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American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign X

Updated on March 9, 2014
Sketch - a skirmish breaks out along the banks of a river
Sketch - a skirmish breaks out along the banks of a river

We will now review, in somewhat greater detail, the weapons carried into battle, and the ordnance (ammunition) they fired, by the infantry and the supporting artillery and cavalry arms.

Springfield Rifled Musket
Springfield Rifled Musket
Enfield Rifled Musket
Enfield Rifled Musket
Minie Balls, .58 caliber, for rifled muskets
Minie Balls, .58 caliber, for rifled muskets
Minie Ball cartridges
Minie Ball cartridges
Smoothbore musket ammunition - the far right shows the ball and the buckshot pellets
Smoothbore musket ammunition - the far right shows the ball and the buckshot pellets
Buck and Ball cartridge
Buck and Ball cartridge
Tri-Bayonet
Tri-Bayonet

Infantry Weapons and Ordnance

For the infantry throughout the war, the standard firearm was a 56 in (1.42 m) long, 9.5 lb (~4.27 kg) muzzle-loading, single shot musket with either a rifled or a smoothbore barrel.

The size of the projectiles fired by these firearms ranged from 54 caliber (0.54 in. / 1.37 cm) to 75 caliber (0.75 in. / 1.91 cm), though 58 caliber (0.58 in. / 1.47 cm) was the most common type for the rifled muskets. The projectiles for smoothbores were generally sphere-shaped, whereas conical-shaped bullets were used for rifles. The spin imparted on conical bullets, from the grooves in rifled barrels, helped to cut more cleanly through air-resistance and yielded straighter and longer shots. However, regardless of the firearm, accuracy always depended on the skill and experience of the shooter.

An 18 in. (45.72 cm) bayonet, attached at the muzzle, enabled the soldier to wield his firearm like a sword during close quarters combat. The bayonets generally attached to the right of the muzzle, not below as in today’s weapons, to prevent interference with the soldier’s access to the rammer which was held underneath the barrel.

Sharps Repeating Rifle
Sharps Repeating Rifle
Metallic cartridge for a Repeating Rifle
Metallic cartridge for a Repeating Rifle
Examples of saber bayonets
Examples of saber bayonets

Repeating Infantry Weapons

Breech-loading firearms, where the projectile was directly inserted at the bottom of the barrel, had been known and/or used for centuries. However repeating firearms – where several bullets were loaded all at once and fired, one at a time, at a quicker rate than that of muskets – came into prevalence during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, they were not available in large quantities. This was due to a long-standing aversion by the Ordnance Department to the possible waste of ammunition as a result of such rapid rates of fire. Therefore, proportionately few infantry units had repeating firearms.

These weapons generally fired metallic cartridges, rather than the paper cartridges of muzzle-loaders.

Saber bayonets, roughly the same size as those for the muzzle-loaders, were available for at least a few breech-loading firearms (Sharps 1859 Model, for example), but these firearms were made for greater firepower rather than for hand-to-hand combat.

An army artillery battery
An army artillery battery

Artillery

A major support to the infantry was the artillery arm, which fired larger, and more destructive, ammunition (to be explained shortly). Artillery included weapons like cannon, howitzers, and mortars. Artillery was not just limited to the land, though. For engagements near large water bodies, shipboard artillery was also utilized to help the land forces where possible.

Brass smoothbore, 6 lb cannon
Brass smoothbore, 6 lb cannon
Napolean (smoothbore) cannon
Napolean (smoothbore) cannon
Parrott (rifled) cannon
Parrott (rifled) cannon
Howitzer, along with the caisson. Note the shorter barrel
Howitzer, along with the caisson. Note the shorter barrel
Mortar with crew and firing platform
Mortar with crew and firing platform

Artillery Weapons

Cannon were long-barreled, large-bored weapons, and they were the most common weapons in the artillery. About half (or more) of the cannon were muzzle-loading, bronze smoothbores, called Napoleans. However, various breech-loading, rifled cannon, known for greater range and accuracy due to the spin they imparted on the ammunition they fired, were available and they became more and more common as the war continued.

Howitzers were cannon with short, smoothbore barrels. They fired the same ammunition as did the longer-tubed cannon, but for shorter distances and they used lower amounts of powder. They were considered very effective against enemy forces behind fortifications. Howitzers were also lighter, but more rugged, than their counterparts, and could be drawn by only one or two animals. In very rugged terrain, some howitzers could be dismantled and carried on the backs of the animals.

Mortars were different from cannon in that, rather than to batter down fortifications, the mortars were intended to drop their ammunition OVER the walls and into the trenches or interior structures of the fortified targets. Their primary targets were the enemy personnel and their quarters. Mortars were also effective against ships. Mortar barrels were large in diameter, but were short and squat.

Shell
Shell
Cross-section of Spherical Case Shot
Cross-section of Spherical Case Shot
Solid Shot
Solid Shot
Grape Shot
Grape Shot
Cannister Shot
Cannister Shot

Artillery Ordnance

Ordnance for the cannon included Shell, Spherical Case Shot, Solid Shot, Grape Shot, and Case/Canister Shot.

A Shell was a large, hollow, iron projectile, either spherical or conical shaped, that was filled with gunpowder. The shell was fitted with a fuse of a certain length, which extended down to the gunpowder. Each fuse length corresponded to the amount of time needed for the fuse to burn away. After the shell was fired, the fuse was ignited and began to burn. When the fuse burned down to the gunpowder, it ignited and the shell exploded. Dependent on the length of the fuse and the determined distance to the target, explosions could have been timed to occur either while the shell was still in flight or after it landed and penetrated. If the shell was intended for anti-personnel duty, an in-flight explosion was timed so that metal fragments of the shell casing would be sent into the targeted personnel. If intended for a structure, the explosion was timed for after the shell penetrated, which would cause a significant rupture in the target. However, if there was armor on the target, and it was thick enough, the shell was usually not able to penetrate. Instead, the thin casing ruptured on the impact and the explosion occurred on the surface, which was often not destructive enough to damage the armor.

Spherical Case Shot was very similar to Shell. The difference was that, inside the casing, along with a cavity for the gunpowder, were many small iron or lead spheres. Upon explosion, timed for in-flight, the casings ruptured and these spheres were propelled into personnel. These small spheres more effectively damaged personnel than did the fragments of the Shell casings. This ordnance was eventually called Shrapnel, after the name of the inventor.

Solid Shot was a large, solid iron sphere that did not explode. Rather, it simply rammed into, and often penetrated, the target. It was fairly useful against armored structures (like Ironclads). Solid Shot did not rupture on impact, and often had enough inertial velocity to dent, or even penetrate, armor. Solid Shot was also used against personnel and was particularly useful against linear formations as the shot could easily penetrate several files of enemy troops. The shot was most effective when it was fired low to the ground and bounced or rolled, in a somewhat flattened trajectory, into the enemy lines.

Grape Shot was a cluster of small, solid iron spheres, held together by canvas. After it was fired, the iron spheres emerged from the burned-away canvas and scattered. Many targets were thus hit all at once, which gave the cannon a shotgun-effect. This ammunition was anti-personnel, which meant it was far more effective against enemy troops than against structures.

Case, or Canister, Shot was very similar to Grape Shot. However, the iron spheres were held within a metallic casing as opposed to canvas, and there were more than 20 spheres held by the casing, as opposed to perhaps five or ten in Grape Shot. As with Grape Shot, Case/Canister was most effective against personnel.

Union Cavalryman and his mount
Union Cavalryman and his mount

Cavalry

The cavalry underwent many changes to its weaponry. It always sought the best combination of arms that proved to be effective in combat as well as enabled the cavalryman to easily ride his mount.

Cavalrymen, with sabers, of the 3rd IN Cavalry Volunteers pose for a photograph
Cavalrymen, with sabers, of the 3rd IN Cavalry Volunteers pose for a photograph
Sketch - 6th PA Cavalry Volunteers armed with lances
Sketch - 6th PA Cavalry Volunteers armed with lances
Cavalryman with Carbine, Pistols, and Saber
Cavalryman with Carbine, Pistols, and Saber
Sketch - cavalrymen launch a charge. Notice the cavalryman on the far right as he attempts to fire his carbine with one arm
Sketch - cavalrymen launch a charge. Notice the cavalryman on the far right as he attempts to fire his carbine with one arm
Sketch - Dismounted Skirmishers of the 1st ME Cavalry Volunteers engage the enemy with their carbines
Sketch - Dismounted Skirmishers of the 1st ME Cavalry Volunteers engage the enemy with their carbines

Cavalry Weapons and Ordnance

At the war’s outset, cavalry was often armed with sabers, sometimes lances, and/or muzzle-loading muskets.

Muskets proved to be unwieldy and cumbersome while used in the saddle – those armed with muskets thus often dismounted to fight – so alternative firearms were sought.

As the war progressed, many cavalry units came to be armed with revolving pistols and/or other multiple shot firearms like carbines and rifles. This gave them much greater firepower, and the weapons were small enough so that they were not major encumbrances during mounted combat.

As with muskets, though, the shouldered weapons were sometimes hard to handle and fire accurately while used in the saddle. Also, the smaller weapons often had decreased effective ranges, so targets needed to be somewhat close for them to be truly effective. In addition, to fire while mounted tended to make the animals skittish and liable to go beyond control of their riders due to fear.

As an eventual, generally accepted rule, cavalrymen dismounted when they fought with rifles and carbines, but used sabers and pistols when they made mounted attacks.

Sketch - troops march beside a river and a fleet of ironclads
Sketch - troops march beside a river and a fleet of ironclads

Afterword

Weapons and ordnance varied greatly, in all arms of military service, throughout the war. It is impossible to list them all. Hopefully, however, this article will serve to tell of the most common and encountered weapons of the day, and their effects on the infantrymen that fought with, and against, them.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman - Life On Campaign XI.

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    • garytameling profile image
      Author

      Gary Tameling 3 years ago from Islip, NY

      As always, thanks for the kind words, Mr. Hoglund. :-)

      ACW volunteer troops rarely had much reliable weapons training, so their weapons, though fairly modern and effective by 19th century standards, were rendered less effective than might otherwise have been the case. If they had today's basic army training, I wonder how much more destructive would have been that war.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Another well researched article. With all our modern weapons, it is hard to envision what it would have been like for a combat soldier with the much more limited--and I suspect, less reliable-arms of that day.