The Civil War with Ms. ChristyHistorian in Residence

Civil War Rifles
Civil War Rifle

Diagram of a cartridge

A cartridge, made by wrapping paper around a lead minie ball and filling the resulting hollow part with gunpowder. This was the bullet of the Civil War.

Many soldiers the Civil War used older muzzle-loading flintlock muskets, the weapon of choice during the war was the muzzle-loading rifle, which was more accurate than a muzzle-loading musket but almost as hard to load. In order to load a muzzle-loading rifle, you needed a cartridge (see upper left), a percussion cap to make the spark that would ignite the gunpowder inside the muzzle and a ramrod for ramming the whole thing into place in the muzzle of your gun. (Click here to see The Anatomy of a Gun and discover where all these parts are.) To load, you would put a cartridge on the pin of the firing mechanism of your gun then carefully close the firing mechanism, making sure it didn't fire prematurely. Then, placing the butt of the gun on the ground (see lower left), you would drop you cartridge down the muzzle of your gun, making sure that the pointy part (the minie ball) was pointing out the muzzle. You would remove the ramrod from its position underneath the barrel of your rifle and push the cartridge down into the muzzle, making sure it didn't fall out when you raised the gun to fire. Then, you would replace the ramrod underneath the barrel of your gun. Finally, you would pick the weapon up, cock back the firing mechanism and pull the trigger. This caused the mechanism to strike the cap against a pin over a hollow shaft that carried the resulting explosion into the barrel of the gun. That explosion created another explosion in the barrel when the fire hit the cartridge. That explosion caused the minie ball to come shooting out of the barrel of the gun, engaging with the spiral marks or rifling on the inside of the barrel and causing the bullet to turn as it exited the weapon, making it go faster and farther and straighter than a musket ball emerging from a musket.

Loading a muzzle-loading rifle

This soldier is using his ramrod to ram the cartridge down the muzzle of his gun.

Sometimes soldiers forgot and left their ramrods in their rifles. This sent the ramrod flying along with the minie ball -- if the soldier was lucky and it didn't cause the gun to explode in his face!

It took about 15-20 seconds for an experienced soldier to load his muzzle-loading rifle correctly. Most did not end up loading them correctly. Or, if they did load it correctly, most fired them too high and missed the oncoming enemy. Many neglected to fire them at all, in the confusion of the battlefield. Many rifles found on battlefields after a battle contained multiple, unfired cartridges.

Once a soldier had fired two or three times, he generally fixed the bayonet on the end of his rifle and began to charge the enemy, with his gun lowered and the bayonet pointed into the gut of approaching soldiers.

To hear a bugle call to charge, click here: Rifle

Soldier carrying a rifle with bayonet attached

This soldier has his bayonet fixed to his rifle.

Click here to learn more about the effect of rifling on the effectiveness of a weapon.Rifle

Other websites with good information about Civil War rifles:

This website for Fort Scott, in Kansas, has a good summary of how rifles were evolving in the early years of the 19th century, leading up to the Civil War.

Many more details on links from this Civil War weapons page:

To learn some of the vocabulary about weapons in the Civil War:

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Historian in Residence © 2007 Mary Anne Christy