From Smoothbore to Rifled Musket

1855 Burton.jpg
Springfield Model 1861.jpg


From Smoothbore to Rifled Musket


A musket is a long gun that is typically muzzle-loaded with a smoothbore barrel. “Muzzle-loaded” is a term that denotes how the weapon is loaded; with a muzzle-loaded gun, the bullet and gunpowder are loaded by inserting them into the barrel of the gun and using a ramrod to pack the bullet and gunpowder to the bottom of the barrel. This is a highly inefficient method of loading a gun, as the gun has to be reloaded after each shot, but the smoothbore musket was the highest technology available at the time of the American Civil War. The term “smoothbore” is used to describe any barrel that does not have spiral grooves inside it. These spiraled grooves, called “rifling,” allow a bullet to travel farther and straighter than if fired from a smoothbore weapon because the helical groove pattern inside the gun’s barrel causes the projectile to spin as it is discharged from the barrel, thus improving its range and accuracy. The transition to rifled muskets during the Civil War allowed soldiers on both sides to shoot more accurately from greater distances.

However, the rifled musket would not have been as an effective technological advancement without the invention of a bullet known as the Minié ball. In 1849, A French army officer, Claude-Étienne Minié, invented a flat-bottomed, pointed tip bullet with a hollow base, an iron plug, and lead skirting. Previously, bullets had been one solid piece of metal that was spherical in shape and inflicted small, contained wounds in its target. The image below is a diagram for the final design for Minie ball, designed by James H. Burton at the Harpers Ferry Armory in 1855. The Minié ball had a pointed tip and the lead skirting expanded as it exited the barrel, which created a larger wound in its target, often shattering bones and causing extensive tissue damage and bleeding. Paul Dougherty, MD, and Herbert Eidt, MC, co-wrote a paper in the publication Military Medicine concerning the wound ballistics of the Minié ball in the Spanish American War and the American Civil War as a way to prove its superiority over previous bullet types. The expansion of the Minié ball as it travelled through the air created a larger wound pattern and extensive bleeding in its victim, which allowed the Minié ball to inflict a much less survivable wound than a spherical bullet.[1]

After the Minié ball became popular, gun manufacturers began to produce rifled muskets that could accommodate the unique shape of the Minié Ball. One such type of musket was the Springfield Model 1861, perhaps the most commonly used musket by Union troops during the Civil War. The image below is a modern reproduction. Similarly, one of the most commonly used muskets by the Confederacy, the British Pattern 1853 Enfield, was also a Minié-type rifled musket. Though these two weapons were used on both sides, the Confederacy imported more Enfields than the Union did. The Springfield Armory, located in Massachusetts, produced more Springfields for the Union.

Smoothbore muskets were issued in the Union and Confederate armies during the beginning of the Civil War, though both armies quickly adopted a rifled musket; this was the first time in military history that most infantry soldiers were equipped with a rifled musket. The historical debate over the importance of this transition is ongoing. However, the improvement on range and accuracy found in rifled muskets and the invention of the damaging Minié ball revolutionized military technology at the time. Historians of the Civil War and American military history remain divided over debates concerning how the rifled musket affected how an army waged war. Historian Earl J. Hess argued in his book The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (2008) that the introduction of rifled muskets during the Civil War had the potential to revolutionize combat, but did not because generals underestimated their power and so battles and skirmishes often took place within the range of smoothbore muskets (about 50-100 yards) rather than rifled muskets (500 yards accurately, but up to 1,000 yards).[2] Other historians, such as Spencer Crew, have argued that the increased distance rifled muskets could accurately shoot dramatically changed the way the Civil War was fought because soldiers could engage with their enemy from greater distances. Not every soldier on the battlefield was equipped with a rifled musket, so the effect they created in combat is hard to pin down in any definitive way. Regardless, the rifled musket was technologically superior to all that came before it and revolutionized weaponry by increasing the accuracy of long rifles and paving the way for even more accurate and reliable guns in the future.

[1] Paul Joseph Dougherty and Herbert Collins Eidt, “Wound Ballistics: Minié Ball vs. Full Metal Jacketed Bullets: A Comparison of Civil War and Spanish-American War Firearms,” Military Medicine 174, no. 4 (2009): 403-407.

[2] Earl J. Hess, The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008).