The Sharpshooter and His Weapon

By Sid Sidlo
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: At the time this article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2001, Sid Sidlo was editor of the The Ramrod, the newsletter of the North Carolina CWRT.

Hitting a distant target with a bullet only looks easy. It takes a keen eye, steady hands, a great deal of training and practice, and a good firearm. Even with those qualifications and today’s high-powered rifles, it is difficult to hit a man-sized target at three hundred yards without resting the rifle securely. And the black powder of the Civil War era was not high power. Now imagine firing a rifle at a distant enemy on a battlefield covered with powder smoke, with shell fragments flying around, and with the enemy riflemen and artillery in turn finding you a very desirable target. It took cool nerves under those conditions to estimate carefully the distance to the target, determine the high trajectory needed at the time, and allow for any wind. But that was the task of the Civil War sharpshooter, both Union and Confederate.

Hiram G. Berdan

The concept of using expert marksmen in a role distinct from that of the ordinary infantryman was proposed in the summer of 1861 by the brilliant but erratic Hiram G. Berdan of New York, a mechanical engineer and prolific inventor who originated a repeating rifle before the war, and a range finder and a torpedo boat for evading torpedo nets during and after the conflict, and the amateur champion marksman of the United States since 1846. He received permission from the government to recruit two regiments of qualified riflemen that would be armed with superior rifles.

Only crack shots needed to apply. The chosen few had to put ten consecutive shots in a 10-inch circle at 200 yards, although with their choice of weapon and position. Try it sometime. But Berdan recruited extensively from Wisconsin to Vermont, and by November of 1861 the 1st and 2nd regiments of U.S. Sharpshooters had been mustered into service. They served throughout the war, and it was claimed that Berdan’s regiments probably killed more rebel soldiers than any other regiments in the army.

By mid-1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton came to believe that regiments made up exclusively of sharpshooters were too unwieldy for tactical use, and the riflemen would best be organized as companies or squads, or even just as individuals, in regular regiments, to be deployed as the field commander chose. This became the practice for both Union and Confederate armies for the remainder of the war.

At first many of the snipers provided their own weapons, but this practice often posed problems of ammunition supply. Berdan requested issuance of Sharps rifles because of their fast breech-loading and outstanding accuracy at long range. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, fearing that this would lead to waste of ammunition, overruled Berdan, insisting on standard issue Springfield rifles. Berdan went to Lincoln, who after watching Berdan give a dazzling demonstration of speed and accuracy with the Sharps rifle, ordered it issued to the crack regiments.

The Sharps breach-loading rifle used by Union sharpshooters

Yet because many of the men were so comfortable with their personal rifles, they continued to use them throughout the war, even if they were muzzle-loaders and often weighed upwards of thirty pounds or more!

The Sharps rifle was invented in 1848 in Hartford, Connecticut, by gun-maker Christian Sharps. It was a single-shot percussion-cap breech-loader that could be fired eight to ten times a minute, three times the rate of the Springfield rifled musket in experienced hands. The Sharps weighed about twelve pounds, was 47 inches in length with an open-sighted 30-inch barrel, and fired cartridges with a .52 caliber conical ball. The rifle was accurate up to 600 yards, and with it a typical sharpshooter could put twenty bullets in a 24-inch pattern at 200 yards. Not the least advantage of the breech-loader was the ability to reload it under battle conditions in which muzzle-reloading would be difficult, if not impossible.

To load his gun, the rifleman dropped the breech block by pushing forward on the trigger guard, then inserted a paper or linen cartridge. Pulling back the trigger guard raised and closed the breech block, on which a knife edge cut open the cartridge end to accept ignition from the cap. The hammer was then cocked manually. The combustible cartridge was consumed in the explosion, simplifying reloading. The linen cartridge, also invented by Sharps, held its shape better than paper and could stand rougher treatment. Metallic cartridges did not come along until after the war.

The Sharps rifle should not be confused with the breech-loading Sharps carbine, also .52 caliber, used by cavalry, where the ability to reload quickly while on horseback was often the deciding factor. The carbine weighed only eight pounds and was a handy 39 inches long. (Just as an aside, the term “sharpshooter” doesn’t come from Sharps’ name. It originated in Austria about the turn of the nineteenth century.)

The Confederate government bought Sharps rifles from northern manufacturers before Ft. Sumter and made their own “Richmond Sharps” during the war (although these were of inferior quality). But their favorite sniper weapon was the Whitworth .45 caliber rifle, an English design from the mid-1850s. With an overall length of 49 inches, it fired a six-sided grooved bullet through a 33-inch barrel having a hexagonal bore with a rapid twist that gave phenomenal steadiness to the bullet’s flight.

John Sedgwick

The Whitworth was the most accurate long-range rifle of the Civil War. With an open sight and firing from a fixed rest or the prone position, the shooter could place his shots in a twelve-inch diameter circle at 500 yards. With the 14 1/2-inch telescopic sight mounted on the left of the stock, the rifle had a killing range of 1,500-1,800 yards, or about a mile. We all know the story of Union general John Sedgwick, killed at Spotsylvania when shot in the head by a bullet fired from a Whitworth rifle 800 yards distant.

The Whitworth, too, was fired with a percussion cap. Its disadvantage was that it was a muzzle-loader, hence slow to load, and like all muzzle-loaders, needed cleaning every few rounds. But its outstanding accuracy made it worth the trouble. It was usually issued only to top marksmen in the Confederate army corps.

The Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle preferred by Confederate sharpshooters

The mission of the sharpshooter was to kill from a distance. Feared by both sides, he was as much a psychological as a tactical weapon of the Civil War. While most valuable in a protracted siege operation, he was useful in combat large and small. With a superior weapon fired from a rest such as a tree limb, skilled shots could hit small targets at half a mile or more. But these riflemen were often rural lads who had grown up with rifles in their hands, and many were probably good enough to be nearly as proficient with a Springfield as with a Whitworth rifle. Accuracy under these conditions was important, but the breech-loader rate of fire was even more advantageous.

The position of sharpshooter in any regiment was usually an enviable one. In many units, North and South, they were often excused from routine camp and guard duty and spent hours daily in the more satisfying exercises of marksmanship and estimating distance. Since even in the heat of battle they could fire individually and more carefully than the ordinary soldier with a Springfield rifle, they were equipped with hand-held mechanical range finders that estimated distance, and thus trajectory, based upon the target’s apparent height.

On the other hand, while sharpshooters did not have to endure the mass fire on the regimental line, they were a favorite target of enemy artillery and enemy sharpshooters, just as enemy officers and artillery batteries were their favorite targets. Sharpshooters were often in demand as skirmishers. Overall, they had a rate of casualties typical of ordinary soldiers in line of battle.

Related link:
Sharpshooters’ Gallery