-range effects.

Model 1864 Burnside breech loading carbine – Model 1864 Burnside breech loading carbine .54 caliber Engraving: BURNSIDE RIFLE CO. PROVIDENCE RI; 14402; R.K.W. stamped into stock; used by Union cavalry (Courtesy of Memphis Pink Palace Museum – TAMARA BRAITHWAITE)

The Union supplemented its rifled-muskets with small numbers of various innovative repeaters and single-shot breechloaders. The lever action Spencer and Henry rifles were the most famous and successful of the repeaters. It’s strange that the most iconic and advanced rifle of the Civil War, the Henry, was the one that held the least interest for the US government. Fewer than 1,800 were purchased, compared to 11,400 .52-caliber Spencer rifles and 94,196 carbines. Among breech-loaders, the standout was the robust and accurate Sharps arms. Nine thousand Sharps New Model 1859, 1863 and 1865 breech-loading rifles as well as 80,512 M1859 and M1863 carbines, were bought by the US government. The Sharps rifles were favored by Union sharpshooters for their accuracy and ability to reload while laying down. It might seem that the Union had gone carbine crazy when you consider that they also bought 55,567 .54-caliber breech-loading Burnside carbines (plus over 21,000,000 of their unique cartridges) in addition to 30,000 Smith, 25,000 Starr and 22,000 Gallagher breech-loading carbines. The fact was the Union had a lot of cavalry.

The Confederates found the utility of captured carbines limited, due to their varied calibers. In the case of Spencer and Henry repeaters, the South lacked the capacity to manufacture their special rimfire ammunition. Confederate cavalry made extensive use of short shotguns and later short rifled-muskets when they became available through capture, purchase or extremely limited manufacturing.

The Confederacy never developed a small arms industry of any consequence, but they were able to purchase weapons overseas and capture them in great numbers on the battlefield in 1861 and 1862. In the latter year alone, we know that 100,000 weapons were captured. It was helpful that the .58-caliber Minié ball of the Springfield and the .577 Minie ball of the Enfield were close enough that they could be used interchangeably. – ASJ

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March 30th, 2015 by