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Rifles That Made America: War of 1812

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For those that slept through most of history class, this next war might come as a shocker. The Revolutionary War wasn’t the last time America fought the British. In fact, in the War of 1812 the British even burned down the White House! America’s second conflict required a new service rifle. Two main rifles were used by the American Soldier: The Springfield Model 1795 musket and the Harper’s Ferry U.S. Model 1803 rifle. Of the two, the Harper’s Ferry Model 1803 was truly the more advanced (and will be the main focus here).
So what makes the Model 1803 rifle any different than service weapons before it? The main difference was the use of rifling in the barrel. With spiraling grooves built into the barrel, the projectiles would now spin in a pattern, speeding up the round as well making it considerably more accurate. The use of rifling would prove to be so successful that it became the dominant weapon type of the Civil War, as well as being featured in almost all modern rifle designs.

How much of a difference did barrel rifling make? After all, who needed to shoot further than the 75 yard Model 1795? How about shooting accurately at twice that distance? That’s right; the Harper’s Ferry could hit a target at 150 yards or twice that of its smoothbore counterpart. However, the superior range of rifling came at a price. Rounds back then were still loose projectiles stuffed down the barrel, and as such they heavily relied on a tight fit to ensure the round caught the rifling as it passed through the barrel. The heavy black powder of the time made the rifles foul up very quickly.

Another major advantage of the Model 1803 was the relatively smaller size than the smoothbore. On average, the Model 1803 was 8-11 inches shorter while shedding a pound of weight over the Model 1795. This greatly contributed to its use for smaller units such as snipers that could afford to quickly retreat after each shot. The weapon design would become a favorite on the frontier for its improved ergonomics.

Despite the clear advantages of the Model 1803 rifle, the War of 1812 was still fought predominantly with the Model 1795 musket. This weapon was so popular in fact that around 150,000 of these muskets were made by hand during its lifespan! It saw use from the late 1700s until the end of the Civil War. While not as revolutionary as its Harper’s Ferry counterpart (the 1795 was based almost entirely on the French Charleville musket used in the Revolutionary War), due to the fighting tactics of massed volleys at the time, the smoothbore musket still saw the vast majority of the action in American wars. The maximum effective range was still a pitiful 50-75 yards, with a skilled shooter having the ability to squeeze 3-4 shots a minute under the right conditions. At 5 feet in length, the Model 1795 was almost as long as the shooter!

Though the Model 1795 would be used in the Civil War, it would get dominated by the appearance of a new Springfield rifle: the legendary Springfield Model 1861. In the next segment, we will discuss how this dangerous new weapon would define America’s bloodiest conflict.