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"How These Elite Civil War Marksmen Changed the Face" Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP07 Oct 2021 10:08 p.m. PST


"The green-clad soldiers waited patiently in the shadows of the Pennsylvania woods. Their uniforms blended into the summer foliage, and the deep shade prevented the bright sun from reflecting on the barrels of their deadly rifles. It was a warm day in early July 1863. As the marksmen positioned just south of the town of Gettysburg scanned their surroundings for signs of Confederate forces, they drained their canteens and waited for the enemy to appear. The soldiers were members of Berdan's Sharpshooters, an elite infantry unit equipped with fine breechloading percussion rifles—the Sharps Model 1859. The Rebels learned soon enough to fear this enemy.

At the start of the conflict, Hiram Berdan, a 36-year-old New Yorker and nationally known marksman, believed his greatest contribution to the war effort would be the formation of a sharpshooting regiment made up of the best riflemen in the Northern states. After receiving formal approval from military authorities, Berdan opened regional competitions to decide who could join his ranks…"
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alexpainter08 Oct 2021 6:18 a.m. PST

I never understood why these breechloading rifles weren't adopted by the Union army.

Choctaw08 Oct 2021 6:25 a.m. PST

The Sharps wasn't an inexpensive rifle to build.

Extrabio1947 Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 7:52 a.m. PST

Wilder's Lightning Brigade was armed with them and became one of the most effective fighting units in the war. They were originally purchased by the men themselves through payroll deductions (though this was subsequently halted).

A common argument for not equipping them in a more widespread manner was the men would waste ammunition firing so rapidly. Go figure….

Personal logo Dan Cyr Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 8:27 a.m. PST

+ 1 Extrabio

Offered breech loaders and other semi-automatic weapons early in the war, the Union general in charge of procurement did say that as the reason he'd not have them bought for service.

Imagine the difference it would have made to have regiments, brigades or divisions armed with Sharps or Henry rifles, especially since the Confederates had no ability to manufacture brass carriages even if they'd captured such weapons.

donlowry08 Oct 2021 9:34 a.m. PST

No, Wilder's brigade armed themselves with Spencer repeaters, not Sharps breechloaders!

The Sharps of that era did NOT use metallic cartridges, so the Confederates could use them, and even manufactured copies of the carbines, I believe (although not well made).

I can think of two reasons the U.S. Army did not adopt either as the standard shoulder arm of the infantry (it did adopt the Spencer carbine as the standard cavalry weapon, in 1864): More expensive and time-consuming to make, and units so armed tended to shoot off all their ammo too quickly (in other words, logistic arrangement couldn't keep up).

After the war, the Army adopted the breechloading (but still single-shot) trap-door Springfield, which did use metallic cartridges. Many volunteer units, at least, were still using those in the Spanish-American War of 1898!

Extrabio1947 Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 10:18 a.m. PST

Donlowry: you are absolutely correct. Wilder's was equipped with Spencer's. Thank you for catching my faux pas.

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 10:22 a.m. PST

It's the perennial question of the new, superior, but expensive and delicate weapon, and why it wasn't used exclusively.
See Ferguson's rifle in the British AWI army.
See the Tiger tank.

Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own. grin

Wackmole9 Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 11:06 a.m. PST

Also the Ordinance department was against repeating rifles as Soldier would waste to much ammo.

rmaker08 Oct 2021 1:19 p.m. PST

The ammunition argument was never a real thing. It was a newspaper trope. As for the OD being anti-breech-loader, that's why they were running trials of breech-loading carbines as early as 1859.

The line officers WERE prejudiced against breech-loaders due to the earlier experiment with the Hall. That, by the way, led to a Congressional ban on acquiring patent arms of any kind without express Congressional approval.

Wilder's boys started out with Colt's revolving rifles and switched to Spensers later.

The unit cost was a deciding factor, as were speed of manufacture and the fact that too many of the period breech-loaders and repeaters used rather gutless cartridges.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 3:20 p.m. PST



Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP08 Oct 2021 3:54 p.m. PST

"Sharpshooters Made a Grand Record This Day"

PDF link


Steve Wilcox09 Oct 2021 6:03 a.m. PST

That was an interesting sharpshooter article!

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP09 Oct 2021 3:12 p.m. PST

Happy you enjoyed it my friend…


ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP12 Oct 2021 4:00 p.m. PST

The Berdan's were given green uniforms partly for their camouflage but also simply because in Europe rifle armed light infantry had always been given green uniforms. The Americans often copied European techniques and styles. The Berdan's knapsacks were cowhide with the hair left on which was also very European in style.

Blutarski13 Oct 2021 12:39 p.m. PST

Another important but often under-appreciated aspect of the Spencer is that it was the first widely-issued and reliable magazine-fed repeating rifle on any battlefield.

The early Colt revolver rifle did, technically appear first; but it proved to be an unreliable and dangerous rifle on the battlefield.

p.s. – IIRC, Wilder actually bought the rifles from Spencer; his men then repaid him on an installment basis from their monthly pay.


Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP14 Oct 2021 3:48 p.m. PST



donlowry15 Oct 2021 10:01 a.m. PST

Two problems with the Colt revolving rifle:

1. It did NOT use metallic cartridges, so still had to be loaded, one chamber at a time, with powder, ball, and cap -- a time-consuming process.

2. Often a by-blow from one chamber would set off one or both adjacent chamber(s), right into the left hand of the shooter -- which caused many of the men to hold it by the loading lever with their left hand, to keep that hand below the path of any such fire.

IIRC, the Spencer and Henry were the first (U.S.-made) rifles to use metallic cartridges.

I have read, somewhere, that the Spencer was surprisingly powerful, given its small powder charge, because (being rim-fire) it used a very liberal amount of fulminate of mercury primer.

After the War, Spencer was bought out by Winchester.

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