Some Targets Were Bigger Than Others

by Fred Ray on June 21, 2006 · 0 comments

“Marksmanship,” said one wag, “is the prerogative of the firing squad.” Meaning that if some poor sumbitch is tied to a stake, it’s easy to take careful aim and put the bullet where you want it. If he’s armed and shooting back at you, however, it tends to shake your aim. In the military, this is called the pucker factor. For this reason a lot of the accuracy data that we have, which is accumulated on a firing range and not in combat, has to be taken with a grain of salt. What the weapon is capable of under ideal conditions, and what you can make it do under the stress of combat, are two entirely different things.

We usually think of a sharpshooter trying to hit another solider, often at extended ranges. Regardless of whether of not you’re being shot at, this is hard to do. It’s hard to even identify someone at 800-1000 yards, especially if they are behind cover. However, at least in the early stages of the war, many larger targets were available. A man on horseback, for instance, is much easier to hit, even at long range, and hard to conceal. Same with a column of infantry. Fire into an approaching column of fours, for instance, and your chances of hitting someone are very good even if you don’t take careful aim.

I found this photo of another common target, the artillery battery. This US 6-gun battery (a Confederate battery had 4 guns and was correspondingly smaller), is deployed by the book at regulation intervals. As you can see it takes up a lot of ground, and there are a lot of men and horses there. It makes a fine target, and even at a thousand yards you could still lay your rifle on the center of mass and have a good chance of hitting something. At closer ranges, if you had an Enfield and some marksmanship training, you could do some real damage, and it would have a far greater effect on the course of a battle than shooting individual infantrymen. Even if you didn’t hit anything, you and your mates might put enough lead in amongst them to make them decide to limber up and go elsewhere. Remember we are not talking about individual snipers here, but rather about groups of sharpshooters. Shooting the horses also immobilized the battery, making them prime targets. Had this battery been in combat, most likely the horses and limbers would have been withdrawn behind the hill.

Artilleryman Robert Stiles, in Four Years Under Marse Robert, left a vivid description of what it was like to be under that kind of fire:

As to musketry fire, I remember counting ninety odd bullet holes through a “dog tent,” which was stretched immediately back of [Captain Morgan] Calloway’s guns, and he walked backward and forward between this tent and his pieces during the great attack. Though he did not leave the field, he was wounded in several places, and his clothes looked as if he had been drawn through a briar patch. His field glasses were smashed by a bullet and the guard of his revolver shot away. It is fair to say the same ball may have made two holes through Calloway’s little tent; but on the other hand, many balls may have passed through the same hole.

When we left Cold Harbor all our bronze guns looked is if they had had smallpox, from the striking and splaying of leaden balls against them. Even the narrow lips of the pieces, about their muzzles, were indented in this way. One of the guns, I think of Manly’s battery, was actually cut down by musketry fire, every spoke of both wheels being cut. Indeed, I had an extra wheel brought and substituted for that which first became useless, and this also shared the same fate. It is my desire and purpose to speak accurately, and therefore I take occasion to say that I do not intend to imply that all the spokes were completely severed and cut in two separate parts. Some of them were and others were not, but these latter were so frayed and splintered that the wheel would not stand straight and could no longer be used as a wheel. Much of the other wood work of this and other guns was badly split and splintered by musket balls, and some of the lighter iron parts and attachments were shot away.

The particular gun referred to was finally rendered absolutely useless for the rest of the fight. The men had worked it, for the most part, upon their hands and knees. How many of them were killed and wounded I do not recall; but one lieutenant was killed and one wounded, while directing, if I remember rightly, the fire of this gun and the one next to it.

After the fight it was necessary for some purpose to tip this gun, when a quantity of lead, exactly how much I would not like to say, but I should think more than a handful, poured out of the muzzle upon the ground. The gun carriage, with two of its wheels, was carried into Richmond and hung up in the arsenal as an evidence of what musketry fire might be and do. Dr. Gaines, of Gaines’ Mill, whom I knew very well, had the other wheel carried to his house. I saw it there a few years later. The hub and tire had actually fallen apart.”

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