Rifles in the Civil War


On May 11, 1861, some two months before the First Battle of Bull Run, Scientific American published a fascinating time-capsule of an article on “Rifles and Shooting.” At the time, target practice in the army had languished for decades, with a concordant diminution on the part of many troops to hit anything.

Before the mid-1850s, target practice often consisted of a soldier who had finished his watch firing a round at a crude bulls-eye painted on a guardhouse. (And even that was only because live weapons had to be deactivated after guard duty—by laboriously using a screw-like instrument to “pull” the ball out—so that soldiers saved time by pulling the trigger instead.) Wrote a private in the Second Dragoons, so few officers believed the men required any practice with their weapons that, in his five months of wearing “Uncle Sam’s livery,” he had been taken out for proper target shooting just twice.

So, not unusual was the experience of Captain George W. Wingate — after the war, a founder of the National Rifle Association (NRA) — who discovered that most of his New York company couldn’t hit a barrel lid at 100 yards. He was forced to use an imported British manual on riflemanship to teach his men the rudiments of shooting, which he thought might come in useful during a battle.

To help rectify the situation, Scientific American declared that “a soldier should . . . know what his rifle can do, and what he can do with it, at certain distances,” before proceeding to lay out some basic principles (e.g., what a bullet trajectory is) for its readers. The most striking aspect of the piece is its emphasis on long-range shooting: The magazine took it for granted that troops should be “capable of destroying the enemy” with their rifles at 1,200 yards — an incredible figure by any definition. It was for this reason, among others, that Scientific American dismissed breech-loaders in favor of the older muzzle-loaders. The former “are not so accurate as those which load at the muzzle.” 

Warfare, in short, was expected to be conducted at long range, whereas in fact the average distance (according to Paddy Griffiths) between Confederate and Unionist during Civil War firefights—including battles, skirmishes, and low-level actions—was a mere 127 yards.

The article is also remarkable for its foreshadowing of a controversy that would erupt some years after the War between what I call “progressives” and “diehards.” I don’t mean this in a political sense (militarily progressive officers were quite often red-blooded conservatives when it came to voting), but strictly in terms of what kind of rifle they wanted as a service weapon.

To cut a very long story short — the full version will be given in my book American Rifle (to be published this October) — progressives believed that war could be made cleaner and humanized thanks to good, lethal marksmanship on the part of soldiers, who would act on their own initiative more than hitherto had been the case. By targeting, say, a general from afar using an assortment of highly precise aiming mechanisms, a sharpshooter could bring a battle to an end using just a single shot, thereby saving untold lives. Given the Civil War’s vast numbers of dead and wounded, such a desire was surely an understandable one. Indeed, to the progressives, war should be transformed into a rational, modern, scientific, almost antiseptic endeavor. 

Alternatively, diehard officers dismissed such views as fantasy. War was hard, necessarily bloody, and often fought hand-to-hand — as it had been since the days of Achilles and his Myrmidons. “When at war, it was kill them all,” recalled George Whittaker of the 6th Cavalry. Killing was the natural order of things, and man was wolf to man. To those of that mind, progressive ideas were extremely dangerous and the mollycoddling (as they saw it) of the top-ranked shooters undermined discipline in the ranks. They felt sharpshooters were too individual to make good soldiers and that tighter unit cohesion was key to winning battles. 

The anonymous Scientific American writer was of the progressive tendency, judging by his emphasis on long-range shooting and the need for “a man with a clear eye, a steady hand, and a cool head” to do it. Such phrases were common among progressives: “In an Indian fight,” opined one after the war, “the best marksman is the strongest man. Victory is not for the man of muscle, but the result of the quick eye and cool nerve of the fine shot.” Progressives now called this form of prowess the “New Courage” to distinguish it from the inferior, dated martial virtues—men’s instinctive emotions, brute force, and valorous ferocity tightly harnessed by officers and unleashed at the enemy—revered by the diehards.

Basically, progressives wanted more single-shot, large-caliber rifles (like the Springfield) that would force soldiers to husband their rounds and make their shots count while diehards were more open to introducing newfangled, smaller-caliber repeaters (like the Winchester) into the service, the thinking being that close-range firepower was of more utility than accuracy. What bridged the gap, at least temporarily, was the advent of magazines holding five or six rounds that could be used either for a single shot or fired very rapidly. Oh, and smokeless powder, too, but I won’t go into that here. 

It’s interesting (at least to me) that you can see echoes of the progressive/diehard divide in the current debates over the place of technology in modern battle versus brute force. You can have as many “surgical-strike,” $150-million aircraft as you like, but without a lot of big guys armed with rifles (a form of weapon more than 500 years old) on the ground, it’s difficult to win wars against insurgents. Of course, against a conventional army, the first Gulf War was won by squadrons of high-tech aircraft, so this particular controversy isn’t likely to be going away anytime soon . . . 

You can download the PDF by clicking on the link: scientific-american-rifles-and-shooting-may-11-1861

Or you can visit Cornell University Library’s excellent Making of America project and have a browse yourself.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


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