Strong right arm of the infantry.
Federal infantrymen were armed mainly with the Springfield rifle musket, Model 1861, or variants of this model, i.e., the Model 1863 or 1864 rifle musket. If you have a “Civil War musket” in your collection, it very probably is a “Springfield” of this model; if not, you probably have the Enfield musket, produced in England.
The Model 1861 Springfield rifle musket was the principal weapon of the Civil War. By the end of 1863, most Federal infantrymen were armed with this weapon. The Springfield was a percussion rifle 58½ inches long, muzzle-loading, caliber .58. The rifle barrel was 40 inches long; the pitch in the rifling was one turn in 6 feet; there were three grooves each three-tenths of an inch wide, .005 of an inch deep at the muzzle, increasing regularly in depth to .15 at the breech. This rifle, with its 18-inch socket bayonet, weighed 9.75 pounds. The ammunition used was a hollow-based cylindro-conical bullet of 500 grains; muzzle velocity was 950 foot seconds. This compares with 2,300 foot seconds for the famous 1903 Springfield, which would see so much use during World War I and later.
Including the bayonet, ramrod and other appendages, there were 84 pieces in the Model 1861 Springfield, which in 1861 cost $14.93 to manufacture. All the parts were interchangeable. From 1861 to 1865, the Springfield Armory produced 793,434 and private contractors produced 882,561 of these arms. In the 1863 and 1864 variations of the 1861 model slight improvements were made, but the Model 1861 rifle musket remained, practically unchanged, the basic infantry weapon of the war. One of the interesting changes was the abolition of band springs in 1863 and their reappearance in 1864. Men in the field found that the bands tended to “jump” loose without the band springs whenever their guns were fired.
It is interesting to note that, in addition to the American contractors, Model 1861 muskets were made by Manton in England and by firms in Germany. Several of the contract arms are extremely rare today, since certain contractors made only a few muskets.
While the Civil War musket as produced at Springfield or in the many contractors’ factories seems very old and quaintly ineffectual compared to such weapons as the Garand of today, the Boys in Blue and their adversaries were quite impressed by its appearance and performance. On November 23, 1862, a corporal in the 52nd Massachusetts Volunteers wrote: “Our guns were issued to us the other day, beautiful pieces; of the most improved pattern—the Springfield rifled musket….Mine is behind me now, dark black—walnut stock, well oiled, so that the beauty of the wood is brought out, hollowed at the base, and smoothly fitted with steel, to correspond exactly to the curve of the shoulder, against which I shall have to press it many and many a time. The spring of the lock, just stiff and just limber enough; the eagle and stamp of the Government pressed into the steel [lock] plate; barrel, long and glistening—bound into its bed by gleaming rings—long and straight and so bright that when I present arms, and bring it before my face, I can see the nose and spectacles and the heavy beard on lip and chin, which already the camp is beginning to develop. Then the bayonet, straight and tapering, dazzling under a sunray, grooved delicately—as if it were meant to illustrate problems in conic sections—smooth to the finger as a surface of glass, and coming to a point sharp as a needle.”
The farmer boy from Iowa and the Irish immigrant from Boston were equally proud of their Model 1861 Springfields, which by regulations were kept in excellent condition even after all other issue items had either been thrown away or had suffered from neglect. Veteran regiments were characterized by shot-rent colors and shining muskets, which were kept in excellent condition. This was also true of the equipment that was worn by the men. But all the nonessentials had been discarded shortly after a regiment entered combat.
Although the rifle musket was the main shoulder weapon of the war, many men realized its inherent inferiority to the repeating weapons. The rifle musket could be fired two or three times a minute, but breechloaders could be fired about 10 times a minute. To partially offset the slowness of fire of the muzzle-loader, two bullets were occasionally used at a time. With the ordinary service power charge these bullets would separate about 4 feet from each other at a range of 200 yards.
Moreover, in the excitement of battle, many men armed with the muzzle-loader forgot to put a fresh percussion cap on the nipple for each firing of their weapon. An examination of the 27,574 muskets picked up after Gettysburg showed that 24,000 were still loaded. Of these, 12,000 contained two loads each and 6,000 (over 20 percent) were charged with from three to 10 loads each. One musket had in it 23 loads, each charge being put down in regular order! In many muskets the ball had been inserted first and the powder afterward!
Despite its beautiful appearance, the Springfield was a menace to many men because it invariably was kept brightly polished, thus destroying all attempts of its owner to conceal his position. This was not true of many Enfields and even some breechloaders, which were either blued or browned. A Federal soldier after the war reported that “many ex-Rebel officers now bear witness to the fact that the movements of our Federal forces were often made known to them by the sheen from our burnished gun barrels.” The soldier cited specifically Fredericksburg, where the moon reflected on Federal muskets as Ambrose Burnside’s men moved into position; Second Bull Run, where the muskets glittered through the dust; and Petersburg, where the Confederates “were often made aware of our movements to the left by the light that played above the moving columns, when they could not see the troops at all.”
Even when blued or browned Enfield muskets were issued, regulation-conscious regimental commanders had their men use emery cloth until the barrels were “good and shiny.” As that Federal soldier put it: What better mark could possibly be desired than blue uniforms and burnished gun barrels?”
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.