Breechldrs Influence of repeating rifles in the Civil War

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Ripley's defenders point out that the Federal cavalry was wholly equipped with breech-loading carbines, which was itself a prodigious logistical feat.
It's in fact almost impossible to see how any more breechloaders could have been got, short of completely changing the US Army's entire procurement model or converting Springfield to breechloaders (both not good ideas for other reasons).

As for the research questions:
I think you need a pre-war pattern of massive breechloader production to be able to produce enough breeechloaders for any significant issuance, and the problem with this is that it's totally out of step with what the US expects to be doing. The muzzle loading smoothbore rifle-musket is actually quite modern at the time, and the US expects to fight a war with no more than 90,000 men (15,000 regular army and 75,000 three-months men, the maximum allowed by law) of whom not all will bear long arms as several thousand will be cavalry and artillery. The US has lots of rifled long arms in store in 1859 (more than it really needs for the expected purposes) and even an 1858 war scare with Britain resulting in massive demand for "better" weapons probably wouldn't provoke the set up of manufacturing in time... especially since there's fairly good odds it'd be set up in Harpers Ferry anyway.
Berdan's infantry Sharps rifles cost the Union three times as many carbines as they represented, because Sharps only had the one plant and could run it to make carbines or rifles. So basically more long breechloader rifles translates to far fewer cavalry carbines, and the cavalry needs carbines.


Simpler to use combustible cartridges:
There might be some potential here, but I'd suspect the benefit would be quite minor. The trick is that a combustible single-piece cartridge is going to have the percussion cap on the back, and you'll be dropping it down the barrel (which is about four feet long as a rough guess) which means it'll strike cap-first and potentially fire (goodbye fingers); that means you'll want it to be at least two piece (contained paper and separate cap).
This then runs into the problem that the ball with a pre-expanded base (that doesn't need hammering down onto an expander at the base of the barrel) is itself a minor technological innovation.

Ultimately, the problem with musketry in the Civil War is just that people never really got any practice with loading properly. There are examples from throughout the war of people who'd never loaded their muskets before getting into combat, or at least never having fired them first, and even of thousands of people in one battle not noticing that their gun hadn't actually fired and so loading it a second time without firing the first ball.
The whole of 18th and 19th century warfare indicates that this is not hard; you just need to have practiced it a bit.


As for doing more to train soldiers in marksmanship, yes, absolutely. There is so much that could be done that I'm restraining myself as best I can, but the simple answer is that the British (who did obsessive marksmanship practice) found basically no reason you could not train the majority of ordinary line infantry armed with the Enfield rifle-musket to the level of range-estimation and marksmanship skill that Berdan's US Sharpshooters achieved; the only requirement is time, and a little ammunition to acclimatize the soldiers with firing their rifle.
The rest of the ammunition consumed in training is there for the "test" to confirm what they've learned.
 

Don Dixon

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 24, 2008
Location
Fairfax, VA, USA
4. RESEARCH QUESTION: Might more have been done to actually train soldiers in marksmanship and the proper use of the sights on their arms than was done?

The uninformed [this is not addressed to you Federico] assume that just because we do something now, that's how its always been done or that how they did it then. Beyond the rudiments of drill, there was no organized "basic training," or "advanced individual training," or even "unit training" as we think of it for the Civil War soldier.

As units were recruited the companies were brought together at camps until there were enough men to muster a regiment. By regulation they were not uniformed or armed by the Federal Army until they were mustered into Federal service, unless the state had arms to give them which none of the states did. Such small numbers of functional militia arms which the Northern states had in inventory were exhausted early in 1861. As units were mustered they were almost immediately shipped out. If they were lucky they went into camps in rear areas, like the fortifications around Washington, and got some on-the-job training there, assuming that their officers had a clue about marksmanship and the skill set and experience to conduct training. Consequently, in most units the standard of marksmanship training was abismal. Numbers of units went into combat never having fired their weapons, or never having fired them on a rifle range. In my research on the use of Austrian weapons in the Federal and Confederate Armies I have noted that there is a direct correlation between the level of marksmanship training a unit received and whether the soldiers liked the Austrians or not. I can document units that began the Antietam and Atlanta Campaigns armed with Austrian rifle muskets and ended the campaigns with Springfield or Enfield rifle muskets, having been literally rearmed on the march. Clearly under those circumstances there was no opportunity for training with the new weapons.

On 19 April 1864, two weeks before the Overland Campaign began, Major General Meade directed that the soldiers of the Army of Potomac receive an additional issue of 10 rounds of small arms ammunition. “Corps commanders will see that immediate measures are taken by subordinate officers to carry out the order. Every man should be made to load and fire his musket under the personal supervision of a company officer. It is believed there are men in this army who have been in numerous actions without ever firing their guns, and it is known that muskets taken on the battle-fields have been found filled nearly to the muzzle with cartridges. The commanding general cannot impress too earnestly on all officers and men the necessity of preparing themselves for the contingencies of battle.” It wasn't about hitting a target at 200 yards or even hitting a target at 50 yards. It was about ensuring that the men could merely load and fire their weapons correctly 10 times. [emphasis added] (O.R., I, 33, 907-8)

The level of training conducted by both armies was criminally negligent. But, America is the "nation of riflemen."

Regards,
Don Dixon
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The sad thing is that the Enfield was quite capable of remarkable feats of marksmanship. At Inkerman some ordinary British regiments armed with the Enfield shook out into skirmish order and suppressed a Russian grand battery at a distance of over 600 yards, which is the kind of capability which by itself would have made pretty much any battle in the Civil War one-sided if only one side had it, and make them look very different if both sides did.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
I often point out that the major problem with US rifle-muskets was the ammunition issued for them. In a cost-cutting exercise, the Burton ball had been developed. It lacked the interior cup which swaged out the skirt of the ball, and so needed to have much less windage than the Minie or Enfield in British (or other nations) service. This meant that with US ammunition, the rifle-musket really was slower firing than in Europe (and slower firing than an old smoothbore), and clogged much quicker.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
...and, consequently, needed to be hammered down the barrel.

In terms of cost cutting, is that "we don't want to license the proper ball"?
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
...and, consequently, needed to be hammered down the barrel.

In terms of cost cutting, is that "we don't want to license the proper ball"?
Manufacturing costs. The Burton ball was cast in a die as a single piece. Pritchett balls had two pieces - the ball proper and a cup which was inserted into the cavity. It made the latter considerable more expensive due to the fact that three operations instead of one needed to be done in the manufacture of the ball.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
The sad thing is that the Enfield was quite capable of remarkable feats of marksmanship. At Inkerman some ordinary British regiments armed with the Enfield shook out into skirmish order and suppressed a Russian grand battery at a distance of over 600 yards, which is the kind of capability which by itself would have made pretty much any battle in the Civil War one-sided if only one side had it, and make them look very different if both sides did.
That's consistent with what Grant wrote about the surrender at Vicksburg. By 1863 the US soldiers knew the Enfield was a superior rifle.
If the soldiers found an Enfield in the arms turned in by the Confederates, they were likely to take it
 

FedericoFCavada

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 27, 2015
Location
San Antonio, Texas
Note that the combustible cartridge typically still used an exterior percussion cap placed on the cone, be it a muzzle-loading rifle musket or a cap and ball revolver. One of the other "paths not taken" was that of the Prussian needle rifle, which had a percussion cap inside the paper cartridge. The "needle"--literally a firing "pin" would pierce the paper envelope and go inside the powder charge to detonate the cap at the base of the ogival-conoidal bullet. Extra firing pins had to be carried and replacement was frequent due to the predictable erosion and wear and tear of the needle. The French Chassepot cannot really be added, since the planning for it began during the Civil War, but it was only adopted after the Civil War ended. In that combustible cartridge breech-loader, the paper cartridge has the cap in the cartridge, but in the base. The Norwegian kammerlader is interesting, because it was always adapted to use the muzzle-loading munition. Thus, in 1861, the Enfield style of cartridge was adopted, but the snapping off of the bulk of the cartridge, leaving just the paper-patched Pritchett bullet occurred in the chamber, not at the muzzle. A snazzy system that might have allowed for a breech loader to use the same cartridge as a muzzle loader in a pinch. Again, another "road not taken."

Personally, I'm not entirely sure if one or another post-Civil War conversion method of turning a muzzle-loading rifle into a capping breech-loader, or, if more might have been done to issue out simpler combustible cartridges?

As some may know, I've been attempting to research the North Carolina CSA-issued so-called "Nessler ball," a .680 conical bullet for use in a smooth-bore. No idea what the cartridges looked like, and little idea how these were issued--to smooth-bore .69 musket-armed state troops, or also troops who took 12-ga. shotguns with them from home? No real idea if there was any range advantage offered from a wildly inaccurate smooth-bore either. Perhaps it was a "placebo" so people with obsolete smooth-bores could feel more confident that they had "modern" and newfangled ammunition?

As most Civil War arms cognoscenti also know, one of the bugbears of Ripley was crazy "Yankee inventors" going outside the chain of command, evaluation, and testing to pull political strings in favor of one of their crackpot theories, or even gaining the ear of a desperate Lincoln and presenting their "gee whiz" invention to him personally. Such indeed was the case of Spencer and his seven-shot repeating rifle and carbine. One such inventor managed to fire some Union/ Federal version of the "Nessler" ball to show that greater range could be given to the outmoded .69 smooth-bore by firing it over the Potomac and seeing where the splashes were. Lincoln, predictably, thought it had some merit and directed that this attempt to increase the range, if not the accuracy, of the smooth-bore be forwarded to Ripley. For perhaps justifiable reasons, at least with the benefit of hindsight? Ripley promptly "Lost" the inventor's scheme....
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
As some may know, I've been attempting to research the North Carolina CSA-issued so-called "Nessler ball," a .680 conical bullet for use in a smooth-bore. No idea what the cartridges looked like, and little idea how these were issued--to smooth-bore .69 musket-armed state troops, or also troops who took 12-ga. shotguns with them from home? No real idea if there was any range advantage offered from a wildly inaccurate smooth-bore either. Perhaps it was a "placebo" so people with obsolete smooth-bores could feel more confident that they had "modern" and newfangled ammunition?
It actually did improve the smoothbore's accuracy, or more correctly it improved the precision, by delaying the onset of the magnus effect somewhat. It raised the effective range by reducing the cone of fire at 100-200 yards, and given the standard of accuracy in the Civil War it probably removed any benefit the rifle had over the smoothbore for the great majority of troops.

They were issued to Russian troops in the Crimean War.

The problem of course is that the accuracy question is simply impossible to avoid, and it means any technical solution is going to be incomplete at best.
 

FedericoFCavada

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 27, 2015
Location
San Antonio, Texas
Yes, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia and Russia all used real Nessler bullets. In those cases, the ball has a small cavity or concavity in the rear, such that the inside-the-bore windage is taken up by the bullet on firing, increasing velocity. In the North Carolina example, particularly the so-called "Type II" the bullet had a solid flat base and a single groove. Grease groove or Wilkinson/ Lorenz type compression on firing? More things to look into.
 

Don Dixon

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 24, 2008
Location
Fairfax, VA, USA
As some may know, I've been attempting to research the North Carolina CSA-issued so-called "Nessler ball," a .680 conical bullet for use in a smooth-bore. No idea what the cartridges looked like, and little idea how these were issued--to smooth-bore .69 musket-armed state troops, or also troops who took 12-ga. shotguns with them from home? No real idea if there was any range advantage offered from a wildly inaccurate smooth-bore either. Perhaps it was a "placebo" so people with obsolete smooth-bores could feel more confident that they had "modern" and newfangled ammunition?

Copyright, Don Dixon, 2021
Rounds1.jpg





The bullet on the left is an Imperial French Army Nessler ball which was used during the Crimean War and dug in Crimea. The Nessler ball served as the inspiration for the North Carolina Nessler compression variant shown on the right, which was dug at Culpepper, Virginia.

I don't know what the ballistic characteristics of the North Carolina Nessler ball would be. Its an interesting subject for an experiment if one had a suitable mould. I would assume [never assume he said] that it was wrapped and loaded in a pretty much standard greased paper cartridge.

Regards,
Don Dixon
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
As Colonel Wilder found out in 1863, the Henry Rifle was not produced in numbers sufficient to be of great military significance. It was a complex mechanism & the exposed ammunition slide under the barrel left it vulnerable to failure under field conditions. By contrast, the Spencer Repeating Rifle only had 7 moving parts. In the field it proved robust & reliable under extreme conditions such as being entirely submerged in water.

The psychological impact of such a weapon on the morale of the men who fought with it was dramatic. Their letters are filled with testimonies to how superior the Spencer was to muzzle loading muskets. They really believed that nothing could stand before them. During the Spencer's baptism of fire, two actions on the first day of the Tullahoma Campaign showed what it could do in the hands of determined men. At Hoover's Gap, deployed in a single line six feet apart, Wilder's men defeated repeated attacks by Bate's veteran infantry. On the left wing of Minty's famous saber attack at Shelbyville, a regiment of cavalry used their newly issued Spencers to great effect. Soaked in a torrential downpour, Wheeler's men were pinned down in their works, overwhelmed or fled in panic by the fire of the Spencers. The dripping wet defenders hardly fired a shot in return. Their ammunition was almost all waterlogged. Two of the most lopsided victories in the West that led to the conquest of Tennessee were directly attributable to the superiority of the Spencer rifle over muzzle loading muskets.

Cavalry issued with Spencer repeaters was turned into a radically different force. It was all but impossible to reload a muzzle loader on horseback & not that easy to reload a single shot carbine. Even dismounted, cavalry carbines were short range weapons. A trooper with a Spencer could not only fire multiple shots from the saddle, he had the firepower of three conventionally armed opponents. Cavalrymen in loose order were able to achieve fire superiority over much larger conventionally armed opponents.

Note: Interestingly, the Spencer rifle weighs the same as an M-1. If equipped with the single round conversion, the Spencer had the same 8 round magazine as the M-1. Under most combat conditions, the rate of fire of both rifles was identical. In an emergency, the auto loading M-1 had a clear advantage in rate of fire. Both rifles were extremely reliable & held in high esteem by the men who used them. Unlike the bolt action Springfield that had a solid kick, both the Spencer & the M-1 were easy to shoot & did not bruise the rifleman's shoulder. On the range, even novice shooters can mark respectable clusters of hits with both rifles. That has been my personal experience, & more importantly that of highly experienced marksmen & women.
 
Last edited:

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
Copyright, Don Dixon, 2021
View attachment 394844




The bullet on the left is an Imperial French Army Nessler ball which was used during the Crimean War and dug in Crimea. The Nessler ball served as the inspiration for the North Carolina Nessler compression variant shown on the right, which was dug at Culpepper, Virginia.

I don't know what the ballistic characteristics of the North Carolina Nessler ball would be. Its an interesting subject for an experiment if one had a suitable mould. I would assume [never assume he said] that it was wrapped and loaded in a pretty much standard greased paper cartridge.

Regards,
Don Dixon
Interesting. Was this considered superior to the Minie?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
At Hoover's Gap, Wilder listed 61 casualties, Bate recorded 146. The numbers engaged changed dramatically as the day went on, at a certain point Wilder withdrew, so none of he men were present. The five books I have at hand on the Tullahoma Campaign do not run to bean counting, so exact numbers are not listed. Of course, what is important is the fact that unlike a conventional cavalry unit, Wilder was able to hold his position until Thomas could send infantry to his support. Authorities agree that over all, CSA returns & casualty figures for the Tullahma Campaign are on the vague side. At Liberty Gap, for example, CSA losses are listed at 0 because there are no returns.

For the purposes of this thread, namely the influence of repeaters, Hoover's Gap & the left flank of the cavalry attack on Shelbyville are sterling examples. General Thomas was deeply impressed. General Stanley who had derisively called Wilder's mounted infantry "tadpole cavalry" & predicted failure, was proved wrong.
 

Tennreb

Cadet
Joined
Mar 17, 2021
Location
Lawrenceburg, Tennessee
I have did a lot of metal detecting for CW relics. Found a lot of whole Spencers and also just the shot empty brass. One particular note from my one of my hunts in Nashville. I got permission to hunt an a hill next to Shy's Hill. I could tell I had a virgin site. I found 75+ empty shot brass and not any whole ones. Most were just laying on top of the ground . The hill was wooded. I thought they must have been pretty reliable. So from what I have read the Spencer rifle made a big difference in some battles. The gun in capable hands could be shot 14-20 times a minute with a range of 500 yards. 10 shooters with Spencers was like a 100 or so with muzzle loading rifles.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Ripley's defenders point out that the Federal cavalry was wholly equipped with breech-loading carbines, which was itself a prodigious logistical feat.

This is the only reference to logistics I've seen in the thread. Supplying an army with ammunition of different calibers is a logistical nightmare.

The NATO cartridge in our own world is a testament to this. Any ammo box will work for anyone who needs one.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Note: Interestingly, the Spencer rifle weighs the same as an M-1. If equipped with the single round conversion, the Spencer had the same 8 round magazine as the M-1. Under most combat conditions, the rate of fire of both rifles was identical. In an emergency, the auto loading M-1 had a clear advantage in rate of fire. Both rifles were extremely reliable & held in high esteem by the men who used them. Unlike the bolt action Springfield that had a solid kick, both the Spencer & the M-1 were easy to shoot & did not bruise the rifleman's shoulder. On the range, even novice shooters can mark respectable clusters of hits with both rifles. That has been my personal experience, & more importantly that of highly experienced marksmen & women.
Absolutely not. The Spencer required 4 drill movements to load the next round and recock the hammer. The rate of fire was similar to that achieved with Trapdoor Springfields whilst the magazine lasted, and when the magazine was empty it was outperformed by trapdoor conversions. Hence the flaw in the argument that Custer would have survived with Spencers; Spencers had less firepower than his BL carbines.

The M1 OTOH is a true self-loading rifle.

As we've discussed, Wilder's men were infantry, and deployed in the standard 2 rank, close order line. Their 4 regiments outnumbered Bate's 2 regiments by about 2:1, and yet the 37th Georgia actually broke the 17th Indiana with a bayonet charge (as we discussed six months back).
 
Top