American Civil War; Henry, Winchester, Sharp, Spencer & Other Repeating Rifles & More


Weaponry. The rifle dominated the battlefield, and though smooth-bore muskets were present, the Minie ball and rifling extended engagement ranges to 300 yards or more. Muskets being smooth bore were only accurate to 40 yards or so, or against ordered ranks of soldiers. The Minie (formally spelled Minié) ball, is an elongated bullet, was a hollow base elongated projectile. The military even today refers to the standard infantry loading as ‘ball.’ This allowed the projectile to be rammed without any wadding or patches. On firing, the hollow base would expand and engage the rifling and allowed the projectile to be rotated for stabilization. Rate of fire went up slightly over the patched lead ball. Primed by a cap, the Enfield favored by the Confederacy and the Springfield were far more reliable than the old flintlock system.

Civil War Repeating Rifles
But there was another invention that was to revolutionize firearms and warfare was the cartridge. The Civil War was to see the last of the muzzle loader and the arrival of the repeater. Invented by Benjamin Tyler Henry his rifle was a repeating lever action firing and holding 16 rounds of .44 Henry rimfire ammunition. Called ‘the gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week long’ by the Confederates and many of these used by both sides where privately purchased by the users or in case of the Confederates captured on the field. In the waning days of the muzzle loader the Henry constituted unprecedented fire power. The Union purchased just 1,731 rifles, but it is estimated that 6,000 – 7,000 where used. Replaced by the Winchester Model 1866, firing the same cartridge over 14,000 were produced. Henry’s were carried west by the post war pioneers. It wasn’t until the introduction of Winchester’s Model 1866 still chambered for the .44 Henry rimfire. Winchester’s first centerfire rifle was the popular 1873.

Sharps Civil War Rifle

The Henry was considered relatively fragile by military standards and compared to the office Union military arm the Spencer and the Henry .44 was considered somewhat anemic in comparison. The Spencer was a 7-shot carbine used by the Union cavalry and was loaded via tubular magazines through the butt-stock allowing rapid reloading. Its .56 caliber rimfire cartridge was deadly. The Spencer post-Civil War went on to serve in the Indian Wars in the West.
Sharps introduced their superlative breechloader and was the Union Army’s choice for its snipers. Issued in mass to Berdan’s Sharpshooters and other Union skirmisher units were utilized to delivery long-range fire, more accurately and at a much higher fire rate with the 1859 Sharps falling block used paper cartridges and were primed by pelleted primers that automatically primed the rifle on cocking the hammer. This allowed rapid reloading for the cavalry using the carbine version. There two main inhibitors to the general issue of the Sharps. It cost three times as much as the Springfield rifle and many conservative military officers thought that with the relative high fire rate of a breechloader it encouraged ammunition waste. The falling block was easily converted to metallic cartridges and many 1859 Sharps found themselves rechambered for the .50-70 Government and fought in the Indian Wars after the end of the Civil war.

Baseball, Military & Automotive Museums in Auburn, Indiana

The US Civil War introduced many new technologies to warfare. With new technological innovations, tactics and strategies changes. Trench and siege warfare using modern large siege artillery were introduced. Rifled artillery was introduced as well. Come by Kruse Museums and learn more about Civil War and other American history today!

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