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The Rifle Musket, Rethought

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January 30, 2014

The Rifle Musket, Rethought

By David E. Petzal

“Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” is a terrific new book by a historian named Allen C. Guelzo, who is a fine writer, a superlative researcher, and a radical thinker. I’ve been reading about the battle practically since it happened, and I doubted that anyone could come up with anything really new, but he has.

Guelzo has drawn a number of conclusions that will infuriate some and enrage others, but among the most startling of his conclusions is this (in my words): The horrendous number of casualties over those three days was caused not by the effectiveness of the rifle musket, but by the poor training (or nonexistent training) of the soldiers involved, the near impossibility of controlling them in any kind of effective fashion, and the epic incompetence of some of the generals involved. It was, he states, an era of combat in which it was still more or less safe to stand erect on the field of battle.

Some of this makes sense. The British used the rifle musket in the Crimean War, a decade before Gettysburg, so what it could do was hardly a mystery. And it’s true that many of the soldiers involved, North and South, were incompetent in its use. After the battle, Union ordnance collected thousands of muskets with multiple charges rammed down their bores, some exploded, some not; in their hysteria, soldiers thought they were firing but weren’t.

Moreover, Guelzo states, the actual rate of fire for a rifle musket was not the three rounds per minute that is usually claimed, but one every four and a half minutes. And as for drawing a bead on an enemy soldier hundreds of yards away, the battlefield was usually so shrouded in smoke that all you could see was the feet of your enemy and muzzle flashes amidst the murk.

Arguing against this is the fact that of all the casualties inflicted in the Civil War, 90 percent (This figure varies somewhat, but 90 percent is a safe average) were caused by musket fire, with artillery, bayonets, and swords doing the rest of the work.

Nor was it safe to remain upright. Officers, through general rank, were supposed to stand, or sit their saddles through a battle or be viewed with contempt. Most of them did, and they were killed in droves. The troops learned very early on that to march toward an objective (as in Pickett’s Charge, or the Union assaults at Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor) was to commit suicide, and if left to their own devices they went forward in rushes, as infantrymen do today. If you were upright, you were dead. Guelzo, I think, underplays the ability of the men who fought there. Early in the war (First Manassas, Antietam) battles were collisions between armed mobs, but by the time of Gettysburg, it was a contest between the hard core of both armies. The soldiers were nearly all veterans and knew what they were about, as did many of their officers.

I’d like to make it perfectly clear that I disagree with Mr. Guelzo on this one point, and who knows, he may be right and not I. Either way, if you’re a Civil War buff, “Gettysburg: the Last Invasion,” should be right at the top of your reading list. It is fresh, insightful, vivid, and will make it plain to you that you would not want the dreams of anyone who survived that battle.

Comments (19)

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from Trap12 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

The smoke that lingered on the battlefields during the civil war was a significant factor that shaped some of the tactics of the era. A maid goal for a force in the defense was to sustain a volume of fire in the direction of the enemy's avenues of approach.

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from Ralph the Rifleman wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

Sounds like an interesting book, Dave, and it seems many a movie fail to show the black smoke aspect of battles back then! In fact, while watching a "West Tech" episode on the history channel it was mentioned that during a shoot out the lawmen were out classed by the bad guys who were using smokeless powder making it difficult for the lawmen to pin down their location which aided the bad guys in making an escape!

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from Harold wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

In 1860 Napoleon still ruled the battlefield. What you report isn't surprising. That's how wars were fought then and few generals REALLY studied foreign wars or brushed off the facts if they didn't conform to their prejudices. It was thought that the men had to stand up or they couldn't reload. The generals were still ignorant of the effects of technology in WWI despite several demonstrations of the machineguns effectiveness.

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from Mark-1 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

DP, think you’re spot on giving a raised-eyebrow to Guelzo’s claims. The charge of untrained soldiers and ill-lead battles is probably true during the Battle of Manassas and of Shiloh. I don’t believe the charge can be promoted by Gettysburg or even at Antietam.

Training was done at the regimental level in this years with the regiment’s colonel responsible although delegated to the company commanders. If there is merit in Guelzo’s position it could be that no amount of training by lieutenants and captains could overcome seeing their units decimated by poor higher commands at the brigade/division/corps level.

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from WC wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

Due to its rainbow trajectory, the rifled musket was only effective when the sight setting was matched to range (100 yard increments). The British army spent a great deal of training time on this, Union and Confederate armies next to none. So even as late in the war as Gettysburg, experienced Union regiments such as the New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians of the Irish Brigade, and Confederate North Carolina regiments (particulary the 3rd) preferred to use the .69 caliber U.S. 1942 smoothbore musket (or the 1808 percussion conversion), shooting one .65 caliber round ball and 3 .32 caliber buckshot (the "buck and ball"). It was effective to the normal combat engagement distance of 200 yards, had a relatively flat (no sight adjustment) trajectory to that distance, and was much faster to reload during sustained firing with a dirty bore. Also much more forgiving of aiming (or lack thereof) errors.

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from Del in KS wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

SFC Petzal, Thanks for the info. I have got to read that book. In a few months the wife and I plan to visit an old Sergeant Major hunting buddy that lives near Fredricksburg, VA in our RV. We plan to stay a while and visit Gettysburg and DC before moving on to Philly.

SFC, (retired)

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from Del in KS wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

BTW musket smoke is white like fog and smells of sulfur.

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from fordman155 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

I'll sum up a lot of Civil War battles with this: he who shoots from behind a stone wall usually wins.

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from huntslow wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

We live very close to Gettysburg and know some licensed battlefield guides and many who have studied the battle. Most of them would agree that the troops were well trained. Eye witness accounts generally state that Pickett's charge was well disciplined. I have seen volley firing of period muskets and rifles and the smoke makes precision firing impossible (unless it is quite windy. I look forward to reading this book

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from Zermoid wrote 11 weeks 1 day ago

The convenience of black powder, firepower and smoke screen in one handy package......

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from Longbeard wrote 11 weeks 1 day ago

I think you were right in the first place, Dave. The War of Northern Aggression has been thoroughly examined every which way from Sunday. Unless some new evidence suddenly pops up, less and less likely as time goes on, the only way someone is going to come up with "really new" as you say, is to make up some crazy, illogical assertions with no concrete support predicated upon interpretation of mid-19th century customs, morals, and technology based on those of today. There ain't nothing new under the sun or at one of the most completely analyzed battles of any war on this earth. Mr. Guelzo is just another snake oil salesman trying to make a buck.

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from ITHACASXS wrote 11 weeks 23 hours ago

The War of Northern Aggression. No doubt, there is much truth in that term. I do believe, however, that any Southern historian that denies that a great (and vocal) portion of the South was spoiling for a fight is being less than honest.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jake58 wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

Chivalry in warfare is ridiculous. Napoleonic tactics and relatively modern weapons? No wonder 50,000 casualties in 3 days of fighting. Pickets Charge might be the biggest waste of men ever.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from O Garcia wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

the English abandoned the long bow 500 years too soon

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from O Garcia wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

one round every four and a half minutes sounds like the rate of fire of the earliest rifles with tight fitting ball, before the invention of the patched ball and the Minie ball. of course, this could mean the actual effective rate of fire, including fumbles, improper loads, double loads, moving to a new firing line, etc. but it is still too slow.

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from Mark-1 wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

@ Garcia & Blog: For what it's worth I regularly saw N/S Skirmishers fire 7 to 8 shots a minute and keep all their shots within 6" at 100-yds. I've read the standard fire and reload during the Civil War was 4-shots within a minute. Troops on both sides were drilled to ad nauseum loading and firing to meet that standard.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

The "War of Northern Aggression?" Pffft! Give me a freaking break! Who fired the first shots at Fort Sumter? Not the "Northern Aggressors!" All kinds of other excuses for the conflict have been offered up by revisionist historians of various ilk during various trendy periods of revisionism - which each seem to last about as long as a cheap pair of new jockey shorts. But the truth is as stark and plain (and maybe as embarrassing) as the nose on my face - slavery was simply not going to fade away as the founding fathers had anticipated. And the United States simply could not continue if slavery continued. Indeed, the world could not continue if slavery continued. That is the core of the message sent to us nearly TWO THOUSAND YEARS earlier by a fella who got nailed to a cross for preaching it. By clinging to slavery in spite of God and the rest of the civilized world, the South became the aggressor! Period. Multiple revisionists - particularly those sympathetic to the South or Karl Marx - have tried to put different spins on events and overly magnify other contributing factors, but slavery was THE cause of the conflict.

Guelzo is just another guy trying to make his mark revising history. And he appears to be doing it by revising the facts. Perhaps under very heavy fire dodging bullets it might take a soldier in the Civil War four and a half minutes to reload but I know from my own experience as a reenactor that it can be done MUCH faster than that. To imply that four minutes was the "actual rate of time" for reloading is preposterous. Just crap. I would say that even a very poorly trained soldier shooting from cover (I would conservatively estimate that at least half the time in half the battles half the soldiers were shooting from trenches or from behind redoubts or barricades) should be able to get a cap replaced and paper charge package and ball driven home in a minute and a half ... TOPS! For crying out loud, an artillery piece firing a 32 lb ball could be reloaded in less than four minutes (I was formerly certified in the National Park Service to fire those as well) and they had to be swabbed clean with water before reloading. Four and a half minutes? That's absurd. David, I'm very surprised you bought into that.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 1015-1045 wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

Lt Col (ret) David Grossman has performed perhaps the most extensive study of killing in combat (On Killing, among others) and suggests that the loaded muskets, coupled with the presence of large numbers of multiple loaded ones, were a consequence of soldiers unwilling to kill their fellow man (a phenomenon which was still a huge problem in WWII). The military took this to heart and changed (radically) the manner in which troops are trained.
On another note, your re-enactors are not facing the real prospect of being wounded or killed while they are performing these reloading exercises. My guess would be that there would be a greatly reduced rate of fire in such a situation, with fine motor skills diminishing greatly.
Couldn't speak to the Civil War per se, but modern casualty infliction is largely performed by heavy weaponry and machine gun fire (as well as CAS), not shoulder-fired small arms.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from WA Mtnhunter wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

"...were a consequence of soldiers unwilling to kill their fellow man..."

I think the military figured that one out a long time ago.

WAM

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Post a Comment

from Harold wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

In 1860 Napoleon still ruled the battlefield. What you report isn't surprising. That's how wars were fought then and few generals REALLY studied foreign wars or brushed off the facts if they didn't conform to their prejudices. It was thought that the men had to stand up or they couldn't reload. The generals were still ignorant of the effects of technology in WWI despite several demonstrations of the machineguns effectiveness.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from jake58 wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

Chivalry in warfare is ridiculous. Napoleonic tactics and relatively modern weapons? No wonder 50,000 casualties in 3 days of fighting. Pickets Charge might be the biggest waste of men ever.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

The "War of Northern Aggression?" Pffft! Give me a freaking break! Who fired the first shots at Fort Sumter? Not the "Northern Aggressors!" All kinds of other excuses for the conflict have been offered up by revisionist historians of various ilk during various trendy periods of revisionism - which each seem to last about as long as a cheap pair of new jockey shorts. But the truth is as stark and plain (and maybe as embarrassing) as the nose on my face - slavery was simply not going to fade away as the founding fathers had anticipated. And the United States simply could not continue if slavery continued. Indeed, the world could not continue if slavery continued. That is the core of the message sent to us nearly TWO THOUSAND YEARS earlier by a fella who got nailed to a cross for preaching it. By clinging to slavery in spite of God and the rest of the civilized world, the South became the aggressor! Period. Multiple revisionists - particularly those sympathetic to the South or Karl Marx - have tried to put different spins on events and overly magnify other contributing factors, but slavery was THE cause of the conflict.

Guelzo is just another guy trying to make his mark revising history. And he appears to be doing it by revising the facts. Perhaps under very heavy fire dodging bullets it might take a soldier in the Civil War four and a half minutes to reload but I know from my own experience as a reenactor that it can be done MUCH faster than that. To imply that four minutes was the "actual rate of time" for reloading is preposterous. Just crap. I would say that even a very poorly trained soldier shooting from cover (I would conservatively estimate that at least half the time in half the battles half the soldiers were shooting from trenches or from behind redoubts or barricades) should be able to get a cap replaced and paper charge package and ball driven home in a minute and a half ... TOPS! For crying out loud, an artillery piece firing a 32 lb ball could be reloaded in less than four minutes (I was formerly certified in the National Park Service to fire those as well) and they had to be swabbed clean with water before reloading. Four and a half minutes? That's absurd. David, I'm very surprised you bought into that.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from 1015-1045 wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

Lt Col (ret) David Grossman has performed perhaps the most extensive study of killing in combat (On Killing, among others) and suggests that the loaded muskets, coupled with the presence of large numbers of multiple loaded ones, were a consequence of soldiers unwilling to kill their fellow man (a phenomenon which was still a huge problem in WWII). The military took this to heart and changed (radically) the manner in which troops are trained.
On another note, your re-enactors are not facing the real prospect of being wounded or killed while they are performing these reloading exercises. My guess would be that there would be a greatly reduced rate of fire in such a situation, with fine motor skills diminishing greatly.
Couldn't speak to the Civil War per se, but modern casualty infliction is largely performed by heavy weaponry and machine gun fire (as well as CAS), not shoulder-fired small arms.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Trap12 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

The smoke that lingered on the battlefields during the civil war was a significant factor that shaped some of the tactics of the era. A maid goal for a force in the defense was to sustain a volume of fire in the direction of the enemy's avenues of approach.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ralph the Rifleman wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

Sounds like an interesting book, Dave, and it seems many a movie fail to show the black smoke aspect of battles back then! In fact, while watching a "West Tech" episode on the history channel it was mentioned that during a shoot out the lawmen were out classed by the bad guys who were using smokeless powder making it difficult for the lawmen to pin down their location which aided the bad guys in making an escape!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark-1 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

DP, think you’re spot on giving a raised-eyebrow to Guelzo’s claims. The charge of untrained soldiers and ill-lead battles is probably true during the Battle of Manassas and of Shiloh. I don’t believe the charge can be promoted by Gettysburg or even at Antietam.

Training was done at the regimental level in this years with the regiment’s colonel responsible although delegated to the company commanders. If there is merit in Guelzo’s position it could be that no amount of training by lieutenants and captains could overcome seeing their units decimated by poor higher commands at the brigade/division/corps level.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from WC wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

Due to its rainbow trajectory, the rifled musket was only effective when the sight setting was matched to range (100 yard increments). The British army spent a great deal of training time on this, Union and Confederate armies next to none. So even as late in the war as Gettysburg, experienced Union regiments such as the New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians of the Irish Brigade, and Confederate North Carolina regiments (particulary the 3rd) preferred to use the .69 caliber U.S. 1942 smoothbore musket (or the 1808 percussion conversion), shooting one .65 caliber round ball and 3 .32 caliber buckshot (the "buck and ball"). It was effective to the normal combat engagement distance of 200 yards, had a relatively flat (no sight adjustment) trajectory to that distance, and was much faster to reload during sustained firing with a dirty bore. Also much more forgiving of aiming (or lack thereof) errors.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Del in KS wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

SFC Petzal, Thanks for the info. I have got to read that book. In a few months the wife and I plan to visit an old Sergeant Major hunting buddy that lives near Fredricksburg, VA in our RV. We plan to stay a while and visit Gettysburg and DC before moving on to Philly.

SFC, (retired)

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Del in KS wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

BTW musket smoke is white like fog and smells of sulfur.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from fordman155 wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

I'll sum up a lot of Civil War battles with this: he who shoots from behind a stone wall usually wins.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from huntslow wrote 11 weeks 2 days ago

We live very close to Gettysburg and know some licensed battlefield guides and many who have studied the battle. Most of them would agree that the troops were well trained. Eye witness accounts generally state that Pickett's charge was well disciplined. I have seen volley firing of period muskets and rifles and the smoke makes precision firing impossible (unless it is quite windy. I look forward to reading this book

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Zermoid wrote 11 weeks 1 day ago

The convenience of black powder, firepower and smoke screen in one handy package......

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Longbeard wrote 11 weeks 1 day ago

I think you were right in the first place, Dave. The War of Northern Aggression has been thoroughly examined every which way from Sunday. Unless some new evidence suddenly pops up, less and less likely as time goes on, the only way someone is going to come up with "really new" as you say, is to make up some crazy, illogical assertions with no concrete support predicated upon interpretation of mid-19th century customs, morals, and technology based on those of today. There ain't nothing new under the sun or at one of the most completely analyzed battles of any war on this earth. Mr. Guelzo is just another snake oil salesman trying to make a buck.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from ITHACASXS wrote 11 weeks 23 hours ago

The War of Northern Aggression. No doubt, there is much truth in that term. I do believe, however, that any Southern historian that denies that a great (and vocal) portion of the South was spoiling for a fight is being less than honest.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from O Garcia wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

the English abandoned the long bow 500 years too soon

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from O Garcia wrote 10 weeks 6 days ago

one round every four and a half minutes sounds like the rate of fire of the earliest rifles with tight fitting ball, before the invention of the patched ball and the Minie ball. of course, this could mean the actual effective rate of fire, including fumbles, improper loads, double loads, moving to a new firing line, etc. but it is still too slow.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark-1 wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

@ Garcia & Blog: For what it's worth I regularly saw N/S Skirmishers fire 7 to 8 shots a minute and keep all their shots within 6" at 100-yds. I've read the standard fire and reload during the Civil War was 4-shots within a minute. Troops on both sides were drilled to ad nauseum loading and firing to meet that standard.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from WA Mtnhunter wrote 10 weeks 5 days ago

"...were a consequence of soldiers unwilling to kill their fellow man..."

I think the military figured that one out a long time ago.

WAM

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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