Sunday, January 13, 2013

How the Minie-ball changed war in 1861-1865

I used to spend a good amount of time on the firing line with the North-South Skirmish Association shooting Civil War era weapons in marksmanship competitions. Along the way I picked up some thoughts on whether the new so-called “Minie-ball” (my friend Phil Spaugy would say “Burton bullet”) of the Civil War era changed the war.

Technology had stepped ahead of the tactics and experience in the 1861-65 and the officers of both sides—trained in the linear infantry movements of Napoleon—were slow to catch up. The foremost innovation was the new "rifle-musket “which became standard for both armies. Rifles had long been used in war, but they were slow to load and the basic infantry firearm until the mid 19th century was the muzzle-loading smoothbore musket. The smoothbore was quick to load, but its effective range was limited.

The new .58-caliber "rifle-musket" (with the length of a musket and the rifling of the rifle) was adopted for U.S. service in 1855, just six years before the start of the Civil War. It was still a muzzle-loader, but had grooves in the barrel to spin and stabilize a new hollow-based bullet the soldiers called the "Minie-ball" and it produced surprising accuracy and velocity. Accepted tactics of the day, however, were based on massed formations that could deliver dense swarms of bullets. The training was designed to bring soldiers quickly and in good order to a place where they could fire. The regiments fought with companies abreast, forming a long, double rank of men.

It all was based on the accepted theory a regiment was able to advance within 100 yards of an enemy position without taking significant causalities (given the limited range of smoothbores), then make the quick dash to close with bayonets. The emphasis in the volunteer camps was on marching in well-closed, disciplined formation; bayonet drill, and instruction for the individual soldier in loading quickly and firing on command. Marksmanship training was limited.

While the new rifle-musket made much of such training obsolete, it would be easy to overstate the importance of improved accuracy and point to it as the reason for the terrible casualty rates of 1861-65. The technology did not increase the rate of fire by individual soldiers (about two or three shots per minute) and, in fact, there was a drawback. If a soldier under ideal conditions was able to hit a man-sized target at 500 yards, the lobbing arc of the "minnie-ball" (as it was called by the soldiers) was about 12 feet above the point of aim at mid-range—causing infantrymen to over or under shoot at the longer distances. Even clear-eyed marksmen would find it difficult to consistently strike a moving line of infantry at distances of more than 300 yards.

The tragic significance of the rifle-musket and Minie-ball came at ranges less than 200 yards—it was there massed fire knocked apart battle lines with brutal efficiency. The point-blank killing range became 150 yards (not 50 yards) and all the previous experience of officers and the training of soldiers involved the short effective range of the smoothbores.
Other observations can be made on the subject, but let those bide for another time.