Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background, Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting (Joseph G. Bilby) : ACW

8/11/2001 • Civil War Guns, Civil War Weapons, Mag: America's Civil War Reviews

Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background, Tactical Use and Modern Collecting and Shooting, by Joseph G. Bilby, Combined Books, Inc., Conshohocken, Pa., $34.95.

This artfully crafted book was honored by the 1997 Small Press Book Awards as a runner-up in the history category. Civil War Firearms is a comprehensive and detailed study of the handguns and shoulder-fired weapons used by Union and Confederate soldiers throughout the war.

Joseph Bilby is a noted Civil War author and respected columnist for Civil War News. With precision and style, he describes the technical evolution and tactical employment of these deadly firearms, including fascinating coverage of surprising unconventional uses. Bilby’s expertise, research and anecdotal narrative style shine through as he covers everything from smoothbores, rifle-muskets and sharpshooters to breechloading carbines, handguns and repeaters.

Both sides armed themselves as best they could during the war, resulting in a wide variety of firearms appearing on every battlefield. Many weapons were provided through haphazard government contracts, while many others were privately purchased by soldiers and officers. With so many different American- and European-made firearms in service, the lack of uniformity for maintenance and resupply of ammunition was a nightmare for ordnance officers.

Most soldiers and officers knew or understood little about their firearms. Loading and massed-volley firing were normally the extent of their expertise. With few exceptions, there was no required marksmanship training for either army. And while tactics might not have changed much since the Napoleonic era, firearms and their employment had.

The infantrymen found that firing “buck-and-ball” loads, one round ball and three buckshot, greatly increased the destructive power of each cartridge. Confederate cavalrymen favored revolvers and shotguns for the close-quarters combat they preferred. Some snipers armed with the Whitworth rifle were so troublesome with their long-range fire that whole artillery batteries often concentrated their fire on the snipers to silence them.

Bilby presents the complete spectrum of firearms, including the best of Colt, Henry, Spencer, Sharps and Springfield arms, as well as such laughable and forgettable failures as Cosmopolitan, Starr, Joslyn, Gibbs and Gallager. He also provides a guide to collecting and safely firing relics and reproductions and a list of supply and information sources for Civil War shooters. Lavishly illustrated with period and modern photographs, this is a valuable, useful and entertaining history of our firearms heritage.

William D. Bushnell