Lincoln at Fort Stevens—Could A Rifle Have Hit Him?

British shooter Michael Yardley participated in a Discovery Channel special for their Unsolved History series,The Plots to Kill Lincoln.” One of these plots was the shot taken at him by a Confederate sharpshooter at Fort Stevens on July 11 or 12, 1864 during Jubal Early’s raid.

The question was if it was realistic to conclude that the shot was deliberate and of so were the rifles of the time really accurate enough to have hit him other than by blind luck?

The range in question here? Well no-one seems quite clear, but the producer – bless him – decided on half a mile. Of course, I accepted this modest 800 yard challenge immediately and then worried about how to accomplish it (while thinking of how distant a deer appears at 300 paces through a modern scope).

Of course this is open to question (the Confederates at one point got to within 50 yards of the fort, but had fallen back to about 3-500 yards. No one really knows how far away they were or what kind of rifle was used to make the shot. Nevertheless the producers settled on a Whitworth.

There were two replica Whitworths in .451 (one a Parker Hale, the other from Navy Arms), both equipped with the famous mechanical rifling system – where the large hexagonal bullet is a machine fit in the bore. [You can get Henry rifled ‘Whitworth’ replicas today as well, but we opted for authenticity.] As well as hexagonal bullet guns, there was a more conventional .577 Enfield of long pattern as a back-up, and the choice of two period optical sights.

Both of the telescopes were quickly abandoned as impractical for long range shooting. One was side mounted, and almost impossible to use without a dreadful contortion, the other was incapable of being elevated sufficiently for a 400 yard shot, let alone one at double that range. Happily, the two Volunteers appeared serviceable.  I opted for the Parker Hale in spite of my previous experience. It belonged to someone at the US National Firearms Museum (located at the NRA headquarters in Fairfax Virginia).

As Yardley notes, there were problems with the rifles, which can be rather fussy. I own one myself now (it has the conventional Henry rifling and not the hex bore) and have had some of the same problems. As it happens I was there on site as an unpaid consultant, and at the time had very limited experience with black powder shooting. If it had happened now (and I had my kit) I’m pretty sure I could have gotten both rifles running again. It was also extremely cold and there was a 10-15 knot crosswind, which complicated matters, especially at longer ranges.

All the while there were some fit young Englishmen watching us with interest with some US companions. I never did find out who they were, but noted that the range was frequented by SEAL units (and owned by ex-SEALs).

He is correct about that. I talked a bit with some of them, who were quite friendly. Yes, they were SBS (Special Boat Service, a spec-ops branch of the Royal Marines, roughly equivalent of the US SEALs.)

In spite of the mechanical problems Yardley did manage some impressive hits on a man-sized target at 800 yards, which were a tribute to the accuracy of the rifles and—especially given the conditions and his lack of familiarity with the rifle and black powder shooting—his shooting ability. I left convinced that shots at that distance definitely were possible, even with iron sights. So Abe was indeed lucky to escape unharmed. Still, it was not definitive.

By that time, however, we were out of time and more importantly, light. Yardley continued his quest a few days later in western Pennsylvania and had better luck with the equipment, having found a black powder armorer.

I estimated that the vertical aim off was something in the region of 70 feet at the range. The wind was blowing from behind which was lucky. I squeezed off a shot. The gods were with us. The first shot hit the black silhouette target, a little low and right, but on target.  It could be done, more to the point, I could do it. It was all caught on camera too. I managed to 4 more shots on target out of 5 fired in total. In otherwords, five out of six were on the money which wasn’t bad considering my lack of familiarity with the gun. Feeling cocky, I had a bash at 1000 yards. The shot fell 12″ low but perfectly in line with the target centre (in this case a steel plate). So, if I can do it consistently, I have little doubt that a civil war sniper, a man who lived with his rifle, could as well. I was so impressed with the rifle that I have decided to buy another and learn to shoot it properly.


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