Weapons of the American Civil War
All firearms larger than small arms are known as artillery or cannon. Although there were dozens of different types of cannon used during the Civil War, they all fell into one of two categories: smoothbore or rifled cannon. They were further designated by the weight of their projectile (12-pounder, 24-pounder, 32-pounder, etc.), the caliber or size of their bore diameter (3-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch), method of loading (breech or muzzle), and often their inventor or the factory in which they were made (i.e. Dahlgren, Napoleon, Rodman, Parrott, Whitworth). A further distinction involved the path of their trajectories: guns had a flat trajectory, mortars a high, arching path, and a howitzer a trajectory between the other two. Civil War artillery was also classified according to its tactical deployment, including field, seacoast, and siege artillery. Cannon were made of steel, bronze, or iron, depending on the availability of material.
The favorite artillery piece in both the Union and the Confederacy was the Napoleon, a smoothbore, muzzle-loading, 12-pounder "gun-howitzer." Developed under the auspices of Louis Napoleon of France, it first appeared in the American artillery in 1857. Relatively light and portable, the Napoleon was used as both an offensive and defensive weapon by both armies. Initially made of bronze, Napoleons were cast from iron when the South ran short of the other metal. Its maximum effective range was about 1700 yards, but it was most effective at about 250 yards or less. Firing canister (see below), the Napoleon probably inflicted more casualties than all other artillery pieces combined.
The most used rifled guns were the 3-inch Ordnance and 10-pdr Parrott rifles. These cannon were more accurate and had a longer range - up to about 2,300 yards - than their smoothbore counterparts. During most battles, however, the longer range was unnecessary and relatively ineffective. During this period, a gunner had to see his target in order to shoot with any accuracy, and the shorter range Napoleons were adequate for that purpose.
However, rifled cannon were particularly effective in knocking down fortifications and played decisive roles at Vicksburg and Atlanta. Almost all Civil War cannon were muzzleloading; breech-loading models, such as the British 12-pounder rifled Armstrong and Whitworth cannon, were generally unreliable and awkward. The 12-pound mountain howitzers were among the smallest and most portable artillery and were useful in battles fought in the mountainous regions of the Western theater. Naval and siege cannons, including Dahlgrens and Rodman smoothbores, were among the heaviest and most powerful. The 8- and 10-inch siege howitzers had ranges of over 2,000 yards and could fire 45- and 90-pound shells. Artillery ammunition included solid shot, grape, canister, shell, and chain shot, each of which came in any of the nine common artillery calibers. Solid shot and shell were used against long-range, fixed targets such as fortifications; chain shot, consisting of two balls connected by a chain, was used primarily against masts and rigging of ships.
Very frequently used was canister; which, like its larger cousin, "grape shot," was a scattershot projectile consisting of small iron balls encased in a container. Canister projectiles came packed in a tin can while grape shot was usually wrapped in a cloth or canvas covering and tied with string which made it look like a bunch of grapes. When fired, the can or wrapping disintegrated, releasing the shot in a spray. In effect, then, a gun loaded with grape shot or canister acted like a large, sawed-off shotgun; it was particularly lethal when fired at a range of 250 yards or less. Grape was less often used by the field artilleries of the day as it was more effective to fire the smaller and more numerous canister balls at an advancing enemy. Thanks to its superior industrial strength, the North had an overall advantage over the South in all types of artillery, as well as a higher percentage of rifled cannon to smoothbore cannon.
Any weapon smaller than a cannon and carried by a soldier was known as a small arm. During the Civil War, small arms included muskets, which were smoothbore, long-barrelled shoulder arms; rifles, shoulder guns with spiral grooves cut into the inner surface of the barrel; carbines, short-barrelled rifles; and handguns, including pistols and revolvers. Like artillery, small arms also were designated by their caliber, mode of loading (breech or muzzle), and maker. The principal small arms on both sides were the .5 8 caliber Springfield musket and the .69 caliber Harpers Ferry Rifle, both muzzleloading arms that fired the deadly mini ball.
The introduction of these rifled pieces compelled a radical change in infantry tactics, which had been based on the use of the shorter range, less accurate smoothbore musket until the Civil War. Using smoothbore muskets, firing lines even 100 yards apart could not inflict much damage upon each other. For an attack to be successful, then, soldiers were forced to mass together and run directly into their enemies. The Civil War rifled musket, with its greater accuracy and longer range, was able to kill at a distance of over a half-mile, making a direct, frontal assault a particularly deadly affair.
One of the greatest small arms controversies during the war involved the debate over breechloaders and muzzle-loaders. Because breechloaders were able to fire more rapidly, they created a need for more ammunition, which neither army had in great supply. Breech-loaders were used primarily by the cavalry: one of the most effective was the recently-invented Spencer carbine. The Spencer carbine, which held seven .52 caliber cartridges, was easy to use and lightweight. Other important shoulder arms included the Henry repeating rifle, which carried 15 rounds of .44 caliber cartridges in its magazine, and the Sharps carbine. Hundreds of thousands of revolvers of different makes and models were used by Confederate and Union soldiers. By far, the most common was the Colt revolver, primarily the .44 caliber Model 1860 and the .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy, both of which were lightweight (less than three pounds). The Remington New Model and the Starr Army Percussion revolvers were also purchased in large numbers by both sides.
As in artillery, the North enjoyed an overwhelming advantage over the South in small arms. For much of the war, the Confederacy depended on imports smuggled through the increasingly effective naval blockade. Several different foreign models, particularly from France and England, were imported by the Confederate army, and some were made famous by the generals who used them. The French LeMat revolver, for instance, was favored by Confederate generals JEB Stuart and P. G. T. Beauregard. Developed by a French-born New Orleans physician, the .44 caliber was produced in France when the Confederates could no longer supply the machinery or metal at home. The English Enfield rifle, which fired a .557 caliber shot, was another important import; about 700,000 were used by Confederates during the war.
The development of this half-inch lead rifle bullet revolutionized warfare, while the slowness of Civil War military leaders to adapt their tactics to adjust to the new technology was greatly responsible for the overwhelming number of battlefield deaths.
Before the introduction of what soldiers commonly called the "minnie ball"-even though it was indeed bullet-shaped-the use of rifles in battle was impractical and largely limited to corps of elite marksmen. Expensive, tight fitting projectiles had to be jammed into the grooves of the rifle's muzzle, a time-consuming process.
In 1848, however, French army Captain Claude F. Minie created a smaller, hollow-based bullet that could far more quickly and easily be rammed into the bore, expanding when the weapon was fired to catch in the rifling and be shot spinning out of the barrel. That spin made the mini ball, like other, more expensive and unwieldy rifle bullets, a highly precise and far traveling projectile. They could reach a half-mile or more, and an average soldier could easily hit a target 250 yards away.
By 1855, Harpers Ferry Armory worker James H. Burton had honed an even cheaper version of the minie ball, which, along with the rifle itself, soon became widely used in the U.S. Army. It was the standard bullet for both sides in the Civil War, although neither anticipated the enormous difference this would make on the battlefield. Against a defensive line using musket fire-requiring a 25-second reloading period and accurate to only 50 feet or less-a frontal infantry charge was likely to be successful if the assaulting force moved quickly enough.
The widespread use of the minie bullet, however, shifted the balance greatly to the defense's favor. Nevertheless, Civil War generals continued ordering such attacks, learning only after hard and bloody battlefield experience-from the assault on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg-that their strategy would have to be altered.
Bayonets, sabers, swords, short swords, cutlasses, Bowie knives, pikes, and lances, classified as "edged weapons," appeared in considerable profusion during the Civil War. Although they served to decorate their original possessors and delight modern collectors, they inflicted few casualties. In Regimental Losses Fox points out that of the approximately 250,000 wounded treated in Union hospitals during the war only 922 were the victims of sabers or bayonets. "And a large proportion of these originated in private quarrels, or were inflicted by camp guards in the discharge of their duty." A few instances Of Bayonet Attacks are recorded.
Among the few recorded instances are the charge of the 17th Wisc. at Corinth, Miss., 3 Oct. '62, routing a Mississippi brigade; and the night bayonet attack of the 6th Me. and 5th Wisc. at Rappahonnock Bridge and Kelly's Ford, Va. 7 Nov. '63.
Sabers, which are cavalry swords, are a legitimate weapon of the mounted service and dangerous in the hands of a trained trooper. The volunteer horsemen, however, had trouble learning to handle them. There were a good many lop-eared horses in the early months of the war. Gigantic "wrist breakers" with 42-inch scimitar-type blades were soon cut down to 36 inches and were reasonably effective.
Swords until recent years in America were the symbol of an officer's authority, and served this primary function in the Civil War. The short artillery sword with which the gunners were supposed to disembowel the horse that had overrun their position and then dispatch the rider-was among the most useless of weapons
The lance, another serious weapon in the hands of a trained trooper, also appeared in the war. The 6th Pa. Cav., "Rush's Lancers," was armed with this weapon, in addition to its pistols and a few carbines, until May '63. The weapons shortage in the South led its leaders to give serious consideration to arming troops with lances and pikes. In early 1862 a set of resolutions provided for 20 regiments of Southern pikemen, and on 10 Apr. '62 an act was passed that two companies in each regiment be armed with pikes. "Strangely enough, such foolishness met with the complete approval of the military leaders, and even Gen. Lee on April 9, 1862, wrote Col. Gorgas (Chief of Confederate Ordnance), 'One thousand pikes should be sent to Gen. Jackson if practicable". Georgia's gov. spurred the Production of weapons that are now known as "JOE BROWN'S PIKES."
Many different forms of military cutlery, known generically as Bowie Knives, were popular among Confederate soldiers until discarded after real campaigning started.
Sources: The Civil War Society's "Encyclopedia of the Civil War and Mark M. Boatner's "Civil War Dictionary."
This Page last updated 02/16/02
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