9 Key Weapons of the American Civil War | History Hit

9 Key Weapons of the American Civil War

Greg Noonan

14 Sep 2021
A small caliber cannon - an infantry gun - being displayed along with personnel of the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in 1861-1865.
Image Credit: Library of Congress

Americans brought an astounding array of weapons, including many industrial age innovations, to the battlefield in the devastating civil war that raged between North and South from 1861-1865. Here are the 9 of the most common, popular and dangerous weapons of the war.

1. Model 1861 Colt Navy revolver

Possibly the most iconic handgun of the American Civil War era was the single-action Colt Navy. While many field grade officers still carried largely obsolete swords, the revolver became the officer’s prime battlefield weapon.

A 6-shot percussion cap revolver designed by Samuel Colt in the late 1840s, the Colt Navy fired a round .36 calibre ball and is easily identifiable by its smooth sided revolving cylinder, long barrel and distinctive curved wood grips. Although slow to load, its ruggedness and durability made it a popular weapon even after the Civil War, especially for any man on horseback.

2. Model 1861 Springfield rifle

The mainstay of the US Army, produced in Springfield, Massachusetts, and via federal government contract to various manufacturers across the northern states, the Springfield rifle musket was the pre-eminent firearm of its day. The sturdy percussion cap Springfield weighed in at 9lb (4.9kg) and was the first rifle to be produced at scale by the United States; more than a million were manufactured during the war. The Springfield had an effective range of 200-300 yards but could reliably hit its target at 500 yards.

Two unidentified soldiers in Union uniforms posing with bayoneted Springfield Model 1861 rifled musket with attached bayonet, knife, and Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver

Image Credit: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs

3. Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle

The second most commonly used rifle musket of the war, the .58 calibre British-made 1853 Enfield was a high-quality rifle firing the French designed Minie ball (conical bullet with a hollow base) and was used in the hundreds of thousands by both US and Confederate armies. An estimated 900,000 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets were imported for both sides via private contractors and blockade runners.

With an effective range out to 800 yards, the long barrelled 3-band Enfield also came equipped with an adjustable ladder rear sight for shooting at longer ranges and a fearsome 49cm (19-inch) socket bayonet. The average infantryman was expected to be able to fire three rounds per minute.

4. M1857 12-pounder Napoleon

Artillery was king of the Civil War battlefield. One of the chief field guns of the war, the 12-pounder Napoleon (other calibres and variations were also manufactured) weighed in at about 544kg (1200 lb).

The cast bronze gun (brass types were also available), named for Napoleon III of France, was favoured by gunners for its reliability, effectiveness and accuracy, particularly against enemy in the open. It fired round shot, cannister (a tin can packed with layers of lead balls) and case (shrapnel) and could shoot accurately out to 2000 yards.

The Battle of Gettysburg was arguably the turning point for the American Civil War and involved an artillery bombardment which may have been the loudest man-made event until the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo. But what actually happened at Gettysburg? To take us through the events of the 1-3 July 1863, James spoke to Craig Symonds, a teacher at the US Naval Academy for 30 years and the author of countless books. Craig takes us through the lead up to the battle, the strategies in play and the bloody outcomes of this high watermark of the Civil War.
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5. Three-inch (76mm) Ordnance Rifle

The most widely used rifled artillery piece of the war, the 3-inch ordnance rifle was extremely durable (when made of wrought iron) was light and highly mobile. Exceptionally accurate due to the barrel’s rifling, the ordnance rifle was primarily produced by the Phoenix Iron Company in Pennsylvania.

During the Federal siege of Atlanta in 1864, a Confederate gunner wrote: “The Yankee three-inch rifle was a dead shot at any distance under a mile. They could hit the end of a flour barrel more often than miss.” As the Confederacy was unable to produce this type of artillery, captured examples were highly prized.

6. Spencer carbine

First produced in 1860, the Spencer carbine was the war’s first mass produced breechloading rifle using metal cartridges. Slow to be adopted by the US Army, which feared a blow-out in ammunition wastage and therefore on supply and cost, the Spencer was favoured by cavalry for its compact size, rate of fire and ease of use. The lever action fed rounds into the chamber via a 7-shot tubular magazine in the butt. As a single-action carbine, the hammer still had to be cocked manually and a percussion cap fitted under the hammer with every shot taken.

7. Model 1860 light cavalry sabre (also known as M1862)

Though still a high-status branch of the army (especially in the South), by the time of the civil war, cavalry were no longer the feared stormtroopers they had been in earlier conflicts – reconnaissance, raiding, skirmishing and screening had become the cavalry’s chief functions.

Weighing in at just over 1kg (2lb 4 oz), the M1860 sabre packed a 89cm (35-inch) blade; it was light and agile and was also popular with infantry and staff officers. Later in the war, Confederate troopers increasingly relied on their sabres and sawn-off shotguns as suitable cavalry carbines became increasingly hard to come by.

The long, slender and slightly curved blade was designed to cause bloody, slashing wounds in enemy troopers or fleeing infantry. More than 300,000 of these sabres had been produced in the North by the war’s end.

A young unnamed Union soldier with Model 1860 sabre and Colt Army pistol.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

8. Confederate cavalry

The darling of the Confederate army, the cavalry struck fear and loathing into many a Federal heart. Especially early in the war, rebel horse under the command of J.E.B. Stuart, routinely trounced Union horsemen. Stuart became the eyes and ears of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was noticeably absent at the Battle of Gettysburg.

After Lt Gen Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was shot and later died 10 days after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Stuart was temporary given command of Jackson’s corps. Partisan rangers under John Singleton Mosby (43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion) theatre took their toll on Federal rear areas in the Virginian mountains and valleys, while in the western theatre, the brutal and effective Nathan Bedford Forrest became known for his cunning, tactical brilliance and savagery in combat.

Only late in the war (1864 onwards) did the North produce cavalry that were every bit of a match on their Confederate counterparts in commanders such as George Custer and Philip Sheridan.

Feared Confederate cavalry commander, John Singleton Mosby (standing, centre) with officers of his 43rd Virginia Cavalry Battalion.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

9. Ironclads

Armoured ironclad ships were cutting edge but still developing technology in the rapidly industrialising America of the 1860s. Originally improvised and retrofitted from existing ship hulls, the hulking steamers revolutionised river and inland waterway warfare with their cannon encased in an outer shell of riveted iron plates or a revolving turret.

The first ironclad to see action was the CSS Manassas in October 1861 when it joined the Battle of the Head of Passes on the Mississippi delta. The most famous ironclad battle occurred over two days when the CSS Virginia slugged it out with the USS Monitor (the day before the CSS Virginia sank two US Navy ships and ran another aground) in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862.

The battle ended in a stalemate after the Virginia withdrew; neither ship was badly damaged. US Navy ironclads later played pivotal roles in allowing Union forces to attack and capture Confederate strong points on the broad rivers of the American interior, including the city of Vicksburg, which opened the Mississippi to Union shipping end-to-end in July 1863.

Greg Noonan