Weapons of War

By Alison Arnold

Springfield rifled musket, the most commonly used weapon in the Union army.

One of the basic items needed to fight a war—any war—are weapons.  While the average American at the time of the Civil War was familiar with firearms, he was not familiar with the tactical employment of individual weapons in a battle.  The new recruits had to be trained in how to maintain and properly use these weapons in battle as a group, loading and firing at the same time on command. The cavalrymen had to be trained how to fight both mounted and dismounted with different types of weapons.

In the early stages of the war, there was a problem with the lack of modern weapons for the South.  Many Confederate troops initially used antiquated flintlock smoothbore muskets which had been supplied to the various state militias prior to the war. This type of gun had been in use since the early 18th century.  This musket fired a round lead ball.  The barrel was smooth all the way down to the bottom (thus the name smooth bore).  The ball was tamped into the barrel with a powder charge and wadding.  The effective range of this weapon was 40 yards, meaning that to kill someone you had to be pretty close. It was heavy and the best you could do is fire once a minute. Eventually, new Southern munitions factories began making more advanced weapons and many were purchased from Europe—especially Enfield muskets from England. The North, on the other hand, had access from the start to many weapons manufacturers churning out the most advanced firearms.

The rifled musket eventually became the primary weapon on the battlefield.  It was an improvement over the smoothbore musket because of its improved firing system—a percussion lock as opposed to a flintlock. The percussion lock was easier and faster to load. Also, the weapons were rifled which meant the inside of the barrel had small spiral grooves that caused the bullet to spin. Thus the bullet traveled farther and straighter. With weapons that were lethal up to 400 yards instead of 40, the tactics of massed formations, volley fire and the use of a bayonet in hand to hand combat became obsolete…although it took a long time for commanders to fully understand that.

Artillery also played an important role in the Civil War.  Field Artillery units were organized into batteries of 4 to 6 cannons commanded by a captain. The guns used were light and mobile enough to be used to support infantry on the battlefield.  The different types of ammunition were the solid shot, shells or canister.  The solid shot, or cannonball, was the ammunition of choice when used against a large concentration of troops.  A shell contained a bursting charge that would cause it to explode, showering the troops with metal, and canister was used for close range targets.  Canister (literally a can filled with large shot or shrapnel) was devastating against personnel.  The drawback with artillery was that the cannon had no aiming system other than the sharp eye of the cannoneer who had to see his target and gauge the distance.

For centuries, the horseman and his saber were the image of battle, but by the Civil War, the horseman, along with his horse, were vulnerable to rifle fire which would take them out of the battle long before they ever got close enough to use their saber.  The saber remained the symbol of the cavalry and were still carried by virtually all riders despite their ineffectiveness in battle.

The most prized weapon for the cavalry was the breech loading carbine which essentially is a short rifle.  It loaded the cartridge from the rear which made it quicker to load and easier to fire and it gets three shots off to every one fired by the muzzleloader.  It also is small and lightweight which comes in handy when you are sitting on a horse.  Of course, every cavalryman carried one or more pistols to use at close quarters.  The US Army supplied Colt revolvers to its mounted troops.  Most revolvers used by the Southern troops were obtained from captured supplies or battlefield scrounging.

Of all the lessons learned with regard to using, handling and maintaining the weapons, the biggest was that firepower, unless effectively employed on the battlefield, is useless.