The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part II

First, let’s look at a theoretical example of an infantry fight. With smoothbores, the defender would likely open on the attacker at 100 yards, closing 33 yards – the ‘decisive’ range Griffiths cited. That means that an attacker might be under fire for about 75 yards – a minute for most Continental Napoleonic infantry, and just under that for the French. At three rounds per minute (the theoretical standard rate of fire for both the smoothbore and rifle-musket) an attacker will face no more than three volleys. More likely, especially if the defender is poorly trained or nervous, he will face only one or two shots.

Every attacker of the gunpowder era has had to solve this problem – How to get through the beaten zone to close with the defender and destroy or drive him off. This remains true even in the modern era. The size of the beaten zone increases, but the core problem remains the same.

Let’s bump this up to the American Civil War. Only Griffiths strives to differentiate between “opening” and “decisive” range. Hess, Nosworthy, and Grimsley, for example, average their examples to give a theoretical ‘range’ of between 116 and 90 yards. All we really know is that this average is about 50% longer than similar Napoleonic averages, (according to Nosworthy) but we lack important details.

Still, let’s assume that the defender now opens at approximately 200 yards. Again the attacker closes to “decisive’ range of between 33 and 50 yards, based on the examples cited: thus the beaten zone is now 160-177 yards. And, moving at the double-quick, Hardee has the attacker still facing a one-minute exposure.

Of course, all sorts of factors influence this equation. For most of the war, the troops aren’t trained to estimate range. Not every unit fires rifled muskets. Especially early in the war, smoothbore .69 caliber weapons are very common in both armies. Untrained officers can give the order to fire either too soon or too late. Conversely, nervous troops can trigger off too soon, wasting their best shot. Tree cover can block lines of sight, while fences or abatis can slow attackers. There are a host of factors that can affect this basic equation.

But we do have an important asset that can help us answer this question in more detail. So far the examples provided have all pretty much come from primary sources (mostly the OR) which are important, but have not been meticulously field-checked, despite the presence of so many National Military Parks. The parks were created not just as monuments to heroic struggles and historic events, but also to serve as field laboratories for precisely this kind of military education. Since their creation, these parks have been studied in often-minute detail, as historians and veterans tried to work out the details of how these battles were conducted.

While it is true that troops generally were not trained in range estimation until the latter third of the war, if at all; primary sources do still abound with important details concerning range. First, while men might not always give exacting measurements of distance, they often note significant terrain features. On July 1st, 1863, the 6th Wisconsin charged Davis’ Mississippians in the Railroad Cut. It was a dramatic moment, with the 6th coming up from the rear of the brigade to stave off a flanking threat to the rest of the command. Several Badgers noted enemy fire splintering the planks of the fences lining the Chambersburg Pike as the 6th reached that point. Similarly, the Mississippians recalled the Railroad cut and how they aligned in it to open fire upon the Federals facing them. This immediately gives us two fixed reference points – The fences lining the pike and the cut itself – with which to measure an engagement range. Similarly, men from Walthall’s Brigade talked about sheltering in a swale in Winfrey Field (actually the road bed for the Brotherton Road) as they assaulted the Federals in the woods to the north. Since we know both were the road bed are and where Scribner’s Federals formed that morning, we have another easily verifiable range at hand.

As an aside, anyone who spends much time with those primary sources soon comes across references to “rods” as a measure of distance. Bear with me if you already know all this, but I think the explanation that follows is important.

At first, I had no idea what a rod was, so some years ago I looked it up. A rod is an archaic measurement usually used in surveying: 1 rod equals 5.5 yards, or 16.5 feet. The term was very common in the 1800s, and farmers’ acreage was measured in rods. A quarter mile was 80 rods, or 440 yards. Acreage was allotted by section, and a section was a square a mile on a side. A quarter-section was 160 acres, or a half-mile on a side. A 40 acre plot (as in ‘40 acres and a mule’) was a one eighth of a mile on a side, or 40 rods. And these are armies of farm boys. Having spent enough time behind a mule and a plow, they know how far 40 rods is. They’ve walked it enough times in their lives.

In our first example, above, Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin does provide a distance as he described his encounter with the Mississippians. He reported that he charged 40 rods to close with the Mississippians – 200 yards. If we go back to the field, we find that Dawes is fairly accurate: that’s just about the distance between the RR Cut and the roadbed.

One of my goals is to break down a couple of battles by engagement, to tease out these details of opening range, final range, and other factors affecting the firefight. Of course we can only get approximations: as many a park ranger will tell you, the monuments sometimes aren’t the last word in reliability, nor will we always be able to verify positions with great precision. What we can do, however, is vastly reduce the amount of guesswork needed to extrapolate some better details of this interesting question, and gain a better understanding of civil war combat at the sharp end.

Next time, using Deshler’s Brigade on September 20th, I will provide a more concrete example to work with.


10 Responses to “The Conundrum of the Rifle: Part II”

  1. Margaret Says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Bill Haggart Says:

    Hey Dave:

    Does Dawes say ‘why’ he chose to ‘charge’ 200 yards to close?

    At Eylau, a Russian brigade of Grenadiers charged a full 300 yards against the French. I doubt that anyone would suggest that volley fire was the reason. The Russian narrator admits it was a mistake. Does Dawes give a reason for that particular choice, when it would tire the troops to charge/double quick that far–or was it just an advance?

    Bill H.

  3. davidpowell334 Says:

    Dawes had several reasons:

    1) he was under fire and feeling exposed. the Rebels had what amounted to a trench (the RR cut).

    2) he was screening the brigade flank – the rest of the Iron Brigade was facing west and driving Archer’s men, he had to protect their exposed flank.

    3) At least two regiments of Cutler’s brigade had already been driven by Davis’ men, and needed time to reform on Oak Ridge/Seminary Ridge.

    It was a charge. You will find that double-quick was used very commonly in attack situatons – both Casey’s and Hardee’s specified it. In fact, it was often over-used, with troops double-quicking for sometimes a mile before contact.

    but certainly it was used to close, all the time.

    I submit the Eylau circumstances were considerably different – For one, I doubt the Russians felt they were taking accurate fire at that range. their decision to attack was likely driven by other factors, I would assume.

    Dave Powell

  4. Dean Essig Says:


    Weren’t Davis’ regiments in the ground between the pike and the RR cut when Dawes devastated them with his opening volley and they feel back into the cut thinking it would be helpful terrain?

    That would turn Dawes’ charge into a bit of a pursuit and, in any event, change the range parameters.

  5. Dean Essig Says:

    feel = fell…

  6. davidpowell334 Says:


    No, actually, Dawes recounted spotting Davis’ line while it was still north of the cut, facing east to chase the 56th PA and 76th NY. Dawes had fallen when his horse went down, and so he was behind the regiment on foot, trying to catch up, when they reached the first fence of the pike.

    Dawes ordered the 6th to open fire. That fire checked the 2nd Mississippi and 55th NC and forced them to turn south, then they advanced into the cut. they never moved south of the cut, except perhaps for a few individuals. They lost a fair amount of order when they entered the cut, with part of the 55th behind the 2nd, and part on line to the east, where the cut disappeared.

    Thus, Dawes and the 6th actually opened at something more like 300 or 400 yards from the Rebels but there is no way of telling how effective that fire was – The Rebels noted only that it was ‘heavy.’ One Mississippian said they moved 200 yards before they entered the cut, but this seems extreme, since it would have meant there was a huge gap in Davis’ line between the 42nd and 2nd Mississippi Regiments.


  7. Dean Essig Says:

    OK… thanks, that makes sense. I was under the mistaken impression that Davis had already turned to the south before this happened. (Excepting the right flank of the brigade that was still pushing east.

    They were all pushing east at the moment.

  8. Dean Essig Says:

    Dawes himself adds a little confusion to the mix, note the map on pg 166 of his memoirs, it clearly shows all or some of the 42 Miss is on the south side of the RR.

  9. davidpowell334 Says:


    The 42nd was – at least in part – south of the cut. They had outflanked the 147th NY and also been involved in pushing Hall out of position. However, the 42nd was the right flank of Davis’ bde, and far to the west of the 6 WI. The 42nd faced the 84 and 95 NY, near the McPherson Farmstead.

    Also, of course, there was already considerable disorder in the ranks of Davis’ other regiments. Stone was down, and the next in command did later note that the ranks were all jumbled up. Some of the 2nd Miss were involved in chasing Hall, and so probably already oriented south, but the bulk of the regiment were still focused on chasing the 56 PA and 76 NY east towards town, onto Oak Ridge.

    I think the testimony from the ranks of the 6th, largely found in Herdigan’s “In the Bloody RR Cut At Gettysburg” is the most compelling, as he cites a number of 6th-ers who talk about shooting into the flank of the line chasing the 56 and 76.

    Deconstructing battle accounts is often very confusing. Perhaps my best example comes from Chickamauga, where the 21st Ohio was deployed over perhaps 150-200 yards of frontage (and numbering only 561 in action at start) and men on the right and left of the regimental line had completely different experiences and recollections of their afternoon on Sept 20 based on where they were in that line. Part of the 21st was relieved by other troops about mid-afternoon, while the other half remained on line. Not surprisingly, a number of 21st-ers later vehemently denied they had ever been relieved at all that day – and of course, from their perspective, they hadn’t. Only the other half had.

    But this is all excellent illustration of what I really want to do – few battles offer this level of detail and analysis to really examine the questions I posed in the main posts, above. Gettysburg is rich in detail because it has been so exhaustively mapped and mined. From my perspective, I have done the same with Chickamauga, at least in terms of assembling primary source material and interpreting it. I would not feel confident in offering up such detailed analysis of say, 2nd Manassas (best leave that to John Hennessy) but I am confident about that certain spot in N. Georgia.


  10. Tom Sabetta Says:

    You fellas rock on battle details.


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