There were four major types of repeating rifles used in the American Civil War, but gun experts agree that identifying all the different types of weapons used in the war is nearly impossible (Niepert 2007). In his article “Carbines, Revolving Rifles and Repeating Rifles” Robert Niepert of the Florida Historical Society identifies the Colt-Root Rifle, Sharps Carbine, Henry Repeating Rifle and Spencer Carbine as the pre-eminent repeating weapons of the war. (2007) And, according to the Smithsonian Institute’s history of the war, the Spencer carbine was so popular that many Union soldiers who were not issues the carbine went out and bought their own.
The site claims 95,000 of the Spencer rifles were purchased for Union soliders during the war; another site claims that more than 200,000 were purchased but that some did not see action because they could not be delivered before the end of the war.
The Spencer’s popularity was largely due to its firing mechanism. The carbine had a breach-loading seven-shot magazine that was encased in metal, not a paper firing mechanism.
That meant that the gun would fire even after it got wet (Barnett) And, the gun was completely useless when captured by the South because they did not have ammunition for it. Gun enthusiasts have argued since the war whether it was a better weapon than the carbine the South had manufactured in response, the Sharps Carbine (Smithsonian 2007). The importance of the carbine was its usefulness for mounted troops. The shorter, rifled gun was lighter and designed to be carried by mounted troops. It could be fired easily from horseback and even foot soldiers preferred it to other weapons because it was light and easy to fire. (Smithsonian 2007)
Other repeating rifles that gained widespread use in the Civil War were the Colt-Root Rifle and the Henry Repeating Rifle. (Niepert 2007) The Colt-Root rifle was virtually identical to the Colt revolver and many soldiers liked carrying the pair of weapons because the ammunition was interchangeable (Smithsonian 2007).
Rifle manufacturing had a great impact on the Civil War economy. In the South, much of the munitions manufacturing was concentrated in Texas, with Winchester, Enfields and Colt dragoons manufactured there. Texas was also home to a gunpowder manufacturer and a munitions manufacturing plant ( Steuart 2007). Manufacturing plants from Arkansas were also moved to Texas after Arkansas fell to the Union in 1863 (Steuart 2007).
While the Spencer carbine had the inroads with the Union procurement officers, after the war, it was the Henry rifle that gun enthusiasts wanted (ref). Henry Repeating Arms was and is based in Brooklyn, New York. In an attempt to attract more Union business to the New York manufacturer, the company present President Lincoln with a gold-plated Henry repeater. The effort failed (Henry Repeating Arms 2007) “Reports of the successful use of Henry rifles in the Civil War were numerous. The incredible firepower unleashed by the Henry is evident in Major William Ludlow’s account of the Battle of Altoona Pass. “What saved us that day was the fact that we had a number of Henry rifles,” wrote Major Ludlow. “This company of 16 shooters sprang to the parapet and poured out such a multiplied, rapid and deadly fire, that no men could stand in front of it and no serious effort was made thereafter to take the fort by assault.” (Henry Repeating Arms 2007) The Henry was also popular in the winning of the American West.
Though the Herny Repeating Arms company was not the one to make the most profit during the war, it was one of the munitions manufacturers to survive. The Spencer carbine, as wonderful as it did during the war, barely survived the war and in 1967 was bought out by Winchester Rifle Company. Since that time more than 50 companies worldwide have tried to reconstruct the Spencer carbine (Romano rifle 2007).
Colt rifles in various forms were also popular in the South. “During the Civil War the War Dept purchased only 4,712 weapons — a relatively small number. Though the rifle could be fired rapidly, it was much slower to load than other breech-loading weapons and it had the unfortunate tendency to fire all of its cylinders at one time, often removing fingers from the rifleman’s forward hand. Although a few Southern units were equipped with this weapon at the beginning of the war, it is best remembered for its use by Union troops. The first weapon issued to Berdan’s Sharpshooters were Colt Repeaters, but were soon replaced with Sharps rifles” (Smithsonian 2007)
“After the Civil War, the Spencer rifle lost out to the advantages of the Henry and the Spencer Company went bankrupt in 1869. The New Haven Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut manufactured the Henry rifle. The New Haven Arms company dissolved in 1866 and was reformed into the Winchester Repeating Arms Company that same year.” (Aeragon 2007) The great majority of rifles for the north were manufactured near New Haven and in the South the major manufacturing effort was in Texas. Conneticutt was the major home of gun production during the Civil War as it was home to both Colt and the New Havens Arms Company (Barnett 2007).
The Sharps carbine was developed by Charles Sharps who got his start working at the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Sharps began manufacturing in 1848 and the factory in Vermont continued until his death in 1884. The company closed after he died. (“The Price of Freedom” 2007)
Measuring the affects of wartime munitions production on he war time economy is hard to do. Estimates are that a Remington rifle cost $12 at the height of the war and a Colt revolver was $25, but in most cases money was not the issue (Barnett 2007). Production simply could not keep up with demand. Even with converting other manufacturing operations over to munitions production, the American economy was not ready for a wartime effort.
Both sides of the war suffered from lack of supplies, though the South suffered more under the blockade of Southern ports and the generalized lack of Southern manufacturing. The North had textile mills and other manufacturing concerns before the war and non-combatants were already familiar with the effort necessary to make a manufacturing system work. In the end, it wasn’t gun production that won or lost the war, though the North did become the better equipped army as the war drew on. It was the lack of other manufacturing and the destruction of the agriculture economy that destroyed the South and lost the war for the Confederacy.
Barnett, Bertram. “The Price of Freedom” <http://americanhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/collection/object.asp?ID=118> July 30, 2007.
“Civil War Ordinance” <http://www.aeragon.com/03/#artillery>, July 30, 2007.
Henry Repeating Arms Company home page. < http://www.henryrepeating.com/history.cfm”> July 30, 2007.
Niepert, Robert. “Carbines, Revolving Rifles and Repeating Rifles” < http://www.floridareenactorsonline.com/carbinesetc.htm> July 30, 2007.
Romano Rifle home page. <http://www.romanorifle.com/html/spencer.html> July 30, 2007.
Smithsonian Institute, American history pages < http://www.civilwar.si.edu/weapons_spencer.html>, Juloy 30, 2007.
Steuart, RichardD. “Gun Manufacturing During the Civil War” The handbook of Texas Online.<http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/GG/dlg1.html> (accessed July 30, 2007).
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