By the time the smoke had cleared and the veterans headed back to their homes, the American Civil War had exacted a terrible human cost. In four long years of bloody fighting, half a million of the three million men and boys in blue and gray had been wounded in combat. Two hundred thousand others had been killed.
These staggering figures may be less surprising after considering all the macabrely ingenious killing machines taken onto Civil War battlefields–rifled cannon, multi-shot arms, crude machine guns, and repeaters, to name a few. But it was not these spectacular weapons that drew the most blood during the Civil War. Ninety percent of the soldiers killed on the fields of battle owed their fate to a deceptively simple hand-held gun and its companion projectile: the rifle-musket and the minié bullet.
The rifle-musket and minié bullet together changed the face of warfare forever. For the first time in history, infantrymen could aim their weapons at a target a fair distance away and actually have a chance of hitting it. The days of successful frontal assaults by infantry and cavalry were over; defenders armed with the new rifle-musket could fire from a safe place and knock down attacker after attacker before they got close enough to do damage.
All this is quite a bit of notoriety for a humble-looking firearm with few visible characteristics to distinguish it clearly from its 1850s predecessor. But in many ways the Civil War rifle-musket was a brand new weapon that boasted the best features of its predecessors. It also had a more reliable ignition system and, more important, it fired a greatly improved projectile, the minié bullet.
The lineage of the Civil War rifle-musket reaches back to early-17th-century France. About 1610, the muzzleloading, smoothbore flintlock musket was invented as an improvement on the matchlock musket, a similar firearm that depended on a lit match for ignition. As the name muzzleloading, smoothbore flintlock musket suggests, the gun was loaded (with loose gunpowder and a round ball) at the mouth of its barrel. The bore, or inside of the barrel, was smooth; unlike the later rifle-muskets, it contained no spiral rifling grooves to force the projectile to spin evenly and thus travel rapidly in a straight line like a spiraling football. The ignition system featured a hammer–called a cock–that held a small piece of flint. When the shooter pulled the trigger, the cock fell and scraped the flint against a rough piece of metal known as the frizzen pan cover. This showered sparks onto loose gunpowder in the frizzen pan, which then ignited the main powder charge inside the barrel, behind the projectile. The British army beat the French army to the punch and officially adopted the weapon in 1682. It eventually became the standard infantry firearm of Europe and America and remained so until the muzzleloading rifle-musket replaced it in the 1850s.
What made the smoothbore flintlock musket so dominant an infantry weapon for so long was that it was easy to load; an experienced soldier could load and fire up to four times a minute, a rapid rate of fire for the time. Since the gun’s barrel was not rifled–it had no grooves that a bullet needed to fit snugly against–the projectile could be cast slightly smaller than the bore diameter. That allowed the ball to fall to the bottom of the upturned barrel with little resistance. To load the weapon, a soldier pulled a paper cartridge containing both powder and ball from his cartridge box and tore off the powder end with his teeth. He primed the flintlock by pouring some of the loose gunpowder from the cartridge into the frizzen pan and closed the pan cover to keep the priming charge in place and dry. Next, he poured the remaining powder down the barrel and rammed the ball down on top of the powder with a metal ramrod. Finally, he stuffed the empty cartridge paper down the barrel to serve as a plug, a stopper strong enough to keep the ball from rolling out by the force of gravity, but weak enough not to obstruct the travel of a fired ball.
The ease of loading the smoothbore musket allowed soldiers to fire quickly, but the shots were not likely to hit their targets. Accuracy and range were not the weapon’s strengths. In fact, firing one of these guns would be similar to shooting a marble from a modern shotgun. The weapon did not even have a rear sight for precise aiming because aiming was a fruitless effort. The statistics boil down to this: at 40 yards, the flintlock smoothbore could usually hit a target measuring 1 square foot, but at 300 yards, only 1 shot in 20 would hit a target of 18 square feet. As Colonel George Hanger, a British officer who fought in the American Revolution, wrote in 1814:
A soldier’s musket if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many are), will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards, perhaps even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, providing his antagonist aims at him; and as for firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you might just as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting your object. I do maintain and will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier’s musket by the person who aimed at him.
The chance of firing a smoothbore musket and hitting something beyond rock-throwing range was slim, but there was an alternative weapon: the rifle. The venerable Kentucky flintlock rifle, for example, the weapon favored by frontiersmen and by sharpshooters in the American Revolution, was extremely accurate at long ranges. Common practice targets were the head of a tack at 20 yards, the head of a turkey at 100 yards, and the body of a turkey at 200 yards–challenging targets even for today’s sharpshooters with modern rifles and telescopic sights. At 400 yards, an American soldier with a Kentucky rifle could easily hit a target as large as a horse, a fact that made British cavalrymen very uneasy.
The problem with the rifle of the time was that loading it was a difficult and slow process. Because the ammunition had to fit inside the barrel tightly in order to fit in the spiral rifling grooves, soldiers had a tough job forcing it down from the muzzle, especially under combat conditions, when repeated firing quickly filled the grooves with the residue of burnt powder. Before long, the rifleman literally had to pound the tight-fitting bullet down the barrel. As a result, the rifle’s rate of fire was only one-third of the smoothbore’s, making the gun impractical for general military use. Soldiers were better off firing three or four shots a minute in the general direction of an approaching enemy unit than firing once a minute with pinpoint accuracy at individual targets.
What the infantryman needed was a firearm that combined the best of the smoothbore flintlock musket with that of the rifle–a gun that was easy to load and could hit a small target at 200 yards. That gun was the muzzleloading rifle-musket, and with it came the improved bullet that made it possible. Known to common soldiers as the minié ball (which they pronounced ‘minnie ball), the conical bullet could be loaded quickly and easily down a rifle’s muzzle and still fit the barrel’s rifling grooves tightly when fired. But before all this came to bear, inventors and sportsmen were working to perfect a new ignition system.
In 1807, the Reverend Alexander Forsyth, a Presbyterian minister from Belhelvie, Scotland, patented a new, more reliable ignition system than the flintlock system. Rather than have a shower of sparks ignite loose gunpowder, Forsyth employed a flat-nosed hammer to strike powdered fulminate of mercury, which detonated on contact, setting off the main charge of gunpowder inside the barrel. In 1814, Joshua Shaw of Philadelphia improved on Forsyth’s system by packing the fulminate inside a small iron cap and placing it on a hollow nipple fixed to the gun barrel, and in 1816, he replaced the iron with copper. The copper percussion cap was easy to use and virtually impervious to water and wind.
European and American armies embraced the new percussion, or caplock, system because of its reliability. The British army adopted it in 1834 after comparing the results of 6,000 test rounds fired from flintlock and percussion firearms. The flintlocks misfired 922 times (15 percent of the time), while only 36 (0.6 percent) of the percussion weapons misfired. The U.S. Army followed the British lead and adopted the percussion system in 1841. The following year, American armories began building smoothbore percussion muskets and converting older flintlocks to percussion weapons. Progress was slow, however, and the vast majority of American soldiers carried flintlocks in the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. Even 13 years later, at the beginning of the Civil War, Union and Confederate authorities issued smoothbore flintlock muskets to thousands of unlucky soldiers.
The percussion ignition system made infantry weapons fire more reliably, but there remained the challenge of coupling easy loading with long range and accuracy. And it was here that the minié bullet entered the scene. Developed over a generation, its final design was the fruit of independent work by men from Great Britain, France, and the United States.
Great Britain took the lead. As early as 1818, Captain John Norton of the British 34th Infantry began experimenting with bullet design. Norton shaped the nose of his new bullet like a cone with a rounded point and made its cylindrical base hollow. The hollow base was the bullet’s definitive feature. It allowed the bullet to be cast a bit narrower than the bore’s diameter to allow easy loading, since when the gun was fired, the pressure expanded the base to fit the barrel’s rifling grooves tightly. The inspiration for the bullet came to Norton while he was stationed in India and observed natives using blowpipes as weapons. He discovered that the base of the blowpipe arrow was made of elastic locus pith. When the natives blew, the pith expanded to form an airtight seal against the pipe’s inner walls. It seemed a small jump from there to making a bullet with a base that would expand from the pressure of firing.
In 1836, a London gunsmith named William Greener found a way to improve Norton’s design for expansion of the bullet base. He inserted into the hollow area a wooden plug that would push forward when the gun was fired and force the bullet’s base outward. The result was that the bullet fit more uniformly inside the barrel, producing more reliable and accurate fire.
Norton’s bullet with Greener’s refinement eventually came before the British army for approval for use in the field, but the army’s old-school officers rejected it. It was an overly conservative decision that squandered the opportunity to develop this innovative design into a truly remarkable weapon.
Several years after Norton had begun developing his hollow-base bullet, French weapons experts began working on a similar design. Eventually, three French army officers would share the credit for what would become the minié bullet: Captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne, Colonel Louis-Etienne de Thouvenin, and Captain Claude-Etienne Minié.
Delvigne led the way when he designed a muzzleloading rifle to fire a new type of bullet. In 1826, Delvigne built a unique rifle barrel with an independent gunpowder chamber at its breech. This chamber was separated from the rest of the barrel by a strong lip, beyond which the powder could pass, but not the bullet. In the earliest models, after the chamber was filled with gunpowder, Delvigne rammed a standard soft, round lead ball down the barrel and pounded it against the lip with the ramrod until it flattened just enough to grip the rifling grooves. He soon discovered, however, that the pounding disfigured the ball and greatly reduced its accuracy, so he designed an elongated, cylindrical bullet with a flat base that would expand more evenly under the ramrod blows. In 1840, Delvigne even received a patent for an explosive bullet of this general design. (Imagine pounding that down a rifle barrel!) In time, Delvigne’s design proved unsuitable for general military use; the powder chamber quickly became clogged, and the bullet still ended up too deformed for accurate flight.
In 1828, Thouvenin modified and improved upon Delvigne’s gun design. He replaced the lip and powder chamber inside the barrel with a hard metal post that screwed into the gun’s breech. After loading, the flat base of the elongated, cylindrical lead bullet rested upon the post in a position to be easily and uniformly forced into the rifling grooves when compressed by the ramrod. The Thouvenin design was a moderate improvement over Delvigne’s, and the French army selected it for trials in 1846. The gun and bullet combination was still not practical for widespread military use; the rifle breech was very difficult to clean, and the metal post was prone to breaking.
Delvigne’s developments inspired Minié, who had served with the French Chasseurs in several African campaigns, to do further work toward making an efficient, effective bullet. In 1849, he came up with one that more closely resembled Norton’s than Delvigne’s. Like Norton’s bullet, Minié’s had a hollow cylindrical base and a rounded conical nose. Minié also incorporated a plug in the bullet’s hollow base to assist expansion, just as Greener had done to Norton’s design. Instead of a wooden plug, however, Minié used an iron cup, which in effect served the same purpose as Thouvenin’s metal post. The explosion of the gunpowder would drive the iron cup forward and expand the bullet’s base to fit the rifling grooves snugly.
By this point in the story, it should not be surprising to learn that the French army never adopted the new bullet. It took the British army to use it in their new 1851 Enfield rifles, paying Minié 20,000 pounds for his patent. The army also had to pay Greener 1,000 pounds, after he won a patent infringement lawsuit over the bullet’s plug design. The bullet as it would be used by the soldiers in blue and gray was now virtually complete. It had also acquired the name that stuck among English-speaking troops–minnie ball, even though the captain’s French surname was properly pronounced min-YAY and his innovation was not a ball but a cone-shaped bullet.
In the early 1850s, James H. Burton, a master armorer at the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, gave the minié bullet the form it would take into the Civil War. By lengthening the bullet slightly and thinning the walls of its hollow base, Burton was able to dispense with the iron plug. The base of the improved bullet expanded just as well as Minié’s but was much easier and cheaper to mass-produce. By the mid-1850s, the fully evolved minié bullet made it possible to build an infantry weapon as easy to load as the old smoothbore musket but with the accuracy and range of a rifle. The term rifle-musket reflected the weapon’s lethal combination of attributes.
U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, adopted the rifle-musket and minié bullet for the U.S. Army in 1855. An improved version of the rifle-musket–the 1861 model built by the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts–became the principal infantry weapon of Northern soldiers in the Civil War.
Hundreds of thousands of Union troops carried the 1861 Springfield onto the battlefields of the Civil War, and untold numbers of Confederates captured the weapon and used it themselves. Between 1861 and 1865, the Springfield armory manufactured nearly 800,000 of the guns; private contractors built 880,000 more; and slightly modified 1863 and 1864 models accounted for an additional 500,000. That put the total number of minié-bullet-firing Springfield rifle-muskets at more than 2 million.
The Springfield rifle-musket was a .58-caliber percussion weapon that weighed nearly 10 pounds and cost about $15. It was 58 inches long with a 40-inch barrel, and came with an 18-inch bayonet. On the negative side, bullets exited the Springfield’s barrel at the relatively slow speed of only 950 feet per second (about the same as a modern .22-caliber rifle), but the gun’s deadly accuracy at long ranges outweighed that shortcoming. Armed with a Springfield, a competent shooter could hit a 27-inch bull’s-eye at 500 yards, the best performance to date for a standard-issue infantry weapon. A trained marksman could consistently hit a 4-inch target at 200 yards and a 6-by-6-foot target at 500 yards. At 1,000 yards, he could even hit an 8-by-8-foot target half of the time. That did not mean that the average Civil War soldier could hit anything at the more extreme distances, but improving the old smoothbore’s 75-yard range by 125 yards dramatically increased the effectiveness of even the most inept infantryman.
On the Confederate side, the Enfield rifle-musket was perhaps the most common of a wide assortment of firearms. It was widely considered to be the equal of the Springfield. The Confederacy purchased about 400,000 of these 1853 model .577-caliber weapons from private manufacturers in England. (The Union imported a similar number for its troops.)
Studies done by weapons analysts from the U.S. Department of Defense 100 years after the Civil War proved that the rifle-musket was three times more deadly than the most lethal infantry weapon to that point in history. Taking into account factors such as range, accuracy, rate of fire, and battlefield mobility, the researchers awarded the rifle-musket a lethality index of 154. Its next closest competitor was the smoothbore flintlock musket, with an index of 47. That was followed by the flintlock rifle, with an index of only 36.
The deadly effectiveness of the rifle-musket loaded with a minié bullet was largely to blame for the Civil War’s appalling casualty rates. During the nearly 10,500 skirmishes and battles of the war, more than 110,000 Union soldiers and 94,000 Confederates were killed, and an additional 275,000 and 194,000, respectively, were wounded. Rifle bullets, primarily the minié bullet, caused 90 percent of all these casualties. Artillery projectiles accounted for less than 9 percent, and swords and bayonets, less than 1 percent. Considering all this evidence, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the rifle-musket and minié bullet greatly affected the overall course of the Civil War and foreshadowed 20th-century warfare.
The rifle-musket and minié bullet revolutionized warfare by drastically altering the tactical balance between an attacking army and a defending one. Frontal assaults by infantry on a waiting enemy suddenly became suicidal. During the Napoleonic era, attacking infantry could safely approach to within 100 yards of an enemy line with little danger of being shot down. During the Civil War, however, because of the rifle-musket’s accuracy at long ranges, stationary defenders could load and fire quickly and hit their attackers. Since advancing infantrymen could not easily stop to take aim in return, their losses were much heavier than the defenders’.
The combination of the rifle-musket and minié bullet also made the bayonet nearly obsolete. In earlier years, the bayonet was often the most decisive infantry assault weapon, because the smoothbore flintlock musket’s short range allowed attackers to approach close enough for hand-to-hand fighting. In the Civil War, however, firepower almost always decided an assault’s outcome before charging troops came within stabbing distance. In fact, very few Civil War surgeons reported bayonet wounds. During Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the summer of 1864, for example, Union medical directors recorded only 37 bayonet wounds. Of the several hundred thousand wounded men treated in Union hospitals over the course of the war, surgeons noted only 922 bayonet wounds!
As they had done to the bayonet, the rifle-musket and minié bullet also reduced the effectiveness of field artillery. In the early 1800s, Napoleon often placed the artillery forward in his battle lines, even during advances, to provide direct fire in support of the infantry. During the Civil War, however, it was too easy to shoot down an exposed cannon crew operating in the front lines. The artillery was forced to seek protection in the rear, a position from which it was more difficult to hit enemy targets without endangering friendly troops in the front.
The cavalry was similarly ousted from its former role by the rifle-musket and minié ball. Napoleon often used his cavalry as a surprise offensive weapon, sending his horsemen on charges to trample infantrymen armed with smoothbore flintlock muskets. But the Civil War soldier armed with a rifle-musket and minié bullets could hit a man at 100 to 200 yards; a horse and rider made an even more inviting target. Consequently, the colorful cavalry charges of the Napoleonic era became all but obsolete. In fact, as the war continued, more and more cavalrymen fought as mounted infantry, using their horses for mobility and then dismounting to fight on foot. In effect, they became the forebears of today’s mechanized infantry.
Unfortunately, it took most Civil War generals too long to realize that some critical tactics they had learned at West Point or from military manuals were obsolete, particularly the frontal assault. Generals on both sides continued to send their men on these suicidal attacks. In Pickett’s Charge alone, almost 6,000 Rebels were killed or wounded as they advanced uphill over a mile of open ground toward entrenched Union positions at Gettysburg. The equations and formulas of warfare had been changed completely, mostly by a simple firearm and bullet: the rifle-musket and minié ball.
This article was written by Allan W. Howey and originally published in the October 1999 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.
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