My article about Joseph Whitworth and his rifles is up on the Shock Troops web site. It originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times.

In 1854, at the request of the British Board of Ordnance, Whitworth turned his attention to firearms, specifically the Enfield P53 .577 caliber service rifle, which he found “wrong in every particular. The diameter of the bullet was too large for the size of the gun, the bullet itself was too short, and the twist of rifling was not one-third of what it should have been.”

Accordingly Whitworth began work on an improved rifle, his only restrictions being to keep the same weight as a service bullet—530 grains—and the standard 70 grain powder charge. His first step was to build an enclosed 16×20’gallery 500 yards long with a series of light paper screens to record the trajectory of the bullet. After much experimentation he reduced the caliber to .45, which allowed him to stretch the projectile to three times as long as its diameter. He also gave the bore an extremely fast twist—one turn in 20 inches as opposed to one in 78 inches for the Enfield. His rifle also featured an unorthodox bore configuration—a six-sided hexagonal spiral rather than the conventional arrangement of lands and grooves.

This also allowed Whitworth to use a bullet fitted to the bore rather than relying on the Minie principle, in which the base of a soft lead bullet expanded when fired to grip the rifling. As he put it: “It is perfectly easy to form a mechanically-fitting bullet adapted to the hexagonal rifling, on account of the simplicity of the form, but quite impracticable to obtain an accurate fit between the bullet and the bore of the rifle where any system of grooves is adopted.”

Since the bullet did not need to expand it could be made of a harder and denser material such as an alloy of tin and lead or even of steel, giving it markedly increased penetrative power. The hex-bore design also caused less friction, allowing a considerably higher muzzle velocity (13-1400 fps vs. 850-900 fps). He also discovered that a bullet’s long range performance could be improved by tapering the rear end, a feature later called the “boattail.”

Field trials in 1859 showed the Whitworth to be overwhelming superior to the Enfield, especially at long ranges. The Whitworth’s “figure of merit” (a measure of the average hit dispersion) was slightly better at 1400 yards than was the Enfield at 500. In penetration tests, the hard alloy bullet passed through 34 half-inch elm planks while the Enfield penetrated only 12. Nevertheless the ordnance board rejected his rifle on the dubious grounds that the .45 caliber bore was too small for military use (ironically, ten years later a similar board would conclude that this caliber was optimal for a service rifle). This ignited a long-running feud between Joseph Whitworth and the Ordnance boffins.




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Blackford at Yorktown

by Fred Ray on June 16, 2016 · 0 comments

Johnston’s army arrived on the Virginia Peninsula and established a line at the Warwick River to block McClellan’s advance. Blackford and his men scrambled to adjust to the novelty of a continuous contact with the Federals.

On April 22nd Blackford wrote his parents from “Curtain to Redoubt No. ‘4’ near Yorktown, Va.”, first apologizing for his irregular correspondence.

I have no baggage whatsoever, having but what little I had in my hand-trunk some three weeks ago, of course therefore I am on the [illegible] for paper & envelopes, as well as for many of the other little conveniences. But my chief reason for my apparent neglect, that is for not writing as often as when in winter quarters is that I am very seldom in one position long enough to write, or dry enough when there to be able to handle paper. Ever since leaving Winter Qrs. I have been incessantly active, scarcely ever sleeping two nights in the same place; I am obliged to devote what little leisure I have to sleep, which is of prime necessity with me.

Nor were things exactly quiet there.

Ever since we have been in this position now more than two weeks the enemy has been throwing shell among us from his gunboats and from some land batteries, besides this his sharp shooters have annoyed us very much from a neighboring orchard. This latter became intolerable and one night about 10 days ago two regiments sallied out and drove the enemy from their position, and cut down the trees, returning with no loss and many blankets, haversacks, canteens &c. which the Yankees threw away in their flight. The next day t’was found that cutting the trees afforded them even better cover than before and the annoyance continued thro’ the day. The 24th Va. was therefore ordered to cut the trees to pieces the next night, which they executed gallantly, driving the enemy’s pickets at a double quick but unfortunately they had a captain badly wounded who personally engaged two Yankees who were asleep in a rifle pit and were behind the rest, pretending to be Confederates one of them put his rifle against the Capt’s heart & fired, mortally wounding him. I witnessed this from my post on the parapet of No. 4, being at the time in command of a battalion of our Regt. then on duty there. Just before dark in the same evening a feint attack was made just on our left in plain view by two regts. and a battery, our men advanced behind a line of skirmishers, who cowed the Yankee pickets and occupied a position favorable for the artillery which opened on the enemy with vigor.

The huge shells from the Yankee gunboats were terrifying but fortunately that deadly. His men, he wrote,

…. will not keep away from the cooking fires, where they are getting their dinners, in spite of the bombs which burst every two or three minutes about our work. It has been several days since they have injured any one, tho’ the escapes are wonderful. Those shells which come very near us almost invariably fail to burst. The screaming of the shell sent from the heavy guns of the gunboats is awful, we commence hearing it at the distance of a mile & a half, and by the time it reaches us the noise is indescribable. We are now posted immediately in [the] rear of the field where Cornwallis surrendered, the monument in honor of that event is now in the ground in front of us between our lines & those of the enemy, but plainly in sight.

Their living conditions were harsh as well.

A very cold wind generally accompanied by rain has been blowing incessantly since we have been on this Peninsula, and as we have no tents and but little firewood, our men suffer very much but there are no complaints—or at least none are made by my men tho’ we have but two small spiders and one camp kettle to the whole company. There is a detail cooking from daybreak until late at night. Of course the bread is execrable—I had rather have a good meal of wholesome food served as a gentleman’s dinner should be than anything else which promotes comfort. I am however very well satisfied with my bread & salt pork, tho’ I pine for some coffee in the morning. I am thankful that it is not sea biscuits which are my particular abomination.

Little Mac, meanwhile, continued his buildup and began to deploy his heavy siege guns.

Camp Pope Publishing



Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

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Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

The Army Moves South

by Fred Ray June 9, 2016

After an uneventful winter on the Potomac front the Confederates abruptly pulled back to the line of the Rappahannock on March 9, which completely unhinged McClellan’s strategy of landing at Urbanna to outflank them. Blackford describes the move, which makes it clear that the Confederates had much to learn about moving an army. His company […]

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Blackford Takes a Look at His Superiors

by Fred Ray May 8, 2016

Blackford’s pithy observations were not limited to the generals. He also was not shy about criticizing his immediate superiors, such as the recently elected Colonel Jones (who was in fact 49 years old) or the other Colonel Jones of the 12th Alabama. This letter to his mother, written on February 20th, 1862, also details the […]

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Lincoln at Fort Stevens—Could A Rifle Have Hit Him?

by Fred Ray May 3, 2016

British shooter Michael Yardley participated in a Discovery Channel special for their Unsolved History series, “The Plots to Kill Lincoln.” One of these plots was the shot taken at him by a Confederate sharpshooter at Fort Stevens on July 11 or 12, 1864 during Jubal Early’s raid. The question was if it was realistic to […]

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Blackford Evaluates His Generals

by Fred Ray May 2, 2016

On December 7, 1861, Blackford wrote his father a rather pessimistic letter about the state of Confederate leadership. He is at his pithy best here when he evaluates his division commander, Earl Van Dorn. By the way our Maj. Gen. [Van Dorn] is a sad example of what effect too rapid a rise in the […]

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Harriet Tubman on the $20

by Fred Ray April 27, 2016

As you’ve probably heard, Harriet Tubman is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has led to a sort-of debate. I say sort-of, since the issue was decided by the Washington bureaucrats and not the people, whom no one thought to ask. Liberals have hailed the inclusion of a black woman, while […]

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