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Old February 3, 2013, 05:21 AM   #1
jabames
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How did Civil War people estimate range?

During the American Civil War, how did people estimate or calculate range? I always hear about certain people in history taking a so-and-so shot at like 1500 yards or 700 yards. Or any people for that matter before laser rangefinders and rangefinding reticles.
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Old February 3, 2013, 06:02 AM   #2
Hal
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It's called a best guess - based on experience...

It's not all that difficult to learn either. Most hunters pick it up real quick.

Just like practicing "point shooting" w/out having to have a gun, you can get pretty good at estimating ranges w/out having to have any special equipment.

Just go out and walk.

Pick a tree or a fire hydrant or anything you want that's at a distance.
Pick another landmark where you start - then try to estimate how many feet/yards away your "target" is.
Then just count your paces, turn around and look back at your starting point and see how far you're off.

After a week - you'll be pretty good at it & you'll be in a bit better shape.
After a month - you'll be really good at it & be in a lot better shape, plus it will have become second nature to you.

You'll start looking at everything from the perspective of "how far away" something is - no matter what you're doing, even driving.

BTW - you'll will become a better shot as a side benefit since judging distances has now become second nature to you.
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Old February 3, 2013, 06:16 AM   #3
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Once, I estimated 600-800 yard to a camp, this one person puled out a range finder nd found out I was pretty close to his laser rangefinder. Haha good times.
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Old February 3, 2013, 06:30 AM   #4
4V50 Gary
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Distance estimation was formerly taught in Confederate General Patrick Cleburne's division in The Army of Tennessee. Cleburne based his training on a British musketry manual. Confederate General Cadmus Wilcos was also thought to have authored a booklet which was distributed to the sharpshooter battalions in the Army of Northern Virginia. It too was based on the lessons in the British handbooks. I know Confederate Henry Heth did some research, taught it in the antebellum era and even wrote a booklet which someone else plagiarized before the war, but I found no evidence that he instructed his division during the war. (Heth's infantry started the battle of Gettysburg when they fought with Buford's troopers).

Like Hal said, you looked at something (like a wagon or artillery piece) and then paced off the distance. You told the officer who wrote it down and called the next man to give his estimate. Records were kept and those who could not get the knack were washed out of the sharpshooter battalions (in the Army of Northern Virginia). In about a week's time the men got pretty good at this.

Artillery men on both sides became very good at range estimation and they had to if they were to adjust the fuse correctly. Overestimate and your shell explodes past the target. Underestimate and your shell explodes before it reaches the target. Gibbon's treatise on artillery covers range estimation too.

There were also mechanical devices called stadia that could be helpful. You held the stadia a fixed distance (a length of string) held beneath the eye socket and measuring the height of the man (average soldier was 5'8") or horseman against the distance marks on the stadia. Read the distance on the stadia and you've got your estimate. There were antebellum optical devices that also had stadia wires in them that could be used for range finding. So the concept of the mil dot is not new. However, these would have to be privately purchased and I haven't read anything proving any officer on either side using one.

In my research I found no evidence that this was done by Union infantry.

Go to the National Battlefield Park and ask to use their library. Most Civil War National Battlefield Parks have my book (Sharpshooters (1750-1900): The Men, Their Guns, Their Story) and the subject is covered extensively in Chapter 7.
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Old February 3, 2013, 07:10 AM   #5
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Most of the "good" shooters during that time were farmers and they were already good at marksmanship.
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Old February 3, 2013, 08:38 AM   #6
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I would imagine you'd get pretty good at it since you could practice it while on the march. "How far to that big tree? To that gate?"..And so on. Want to know? Pace it off as you march.
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Old February 3, 2013, 10:13 AM   #7
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You will find, as mentioned above, that some people have a knack for it. I play golf in a league so I have different opponents each week over the course of a season. I am amazed at the inability of some to get an accurate distance even when using the markers that are on the course.

I also think that estimating distance is a learned behavior. My father and uncles were always having me estimate distances, almost like a game to them when we hunted as their Dad had done when they started.

A few years back a local gun club was facing a subdivision moving into an area directly in front of the traps across a set of old railroad tracks. The members were worried about the distance and the chance of shot falling beyond the tracks. I estimated the distance to the tracks at 280 yards. Not believing me they went into town to Dunhams bought a rangefinder and proved I was wrong by 3 yards.
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Old February 3, 2013, 12:00 PM   #8
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There's some tricks to estimating distance, too.
Like dividing the distance into smaller ones that are easier to guesstimate.
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Old February 3, 2013, 12:30 PM   #9
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THEY USED TRIANGULATION. They also used the stuff you ignored in grade school, common mathamatics. DO NOT think for one moment we are smarter than they, or that they were under any real handicaps on the battle field, or on the perifery of the battle field.
Go read how Union artillery picked off GEN Leonidas Polk with a shot dead in his guts at was over 1000 yards; ARTILLERY !!
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Old February 3, 2013, 12:59 PM   #10
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Unless the shot was paced off later, they estimated. I would be interested in knowing about optical range finders and how many were used in the Civil War, but given the ranges, the iron sights they used on artillery and things, I will bet they were not used much as it would take time. I am aware of cannons being "sighted" in Forts and batteries, so it makes sense if they had time they would range finders.

For the fast moving battles where artillery was rushed up, there is no doubt in my mind that experience was the guide.

Same thing for small arms fire. I believe John Huff could have hit Jeb Stuart, using a fence as a rest, with his pistol, at 80 rods (about 400 yards). Given how many years and battles John Huff had fought, and that he was an exceptional marksman, sometime exceptional shots are made.

Given how many battles Jeb Stuart had been in, he had thousands of rounds tossed his way, but given time, one finally connected.
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Old February 3, 2013, 01:04 PM   #11
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I read some years back that "surveyors" between Colonial times and the Civil War paced off parcels of land by foot, even in mountainous areas, and today checked out with GPS units, were mere inches off true measurements, even with thousand acre parcels of land.
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Old February 3, 2013, 01:04 PM   #12
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Before laser rangefinders there were coincidence range finders. These were used for artillery and had the ability to accurately judge ranges out to tens of miles.

I still have a coincidence range finder used for hunting that could measure range out to 1000 yards but also had a few increments beyond that for 1 and 2 miles.

Before that some used the thumb technique. If you knew how big the silhouette of a man would be compared to your thumb at 100 paces than if he were half that size it would mean he was 200 paces away. If he were 1/4 that size it would mean he was 400 paces away.

Also like others said, you could use mathematical calculations through triangulation. Similiar to the thumb technique but more precise.

Or if you have access to a relief map you could measure the distance on the map from known objects that could be indentified by yourself which could be referenced on the map.
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Old February 3, 2013, 01:05 PM   #13
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Civil War artillerymen could perform amazing shots. A 12 Pdr smoothbore once shot the tree at a mile's distance that a sharpshooter had ascended. Then again, they need only worry about windage to take the tree down.

Go to TheHighRoad.org and find the thread "Bedtime Stories or Sharpshooter Tales" if you want to read about long range rifle shooting. Here's a link to it right HERE
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Old February 3, 2013, 01:46 PM   #14
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Like anything, proficiency at it came from experience. You have to realize that back then folks spent much more time outside, walking and estimating distances. They walked behind their plows and walked as they sowed their fields. They knew how many paces it was from fence to fence cause they walked it many times a year, year after year. Wasn't too many years ago, folks used to take pride in judging/estimating distance. It was considered a skill in hunting. I remember my dad and grandpa 50 years ago making me estimate the distance around my deer stand, and then making me pace it off to see how close I was. We continuously asked each other as we walked thru the woods, "how far to that thicket?" or "how far to the creek?". We would pace it off and the one guessing closest got to take stand while the others drove deer to them. The reward meant one made it important to be correct. I remember when arrows shot from recurve/long bows had the ballistics of a big rock thrown by a small girl and being off by 5 yards when guessing distance to your target meant a miss instead of a kill. Time spent waiting on stand was passed by judging distance to openings in the brush where a shot could be taken and at the end of the day, you double checked you guesses by walkin' them off. I get a kick outta hunting shows nowadays where the hunter has a bow that shoots flat out to 50 yards and he still need to take out his $400 laser rangefinder to check the distance to the deer. "yep.....21 yards!"
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Old February 3, 2013, 02:07 PM   #15
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With their eyes.
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Old February 3, 2013, 02:08 PM   #16
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Lots of interesting info on this thread.
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Old February 3, 2013, 03:09 PM   #17
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I'm sure that it was done as well in the Civil War as it was in others.

Don't know a distance?

Get someone to pace it off.

I don't remember all the specifics, . . . one of our outfits in Vietnam were getting repeatedly beaten up by mortars that just seemed to be too accurate.

One of the guys noticed that the attacks came after the barber had been there.

He wasn't marching in to cut hair, . . . he was marching in to measure distance from A to B.

I don't remember what happened to the barber, . . . but it wasn't good.

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Old February 3, 2013, 04:12 PM   #18
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Quote:
There were also mechanical devices called stadia that could be helpful. You held the stadia a fixed distance (a length of string) held beneath the eye socket and measuring the height of the man (average soldier was 5'8") or horseman against the distance marks on the stadia. Read the distance on the stadia and you've got your estimate. There were antebellum optical devices that also had stadia wires in them that could be used for range finding. So the concept of the mil dot is not new. However, these would have to be privately purchased and I haven't read anything proving any officer on either side using one.
There are some excellent examples of these at the Gettysburg museum (or at least there were before it was renovated, I haven't been there in about 15 years) Also, I'm not certain it is period accurate, but in several scenes in The Patriot, Mel Gibson has one hanging from his jacket.
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Old February 3, 2013, 05:09 PM   #19
jabames
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Wow guys, awesome information
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Old February 3, 2013, 06:00 PM   #20
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Very many were raised in the country and were used to judging distances. It's more than just guess, it's doing it over and over. When I was arresting 5 to 8 people a shift I could come within 1" of your height, 5 lbs of your weight and a year of your age just by looking you over, lots of other Officers could too.
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Old February 3, 2013, 10:39 PM   #21
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Just think about your own experience if you played football in high school or later. You probably knew 10 yards, 40 yards, 90 yards. You didn't ask yourself how you knew. You didn't question your knowing. Daily experience just made it so.
What is true for you was true for many back then.
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Old February 3, 2013, 10:53 PM   #22
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Part of estimating range is knowing the size of some object in the distance. I have found, that if I hold my hand fully outstretched in front of me, the width of my left thumb is visually the same as a 12 feet length at 100 yards. A dime held outstretched is about 6 feet. So if I see a man standing at some unknown distance, I assume he is 6 feet or nearly so... I hold up my thumb. If his height is half the width of my thumb, or dime-size, he is 100 yards. If he is 1/4 the width, he is 200 yards.
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Old February 4, 2013, 09:18 AM   #23
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Things are not much different between the civil war period and today.

Simple fact is "a mil is a mil is a mil', always has been, always will be.

One inch from your eye is 50 mils. Or one finger from your eye is 50 mils.

(the average finger is 1 inch wide).

A common trick was to take something like a pencil or stick and cut measured notches 1 inch a part. Hold it 20 inches from your face. The notches are 50 mils apart.

Often one would tie a 20 inch string to the pencil or stick and hold one end of the string in your teeth to get a quick accurate 20 inches to the item with the notches.

-------------------------------------------------------------

The average soldier is 18 inches shoulder to shoulder, (we use 19 today, people are larger then they were 150 years ago).

We measure the front sight width of the front sight. Lets say its .075 wide.

Super impose the front sight on an 18 inch target and see if its the same width, small or larger then the target.

Divide 18 by .075 (or the width of the front sight) and you get 240.

So if your .075 is the same with as the target looking over the sights your target is 240 yards. If the front sight is twice as wide as the target its 480 yards. If its 1/2 the size of the target its 120 yards.

With a tad bit of practice, one can easily estimate the range to a known size target by the relationship of the front sight to a target.

Think about it, remember the old zero range for the M1 or M14 was 250 yards.

The average width of the M1 or M14 front sight post is .076. The target used then was the e-silhouette with was about 19 inches wide.

19/.076=250.

Nothing new under the sun, just fancy gadgets that measure the same thing.
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Old February 4, 2013, 09:29 AM   #24
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"I read some years back that "surveyors" between Colonial times and the Civil War paced off parcels of land by foot, even in mountainous areas, and today checked out with GPS units, were mere inches off true measurements, even with thousand acre parcels of land."

My Father was a civil engineer and registered land surveyor in Pennsylvania. I did a lot of field work with him over the years. He was EXCELLENT at estimating distances.

As often as not he was accurate to within a yard or two at distances as great as a half mile.

I helped him survey many areas of Central Pennsylvania which had originally been surveyed in the early 1700s. Some of the surveys were extremely accurate, others were not so much.

We surveyed one farm area that hadn't been surveyed since it had originally been laid out in the 1740s (same family was still on the land). All of the traditional boundaries were still there, stack stone fences, creeks, etc....

And all had been missurveyed 250 years before and were WILDLY off.

That one took a long time and some court work for the owners to sort out.
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Old February 4, 2013, 11:42 AM   #25
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I AM AMAZED !!! DO NOT ANY OF YOU READ HISTORY ?? HAVE YOU NOT EVER READ OF THE CIVIL WAR SNIPER DUELS THAT WERE OUT TO HELL AND GONE ?? Yee gads......
Have you not ever read of the Confederate General picked off standing in front of his tent with a picked, planned shot ?? At a mile.......
Have you not EVER read of the Union officer General SEdgwick?
The ignorance of the new whippersnapper generation is appalling.
You know, the world did not begin the day you ignoramouses were born.
And so it goes...
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