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4.0 out of 5 stars Important study of Civil War combat realities, September 4, 2008
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This review is from: The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Modern War Studies (Hardcover)) (Hardcover)
The flyleaf of Earl J. Hess's "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth" promises "a completely new assessment of the rifle musket, contending that its impact was much more limited than previously supposed" and at the start of the book's Introduction Hess states that "the prevailing view of this weapon has been that it revolutionized warfare because of its increased range." Well, back in the 1980s in his "Battle Tactics of the Civil War" British military historian Paddy Griffith stated that "it is difficult to find any evidence at all to support the suggestion that Civil War musketry was delivered at ranges much longer than those of Napoleonic times" and furthermore concludes that "Civil War musketry did not ... possess the power to kill large numbers of men, even in very dense formations, at long range." For the past twenty years, this understanding has, among those of us who study and think about such things, been pretty much the orthodox view, not heresy. See, for example, Brent Nosworthy's "The Bloody Crucible of Courage" and Joseph Bilby's "Civil War Firearms" and "Small Arms at Gettysburg" for quite clear statements about the matter. (To be fair, Hess in his new book cites Griffith, Nosworthy, and Bilby for their work in this area.)

But, if Hess's "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat" might not be as groundbreaking as the flyleaf description and author's introduction indicate, the book nonetheless provides a solid, detailed underpinning for this relatively new understanding of the practical use and limitations of the prevalent American Civil War infantry weapon; and the book may spread that notion to a wider spectrum of Civil War readers than heretofore has been the case. Hess has performed a valuable service in digging through mountains of primary source material to quantify the impact of rifle muskets on Civil War combat, yielding numerous statistics in support of his conclusions that firefights occurred mostly at ranges far under the theoretical capacity of the weapons and that Civil War battles were no more bloody or indecisive than earlier battles when smoothbore muskets were the rule.

Perhaps of particular value is Hess's assessment of the impact of rifle muskets upon skirmishing, sharpshooting, and sniping (Hess takes pains to differentiate between the terms, noting that they are often incorrectly used interchangeably). He concludes that the widespread use of the weapons permitted large numbers of soldiers to act in the skirmishing role, not concentrating that duty upon a couple of picked companies from each regiment or in elite units such as described in Fred L. Ray's "Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia." Hess states that "Lee's sharpshooter battalions were unique and impressive examples of Civil War specialist units. But there is no convincing evidence that they consistently dominated the skirmish line or regularly outshot their opponents during the Overland or Petersburg campaigns ... In the long run, it might have been the wiser course for the Federals to insist that all their regiments be able to skirmish rather than rest that important duty on a small cadre of elite troops."

I might have wished that Hess, perhaps in an appendix, gave a little more technical information about the performance and trajectory of rifle muskets, although in his basic text he does provide a clear description of limitations imposed by the high arching flight of the bullets. And I could wish for a specific comparison between rifle muskets and smoothbores at close range (say, less than a hundred yards), the smoothbores firing both the traditional single round balls or the more effective "buck-and-ball" ammunition, although it may well be that there is insufficient primary source material available to do a meaningful study (based upon records of test firings and modern experiments, I think that rifle muskets and smoothbores with buck-and-ball were at least roughly equivalent at such ranges, and decidedly more effective than smoothbores firing single round balls alone; this may in part explain what firefights during the American Civil War tended to be at somewhat longer range than those during Napoleonic times. even though at distances far less than the theoretical capabilities of rifle muskets.)

Any small quibbles or unfulfilled wishes aside, I find Hess's "The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat" to be an important contribution to better understanding the realities of Civil War battles, and to place those battles in their proper context in the general history of warfare.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 6, 2009 4:35:44 PM PDT
In 1860, firing at Army targets, .69 cal. muskets charged with buck and ball rounds (4 balls per shot) outscored rifle muskets with their vaunted mine balls (one per shot) at both 100 and 200 yards.
Also, the smoothbore rounds fired from leveled pieces, stayed in the eye - ankle danger zone for the whole 200 yards (including skipping off the ground).
Rifle muskets endanger people at the front and back of the trajectory. In the middle, only birds are threatened.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 9, 2009 8:02:32 AM PDT
J. Moran says:
Great comment by Mr. Hargis. Griffith's book (mentioned in the review) is now pretty well known (and is certainly no longer the heresy that it seemed to be when published). But I did not know about the firing tests mentioned in the comment. I would like to know more about them, especially the data showing a much longer effective danger range than I have seen attributed to smoothbores. It looks like the tests may have been conducted by the Army itself, the same guys who later opposed the introduction of repeating weapons. So were the tests fair? Have they been repeated in modern times? Is there modern test data on the effective danger range of smoothbores against massed targets?

Whatever the accuracy of a smoothbore musket against the traditional "man-sized target," this longer danger range, if correct, would be very important against the massed formations commonly found in the 18th and 19th centuries. This phenomenon helps explain (to me, anyway) something that has always puzzled me: The very deadly effect of British musketry, delivered from line formation, against the famous French massed columns of attack in the Napoleonic wars. The unusually deadly effect of this fire was repeatedly noted by observers on the Peninsula and elsewhere. Even allowing for the fire discipline and relative rapidity of fire of the British soldiers and for the inherent advantage of a line firing into a narrow column, it was hard for me to understand why the fire was so effective against experienced troops if smoothbores had an effective danger range of only 50 to 100 yards at most. These were ranges that I saw given frequently, often with the implication that a hit was pretty unlikely at 100 yards. I had trouble seeing how the French columns could be so repeatedly smashed when they were exposed to effective fire for such short distances and (therefore) time. A danger range that was twice as big as what I had thought it to be would make the effectiveness of the fire much more understandable.

There is a great drawing of the "trajectory effect" of Civil War rifles (mentioned in both the review and Mr. Hargis' comment) in an old book by Jack Coggins called "Arms and Equipment of The Civil War." The book was first printed in 1962, was reprinted in 1983 by a different company and is still in print in a 2004 reprint by a third company and is available on Amazon. Coggins knew his stuff and was a marvelous illustrator (all the drawings in the book are his). His book is short, packed with information and illustrations in easily understandable form, and is the best single volume basic compendium out there on this subject. Most people will need nothing else. See the customer reviews on Amazon.

Coggins assumes a Civil War rifle sighted for 300 yards and finds the first danger zone extending only to 75 yards, when the trajectory was already above the average height of many soldiers of the era (the trajectory was at 58 inches above the ground at a range of 50 yards). The trajectory rose to 73 inches at 100 yards and and peaked at 83 inches above ground level at 150 yards. The second danger zone, according to Coggins, began at about 240 yards downrange; and the trajectory had dipped to 64 inches at 250 yards. The second danger zone extended for 110 yards farther downrange, to approximately 350 yards when the trajectory was at ankle level. Coggins also states: "By comparison, height of trajectory at midrange of .30 caliber M1 [the standard US Army infantry rifle in WW II] sighted for 300 yards is 7.2 inches above the line of sight." Page 38-39 (1983 reprint) (illustration caption).

It is worth noting that firefights even today are often fought at relatively close ranges despite the much greater power, range and effectiveness of modern small arms compared to those of the Civil War and earlier eras.
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