Black Powder, White Smoke

I have been a subscriber to Civil War News since day one, and believe this publication has performed a great service in piecing together the mosaic of the current Civil War scene. I am delighted to become part of this effort as the News' Civil War firearms columnist and hope my work will provide interesting and useful information and, occasionally, give rise to a bit of healthy debate as well. Since this is my inaugural effort, I would like to use some of the space allotted to introduce myself and preview the subjects I will be covering in the months to come.

My interest in the Civil War and its weapons, like that of countless others, was sparked by a childhood trip to Gettysburg and fueled by several visits to the musty, mildewed premises of the legendary Bannerman's military surplus store in New York City. Although Bannerman's was way past its prime when I was there and closed soon after I discovered it, the mystique of the place is indelibly branded in my soul. In fact, Bannerman's was not what it appeared to be to my uncritical, youthful eye, but that is a topic for another time.

In the years AB (after Bannerman's) I received my BA and MA degrees in History from Seton Hall University and served as a lieutenant with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam. My work has been published in Civil War Times Illustrated, Dixie Gun Works Black Powder Annual, Guns Annual, Military Images, Muzzle Blasts, The Skirmish Line and other publications. Although a number of Civil War weapons, both original and reproduction, have passed through my hands over the years and my library shelves are well stocked with firearms reference books, I do not consider myself a collector. Neither am I a reenactor, although to improve my grasp of Civil War tactics and gain some feeling of what it was like to wear itchy woolies in ninety degree heat, I participated in the 125th Anniversary reenactment of the battle of Monocacy. I am, however, an active black powder shooter as well as a historian. I owned and fired my first Civil War gun, an original .69 caliber smoothbore musket, at the age of sixteen, and currently shoot with the North-South Skirmish Association's (N-SSA) 69th New York State Volunteer Infantry.

In succeeding issues, this column will cover both original and reproduction Civil War firearms from the standpoint of the collector, historian, reenactor and shooter. Future topics will include the Henry and Spencer rifles then and now, assembling a basic Civil War arms library, the smoothbore musket, long range musket shooting, a history of the N-SSA, the N-SSA today and tips and techniques on loading and shooting Civil War guns. I am also open to any suggestions or constructive criticism from readers, as, together, we expand our knowledge of "the late unpleasantness" and its weapons.

Those weapons are often prominent among the technical innovations many historians cite in classifying the American Civil War as the "first modern war." According to this view, the conflict witnessed a revolution in small arms, including the rifle musket, numerous "patent" breechloading arms (principally cavalry carbines) and repeating rifles. Some scholars have attributed the large number of casualties suffered and the tactical torpor often evidenced in officers on both sides to the widespread use of such weapons, particularly the muzzle loading .58 caliber rifle musket. Such broad generalizations are by their very nature suspect, however, and do not always bear up under close scrutiny.

In fact, during the first year of the war, most volunteers North and South shouldered smoothbore muskets, many of them flintlocks converted to the percussion system. (Some Confederates carried unconverted flintlocks!) These obsolete .69 caliber weapons, firing combination cartridges containing a round ball and three buckshot, ("buck and ball") inflicted horrendous casualties at such early battles as Shiloh. As late as 1863 many regiments still carried smoothbores. Some soldiers actually preferred the old guns. The men of the 12th New Jersey regiment thought their Model 1842 muskets superb weapons and carried them through to Appomattox.

Most Civil War fire fights were close range affairs with little aimed fire, and there seems little doubt that the carnage was, in most cases, not caused or increased simply by the superior accuracy of rifle muskets. Had the war lasted another year, the general advent of breechloaders and repeaters may well have been decisive. In the event, however, although a Spencer or Henry repeater was no doubt a great consolation to the individual soldier who toted one, there is no evidence that either arm decided the outcome of any "major" battles.

While the role of Civil War small arms in battle may be debated and reevaluated, the surviving original guns and their replicas remain eternally and intrinsically interesting, both as symbols of the single greatest event in American history and as suprisingly accurate target arms in the hands of us who love black powder and white smoke.

Next month -- The Henry Rifle

1991 by Joe Bilby

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