- The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
It is commonly believed that the introduction of the rifled musket on a mass scale revolutionized warfare during the American Civil War but that the generals failed to appreciate its real impact and blindly continued to employ outmoded tactics, until 1864 when losses drove both armies to dig in and fight from entrenchments. Earl Hess challenges this conclusion, arguing that many of the assumptions about the rifled musket's impact on the war either do not hold up under careful study or are exaggerated. His evidence is impressive and persuasive.
Hess builds the context of his case with a brief but adequate survey of the history of the smoothbore and rifled musket heritage before the Civil War. This is followed by a review of both the U.S. and C.S. governments' efforts to equip their soldiers with rifled muskets and an examination of the gun culture of Civil War soldiers. The heart of the book is the study of the rifled musket in battle, which includes chapters on skirmishing and sharpshooting/sniping. [End Page 230] By analyzing data about numerous battles from a variety of contemporary sources Hess draws some interesting conclusions. Most infantry combat with rifled muskets took place at relatively short range, an average of just under 100 yards. That combat did not regularly occur beyond this range had to do with terrain but more with the problems inherent with the parabolic trajectory of the minie ball. To fire at a target, say 300 yards away, the individual soldier had to set the sight on his rifle for the range before firing. Because of the slow trajectory of the bullet, it traveled in an arc to reach its target at longer ranges. For over the third of the distance a bullet fired at a target at this range traveled above the height of an average man, which meant that anyone advancing in this particular zone was safe. Since soldiers did very little target practice and the process of hitting targets at longer ranges was complicated for combat conditions, most infantry officers did not let their men begin firing until the enemy was within the same range of a smoothbore musket, which was effective.
Since combat generally took place within the effective range of smoothbores, Hess argues that the linear tactics developed for smoothbore weapons remained relevant and effective and were used successfully on numerous battlefields. It is difficult to disagree with this conclusion since the rate of fire of the rifled musket was no greater than that of the smoothbore, and there had been no improvements in command and control at the tactical level. Command still consisted of voice or hand signals.
But eventually both armies began to dig in regularly and the standard explanation for this is the lethality of the rifled musket forced men to burrow to reduce casualties. Hess disputes this and contends that what drove the trench combat which characterized the Atlanta Campaign and Overland Campaign of 1864 was the daily close proximity of the two armies. With constant contact the possibility of enemy attack was ever present, which created the need to fortify lines to defend against it, and that even had the armies been armed with smoothbores they would have done so.
To support his case that rifle muskets did not render combat more deadly, Hess draws a comparison between the Civil War's major battles and sixteen major battles fought with smoothbores in Europe from 1704 to 1815. The battles fought with smoothbores were far bloodier.
Hess has not written the last word on the rifled musket and its influence on the Civil War, but he has produced an important, well-documented book that provides the first systematic study of the rifle's true impact on the battlefield. [End Page 231]