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Rifles That Made America: Civil War

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This next rifle is a historical favorite. With accuracy far exceeding its predecessors, this rifle came along in time for the bloodiest conflict in American history. This legendary weapon was the Springfield Model 1861 rifle.

Being a rifle, the first object to note is the rifling in the barrel. Unlike prior American conflicts where the majority of weapons shot a round ball, the Civil War was the first American conflict where the minie ball saw widespread use.

Unlike the round musket ball, the minie ball was pointed and more aerodynamic, meaning wounds from being struck by one were much different than its predecessor. The .58 caliber minie ball would pierce and spin through the body, often spiraling through a limb until it exited. The damage was extensive, and if the round struck bone, you were almost guaranteed an amputation.

Though the Model 1861 rifle had an extended effective range of up to 400 yards, the massed formation tactics of the time period meant units were still fighting at much closer ranges. The Model 1861 exhibited a “rainbow” trajectory, meaning it was quite common for units to shoot entirely over their opponent’s heads!

The Model 1861 also brought the innovative development of iron sights. Two flip up iron sights, one marked 3 and one marked 5, allowed aimed shooting of 300 and 500 yards respectively. Additionally, if both sights were flipped down, the rifle would be set for 100 yards. This obviously allowed for far more options when it came to shooting the rifle.

The demand for the Model 1861 was overwhelming. Initially built by Springfield Armory, the demand increased so rapidly that between 700,000 to one million total rifles were produced by over twenty different contractors. Production continued after the war ended until 1872.

Despite many advantages, the 1861 still suffered from many of the drawbacks of all muzzle loaders. A skilled shot could still only fire about three shots per minute. The goal of an aspiring marksman was to accurately shoot three shots per minute at 500 yards. Another disadvantage was due to the unique triangular bayonet lug, only a bayonet designed for the Model 1861 would be connectable to the front of the weapon. Though the weapon was accurate to around 500 yards, this obviously only applied to a skilled marksman. With the overwhelming amount of soldiers recruited by both sides of the war in such a short time, often massed fire tactics had to be used to effectively inflict casualties against the enemy. The newfound range of these rifles however was enough of a threat that artillery had to alter their ranges to not get cut down in the ensuing fire!

The Model 1861 rifle marked the beginning and end of eras. During the war, breech loaded rifles that were significantly easier to load began to appear. In fact, a Springfield Model 1865 breech loader could fire up to 8 to 10 rounds per minute, effectively three times as many rounds as the muzzle loader! The Model 1861 saw the advantages of rifling take hold, but the slow nature of loading through the muzzle eventually spelled doom for these rifles.