Civil War Weapon Technologies

By Chris Loughlin

The Battle Hymn Of The Republic - Lee Greenwood

1. Intro

Many weapons used in modern warfare are derived from weapons used and created during the Civil War. These guns have decided the fate of millions of people. An advantage in weapon technology could give a single side the leading edge in a close war. This gives an importance to weapon technologies that is almost insurmountable by anything in the war except the people shooting the weapons themselves. These weapons were improved over a period of time and grew into many weapons used on the battlefields today. During the civil war, no gun could be kept secret for long. Guns would be seized by spies or they would be taken from corpses laying on the ground. This made it hard for one side to have a big advantage during the Civil War.

NOTE: If you think you know enough about the Civil War Weapon Technologies, Take the Quiz at the bottom of the page

2. Guns
Springfield Rifle, the most common rifle in the Civil War

The Springfield

The Springfield rifle was the weapon primarily used in the Civil War. The name
comes from the location of the main manufacturing plant, in Springfield, Mass. There were about 1.5 million Springfields in use by the end of the Civil War. The Springfield originated in the North, but spread to the South when the Confederate soldiers captured the federal army at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. After they took the army's weapons, around 64,000 copies of the Springfield gun were made. The Springfield gun has a 39 inch barrel, primarily firing .58 caliber bullets with a 500 yard range. This gun was preferred over many others because it was good quality and could be easily made and shipped in the country.

Imported Guns

Although not as many of these guns were used, they competed with Springfield in quality. One of the Springfield's biggest competitors was that British Enfield. There were almost 800,000 Enfields imported into the North and South. It fired .577 caliber bullets. Another gun was the Austrian Lorenz. Most imported guns fired .54 caliber bullets, but were modified to also fire .58 caliber bullets.

Repeating Carbines

The Spencer was the primary repeating carbine of the Civil War. It could fire seven shots without having to be reloaded. The bullets were inserted through the stock at the end of the gun as opposed to putting it through the barrel. The gun was used primarily by the Union. Confederate soldiers could not use this weapon because the bullets, being .54 caliber, were different than the normal and were usually used by the time they got their hands on one of the guns. Another important repeating carbine was the Henry Rifle. It was only .44 caliber, but it could shoot 16 shots without reloading.

The Colt Army 1860, Used by the Union

Pistols during the civil war were mostly Colts. There were two types of Colt revolvers, one used by the Union and the other used by the Confederacy. The Union used a model called the Colt 1860 Army and the Confederacy used the Colt Navy 1851. The only difference between the two guns was the caliber of the bullets, the Army version used .44 caliber bullets and the Navy version used .36. During the war, around 150,000 of the Army version were distributed and 185,000 of the Navy version were distributed. The Colts had competition from the much cheaper Remington. The Remington sold around 114,000 total guns, split between the .44 and .36 models. They cost $12.00 compared to $25.00 for the Colts. Colt stopped selling his guns to the South once the civil war began, adding to the difficulty of obtaining weapons.

The Gatling Gun

The Gatling Gun, although almost unused in the civil war, was the start to what is known now as the machine gun. The inventor, Dr. Richard Gatling, created one of the more successful versions of the machine gun. The Gatling gun used a hopper system for bullets, allowing the gun to fire around 600 rounds per minute. Because there was a history of machine guns overheating, Dr. Gatling added several barrels to the gun to allow for a short period of cooling time. The gun had 6 barrels and was powered by a hand crank. Although the gun had some small problems, it was generally one of the most successful machine guns of its time. The gun was rejected by the armies themselves, but there was one general, Ben Butler, who ordered twelve. He used two in the battle of Petersburg and eight were used on boats/gunships.

3. Bullets and Projectiles

The Minie Ball

The Minie Ball
The development of bullets increased the range and accuracy of weapons throughout the Civil War. One important invention was a bullet called The Minie Ball. The Minie Ball was created to try to improve accuracy, range, and reloading time of weapons. The bullet was actually shaped like modern bullets, not like the balls used in the Revolutionary War. The Minie ball was invented by French captain Claude F. Minié in 1842. After James Burton created a cheaper version of the bullet, this was the standard issue bullet for the North and the South. The bullet was created so that it would spin, adding accuracy to the shot. The bullet was also made of soft lead, making it shatter after entering the body. When the bullet shattered, it would leave lead everywhere in the body, causing lead poisoning. This could not be easily cured by the medicine of the Civil War

Artillery Ammunition

When it came to artillery, there were several types of ammunition that could be used to accomplish different tasks. The types of ammo used in the Civil War were:

Solid Shot
A simple ball that is not hollow
A hollow ball filled with powder
Case Shot
Similar to the shell, but with the addition of small lead/iron balls
A can filled with balls that would shoot out, like a shotgun
Grape Shot
Similar to canister, but had bigger balls and was primarily used for naval combat

4. Artillery

Common Artillery

There were many artillery weapons used, but one of the most common weapons is the Napoleon. The Napoleon gun was a 12-pounder with a 66 inch barrel. It weighed around 1227 pounds with a range of around 1620 yards, almost a mile. It was made out of bronze and its bore diameter is 4.92 inches. This was one type, referred to simply as guns, of the two commonly used artillery types. Other artillery guns similar to the Napoleon were 6-pounder (M1841), the 10-pounder (M1861), the 20-pounder, and the three inch ordnance rifle. The 6-pounder was highly used in the Mexican War, and was banned in the Union. Although the union banned it, the confederates used it often in hopes of gaining a slight advantage over the North. The other was called the howitzer. There were three main howitzers were the 12-pounder, the 24-pounder, and the Mountain Howitzer. The two types only differ slightly. The guns have longer barrels, creating room for a longer range, but a lower arc. The howitzers however have a shorter barrel with shorter range but a higher arc.

The 20 inch Rodman

Long Range Artillery

Another important part about the artillery in the Civil War was the advancement of technology. During the war, several long range artillery weapons were introduced in an attempt to get a step ahead of the other side. One of the various weapons introduced was the 20 inch Rodman gun. The Rodman was the largest gun ever made that was loaded through the muzzle. It had a standard powder charge of 200 pounds, firing a ball weighing around 1080 pounds at a range of up to 8,000 yards a.k.a 4.5 miles. To be able to fire such a huge weight so far, the gun had to be enormous. The length of the gun was around 20 feet and it weighed in at around 116,497 pounds. Although this gun was invented in 1861 by Thomas Rodman, the gun was not actually made until 1864. Despite weighing so much, the gun had a large recoil when shot. When tested before being placed into combat, the gun, with a not even full 125 powder charge, flew back 7 feet and 5 inches. This weapon, and many other long range artillery weapons, was produced in the North and did not spread to the South until after the war.

Volley Guns

As the civil war went on, engineers realized many faults with the tactics of the civil war . One major fault was that the soldiers were in groups, making it easy for them to be picked off with a volley of shots. The engineers started to develop guns that would shoot off multiple bullets at once. Two volley guns were the Vandenburgh Volley gun, with 85-400 barrels, and the Billinghurst requa gun. These guns forced the tactics of the war to be changed from the old Napoleonic tactics. Volley guns did not see much light in the war, but they were very effective at what they did.

5. Close Combat

Although they were not used much, close combat weapons such as bayonets and sabers were useful when it seemed too close to shoot a gun. These weapons were much quicker than trying to reload. Many swords were given to generals as a sign of respect, and many were given to cavalry units because it was harder to shoot a gun while riding on a galloping horse. Before the civil war, the standard length for a cavalry saber was 42 inches, but due to inexperienced soldiers the length of the blade was shortened to 36 inches. Another important close combat weapon was the pike. When the South was at a shortage of guns, they armed many of their soldiers with pikes so that they would have at least some use.

6. Table of Weapons

Gun Name
.58 caliber bullets
Most common rifle of the Civil War
Enfield (British)
.577 caliber bullets
Foreign competitor to the Springfield
Lorenz (Austrian)
.54 (Modified to .58) caliber bullets
Another foreign competitor to the Springfield, "second class"
.54 caliber bullets
The primary repeating carbine of the Civil War
Colt Army
.44 Caliber Bullets
used by the Union, most copies of any pistol in the North. Six shot revolver.
Colt Navy
.36 Caliber Bullets
used by the confederacy, most copies out of any pistol. Six shot revolver.
.44 or .36 Caliber Bullets
closest competitor with the Colt, much cheaper. Six shot revolver
Gatling Gun
.58 caliber bullets
Father of the modern day machine gun. Could fire as many bullets as 40 riflemen
See Artillery Ammunition
Most common artillery weapon of the Civil War
20-inch Rodman
See Artillery Ammunition
Long range gun, extremely rare, largest muzzle loading gun

7. Advantage?

At the beginning of the civil war, the South was an agriculturally based community and the North was an industrially based community. This created difficulties for the South when it came to the production of guns. The southerners had no clue how to do almost anything industrially, and so they had no way to produce mass quantities of weapons like the North could. This created a shortage of weapons in the South, a huge disadvantage. Because they couldn't even produce weapons, it was almost impossible for them to come up with advantages in weapon technology. This meant that almost all of the new, strong weapons were produced, engineered, and used by the Union, another advantage to the Union. With these advantages and introduction of new technology later in the war, it would have been almost embarrassing for the Union to lose the Civil War.

8. Influences on Modern Warfare

The Gatling Gun was probably the most influential gun from the Civil War. It was one of the first machine guns, rapidly increasing the pace of battle. The machine gun, used commonly today in battle, was derived from this deadly weapon. Many forms of the Gatling Gun are used today by foot soldiers and under the wings of many planes. Below is a video showing how many riflemen this machine gun could replace in battle.

Another important development was the beginning of extremely long range artillery. Although the artillery used in the Civil War was highly inaccurate, it inspired several advances in artillery technology to have weapons fire accurately from long distances. This idea is used today in many weapons such as long range RPGs and missile launchers.

9. Quiz

10. Additional Links

The Guns of the Civil War Youtube series: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

11. Bibliography

Civil War Artillery - Weaponry May 15, 2009 <>
Artillery Profile: 20 inch Rodman , Gun CivilWarTalk, November 13 2006, May 16 2009 <>
Civil War Weapons , Shotgun's Home of the Civil War, February 16 2002, May 17 2009 <>
Barnett, Bertram The Civil War Soldier National Park Service, May 17 2008 <>
Civil War Artillery - Ammunition May 17 2009 <>
Hackman, Emory Civil War Guns: Spencer Repeating Carbine 2001, May 17 2009 <>
Beeghley, Jim Teaching the Civil War with Technology February 20 2007, May 17 2009 <>
Geisst, Charles. "Colt Firearms." In Geisst, Charles, ed. Encyclopedia of American Business History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EABH0053&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 19, 2009).