Silver Sue goes to battle
My first muzzleloading arm was a Springfield rifle from Euroarms. Maybe it was not the best choice to start blackpowder shooting, but I enjoyed every moment of caring for this iconic rifle. It is a good question why to start with a rifle from the American Civil War, but unfortunately I have some really good reasons to that. First of all, thousands of veterans from the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution against the Hapsburgs fought for the Union. Hungary gave many good officers to the Union, like Charles Zágonyi (commander of the legendary raid on Springfield), Géza Mihalótzy (commander of the Lincoln’s Riflemen) Julius H. Stahel (colonel of the 8th New York Volunteer infantry), Antal Wékey (commander of the Garibaldi Guard), Alexander Asboth, etc… They are heroes of both the Hungarian and American nations. The second reason is simple as a rock: the rifle looks beautiful, and to be honest, by the time I started muzzleloading shooting, this was the most important for me.
The American Civil War and the history of the arms of the Civil War is a really popular topic nowadays, with very good books and articles on the market. However there is also a load of low quality information with many times copied stock phrases. Let’s stop for a second to deal with one of these myths. This myth is especially about the rifle musket and its combat effectiveness. „The soldier could hit a man-sized target at 800 yards.” Have you read this sentence before? I am sure you have. We all know that the rifle musket with the proper bullet and blackpowder load can do this job, but not the average soldier…
In fact, the bullet injury and death rate, and the volley distances of the Civil War were not significantly higher than the previous European wars that were fought with smooth bore arms.
The rifle musket offered a chance to modernize Napoleonic warfare rules. Its effective range and accuracy multiplied the possibilities of the individual soldier. However, it was not an easy task to move theory out to the battlefields. The new rifle musket was introduced in 1855, the year when lt. colonel W. J. Hardee published his book „Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics” to modernize the late Napoleonic tactics of Winfield Scott’s 1835 manual.
Hardee’s book became the Bible of the „amateur officers” of both sides. Let’s not forget that the majority of professional officers (former West Point cadets) fought for the Confederate side, there were only a few veteran officers who had real battlefield experience, so the commanding posts were filled with amateurs, who learned the job from books. Hardee’s tactics lacked much vital information about musketry. It taught the soldier to load the rifle musket in 9 steps, taught how to aim and fire in standing or prone positions, but did not deal with ballistics and the theoretical background of shooting the rifle.
Until the eve of the conflicts, nobody realized the need for a modern musketry information manual. Only Cadmus M. Wilcox, lieutenant of the 7th cavalry had different thoughts about this problem. He learnt the business in the School of Musketry of Hythe in England, and travelled all across Europe to gather information about the newest rifle theories from the contemporary armies. Rifles and rifle practice was the title of his book on the subject, based on his English experiences.
Another pioneer of rifle shooting was Henry Heth, a captain of the infantry. He used French musketry information books as basics, and translated the vital parts to create a practical information source for the US Army. He wrote his book – A system of rifle practice – in 1858, but it was only 1862 when the book was published.
This was the first real musketry manual. It taught the soldier to shoot the rifle up to 1000 yards from standing, kneeling and prone positions. He was the first to point out the importance of accurate range estimation – a key to shooting the rifle musket at longer distances. This book offered state of the art information. Unfortunately the practice was much different,
Close or far?
Earl J. Hess in his excellent book The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat examined the average distance of the firefights of the Civil War. He calculated that the average distance was only 94 yards – a distance where the smooth bore musket with singe ball or buck and ball load was just as effective as the rifle musket. Buck and ball was a deadly projectile: one full size ball and 3-5 smaller round balls were fired from the bore. It’s aim was not to kill but to injure. The sad fact is that an injured soldier needs another two men to take him away from the battlefield, and his crying demoralizes the others. Much more effective than killing a man instantly…
There wore quite a few reasons for this short distance. The lack of proper education for the amateur commanding officers. They knew that the volley would be effective if they saw the whites of the eyes of the enemy, but they did not know what to do with that extra few hundred yards of effective range.
The second reason is the lack of proper musketry training for soldiers. Many soldiers fired their arms first in combat. A good picture of this problem is presented by the guns collected from the battlefield of Gettysburg. 37000 rifle muskets were collected from the fields. 24000 were loaded:
6.000 had one load
12.000 had two loads
5.999 had 3- 10 loads
1 had 23 loads in the barrel
Another reason for the short distances is the diverse terrain of the conflicts. Only a few battles were fought in places where there was at least a few hundred yards of open field between the sides.
A safe place on the battlefield
It is not a question that the rifle is superior to the smooth bore musket. The question in the case of Civil War battles is the how the effectiveness of the rifle decreases while using smooth bore tactics. The bullet of the smooth bore musket leaves the bore with a significantly higher speed (450-500 m/s), while the speed of the Minié bullet is only around 290 m/s. The trajectory of the lighter and faster round ball is flatter than the slower and heavier Minié. The basic rear sight of the 1855 rifle musket was set to 300 yards. Examining the flight path of the bullet within this distance is the key to understanding why the soldiers usually shot high in the heat of the battle. The bullet leaving the bore passes the line of sight twice with this sight setting: first at 60 yards, than at 300 yards. The bullet ascends up to 190 yards. Within 100 and 225 yards, the bullet flies above the average height of a man. This means that, with the lowest – 300 yards – sight setting, this part of the battlefield is safe for the attacking enemy. The bullet will fly above their heads.
This problem did not exist with the flat trajectory round ball muskets. So even if the commanding officer had battlefield experience with the smooth bores, it was not enough for rifle musket combat.
To overcome this problem the soldier needed extensive musketry and range estimation training – something that cannot be done properly while in continuous combat.
History of the development of the Springfield
The United States was not the first to issue rifles to soldiers. France, England and many Germanic states in Europe already had rifle muskets in service by that time as a general issue firearm for the infantry. The first small caliber US rifle to enter service was the U.S. 1841 rifle, or the „Mississippi”. The short – 33” – barrel percussion, .52 caliber rifle was not manufactured in the state arsenals, but made by private companies like Tryon, Remington, Robbins and Robbins & Lawrence. The rifle had a progressive rifling depth and 7 grooves with a 1:60” twist rate. The charge of its cartridge was 75 grains of gunpowder, that fired the patched round ball.
Testing with the French Minié bullets started in 1849, but the powder charge had to be reduced to 50 grains to achieve the desired accuracy. These rifles were produced until 1859, and they can be considered the antecedent of the U.S. 1855 rifle musket.
By 1850 the Ministry of War, led by Jefferson Davis, collected the necessary parameters for the new rifle, that was intended to replace all the muskets and rifles in service:
progressive rifling depth with 3 grooves, 1:72” twist rate
.58 caliber (copying the English rifles)
percussion lock with Dr. Maynard’s tape primer
40” barrel length
option to attach a bayonet
Minié bullet cartridges
Jeff Davis described the rifle perfectly that would conquer his country a few years later…
The first Springfield
The new rifle entered service in 1855. The arsenals in Springfield and in Harpers Ferry started production immediately. The expected accuracy for the rifles was dramatically increased compared to the smooth bore muskets:
4” at 100 yard
9” at 200 yard
11” at 333 yard
18,5” at 400 yard
27” at 500 yard
The rifle was capable of hitting a horseman size target at 600 yards. The new barrel had 3 grooves with a 1:72” twist, and a progressive depth of rifling with 0,015” at the breech and 0,006” at the muzzle. All metal parts were made of steel, not iron.
The Minié cartridges
The new cartridges that entered service in 1855 held 60 grains of blackpowder charge and a 500 grain Minié bullet lubricated with the 1 to 3 mixture of beeswax and tallow. The diameter of the bullet was 0,5775” for the .58 nominal caliber bore. The cartridges were made of 3 sheets of brown paper, and packed in tens. One wooden box of cartridges held 100 packs, 1000 cartridges. The Union purchased 470.851.079 cartridges during the conflict.
The caliber was a copy of the English bore diameter, but the cartridges were completely different designs. The U.S. Minié bullet had greased grooves, and it was loaded without paper patching, not like the Enfield cartridges.
In 1863 a simplified cartridge entered service, that was rolled from two identical paper sheets – a much easier method than the original design.
There were experiments on both sides to increase the damage capabilities of the Minié bullets. Samuel Gardiner Jr. Invented an exploding projectile, that held a small amount of fulminate in a brass chamber inside the bullet. The charge was ignited with a time fuse that exploded the bullet 1-3 seconds after firing. The bullet was intended to injure with the shrapnel effect, but unfortunately did not perform well. The inhumanity of these bullets was one of the first reasons to start discussions on international treaties to set the humanitarian rules of wars. Ius in bello – rules of engagement Was a great development of the 19th century politicians. One of its first acts of the western World was to sign a treaty in St. Petersburg in 1868 to ban all exploding projectiles under the weight of 400 gramms.
Another exciting invention was Reuben Shaler’s sectional bullet. It was intended to act just like the buck and ball cartridges of the smooth bore muskets. The close range effect of the old buck n’ ball was unmatched. Shaler’s bullet weighted 700 grains and was driven by 60 gr of blackpowder. The bullet itself had 3 sections which when left the bore formed 3 independent conical bullets. The cartridge had a device for opening the paper, so the soldier did not have to tear it.
We have to mention another special purpose bullet as well: the Williams cleaner bullet. Fouling is a great problem of the rifle musket. The tight fitting Minié ball is hard to ram down after 15-25 shots. Elliah D. Williams patented a bullet in 1862. His basic idea was to offer a new design, a more accurate bullet to the Union Army, than the Minié. His bullet consisted of the bullet itself, a pin, and a sheet metal disc made of zinc. Upon firing the pin straightened the concave-convex disk. The straightened disc’s diameter was as big as to fill the bore completely. This bullet had a stronger contact with the rifling than the standard Minié ball. The new bullet performed well, but did not replace the Miniés already in production. The Army ordered large quantities, but its price was 25% more than the regulation bullet. These bullets in fact were capable of something that Miniés were not: they were able to clean the fouling from the bore. During the official test, several hundred shots were fired from rifles without any cleaning.
There were rumors on both sides about using poisoned bullets as well, but there is no evidence that any of the opposing armies every used such projectiles. These stories were rather made up by soldiers encountering strange bullets like the Wilkinson or Shaler or Gardiner.
How the cartridges were made
The Minié balls were not cast but pressed with machinery. This method gave more accurate, more solid and more uniform bullets in weight and diameter. First, the lead was cast into cylindrical .58 diameter bars 21 inches long. This was later rolled to .56 diameter and 25 inch length,. These 25 inch bars were fed into the pressing machine. One man in a ten hour work shift made 30.000 balls with one machine. The balls were lubed on a tin frame holding 50 bullets. They were immersed into the molten grease mixture. The cutting of the paper and rolling of the cartridges was usually done by children and women. One boy was expected to make 800 paper cylinders in a ten hour work shift. Another worker filled the cylinders, while another pinched the cartridge.
The 1855 rifle musket saw a few modifications during the war. The most important difference between the 1855 and the 1861 version is the elimination of the Maynard tape primer. This invention worked well in good weather, but the paper containing the fulminate was extremely sensitive to damp weather. In 1863 the rifle musket was modified again introducing the smaller and stronger hammer, and elimination of the barrel band springs.
The government contracted 31 companies for the production, and made the purchases from 18 to 21 USD per piece. The most important manufacturers were the Springfield Armory, Bridesburg Pa., Wm. Mason, Colt’s Army Mfg. Co. and Remington. The companies and arsenals produced 662.457 pieces during the years of the war.
The southern states created their own version of the 1855 rifle musket. After raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal, the Confederate Army moved the machinery and spare parts to Richmond to start their own production. The Confederate rifle musket had the same characteristics as the 1855 model, but it was produced without the Maynard tape primer. The form of the lock plate remained the same, without the device. The butt plate and the nose cap were produced from brass, not from steel. The Confederate arsenal manufactured only 23000 pieces of this rifle musket. Most of their infantry arms were imported from Europe or collected from the battlefields.
Shooting the new Pedersoli 1861 Springfield rifle musket
Pedersoli’s Springfield and Richmond rifle muskets are not new on the market. These guns are well known companions of MLAIC shooters, N-SSA skirmishers, re-enactors and collectors.
Manufacturer: Davide Pedersoli
Type: U.S. 1861 M Springfield
Nominal calibre: .580”
Measured calibre: .578-579” (land to land)
Rifling: 1:72”, constant rifling depth (0,006”)
Barrel length: 40 3/16”
Total length: 55 7/8”
Factory load: 60 gr 3Fg Swiss + .577 Minié (620 grain)
Best load 50m: .577” 560 gr Lyman 575213 PH Minié, 40 gr blackpowder (Swiss 3Fg)
Weight: 4,5 kg
Nowadays, the company is starting to be heavily involved in Civil War arms. Thanks to the larger production quantities, the price of these two rifle muskets dropped significantly in the past months, while the quality remained the same we expect from Pedersoli.
The Springfield is a beautiful piece of art – although I am quite partial on this subject, as this was the gun that started me on the way of blackpowder shooting. Compared to the original, you can find only a few minor differences. All the proof marks, signs are in place, the shape of the stock very closely resembles the original, the wood-metal fittings are simply perfect.
The barrel itself is manufactured to meet the highest Pedersoli standards. The PMG logo stands for Pedersoli Match Grade, a sub brand for all barrels that are manufactured for competition shooting.
My aim was to find the most accurate low recoil loads for target shooting for this gun. My favorite Minié bullet is the Lyman 575213PH. I prefer this bullet because the skirt is thin, so you don’t need too much force to upset the bullet into the rifling, and the grease grooves are deep, so you have enough lubrication to keep the fouling soft. The original out-of-mold diameter of the bullets is .578”.I sized my bullets to .577”, to have a tight fit. Even with this bullet diameter, the Minié goes down the bore with the weight of the ramrod even after 20 shots. Be careful with the kind of grease you use: in military rifle competitions, you cannot wipe the bore between shots, so you need a lube that keeps fouling soft. This will help your next bullet to scrape out the dirt of the previous one. You need a uniform layer of blackpowder residue to have an accurate rifle.
Usually Springfields are not the favorite of target shooters because of the rear sight. The sight is located close to the breech, close to your eyes. It is not easy to make a clear sight picture, especially if you are not 18 years old. However this problem can be easily solved using shooting glasses with an aperture. The Springfield is also criticized because of the “U” shape notch on the rear sight. To overcome this problem, Pedersoli offers the gun with a slightly modified rear sight – a good solution for target shooters and skirmishers.
All the tests were fired from sandbag rest. I measured the horizontal and vertical deviation of the best 4 shot out of 5 shots in a row. I started to work up the load from 35 grains in 3-grain increments. The best low recoil load for 50 m was 40 grains of Swiss No. 2. With this load you can shoot all day long without fouling your barrel, or braking your shoulder. The sights are nearly perfect for this charge, as the bullets hit inside the black area of the ISSG 50 m pistol target, a bit to the left and a bit low.
There is one advantage of the progressive depth rifling over the constant depth repro rifling. The repro Springfield need a tight fitting bullet. Size your Minié balls 1-2 thousands under your bore diameter, and you’ll be ok. Size it 5 thousands under the bore, and probably they will make keyholes at 50 meters. The progressive depth rifling of the originals works different way. I experimented with bullets sized to .575, and even .570 in the .581 bore of my original Bridesburg rifle musket. The accuracy did not change, and the bullets were not keyholing even after 20 shots. However the sama accuracy can be achieved with the repro Pedersoli rifling as well.
After the 50 m tests I went on with the 100 m shooting. The 40 grains load was too light for this distance, so I started to increase the load to 48 grains 3Fg Swiss. The results started to get satisfying: all the bullets hit within an eight ring size group – a good start for later work. In my opininon the only limit of the gun is the notch of the rear sight, which makes it hard to get an accurate sight picture. A bit of modification will solve the problem for sure.
Pedersoli’s new rifle musket is the first member of the American Civil War family. The retail price of this gun dropped significantly, but the quality did not. In fact with the new rifling method it was easier to find the accurate load than for Pedersoli’s previous Springfield. The gun performs well even after 30 shots with adequate lubrication. This gun can be a good companion for N-SSA, MLAIC shooters, and re-enactors.