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The Myth about The Rifle Musket

  • Mike Parsons
  • 2015/05/21
  • Military History
  • published

The progress of firearms during the 19th Century has been long understood and accepted. The short ranged, inaccurate, smooth bored musket gave way, first to the rifle musket then the breech-loader, before reaching the pinnacle of the magazine bolt actioned rifles, such as the Short Magazine Lee Enfield. This continuous development of range and accuracy forced the parallel development of field fortifications resulting in the 'hell on earth' of the trench warfare in 1914-18. A seminal example of this development was the American Civil War, troops fighting with rifled weapons capable of ranges of over 1000 yards using Napoleonic tactics, more suited to the short ranges of the 18th Century, which lead inevitably to massive casualties of Pickett's Charge and the like. In a direct response to these losses, armies developed the field fortifications of the later war, cumulating in the siege of Petersburg. This article will discuss an alternative view first offered by Paddy Griffith in 1986, developed by Brent Nosworthy and a current assessment of this view point provided by Earl J. Hess.

The firearm used by most combatants in the American Civil war differed from the weapons used in the Napoleonic wars in two major areas. Firstly the percussion cap had improved reliability, by removing the need to prime the weapon with gunpowder the weapon was now better able to withstand bad weather, while at the same time simplifying the loading procedure. The second improvement was the widespread introduction of rifling. The spinning of the bullet as it travelled down the barrel increased its stability in flight. It was this stability, and the predictability it gave the weapon, which allowed aimed shots out ranges far beyond those of the un-stabilized smooth-bore musket. The impact of these improvements would have on the closely packed ranks of troops on the battlefield was apparently obvious.

The muzzle loaded rifle musket was actually in use for a quite short period of time. The British had not completely equipped their troops, who advanced on the 20th September 1854 along side the French against the smooth-bore armed Russians. In 1859 the rifle equipped French and Austrians faced each other at Solferino but the Italians were still fought equipped with the smooth-bore weapon. The last significant war fought with muzzle loaded rifles was the American Civil War, as by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 both sides fielded breech loaded rifles. For just over ten years the rifle musket dominated the battlefield. Even as the allies stormed the redoubts of Alma however the next generation of breech loading weapons were already the standard weapon of the soldiers in the Prussian Army1, and by 1865 a relativity small but significant number of Union troops had even been armed with repeating magazine rifles.

It is the American Civil War which dominates the sources that document the history of this weapon, mainly due to the length of the war and the large numbers of American scholars interested in the subject. Our understanding of its impact, casualty rates and the general usage of the weapon are all effected by our understanding of that war, and as the vast majority of researchers are also American, by the seminal position that war takes in their history. As an example of American preoccupation with the American Civil War, in his book entitled 'The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat' Earl Hess cites the American Civil war as the only significant war fought with the weapon, ignoring the war of 1859 fought in northern Italy. This war which cumulated with the battle of Solferino, dwarfing those later fought between North and South in America. The suffering of 40,000 killed and wounded at Sollferino gave birth to the International Red Cross, which could be argued was an event of some historical significance.

In 1989 Paddy Griffith published the book 'Battle Tactics of the American Civil War'. He analysed some 113 eye-witness accounts of engagements discovering that only 17 where beyond 250 yards and none beyond 5002. His conclusion was that American Civil War Battles did not take place at ranges significantly different from those fought by Napoleon and Wellington. He also pointed out the already know examples of a number of occasions when regiments of troops had formed up a few tens of yards apart and blazed away for periods of up hours and on one occasion, at Marye's heights at Fredericksburg, for two days. If the view of the deadly accuracy and efficiency of the rifle musket was correct the regiments involved should have been wiped out in just a few minutes. The general view of the established Civil War Historians may be summed up in a review in the Journal of American History3, which cited poor research and the fact that the impact of the rifle musket on the civil war battle field had long been understood.

The next major work on the subject was provided by Brent Nosworthy in his book 'The Bloody Crucible of Courage'. The book deals with the battlefield tactics of all arms Naval, Artillery, Cavalry, and Infantry. Nosworthy agrees with Griffith but goes on to explain how a weapon which could repeatedly hit a target up to 1000 yards away, could allow battles between close ordered regiments at only a few tens of yards4. The answer was ballistics.

The very method of imparted the spin to the projectile as it passed down the barrel of the gun, also slowed it down. The effect of this was to make the muzzle velocity of the rifle musket could be as much as 40% less than an earlier smooth-bore. The sights fitted of course accounted for this lower velocity by forcing the firer to point the weapon upwards. The ballistic arc of the gun however was very steep, meaning that for a large part of its flight the bullet would pass over the heads of troops standing in front of the firer. Nosworthy records French experiments that show the danger zone where the bullet is below head height and before it hits the ground to be at 993 yards only 12yards wide5. Nor was the rifle musket better at short ranges even at a 100 yards the flatter trajectory of the smooth bore was seen by many who studied the matter better6. The difficulty in hitting the target could be over come by training, as the weapon was intrinsically more accurate that it's predecessor, the armies of the American Civil War were not however trained. The essentially amateur officer corps relied on a mix of recycled manuals and instructional pamphlets to learn their trade. These emphasized the need to hold fire until the last minute so as not to wast ammunition and in one cases to point the rifle at the knees of the approaching enemy7. The techniques enshrined in these manuals are those which the combatants of the wars of the French revolution would have received sixty years earlier. The American officer corps were not unique in the Napoleonic approach to battlefield tactics Jomini believed that the new rifle musket would only change minor tactics.8 For the private soldier on the battlefield any native ability would also be lost as he was required to deliver rapid volleys of fire not to take deliberate aim.

In 1989 Griffith had pointed out that the accepted view of how a American Civil War battle was fought could not be sustained, and Nosworthy had explained how the apparent wonder weapon had failed to deliver its supposed lethality. There still remained some serious questions however, General Sedwick may not have uttered his famous last words but he did die, and if fear of the vaulted rifle musket did not cause the creation of the fieldworks of the later war then why build them?

In 2008 Earl J. Hess, an acknowledged expert on the Civil War and in particular it's trench warfare, published his views on the controversy. Expanding on Griffith's survey of eye-witness accounts and the technical manuals of Nosworthy he concluded that they were correct. The battlefield of the American Civil War was, due to training, doctrine, and the difficulty of delivering accurate aimed fire, essentially the same as it's Napoleonic ancestor9. The key to this conclusion was the phrase 'the battlefield', he argues however that the rifle musket comes into it's own and starts the evolution of the early 20th century battlefield by its use in skirmishing. During the war Union and Confederate armies spent long periods of inactivity relatively close to each. During these period large numbers of pickets would fight a form of guerilla war attempting to harass the enemy main army. Hess's book is replete with tables of ranges and ammunition allocation and expenditure rates, these are used to support his arguments. The analysis shows that ammunition expenditure of some units during these periods of supposed inactivity where as high as in battle and maintained over far longer periods of time. During the siege of Atlanta for example, the 96th Illinois maintained a third of its number as pickets firing between three and five thousand rounds per day10. Reco

rding the exploits of these skirmishers he identifies that the skills learnt in the picket line did not translate back to the battlefield as even dedicated skirmish units when pressed into battle service performed similarly to other units in the battle-line11.

In essence Hess argues that while on the battlefield, troops had neither the time nor inclination to produce aimed fire, the constant skirmishing did allow the exploitation of the range and accuracy of the rifle musket, and it was this which kick-started the development of the elaborate earthworks of Petersburg and other late war battlefields.


Griffith, Paddy. Battle tactics of the Civil War (1989), Yale University Press,

Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the origins of modern warfare: ideas, organization, and field command, (1992), Indiana University Press

Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth,(2008), University Press of Kansas

Jamieson, Perry,The Journal of American History, (1990), vol:77 iss:1 p314 -315

Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage,(2005),London,Constable & Robinson Ltd


1Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the origins of modern warfare: ideas, organization, and field command, (1992), Indiana University Press, p17
2Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth,(2008), University Press of Kansas, p101
3Jamieson, Perry,The Journal of American History, (1990), vol:77 iss:1 p314 -315
4Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage,(2005),London,Constable & Robinson Ltd, p 30
5Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage, p33
6Nosworthy, Brent. The Bloody Crucible of Courage p53
7Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, p91
8 Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the origins of modern warfare, p18
9Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, p108
10Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, p161
11Hess, Earl. J. The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat, p140