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Rifled musket

Springfield Model 1861 Rifled Musket
Springfield Model 1861 Rifled Musket
Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifled Musket
Enfield Pattern 1853 Rifled Musket

The term rifled musket or rifle musket refers to a specific type of weapon made in the mid-19th century. Originally the term referred only to muskets that had been produced as a smoothboreweapon and later had their barrels rifled. The term was later extended to include rifles that directly replaced, and were of the same design overall, as a particular model smooth bore musket.


History and development

In the early 19th century, there were rifles, and there were muskets. Muskets were smooth bore weapons, firing round balls or buck and ball ammunition. Rifles were typically similar weapons, using the same type of flintlock or caplock firing mechanisms that muskets used. A rifle differed from a musket in that its barrel was rifled, which meant that it had grooves cut into the interior wall of the barrel which would cause the bullet to spin as it left the barrel. The term "rifled musket" therefore seems contradictory, but this term does in fact refer to a specific type of weapon.

Rifles had the advantage of long range accuracy, due to the spin imparted by the rifling. Muskets had the advantage of a faster rate of fire. In order for rifling to be effective, the bullet had to fit snugly into the barrel. Fouling, caused by normal firing of the weapon, would make it more and more difficult to load a bullet into a muzzle loaded rifle. This was not a problem for hunters, but for military use the slower rate of fire was significant.

Although outwardly similar, the way they were used in battle was quite different. Muskets had two functions. As firearms they delivered volleys of close range fire in close ranks. With fixed bayonets they acted as pikes, and were used in battle much like the pikes that they replaced, using formidable line and square formations. Bayonets today tend to be last-ditch weapons, but in musket fighting the bayonet played a much more significant role, accounting for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties during Napoleonic and U.S. Revolutionary War times. Bayonets were so effective on the battlefield that often the threat of bayonets was enough to cause an enemy to turn and run.[1] Since they were used as pikes, muskets tended to be fairly long and heavy weapons. They tended to be about four to six feet in length (six to eight feet including the bayonet), with a weight of around 10 to 12 lbs, as longer and heavier weapons were found to be too unwieldy.[2] The length of a musket also allowed them to be fired by rank, with no fear that the men in the rear ranks would accidentally shoot the men in front ranks in the back of the head. Muskets six feet in length could be fired in three ranks without fear of accidents.[3]

The relative inaccuracy of the musket was not considered to be significant on the battlefield, because smoke from the black powder used at the time quickly obscured the battlefield and rendered the longer range of the rifle useless.[4] Rifles were not even used by some armies, such as Napoleon s. Where they were used they were typically issued to small units of riflemen trained not to fight in close ranks, but as sharpshooters. Since they weren t fired over other men s shoulders military rifles could be much shorter than muskets, which made for a handier weapon and also meant that the tight-fitting balls didn t have too long a distance to be rammed down the barrel.

Mini Balls
Mini Balls
The problem of slow loading caused by barrel fouling was solved by the Mini ball, which had been invented in the 1840s by French inventor Claude- tienne Mini . Despite its name, the Mini ball was not a round ball at all. It was bullet shaped, and had an expanding skirt. The skirt allowed the mini ball to be smaller than the barrel's bore, and since the skirt expanded when the weapon was fired, it still made a tight fit against the sides of the barrel, which caused less energy to be wasted in blow-by around the ball and also insured that the grooves and lands of the rifling would impart a stabilizing spin to the mini ball.[5]

In the 1840s and 1850s, many smooth bore muskets had their barrels rifled so that they could fire the new Mini ball. These "rifled muskets" or "rifle muskets" combined the advantages of rifles and muskets. They were long enough to serve the function of muskets in close formations of line and square, they were as quick to load as the old muskets and as easy to use with a minimum of training. Yet the Mini -type rifled muskets were much more accurate than smooth bore muskets. The loose fitting ball in a smooth bore musket was only accurate to about 50 or 75 yards. Rifled muskets increased the effective range to about 200 or 300 yards, and a rifled musket could often hit a man sized target up to 500 yards away.[6] This potential accuracy, however, required skills only acquired through training and practice; a rifle-musket in the hands of a raw recruit would not have performed very much better than a smoothbore.

In the 1850s and 1860s, new weapons produced with rifled barrels continued to be referred to as "rifled muskets" or "rifle-muskets" even though they had not originally been produced as smooth bore weapons. The term was only used for weapons that directly replaced smooth bore muskets. For example, the Springfield Model 1861 with its typical musket style lock mechanism and long barrel length was called a "rifled musket". In contrast, the Model 1860 Henry Rifle produced in the same time period did not replace a musket and did not have other musket-like characteristics, and was just referred to as a "rifle".

In the late 1860s, rifled muskets were replaced by breech loading rifles. Weapons like the Springfield Model 1868 were produced by simply changing out the lock mechanism of a rifled musket. However, once this change was made, the weapon was no longer referred to as a rifled-musket and was instead referred to as simply a "rifle".

Characteristics of rifled muskets

Originally, rifled muskets were smooth bore muskets whose barrels were later rifled. In the 1850s and 1860s the term "rifled musket" continued to be used even when the weapon was completely redesigned and was not just a modification to an existing smooth bore musket. In general, rifled muskets were the same length as the smooth bore muskets they replaced. This meant that they typically had about a 40-inch barrel and an overall length of about 55 to 60 inches. The first rifled muskets, having originally been smooth bore weapons like the Model 1842 Musket, which were typically .69 caliber weapons, though smaller caliber weapons were sometimes modified as well. Later rifled muskets tended to be of smaller caliber, like the .58 caliber U.S. Springfield Model 1855 or the .577 caliber British Pattern 1853 Enfield. Tests conducted by the U.S. Army in the 1840s and 1850s showed that the smaller caliber was more accurate at a distance. The conical shape of the Mini ball also meant that the smaller .58 caliber Mini ball had roughly the same amount of lead and weight as the larger .69 round ball. While the caliber was reduced, the overall length of the barrel was not. Shorter rifles could have easily been made (and often were made) that would have been more accurate than the smooth bore muskets they replaced, but military commanders still used tactics like firing by ranks, and feared that with a shorter weapon the soldiers in the rear ranks might accidentally shoot the front rank soldiers in the back of the head. Military commanders at the time also believed that bayonet fighting would continue to be important in musket battles, which also influenced the decision to keep the overall length of the weapon similar to the length of a pike.

Some weapons were produced in a longer "rifled musket" version and a shorter "rifle" version, such as the Springfield Model 1855. The rifled musket version had a 40-inch barrel and an overall length of 56 inches. The rifle version had a 33-inch barrel and an overall length of 49 inches.[7] In the British forces the distinction was retained between the full-length muskets of the infantry as a whole and the short handy weapons of specialist rifle regiments and marines for whom a shorter version of the Enfield was produced. The long version had the barrel held to the stock by three metal bands, the shorter needed just two, so they are referred to as 3-band and 2-band Enfields respectively.

Rifled muskets typically used percussion lock systems, with some exceptions like the Springfield Model 1855 which used the Maynard tape primer system.

Since rifled muskets were meant as a direct replacement for smooth bore muskets, they were fitted with bayonets. Their designers envisioned that they would be used in battle much like the bayonets on older smooth bore muskets. However, in practice, the longer range of the rifled musket and changes in tactics rendered the bayonet almost obsolete. During the U.S. Civil War, bayonets accounted for less than one percent of battlefield casualties. This was a significant change from the days of smooth bore muskets, when bayonets accounted for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties.

The term "rifled musket" was only used for weapons that directly replaced a smooth bore musket. For example, the Model 1855 and Model 1861 Springfield rifled muskets were direct successors to the Model 1842 smooth bore musket, and were therefore referred to as rifled muskets. Rifles that were not a direct replacement for an existing smooth bore musket were not referred to as rifled muskets, even though they had similar mechanical characteristics such as a percussion lock and a long rifled barrel.

Rifled muskets, like smooth bore muskets, were always muzzle loaded. Black powder was first placed into the barrel. Unlike smooth bore muskets, which required a wad to be inserted, the Mini ball did not require wadding. The lead Mini ball was greased and inserted into the barrel directly on top of the black powder. A ramrod was used to fully seat the round.

In military use, loading was simplified somewhat through the use of "cartridges". These were significantly different than modern rifle cartridges. They typically consisted of rolled up tubes of paper that contained a pre-measured amount of black powder and a greased Mini ball. Unlike a modern cartridge, the entire cartridge was not simply shoved into the weapon. Instead, the paper was torn open (typically by the musketeer's teeth), the powder was poured into the barrel, the Mini ball was placed into the barrel, and the paper was discarded. Also differing from a modern cartridge, a separate percussion cap had to be placed onto the percussion lock's cone before the weapon could be used. The Maynard Primer system attempted to speed up this last step by using paper strips like a modern toy cap gun in place of the percussion cap, but this proved unreliable and was not used on many rifled muskets.

Use in battle

Rifled muskets were heavily used in the American Civil War. The American-made Springfield Model 1861 was the most widely used weapon in the war, and the British Pattern 1853 Enfield was the second most widely used.

The British Enfield was also used in the Crimean War where its greater range gave it great success against the much shorter ranged Russian smoothbore muskets.

The rifled muskets were not always successful on the battlefield, however. In the Italian War of 1859, French forces defeated Austrian rifled muskets by aggressive skirmishing and rapid bayonet assaults at close range.[8]

See also


External links

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