Friday, March 9, 2012

Weaponry of the Civil War

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
March 9, 2012


When considering the tactical lessons of Civil War battles, through staff rides or just when reading after action reports, it is helpful to keep in mind the relative capacities and limitations of the time's weaponry. Even just knowing the range of these weapons can offer incredible insight as to why some commanders made the tactical decisions they did.

Infantry Weapon Effects

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The majority of Civil War Soldiers went to war with a single-shot muzzle-loading musket or rifle musket. A well trained Soldier could fire 3-4 rounds per minute, and with a standard load of 40 rounds, the average Infantryman had ten minutes of battlefield effectiveness unless resupplied. Soldiers marched into battle shoulder to shoulder to mass firepower. A volley of musket fire could be devastating out to 300 meters against massed formations.

The following is a summary of the most common Infantry weapons on the battlefield:

1842 Springfield:  The last smoothbore musket produced by Federal armories and the last to fire the .69 musket ball. The musket could fire buck-and-ball, which was a .69 ball with 3 buckshot attached; this round was devastating at close range. Approximately 250,000 were produced.

Springfield Rifle Musket:  The model 1861 was the standard rifle-musket of the Federal army. Approximately 1,000,000 of the .58 rifle muskets were produced. The weapon had an effective range of 600 meters.

Enfield Rifle Musket:  The governments of the Union and the Confederacy imported large quantities of European firearms. The most widely used was the British Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Musket. Reliable, easy to maintain, and deadly to 750 yards, the Enfield fired a .577 minie´ ball.

Artillery weapon effects

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Civil War field pieces were rifled or smooth-bore. Artillery of the Civil War was largely direct fire. Artillery pieces had to have their targets in sight in order to engage.

Artillery pieces were the most casualty-producing weapons, and were positioned in the same way the modern Infantry positions crew-served weapons. A trained artillery crew of 6 could fire 3 rounds per minute. If firing air-burst shells against entrenched troops, an artillery piece could fire its allotted 16 rounds in less than 6 minutes. In the defense, artillery could also fire canister – cans filled with marble-sized iron projectiles. Deadly at 400 yards, smoothbore canister fire could sweep the field like an enormous shotgun.

The most common cannons of the Civil War era are described below:

3-inch Ordnance Rifle: The second most common rifled field artillery in both armies, the 3-inch ordnance rifle was accurate and reliable. With a maximum range of 1,835 yards the ordnance rifle had the longest effective range of Civil War artillery field pieces.

3-inch Parrott Rifle: Named for its inventor, Robert Parrott, the Parrott Rifle had a maximum range of 1,600 yards. It is easily recognized by the distinctive iron brand around the breach.

12-pound Howitzer: A bronze smoothbore, the howitzer was designed to fire at higher trajectories to hit targets obscured to guns. By the time of the Civil War, these weapons were considered obsolete, and most were replaced with the more effective Napoleons. When loaded with double-canister ammunition, it was an extremely effective infantry killer at close range.

12-pound Napoleon: The quintessential cannon of the Civil War, there were more of these pieces in the Western Theater of the Civil War than any other type. This cannon was extremely well built and highly reliable. 

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