Finding the Range

by Fred Ray on August 25, 2006 · 0 comments

Range estimation was a critical skill for the Civil War sharpshooter. The low muzzle velocity of black powder rifles (less than half of what is common today) meant that the bullet traveled in a high arc rather than on a flat trajectory. One manual of the day warned that if a riflemen fired an Enfield at a target at 570 yards with the sight set at 600, “the bullet will strike 2.38 feet above it; if at an object 630 yards distant with same elevation, the bullet will strike 2.54 feet below. Thus, at 600 yards range an error in distance ever so slight, over 30 yards, would cause a ball shot at the waist-band to pass over the head or under the feet as the error was over or under.”

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One early gadget developed to estimate the distance to the target was the stadia, a small brass device with a central slide and two scales. To use it, the shooter framed the target in the stadia, slid the crossbar up until it touched the target’s feet, then read the range off the left scale for an infantryman and off the right for a horseman. It was based on the rather simple principle that objects appear smaller at a distance, and thus the range of a object of a known size can be calculated by comparing it to the perceived size. The stadia had a short cord that, when held taut (usually in the teeth), put it at the correct distance from the eye.

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The stadia, which dates back to at least the time of Napoleon, was not terribly accurate and its range figure can best be decribed as “ballpark.” I’ve never read an account of anyone actually using one during the war (if you have, please comment or drop me a line), but they did figure as marksmanship prizes in the prewar army. The best shot in the company got a brass one, the best shot in the regiment got a silver one (but had to turn in the brass one first!).

Most Civil War marksmen used the training system developed by the French (and which found its way into the American canon via Hardee and Heth), that emphasized teaching range estimation to soldiers. It used no mechanical devices; instead each soldier practiced individually in the field. The instructor would set up a course much like the one shown below (true to their origins, these men are uniformed as French Chasseurs). Targets would be set out at differing ranges, and the soldiers would then practice estimating how far away they were.

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Major William Dunlop conducted such a program “until every man could tell, almost to a mathematical certainty, the distance to any given point. . . . A few, however, were naturally and hopelessly deficient in their powers of estimating distance, and hence were exchanged for others.” This was done before anyone got to fire off any ammunition.

Here’s how it worked in practice:

Camp Pope Publishing

A cavalryman, J. W. Minnich, encountered one of Longstreet’s scouts, “a tall, bewhiskered Alabamian or Mississippian,” in a barn near Dandridge, Tennessee. The man said he was one of a group of twenty sharpshooters who worked directly for General Longstreet. His rifle was a Whitworth which, he said, cost the Confederacy over a thousand dollars. Minnich tagged along on a sniping expedition, and presently the two spied a cavalryman in the distance. Together they estimated the range at about eight hundred yards, which Minnich thought was too long a shot for his Enfield. The sharpshooter adjusted his sights, then “raised his rifle slowly and deliberately ‘off hand’ as if aiming for some inanimate target and pulled the trigger.” Minnich thought it was “one of the prettiest shots I have ever seen.” But the lucky horseman moved forward just as the bullet reached him, and the shot struck his mount’s rump. Both man and horse escaped without further injury, and Minnich and his new friend parted ways.

Even though the stadia is now a period curiosity, the principle lives on. I can remember seeing a telescope reticle on the 106mm Recoiless Rifle and in the Sheridan tank that used a variation of it to estimate range (though it was based on width, not height). Rifle scopes intended for sniping and hunting use a mil dot reticle system, which allows the shooter to estimate lead and windage as well . A former Marine has written a lengthy article about it if you’re interested in the specifics, but keep in mind that it’s exactly the same principle as the lowly stadia.

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