Anyone into long range shooting, a history buff or have had sniper training should have heard of the Confederate Whitworth rifle.
The Whitworth Rifle was a single-shot muzzle-loaded rifle used in the latter half of the 19th century. Possessing excellent long range accuracy for its time, the Whitworth, when used with a scope, was the world’s first sniper rifle, and saw use with Confederate sharpshooters in the American Civil War. This rifle was invented by Sir Joseph Whitworth, a famed British engineer and inventor.
Whitworth had experimented with cannons using polygonal rifling instead of traditional rifled barrels, which was patented in 1854. The hexagonal polygonal rifling meant that the projectile did not have to bite into grooves as was done with conventional rifling.
Whitworth believed that the same type of system could be used to create a more accurate rifle to replace the Pattern 1853 Enfield.
Trials were held in 1857 to compare Whitworth’s design against the Enfield. The Whitworth rifle outperformed the Enfield at a rate of about three to one in the trials, which tested the accuracy and range of both weapons. Notably, the Whitworth rifle was able to hit the target at a range of 2,000 yards, where the Enfield was only able to hit the same target at a range of 1,400 yards. Here’s the actual breakdown of the ranges that were tested.
At just over a mile, the Whitworth rifle’s group was almost twelve feet, this may not seem extremely accurate. However, we must consider the fact that the shooter would probably be firing on a group of officers or artillery men. In which case, being able to consistently hit a twelve foot target would at least cause great disorder, if it did not prove deadly.
While the trials were generally a success for the Whitworth rifle, the British government ultimately rejected the design because the Whitworth’s barrel was much more prone to fouling than the Enfield, and the Whitworth rifle also cost approximately four times as much to manufacture. The Whitworth Rifle Company was able to sell the weapon to the French army, and also to the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Design and Features
While the barrel design of the Whitworth rifle was innovative, the rest of the rifle was similar to other rifles and rifle-muskets used at the time. The rifle was muzzle loaded, and used a percussion lock firing mechanism. The lock mechanism was very similar to that used on the Enfield rifle-musket.
Whitworth chose to use a longer and more slender bullet than was common at the time, which resulted in a bore diameter of .451 caliber, significantly smaller than the Enfield’s .577 caliber bore. Whitworth’s bullets were more stable at longer ranges than the shorter and larger diameter bullets found in other rifles of the time. Whitworth also engineered the barrel with a 1-in-20″ twist, quite a bit tighter than the 1-in-78″ of the 1853 Enfield, or the later 1856/1858 variants with 5 groove barrels and a 1-in-48″ twist. The extra spin the faster twist imparted to the projectile further stabilized the bullet in flight.
The Whitworth rifle weighed 9 pounds. Other long range rifles of the period tended to have much larger and heavier barrels, which made them too heavy for standard infantry use.
Whitworth rifles, being used by sharpshooters, were usually rested against a tree or log while fired to increase their accuracy. Some sharpshooters carried their own forked rests for the rifle, so that a suitable rest was always available.
[The following is an excerpt from the book “Civil War Stories”]
The Confederate government, purchased a limited number of Whitworth rifles during the Civil War. These weapons were given to the very best marksmen in the Confederate Army. This select group of men were referred to as Whitworth Sharpshooters, thus were born the first modern sniper units.
Most of the Whitworth rifles used by the Confederates were equipped with open sights. The front sight was usually adjustable for distance, and in some instances was also adjustable for windage. A small number had telescopic sights which, unlike modern top-mounted rifle scopes, were mounted on the left side of the rifle.
On a side note, the Whitworth was a light gun, and therefore had very hard kick. Because of this, those sharpshooters who used a scope often left the battlefield with a black eye, thanks to the blows they received from their scope when the rifle recoiled.
These men were often sent out to find vantage points from which they could harass and eliminate Union artillery crews. They did not limit themselves to artillery targets, however. When the opportunity presented itself, these early snipers would draw a bead on enemy officers as well.
On September 20, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga, an unknown Confederate sniper shot Union General William Haines Lytle off his horse while the General was leading a counterattack. When the General’s body was identified, the Confederates placed an honor guard on the body until it could be recovered.
The most famous act of sniping during the Civil War also involved a Whitworth rifle. It took place on May 9, 1864, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Accounts vary as to the distance from which the shot was taken, with the range being put anywhere from 500 to 1000 yards. It is likely that it was closer to 500 than 1000, but we will never know for sure.
Union General John Sedgwick was directing the placement of his artillery in preparation for the coming battle when his position came under fire from a Confederate sniper. The unique shape of the Whitworth bullets caused them to make a very distinctive whistling sound when they passed through the air; a sound that was, by then, feared in the Union ranks.
Following is an account of what happened next, from Sedgwick’s Chief-of-Staff:
“As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The general said laughingly, ‘What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.’ A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the general, and at the same moment a sharp-shooter’s bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the general, dodged to the ground.
The general touched him gently with his foot, and said, ‘Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,’ and repeated the remark, ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.’ The man rose and saluted and said good-naturedly, ‘General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.’ The general laughed and replied, ‘All right, my man; go to your place.’
For a third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk; when, as I was about to resume, the general’s face turned slowly to me, the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream. He fell in my direction; I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I fell with him.”
General Sedgwick became the highest ranking Union officer to die in battle (above). When General Ulysses S. Grant received the news, he was so shocked that, in total disbelief, he repeatedly asked those around him, “Is he really dead?”
Although five different Confederate snipers claimed to have been responsible, it has never been confirmed who took the most famous shot ever fired from a Whitworth rifle.
Sources: ForgottenWeapons.com, Wikipedia, Civil War Stories
Photos from Military History Now