February 27, 2020
By Seth Isaacson
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The Civil War era is an antique arms collector’s dream for the same reason it was a nightmare for the Ordnance Department: a dizzying array of weapons and ammunition. Each of Rock Island Auction Company's Premier and Sporting & Collector Firearms auctions include collectible U.S. martial arms from 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but no era has the variety of interesting American firearms designs as the mid-19th century. Some of these weapons remain well-known and are similar to systems still used today, some were already obsolete when the war started, and some were rather strange. While the selection below represents an important group of the key Civil War long guns used by the Union Armies, it certainly does not represent all of the Civil War guns nor the wide variety of Civil War handguns (a topic for another day) RIAC offers throughout the year. More manufacturers and models can regularly be found in both the Premier and Sporting & Collector Firearm Auction catalogs available in print or online.
At the beginning of the war, many soldiers from both the North and South were using obsolete .69 caliber, smoothbore, muzzle-loading Model 1842 muskets left over from the Mexican-American War era. In some cases even older arms were found in use, such as the Model 1816 flintlock muskets. Manufactured at the national armories and by numerous contractors, these muskets were later converted in numerous ways for use with percussion caps in the 1840s. Socket bayonets were widely employed by both sides when engaged in hand to hand combat.
Not all Civil War guns were an innovative. As the Model 1816 shows, some were simply an adaptation to bring every available weapon into the fight. Other weapons weapons were also adapted, such as the muzzle-loading Model 1817 "Common Rifle" and the Model 1841 "Mississippi Rifle." Prior to the Civil War, many of these were perfectly serviceable rifles. However, by the beginning of the conflict, they were all but obsolete, serving merely as the best that many soldiers could get their hands on - especially in the South.
The most common Civil Wars guns were .58 caliber muzzle loading percussion “rifle-muskets.” At first glance, these long guns look very similar to the smoothbore muskets and even utilize the same basic style of bayonets. The firing sequence was also identical to the smoothbore muskets: they were loaded from the muzzle using paper cartridges, manually primed with percussion caps at the breech, and fired by manually cocked locks. The key difference was a rifled barrel and new ammunition to make use of them.
Rifling was not a new invention, but muzzle loading rifles were not practical for widespread use in earlier conflicts. The tight fit between the ball and bore (necessary for proper performance) meant that rifles took longer to reload, required more cleaning, and more precisely manufactured ammunition. The invention of a new bullet by France’s Claude-Étienne Minié in 1849 made muzzle loading rifles more practical. His projectile was a longer, conical bullet similar in shape to those used today. It used a hollow base that expanded into the rifling when fired, providing many benefits to the user: faster reloading, less cleaning, higher velocity, greater accuracy, and longer range. The Model 1842 muskets noted above were specifically designed with thicker barrels so they could be safely rifled later. Many had rifling grooves cut by the time of the war, hence the name “rifled muskets.”
Group of Union soldiers with their rifle-muskets.Note the image is reversed and the locks appear to be on the left side of the rifle-muskets.
The first standard U.S. rifle-musket was the .58 caliber Model 1855 manufactured at both Springfield and Harpers Ferry. It was part of a group of firearms introduced in 1855 that employed a special priming system invented by American dentist and inventor Edward Maynard. In the Maynard system, a roll of caps similar to the tape used in modern cap guns is used. Spaced evenly throughout Maynard’s tape, are small covered pills of mercury fulminate, the same substance used in percussion caps. The locks have compartments for holding the tape and feeding it forward over the nipple each time the hammer is cocked. This sped up reloading since it removed the necessity of manually placing a new percussion cap on the nipple before each shot. Unfortunately, the tape did not fare well in poor weather and during the rigors of combat, so Civil War soldiers often manually primed their rifle-muskets with traditional percussion caps instead.
Since Maynard’s tape priming system proved impractical, Springfield Armory simplified the Model 1855 by removing it, resulting in a gun that was cheaper and faster to produce: the Model 1861. Manufactured at Springfield and by several government contractors during the war, this model is easy to identify because it still used the “humped” hammers seen on the Model 1855. In 1863 and 1864, the design went through additional minor changes leading to the Model 1863 and Model 1864 (aka Model 1863 Type II). Together the Models 1861, 1863, and 1864 rifle-muskets were the most commonly issued Civil War long guns. 265,129 Model 1861s, 273,265 Model 1863s, and 255,040 Model 1864s were manufactured at Springfield Armory alone. They also served as the basis for the first trapdoor breech loading rifles built at Springfield Armory after the war.
Due to the wide variety of contractors, subtle variations, state contracts, etc., these models are a fertile hunting ground for collectors and nice examples can be found for reasonable prices. The finest examples will command much larger prices at auction. Some collectors and reenactors still shoot original Civil War rifle-muskets even today.
The British Pattern 1853 Enfield is another Civil War gun far too important to leave off this list. These Civil War guns were actually designed and mostly manufactured abroad, but they used the same .577 caliber ammunition as the standard Springfield models, as well as similar socket bayonets. The Pattern 1853 was the standard infantry arm within the British Empire and had proven effective in the Crimean War in the 1850s. Thousands were manufactured by various contractors in England as well as a few in the U.S., and saw use by many troops in the North and South. In fact, this model was the second most widely used during the war.
By the time of the Civil War, gunmakers had been experimenting with various designs for loading firearms from the rear of the barrel or breech for hundreds of years. While some designs worked and some even allowed for multiple shots before reloading, they were generally too expensive and too intricate for widespread use. The United States was the first country to issue breech loading firearms in large numbers as early as 1819 with the introduction of the flintlock Model 1819 Hall
Manufactured at Harper Ferry, the Model 1819 rifle was followed by multiple Hall carbine designs, though each was still less than ideal for general issue to the infantry. By the mid-19thcentury, gunmakers were finally successful in tackling many of the earlier problems with breech loading firearms such as gas leak at the breech, which had plagued the Hall system. Also, modern manufacturing techniques had made it practical to produce them in larger numbers.
Unfortunately, high costs, complicated logistics, and changing Civil War battle tactics made breech loading rifles and carbines largely confined to use by specialized units such as sharpshooters and cavalry. They were especially favored by the latter because they were easier to reload on horseback. Several other American breechloading designs were developed both prior to and during the war and saw use on the battlefield as well.
Sharps rifles and carbines were among the first successful breech loading firearms. Seen throughout the Civil War they were also famously used during the lead up to the war in Bleeding Kansas. The main wartime versions were the New Model 1859 and New Model 1863 in carbine and rifle variations, the rifles of each were adapted to use different bayonets for Army and Navy contracts. Some special New Model 1859 rifles were ordered for and used by the First and Second U.S. Sharpshooters, popularly known as Berdan’s Sharpshooters. They were originally loaded with paper cartridges, but the Sharps models were readily modified for use with self-contained metallic cartridges after the war. Thousands were modified for this new ammunition and used by the U.S. Army during Reconstruction. The converted Sharps replaced numerous other designs that were then sold off as surplus. The metallic cartridge version evolved into the Sharps Model 1874 which became one of the most popular firearms among buffalo hunters on the Great Plains.
One of the many innovative breech loading carbines utilized by the cavalry during the war originated from the designs of Ambrose Burnside during the 1850s. Unfortunately for Burnside, pre-war government contracts fell through, so he sold his shares without making a profit. Once the conflict was underway, government contracts came rolling in and his design earned him some renown. He is mostly remembered today for his failures as a general during the war and as the namesake of “sideburns” though his whiskers were something few would consider stylish today. He was also the first president of the National Rifle Association when it formed after the war.
His design underwent multiple improvements culminating in the 5thModel or “Model of 1864.” These carbines utilized tapered brass cased ammunition with holes in the rear and were primed with percussion caps on external nipples like standard percussion firearms. The flash from the cap travels through the nipple and then into the rear of the cartridge to ignite the black powder within. The lever had a release and tipped the breech block upwards so the spent case can be extracted and a new cartridge can be loaded. The tapered brass cartridges helped eliminate much of the gas leak at the breech suffered by other rifles of the period.
Another innovative breech loading design was invented by Dr. Gilbert Smith and manufactured by Massachusetts Arms Company, American Machine, and American Arms Co. To reload, his design folded open in a similar fashion to a break action shotgun. Designed to use ammunition with a reloadable case, these Civil War guns were not without their handicaps. The main issue with this design was that its reusable cartridge case was made with a special rubber known as “gutta percha." They proved difficult to supply and problematic to extract, resulting in most being pulled from service before the war was over.
Without the logistics of war, the design itself is excellent. Collectors, reenactors, and hobbyists are able to still shoot original examples of this attractive design using cartridge cases made from widely available modern materials.
One of the best breech loading carbine designs was manufactured by Edward Maynard. Yes, the same Edward Maynard of the aforementioned tape priming system. Carbines of his design were manufactured by Massachusetts Arms Company in two variations. Similar to the Burnside, they utilized a reloadable brass case with a hole in the base, and ignition was achieved in the same fashion. However, unlike the Burnside, the cartridges weren't tapered, but rimmed, making them easier to extract. This carbine design was advanced enough that relatively few changes were necessary to convert the design to fire fully self-contained metallic cartridges after the war. The design is a clever step between self-contained cartridges and older paper cartridges.
Among the few repeating firearms of the Civil War era were the seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles and carbines. The Spencer is credited with being the first military issued repeating metallic cartridge rifle and also the most widely used repeating long gun of the war. They were designed by Christopher Spencer and manufactured primarily by Spencer Repeating Rifle Co. of Boston, but also under contract by the Burnside Rifle Co. of Providence, Rhode Island.
Over 107,000 were ultimately purchased for use by the Union Army during the war, but the Ordnance Department initially refused to order and issue these advanced firearms in large numbers. They preferred standardized rifle-muskets for fear that soldiers with such rapid-firing arms would simply waste ammunition and place too much pressure on supply lines. To prove the effectiveness of the rifle, Christopher Spencer took his design straight to President Abraham Lincoln who actually tested one of Spencer’s rifles on the White House lawn. Impressed by the design, the president ordered the Ordnance Department to adopt them and subsequently fired Chief of Ordnance James Wolfe Ripley when he disobeyed.
George Armstrong Custer and the Michigan Brigade were among the first to use the Spencer in combat. In a twist of fate, Spencers are known to have been among the arms used by the Native American warriors against Custer and his men when the 7th Cavalry were crushed at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Spencer carbines and rifles were manufactured for use with 56-52 Spencer (.52 caliber rimfire) and 56-50 Spencer (.50 caliber rimfire) ammunition. The ammunition is fed through a removable tubular magazine that enters the buttstock through the buttplate. The same basic idea was used on John Moses Browning’s very popular Browning 22 Semi-Auto Rifles manufactured by Browning and Fabrique Nationale. Over 11,000 of the Spencer carbines manufactured for the .52 caliber ammunition were relined after the war for use with the .50 caliber ammunition and were widely used in the West after the war, including for hunting bison on the Great Plains. Unfortunately for the Spencer Repeating Rifle Co., the end of the war meant the government no longer required new repeating rifles and carbines. This combined with the plethora of surplus arms left over from the war resulted in a very tight firearms market in the years following the war. The company also failed to find ways to market the Civil War gun to hunters in the West who favored more powerful rifles for hunting big game.
Manufactured by the New Haven Arms Co. during the Civil War, the Henry rifle is easily among the most famous and most valuable Civil War era firearms. Only around 14,000 were manufactured in 1860-1866, and of those, only 1,731 were purchased by the Union during the war. Many others are known to have been purchased by the soldiers themselves, particularly veterans with re-enlistment bonuses. These innovative lever action rifles fired .44 Henry rimfire cartridges, 15 of which were kept within a tube magazine located under the barrel. The design evolved from earlier Volcanic repeating arms, and was loaded at the front of the magazine. Eventually, the Henry design was updated to feature a loading gate in the side of the frame and was manufactured as the Model 1866 by the legendary Winchester Repeating Arms Company following the war.
The Civil War guns listed above are arguably the most significant long guns used by the Union Army, though the list is far from exhaustive. Many other designs, particularly several other carbine variations and some specialized rifles, were used in smaller numbers and are also regularly featured in RIAC auctions ever year, so keep an eye out for these and many other fascinating firearms in our upcoming gun auctions.
For more great information on Civil War guns, please consider the following sources.
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