Discussion Tactics of Berdan Sharpshooters at Gettysburg-and elsewhere

Aug 27, 2017
Recently I was watching what is generally a good series on Civil War Battles on Cable TV. On the episode on the battle of Gettysburg featuring the 15th Alabama vs. the Berdan Sharpshooters (among others) I noticed a curious tactic of the sharpshooters. They were walking forward with their rifles raised looking down the sights. I understand this as a current tactic that we were trained with because we were using an enhanced sighting system on the M4s that would allow us to put the pip on a target and have a more rapid target acquisition. The Sharps or Spencer rifles of course are not so equipped nor are they light so this does not seem realistic to me-was this just being "Hollywood" on the part of the show producers?

With all of the experts on the show including the NPS from Gettysburg (Matt Atkinson) it seems strange that this would be allowed unless it was "artistic license" that overruled objections from those who knew better...or was this a real tactic employed during the Civil Wars?

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Kurt G

May 23, 2018
I saw the same thing and thought it was "Hollywood ." This series was better than many , but it tended to exaggerate the importance of the units covered . I never reenacted but have shot blackpowder for over 40 years and used to hunt . I can't imagine the raised rifle tactic was period , but there are experts out there that can help and I'm sure some will answer shortly .
Oct 24, 2008
Fairfax, VA, USA
Casper Trepp was the commander of Company A as a captain, adjutant of the 1st Sharpshooters as a major, and effectively commander of the 1st Sharpshooters as a lieutenant colonel before he was killed at Mine Run in 1863. He had come up through the Swiss militia system, and fought in the Crimean War as a British Army captain. He trained both Sharpshooter regiments in European Jäger tactics: i.e., open order formations, teams of four Sharpshooters as battle comrades working together and covering each other, movement to bugle calls, etc. I've never read about anything like what you're describing in the European tactical literature of the period.

Don Dixon


Brigadier General
Forum Host
Nov 20, 2012
I haven't seen the scene in question, but probably just "Hollywood." Usually fighting in skirmish line, they could fire on the move, but I would think that in order to fire more accurately they would probably stay still while actually taking the shot, also not standing in the open but lying down or crouching behind cover.

As mentioned above, a typical skirmish line operated in groups of fours (known as "comrades in battle"), each man spaced five paces apart. They could fire and advance or retreat in leapfrog fashion, two men of the four firing and reloading while the other two moved forward or backward.

One unconventional tactic was mentioned in the journal of Major Charles Mattocks, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters, April 21, 1864:

We have some fancy movements in skirmish drill. Everything is done by the bugle calls. One Faking thing is to sound "lie down" and then "forward." The "green breeches" creep along as close to the ground as so many mice. Sometimes we sound "commence firing," when they still keep up the creeping, or more properly dragging. General Hays looked on today, and seemed much amused, as indeed does every one who sees us. I always was very fond of skirmish drill, but never more so than at the present time. I fancy that with a little practice and discipline this Regt. can make a most splendid show in skirmish drill. They understand the skirmish calls on the bugle so well that it is rare sport to drill the battalion.
("Unspoiled Heart": The Journal of Charles Mattocks, p. 126)

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