Home Forums Horse and Musket American Civil War At what range did troops actually open fire?

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  • #87868
    Ivan Sorensen
    Participant

    This is probably a dumb question but the couple of books I have on the topic mainly discuss effective ranges of weaponry for the period (giving anything from 150 to 300 yards typically).

    What I am wondering about is at what range did regulations expect you to open fire?
    And if documented, at what ranges did units do so in “practice” ?
    Did it differ between raw and veteran units?

    Any sources you have would be pretty welcome.

    Nordic Weasel Games
    https://www.wargamevault.com/browse/pub/5701/Nordic-Weasel-Games?src=browse5701

    #87877
    John D Salt
    Participant

    Not my period, but you may find the following MSc thesis, “Wall of Fire — The Rifle and Civil War Infantry Tactics”, useful:

    http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a227467.pdf

    Hardee’s book on infantry tactics, mentioned in the thesis, is available at

    https://archive.org/details/13072880.3718.emory.edu

    but seems to be devoted entirely to the business of forming up and moving bodies of men, with no reference to the range at which fire should be opened anywhere that I can see.

    The Enfield .577 rifled musket seems to have been sighted to 900 yards, and while a black-powder weapon cannot hope to compare with a weapon using modern nitrocellulose propellants in terms of muzzle velocity, and hence flatness of trajectory, I suspect that this would not be a completely impractical range against a cooperative and slow-moving enemy helpful enough to remain standing in closely dressed ranks. Against a skirmish line, or soldiers permitted the initiative (as per Rogers’ Rangers’ Standing Orders) to “kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree” it will be a very different story.

    Even at the relatively sedate rate of two or three shots per minute, ammunition conservation can become a problem if a firefight is protracted for any time, although the standard loads of 40 cartridges to a pouch and perhaps 60-80 rounds per man compare favourably with later wars and faster-firing weapons.

    Remember Phil Barker’s principle that “most battles occur just outside the effective range of the weapons involved”.

    All the best,

    John.

    #87886
    vtsaogames
    Participant

    Hess “Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat” has a number of examples, most of them under 100 yards. Some opened fire at 100-200 yards, a couple at 300 yards. Consider many battles were fought in wooded terrain broken by a few clearings. Nosworthy and Griffith have similar info. The rifle musket effect was evolutionary rather then revolutionary as many have maintained over the years. The Minie ball has a much more curved trajectory than modern bullets, requiring training in estimating range, beyond the level of most ordinary troops in this war.

     

    An earlier version of my post :

    Nosworthy (Bloody Crucible of Courage), Griffith (Battle Tactics of the Civil War) and Hess (The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat) all indicate that it was slightly longer than combat ranges of smooth-bore muskets in most cases. Minie balls had a low muzzle velocity and a curved trajectory that made range estimation very important at long range. Many ordinary troops did not have such training. Skilled marksmen like Berdan’s rifles were another story. And then the specialist snipers of the Army of Northern Virginia armed with Whitworth rifles were capable of accurate mayhem at 4-500 yards. That said, I’ve read accounts (not primary sources) of units opening fire at 400 yards with standard rifle muskets and scoring some hits.

    You also have to figure that most ACW battlefields rarely offered unobstructed fields of fire for long range. Many battles were fought in wooded areas with just the odd field or clearing, though many gamers use open terrain as the default with the odd woods.

    Hess and Nosworthy note that officers wanted to arm their skirmishers with rifled weapons. The troops preferred rifled weapons hands down, though that may have been because all were aware that they were the newest thing. Who wants an old cell-phone? Some officers (like the Irish Brigade) preferred smooth-bore muskets because they thought that would increase the reliance on cold steel.

    Anyway, all three writers above concur that the oft-told tale of revolutionary change in tactics due to rifled muskets is a myth and that change was more evolutionary. I do think increasing the lethal close range zone from 75 yards to say 125 does make a difference all by itself.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by vtsaogames.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by Mike.

    This too shall pass

    #87916
    John D Salt
    Participant

    The rifle musket effect was evolutionary rather then revolutionary as many have maintained over the years. The Minie ball has a much more curved trajectory than modern bullets, requiring raining in estimating range, beyond the level of most ordinary troops in this war.

    Indeed. The real revolution in infantry firepower came from the combination of percussion caps, brass cartridges, spitzer bullets, and nitrocellulose propellants A turn-of-the-century bolt-action rifle, such as the 1897 Mauser, could send bullets at three times the velocity and four times the rate of the .577 Enfield. With such a modern bullet, range estimation is essentially irrelevant at 300m or less against man-sized targets. Putting some SWAG-originated numbers into my P(hit) spreadsheet auggests that a Minié bullet from a .577 Enfield fired against a NATO man-sized target with astonishing accuracy (1 mil s.d. dispersion at the muzzle) might obtain 30% hits at 300 metres if the range is known perfectly, reduced to 10% with a range estimation error of 20% (as good as most trained soldiers can do unassisted). Battlefield shooting would be much less accurate. The low rate of fire and tiny sight increments (100 yards) would also mean, if the enemy were rude enough to advance or retire at a rapid pace, a frequent need to change sight settings.

    The real reason for mass casualties from small arms in the ACW is, I am sure, the persistece of excessively dense infantry formations. Missing the bloke you are aiming at does not much matter if you hit the one next to him.

    All the best,

    John.

    #87926
    Guy Farrish
    Participant

    Paddy Griffith’s ‘Rally Once Again’ suggests average ranges of musketry in 113 references in battle accounts between 1861-65 as lying between 68 and 141 yards – giving an average range of 127 yards.

    P.Griffith Rally Once Again (Marlborough: Crowood Press, 1987), p.147.

    #87940
    OB
    Participant

    Some officers (like the Irish Brigade) preferred smooth-bore muskets because they thought that would increase the reliance on cold steel.

    Did they not also prefer a buckshot and ball load presumably for better shock at short range which would then aid the charge?

    OB
    http://withob.blogspot.co.uk/

    #87955
    vtsaogames
    Participant

    Yes, buck and ball was the slight advantage that smooth-bore muskets gave at close range. I’m not sure how much the 3 buckshot added. But at close enough range the difference between the two types faded. Grant thought that smooth-bores were highly inaccurate at ranges over 75 yards.

     

    That said, during the American Revolution, Sumter was on the verge of a moderate tactical victory when wounded by buckshot from an buck-and-ball round late in the fight at Blackstocks, allowing Tarleton to claim a win.

     

    Ivan, of the three books listed above, I say Hess has the last and best word on it.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by vtsaogames.

    This too shall pass

    #87961
    Guy Farrish
    Participant

    Griffith also suggests that although troops did open fire at 400 yards and more on occasion, the more experienced they became the less likely they were to do this as it wasted ammunition.

    Hess is very good and follows on from Griffith and Mark Grimsley’s Surviving Military Revolution: The U.S. Civil War,
    Macgregor Knox and Williamson Murray, eds., The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

    Hess’ asssessment for the range for fire combat in the ACW is between 96 and 114 yards.

    So whatever the theoretical performance of the rifled musket and the expectations of tacticians, the practical range seems to have been around 100 yards.

    #87963

    The average 3 banded rifled musket “could” shoot accurately to 500 yards.  However, you are limited to the optical range of the MK-I eyeball.  300 yards is about the beginning of firefight range, usually.  Strangely, that has not changed in a 150+ years.

    John

    "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

    --Abraham Lincoln

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