The Rifle Musket
The Lethality Of Warfare Is Brutally Escalated By Minié’s Invention.
It sounds farfetched to say the configuration of a simple piece of lead revolutionized warfare with a result being hundreds of thousands of dead and seriously wounded soldiers. It is true. The war was the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 and the piece of lead was the Minié Ball.
Here is a very brief history of that chunk of metal. For hundreds of years, European armies had been blazing away at one another with smoothbore muskets of large caliber firing round lead balls. General wisdom has them not being capable of reliably placing a ball on a human target past 50 yards. (Actually, some can do much better than that, as I have witnessed. We’ll cover such in a column in the future.)
Military tactics during the smoothbore musket era called for soldiers to pack themselves in a dense mass, fire a volley at the enemy in their likewise tightly packed ranks and then charge with bayonets fixed. The bayonet was considered the battle’s determining factor.
Be sure there were rifles in existence, and they were used to limited good effect in the American Revolution of the 1770s/1780s but they were not the final answer on battlefields. The reason was that they were too slow to reload and had no provision for bayonets. If a rifleman with an empty weapon came face-to-face with an enemy soldier having a bayonet attached to a 5-foot-long musket his only hope was the opposition was taking prisoners that day.
In the 1840s, a French officer named Minié discovered if the musket’s barrel was rifled and its projectile was conical with a hollowbase, it could be loaded like a smoothbore musket but give precise bullet placement like a rifle. Gas produced by gunpowder’s explosion filled the Minié ball’s hollowbase, swelling it to fill the rifling grooves. When everything worked properly, after taking the rifling Minié balls flew to where a musket’s sights were aimed—more or less. Early on it was felt an iron plug was necessary in the Minié ball’s base to insure expansion. Before long the plug was found to be superfluous.
By the 1850s, all modern armies, meaning mostly those of European nations, were wielding what came to be called “rifle-muskets.” Generally speaking their calibers ran from .577 to .69. By the time of our Civil War, the US Army’s rifle-musket caliber was .58.
According to U.S. Firearms 1776-1875 by David F. Butler, .58-caliber rifle-musket ammunition consisted of a 60-grain powder charge encased in a paper cartridge with a 500-grain Minié Ball. In use a soldier tore off the base of the paper cartridge, poured the charge down his musket’s barrel, and rammed the Minié ball on top, lastly placing a cap on the nipple. The 40-inch barrel of a Model 1861 rifle-musket gave about 1,000 fps velocity.
Although Duke has owned many replica rifle-muskets and one original, the sample he has kept
is this Parker-Hale reproduction of the Enfield Model 1853 .577.
According to some sources rifle-muskets of the Civil War were accurate to 1,000 yards. That is utter nonsense. An experienced rifleman with a properly sighted rifle-musket had a moderately good chance of hitting an opponent as far as 300 yards. He would have been deadly at 100 yards. Because officers on both sides of the Civil War were still trained in antiquated tactics, such level of precision was suitable to produce the horrendous casualties for which that conflict is infamous. The key words in this paragraph are “properly sighted” and “experienced rifleman.”
The Model 1861, predominant in the Civil War, had a simple leaf-type rear sight with a tiny nub atop the barrel for a front sight. The sight leaves were meant for 100 and 300 yards but some versions had a third leave for 500 yards. Being made in the hundreds of thousands by a host of manufacturers—both North and South—a particular Model 1861’s zero could be most anywhere. A knowledgeable rifleman could likely get his musket’s sights zeroed for a specific distance and been a terror on the battlefield. Most troops shot them as issued and hoped for the best.
The unknowing might have visions of Civil War troops casting their Minié balls in molds while sitting around campfires. Perhaps that happened to a limited degree, but according to Butler’s book US Army .58-caliber Minié balls were made by the swaging method in government owned facilities, then lubed with a mixture of one part tallow to eight parts beeswax. Next they were assembled in paper cartridges to the tune of about one-half billion between 1861and 1865.
Even with the considerable manufacturing ability of the northern United States not enough rifle-muskets were available. Both Northern and Southern armies also used literal boatloads of Enfield Model 1853 .577-caliber rifle-muskets purchased from England. With such similar bore sizes American made paper cartridges worked in them too.
As I am wont to do occasionally, in the 1990s I went on a bender. It was focused on rifle-muskets to the tune of about a dozen modern replicas made in England, Italy and Japan along with one original. That one was a Colt Model 1861 “Special” so called because Colt was given a dispensation to make some manufacturing changes to the government’s specifications. When my “binge” ended only one rifle-musket was kept. That was the English made, Parker-Hale replica of the Enfield Model 1853. It exhibited superior workmanship and carried the best sights. With some experience I was able to put a Minié Ball on a man-size target at 300 yards more often than not if using a solid rest.
The era of rifle-musket supremacy in military affairs lasted only about 20 years. By the end of the Civil War, they were made obsolete by metallic cartridge firing rifles. In that brief time span they changed warfare forever.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino