Shock Troops of the Confederacy
Arms and the Men: a sharpshooter's weapons

Enfield P53 Rifle-Musket

Confederate ordnance chief Josiah Gorgas called the Enfield, or British Pattern 53 Long Rifle-Musket, named for the year of its adoption, “the finest arm in the world.” Sturdy, reliable, and extremely accurate even at extended ranges, it consistently outshot everything but the Whitworth and quickly became a favorite on both sides. This nine and a half pound, single shot, muzzle loading, .577 caliber rifle was as close to a standard infantry weapon as the Confederacy ever got and was also used in large numbers by the Union.

Three metal bands held the P53s three-groove, 39-inch barrel (which sported a 1:78 twist) to the stock, and as such the weapon was often referred to as the “three-band” model. Sixty-eight grains of black powder pushed a 530-grain Prichett ball (or a Burton-Minié ball) along at about 850-900 feet per second. The Enfield’s adjustable ladder rear sight had steps for 100 (the default or “battle sight” range), 200, 300, and 400 yards. For distances beyond that an adjustable flip-up blade sight was graduated (depending on the model and date of manufacture) from 900 to 1250 yards. With practice a good marksman could hit a man-sized target at about half that distance. Including the 17-inch blade on its triangular socket bayonet, the Enfield rifle-musket measured just over six feet long. The term “rifle-musket” meant that the rifle was the same length as the musket it replaced. The long rifle was thought necessary so that the muzzles of the second rank of soldiers would project beyond the faces of the men in front, and so that the weapon would be sufficiently long for a bayonet fight. (courtesy West Point Museum)

Enfield P 56/58/60 Rifle

Enfield also produced several shorter versions of its P53 rifle-musket. All had 33-inch barrels and an overall length of 48½ inches and were often called "two-band" Enfields after the number of bands securing the barrel. The Pattern 56 and 58 rifles had a light three-groove barrel, while the Pattern 60 Army rifle and the Pattern 58 Navy rifle both featured a heavier five-groove barrel with progressive depth rifling and a faster 1:48 twist, giving them superior accuracy.

The two-band Enfield quickly became the top choice for Confederate sharpshooters. "Every short Enfield which came into possession of any of our men was taken away and given to these men," said a Georgian in Gordon's brigade, "but there were not enough, and some of them had the common long Enfield. Both kinds had a long range and were very effective. The short guns were given them, as they were lighter and handier."

This particular P60 Enfield belonged to Berry Benson, a sharpshooter with McGowan's South Carolina brigade. (courtesy Augusta Museum of History)

The Whitworth Rifle

Sir Joseph Whitworth, one of the premier inventors and firearms designers of his era, manufactured his singular rifle in Manchester, England. It fired a unique, hard metal, hexagonal-sided bullet with a very long aspect ratio (.445 inches by 1.45 inches, or 2½ times its diameter) that gave it superior ballistic performance at extended ranges. In order to give his long bullet the same 530-grain weight as that of the Enfield, Sir Joseph reduced the caliber to .451. Seventy to eight-five grains of British-manufactured powder launched the bullet at twelve hundred to fourteen hundred feet per second, considerably faster than the Enfield. While the Whitworth's light weight meant that while a soldier could easily carry it around the battlefield, he could count on it giving him a heavy kick when he pulled the trigger. Overall, the Enfield made a better all-purpose infantry weapon, and equaled the Whitworth's accuracy to five hundred yards.

The rifle was available with and without bayonet attachments and came with a 36-inch or a 33-inch barrel, which made for an overall length of 49 to 52½ inches. All had a hexagonal bore and a fast 1:20 twist. "Typical 'Confederate Whitworths' featured a 33-inch barrel, two Enfield pattern barrel bands, iron mounts of the military target rifle pattern, and Enfield-type lock with no safety bolt and an Enfield-style hammer; open sights, with a blade front being adjustable for windage allowance, and a stock which extends to within a short distance of the muzzle, giving the rifle a snub-nosed appearance."

Sighting arrangements varied also. Some Whitworths had Enfield-type sights graduated to twelve hundred yards, and others had a sophisticated sliding blade sight with a vernier screw adjustment for windage; some had simple front sights, and others boasted an adjustable post-and-globe front sight. A few rifles sported a four-power telescopic sight, fitted in an adjustable mount on the gun's left side. While it was a state-of-the-art system in 1864 it did have its drawbacks. "After a fight those who used them had black eyes," remembered one sharpshooter, "as the end of the tube rested against the eye while taking aim, and the 'kick,' being pretty hard, bruised the eye."

Most of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia's sharpshooter battalions used Enfields, and only one or two men per battalion carried Whitworths. Thus in the approximately thirty-six infantry brigades of the Army of Northern Virginia, there were most likely between thirty-six and seventy-two of these rifles in service. Although some claims of its accuracy are no doubt exaggerated, the fact remains that the Whitworth could and did strike at a thousand yards and beyond. "The claim of 'fatal results at 1,500 yards,'" concluded one modern expert, "was no foolish boast." Overall, it was a deadly weapon that, in the right hands, repaid its high cost many times over. "I do not believe a harder-shooting, harder-kicking, longer-range gun was ever made than the Whitworth rifle," asserted sharpshooter veteran Isaac Shannon. (courtesy West Point Museum)

Model 1859 Sharps Rifle

The Sharps, a light (eight pounds, eight ounces), breech-loading, single-shot, .52 caliber rifle, combined a high rate of fire with excellent long-range accuracy. By releasing a catch a soldier could pull down the trigger guard, which dropped the breech and allowed him to insert a combustible cased linen cartridge. Returning the trigger guard closed the breech and sheared open the cartridge. A trained rifleman could put ten 370-grain slugs a minute down the 30-inch barrel in the same time it took a soldier with a muzzle loader to get off three, and the breech-loading feature allowed him to easily reload while prone—an awkward operation with a muzzle-loader. Sighted to eight hundred yards, the Sharps was quite accurate and could reliably hit a man-sized target at about half that range. It came with a Lawrence pellet primer system, but the soldiers preferred to use conventional primers except during cold weather, as the pellet primer worked better with numb fingers.

Although the Sharps sometimes leaked combustion gasses through the breech seal, overall it was a sturdy and effective design that held up well in the field. The company also made a carbine version with a 22-inch barrel for cavalry use. Undoubtedly the company's most famous rifles, however, were the two thousand made expressly for Colonel Hiram Berdan's 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooter regiments (shown above), which sported a double "set" trigger. Pulling the rear trigger would "set" the front one, which would then fire the weapon at the slightest touch. Berdan's rifles also had a more practical angular socket bayonet rather than the usual sword bayonet.

As a skirmisher's rifle, the Sharps was hard to beat, and was issued in considerable numbers to Federal light infantry late in the war. (courtesy West Point Museum)

Spencer Rifle

Introduced midwar, the .52 caliber Spencer was an effective repeating rifle that held seven shots in a tubular magazine in the stock. Pulling down the trigger guard rotated the breech block, ejecting the spent case and allowing the magazine spring to push one of the metallic rimfire cartridges forward. As the shooter returned the trigger guard, the breech block pushed the bullet home. The hammer had to be manually cocked for each shot. To reload, a soldier opened the buttstock, dropped in seven rounds, and replaced the spring-loaded follower. With its modern one-piece metal cartridges, the Spencer was virtually immune to moisture and required no separate primer. The handy Blakeslee cartridge box, introduced late in the war, allowed a soldier to keep a number of loaded "magazines," which were actually tubes from which he dumped the cartridges into the buttstock. The Spencer came in two versions: a 47-inch model for the infantry and a 39-inch version for mounted use. If a ready supply of pre-loaded magazines was available, a soldier could fire fifteen aimed shots a minute.

Still, this wonder weapon had some shortcomings. It occasionally jammed, and at ten pounds it was rather heavy. The ammunition was even heavier. The Spencer's blunt-nosed 285-grain bullet, driven by only forty-eight grains of powder, had poor aerodynamics and consequently a rather short range. Coupled with an indifferent short-radius sighting system, especially on the carbine, its effective range was not much over two hundred yards, and it was not as accurate as a sharpshooter would prefer. Given its firepower, however, and the closeness of most Civil War engagements, this was not as disadvantageous as it might seem. "I consider a skirmish line armed with them fully equal to a line of battle armed with the Springfield," asserted the 37th Massachusetts's commander, Colonel Oliver Edwards. Certainly the Spencer rifle was the choice weapon for trench warfare. Late in the war the Federals armed their division-level sharpshooter companies with Spencers, distributing them to the flank companies of regiments like the 5th Wisconsin and using Spencer-armed regiments like the 37th Massachusetts for skirmishing duties. It was, in effect, the assault rifle of its day.

The Confederate sharpshooters with their short Enfields could outshoot the Spencer-armed Yankees at longer ranges, but the Rebels could not match their close-in firepower. Although the Confederacy captured large numbers of the weapons, they were unable use them effectively because they could not manufacture the necessary rimfire metallic cartridges. Ultimately the Spencer made its greatest contribution to the Northern war effort as a carbine where, issued to Union cavalry, it was a major factor in the dominance of that arm in 1864-65. Overall, the U.S. Army took delivery of almost fifty-eight thousand Spencers during the war. (courtesy West Point Museum)

American Target Rifles

For sniping duties the Federals fielded a wide variety of civilian target rifles, most of which were heavy and not very mobile. One soldier, reviewing the sharpshooter's weapons in his unit, observed that "each rifle has a telescope running the entire length of the barrel. The average weight is about 35 lbs., the lightest weighing 17 lbs. and heaviest 50 lbs." This Morgan James rifle, typical of the breed, belonged to the Corps of Cadets at West Point.

While their accuracy was excellent, loading was a slow and cumbersome process. Many of these rifles used a "false muzzle," (shown top right) a protective metal cone that slipped over the muzzle to protect the lands when loading—and rendered the weapon nearly useless if lost. Though quite effective in a static situation, these rifles were unsuitable for a mobile campaign. If the tactical situation allowed the Yankees to use their scoped target rifles, however, they soon proved the worth of their weapons. South Carolina sharpshooter Berry Benson described a meeting with his friend Ben Powell, who was the battalion's Whitworth marksman. "I remember Powell coming up one day with a hole in his hat. He had been dueling with one of the enemy's sharpshooters who proved himself an excellent shot, that Powell though it prudent to retire."

Eventually the Federal authorities issued service rifles to most sharpshooter outfits, who placed their target rifles in company wagons until the situation settled down enough to move them forward. Some sharpshooter units retained quite a number of their heavy rifles until the end, while others kept only two or three per company. Ordinary infantry regiments occasionally fielded one or two privately-owned target rifles as well. Late in the war the Federal division sharpshooter companies were armed with a combination of fast-firing Spencers and heavy target rifles. (courtesy West Point Museum)

English Match Rifles

In the mid-1850s match rifle shooting at long ranges—in some cases up to a thousand yards—became quite popular in Britain, and a number of manufacturers (e.g. Turner, Rigby, Henry, Nuthall) produced high-quality rifles to fill the need. These included civilian versions of the Whitworth, such as the Beasley, as well as other rifles using licensed copies of Whitworth's patented hexagonal bore. Other innovative designs were used as well, and unlike the heavy target rifles common in the United States, the British match rifles weighed no more than a service musket. A number of these rifles made their way across the Atlantic and into the hands of Confederate sharpshooters.

Other sharpshooter's rifles came from the Volunteer Rifle Corps, a British militia organization organized in the late 1850s. Many Volunteers, who provided their own weapons, bought rifles with interchangeable barrels—one in standard .577 caliber for drill and another .45 caliber "small-bore" barrel for match shooting. When Whitehall mandated the use of the regulation P53 Enfield in 1862 many Volunteers sold their old rifle to Confederate buyers.

The most widely used match rifle was the Kerr, made by the London Armoury Company. This finely crafted rifle outwardly resembled the Enfield—just about all the parts were interchangeable—but fired a .446 caliber bullet through a 37-inch barrel that featured a patented, six-groove progressive rifling system. While extremely accurate its shorter, somewhat lighter bullet lacked the carrying power of the Whitworth at very long ranges. The ten-pound Kerr used a rear sight similar to the standard Enfield ladder and an adjustable globe sight on the front.

Most Civil War Kerrs were used in the western theater by the Army of Tennessee. The Kentucky brigade received eleven from "an English admirer," and Cleburne's division at one time deployed a forty-six-man sharpshooter corps that boasted thirty Whitworth and sixteen Kerr rifles. Many of the Kerr sharpshooters appear to have shot the cylindrical Whitworth round in battle, likely improving its long-range performance.

Another sharpshooter's match rifle, the Turner (shown above), was imported in small numbers. Manufactured by Thomas Turner of Birmingham, these beautiful hand-crafted .451 caliber rifles resembled the Kerr. Some versions used Turner's patented five-groove rifling, and others, such as the one shown here, came with the Whitworth hexagonal bore. Some Confederate sharpshooters also used the Nuthall, which also looked much like the P53 Enfield, the Daw, the Jacob's, and the Lancaster. Just how many of these rifles came into the South is impossible to say, but they were few. (courtesy Damon Mills Fine Antique Firearms)

CFS Press Copyright 2005