A Rifleman’s War, Then and Now.

The question of just how much rifle practice the average Civil War soldier got has been the subject of much discussion, much of it speculative. I recently came across a Federal order on the subject issued by General Dan Sickles:

General Orders No. 7, Headquarters 3d Army Corps, March 9, 1863

The attention of Commanding Officers is directed to the authorized system of Target practice published by the War Department and adopted May 30th 1862 for the instruction of troops armed with the musket, rifle musket, rifle or carbine. Copies of this publication were furnished with the last supply of blanks from the Adjutant Generals office. If none be on hand, notice will be sent to the Inspector General of the Corps, who will furnish them. This system will be observed by the Infantry Regiments of this Corps in target practice. Prizes will be furnished by the Ordnance Department, Requisitions will be made for them by Regimental Commanders and Company Officers…

The publication referred to is undoubtedly the manual written by Captain Henry Heth, which was a virtual translation of a French manual, or an excerpt from it. Since Heth was now a Confederate general one wonders whether his name was left on it.

Fast forward to the present day, where once again rifle proficiency is an issue in Afghanistan, a subject I looked at previously. A recent article in American Rifleman, now available online, takes up the issue once more.

The American military usually does an adequate job of teaching marksmanship to large numbers of people. It does less well in teaching large numbers to fight with rifles. Consider no less an authority than Maj. Gen. Merritt Edson, USMC, a Distinguished Rifleman who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Guadalcanal. He later became executive director of NRA, and during the Korean War he said that the military could not be expected to teach lifesaving marksmanship skills to every soldier or Marine. His advice: If parents wanted their son to have the best chance to survive combat, see that he learns to shoot a rifle as a boy.

This pretty much tallies with Civil War experience—the best shots and the men who became sharpshooters were mostly those who already knew how to shoot then they got there. Along with so many other “mandatory” subjects a soldier has to master, marksmanship often takes a back seat, and then there is the whole issue of fieldcraft, which is harder to teach than marksmanship.

I have already mentioned Sgt. Alvin York, who was both a hunter and a local match shooter, but another example would be Herman Davis, an Arkansas boy who also became an unlikely hero in The Great War.

Davis was a scout and was required to go out in advance of his company. Many times, he encountered poison gas. On patrol in a valley near Verdun, his platoon came under fire from a German machine gun situated on a hill on Molleville Farm. Davis crawled within fifty yards of the gun and killed four enemy gunners. In other engagements, Davis was credited for killing fifteen enemy gunners in a machine gun nest and eleven enemy soldiers climbing out of a dugout. Another time, a group of enemy soldiers were trying to set up a machine gun in an area they thought was out of range of American troops. Davis shot and killed five of the enemy soldiers. He reportedly stated that 1,000 yards was “just good shootin’ distance.”

Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only the Medal of Honor, and got it only because someone else observed him in action. A modest man, he never spoke of his exploits and kept his medals in a tackle box. Born in rural Arkansas he grew up hunting and fishing, and had worked as a guide and commercial hunter.

That brings us back to teaching marksmanship. As a direct result of the experience of the Civil War, a group of Union veterans formed the National Rifle Association (modeled on the British organization of the same name) to promote rifle marksmanship. Their first president was Ambrose Burnside (who lamented that “Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manual of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broad side of a barn.”). Both US Grant and Philip Sheridan also served as presidents. As you can see, we still need rifle practice, but with the increased urbanization of the country and the decline of hunting this is harder and harder to do. The NRA, now best known for its defense of Second Amendment rights, ran a civilian marksmanship program until 1996, when it was curtailed. Members could buy surplus military weapons like the semi-auto M-1, but with the advent of fully automatic weapons this is less practical. Nevertheless, the Obama administration recently blocked the return shipment of several thousand M-1 Garands and M-1 Carbines from South Korea because of the fear they’d be used by criminals.

Also of interest is an article in Small Wars Journal about the use of the rifle in Afghanistan, where as I posted earlier the fights tend to be at extended ranges. So how much shooting do soldiers get before deploying?

In either case, near or far, we now must rely on our riflemen to do the work.  The trouble is they are not trained for it.  Employed as I am at the California Pre-mobilization Training Assistance Element on what is known as Team Rifle, I am one in a squad sized unit tasked with training California Guardsmen (and those of other States who come through here) in rifle marksmanship as well as the M9 pistol and the machineguns M2, M240B, M249 and Mk19.
We are most frequently given one day to present Preliminary Marksmanship Instruction (PMI) and 4 or 5 days on the ranges for all of these weapons – with 1 day on the rifle range.  According to 1st Army standards we are to – ideally – train a rifleman going to war with 58 rounds of ammunition – 18 to zero, 4 and 40 to qualify on the “Pop up Target Range”.

Let me say that again – 58 rounds.

This, unfortunately, is not so different than what a Civil War soldier might get, and much less than what a soldier in a Confederate sharpshooter battalion routinely shot.


2 responses to “A Rifleman’s War, Then and Now.”

  1. Craig Swain Avatar

    58 rounds? I’m sorry, but I must dispute that as incorrect. I have first hand knowledge of the process preparing troops for deployment. They will fire far, far more than 58 rounds on average. Likely ten times that number.

  2. Larry Freiheit Avatar
    Larry Freiheit

    Target practice in the modern (more or less) military is better than during the ACW. Of course target shooting versus shooting in a combat situation is usually very different. During my service we fired our M-14’s up to 500 yards and most in our platoon qualified. At ITR at Camp LeJeune, we fired our M-1’s in combat exercises like walking down a trail and firing from the hip but no scores were tallied.

    ACW soldiers had mainly OJT from what I’ve read and had more training on how to load versus marksmanship. It is still interesting to hear ACW historians talk of how dangerous it was to appear before the enemy at 200-300 yard ranges since the rifled (and rifle) musket was accurate at that range. That is true but more importantly is the shooter’s ability.

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