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Civil War Weapons: The Basics

Civil War Ordnance Returns

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Weapons of the Civil War: A Brief History

Civil War Soldiers battling with Civil War Weapons

The American Civil War saw the use of hundreds of different types of firearms, edged weapons and unique artillery pieces. It was a time of escalated technological advancement that helped seal the fate for the Confederacy early in the war. However, as the war progressed, the most reliable and easiest to produce weapons rose to the top of the hundreds of other possibilities. From the “workhorse” of the infantry (The 1861-63 Springfield), to the breech loading repeating Spencer Carbine; the weapons used in the Civil War has captured the fascination of the public.

Throughout the American Civil War, there were dozens of possible options to supply the soldiers with. From the cheap and old converted smoothbores to repeating cartridge operated rifles like the Spencer Rifle, the United States and Confederate States governments had to put some focused thought in what weapon they would use to supply the vast majority of their armies. 

In many cases, that decision was made for them on whatever was available at the time. Early in the war, weapon supplies were exhausted and regiments were issued weapons from previous wars that had sat in the armory for more than a decade. This problem was not unique to the Confederacy, as many may think; but it was a problem the United States government had to solve as well. 

The history of Civil War weapons has easily become a niche hobby within the greater umbrella of American history. Whether you are talking about guns, bayonets, pistols or heavy artillery; this subject has embeded itself into American culture. When visiting famous battlefields or museums, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, the displays of weapons, pistols and other weapons carried by solders always grabs the attention of adults and children alike. 

For example, the amazing work done by the Civil War Photo Sleuth[i] is using facial recognition technology to identify previously unknown soldiers. Additionally, Civil War databases like the Research Arsenal are focusing on the material culture of the photos and tagging every item in the photo making it easier than ever to search thousands of photos for a specific item; such as a Philadelphia depot canteen, cavalry uniform jackets, or obscure aspects like how often soldiers tucked their coats into their pants. What used to take researchers or collectors hundreds of hours to search for now can take seconds.

Because of this explosion in access, research, and the ability to find the exact images that you want, the civil war photo collectors market is alive and well. This can be no better demonstrated than with the rise of online auctions dedicated to civil war militaria. A great example of this is the past few auctions that Fleischer’s Auctions has hosted. With the recent August 5th, 2023 auction, an image sold for a hammer price of $49,000 (nearly $60,000 with the buyer’s premium), it is perhaps the most expensive Civil War era photograph ever sold of an unidentified subject.

Civil War Weapons of the Infantry

The vast majority of the fighting force of both armies was their infantry. Therefore, the weapons used by this branch had to be easily produced, relatively inexpensive, and reliable. In looking at the federal ordnance returns in the Research Arsenal’s database, a long list of weapons were listed as issued to troops. To help prioritize the options and capabilities of the weapons, the United States army created three classifications for their primary weapon. Those classifications were “First Class Arms”, “Second Class Arms”, and “Third Class Arms”

The following weapons were listed in the quarterly Ordnance Returns as “First Class” Arms:

  • Springfield Rifled Muskets, Model 1855, 1861 (.58 Caliber)
  • U.S. Rifles, Sword Bayonet, Model 1840, 1845 (.58 Caliber)
  • U.S. Rifles Model 1840 (.54 Caliber)
  • Merrill’s Breachloading Rifles (.52 Caliber)
  • Sharp’s Breachloading Rifles, Triangular Bayonet (.52 Caliber)
  • French Rifled Muskets, Triangular Bayonet (.58 Caliber)
  • Enfield Rifled Muskets (.58 and .577 Caliber)
  • Light French Rifle (.577 Caliber)

Listed as “Second Class Arms” the returns go on to list:

  • “Rifled Muskets” altered to percussion (.69 Caliber)
  • Rifled Muskets, model 1842 (.69 Caliber)
  • Belgian or French Rifled Muskets (.71 Caliber)
  • Belgian or Vincennes Rifles, Sabre Bayonet (.69 to .71 Caliber)
  • Austrian, Belgian, or French rifled Muskets (.70 or .701 Caliber)
  • Belgian or French Rifled Muskets, brass or bright mounted. (.69 Caliber)
  • Austrian Rifled Muskets, leaf and block sight, Q bayonet. (.58 Caliber)
  • Austrian Rifled Muskets, leaf and block sight, Q bayonet. (.577 Caliber)
  • Austrian Rifled Muskets, leaf and block sight, quadrangular bayonet. (.54 and .55 Caliber)
  • “Jager” Rifles, sword bayonet. (.54 Caliber)

Lastly, they listed the following weapons as “Third Class Arms”

  • Smoothbored Musket altered to percussion (.69 Caliber)
  • Smoothbored Musket model 1842 (.69 Caliber)
  • Austrian, Prussion, and Saxony Rifled Musket (.71 & .72 Caliber)
  • Austrian, and Prussion Rifled Muskets (.69 to .70 Caliber)
  • Austrian and Prussian Smoothbored Muskets (.71 to .72 Caliber)
  • Austrian, Prussian, and French Smoothbored Muskets (.69 and .70 Caliber)
  • English Smoothbored Musket (.69 and .70 Caliber)

The Springfield Rifle

Out of all the options listed above, the most common weapon issued to federal troops during the American Civil War was the 1861-’63 Springfield Rifle. The Springfield was considered the standard rifle of the Civil War. Like other Springfield rifles it was first produced at the Springfield Armory, but to meet war demands many other arms manufacturers were contracted to increase production. At an average of 56 inches long and weighing nine pounds, the Model 1861 was a single-shot, muzzleloading rifle that used the percussion cap mechanism to fire a .58 caliber Minié ball. It was capable of firing three rounds a minute at an effective range of 500 yards but could be deadly at longer ranges. A rugged design that was simple to construct, the Model 1861 and its derivatives (including the Springfield Model 1863) were the most common rifles in the war, with Northern arsenals producing over a million examples.

The Springfield Model 1855 was the first standard-issue rifle for the US Army to fire the Minié ball, with 60,000 having been built from 1856 to 1860 at both the Springfield and Harpers Ferry Armory. These used the less reliable Maynard tape primer firing mechanism which when damp could cause misfires, a flaw that had forced its original retirement in 1860 until it was re-introduced to meet the arms shortage. When Confederate forces seized the manufacturing equipment from Harpers Ferry, they used it to continue production of the Model 1855 during the war. Depending on the location where they were manufactured, these were known as Richmond or Fayetteville rifles.

Many older Springfield muskets, such as the Springfield Model 1842, which had been converted into rifles were also brought out of storage due to the arms shortage. However, these old and obsolete weapons were replaced by newer weapons as they became available.

The Enfield Rifle

The second-most widely used rifle of the Civil War, and the weapon most widely used by the Confederates, was the British Pattern 1853 Enfield. The standard weapon of the British Army between 1853 and 1867, like the Springfield the Enfield was a single-shot, muzzleloading rifle musket. Although it had a .577 caliber bore it could use the same .58 caliber Minié ball as the Springfield. Approximately 900,000 Enfield rifles were imported by both the North and South during the Civil War and it was considered the best of the foreign-sourced rifles.

Lorenz Rifle

The third-most widely used rifle of the Civil War, and the most prolific of “second-class” weapons, was the Lorenz Rifle. Introduced in 1854 for the Austrian armed forces, the North imported 226,924 Lorenz rifles during the war while the South imported at least 100,000. Similar in design to the Enfield rifle, early Lorenz rifles were considered superb weapons right out of the factory, but they had a .54 caliber bore which could not accept the same bullets as the Springfield and Enfield. 

The rounds fired by the Lorenz were considered inferior to the .58 caliber Minié ball, and while the rifle could be rebored to accept a larger bullet the process could affect barrel quality. Later in the war, even factory-direct Lorenz rifles tended to be of poor craftsmanship. Despite their extensive use by both sides in the war, soldiers’ opinions on the rifle were decidedly negative.

Other rifles

The Sharps rifles were a series of single-shot, breechloading rifles made famous for their use by Hiram Berdan’s 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters regiments. Utilizing a unique pelleted primer mechanism and paper cartridges, the Sharps could fire a .52 caliber bullet three times faster than a muzzleloading rifle. A shorter, lighter carbine version was suitable for use by cavalry force. The Union purchased 10,000 Sharps rifles and 80,000 carbines, with many more bought by state governments or soldiers themselves.

Spencer rifle, while popular with the cavalry, found little use in the hands of the infantry. The Spencer was a .52 caliber repeating rifle with a spring-fed tubular magazine for seven metallic cartridges in the stock. The government puchased 12,000 Spencer rifles.

The Henry repeating rifle was similar to the Spencer rifle in that it used a lever action and had a magazine in the stock, but it fired a smaller .44 caliber bullet and the magazine could hold fifteen cartridges. While the Spencer was more mechanically reliable the Henry had a greater rate of fire which, with its larger magazine, put it in high demand among Civil War soldiers. Only 1,731 Henry rifles were bought by the federal government, with thousands more bought by states and private individuals.

The Colt Revolving Rifle was the first repeating rifles to be purchased by the US government, these were a series of revolving rifles which used a rotating multi-chamber cylinder loaded with cartridges. They were available in several sizes and calibers, and most had a cylinder which could hold five to six rounds.

A predecessor of the Springfield rifle, the Mississippi rifle was a single-shot, muzzleloading rifle produced at the Harpers Ferry Armory until 1855, although a number of private contractors continued to produce examples through 1862. Both sides equipped their soldiers with Mississippi rifles early in the war due to arms shortages. By 1863 the rifle had ceased service with Union forces, although the Confederates would continue to use it through the end of the war.

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Civil War Weapons of the Cavalry

While the infantry quickly found the top two to three rifles that they would settle on, the cavalry had a hard time settling on a single carbine to issue cavalry forces during the war. In looking at the the quarterly ordnance returns for cavalry made available at the Research Arsenal, it divides the options into three different categories (unlike the infantry): First Class Rifles, Breech loading Carbines, & Muzzleloading Carbines.

American Civil War Rifles:

The specific weapons listed under the first category of “First Class Rifles” are the following:

  • U.S. Rifles, (no bayonets) model 1840, 1855. Calibre .58
  • U.S. Rifles, (no bayonets) model 1840. Calibre .54
  • Ballard’s Breech-loading Rifles. Calibre .52
  • Colt’s Revolving Rifles. Cal. .56
  • Merrill’s Breech-loading Rifles. Calibre .52.
  • Spencer Breech-loading Rifles. Calibre .52.
  • Sharp’s Breech-loading Rifles. Calibre .52.
  • Enfield Rifles. Calibre .577
  • Light French Rifles. Cal. .577

The weapons listed as “Breech-loading Carbines” were the following:

  • Ballard’s, rifled. Calibre .52
  • Burnside’s, rifled. Calibre .54.
  • Cosmopolitan, rifled. Calibre .52
  • Joslyn’s, rifled. Calibre .53.
  • Gallagher’s, rifled. Calibre .51.
  • Gibb’s, rifled. Calibre .52
  • Greene’s, rifled. Calibre .54.
  • Hall’s, rifled. Calibre .52.
  • Lindner’s, rifled. Calibre .52.
  • Merrill’s, rifled. Calibre .54
  • Maynard’s, rifled. Calibre .50.
  • Sharp’s, rifled. Calibre .52.
  • Smith’s, rifled Calibre .50.
  • Starr’s, rifled. Calibre .54.

The weapons listed as “Muzzle-loading Carbines” were the following:

  • Austrian, rifled. Cal. .70 and .71.
  • English Artillery, rifled. Calibre .54.
  • English Sapper, rifled, “Enfield” pattern. Calibre .577.
  • French Rifled Carbines. Calibre .60.
  • Pistol Carbine, rifled. Calibre .58.
  • Musketoons, U.S. model, rifled. Calibre .69.
  • Musketoons, U.S. model, smooth-bore. Calibre .69.
  • Musketoons, English, smooth-bore. Calibre .64.

However, out of all those options, the most popular carbine that was the most numerous all through the war was the Sharps Carbine. The carbine version of the Sharps Rifle was extremely popular with the cavalry forces of both the Union and Confederate armies and was issued in much larger numbers than other carbines of the war. It’s production and use out-paced that of the other popular carbines like the Spencer or Burnside carbines.

Unlike the Sharps rifle, the carbine was very popular, and almost 90,000 were produced. Some Sharps clones were produced by the Confederate Ordnance Department in Richmond. However, the quality was generally poorer, and they normally used brass fittings instead of iron.

Towards the end of the war, the No. 2 spot of the most common carbine used by Federal cavalry forces ended up being the Spencer Carbine. The Spencer was the world’s first military metallic-cartridge repeating rifle, and over 200,000 examples were manufactured in the United States by the Spencer Repeating Rifle Co. and Burnside Rifle Co. between 1860 and 1869. The inventor, Christopher M. Spencer, wanted to sell his repeating rifle as the complete replacement for the infantry as well as the cavalry. However, the infantry sales didn’t come to fruition like the sales to the cavalry arm of the military.  

The third most popular carbine was the Burnside rifled carbine. In 1857, the Burnside carbine won a competition at West Point against 17 other carbine designs. In spite of this, few of the carbines were immediately ordered by the government, but this changed with the outbreak of the Civil War, when over 55,000 were ordered for use by Union cavalrymen. The Burnside carbine saw action in all theatres of the war. There were so many in service that many were captured and used by Confederates. A common complaint by users was that the unusually shaped cartridge sometimes became stuck in the breech after firing.

On the basis of the quarterly ordnance returns found on the Research Arsenal’s research database, it has been estimated that 0+3 Union cavalry regiments were using the Burnside carbine during the 1863-1864 period. Five different models were produced. Production was discontinued towards the end of the Civil War, when the Burnside Rifle Company was given a contract to make Spencer carbines instead.

Lastly, before moving on to the artillery, one last carbine has to be discussed that was actually the second most common carbine in the ordnance department of the federal army at the beginning of the war. That carbine was the Hall Carbine. This weapon platform was a hold over from the previous decades and was popular among cavalry due to it’s breech-loading design. However, it was considered so old or “ancient” by troops that it was hated by cavalry regiments that were issued this weapon early in the war. Additionally, the weight of this weapon, with its cumbersome breech was too much for many soldiers and they opted to obtain a better weapon to go to war with. 

Civil War Artillery: The Big Guns of Battle

During the American Civil War, artillery played a pivotal role in shaping the strategies and outcomes of battles. Three of the most common types of artillery used during this conflict were the Napoleon, Parrott, and Ordnance Rifle.

The Napoleon, officially known as the M1857 12-pounder Napoleon field gun, was a widely utilized smoothbore cannon by both Union and Confederate forces. Named after Napoleon III of France, this gun fired a 12-pound projectile and was highly effective at both long and short ranges. Its versatility made it a staple in many infantry and artillery units.

The Parrott rifle, developed by Union artillery officer Robert Parker Parrott, featured a rifled barrel and was known for its accuracy and longer range compared to smoothbore cannons. The Parrott guns came in various calibers, with the 10-pounder and 20-pounder versions being among the most common. Their ability to fire both solid shot and explosive shells made them versatile on the battlefield. 

The Ordnance Rifle, also rifled, was another prominent artillery piece. Known for its accuracy and durability, it had a distinctive wrought-iron barrel and was widely used by Union forces. The Ordnance Rifle’s rifling imparted a spin to the projectile, enhancing its stability and range.

In addition to field artillery, siege artillery played a crucial role in the extended sieges of cities like Petersburg. Mortars and heavy siege guns, such as the 100-pounder Parrott rifles, were used to breach fortifications and city defenses. Coastal defenses also featured heavy artillery, including massive cannons like the Rodman Gun and Columbiads, to guard against naval attacks. These artillery pieces, strategically placed along the coastline, helped deter enemy vessels and fortified key coastal positions.

The innovative use of artillery during the American Civil War marked a turning point in military technology and tactics, influencing future conflicts with its lessons on the integration of advanced weaponry into military strategy.

The Impact of Modern Weapons during the Civil War

The technological advancement of weaponry seen during the civil war had a profound impact on the course and outcome of the conflict. Innovations in firearm technology, such as the widespread use of rifled muskets and the introduction of more accurate and lethal artillery, transformed the nature of warfare during this period. The Minié ball greatly increased the range and accuracy of infantry weapons while breech loading carbines used by the cavalry were able to increase the rate of fire beyond what was possible with muzzleloading weapons.

This shift in firepower lead to commanders leaning towards defensive strategies later in the war that were different from defensive strategies that they would have chosen previously. This lead to early entrenched warfare and a staggering number of casualties that had not been seen previously. This increased lethality of weaponry not only contributed to the high casualty rates but also played a crucial role in shaping the tactics and strategies employed by both Union and Confederate forces. Ultimately, the impact of advanced weaponry was a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the American Civil War.

The history lesson that can be learned from Union & Confederate weapons

The explosion of weapons design and the rapid technological advancement brought out by the war created a ripple effect around the world. From transitioning from paper cartridges to brass and from muzzle loading to repeating breach loading weapons, the American Civil War facilitated how future wars would be fought. 

The Research Arsenal has made it easier than ever to search through thousands of ordnance returns to see exactly what each federal regiment was issued. You can search by regiment, date, year, etc to find your favorite unit and see what weapons they carried. 

Additionally, the Research Arsenal offers more than 10,000 images that have been tagged with every item in the image including weapons. Easily filter through thousands of images for all the ones that have a specific carbine or specific bayonet! Join one of the fastest growing Civil War research communities on the internet! Search for your favorite weapon today!


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