Muskets and Rifles

During the first weeks of the Civil War, as both sides scrambled to put together a fighting force, Union ordnance officials weren't too concerned about the state of the nation's arsenals. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Chief of Ordnance James Ripley both believed that the number of guns readily available for service, though small, would be sufficient for a war everyone thought would last three months. After all, the number of troops necessary to bring the Southern rebellion under control was estimated at 250,000, and the Federal weapons stores housed more than 400,000 rifles and muskets, which would also be supplemented with weapons brought by state militias.

At the Battle of Chickamauga, the 535 members of the Twenty-first Ohio Infantry Regiment used their Colt revolving rifles to help prevent a Union rout. During five hours of fighting, the Twenty-First Ohio fired off more than 43,500 rounds, proving the superiority of repeating rifles. Commented one captured Confederate soldier: “My God, we thought you had a division there!”

The picture of the war changed dramatically after the first few battles, which demonstrated that the South was not going down without a long and costly fight. By July 1861, few weapons remained in the national arsenal except a number of very obsolete .69-caliber altered smoothbore muskets — long, awkward weapons that had their original flintlock ignition systems converted to percussion. Not surprisingly, the Union's entire supply of modern rifled weapons, which included 40,000 Model 1855 Harpers Ferry rifles, rifle muskets, and other weapons, were disbursed during the first six weeks of the war. Many of them went to influential politicians who gave them to favored regiments, rather than to the militia and three-year volunteers to whom they had originally been slated.

New Rifled Muskets

It wasn't until mid-1861 that the Federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, started producing what would become the favored weapon during the war — the Model 1861 Springfield rifle musket. Before that, the average Union soldier had to make do with the traditional smoothbore musket, a weapon with a high risk factor because of its inaccuracy and time-consuming loading procedure. Demand for the Model 1861 was tremendous. The Springfield Armory produced more than 250,000 of the weapons over two years, and the government still had to contract with twenty private manufacturers to make an additional 450,000. Each cost the U.S. Treasury between $15 and $20.

Some of the most impressive weapons in the federal arsenal were the .58- caliber rifled arms, most of them altered Mississippis and U.S. Model 1855s. Manufactured to conform to the new standards for arms established by Jefferson Davis, who was secretary of war in 1855, the guns were designed to fire the .58-caliber Minie ball, which was easier to load and offered greater accuracy. The elimination of all calibers but the .58 from its muzzleloading regulation arms helped the government simplify weapons production.

Repeaters and Carbines

Repeating rifles were magazine fed and fired metallic cartridges. The most popular brands of repeating rifles were the Spencer and Henry, and though limited in number, they had a demoralizing effect on the Confederate soldiers who faced them. Because they were multishot weapons, repeating rifles could make a handful of well-trained soldiers seem like a regiment. Unfortunately, the Federal Ordnance Department bought only 15,000 Spencer and Henry rifles for the entire Union army, making the weapons extremely coveted among the fighting forces.

In 1848, French army Captain Claude F. Minie created a hollow-based bullet that could be easily rammed into a rifle's bore. When fired, the lead bullet expanded, catching the rifling and spinning out of the barrel. This improved range (up to a half mile) and accuracy (a skilled marksman could hit a target with precision up to 250 yards away).

For members of the cavalry, the weapon of choice was the carbine, a short-barreled rifle that was lightweight and easy to use, especially on horseback. As with many weapons, there was a shortage of these popular rifles at the onset of the war, but manufacturers soon corrected that, flooding the Union ordnance offices with a number of unique carbine designs. Realizing the value of the carbine to the soldier in the field, the government adopted nearly seventeen different makes and models. The most advanced version was the magazine-fed metallic-cartridge breechloader, which could be mass-produced in volume. Other innovations included barrels that tipped up or hinged downward, cylinders that revolved, and breechblocks that slid vertically or swung to the side.

Confederacy Challenges

The Union suffered from a weapons shortage at the beginning of the war, but the Confederacy had it even worse. The new republic's arsenals contained just 296,000 shoulder arms, most of them outdated flintlock muskets and altered percussion smoothbores. When hostilities first broke out, the Confederate army had just 24,000 modern rifles to distribute among its troops.

The vast majority of Confederate infantrymen marched into battle armed with .69-caliber smoothbore muskets, which were quite effective at close range but wildly inaccurate at distances of more than 100 yards. The Union soldiers opposing them knew about this limitation and enjoyed taunting the rebels by dancing just out of range. Things changed dramatically in late 1862, when Confederate ordnance officials finally managed to bring the military arsenal up to date. Smoothbore muskets were replaced with much more accurate rifle muskets that extended the firing range up to 600 yards. Within just a few months, Northern soldiers stopped dancing and started ducking.

The individual Confederate states did their part by opening up state arsenals and requesting donations from private citizens. The call was met with enthusiasm, and a great number of privately owned rifles, shotguns, and other firearms were donated to the Confederate cause. The Southern states also contracted with small-gun manufacturers and repair shops to alter muskets and rifles so that they would meet military specifications. Thomas Riggins, who owned a gun repair shop in Knoxville, Tennessee, employed sixty assistants working night and day to convert donated rifles and flintlocks into percussion carbines for a volunteer cavalry regiment known as the East Tennessee Squirrel Shooters. Riggins was a skilled craftsman, and the soldiers who came into possession of his weapons knew their guns would get the job done.

Additional weapons used by the Confederacy came from the North, primarily from federal arsenals that fell under Confederate control when the Southern states seceded. In 1859, a standing order was issued by the secretary of war to periodically supply Southern arsenals with weapons from Northern armories. As a result of that order, more than 18,000 percussion muskets, 11,000 altered muskets, and 2,000 rifles were shipped to the Baton Rouge Arsenal in 1860 and 1861 — just in time to arm Confederate soldiers. And just a week into the war, the Confederacy captured the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In addition to firearms, the raid also gave the South a tremendous amount of arms-producing machinery.

Union ordnance men turned down the Spencer repeating breechloading rifle in 1860 with the explanation that soldiers would fire too quickly and waste ammunition. Smarter minds prevailed, and the Spencer eventually made its way to the battlefield, but not until near the end of the war.

Weapons were also obtained from foreign manufacturers. In April 1861, for example, Captain Caleb Huse was sent to Europe by Confederate officials to purchase as many small arms as he possibly could. The result was a wide array of weapons that varied greatly in quality. British Enfield rifle muskets were greatly coveted by Confederate infantry, but others, such as the Austrian Lorenz rifle musket, proved to be shoddily made and fairly ineffectual in the battlefield.

Rebel Cavalry

Like their Northern counterparts, members of the Confederate cavalry preferred breechloading carbines above all other weapons because they were reliable, lightweight, and easy to use. However, only a few thousand Southern cavalry actually got to use breechloading carbines because they were in such short supply. Southern gun manufacturers couldn't meet the demand because of a lack of supplies, machinery, and technical know-how, and the breechloading carbines they did produce were of poor quality. As a result, many cavalry soldiers were forced to use long, unwieldy, muzzle-loading shoulder arms, which were next to impossible to load and shoot on a charging horse.

Also popular among Southern cavalry were sawed-off shotguns, which were found to be extremely effective in close quarters. In fact, a regiment armed with 12-gauge shotguns was a force to be reckoned with.

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