Small Arms in the Civil WarPosted: August 10, 2011
Weapons that can be carried by a soldier are called “small arms” in military jargon. In the Civil War, small arms included muskets, rifles, carbines, pistols, and revolvers. These weapons are identified by their caliber, their maker, and their method of loading.
Both the U.S. Army and the Confederates were desperate for weapons at the start of the Civil War in 1861. Early volunteers were often issued antique, imported, or nearly obsolete weapons. Chief among the older model muskets was the 1842 Springfield with its 42inch long barrel. This weapon fired a .69 caliber lead ball plus 3 small buckshot. General Ulysses S. Grant, in his Memoire, observed that, using this weapon, “you might fire at a man all day…..without him finding it out.”
The principal small arms issued by both sides was the “Springfield” manufactured at the U. S. Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. This weapon has a 39inch rifled barrel and fired a .58 caliber bullet. With the rifling in the barrel, the firing range and accuracy of this weapon increased to a distance of 500 yards. The Sigal Museum of the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society has an 1862 Springfield rifle on display in the special Civil War gallery. This rifle was used by William Daub of the 47th Regiment PA volunteers. It is on loan from the private collection of L. Anderson and Carolyn Daub. The Fayetteville Rifle and the Richmond Rifle were two inferior Confederate copies of the Springfield.
A major foreign import for both the North and the South was the British “Enfield” rifle. This weapon fired a .577 caliber bullet at the same distance as the Springfield. The ammunition was interchangeable between the two rifles. Over 700,000 English Enfields were imported by the Confederates during the war. An early Enfield marked “1861 Tower” from the Tower of London Armory can be seen in the Civil War gallery at the Sigal Museum. In July of 1863, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine Regiment, observed abandoned Springfield rifles around his position on Little Round Top, Gettysburg. He ordered his men to exchange their Enfields for the abandoned Springfields.
The development of the “minie ball” in 1848 by French Captain Claude F. Minie gave riflemen greater accuracy as well as greater firing distance. By 1855, the U. S. Army had perfected a cheaper version of the “minie ball” which became the standard bullet used by both Northern and Southern troops.
Christopher Miner Spencer designed and patented a seven shot rifle and carbine in 1860. His re-designed and “perfected” model was patented in 1862. Seven Spencer rimfire cartridges in a tubular magazine would be inserted into the butt stock of the rifle. A lever action automatically ejected the empty shell and slid a new cartridge into position. These repeating rifle were often picked up on the battlefield by Confederate soldiers; however, they were useless as the Confederates had no ammunition to fit this new rifle. The Spencer Rifle shown in the permanent military collection at the Sigal Museum has a 25inch barrel. The rifle is displayed with the magazine partially out, the lever in ejection position, and the side lock cocked to fire.
The principal weapon of the Civil War cavalry was the short barreled carbine. In production since the 1850s, the Sharps carbine was popular with both Confederate and Union forces. The breech loading mechanism allowed a mounted trooper to hold the carbine under his arm and against his body while using only one hand to fire up to 5 shots per minute. The South made copies of the Sharps carbine which General Robert E Lee described as “so defective as to be demoralizing to our men.”
Ambrose Everett Burnside designed and patented a carbine in 1856 at his factory in Rhode Island. With the onset of the Civil War, Burnside enlisted with the Rhode Island Volunteers and was appointed Major General. His factory produced over 55,000 Burnside carbines for the war effort as well as Spencer carbines, a shorter version of the Spencer Rifle. The Burnside carbine displayed in the special Civil War area of the Sigal Museum is marked with the 1856 patent and “Cast Steel 1862” indicating that the carbine was manufactured in the last quarter of 1862. When new, this weapon sold for $30. Mrs. Stanley Stone donated the Burnside carbine to the Museum.
A Navy revolver, used by Captain William Raphael of Easton serving with the 28th Regiment PA volunteers, is shown in the permanent military collection of the Sigal Museum. Named for the naval battle scene engraved on the cylinder, this six shot revolver fired .36 caliber bullets. Though first used in 1851, this weapon was popular with the cavalry throughout the Civil War.
In the special gallery on the second floor of the Sigal Museum, there are two antique pistols. The Forehand and Wadsworth pistol was manufactured in Worcester, Massachusetts. A Smith and Wesson pistol, patented in 1860,was manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, no further information is available for these two artifacts.
-Submitted by Elaine Greek