Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problem with Civil War Handguns

One question about the Civil War that I get quite often from people (my dad, for one) pertains to the use of revolving pistols. In movies like Gettysburg we see the officers blasting away with their pistols and the question often arises: if it can shoot so quickly, why weren't all the soldiers issued a sidearm? Well, there were actually a lot of reasons why - but first let me apologize to the Civil War gun affectionados out there who may stumble onto this article: while I have read up on the subject and find it interesting, I am in no way claiming to be an expert. So go easy on me if the terminology is a little off. On the other hand, feel free to chime in if there is any pertinent information that I left out.

Two of the most common handguns in the Civil War and the types I'm referring to in this post are the Colt Army Model 1860 used most often by Union troops and the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver preferred by the Confederacy. However, it appears that most if not all handguns at the time were the same basic idea. The first and usually most obvious drawback to these types of weapons was their range. Various sources argue that the maximum effective range was anywhere from 50-100 yards. Not horrible, but as rifled muskets became more of the norm this range became increasing useless; for instance the Springfield Model 1861 musket was still very accurate even at 400 yards, meaning someone using a revolver would be under fire for 300 yards before they could shoot back and actually have a remote chance of hitting something. Additionally, that is the maximum range; whether or not a particular soldier was accurate with a handgun at 100 yards is a different story. This disparity in range and accuracy also implies that if you were on the defense you would essentially be waiting for a bayonet charge before you could use your pistol, as your opponent would have little reason to get within 100 yards of you when they could simply stay out of your range and blast away. Ignoring the fact that hand-to-hand fighting was fairly rare during the American Civil War, that leaves a pretty small window of opportunity for using the gun unless you're unit is constantly on the offensive and storming the ramparts.

To be fair, most people I talk to seem to be implying that the revolver could have been used as a sidearm only for occasions such as bayonet charges; in the mean time, they could still use a rifled musket for long-range fighting. The problem with this though is the added weight. A soldier would already be carrying their rifle, ammunition, and other various possessions (canteen, bedroll, etc.). Adding an extra gun with the ammunition and maintenance tools it would require would be added weight and take up space in a soldier's pack on the march, something soldiers were already griping about. It would also make movement and efficiency in battle clumsier. Apparently, though, a number of soldiers did buy their own revolvers during the war but ended up selling or even tossing them aside the next time they went on the march. When you consider that marching occupied most of the army's time during a campaign, the name of the game would be weight loss, not addition.

In addition to individual efficiency, the supply and cost were added headaches for officers and quartermasters who were always battling inefficiency. If individual soldiers were issued handguns as well, each man would require two different calibers of ammunition. This is not only added confusion for an already confused system of supply, but also added cost. Most revolvers were sold in the $15-20 range: a huge investment for an entire unit and more than a month's pay for an individual soldier. In the instances during the Civil War when soldiers were issued repeating rifles and handguns they occasionally found that the heat of battle caused them to shoot more recklessly; essentially, a faster rate of fire entails that ammunition will be expended faster. So while a particular unit might hit their opponent harder at the onset, they will end up taking themselves out of the fight faster as well by running out of ammunition if they are not extremely disciplined with their rate of fire.

The last, and perhaps the biggest, downside to the use of revolving handguns in the Civil War was the reload time. Apparently the rather simple method of placing pre-made slugs into the chambers had not been invented yet, or if it had it must not have been perfected for widespread use. The process during the war was fairly lengthy, meaning that once you fired all of your rounds the gun was useless until there was a break in the battle. First, a measured amount of black powder was inserted into each chamber from the muzzle end of the revolver. After that the bullet was added and packed in firmly with the loading lever. Then a variety of materials could be used to seal each chamber so that when one was ignited it would not cause the other five to misfire. Finally, caps had to be placed on the nipple of every chamber. This video shows the process.

I've never been shot at before, but I imagine the process is rather difficult to do in the thick of a firefight. And as I pointed out earlier, if you can only use it in close quarters combat it really becomes difficult to reload once you fire your six shots.

The American Civil War came at a crossroads in military history. Many repeating weapons, particularly sidearms, just weren't quite there yet. For officers, whose purpose was to command not fight, they were useful in certain circumstances (if only in those "Oh, shit!" moments during a firefight). However, for the common soldier they were impractical to buy, carry, and use.


  1. I think maybe it might be helpful to distinguish between infantry and cavalry. They are very useful and the "usual" for the cavalry to have, but thought and research should be put into doing an infantry privates/NCO impression that carries a revolver.

  2. Good point. Cavalry, particularly in the Confederacy, did use revolvers more extensively as they were more useful in hit-and-run attacks. Cavalry tactics at the time weren't suited for sustained fighting, so the revolver was somewhat more useful for quick raids and skirmishes, where your horse could close that 300 yard gap faster (and get you back out of there faster as well). But even then they usually carried two or more revolvers with them to avoid having to reload, and by the end of the war most cavalry and mounted infantry units in the Union armies used carbines. The Confederate cavalry on the other hand stuck with revolvers for the most part, which may or may not have played a factor in the lowering of their effectiveness by war's end. For the infantry though, who were intended for sustained fighting, handguns didn't seem to give them much of an edge.

    Interestingly, if memory serves (which it may not) one of the longer sustained battles in the Civil War that featured cavalry was at Gettysburg, where Buford's men held off the Confederate advance for hours. However they were using mostly carbines, not revolvers.

    My post was mostly geared for discussing the role of handguns during the Civil War, but in terms of soldier impressions I think it could go either way. My intuition is that probably most rank and file soldiers in the infantry did not carry handguns; however, it might be useful to carry one anyway for education purposes such as showing how it worked and the reload process.