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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Adoption of Muzzle- vs. Breech-Loading Rifles During the Civil War

Today we have a guest post by author Dr. William G. Browning. He recently published a Kindle novel titled Dakota Quest, about two teenagers’ experience with the Deadwood gold rush that began in 1875-76. Dr. Browning was invited to contribute the article below because of his interest in the Civil War. You can learn more about him and his work at his website.

The impetus for this article was my curiosity about why neither side during the Civil War chose to place heavier emphasis on breech-loading rifles instead of muzzle loaders.

Being an amateur rather than professional historian, I relied mainly on secondary online resources for this article. Due to the limited length of this piece, links to several online references are included for those who would like to explore the topic further. Below are a few of my conclusions. I focus on the Union side because their industrial advantage made the mass production of breech loaders more practical.

The use of muzzle loaders certainly was not due to a lack of breech-loader designs, both single-shot and repeater. But breech-loading rifles were the exception rather than the rule.

The Hare and the Tortoise: Not Always to the Swift
On the face of it, one might assume breech-loading rifles would be preferred over muzzle loaders because of their rapid fire. Surely, a soldier who could fire 15 or so shots per minute instead of two or three would have an advantage.

However, some practical considerations work against this assumption. Emory Hackman, in his excellent discussion of the popular Spencer repeating rifle, mentions three drawbacks to rapid-fire weapons in the Civil War. First, the Army felt they did not have the wagons needed to carry the vast quantities of ammunition needed to feed those rifles. Secondly, once in battle the ammunition was quickly used up, putting the soldiers using those weapons out of action. A third issue had to do with the black powder used at that time. According to Hackman, “In anything less then a strong wind, a line of soldiers shooting Spencers very quickly couldn't see what they were shooting at.” It makes sense, then, that rifles like the Spencer were used largely by the cavalry, where the drawbacks mentioned were not a factor.

Supply-Side Economics

I am indebted to Sean for learning another reason favoring the use of muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets by the Union early in the war. He pointed out, “One factor in muzzle-loading smoothbore firearms being adopted was that there were a lot sitting in armories in 1861. Some were flintlocks and had to be adapted to take percussion caps.” He mentioned that Eugene Fitch Ware of the First Iowa described how his regiment was issued smoothbore flintlock-to-percussion conversions.

Ironically, in his excellent masters thesis titled US Army Rifle and Carbine Adoption between 1865 and 1900 (Google the title for the pdf), John C. Davis states that a similar economic reason led to adopting the single-shot Springfield after the war: “The large number of serviceable Springfield rifled muskets on hand and a period of shrinking budgets in the immediate post-Civil war era, as well as the great expense of the war itself, played roles in the decision to adopt the breech-loading Springfield variants.”

The Mighty Minie Ball
It can be argued that where the Civil War is concerned, the minie ball was a much more important innovation than breech-loading rifles. Although breech-loaders were a technological marvel of the period, the little minie ball had a much greater impact on the fighting. It was deadly at half a mile, if one could hit at that range, and solved the problem of slow reloading due to fouling.

In conclusion, it might be tempting to assume that muzzle loaders were preferred over breech loaders because of resistance to change or bureaucratic incompetence, but such an assumption is most likely an oversimplification of the facts.

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