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The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat

by Earl J. Hess, University Press of Kansas

Some debates within the Civil War community are more heated than others, including recent disagreements over the importance of the rifle-musket. Historians Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson have argued that the rifle had a tremendous impact on the war and the tactics used to fight it. Paddy Griffith, on the other hand, has theorized that the rifle had relatively little effect on the battlefield.

Earl J. Hess’ newest book is the equivalent of a biography of the rifle-musket, including its ancestors and descendants. He ably boils down the debate topic to an issue of range, raising two major arguments. First, although a rifle-musket could kill at long range, most Civil War battlefields were so cluttered that a soldier rarely could see beyond the effective range of a smoothbore—and even less often did a soldier engage enemies at those long distances. Second, when they could see the enemy at a distance, common soldiers didn’t have sufficient training to aim accurately. Thus Hess argues most fighting still took place over the same distances as with the smoothbore.

As a result, Hess argues that the rifle had little effect on main battle line fighting during the war. Analyzing numerous case studies, he asserts that the ranges of firing and casualty totals with the new rifle were basically the same as before with the smoothbore. The only appreciable effect the new weapon had, he argues, was on skirmishing and sniping, and he spends a chapter on each. But he goes on to reiterate that those advantages were not enough to make a major change in Civil War tactics as a whole.

Hess argues that the Civil War was the last antiquated conflict. The gun still had to be loaded one shot at a time through the muzzle, and thus did not affect timing to a great degree. The introduction of repeating rifles such as breechloaders and semiautomatic and automatic weapons changed the rate of fire, not the range of fire. The only major conflict fought with the rifle-musket was thus on the cusp of modernity; too few repeating weapons were put to use to make a major difference in the fighting. It was still a musket war, and it mattered little whether they were rifled or not.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.