Where Did Those Rifles Go?

by Fred Ray on June 20, 2006 · 0 comments

In my last post I looked at English match rifles, and of course this invites a comparison with the much heavier American target rifles and raises the question of why the Federals never made use of these high tech weapons. I’ll defer that one for later. Instead, I want to look at where those long range English rifles went, and who used them.

How many Whitworths came into the Confederacy? No one really knows, but after consulting with authorities like W. S. Curtis, an educated guess would be about 250. According to firearms expert Bill Adams, Major Edward Anderson, then a Confederate agent in England, bought the first two Whitworth rifles after a tour of the factory in early July, 1861.

When did they come into the Confederacy, and where did they go?

Although they appear on blockade runner manifests as early as December 1862, the first references to field use are in 1863, when Colonel Josiah Gorgas dispatched “20 Whitworth (Telescopic) Rifles” to the Army of Tennessee (then in Tullahoma) on May 29th. “These arms are reported to be very effective at 1200 yards,” wrote the Confederate ordnance chief. “I have the honor to request that they may be placed in the hands of careful and reliable men only as they are very costly, so costly indeed that it is not deemed expedient to increase the number already brought in. Ammunition and a copy of the instructions will accompany the arms.” Eighteen went to Charleston in July of 1863, where they figured prominently in the defense of Fort Wagner, and although no written record remains it is a reasonable assumption that an equivalent number went to the Army of Northern Virginia. Ben Powell, a sharpshooter in McGowan’s brigade, stated in a postwar letter that he received his Whitworth just prior to the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1864). Major General Patrick Cleburne, a division commander in the Army of Tennessee, wrote of his retreat from Wartrace, Tennessee, in late June of 1863: “I had no ammunition to spare, and did not reply to the continual fire of the enemy except with five Whitworth rifles, which appeared to do good service. Mounted men were struck at distances ranging from 700 to 1,300 yards.”

As for numbers, the Army of Tennessee reported on June 24th, 1864, that 32 of them were on hand, along with 3,400 rounds of ammunition. No such records have yet been found for the Army of Northern Virginia, but based on the distribution of 1-2 rifles per sharpshooter battalion the number of Whitworths was probably between 36 and 75. In truth, there was no need for large numbers of these expensive weapons, just as there is no need for large numbers of specialized sniper rifles in today’s armies. The two-band Enfield was quite adequate for most combat ranges in the Eastern theater, which is to say up to 5-600 yards.

“Whitworth” may also have been used in a generic sense. In my last post I mentioned that several English gunmakers (Turner, Kerr, Bissel, Bisley, et. al.) manufactured Whitworths under license and also built rifles with both their own rifling and with Whitworth’s hex-bore barrels. It’s very doubtful that anyone in this country would have known that these were not “real” Whitworths. Contemporary references to these rifles are also maddeningly vague: “small bore rifle”, “globe-sighted rifle”, and similar terms. I have a copy of a receipt for a “sporting rifle” that went to Battle’s Alabama brigade in 1864. Probably it was some sort of match rifle, but it is impossible to identify further.

The best-known group of match rifles were the eleven Kerrs given to the Kentucky brigade of the Army of Tennessee by “an English admirer.” The Kerr featured a patented 6-groove “ratchet” rifling and fired a .446 caliber lead bullet that did not have quite the same carrying power at long ranges as the Whitworth. However, since few spent Kerr bullets have been found even in areas where they are known to have been used, this has led to speculation that they mostly fired Whitworth bullets. The hexagonal bullet would not fit, of course, but every Whitworth came with a bullet mold to cast a cylindrical lead bullet that then “upset” when fired and conformed to the bore (the rear blade sight was calibrated for both types of bullets, which had different flight characteristics). These are far more commonly found on the battlefield than the hard metal hex rounds. Since the bullet would have fit the slightly smaller Kerr bore, it is quite likely that they fired the cylindrical Whitworth bullets also, which probably also provided better long-range performance.

Thus, although the number of long-range rifles used by the Confederates were few, their performance repaid their high cost many times over. Why, then, didn’t the Federals use them, since they were readily available and were superior in many ways to domestic rifles, especially for military use? One of the major reasons was the conservative, penny-pinching nature of the US War Department and Ordnance Bureau. American-made rifles were much less expensive and in many cases soldiers were required to furnish their own. In this as in so many areas, the Confederates had to innovate, the Union did not.

Thanks to Bill Adams and W. S. Curtis for provding much of this information.

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