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Old May 26, 2005, 11:09 PM   #1
4V50 Gary
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A brief discussion on technology between flint & percussion

Tactical skirmishing became universal during the Napoleonic Wars and the effectiveness of the French Voltigeurs and Tirailleurs convinced the British Army to raise its own light infantry and riflemen. The Austro-Hungarians, Russians and various German states already had jägers who served as skirmishers. By the time of the American Civil War virtually all infantry were trained in skirmishing. Additionally, both sides raised sharpshooter units that specialized as light infantry. Considered elite troops, sharpshooters often had the most dangerous assignments - in the skirmish line if not ahead of it. To a certain extent, this was offset by superior firearms and training.
Skirmishing itself had not changed much since Napoleon. One soldier describes skirmishing: “When once we were deployed, every man chose his own manner of fighting, sheltering himself behind a tree, stump, log, or any thing else that kept him partially out of sight. He gets shot at every time he moves or shows himself in the least, and also shoots at every enemy that he gets a fair glimpse of. Good marksmanship will do fearful execution when skirmishing, often more than the firing of a whole battalion when firing in the line of battle. The skirmisher, if he is good, has a good gun, and is cool and steady handed, will make sure of his mark almost every time...”
In the forty-six years between the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War, technological advances in firearms development increased the lethality of small arms. Some will be discussed here.

I. Percussion Ignition

Foremost change came with Rev. A. Forsyth’s discovery of the explosive property of fulminate of mercury, which he patented on April 11, 1807. When not at the pulpit, Rev. Forsyth was an avid wildfowler who was frustrated whenever birds reacted to his flintlock’s “flash” by flushing. He sought a less discernable combustion and found that fulminate of mercury when mixed with chlorate of potash produced the desired results. Several clumsy attempts were made to adapt Forsyth’s work to firearms and it was only after Joshua Shaw placed Forsyth’s compound into a copper cap or more properly, a percussion cap, that it was successfully adapted to firearms. Since the percussion cap was more rainproof and less prone to failure than the flintlock and faster to use, virtually all armies were re-equipping their troops with them in the 1830's.

Taking advantage of Reverend Forsyth’s discovery was a dentist named Maynard. The fulminate of mercury was applied in small, measured distance dabs on a strip of copper. This was rolled up like a child’s paper cap and stored within a special cavity in the gun lock. Cocking the hammer caused the roll to be advanced such that the hammer would fall upon a ready priming charge. While the Myanard Tape Primer speeded up the rate of fire, especially in cold weather when fingers were numb, it was susceptible to moisture. To offset this, the standard musket cap could always be resorted to as a back-up system. While it was adopted for the pre-war Model 1855 Springfield musket, the later Model 1861 and Model 1863 discarded it to simplify production.

The Model 1859 Sharps breechloading rifle also featured the Lawrence 50 pellet priming system. In lieu of a paper roll, the explosive compound was placed into tiny copper pellets that would “jump” from its magazine and be caught by the hammer as it fell. While the Lawrence priming system did have this advantage, most men preferred using caps unless there was either a dramatic need for increased rate of fire or when the fingers became numb with cold. On order of Ordnance Chief Ripley (probably to reduce cost and to increase production), the Lawrence automatic pellet priming system was discarded on the later Model 1863 Sharps.

II. The round ball’s eclipse

Nor was bullet design neglected and after centuries of the round ball’s predominance as the primary small arm missile, it was superceded. The minié ball, which was mentioned in the previous chapter, had a flaw. Loss of the plug would cause the skirt not to expand and the ball would tumble inaccurately from the muzzle. In 1854, Harper Ferry Armorer James H. Burton’s refined the minié by redesigning the skirt such that the bullet would expand without the aid of the plug. As the plug was no longer needed, the fear of losing the plug while loading became moot and the minié ball, more properly the Burton Ball, had come of age. For the first time regular line infantry could be armed with a weapon, the rifle musket, which loaded as fast as a musket yet enjoyed the rifle’s accuracy.

Furthermore, the minié ball was much more deadly than the round ball as one Confederate armed with a Mississippi learned. After his first engagement against the Union troops he wrote: “The regiment halted just behind the crest of the hill. The skirmishers advanced to the edge of the ravine under fire. We were ordered to lie down and open fire on the enemy. How far off were they? That was determined by three shots. One overshot, which was to go beyond, one undershot to fall short so you could easily calculate the range and the third shot meant business. I shot. Then I asked Johnnie to let me know where my ball hit. I raised the sight to five hundred yards and shot at the skirmishers opposite me. He did not take notice but deliberately continued loading and shooting. Many of our boys were firing by that time, but the Yanks were doing good work, for they killed several of our skirmishers. We then found that our Mississippi rifle would not carry as far as the Yankees’ Enfield rifle did, so orders were given to cease firing and fall back. We raced back and the only reason we ran was because we could not fly...”

The minié was deadly even at half a mile’s distance as one surgeon learned: “I was loading my ambulance one day at Cold Harbor with wounded men to send to the Corps Hospital, when a bullet struck the near horse just back of the shoulder, and passed through the horse, which instantly fell dead, then entered the off horse in a like manner and lodged under the skin of the off side; this off horse stood a moment, then fell dead on the near horse.” While it is unlikely that the horses were the intended target but instead that the bullet was either a stray or drifted from its aimed course, its ability to kill two horses at a half mile is remarkable.

Writing before the war, Lt. C. Wilcox warned: “Formerly artillery began battles; it could take its position at pleasure in front of infantry and deliver its fire without incurring danger or loss from the fire in return of the infantry. Now that the range of the rifle is equal, if not superior, to that of field-pieces, the influence of light artillery in battles will be lessened.
In the experiment at Hythe, in 1856, the effect of the fire of the Enfield rifle upon a piece of artillery with its men and horses was shown to be such, that it would be impossible for a field-battery to remain in front of infantry at a distance of 810 yards for ten minutes; three minutes alone sufficed at that distance for 30 files to wound the men and horses to such an extent as to disable the piece.”

Confirming Wilcox’s claim is John Gibbon who wrote, “The fire of the ordinary musket is uncertain beyond 200 yards, the variations in height, from one shot to another, at that distance, often exceed one or one and a half yards. But when troops are in compact masses, the fire is still very effective beyond that distance. At 650 yards the musket-bullet is still very deadly, and instances have been known where men have been killed or wounded at greater distances. In general, the infantry soldier in the excitement of battle, does not make full use of the accuracy of fire of his arm, which has led some to think there is no great advantage in perfecting the accuracy of fire of arms intended for the use of the mass of troops. But this is evidently a mistake, since out of a number of shots fired from any two pieces, that one which is the most accurate, will have the greatest number effective... The effective range of the rifle spherical bullet, is over 400 yards. The oblong rifle-bullet is effective at 1,000 yards; but these arms exhibit their marked superiority when used by isolated marksmen.” John Gibbon adds: “[t]he best position for such an arm is in the hands of superior marksman, detached as light infantry, or in deliberate firing from behind obstacles of some kind.” Another officer summed up the advantage of the long range minié rifle: “Will you dispatch General Cox that our long-range muskets are much needed in the present service. Our experience the last few days satisfies every one that a man who can kill at 400 yards is worth three or four men with common muskets.”

Another advantage of the minié gun (guns firing the minie ball were sometimes called minie guns by the soldiers) is that virtually every infantryman thus armed was a potential sharpshooter. Prior to this, shooting beyond 300 yards could only have been performed by the best riflemen. Not only were the guns longer range, but also had better penetration than the round ball musket or rifle.
Vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt. Molon Labe!
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Old May 26, 2005, 11:09 PM   #2
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III. Breechloading Firearms

Another pre-Civil War development is the breech loader. Breech loaders made prior to the American Civil War featured complicated mechanisms that were either too delicate for field service or, because of extensive hand fitting by a skilled craftsman, too cost prohibitive for mass production. Furthermore, many of these early flintlock breechloaders suffered from gas leakage - minimally distractive and potentially dangerous. What made breechloaders feasible was the Industrial Revolution with its advancements in machining technology. Closer tolerances could be machined rather than left to the eye of a craftsman. This meant that breechloaders that eliminated the gas leakage problem was finally practical and could be massed produced during the Civil War, the Union fielded several breechloaders including the Burnsides, Maynard, Jenkins and the Sharps rifle. It goes without saying that the breech loader’s higher rate of fire was somewhat offset by increased ammunition consumption and greater demands on the logistics system. This was the major objection to their adoption by Union Ordnance Chief Ripley. As demonstrated by Sharpshooter Wyman White who was armed with a Sharps breechloader, it was a disadvantage that was outweighed by its advantages:

“As we went into the woods, I saw a small redoubt built of logs with a good blanket of earth in front and was thrown up either for the rebel officers or surgeons. It was quite a distance to the rear of their main line and between the two was a rise of ground, so that neither one could be seen from the other. From where I was at the summit of the rise, it looked to me a good protection from the rebel bullets which were strongly in evidence.

“I ran down to it, putting myself in considerable advance of the skirmish line. I was watching for smoke or a Rebel, when I discovered a mound of earth some little ways out in front of me. I noticed something that looked like a rifle sticking up the other side of the earth. I soon discovered that the rifle moved and I sent a bullet at the rifle. It struck the earth just at the top, very close to the rifle barrel. The effects of the shot stirred up a commotion. I saw the second rifle and I knew there were two rebels in the hole and I thought they were about to run away. I then gave them, or their earth protection, another bullet. There was more commotion and I was puzzled and somewhat doubtful what to do. Finally, I put several bullets into their bank of earth, so they thought there must be several Yankees on to them, thanks to my breech loading rifle.

“They did not dare to run or fire for they saw that I could hit them sure if I got sight of them. After I had given them several shots in quick succession, they made signs that they wanted to surrender. Then I called to them to come in and judge my surprise when five big Rebels came out of the den, one after the other.”

IV. The Metallic cartridge becomes popular

The final development that had profound tactical implications during the Civil War was the development of the metallic cartridge. In its infancy during the 1840's, the metallic cartridge made repeating rifles practical for the first time. Initially early breechloading cartridge weapons were single shot firearms capable of a higher sustained rate of fire than a muzzleloader. However, designers were not about to rest upon their laurels and one in particular saw potential for magazine fed, rapid firing firearms. The first modern repeater, the lever action, so called because it was operated by the downward thrust of the lever to eject the spent shell and to chamber a fresh cartridge, was invented in time for the war. The lever action rifle not only gave a higher rate of fire over the single shot breech loaders, but were also quick to reload. Another advantage of the metallic cartridge was that it was self-contained and waterproof. Unlike the soldiers armed with muzzleloaders that used fragile paper cartridges, soldiers with metallic cartridge firearms could ford a stream with out having to be so careful about wetting their cartridges. Col. Wilder of the First Brigade of Mounted Infantry: “[T]he men in my command carry 100 rounds of ammunition in their saddle bags, and in two instances went into a fight immediately after swimming their horses across streams twelve feet deep and it is very rare that a single cartridge fails to fire.”

The repeater rifle was also responsible for a new assault tactic - walking fire. We learn of it from Spencer armed infantryman. “‘Now, by God,’ said Kilpatrick, ‘let us see what they can do here with that peculiar gun of theirs that they cling to so tightly.’ We were ordered to take the hill. We had a hard job on our hands, and it would take some effective work, so we dismounted, as we could do double the execution dismounted. We left our horses and wheeled into line without losing a minute’s time. Before we had our line scarcely formed the rebels opened on us from the hill. We gave one long continued yell and started on a run up the hill, pumping one continuous roll of musketry on to the barricade, raining the leaden balls on to those rails like hail stones on a roof. No rebel dared raise his head to shoot again and we were in perfect safety. The rebels saw at a glance that they only had a minute to decide between surrender or leg bail, and they choose the latter and ran down the south slope of the hill faster than we could up the north slope... Kilpatrick was ever after as warm a friend to the Spencer as any man that carried one” Prior to this demonstration, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick wanted his men to exchange their Spencers for a single shot carbine and a sabre.

Despite its obvious advantage, rimfire ammunition was not without its hazards. “One of Robinson’s men had taken all the tins from his cartridge box and filled it with loose Spencer ammunition. A shot struck it and exploded enough shells to tear open all the stitching between the outer leathern face and sides, and the outside hung dangling down from the waist belt. The man’s answer to an inquiry what had happened, was, ‘Ammunition wagon blowed up, sir.’ No one was seriously hurt in this affair.”
Vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt. Molon Labe!
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Old May 27, 2005, 12:03 AM   #3
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Great Read

Thanks for the entertaining and informative thread.

In a world devoid of semiautomatics, a properly set-up Webley is the ultimate full-size self-defense handgun.
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Old May 27, 2005, 09:23 AM   #4
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"Yeah, well whatcher gonna do when you run outta them little nipple hugger things and a couple o' blackfeet is found yer trail? A man kin always find himself a bit o' flint er agate that'll work and allow hise'f to keep his har!

"An' how's it a minnie ball when it ain't round? Yer gonna haf ta show me how ta git one o' dose outta me mold..."

Many of the American Mountain Men were not expecially receptive to military advances in technology. And they were pretty much gone by the time breech loaders and metallic cartridges came into being.

Nice article, Gary.
What part of "... shall not be infringed..." don't you understand?

My site - stop by n see what I'm all about... Yes, there is gun stuff.
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