Common Guns in the Civil War
58 Springfield Musket
The muzzle loading 58 caliber rifled
musket was the primary weapon of the American Civil War. An
unprecedented production of over a million and a half were made in the
North during the Civil War by Springfield Armory and private
contractors. The quantity made in the South is unknown, but is estimated
as less than one percent of the number made in the North. The primary source for
the South was to pick them up on the battlefields after the Union Army
withdrew from immediate contact. The opposing armies tried to make
agreements to not pick up muskets on the battlefield when retrieving the
wounded, but the officers of both sides were too afraid to do much if a
soldier of the opposite side picked up a musket when there were still
moaning wounded waiting to be carried away.
Both sides were desperate for weapons at the start of the War
with many of the earlier smoothbore muskets pressed back into service.
The most common import was the Enfield from England. Small quantities
of other makes were also brought from Europe.
The 58 rifle musket made
a dramatic change in the common soldier's marksmanship. The predecessor
US musket was the 69 caliber smoothbore modeled from the French muskets
provided during the
American Revolutionary War. The 69 smoothbore had a maximum effective
range of about 100 yards, or less. With the adoption of the 58 rifle
musket, the effective range increased to 300 yards, or more. Up to 600
yards to hit either the man or the horse he was riding.
My father and I with an original
Enfield around the year 1960 were able to get such results out to about
250 yards with a swabbed almost clean barrel on a target the size of a
single man's torso. And about the same with the use of excess
crisco as bullet lubricant. Messy and fun. But the effective
range in the Civil War was against a whole firing line packed shoulder
to shoulder since they still marched up in mass as they would have for
the 69 smoothbore. In deference to the times, the only
communication the firing line officers and sergeants had with the
soldiers back then once they were in the thick of a fight was trying to
yell over the din, which kept everyone all packed in close to each
The 58 was based on an invention, again from France, of the hollow base
Minie "ball" bullet. The gas pressure from the burning propellant powder
would expand the huge hollow base of the bullet into the rifling. Ammunition was
issued as paper cartridges containing the
powder and bullet. The percussion caps were issued and applied separately.
The increase in potential accuracy was so profound the Government put a rear sight on the standard issue musket
for the first time.
The 3 and the 5 on the sight leaves
denote the range. The sight is set for 100 yards by default when
both sight leaves are down.
When the leaf marked three is raised the sight is set for 300 yards.
When both leaves are raised, the sight is set for 500 yards.
Rough and crude by modern standards, the thinking at the time was
simplicity in the ability to hit a standing man at such ranges.
The Confederate President Jefferson Davis was the
former US Secretary of War
when the Minie Ball shooting 58 rifled musket was adopted in 1855.
Manufacture commenced immediately in the Federal Arsenals at Springfield,
Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia).
They didn't understand the changes in tactics from the spectacular
increase in effective range. The artillery had to back up to three times
their former distance from the infantry. With the 69 musket, the attacker
could march up, both sides fire one volley, and then the attacker could
instantly charge with bayonets. On a still day neither side could see the
other through the dense clouds of gunsmoke. With the rifle musket and a
light breeze to clear the air, the defender could commence firing at 300
yards, or more, and get off several volleys. The Defender quickly found
out that hiding behind anything limited the attacker's ability to shoot
back. A fence if nothing else. A stone wall was better, or a sunken road. Both sides
became expert in instantly erecting barriers or digging a trench. The increased
range led to defensive warfare favoring the
South in many battles of the Civil War.
The heavy, slow moving bullet wrought frightful damage. The Minie Ball
was prone to tumble when it hit. If the thin walls of the hollow base
collapsed on impact, it was only a big bone smashing bullet. If the base
stayed open when it tumbled, the big hollow base became a hollow point
with explosive force.
The hollow base bullet by expanding under
pressure helped to clean out the barrel of
fouling. But not completely. The typical soldier loading and firing
on his own could get about three shots off per minute. With the
standard issue of forty
cartridges, which is about a dozen minutes of sustained shooting.
After the Confederates learned how to load and fire
fast, many more shots could be fired per minute per man in the front with
several men doing the loading behind him. For this, it helped if
the bullets were made undersized so as to go down a badly fouled barrel.
The hollow base of the undersized bullet would still expand almost as well to carry away some of the fouling.
The 56 inch long musket (40" long barrel) was
about as tall as the average
man of the era. With the 18" bayonet installed, the whole thing was
taller than the soldier. There were few bayonet charges during the Civil
War, but the whole lengthy assembly made a theoretical possibility of
unseating a cavalryman before his sword reached down to the infantryman.
That is, if the infantryman didn't quall before the terrified horse first.
Or get knocked down. Good luck; so much for a theory.
There were effective military power breechloaders available early in
the War--the Sharps single shot and the
Spencer repeater. But in every
major battle, the few regiments armed with a repeater ran out of
ammunition at the first encounter. There weren't enough horses, mules, and
wagons at the time to carry the additional ammunition consumed by the breechloaders.
Battles were fought with each soldier carrying his own ammunition into the
shots was the standard issue for about a dozen minutes of sustained fast
and furious firing.
By comparison, an experienced sergeant
could shoot those forty shots off in 3 to 4 minutes with the Krag-Jorgenson
service rifle of the late 1890s, 2 to 3 minutes with a 1903 Springfield,
less then two minutes with a 1936 vintage M1 Garand, about the same with
the British Lee Enfield of 1905 to 1950, and a minute or so with the M14
and M16. Then what do you do when you're out of ammunition?
Carry more ammunition, so the sustained firing times within the limits
of the weight of ammunition for the Krag is about 8 minutes, the '03
about six minutes, and the M16 of Vietnam on full auto maybe 2 minutes.
So carry even more ammunition, but there is an upper weight limit in
practical terms, so for the entire history of the US, full speed
shooting with what the soldiers can carry is only about half a dozen to
a dozen minutes. The 58 musket was doing rather well by this
The 58 musket was sturdy and reliable. The
biggest cause of it becoming disabled in battle was being loaded a second
time when the prior charge had not gone off. Two superimposed loads would
burst the barrel with serious damage to the soldier firing it. The two most common causes of the gun not firing was
had fallen off, or in the anxious haste of battle, the soldier forgot to put it on. The embarrassed
soldier would throw away such a gun and pick up another. Another soldier
could then pick up the discarded musket, and load it again. But then on
discovering two or more charges in the barrel when the
ramrod wouldn't go all the way down, he would also throw it away, but only
after ramming another load of powder and bullet down the barrel.
If the barrel were fired (empty, unloaded), the ramrod
would go all the way down the barrel. In the example above, this is a
typical length of the ramrod to project out of the muzzle for a single charge of unfired powder
and a minie ball bullet. Double the exposed length of rod for two
superimposed shots, triple for three, etcetera.
Of the approximately 35,000 muskets picked up from the Gettysburg
battlefield, it was discovered:
Immediately after the War when supply was
no longer a serious consideration, the Army quickly switched to a
breechloading rifle to the
very unpleasant surprise of the
Indians. The muzzle loader had to go as a military
Shooting a rifle musket can be fun with
instant gratification of the smoke cloud, but requires a safe place with
a hill as a backstop. The bullet can go a mile, or more, so use a good
backstop. Expect full military recoil (kick) when using a full
powder charge. But since the powder charge can be varied, it can
be reduced. My Dad and I experimented both ways, but this isn't
the place to say how far. That original 1860s gun barrel continues
to age so be kind to your collectible antique, your fingers, your
shoulder, and your Mom or wife and do two things of shoot a newly made
reproduction musket instead of an original, and don't over charge with
powder when shooting with the gun held in your hands and to your
shoulder. For that experiment, tie the musket in a tire tied down,
pointed at the base of a good backstop, and pull the trigger with a
length of rope. For sources and good advice, consult the
North-South Skirmish Association and
talk with their experienced members by visiting one of their events.
The surviving original muskets are
expensive as collectors items. Newly made replicas are available to legal
buyers from Dixie Gun Works and
For more information about US muskets, consult "Flayderman's Guide To
Antique American Firearms" by Norm Flayderman, and the references cited
||950 feet per second
||1,000 foot pounds