History 269 The Civil War and Reconstruction


The single-shot muzzleloader was the main weapon of the Civil War.  It took at least 20 seconds to load and fire, so a soldier could get off only two or three shots per minute.  Initially both sides used smoothbore muskets; but within the first year of the war, rifles began to replace smoothbore muskets, and by 1863 most infantrymen on both sides were using rifles.  A rifle had spiraled grooves inside the barrel to increase the range and accuracy of the bullet.  The minie ball (named after French army captain Claude Miniť), a cone-shaped bullet with a cavity in its base, was small enough to insert in the barrel.  An explosive charge in its cavity caused it to expand to take the rifling.  Spinning out of the rifle, the minie ball cut through the air with deadly accuracy.  The maximum range of a smoothbore musket was 250 yards, but they were accurate only up to about 100 yards.  Rifles, in contrast, had a range of 1,000 yards and were accurate up to 500 yards.  This gave a tremendous tactical advantage to the defense, making close-order infantry charges suicidal.  This led to the evolution of trench warfare toward the end of the war.  
      The majority of Union soldiers carried the Springfield rifle (about 1.7 million were produced in Northern factories during the war).  Also widely used, especially by Confederate infantry, was the Enfield Rifle Musket, imported from England.  (Actually, because of British neutrality, the Enfield company, owned by the Crown, could not sell rifles to America; but "knock-offs" patterned off the real Enfield were illegally purchased by the Confederacy.)  A more revolutionary invention was the breech-loading carbine, followed by the repeater.  The Spencer 7-shot carbine was introduced in 1864 and became the favorite weapon of Sheridan's Union cavalry.

Civil war cannon, like small arms, were either smoothbore or rifled.  Nearly half of the Union cannon and a third of the Confederate cannon were rifled.  Two basic types of projectiles were fired: explosive shells or solid shot (cannon balls) were used for long-range targets, and case shot was used for close defense.  Case shot consisted of canister (an explosive spray of hundreds of small fragments) and grape (a cluster of golfball-sized bullets).  The effect of the latter was like a huge shotgun that could take out a whole cluster of charging infantry.  Howitzers and mortars (characterized by a short barrel with a large bore) generally fired explosive shells but sometimes fired solid shot.  Breech-loading artillery pre-dated the war but most artillerymen preferred muzzle-loading cannon as they were more reliable.


© 2003 David C. Hanson, Virginia Western Community College