Civil War: Why muzzleloader over breech?


April 7, 2003, 12:11 AM
Okay I don't know very much about guns of this era, so enlighten me. Why was the muzzleloader chosen over the breech loader?

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April 7, 2003, 04:50 AM
if you mean "why didn't they see the light, scrap all their existing guns and adopt somebody's breechloading design?" most of the systems that existed in that timeframe had defects which would have to wait a few more years before they were overcome. Breechloaders weren't really satisfactory until the technique of deep drawing solid brass cases on a mass production basis was perfected and that didn't happen for another twenty years.
The cost was inevitably a factor too and when it eventually happened many armies tried to make the money go further by converting their stock of existing arms (the Snider and Allin systems being two obvious examples) but even then they recognised that this was only an interim solution.
'Complex, fragile mechanism' and 'danger that the soldier will shoot off all his ammunition too quickly' were two other arguments that were advanced, as they would be against magazine arms and automatic arms in their turn.

April 7, 2003, 07:25 AM
Expense had a great deal to do with it and the fact that only a couple major powers used breech loaders at the time so it was a gamble. The only breechloader that came out of the Civil War that was considered a total military success was the Spencer and it sold for around $300 IIRC. Thats the price Union soldiers paid if they wanted to buy their rifle from Uncle Sam when they were mustered out. Due to the huge number surplused onto the market, a year later a Spencer could be had for as little as $10. That is what destroyed the Spencer company, no market and the cartridge was weak compared to other military cartridges. The other breech loaders except maybe the Remington Rolling block had serious problems for a MILITARY weapon.

April 7, 2003, 08:56 AM
As I sort of very vaguely recall from history lessons, the breechloader didn't become viable untill sometime after the Civil War. Something to do with the manufacturing processes for brass cased ammo, and the ammo made was generally less powerful than what could be obtained with proper loads in the 'front stuffers'.

April 7, 2003, 10:23 AM
During the civil war period, brass cartridges were in their infancy and were very underpowered when compared to muzzle loading rifles. Both the henry and spencer rounds were essentially pistol rounds IIRC.

The sharps rifle, or Beechers Bible as they were sometimes called, used combustible paper cartridges. Closing the breech block cut the end of the cartridge and created the seal at the breech. The guns were fired using percussion caps. I believe they were used by northern sharpshooters during the later part of the war.

Mike Irwin
April 7, 2003, 01:14 PM
As noted, the biggest drawback was the lack of suitable cases.

Drawn metal cases could be made, but really only in copper. Large cases, to equal the power of the rifled musket and made from copper, weren't strong enough to stand up to the military loads of the time.

It wasn't until the middle to late 1870s that technology had advanced far enough to allow the successful, and economically feasible, deep drawing of brass cartridges strong for large rifle cases.

Another technological problem at the time was priming. A truly successful centerfire primer hadn't been developed yet, and wouldn't be developed until just after the Civil War, largely because of research during the War.

Even so, it wouldn't be until the late 1870s/early 1880s that the Military adopted a "modern" centerfire round based on the Boxer principle. Springfield did a LOT of research on centerfire ignition systems before finally concluding that the Boxer systems was the best fit.

Copper cased ammo continued to be used, mainly for rimfire ammo because the copper is easier to dent than brass, until the final line cleansings (dropping a LOT of the old cartridges, both rim and center fire from production) at the start of WW I, and again at the start of WW II.

Bart Noir
April 7, 2003, 02:59 PM
Mike Irwin is exactly right and I humbly add a few thoughts. There were breechloaders in use in Pro-versus-Anti slavery fights, even before the Civil War started in earnest. In Bleeding Kansas what would be today called "armed militia" groups fought each other, as the question of whether it should be a slave-owning state was debated, sometimes with gunpowder.

The rifle / carbines most desired were the Sharps, which was a single shot. Meanwhile, the Volcanic system (used in the first Smith & Wesson handguns and carbines) was on the verge of being developed into the Henry (after Winchester bought the entire company) and the Spencer was being developed. Both the Henry and the Spencer used essentially pistol power cartridges although at close ranges the .52 caliber Spencer must have packed a punch on both ends.

The Yankee Ordnance chief, General Ripley, hated any new ideas and Lincoln didn't can his butt for much too long, IMHO. Thus most Union troops ended up using a technology that had been new and fresh in the Mexican-American War 15 years earlier, the muzzleloading rifled musket firing the "bullet-shaped" bullet called the Minie ball. Named after a French officer, Minie, who more or less invented it, and it wasn't a round lead ball. (Yet even today, we have "ball" ammo in our M16's. What would shooting be like without all the weird trivia?)

The Spencer design couldn't be converted for longer cartridges after the war's and, as the company was hurting for new sales, Winchester bought it out.

Bart Noir
Nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool.

Mike Irwin
April 7, 2003, 03:35 PM
"The Yankee Ordnance chief, General Ripley, hated any new ideas..."


That's the contemporary wisdom on the situation facing Union troops in the Civil War, and it may partially be true, but I really think to a large degree that Ripley has taken a lot of undeserved grief.

Think of it this way...

With all the weapons in standard Union usage, even WITHOUT repeating rifles, Ripley's staff had to coordinate the purchase and deliver of well over ONE HUNDRED types of small arms ammunition.

That kind of load is simply a logistical nightmare, and I think Ripley really wisely resisted adding even more vectors into the Union supply nightmare.

Jim K
April 7, 2003, 06:01 PM
It is easy to come down on Ripley, but look at things from his viewpoint. He had to try to arm an army of millions in a short time. He also had to be concerned with cost and training factors as well. So, consider these points:

1. Cartridge manufacture was in its infancy and there were dozens of competing designs, all of which were proprietary and were available from only one source. The only thing they had in common was that they were costly.

2. In most cases, that ammunition source could not possibly have supplied the necessary ammunition for a war.

3. Breech loading and repeating rifles were the same way, with competing designs and limited production capacity.

4. The new U.S. Model 1861 rifle-musket was a simple design, and its predecessor, the Model 1855, had been in production at both Harpers Ferry and Springfield for a number of years, providing manufacturing know-how and a cadre of people expert in its manufacture.

5. Most of the actual and potential soldiers had some familiarity with muzzle loading firearms; few had ever seen a breechloader.

6. Most of the new breechloaders and repeaters were fragile, with small parts and tricky disassembly for cleaning. The Spencer and Sharps were not bad, but tearing down a Henry requires tools, practice, and a clean work area. (Today, one can usually get away with leaving a rifle uncleaned - in the 1860's an uncleaned weapon was a useless weapon.

7. The national armories were tooled up to make the Model 1861; even though one was lost, the other churned out rifle muskets in a steady stream throughout the war.

8. Contractors could be found to make the rifle-musket. (Even though it was simple, some contractors never did produce a significant number of weapons. ) Making, say, a Henry, would have involved not only patent problems, but also a complex tooling set up which few contractors could have duplicated.

9. Government cartridge factories ("laboratories") knew how to make paper cartridges by the millions. The government had NO metallic cartridge facilities, and had to buy every one of the "patent" cartridges it used, at high prices.

10. We look at the issue in hindsight. We know that the Henry/Winchester system was successful (though never adopted by a major nation) and that other systems proved rugged and reliable. But we can consider the problem in a historical context; Gen. Ripley, having a war to fight, right then, could not.


April 7, 2003, 07:30 PM
There were 10 or more breech-loading rifles used by Union forces during the Civil War. They included: Ballard, Colt M1855 Revolving Rifle, Greene, Hall, Henry, Jenkins, M 1855 Joslyn, Merrill Sharps, Sharps & Hankins, Spencer and Springfield Joslyn. In addition, there were several systems for altering muzzle loaders to breech loaders.

A complete discussion of these rifles can be found in John D. McAulay's book, Civil War Breechloading Rifles, published by Andrew Mowbray Inc., P.O. Box 460, Lincoln, RI

Mike Irwin
April 7, 2003, 08:46 PM
Don't forget the Smith and its unique rubber cartridges, as well as the Burnsides, and its very funky looking cartridge.

The Burnsides was probably the second most famous breechloader, after the Spencer, in Union use.

It also used some of the first brass cartridges (albeit a punched brass foil, not drawn from a cup).

Bart Noir
April 8, 2003, 02:24 PM
I agree with all of the above posts. Cost was a significant factor, easily overlooked by the people of today who think that the entire North supported "Mr. Lincoln's War". And the ability to actually produce arms and ammo certainly has to play a part in the selection. Let's just gripe that Ripley didn't standardize on the paper cartridge Sharps in the years before the war. Just in time to see most of them seized at Harper's Ferry by the Reb's. :D Yeah, I know that the warehouse of muskets was actually burned but when you "what if" you can get more interesting than the actual history.

Bart Noir
America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong. - Pat Conroy

April 8, 2003, 03:06 PM
Another reason is that rifles are good for show and make a soldier feel good and all but the vast majority of all casualties were (and still are) caused by artillery (and now also aerial bombardment). Leaving disease out of course.

This is true even today with our Aimpoint sights and 30 round magazines.

Why spend the time and money to retool and retrain for something that is not going to have a tremendous effect on the war effort.

Even after breech loading weapons were introduced, artillery was still the big kid on the block.


Mike Irwin
April 8, 2003, 03:51 PM
Given the tactics of the day, and the difficulty in setting artillery fuses, as well as their general unreliability, and the relatively limited effective range of many of the munitions, I'm wondering if the "artillery causes most of the casualties" was true in the Civil War.

Granted, once you get close enough for things like cannister to work...

April 8, 2003, 04:41 PM
In the bombardment that occurred against the Union Center before Picketts Charge, over 90% of the shells went long and exploded among the Union Supply Wagons in the rear. Because of the smoke and poor fuses, the Rebs were unaware of this, the rest is history. None the less, aimed shot & shell against closely packed troops has always been effective. Remember, a rifle is as accurate or more accurate than a cannon but if its not aimed correctly to begin with, it has zero effect. Its stunning to read how common it was for soldiers not to fire or reload properly. Thats one of the reasons I feel the Reb riflemen were documented to be much more effective/accurate than their Union counterparts. The Rebs were being invaded, they had the will to kill, often times the Union soldier just wasn't as motivated. The US Army Medical Corp made a pretty good study during and after the War. Its difficult to find fault with their conclusions.

Mike Irwin
April 8, 2003, 04:43 PM
"The US Army Medical Corp made a pretty good study during and after the War."

Of what?

The proportion of wounds rifle vs artillery, or the effectiveness of opposing rifle fire?

April 8, 2003, 05:34 PM
Mike Irwin,

As it appears you are a student of military history you may be interested in a book "On Killing" by LTC Grossman. I'm just gonna say his perspectives on historical armed combat are very interesting, not gospel at all, but interesting.

The book focuses on a different topic entirely but he sites one civil war battle and the weapons that were picked up after the melee and how many of them had been loaded mulitple times and not fired. It may all be bs (my view of most historians). None of us will ever know.


April 8, 2003, 05:49 PM
The Medical Corp did their study on types of wounds, what caused them ect. It was a very well done study with plenty of information. In many cases (if interesting) they continued to follow-up on the soldier after the war to see how his wounds healed and such. Study was followed through for several decades, with pictures and extensive notes. Medical Corp still has the info in its archives and they have a museum open to the public in DC.

April 9, 2003, 07:50 AM
the book 'Gunshot Wounds' by Col. Louis LaGarde, [1914] reprinted recently, draws extensively on Civil War autopsies and anatomical specimens.

Mike Irwin
April 9, 2003, 12:23 PM

There's no doubt that many weapons were picked up after battles that had multiple charges. One of the museums at Gettysburg has several on display.

Still, the percentage was likely to have been relatively small of the overall number of those involved in the battle.


OK, that makes sense. Yes, there is the museum at Walter Reed, but I'm not sure if it is open to civilians post 9-11 or not. A lot of museums that are located on active military installations, such as the Aberdeen Proving Ground, are closed to civilians.

April 9, 2003, 12:45 PM

They're not closed to civilians. They're effectively closed to people that can't get on base. I'm a civilian (see signature) but I went to the APG museum a couple weeks ago. You just need the proper ID or an escort with the proper ID.

Mike Irwin
April 9, 2003, 03:30 PM

The last conversation I had with the people at Aberdeen was a few months ago...

At that time I was told "There is no entry to the museum by anyone without either Department of Defense or Military ID."

Asked him about civilians with proper ID.

Absolute no admittance if your only purpose is to see the museum.

Mike Irwin
April 9, 2003, 03:34 PM
Just visited the Army Ordnance Museum Foundation web site.

Mr. Archerson, you are correct!

There's a new day pass in effect for people who want to visit the museum.

My only question is -- does that include the outdoor exhibits? Or is it only the hardshell museum?

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