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The Impact of Rifles - Weapons of the Civil War - Civil War Talk - Civil War Interactive Discussion Board
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 Posted: Wed Apr 15th, 2009 03:00 am
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Mark
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Over the last few years there has been a debate about the impact of rifle muskets on Civil War combat.  It seems to me that more and more historians are falling into the Paddy Griffith camp which argues rather convincingly that due to a varity of factors (minie ball trajectory, limited visibility due to terrain and black power, limited amounts of cartridges carried, the unlikeness of soldiers to utilize the backsights properly under battlefield conditions and the psychological value of a devestating first volley to name a few), there was a enormus difference between the theoretical range of a rifle musket (500-800 meters) and the actual battlefield range (100-200 meters).  Thoughts anyone?

Mark

P.S.  I heartily reccommend Earl J. Hess's recent book "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat" for anyone interested in this question



 Posted: Wed Apr 15th, 2009 03:55 am
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19bama46
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I suspect it depends to a degree on the battlefield... Shiloh, Chicamauga, The Wilderness, you may be right. Those fields are/were limited due to terrain, forest conditions, underbrush, etc. At the same time, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg all offered open vistas and the need for long range shooting...
Sorta like deer huntin.. you need a brush gun i.e. .30-30 in some places and a flat shootin reach out and touch 'em gun ... i.e. .270, etc in others...



 Posted: Wed Apr 15th, 2009 05:44 pm
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Henry
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To place the combat conditions you describe in another context, for a later war- The Norden bombsight was touted as being "Able to place a bomb in a Pickle-Barrel". This accolade was negated under the reality of conditions at target approach. Flack, fighters whipping past with guns blazing, the pilot veering to avoid collision with another of the formation who had sustained damage. Applied to the riflemen of the War of the Rebellion(Mr. Lincolns War) the same stresses hold true. Conditions dictate results. One factor unmentioned sofar is atmospheric conditions. Humidity altered the performance of the cartridges of the day if not protected from same. Some tallow covered cartridges were found here in town during a road widening excavation. The projectile was launched clean when check fired, 138 years later.



 Posted: Fri Apr 17th, 2009 03:15 am
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Mark
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Bama, I'm not sure that that simply having more open terrain automatically leads to firing at longer ranges. Remember that the idea of tactics was to engage the enemy with such devastating initial volley that you break their will to stay in the fight. I think that units would not have been able to score enough hits to achieve this psychological volley beyond about 200 yards. That's why even on relatively open battlefields like those you mentioned, firefights still seem to have still taken place between 50-200 yards.



 Posted: Fri Apr 17th, 2009 03:19 am
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19bama46
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Mark wrote: Bama, I'm not sure that that simply having more open terrain automatically leads to firing at longer ranges. Remember that the idea of tactics was to engage the enemy with such devastating initial volley that you break their will to stay in the fight. I think that units would not have been able to score enough hits to achieve this psychological volley beyond about 200 yards. That's why even on relatively open battlefields like those you mentioned, firefights still seem to have still taken place between 50-200 yards.

Agreed, but on battlefields that do not offer open spaces, the fight is much much closer...Chickamauga  comes immediately to mind... that was a fight directed by company grade officers and noncoms because field grade officers could not grasp any big picture due to heavy forests...

You may fight close on an open field, but you MUST fight close on a limited vista field

Last edited on Fri Apr 17th, 2009 03:19 am by 19bama46



 Posted: Sat Apr 18th, 2009 11:45 pm
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CleburneFan
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My thoughts are that hardly any battlefield situations would be ideal. The trouble with technology, if it is tested under ideal conditions and standards are set based on that, there are bound to be disappointments when actual conditions of use are put to the test.

There was a fascinating show on the Military Channel last week that tested the actual range and speed of reloading and firing frequency per minute of Union Soldiers facing Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. 

Theoretcially many, many more Confederate soldiers should have died given the rated capacity of Union infantry weapons, even Union artillery. Using Civil War reenactors who employed weapons and ammo as close to that of the Union soldiers in simulated battle conditions at Gettysburg, the investigators showed that in spite of how many targets should have been hit, far fewer than expected were. The result appeared to give the reenactors quite a surprise.

Of course, other reasons for the discrepancy in expected casualties and actual casualities included  factors such as the difficulty Confederates faced crossing the rail fence and the possibility that some did not cross it, but laid down behind it and never even made the charge beyond the fence.



 Posted: Sun Apr 19th, 2009 01:27 am
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ole
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Going with Bama here. The range of the rifled musket had some effect, but not so much as has been proposed. There were few battlefieds and fewer riflemen who even thought to shoot more than 100 yards. Stand under the goalposts at one end of a football field. Look at someone standing under the goalposts at the other end. Can you see the color of his eyes? His hair? How many buttons are on his blouse?

A few out of a thousand can. The rest of us just point in that general direction and shoot something.

All of which tends to diminish the arguement that the rifled musket changed conditions all that much. Although it is true that the minie could travel f ather and faster than the smoothbore ball, accuracy was not that common. Load shoot; load shoot. Don't see much time or ability to actually take a calm shot in there.

Where the rifled musket made a real difference is against artillery. When you were looking at a battery, you called up your best shots who would shoot the horses first and then the guys who were manning the guns. So you have four or five guys out of a regiment who can hit something intentionally. And meaningfully. This "All country boys can shoot" is a myth. Many could. Many could not.

Give me ten minutes and I can nail that nickle at 50 yards. But this is without people shooting at me. It takes some time to adjust the bench to my liking.

But it still comes back to the idea that aimed fire and the rifled musket make a big difference. I'll give you some, but not big.

Ole



 Posted: Sun Apr 19th, 2009 12:09 pm
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Johan Steele
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On the impact of the rifled musket on any combat... I admit to being on the fence. I'm a shooter, arguably a pretty good one, and I will simply say that rifling makes hitting a target easier. Whether that target is at 300 yards or 20.

IMO the biggest reason there were not far more casalties in the ACW is two fold. Poor or no accuracy training for the average soldier. And a moral and very religious bent to so many Americans... it is not an easy thing to kill a man. And many a man refused to do so... which w/ a rifled weapon is easily done.

Keep in mind in WW2 that the US soldier was pretty decently trained in hitting his target... and there was far more ammunition expended per enemy hit than in the ACW. The same was true in both Korea and Vietnam.



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