Combat Musketry, Accuracy

Everyone who has had the unfortunate experience of being in a firefight knows that excited soldiers tend to fire high. Hunters faced with the need for a quick shot often display similar tendencies, and I would guess that most missed shots at game are high ones.

As might be expected, one of the greatest musketry firefights of the Civil War, the May 12, 1864, "Bloody Angle" battle at Spotsylvania, provided graphic proof of overshooting. A number of minie balls, however, were apparently fired higher than anyone, including myself, might ordinarily suspect.

One of the more astute observers of the Bloody Angle's aftermath was Lt. Col. John Schoonover of the 11th New Jersey Infantry. Schoonover was a cool soldier in action and a noted rifleman who often took a turn on the skirmish line with a Springfield. His observtions, which I came across while working on a new book on New Jersey's military role in the Civil War, are worth quoting in their entirety.

"The evidence of the continued fire at this point during the day and part of the night was everywhere apparent. The trees near the works were stripped of their foliage, and looked as though an army of locusts had passed during the night. The brush beween the lines was cut and torn into shreds, and the fallen bodies of men and horses lay there with the flesh shot and torn from the bones. The peculiar whirring sound of a flying ramrod was frequently heard during he day. I noticed two of these that had fastened themselves in the oak trees near by.

"While the great number of the enemy's dead and the terrible effects of our fire upon the logs composing the breastworks attested the general accuracy of our fire, the absence of the foliage from the top of the tallest trees made it evident that during a battle there is much random firing. There is a large percentage of men in actual battle who load carefully, aim deliberately, and shoot to kill. On the other hand, it is not an uncommon thing for a soldier amidst the excitement of battle, to load his gun, shut his eyes and fire in the air straight over his head."

Schoonover's account of Spotsylvania, along with details of his other adventures, including potting Rebels on picket duty, may be found in Thomas B. Marbaker, History of the Eleventh New Jersey Volunteers (reprint) Longstreet House, 1990.

"Hard Core" reenactors (No, although I respect them I am not about to become one.) get some of their best information from The Watchdog. The Watchdog, a non-profit newsletter which accepts no advertising, is an interesting publication which offers critiques of products oriented to today's Civil War market and advice on every aspect of a reenactor's gear, from tentage to cookware, women's hats to period nails!

A recent Watchdog surveyed the leading Springfield Model 1861 reproductions, including the Japanese-made Dixie Gun Works and the Italian Armi-Sport and Euroarms guns, from an authenticity (not shooting accuracy) point of view. All three of these guns adhere, even to the more than casual observers like myself, pretty closely to the lines of the original product and are certainly safe and good shooting firearms with ball ammo.

Watchdog contributor George Wunderlich found some authenticity devils in the details, however. More importantly, Wunderlich advised owners on how to modify the defective details for a more effective impression. The easiest and most significant alteration of an out-of- the-box rifle musket involves stripping the factory stock finish and replacing it with boiled linseed oil.

This is something I like to do myself, as I like the look (and smell) of linseed oil as well as the fact that scratches on an oil finish are easily hidden by application of a dab or stain mixed with oil.

Other problems, involving markings, are best corrected by professionals. Some imported Springfield rifle musket reproductions do not come with proper "U" (for "up") barrel band stamps, "US" buttplate and "VP" barrel proof markings.

These absences can be easily remedied by visiting a gunsmith at a major reenactment or the North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) Nationals. Early Euroarms model 1861s are fitted with plated brass butplates, which can and should be replaced with the later steel versions available from parts dealers.

As Wunderlich notes, all of the reproductions weigh more than original guns, a fact easily discerned by lifting a repro and then an original. Part of this disparity is due, no doubt, to the dehydration of stock wood over the years. New wood is significantly denser and heavier.

Most of the weight disparity is, however, probably in the metal. Modern manufacturing methods and steels, and, perhaps a desire to install an additional safety margin in new guns, has led to thicker barrels and breeches. This extra heft helps the target shooter, providing a steady hold and better heat distribution.

For the reenactor, however, it means an extra burden on the march and a less than authentic feel. Some reenactors, according to Wunderlich, bore holes in their buttstocks to reduce musket weight. While this procedure will, no doubt, lighten the reenactor's load a bit, it will also, I believe, alter the balance proportions of his gun and fail to replicate the balance of an original.

Among The Watchdog's other correspondents is Geoff Walden, the Enfield maven. (For those of you who live outside the Northeast, maven = expert.) Geoff shared some of his expertise with Watchdog readers in the article, "Authenticizing your Reproduction Enfield." As Walden notes, none of the Enfields on the market are completely accurate reproductions of the style of British gun purchased by both North and South in such great numbers during the Civil War.

The source of this replication error, Walden points out, is the original Parker Hale reproduction, which was copied from British government patterns for the last or Fourth Model Enfield muzzleloader. The British government's stock of Fourth Model Enfields were never issued as muzzleloaders, but were, instead, converted to the Snider system and went to the field as breechloaders. Succeeding Enfield reproductions have all been based on the original Parker Hale, rather than original 19th century guns.

Walden's article details appropriate markings for Birmingham or London proofs (the vast majority of Yankee guns were made in Birmingham) as well as makers' names, which may be engraved on reproductions to give them a more authentic appearance.

He also provides information on how to alter the Fourth Model's Baddeley patent barrel bands to accurately reflect the Civil War configuration. Accurate replacement sling swivels, perhaps the most easily noticed difference between Civil War and Fourth Model guns, are available from Lodgewood Mfg., 151 Oak St., Berlin WI 54923 or S&S Firearms, 24-11 Myrtle Ave., Glendale, NY 11385 (ssfirearms.com).

Walden believes that more authentic Enfields, incorporating his corrections, will be on the market in the future, but he has no availability date as of this time. If you would rather upgrade your current gun than wait, send $5 for a pamphlet with complete conversion instructions to Geoff Walden, PO Box 4053, Elizabethtown, KY 42702-4053. A year's subscription to The Watchdog willl cost you a modest $7 and is available from the Watchdog, PO Box 4582, Frankfort, KY 40604-4582. (1998 NOTE: Mr. Walden is now serving with the US Army in Europe and is no longer available at this address. The Watchdog is under new ownership as well. Its address is no longer valid.)

If you're interested in other aspects of 18th and 19th century shooting and life in addition to the Civil War and live in the New York City/New Jersey area, you might want to participate in or visit the New Jersey Muzzle Loading Association's (NJMLA) "Rendezvous." The affair will be held June 23-26, 1994, at Waterloo Village, NJ.

Waterloo, known as Andover Forge when it produced Revolutionary War munitions, is a restored Morris Canal "port" town. Waterloo has many attractions in its own right, including saw and grist mills, craft shops and a section of the Old Morris Canal featuring a rare intact inclined plane. The village, which is surrounded by Allamuchy State Park, is located on the Musconetcong River at the northwest corner of the intersection of Routes 80 and 206. Morris, Sussex and Warren counties, the old recruiting ground for the 15th New Jersey Infantry, all come together at Waterloo.

The Rendezvous will include authentic camps and traders, a woods walk, canoe and survival courses as well as rifle, pistol and shotgun shooting events at ranges from 25 to 100 yards. For further information on the Rendezvous and the NJMLA, write Dick Arnold, PO Box 281, Liberty Corner, NJ 08076 or Jerry O'Brien, 208 Grove St., Somerville, NJ 08876.

1995, 1998 by Joe Bilby

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