A Decade of Turbulence

A Weapons Revolution

From Smoothbore Musket to Breechloading Rifle

Armoured train equipped with artillery of the Union Army during the American Civil War

Caption: Armoured train equipped with artillery of the Union Army during the American Civil War

View Multimedia - Changes in Weapons

Caption: View Multimedia - Changes in Weapons

The American Civil War, which could be called the first "modern" war, served as a laboratory for an impressive number of deadly new weapons such as the repeating rifle, the first torpedoes, heavy artillery on railways, and turret-mounted guns on battleships. For the first time, trains were used to transport large numbers of troops. Military communications by telegraph also appeared. The rank and file of both armies were virtually all relatively untrained volunteers, but they were armed with guns of unprecedented accuracy.

Small arms had not advanced appreciably between the end of the seventeenth century and the 1830s and 1840s, when the percussion mechanism for firing was introduced. This system, which was more reliable than the gun flint, appeared in the British army in 1836 with the adoption of the Brunswick rifle for rifle corps. In 1838 the Guards infantry battalions sent to Canada were equipped with percussion muskets. Because there was unanimity regarding the reliability of the weapon, its use was extended to all of the infantry within a few years. But even though the percussion musket fired reliably, its range remained the same as that of the weapons it replaced.

It was then discovered that a conically shaped bullet fired from a rifled barrel could go much further - with greater accuracy - and this discovery revolutionized weaponry. In 1851 part of the British army adopted the Minié rifled musket; then in 1853 the whole army chose the rifled-barrelled Enfield. The Enfield could shoot a bullet onto a 0.9-metre target at a distance of 825 metres, and onto a 0.6-metre target from approximately 400 metres! The Canadian volunteers were supplied with the Enfield rifled musket from 1856 onward.

However, the rifled gun was still muzzle-loaded, which meant that it could be fired only about three times per minute. The solution for speeding up fire was simple: breech-loading, if possible, with a repeating mechanism. Many inventions designed to do just that were tested during the American Civil War. But repeating cavalry rifles were still too inaccurate for the infantry, which preferred a one-shot breech-loading weapon that fired accurately, approximately six shots per minute. The Prussian army already had such a weapon; the French and American armies would have theirs in 1866. The British army chose the breech-loading system invented by the American Jacob Snider, which could be adapted to the existing Enfield rifled muskets. In 1867-68 some 350,000 guns of this type were modified accordingly, to become the Snider-Enfield rifle.

Additional Images

The fight of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, Hampton Roads, Virginia, 9 March 1862
Model 1853 Enfield rifled musket barrel side and cross sections
Snider-Enfield breech-loading rifled musket and its mechanism, 1867