Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, Guns, Rifles, Pistols, and Weapons

Thomas' Legion
American Civil War HOMEPAGE
American Civil War
Causes of the Civil War : What Caused the Civil War
Organization of Union and Confederate Armies: Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery
Civil War Navy: Union Navy and Confederate Navy
American Civil War: The Soldier's Life
Civil War Turning Points
American Civil War: Casualties, Battles and Battlefields
Civil War Casualties, Fatalities & Statistics
Civil War Generals
American Civil War Desertion and Deserters: Union and Confederate
Civil War Prisoner of War: Union and Confederate Prison History
Civil War Reconstruction Era and Aftermath
American Civil War Genealogy and Research
Civil War
American Civil War Pictures - Photographs
African Americans and American Civil War History
American Civil War Store
American Civil War Polls
North Carolina Civil War History
North Carolina American Civil War Statistics, Battles, History
North Carolina Civil War History and Battles
North Carolina Civil War Regiments and Battles
North Carolina Coast: American Civil War
Western North Carolina and the American Civil War
Western North Carolina: Civil War Troops, Regiments, Units
North Carolina: American Civil War Photos
Cherokee Chief William Holland Thomas
Cherokee Indian Heritage, History, Culture, Customs, Ceremonies, and Religion
Cherokee Indians: American Civil War
History of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Nation
Cherokee War Rituals, Culture, Festivals, Government, and Beliefs
Researching your Cherokee Heritage
Civil War Diary, Memoirs, Letters, and Newspapers

Civil War Firearms and Small Arms
"The Guns, Rifles, Pistols, Muskets, Shotguns, and Weapons of the Union and Confederate Armies"

Types of Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, & Weapons
Civil War Small Arms, Firearms, and Weapons.jpg
Civil War small arms fire could kill, blot out the sun, choke the soldiers, and deafen their ears

Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, Handguns, and Weapons

Civil War firearms, rifles, and weapons
Civil War firearms, rifles, and weapons.jpg
Civil War muskets firing at night

Civil War small arms
Rifle Musket Impact results.jpg
Simulation of Minie ball impact results.

The Union and Confederate armies continued to implement obsolete infantry tactics with the arrival of the new conical shaped Minie ball and highly effective rifle-musket, causing mass casualties to be the norm and not the exception on the nation's battlefields. The rifle-musket would be responsible for approximately 90% of the total battlefield deaths during the Civil War.
(Left) Minie ball wound of the wrist, ca. 1863, by William Shultz, a medical illustrator on staff at the Army Medical Museum. (Right) Napoleonic Tactics and muskets firing by rank. Although early American Civil War muskets were limited to merely 100 yards, the volley fire allowed for a devastating shotgun effect. 
The American Civil War was fought between the North (Union) and South (Confederacy) from 1861–1865 and produced more than 620,000 in killed. During the war, a variety of weapons made their way onto the battlefields across the nation, including edged weapons such as Bowie knives, sabers and swords, and firearms and small arms with the names of Colt and Remington, handguns and rifled-muskets, breech-loaders and repeating weapons, various field guns and artillery pieces involving nomenclatures of M1857 12-pounder Napoleon and the 10-inch 300-pounder Parrott rifled-gun, and new weapons called hand grenades, torpedoes, and Mr. Gatlin's rapid firing gun, which he thought to be too devastating that armies, unable to stomach the high casualties, would pursue peace instead of war, but the opposite proved to be correct.
The Civil War is often to referred as the first "modern" war in history as it included the most advanced technology and innovations of warfare available at the time. Some of the innovations and advances of the Civil War included mass production of war material, rifling of gun barrels and the use of the Miniť ball, the advent of repeating firearms and metallic cartridges, ironclad warships, advances in medicine, communication (especially the telegraph), and transportation (railroads), and the gradual decline of tactics from previous centuries.

Civil War Buck and Ball.jpg
.69 Caliber Buck and Ball

Civil War Small Arms and Firearms.jpg
.69 Caliber Minie

While battlefield technology had advanced, tactics did not, because American army officers in 1861 had been schooled in obsolete Napoleonic Tactics, especially since many of them had served during the Mexican War (1846-48), which was fought in the old way with smoothbore muskets and linear formations at close distances of 50-100 yards. As such, officers typically failed to realize the power of the new rifles with effective ranges of up to 600 yards and continued to launch massed attacks against fortified enemies, which invariably resulted in unprecedented heavy losses.
The rifle was the most prominent weapon on the battlefield, but revolvers also made their way into the fray. While handguns remain a romantic storyline with Hollywood, reality is at times stranger than fiction. Let's examine the ole gunfight, or shootout as it is often called.
Consider the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral which lasted all of 30 seconds and resulted in 3 deaths. In this fight were the likes of Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday vs. Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy and Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne (vacates scene after initial shots fired). To better appreciate the complexities of a gunfight, consider how O.K. Corral involved some of the best pistoliers of the era. At close distance, initially about 6 feet, the fight involved revolvers and a single short, double-barreled shotgun, and while at such close proximity and with 30 shots fired in merely 30 seconds, the outcome was 3 killed and 3 wounded. The best gunmen at this short distance were able to hit their mark roughly one out of every five rounds. In other words, 24 shots completely missed their mark. The outcome was Virgil and Morgan wounded; Doc Holliday grazed; Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton killed.
During the Civil War much of the fighting was at distances of less than 100 yards and some of the battles were fought while atop chargers and swift steeds. The average soldier was far less than an accurate shot, because many of the men had never even held a firearm prior to hostilities. A reliable weapon meant everything, and most soldiers had to rely upon outdated smoothbores and single shot pistols. It has often been said that a soldier is only as good as his weapon, but it is also correct to say that the soldier is only as good as his firearm.
So how did an average or even bad shot hit the target with the firearms of the day? Rather simple, really. They used massed formations, linear tactics perfected by Napoleon, while shouldering smoothbores and then by rank and file they unleashed buck and ball at the enemy at a short distance of 50 to 100 feet. It made good sense since it allowed the shotgun effect to take on a whole new meaning.
Firearms may be referred to as small arms when they are intended primarily for use by military forces and can be carried by a single individual.
Although the revolvers, Colt Army Model 1860, Colt 1851 Navy Revolver, and Remington Model 1858 were the most coveted pistols of the conflict, the most prominent firearm on the battlefield was the rifle-musket. The Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket and British Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket remained the two most widely used firearms of the Civil War, being employed in every major battle and theater of the war and used by both the infantryman and cavalryman.

Civil War musket balls
Civil War musket balls.jpg
Musket balls were used during the entire Civil War

Prior to and during the Civil War, both sides continued to acquire, capture, manufacture, and even modify their respective firearms, also known as small arms, guns, rifles, pistols, revolvers, and handguns. As the conflict progressed, squirrel rifles had been modified, shotguns had their barrels sawed off, and smoothbore muskets rapidly became obsolete. For the duration of the war, the rifle was the most common weapon found on the battlefield, and the majority of the rifles during that time were loaded with a small lead musket ball or with a Minie ball (or Miniť ball) and black powder. Most rifles of the era were muzzle-loaded, meaning, as the name implies, they were loaded through the muzzle, the front of the weapon and during a time consuming process. The firearms were used by both the Union and Confederate armies, either because of issuance or preference.
Early in the conflict the Confederates would use civilian arms including shotguns and hunting rifles like the Kentucky or Hawken due to the shortage of military weapons, and they remained in service as late as 1863. Old smoothbore muskets converted from flintlock to Caplock mechanism were also used, especially by the South, and had calibers as large as .74 which fired buck and ball ammunition. Other arms employed were the Model 1816 Musket, Model 1822 Musket, Springfield Model 1835, Springfield Model 1840 Flintlock Musket, Springfield Model 1842, remnants from the War of 1812 like the Brown Bess and Model 1795 Musket, and surplus British Brunswick rifles and Miniť rifles.
Because the South lacked the ability to mass manufacture firearms during the four year war, its armies would continue to improvise. Some Confederate officers employed such weapons as the LeMat revolver, for it was both a pistol and shotgun, and other Southern soldiers often scavenged the battlefields to collect the firearms from dead Union troops. Many of the captured Union weapons were soon rendered useless, because the Confederate soldiers were unable to replace the spent bullets. The North, on the other hand, with its manufacturing capability, was able to quickly mass produce a variety of weapons, including rifle-muskets, carbines, breech-loaders, and repeating firearms. To adapt and improvise on the battlefield was a necessary practice during the conflict by the armies. While the South used booby traps, mine and torpedo warfare, both sides utilized hand grenades- particularly in the trenches of Vicksburg and Petersburg. See also Civil War Torpedoes, Mines, Hand Grenades, and Booby Traps.

Civil War firearms and small arms
Civil War Flintlock Musket Parts.jpg
Springfield Model 1822 flintlock musket

Civil War Musket
It was a lengthy process to reload the rifle, or rifled-musket, which was the most widely used firearm of both the Union and Confederate armies. The time-consuming process was identical for the rifle-musket and smoothbore-musket, but the cartridges were different. The Civil War soldier was expected to fire three aimed shots per minute, but he had to complete the following process quickly and accurately in order to succeed.
How to load and fire a Civil War musket:
A muzzle-loading rifle required 10 specific movements to prepare it to fire: (1) lower musket to ground, (2) handle cartridge, (3) tear cartridge, (4) charge cartridge, (5) draw rammer, (6) ram cartridge twice, (7) return rammer, (8) cast-about [return gun to firing position], (9) prime [insert primer cap], (10) cock the hammer and aim the rifle. To fire the weapon, simply pull, meaning squeeze, the trigger. Trained soldiers of the Civil War were expected to complete these steps in 20 seconds and be able to fire three aimed shots per minute. See also The American Civil War Soldiers and their Firearms and Weapons.
Firearm Terminology
Muskets were smoothbore, long-barreled shoulder arms.
Smoothbore weapon is one which has a barrel without rifling. Smoothbores range from handheld firearms to large artillery mortars.
Rifles were shoulder arms with spiral grooves, called rifling, cut into the inner surface of the barrel.
Carbines were short-barreled rifles, commonly used by the cavalry.
Rifling, which applies to the rifle-musket, is the process of making grooves in the barrel of a gun or firearm, which imparts a spin to a projectile around its long axis.
Handguns were pistols and revolvers.
Breech-loading weapon is a firearm in which the cartridge or shell is inserted or loaded into a chamber integral to the rear portion of a barrel.
Muzzleloader, which requires muzzle-loading, is any firearm into which the projectile and usually the propellant charge is loaded from the muzzle of the gun (i.e., from the forward, open end of the gun's barrel).
The Miniť ball, or Minie ball, is a type of muzzle-loading spin-stabilized rifle bullet named after its co-developer, Claude-…tienne Miniť, inventor of the Miniť rifle.

Confederate soldiers tracking the Federals
Civil War rifles, revolvers, and sabers.jpg
Civil War rifles, revolvers, and sabers were common issuance to cavalry

Civil War small arms, weapons, and firing ranges.
Civil War small arms and weapons.jpg
Common Union and Confederate firearms and their accurate, effective, and maximum ranges.

Invention of the Minie Ball
Unlike the round ball used by the smoothbore musket, the rifle-musket employed the Miniť ball (Minie ball), an invention of the late 1840s, which dramatically changed warfare by increasing its casualties. The Miniť ball was a conical-cylindrical soft lead bullet, slightly smaller than the intended firearm barrel's bore, with (originally) four exterior grease-filled grooves and a conical hollow in its base. The bullet was designed by Miniť with a small iron plug and a lead skirting. Its intended purpose was to expand under the pressure and obturate the barrel and increase muzzle velocity.
The bullet could be quickly removed from the paper cartridge with the gunpowder poured down the barrel and the bullet pressed past the muzzle rifling and any detritus from prior shots. It was then rammed home with the ramrod, which ensured that the charge was packed and the hollow base was filled with powder. When the rifle was fired, the expanding gas pushed forcibly on the base of the bullet, deforming it to engage the rifling. This provided spin for accuracy, a better seal for consistent velocity and longer range, and cleaning of barrel detritus.
Wounds inflicted by the conical shaped Miniť ball were different from those caused by the round balls from smoothbore muskets, since the conical ball had a higher muzzle velocity and weight. Round balls tended to remain lodged in the flesh, and they were often observed to take a winding path through the body. Flexed muscles and tendons, as well as bone, could cause the round ball to deviate from a straight path. The Miniť ball tended to cut a straight path and usually went all the way through the injured part; the ball seldom remained lodged in the body. If a Miniť ball struck a bone, it usually caused the bone to shatter. The damage to bones was usually severe enough to necessitate amputation.
As rifle-musket bullets hit their victims, shattered bone and shredded flesh became the signature of the Minie ball. Most war time surgeons arrived from civilian practices and had little or no experience in dealing with such wounds. They quickly became aware of the surgical options: remove the limb, remove the fractured portions of bone, or clean the wound and apply a dressing. Union surgeons documented nearly 250,000 wounds from bullets, shrapnel, and other missiles. Fewer than 1,000 cases of wounds from sabers and bayonets were reported.

Civil War rifle-muskets were preferred weapons
1861 Springfield Model rifle-musket.jpg
The Model 1861 Springfield rifle-musket was the preferred weapon of choice by the Civil War soldier

Prior to the Civil War, the United States retained only a limited stockpile of small arms, and, as a consequence, neither the North nor the South was prepared to engage in a major war. When the conflict commenced in 1861, tens-of-thousands of men volunteered to fight in the bloodiest conflict in American history and those small arms were quickly exhausted.

The Union and Confederacy purchased every European rifle available and shipped them back to America. As a result, during the first two years of the war, soldiers from both sides used a wide variety of rifles, including fifty year old weapons (even muskets from the War of 1812). At the same time, American rifle and gun manufacturers--Sharps, Colt, Remington, and the United States armory at Springfield--quickly increased their production of rifles. With the invention of the Minie ball in the late 1840s and the rifled barrel in 1855, it called for a revision in battlefield tactics, which didn't occur until after the Civil War concluded. The failure to adopt new tactics with the more lethal rifled firearms would cause devastating consequences on the battlefield.
The 1855 invention of the rifled barrel, with grooves, known as rifling, running down the barrel that caused the bullet to spin once it was fired, rendered all smoothbore rifles obsolete. The Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket and the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket, respectively, were the first and second most widely used small arms in the Civil War, with a grand total of more than two million of the muzzle-loading firearms furnished to the soldiers. See also Civil War Weapons, Firearms, and Small Arms.

Civil War rifle-musket barrel with rifling view
Civil War Musket Rifle.jpg
Looking directly into the rifling barrel

Civil War smoothbore musket barrel
Civil War Smoothbore musket.jpg
Looking directly into the smoothbore barrel

Most smoothbore muskets did not have sights. Rifled muskets, due to their longer range, were usually equipped with sights. The design and placement of these sights varied. For example, the U.S. Springfield Model 1861 rifle-musket used two flip up leaf sights, set for 300 and 500 yards, while the British Pattern 1853 Enfield used a flip up ladder sight, which was graduated from 100 to 900 yards in 100 yard increments.
The simplicity of the smoothbore musket design allowed it to fire a variety of ammunition. The simplest ammunition for musket was the round ball, which was literally just a round ball of lead. Round balls were intentionally loose fitting in the barrel so that they could quickly be loaded even after the barrel had been fouled by numerous previous shots. This loose fit, combined with the poor aerodynamics of the round ball led to the musket's inaccuracy beyond 50 to 75 yd (46 to 69 m) or so. Muskets could also fire smaller lead pellets called lead shot or buckshot, which struck a wider area but with less force than a single lead ball. Round balls could be combined with buckshot to produce buck and ball ammunition, which combined the wider area of attack of shot with the large mass of the round ball.
Musket balls were of a diameter considerably larger than today's modern rifles—the Brown Bess fielded a caliber of more than .75". With its soft, all-lead composition, the ball would easily flatten or burst on contact, much like a modern soft-point bullet. Together with its large size, this meant it could cause large wounds. The smoothbore muskets of the Brown Bess period had considerable hitting power and were able to penetrate the armor of the day, but had limited accuracy due to the lack of rifling in the barrel.

Small Arms Capabilities

Caliber Bayonet Magazine
Rate of
.44 ball no 6 24 6
.44 ball no 6 24 6
Henry rifle .44 rimfire no 16 50 16
.50 linen
no 1 40 8
.51 paper
no 1 40 8
.52 paper
no 1 40 8
.54 paper
no 1 40 8
.54 paper
1 40 3
Austrian rifle .54 paper
no 1 40 3
.54 brass
no 1 40 10
no 7 40 14
no 1 40 8
angular 1 40 3
.58 paper
angular 1 40 3
.69 paper
angular 1 40 3
Shotguns various
no 1 or 2 unknown 3

(About) This list contains the most common Civil War firearms and their capabilities. Some of the firearms on this list were issued to cavalry only, while other firearms were produced in small and limited quantities. The revolvers were typically issued only to cavalry and to officers, while the Henry repeating rifle, limited production, was a .44 caliber, lever-action, breech-loading, tubular magazine rifle, that held 16 rounds in the tube magazine and, in the right hands, could fire 28 rounds per minute. The muzzleloader-armed Confederates referred to the Henry as "that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!"
Nine hundred Henry rifles were manufactured between summer and October 1862, and by 1864, production had peaked at 290 per month. By the time production ended in 1866, approximately 14,000 units had been manufactured. Those few Confederate troops who came into possession of captured Henry rifles had little way to resupply the special ammunition used by the weapon, making its widespread use by Confederate forces impractical. The rifle was, however, known to have been used at least in part by some fifteen different Confederate units. These units included cavalry in Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia, as well as the personal bodyguards of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While the Henry was used primarily against the Confederates, the Henry-armed Sioux and Cheyenne used the weapon in the destruction of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn. See also American Civil War Firearms and Weapons: From Production to Capabilities.

Minie balls, aka minnie balls, & the rifle-musket
Minie Balls.jpg
Minie balls, aka bullet, were used by rifle-muskets

The Miniť ball, which despite its name was actually bullet shaped and not ball shaped, was developed in the 1840s. The Miniť ball had an expanding skirt which was intended to be used with rifled barrels, leading to what was called the rifled musket, which came into widespread use in the mid-19th century. The Miniť ball was small enough in diameter that it could be loaded as quickly as a round ball, even with a barrel that had been fouled with black powder residue after firing many shots, and the expanding skirt of the Miniť ball meant that it would still form a tight fit with the barrel and impart a good spin into the round when fired. This gave the rifled musket an effective range of several hundred yards, which was a significant improvement over the smoothbore musket. For example, combat ranges of 300 yards were achievable using the rifled muskets of the American Civil War. While rifled muskets can fire other ammunition like round ball or buck and ball without issues, they were generally only issued Miniť ball ammunition. A rifled musket can also technically fire lead shot, but it does not pattern well due to the rifled bore. A smoothbore musket could also technically fire a Miniť ball, but without the spin imparted by a rifled barrel the Miniť ball would tumble and would not be accurate.

The superior accuracy and effective range of the Miniť ball and rifled musket led to its rapid and widespread acceptance, while the simple musket ball and smoothbore musket gradually fell out of favor. The later development of the bullet cartridge accelerated the demise of the older technology. Despite this, musket balls continued to be used until well into the late 19th century, as regular armies and militias had accumulated vast stores of them over time. See also Civil War Small Arms, Firearms, and Edged Weapons: A Photographic History.

Springfield Rifle Musket
The most frequently used rifle of the Civil War
was the American-made Springfield rifle musket--a single-shot, muzzle-loading gun detonated with a percussion cap. Not only did it have the rifled barrel, which dramatically increased accuracy over a smoothbore musket, but it also was the first rifle to fire the famous .58 cal. Miniť ball--an inch-long, bullet-shaped projectile, rather than a round ball as used in older muskets. The 39-inch-long rifled barrel made it possible to hit a target with a Miniť ball as far away as 500 yards. By the end of the war, approximately 1.5 million Springfield rifle-muskets had been produced by the Springfield Armory and 20 subcontractors. Since the South lacked sufficient manufacturing capability, most of the Springfields in Southern hands were captured on the battlefields during the early part of the war.

Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket
Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket.jpg
The Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket was the 2nd most widely used firearm during the Civil War

Enfield Rifle Musket
The second most widely used weapon of the Civil War was the British Enfield three-band, single-shot, muzzle-loading musket. It was also the standard weapon for the British army between 1853-1867. American soldiers liked it because its .577 cal. barrel allowed the use of .58 cal. ammunition used by both Union and Confederate armies. Originally produced at the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, England, approximately 900,000 of these muskets were imported during 1861-1865. Many officers, however, preferred the Springfield muskets over the Enfield muskets--largely due to the interchangeability of parts that the machine-made Springfields offered.

Commonly used Civil War weapons and small arms
Civil War Weapons Capabilities.jpg
Civil War firearms and small arms, and their capabilities

Civil War rifles and weapons in Sept. 1862
Civil War rifles and weapons.jpg
Confederate soldiers with rifle-muskets in Maryland

Weapons and Capabilities
Civil War small arms had average, effective, and maximum ranges, but what did the terms actually mean and what was the difference between them? What was the maximum range of the Enfield or the Spencer, and to which distance was the trained infantryman, the common foot soldier, expected to achieve on the battlefield? The Union and Confederate armies of infantry and cavalry were issued their respective firearms, and they trained with their weapons to accomplish objectives and goals for their clearly defined roles while marching onto the nation's killing fields. The infantryman required intensive training to become proficient with his weapon and to accomplish any role on the battlefield during the four year war. To better understand the battle tactics of the conflict, it is important to know why the soldier carried a certain weapon, usually his issued firearm, into the fray. While many soldiers were accurate with their small arms, to maximize the effective range and capability of the rifle required an enormous amount of training and skill, but it could only be realized while under immense pressure during the fight. The harsh lessons learned by cavalry and infantry during training would prepare the soldiers for the battlefield, because the difference between life and death was often a simple but costly mistake. 
With the following explanation, you will have the opportunity to know the difference in the employment of the various types of weapons, and the definition and difference in their accurate, effective. and max. ranges, rate of fire, and why the role of the soldier determined which small arm was best to field.
Although infantry regiments were generally issued the Springfield or Enfield rifle-musket, Union cavalry units usually received carbines, because they were light, easy to handle, appreciated a high rate of fire, but were limited in range because of their shortened barrels. While Southern horsemen also utilized the carbine, there numbers were few and the quality of material was inconsistent, so Confederate cavalry employed a variety of firearms, including captured Northern made carbines, the British Enfield, shotgun, and as many revolvers as he could carry. Both cavalries tended to shed their sabers for more practical pieces, meaning additional small arms.
The Springfield and Enfield were both single shot, muzzle-loading rifles that were heavy and required a lengthy reloading process, making them unsuitable for cavalry, but when held by a well-trained infantryman, it was possible to realize an effective range of 600 yards, which was nearly three times the distance of the cavalryman's carbine .
While the lists of firearms include many of the small arms that the Union and Confederate cavalries and infantrymen were furnished, it also shows an inventory of typical weapons employed during the Civil War. Effective range is the maximum distance at which a weapon may be expected to be accurate and achieve the desired effect. Rate of fire is the frequency at which a specific weapon can fire, and it is measured in rounds per minute (RPM)(round/min), unless otherwise stated.
How was the effective range and rate of fire achieved by the soldier? Extensive training enabled the infantrymen and horsemen the necessary skill, knowledge, and experience required to achieve the rate of fire and the effective range during battle.
Three Factors of Accuracy. There were three factors which determined whether or not the projectile hit its target at the effective range: the cavalryman, meaning the shooter, the firearm, and environmental conditions. A negative condition existing in any of the three factors, or variables, will determine whether or not an effective hit is realized. If, for example, the soldier erred, or the rifle malfunctioned, or it rained, the odds of hitting within the weapon's effective range were reduced.

The small arms and their accurate, effective, and maximum ranges remain vital to the soldier. A trained soldier of the American Civil War was expected to strike the enemy between the accurate and effective ranges on the chart. But what is the difference between accurate, effective, and maximum range? To keep it simple, imagine a large round target with a bullseye.

  • Accurate range is defined as the distance which a projectile will travel to hit center, the bullseye.
  • Effective range is the distance which a projectile will travel to hit the target, not the bullseye.
  • Maximum range is the distance the projectile will field to cause a casualty, meaning, if it (actually) hit it would wound or kill the enemy.

Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, Guns, and Rifles
Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, Guns, Pistols.jpg
Civil War Firearms, Small Arms, Guns, Rifles, Pistols, and Weapons

(About) Gen. Phil Sheridan charging Confederate positions during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. While Union cavalry charged Confederate positions, a great variety of firearms and weapons could generally been seen. Cavalry had carbines, rifle-muskets, revolvers, and sabers, while infantry, supported by artillery, were fielding rifle-muskets, carbines, shotguns, pistols, and officers and artillerists would generally wield their sabers as the enemy had closed and broke their lines.

Civil War rifles, guns, firearms, muskets, weapons
Civil War soldiers firing rifles.jpg
Civil War soldiers firing rifles with Napoleonic tactics

Although rifling had been existence for hundreds of years, it wasn't fully appreciated until the invention of the Miniť ball (Minie ball) in the late 1840s.
When the Civil War began in 1861, both armies continued to apply Napoleonic Tactics associated with the nation's outdated stockpiles of smoothbore muskets. As graduates of West Point and veterans of the Mexican War (1846-48), several leading Union and Confederate generals had been schooled under the banner of Napoleon's teachings, meaning linear formations and concentration of troops.
The smoothbore-musket, which was not accurate beyond 70 yards because of its smooth-bored barrel, had been replaced by the rifle-musket in 1861. Smoothbores were also inaccurate due to the gap between the bullet and the internal wall of the barrel. Because of the barrel's inaccuracies, officers did not expect musketeers to aim at specific targets, but the objective was to deliver a mass volley of musket balls into the enemy line, therefore increasing the odds of a hit.
The rifle-musket contained rifling, meaning groves in the barrel, causing the projectile to spin as it exits the barrel, allowing it greater accuracy and distance than the smoothbore. Although rifling had been existence for hundreds of years, it wasn't fully realized until the invention of the Miniť ball (Minie ball) in the late 1840s. By the 1850s, rifling had rendered the smoothbore weapon and its battlefield tactics obsolete, but the Napoleon Tactics of massed infantry formations at close distances of 100 yards were still being practiced when the rifle-muskets were issued in the year of 1865. But in the same year, both Union and Confederate armies had also engaged in trench warfare, and the frontal assaults were becoming less common and were used more out of desperation, such as attempts to break through enemy lines when all other means had failed. At 100 yards, many massed smoothbores, being inaccurate beyond 70 yards, allowed a greater concentration of fire, thus increasing the odds of hitting the enemy. The rifle-musket appreciated an effective range of 600 yards, therefore not requiring massed formations nor close ranges for effectiveness. Because both Union and Confederate armies were slow to adopt new tactics with the modern Enfield and Spencer rifle-muskets, the Civil War would convert the nation into vast killing fields of massed casualties. 
The disadvantage of the early rifle-musket was its lengthy reloading time and the tendency for powder fouling to accumulate in the rifling, making the piece more difficult to load with each shot. Eventually, the weapon could not be loaded until the bore was wiped clean. For this particular reason, regular American units had maintained smoothbore muskets in its arsenal. However, German regiments from many principalities fielded companies of riflemen known as Jšger, as early as the beginning of the 18th century. British armies during the Seven Years War, which was called the French & Indian War in America, formed rifle units, and these units were formed again during the American Revolutionary War. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the British created and maintained a rifle regiment.

Civil War Small arms and Firearms History
Civil War Small arms and Firearms History.jpg
Variety of small arms unleashed carnage at the Battle of Chickamauga. NPS.

(Right) Painting of Battle of Chickamauga. NPS. The action at Chickamauga caused the second greatest loss of life during the Civil War, with Gettysburg suffering the highest losses. On the left side of the painting, there is an extensively long "line of battle" of "rank and file" soldiers firing more than one thousand rounds in a single volley. The Napoleonic Tactics were designed for the smoothbore musket with its accurate range of 50-70 yards, but the Enfield and Springfield, the two most commonly used weapons of the Civil War, were each capable of an effective range of nearly 600 yards.
The invention of the Miniť ball in the late 1840s solved both major problems of muzzle-loading rifles. The Crimean War (1853–1856) saw the first widespread use of the rifled musket for the common infantryman and by the time of the American Civil War (1860s) most infantry were equipped with the rifled musket. These were far more accurate than smoothbore muskets and had a much greater range, while preserving the musket's comparatively faster reloading rate. Their use led to a decline in the use of massed attacking formations, as these formations were too vulnerable to the accurate, long-range fire of the rifle. In particular, advancing troops were within range of the defended position for a longer period of time, and the defenders could also return fire more quickly than before. As a result, while 18th century advancing infantry would only be within range of the enemy's weapons for the time it would take to fire a few shots, late 19th century attackers might suffer dozens of volleys before they drew close to the enemy position, with correspondingly high casualty rates. However, the use of massed attacks on fortified positions did not vanish overnight, and as a result, major wars of the late 19th century and early 20th century tended to produce very high casualty figures. The Ten Battles with Highest Casualties during the Civil War suffered a combined 300,000 casualties, which was more losses than the casualties from all the nation's previous wars combined.
In the late 19th century, the rifle took another major step forward with the introduction of breech-loading rifles. These rifles also used brass cartridges. The brass cartridge had been introduced earlier; however, it was not widely adopted for various reasons. In the U.S. Army, generals thought their soldiers would waste ammunition, so they kept muzzle-loading black powder rifles until after the American Civil War. The introduction of breech-loaders meant that the rifling of a weapon was no longer damaged when it was loaded, and reloading was a much faster process. Shortly afterwards, magazine loading rifles were introduced, which further increased the weapons' rate of fire. From this period (c. 1870) onward, the musket was obsolete in modern warfare. See also Civil War Weapons, Firearms, and Small Arms and Civil War Small Arms, Firearms, and Edged Weapons: A Photographic History.
Related Reading
While firearms, as small arms, were any weapons carried by a soldier, there were much larger arms and weapons employed on the battlefield. Known as artillery and cannon, a crew, however, was required to operate each weapon.
The U.S. Army classified its artillery into three types, depending on the gun's weight and intended use. Field artillery were light pieces that often traveled with the armies. Siege and garrison artillery were heavy pieces that could be used either in attacking or defending fortified places. Seacoast artillery were the heaviest pieces and were intended to be used in permanent fortifications along the seaboard. They were primarily designed to fire on attacking warships. The distinctions are somewhat arbitrary, as field, siege and garrison, and seacoast artillery were all used in various attacks and defenses of fortifications. See Civil War Artillery and Battle of Gettysburg and the use of Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery.

(See sources and related reading below)

Recommended Reading: An Introduction to Civil War Small Arms. Description: Fifty Union and Confederate muskets, rifles, carbines and pistols are concisely discussed with specifications. Also includes photographs of the ammunition! The overall format is an introduction to each weapon with basic specifications, several paragraphs of text about development use and production, a photograph of the weapon, a period photo of a soldier armed with the same, and a photo of the cartridge. Continued below...

This is repeated for each major weapon. There are also several other general information sections about various aspects of small arms. (Of considerable use to "wargamers" is a section listing known weapons of MANY regiments; looks like at least 1,000.)

Site search Web search

Advance to:

Recommended Reading: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Modern War Studies) (Hardcover) (288 pages) (University Press of Kansas) (September 9, 2008). Description: The Civil War's single-shot, muzzle-loading musket revolutionized warfare--or so we've been told for years. Noted historian Earl J. Hess forcefully challenges that claim, offering a new, clear-eyed, and convincing assessment of the rifle musket's actual performance on the battlefield and its impact on the course of the Civil War. Continued below...

Drawing upon the observations and reflections of the soldiers themselves, Hess offers the most compelling argument yet made regarding the actual use of the rifle musket and its influence on Civil War combat. Engagingly written and meticulously researched, his book will be of special interest to Civil War scholars, buffs, reenactors, and gun enthusiasts alike.


Recommended Reading: Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Description: Enhanced with marvelous illustrations, the text describes what materiel was available to the armies and navies of both sides — from iron-clad gunboats, submarine torpedoes, and military balloons to pontoon bridges, percussion grenades, and siege artillery — with on-the-scene comments by Union and Confederate soldiers about equipment and camp life. Includes more than 500 black-and-white illustrations. RATED 5 STARS. Continued...


Recommended Reading: Sharpshooters of the American Civil War 1861-65. Description: When the American Civil War commenced in 1861, both Confederate and Union officials decided that specialized sharpshooter units should be formed. These highly trained marksmen served in a front-line role and, due to the technological developments of the 1850s, were equipped with weapons that could guarantee greater accuracy over increased range than traditional muskets. This title examines the recruitment, training, tactics and deployment of sharpshooters from both sides of the conflict. It also takes a close look at the specialized weaponry of the sharpshooter, the rifle and its accoutrements, as well as the sharpshooters' unique insignia and identification patches. It includes full color photos and action-packed battle scenes.


Recommended Reading: Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms and Equipment of the Union and Confederacy. Description: This comprehensive and exhaustive reference identifies and describes the use and application of more than 800 items. Arranged alphabetically by topic, subjects range from artillery accouterments and boats to tools and patriotic sheet music. "Everything an interested reader would want to know . . . A must-have book." — Antiques & Auction News. Over 350 rare illustrations. Continued below...

The Civil War buff and even serious collector of Civil War arms, uniforms and equipment should purchase the Civil War Collector's Encyclopedia: Arms, Uniforms And Equipment Of The Union And Confederacy as an indispensable reference and core guide in this specialized area of military antiques and collectibles with noted authority Francis A. Lord covering almost everything to do with Civil War memorabilia--from equipment to Union and Confederate uniforms.


Recommended Reading: Warman's Civil War Weapons. Description: The weapons of the Confederate and Union Armies, a commanding presence 140 years ago, are among today's most revered collectibles. Warman's Civil War Weapons offers Civil War enthusiasts a listing of more than 100 weapons and military vehicles, featured in 400 stunning full-color photos, and covers the effectiveness of each weapon in battle. Continued below...

From the early battles that relied on muzzleloaded weapons, to the introduction of submarines, handguns, shoulder arms, edged weapons and more, this book chronicles the history of an innovative age of weaponry. Weapons including the Butterfield Revolver, Sharps Model 1859 and Confederate short sword are shown in detail, with a performance summary. This unmatched reference provides the information needed for a historical study and collecting. 


Recommended Reading: Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use. Description: The popular Civil War News columnist has written a unique work, combining technical data on each Civil War firearm, an often surprising treatment of their actual use on the battlefield, and a guide to collecting and firing surviving relics and modern reproductions. About the Author: Joseph G. Bilby is a popular columnist for the Civil War News and a veteran of the current 69th Regiment.


Recommended Reading: The 1863 U.S. Infantry Tactics: Infantry of the Line, Light Infantry, and Riflemen (Hardcover) (608 pages). Description: Written in 1861 at the direction of the War Department and copiously illustrated, this was the book used to train, lead, and maneuver U.S. Infantry units on Civil War battlefields. It contains the school of the soldier, the company, and battalion or fielded regiment, along with all-important instructions for skirmishers. More than 15 pages of field music, the articles of war in use at the time, and a dictionary of Civil War military terminology complete this extensive work. The work was authorized and adopted by the Secretary of War on May 1, 1861. This is the second edition issued in 1863.


Recommended Reading: Shock Troops of the Confederacy (Hardcover: 432 pages). Description: Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy is primarily focused on the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. In a Civil War context, "sharpshooter" was usually more akin to "skirmisher" than "sniper," although these specialized battalions also used innovative open order assault techniques, especially late in the war. Continued below...

Ray includes, however, a detailed study of Union sharpshooter battalions and Confederate sharpshooters in the West. Remarkably, little has been published about such organizations in the past, so Fred Ray's book offers a unique study of the evolution of Civil War infantry tactics, revealing a more complex, sophisticated approach to the battlefield than is usually understood.

References: National Park Service; National Archives; Library of Congress; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Smithsonian Institute; Barnett, Bertram. "Civil War Small Arms". National Parks Service. Retrieved 14 July 2008; Bilby, Joseph (2005). Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81459-4; Carter, Gregg Lee. Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law. ABC-CLIO, 2002; Coggins, Jack. Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Courier Dover Publications, 2004; Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The evolution of weapons and warfare. Da Capo Press, March 21, 1990; Jensen, Geoffrey; Wiest, Andrew. War in the Age of Technology: Myriad Faces of Modern Armed Conflict. NYU Press, 2001; Keegan, John (2009). The American Civil War: A Military History. Vintage Books. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-307-27314-7; Nosworthy, Brent (2003). The Bloody Crucible of Courage, Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War. Carroll and Graf Publishers. ISBN 0-7867-1147-7; Myatt, Frederick (1994). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of 19th Century Firearms: An Illustrated History of the Development of the World's Military Firearms During the 19th Century. Crescent Books. p. 216. ISBN 0-517-27786-7; Ricketts, Howard (1964). Firearms. Weidenfeld and Nicolson; Rothenberg, Gunther Erich. The art of warfare in the age of Napoleon, 1978; Walter, John. The Guns That Won the West: Firearms on the American Frontier, 1848–1898. MBI Publishing Company, 2006; Wilcox, Cadmus Marcellus. Rifles and rifle practice: an elementary treatise upon the theory of rifle firing, 1861;; National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM).

Return to American Civil War Homepage

Best viewed with Internet Explorer or Google Chrome