Shooting Accuracy During the Civil War
by Tony Beck
Anyone that has participated in our hobby for more than a couple of events has had an experience similar to the following. Somewhere out a couple of hundred yards, an enemy trooper will pop up from behind a fence and snap off a round. Almost immediately an irritated voice will float from across the field "I GOT YOU REB (or YANK)!", closely followed by some choice mutterings on the subject of bomb proof troops. During the war, marksmanship almost never approached that sort of high standard. This is not to say that the weapons were not capable of such feats of accuracy. Your author has on several occasions hit 4 or 5 two liter soda bottles in a row at 100 yards with original muskets and carbines. One lucky day, 3 one gallon milk jugs fell in four shots from 250 yards, to a Parker Snow contract '61 Springfield. However, shooting on a range is nothing like firing in battle.
This fact was brought home at a rendezvous in Utah. There was an event aptly titled "Hold the Fort". The object was to shoot over a stockade wall and hit all of the breakable targets in the nearby woods. The catch was that there were several tennis serving cannons hidden in the woods shooting back. It was amazing how many calm and accurate marksmen were reduced to incompetence by the threat of being beaned by an incoming tennis ball. It is not hard to imagine the effect the hiss of passing mini-balls would have on all but the coolest troops in battle.
Here for your edification are some reports on the amazingly bad marksmanship that was the rule rather than the exception during the War for Southern Independence.
Private John Opie, of the 6th Va. Cav. related the following incident after the battle of Brandy Station.(1) "At any rate, I saw them raise their carbines, then a line of smoke, then a crash; when heels over head, both horse and rider tumbled through the air and fell, headlong in a pile on the side of the road. My right leg felt as if paralyzed, but, seeing and feeling no blood, upon examination I found that a ball had struck the toe of my boot and plowed a furrow through the sole."
"I jumped up, still having my saber in my right hand, my horse lying beside me dead, not having uttered a groan or made a struggle. I found, the next day, when I went to get my saddle and bridle, that four bullets had penetrated her. How I escaped remained a mystery, as I was only 20 yards distant from the enemy, and received the fire of several hundred men."
Wade Hampton was, by all accounts, one of the coolest men under fire on either side of the conflict. At the battle of Gettysburg, he engaged a Spencer armed Yankee trooper at a range of about 125 yards, with his revolvers.(2) Hampton and the federal traded several shots. The noble Confederate even held his fire when the Yankee's rifle jammed, allowing the trooper to clear it. At length, Hampton fired a round that sent his opponent to the rear carrying rather more lead than was agreeable.
Such bad shooting was not limited to northern troops. Captain Frank Myers of the 35th Va. Cav. related the story of an ambuscade set to catch a particularly persistent and troublesome federal patrol then making the rounds in the area of Orleans, Virginia.(3) "Lieut. Chiswell, with seventeen men of Company B, was stationed in the thick bushes close along side the road, with instructions to fire when the Yankees came opposite them."...."About 3 o'clock the picket came quietly in and reported about 100 approaching." .... "After waiting anxiously, with ears strained to catch the sound, for about ten minutes, the carbines of Chiswell's men rang out." .... "Strange as it may appear, only one man was killed by the fire of Chiswell's men, although they had a rest and the distance was scarcely twelve yards, but that one man had seven bullets through him. That was the usual result of ambuscades, for under the most favorable circumstances they seldom did much damage."
These accounts, to us, seem amazing records of marksmanship, or the lack there of. Seven hits out of eighteen shots at a range of under 40 feet, on a target the size of 100 mounted troopers, is bad work by anyone's reckoning, with or without a rest. Remember however, that there was no formal training in the handling of firearms in any of the state regiments of the armies, North or South. A few commanders did take the time to introduce the basics of marksmanship, but that was quite unusual. By 1864, a new volunteer would commonly go from the recruiting office to the front line in less than a week. Not much time to learn even the basics of soldiering. Those who did know how to shoot often forgot their ability as balls hissed by thick and fast. To put it bluntly, the typical Reb (and Yank) was a lousy shot.
As the opening volleys of the next skirmish ring out, don't assume that you are blessed with Der Freischutz' magic bullets and all of yankeedom (or rebeldom) must fall before you. In the war, luck played a much larger roll than superior marksmanship in determining who became a casualty.
1. Edward R. Crews, Arms of the Confederate Cavalry, Dixie Gunworks Annual, (C)1996, Pioneer Press.
2. Wayne Austerman, Arms of the Gray Paladins, Dixie Gunworks Annual, (C)1993, Pioneer Press.
3. Frank Myers, The Comanches, Kelly, Piet and Co., 1871; Reprint, Continental Book Co., Marietta Ga. (C)1956, pp 215-16.