The rifle controversy

by Fred Ray on June 3, 2008 · 1 comment

Thanks to James’s post I have just preordered a copy of Earl Hess’s upcoming The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth at a substantial discount.

Hess’s book is the latest salvo on a long-running controversy about the role of the rifle and about Civil War tactics in general. In 1987 Paddy Griffith, a British historian and instructor, published Battle Tactics of the Civil War, at least in part to refute earlier claims (i.e. those in Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage by Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson) that there had been a revolution in tactics in the Civil War because of the introduction of the rifle, and that one reason for the heavy casualties had been that the commanders of the day had not understood its greater killing potential, particularly its increased range.

Griffith made three interrelated claims in his book:

1) While the rifle did have a greatly increased range, this advantage was for several reasons more theoretical than real, and that in fact the engagement ranges in Civil War battles differed little from those of the Napoleonic era. Casualties in the ACW were comparable to those in European battles during the period 1800-1859.

2) Given the above, Napoleonic warfare was still possible. Tactically there was no revolution.

3) The American Civil War was not the first modern war, as is often asserted, but the last Napoleonic war (or at least it should have been). The first modern war was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Here’s what the book’s promo says:

The Civil War’s single-shot, muzzle-loading musket revolutionized warfare–or so we’ve been told for years. Noted historian Earl J. Hess forcefully challenges that claim, offering a new, clear-eyed, and convincing assessment of the rifle musket’s actual performance on the battlefield and its impact on the course of the Civil War.

Many contemporaries were impressed with the new weapon’s increased range of 500 yards, compared to the smoothbore musket’s range of 100 yards, and assumed that the rifle was a major factor in prolonging the Civil War. Historians have also assumed that the weapon dramatically increased casualty rates, made decisive victories rare, and relegated cavalry and artillery to far lesser roles than they played in smoothbore battles.

Hess presents a completely new assessment of the rifle musket, contending that its impact was much more limited than previously supposed and was confined primarily to marginal operations such as skirmishing and sniping. He argues further that its potential to alter battle line operations was virtually nullified by inadequate training, soldiers’ preference for short-range firing, and the difficulty of seeing the enemy at a distance. He notes that bullets fired from the new musket followed a parabolic trajectory unlike those fired from smoothbores; at mid-range, those rifle balls flew well above the enemy, creating two killing zones between which troops could operate untouched. He also presents the most complete discussion to date of the development of skirmishing and sniping in the Civil War.

Drawing upon the observations and reflections of the soldiers themselves, Hess offers the most compelling argument yet made regarding the actual use of the rifle musket and its influence on Civil War combat. Engagingly written and meticulously researched, his book will be of special interest to Civil War scholars, buffs, re-enactors, and gun enthusiasts alike.

Naturally, having written a book touching on these subjects myself, I will be waiting to see it, especially the sections on sniping and skirmishing. However, in the next few months I will be taking a look at some of these issues here, and we’ll see how my observations compare with Hess’s. So far I’ve already mentioned the “parabolic” trajectory of the rifle as compared to the smoothbore, caused by its lower muzzle velocity, and made some posts on training issues as well.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Akeela April 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm

The effective range of a smoothbore musket (firing buck and ball) is 200 yards ā€” scoring 98% hits on a U.S. army target.
Rounds are supersonic and arrive on target before the shot is heard.
Balls stay in an eye level to ankle danger zone the whole 200 yards.

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