The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part 1

We all know the argument: By the 1860s, rifled-muskets changed warfare by increasing ranges, thus rendering old-style Napoleonic close order tactics obsolete. Civil War generals had to learn this lesson the hard way, unfortunately, and their men paid the price. Along comes Paddy Griffith, with his tactical snippeting, and voila – range is not nearly the factor we thought it was, standing the conventional wisdom on its head.

However, Griffiths’ argument can be suspect. Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his numbers. For example, he offhandedly cites an infamous Spanish volley at Talevera, noting that they opened fire at 1,000 yards, without also noting that the fire did no damage to the French and frightened the Spanish so completely that the troops in question immediately broke and fled the field. There are also discrepancies between the typical ranges for smoothbores Griffiths cites in his earlier work on Napoleonic tactics and in his later writing on the Civil War; in the latter work he extends the typical ranges for smoothbores by a small but significant distance of about 50 yards.

Griffiths wasn’t wrong, however – and much better recent scholarship has backed him up. Brent Nosworthy’s, Mark Grimsley’s, and most recently Earl Hess’s work on just this subject have also shown long range fire to be far less common than earlier historians assumed it to be. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on this specific question, history has been satisfactorily revised.

Is that really the end of the inquiry, however? Personally, I believe that it isn’t. We are really wrestling with a three-part problem:

1) Did rifle-armed infantry engage at longer ranges than smoothbore-armed troops?

2) Did rifles deliver more accurate fire at all ranges, not just long range?

3) If rifles did open the range by even a small factor or provide more accurate fire at close range, what effect did this have on attacking troops?

The third question is especially important, because it introduces morale into the equation. So far, few of our new class of tactical historians have discussed how unit morale might be affected by rifles, if at all. Instead, the discussion has focused on the mechanical aspects of trajectory, training, and the like. Very useful stuff, of course, but not the whole of the problem.

Then there’s the question of sampling. In each work, the range sample numbers are pretty small – 119 for Griffiths, just 39 for Hess, for example. Basically, these follow the same pattern: cite a regiment at a battle where the OR report or some other source provides some discussion or range, and interpolate from there. Usually these examples are spread out over a number of battles, further reducing the tactical “snapshot” to a mere 2-5 examples per battle.

Hmm. At Chickamauga, the Union army had 129 regiments engaged. Bragg had 157 infantry formations in action. Most of them engaged in discrete actions at least once per day, sometimes twice per day. Thus, at this battle alone, we have something like between 900 and 1200 “actions” to draw data from. Hess cites 6 examples.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 20+ ‘snippets’ at Chickamauga alone where regiments experienced fire (and effective fire, meaning at least some loss was suffered) at between 150 and 200 yards. Plug that data into any of the above statistical databases and you would significantly affect the average. Prior to Chickamauga, I studied Gettysburg in similar depth, and I can still think of a number of examples from that battle, as well. Sure, close range examples abound, and you won’t find much useful work being done at 400 yards or more, but what if we are just talking about doubling the effective engagement range from 100 to 200 yards? I think that is significant.

In reading Hess, I was struck by his comment that “There is no evidence that the rifle musket was more accurate than the smoothbore musket at close range.” (see Hess, p. 107. In fact, there is such evidence, just not from American sources. In 1807, the Prussians studied this exact question, and found that at 160 yards, their rifle was 2.5 times more accurate than their musket – but since a rifle took at least twice as long to load, muskets remained the preferred arm for all but specialist troops. The Minie system, of course, solved the loading problem. In the era between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the introduction of the rifled musket as a standard shoulder arm, other studies by other European armies show similar results.

Pre-war theorists were aware of the potential of the rifle-musket. Their solution was speed. In the 18th century, infantry formations moved slowly – about 75 yards per minute. The French revolutionized infantry combat when they sped up – to 87.5 yards per minute. (Hint, a modern day funeral march moves at about 90 yards per minute.) In 1855, Hardee’s tactics – which were largely copied from the most up-to-date French tactics of the time – adopted the French pas gymnastique, which expected infantry to close with defenders at 165 yards per minute. In short, if the rifle doubled the effective beaten zone, the solution would be to double the pace at which troops crossed it.

In practice, things weren’t that simple, however. More on that next time.


20 Responses to “The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part 1”

  1. Dean Essig Says:

    Good topic Dave.

    What was the target measure on the “2.5 times more accurate” Prussian test?

    Obviously mechanically “missing less” but still inside the target area of the formation doesn’t mean as much as missing enough to hit some adjacent hilltop. Not like these guys were disappointed if they missed the heart only to hit a shoulder or leg.

    I’m not sure using a test at 160 yards (over the effective range of the smoothbore) proves much about the relative accuracies of the two weapons at close range (thinking that something under 100 would be “apples to apples”). But even so, given the realities of battle at those ranges, any marginal accuracy difference would be more than overcome by the environmental error production.

  2. davidpowell334 Says:

    Hi Dean.

    Most of the tests I’m familiar with (and there are a number of them, not just the Prussian one I cited) use sheets of the height and width of an enemy company formed in close order. They aren’t perfect tests, but remember that the control is the same for both muskets and rifles, so they do provide a theoretical comparison on an equal basis. some of them use fixed weapons, others real troops.

    There are a number of trials of this sort. B.P. Hughes, in his book “Firepower,” lists some. Jac Weller did a series on Confederate small arms for the magazine “American Rifleman” in the 50s. The British tested their new enfield in the 1853 trials at Hythe. The French did studes, etc. etc. I don’t have them all, by any means, but they do show a general trend of the rifle being about twice as accurate as the musket.

    I mentioned the 160 yard test for a couple of reasons, some of which will become apparent in the next post. Basically, however, the new wisdom on rifles argues that at most they lengthed engaged ranges to 150 yards instead of under 100 – for not much overall impact on the way battles were conducted.

    It’s that latter argument I take issue with. I think the increased accuracy makes “long range” fire much more effective, with attendant morale and leadership issues for attacking troops.

  3. Dean Essig Says:

    Excellent, looking forward to the next installment. I hope you’ll examine the leadership issues of the firing side (attacker or defender) and when the officers would allow their units to open fire.

    As we both know, there is a lot more to this stuff than simple mechanical issues.

  4. David Gray Says:

    Excellent essay Dave…

  5. Rick Moody Says:

    I would be willing to say that being “scared to death” had as much to do with accuracy as anything else. An experienced regiment with inferior arms could do far more damage. If memory serves me correctly the early rifled muskets were prone to misfire because small amounts of powder remained in the rifling after the projectile was rammed, causing the soldiers to mistrust them initially.
    Excellent work Dave

  6. davidpowell334 Says:

    Leadership, experience, training, even basic familiarity all greatly effect fire discipline and accuracy, of course – but in trying to isolate just one variable (i.e. effect of rifles vs. smoothbores) we want to either extract those effects or at least zero them out.

    Fortunately for our purposes, if not for those of the men who actually had to fight, both armies started from what amounted to a standing start on all these factors. If anything, because the north raised more green regiments (instead of sending as many replacements to existing regiments) they might be at a slight disadvantage over their Rebel counterparts.

    But in general, I think these factors will balance out. Of course, in breaking down a battle regiment by regiment it will be possible to note the state of the units involved: My own yardstick uses three categories: Green (6 mos or less in service, a bit arbitrary but you’ve got to start somewhere), Trained but first combat, and veteran.

    One other aspect that some authors have noted but most of the discussion on rifle effectiveness has failed incorporate is the importance of buck and ball vs. single load for smoothbores. We all use Napoleonic data (where rifles were only in the hands of a few specialists) to compare with ACW fights because they represent our two largest data pools. However, US smoothbore-armed troops would also have been more effective than Nap-era troops because we issued and used about 80% buck and ball, while they used single projectile. Thus, 100 men in an ACW regiment are firing 400 missles every volley, against just 100 for the earlier era. Joe Bilby has noted this in his excellent works on ACW weapons.

    I think that difference in ammo explains why smoothbores remained popular with some troops and commanders well into 1864-5.

    • Rick Moody Says:

      I had forgotten about buck and ball ammo. Kind of like “Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades”. With buck and ball, aim became less of a factor, but its likely that range became more of a factor.
      It was such a rapidly developing technology at that time. I pity the poor fellows who came up against repeating rifles unaware. Poor souls had little chance for survival.

  7. Craig Swain Says:

    Great essay topic! And one I’ve discussed over beers many a time.

    Just always seems to me that Griffin, and to an extent later Hess, placed the focus on the effects of volley fire. The presumption being that was indeed the “killer” tactic. Yet, all too often, particularly in the later war engagements, fighting devolved down to firing at will against an enemy under some sort of cover.

    And since technical and tactical evolutions did not (and do not) occur as singular instances, similar changes to the mounted and artillery arms should be considered. In some ways, the evidence, looking at both arms, mirror’s your statements above. For example, even with the doubling of range between a 6-pdr smoothbore and a 3-inch Rifle, the artillery still found themselves engaging at ranges under 1000 yards far too often!

    Perhaps the pressing tactical problem on the Civil War battlefield was actually one of fire direction and control!

  8. Bill Haggart Says:


    It is a fascinating topic. I think there is really only one way to come to some clear understanding, and it involves statistics. I corresponded with Paddy when he was writing his “Battle Tactics of the Civil War”, and told him then I thought the biggest single weakness of his argument was the lack of a real statistical analysis, rather than as David notes, ‘spotty’ anecdotes.

    The argument is during the Civil War, the rifle increased fire combat distances compared to the Napoleonic period. Along with that is the resultant argument that Napoleonic tactics were no longer effective.

    What is required to establish either of these assertions are:

    1. A clear statistical study of the ranges that fire was engaged in during the Napoleonic period. I can cite at least ten examples of volley fire being carried out at 150 and 200 yards by the French. The average here is what is important.

    2. An equally clear statistical study of the ranges during the Civil War.

    With this, the a real comparison could be made. Some of the things that muddy the waters, and need to be taken into account, are

    1. terrain, the close nature of American battlefields like Chickamauga.
    2. That Napoleonic tactics were being used, regardless.
    3. The grossly inexperienced armies at the beginning of the war. They often didn’t know what they were learning because they didn’t know if it was their lack of experience or the weapons that caused the casualties.
    4. That fifty years had lapsed between 1815 and 1861, and changes in tactics had occurred during that time. Hardee’s “Light Infantry Tactics” wouldn’t have been used by either the line or light infantry in Napoleon’s day.

    The last two points directly addresses the belief that the Rifle changed tactics ‘in the Civil War.’ These are tactics Americans had to learn while fighting a war, with a very different military tradition from Europe, and then very different weapons. The comparison in tactics would have to be closely detailed to determine any ‘changes’.

    For instance, the trench warfare during the end of the war is cited as proof of the changing nature of warfare. However, entrenching was a fairly conventional Napoleonic tactic when one army was seriously out-numbered or facing far better troops.

    Serious entrenchments were carried out by the British at Torres Verde in 1809 and the French in France in 1814 for those very reasons. No one suggests this is because tactics have changed during that time. The strategic situation had. Regardless of the weapons, it would have been surprising if Lee and Johnson hadn’t entrenched around Richmond and Atlanta…

    Just some thoughts. An example of the fairly simple statistical analysis I am talking about is Lynn’s work, “Bayonets of the Republic” where he simply finds all the examples of column, line and skirmish combat reported by the Armee du Nord in 1794. With over 200 accounts he was able to make some very sound conclusions on the frequency of use for each tactical formation. Something similar needs to be done with this question. One thing is that there are far more records available for the ACW than than the Napoleonic wars.

  9. davidpowell334 Says:


    Interesting comments, and in general, I agree. I would also note, however, that I am interested in the effect the firing had – it’s not enough if the French fired at 200 yards, if they also failed to do damage. The British idea that the French “were famous ammunition-wasters” springs to mind.

    In my mind, in order for the increased range to have an effect, it also has to impress the attacker with the idea that closing will be costly – which is a morale issue more than a mechanical one.

    Dave Powell

  10. Bill Haggart Says:


    Agreed. You’d have establish what you consider as ‘having an effect’ and then find it. Tough to do. However, fire at long range could and was done for more than inflicting maximum casualties.

    For instance, the French often fired at long range to goad the enemy’s fire, thus their first volley. Once the smoke clouds rolled and the firing was general, those effects of fire were much less. Look at the Iron and Stonewall brigades’ long duel before 2nd Manassas–well within 100 yards. They couldn’t see each other and stopped firing to discover if the enemy was still facing them.

    Long range fire could also simply be, an annoyance factor or the ‘stay away’ message without any causing any significant damage. Sometimes is was simply to slow the enemy and make him take the time to deploy.

    It isn’t an easy question.

    Best Regards,

    Bill Haggart

  11. Bill Haggart Says:

    Here is something that can add to your calculations. This was posted on this Blog:

    Average Firefight Range at Antietam
    I’ve spent this evening going though the OR’s and searching vol 19 pt 1 for the term “yards” and noting those which were the range that infantry opened fire. Mark Grimsley has done this before and found 21 useful “definite ranges”. I only found 16, but also found several for South Mountain (3) and Harper’s Ferry (2) which I didn’t include.

    The page numbers in the text which include the ranges are; 235, 263, 306, 336, 470, 493. 505, 508, 509, 865, 872, 887, 905, 931 and 1037. In three cases a small distribution was given (I assumed the centre in each case), and in five cases it was indicated by the word “within” that the range was slightly shorter (I ignored this and stuck with the number).

    The average range of the 16 samples for opening fire was 84 yards (all numbers to be rounded to the nearest whole number.

    However, one sample is out of kilter. On page 263 it is stated that the 26th NY opened fire at 350 yards, expended all their ammunition and then withdrew. An examination of their situation indicated they were firing at Ripley’s brigade more than 450 yards away. The brigade commander makes no mention of this fire, and we can assume it had absolutely no effect. Removing this figure reduces the average range of opening fire to 64 yards.

    Two of the remaining statements indicate 100 yards, the rest are lower, all of the remainder are between 50 and 80 yards.

    I found several other incidents involving range worth reading. On page 867 the (Federal) enemy has cleared a 40 yard killing area in front of breastworks, which was judged to be too strong to charge. On page 925 artillery unlimbers at 150 yards from the enemy, but starts to suffer from “sharpshooters”. There are a few indicative ranges elsewhere but nothing definite.

    This result is much shorter than I expected.
    Posted by 67th Tigers

  12. davidpowell334 Says:

    Antietam is tricky, IMO. First, I believe that the combination of Rebel deployment – more reverse slope than normal because they were trying to hide from Federal long range arty – and small abrupt hills created some very close encounters. Then we can add in a large number of very green Union units (about 1/3 of the army) who will end up taking lots of punishment at close range and who have trouble returning fire effectively and we get an unusual battle. This is a perfect example, IMO, of why snippeting is less effective than a detailed breakdown.

    Antietam requires an encounter-by-encounter analysis to determine which factors are at play, and how they effect the resultant range of combat.

    Dave Powell

  13. Bill Haggart Says:

    What reverse slope issues are you talking about? The only one that might fit is the fight at the angle and that slope favored the Union. The engagements north certainly had LOS issues with the woods left and right of the various positions, along with the corn field.

    South of the town, Burnside’s advance didn’t really face any reverse slope issues.

    Certainly the CSA tried to put hills between them and the Union artillery, but I don’t see how that affected the small arms ranges. Woods were more of a factor and that was true for most ACW battles, particularly Chickamaugua.

    In otherwords, LOS issues certainly could reduce the average engagement ranges, but that was a typical issue, and not one unique to Antietam. Where do you see reverse slopes impacting volley ranges other than the Sunken Road?


  14. davidpowell334 Says:


    Antietam is interesting terrain, with lots of small contours that don’t necessarily show up on a map, but do effect LOS. The new trail through the cornfield, for example, shows these undulations pretty well. Of course, all of the 2nd Corps attacks against the Sunken Road line faced this problem, most notably the Irish, but French saw the same conditons.

    Similarly, the Rebels that boxed in Sedgwick in the West woods had slopes on the west and south edges to use.


  15. Bill Haggart Says:


    Having walked over the Antietam battlefields several times [Actually my favorite battlefield park] along with Gettysburg and the Virginia battlefields including Bull Run, there isn’t much difference in the terrain with those ‘undulations’. The amount of wooded terrain [historically] was significant. All of which would have cut down the line of sight.

    The dip before the Sunken Road was only 10 feet, but obscured the advancing Union from 150 yards to 30 yards out. The same kinds of dip obscured the Confederates advancing during Pickett’s Charge, where they could dress their lines out of LOS.

    The point being that Antietam certainly had those kinds of terrain ‘undulations’, and the Confederates certainly used them, they weren’t all that unique on Civil War battlefields. Some were more tactically significant because of lines of battle. If Lee had an eye for terrain does not mean the terrain he chose was unique to a particular battlefield. Most ACW battlefields had similar LOS issues which cut down on the possible range of infantry fire.

  16. davidpowell334 Says:


    I agree that other fields have this type of terrain. I think that Antietam saw more examples of deployment in defilade to escape Union arty fire, however, which was largely accidental, or at least unintended on the senior commanders’ part. Several factors are at work here, conspiring to make some usually close initial encounters. It certainly doesn’t hold true for all encounters at Antietam, but enough, I think, to stand out in the literature.

  17. Ralph Roy R Says:

    Just arrived at this blog via a reference from another site.

    The topic of rifled-musket range remains a long-standing interest for me. I noticed two other references: Paddy Griffith and Antietam.

    You may be interested in my experience to complement your point and the other posts.

    Once, about twenty years ago, I met a friend to help him in his tour Antietam for Paddy Griffith.

    Paddy Griffith explained his views as you summarized.

    Though we seemed to agree that the Napoleonic decisive close range in defence against a charge (take the British no matter their position) being about twenty yards, if memory serves.

    I believe we also agreed – although my memory is not as clear here – a battle range with two lines of battle firing away at each other (say French versus Austrian) was about one-hundred yards. The later range would be one where relatively smaller numbers of casualties would be inflicted and, absent other effects, units might stand blazing away for quite some time, even hours – an example is Marengo.

    One could deem this second range as being the norm for “having an effect” or the edge to which it becomes long range (after which the fire becomes the above mentioned “annoyance factor or the ’stay away’ message” range).

    Back to your point, though. We asserted that the rifled musket as employed in during the American Civil War those two ranges lenghtened. Our point was mainly on the shorter range.

    We tried to convince Paddy Griffith that the absolute accuracy at the short range may not have changed, yet the accuracy was believed to extend further out. We then suggested that even if it was by ten yards (though we thought it doubled to forty or fifty yards), this would change the dynamic of any attack. Further, the second “having an effect range” became longer.

    Given the balance of infantry engagements during the Napoleonic Wars, we asserted this ten-yard difference was enough to tip the balance in favor of the defender if only because of the additional time the attacker needed to cross those ten yards.

    We believed this change in range could be seen in the accounts. Paddy Griffith did not accept our views with rather Irish bluntness – something along the lines about how we did not understand the Civil War (it was at least my tenth visit to the battlefield).

    We tried, after the visit, to employ Bill Haggart’s suggestion of looking at actual recorded ranges. To give some perspective for the different continents, we tried to gather ranges for the American Revolution and the Mexican War as well as European Napoleonic ranges and those for the early America Civil War (through mid- 1862 – thus all pre-Antietam).

    Though not scientifiic, we focused at the distance which infantry began to fire in defending against an attack (it is difficult to make any statement as to relative effectiveness) and we came up with (there are exceptions):

    American Revolution

    Amerian infantry first fired their volley at 50 yards or closer, generally, there were examples of militia who fired at 200 yards, though
    British held fire until 25-30-40 yards
    Rifled armed units would fire at roughly 150 yards

    Cannon fired at 200 or 300 yards in action rather than what we expected – 600 yards or so (this excludes sieges). This difference might arise from the line-of-sight issues and other reasons relating to terrain.

    Napoleonic Wars

    British infantry fire was similar to that of the American Revolution yet it was often held until less than 25 yards. There were examples at the other extreme: The British 1st Foot Guards fired at the French Guard at Waterloo at 50 or 60 paces or about 40 yards.
    Rifled-armed units fired at 150 yards as they did during the American Revolution

    Artillery fired first from longer ranges: 600 to 800 yards being typical with 1,500 yards being the outside distance.

    Mexican-American War

    Infantry would hold fire to about 50 yards, yet there were many examples of 100 yards.

    Artllery fire was closer to that of the European Napoleonic Wars: typical distances about 400 to 800 yards, with long range being about 1,200 yards.

    Early American Civil War (1861 to mid 1862)

    75 to 100 yards was about the mean range, yet there were many instances of fire at 25 or 30 yards, though more at 50 yards at this end of the spectrum, and any number of units first fire was at 150 or 200 yards and even over 200 yards (“40 to 50 rods” in one instance).

    Artillery often fired at ranges like the Mexican-American War and the European Napoleonic Wars with typical distances about 400 to 800 yards, yet with long range being extended to 1,500 to 1,800 yards at its extreme.

    These notes were complied about twenty years ago and were to look for a trend of the battle range in practice.

    It is difficult to guage effectiveness. We found that the degree of training meant better-trained units managed to hold their fire longer and seemed, thereby, to have better effect.

    This said, there is a clear increase in range over time, the same time that weapons improved. – R

  18. Jonathan S. Reid Says:

    The problem with the Minie ball rifled musket is its low muzzle velocity and heavy weight projectile. It is quite acurate in reference to its flight path but that path is a ballistic one and, as a result, the beaten zone becomes relatively small at range. If a regiment has adaquate training and its officers knew, or could estimate, the range accurately, then effective fire could be made at long ranges (200 to 500 yards). These factors are seldom (if ever) present and ineffective fire was more than just counter-productive.
    It is these factors that kept most units from initiating a firefight at ranges much over 150 yards. An age-old question of what the weapon was capable of versus how it was actually used.

  19. Jonathan S. Reid Says:

    Correcting my email address, apologies.

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