They say that necessity is the mother of invention. That certainly describes the innovations in firearms during the period from just before the Civil War through three decades following the conflict. Inventors tinkered with all manner of new ideas to make guns more lethal.
At least three barriers kept the innovation of firearm efficiency at bay. The first limitation involved how the gun was loaded. Most military long guns, until 1861 were loaded at the muzzle. Another limitation was the method of igniting the powder charge that sent the projectile towards its intended target. Flint striking a steel appendage, known as the “frizzen”, caused a spark to ignite a small quantity of powder which set off the charge in the breach through a small hole in the barrel sending the missile toward the target. And the third inhibitor was the smoothbore which allowed for marginal accuracy, especially at long range.
Since the invention of the gun, all loading of the weapon occurred through the muzzle, as opposed to the breach. For those of you who are not acquainted with the workings of a gun, the muzzle is the end of the barrel pointed toward the target and the breach is the end of the barrel pointed toward the shooter.
There was no way to get a firearm to shoot multiple rounds unless the gun was fitted with multiple barrels since only one round could be loaded at a time. Once the gun was discharged, the process of loading required the tedious and time-consuming process of loading a single projectile through the muzzle, again and again, and again. Consider that an Indian might shoot more than six arrows in a minute, a soldier might shoot only two rounds per minute.
Breach-loaded weapons began to appear around 1832 however, it was not until 1861 that the US Military began to employ breach-loaded rifles. The Spenser and Sharps rifles were preferred by sharpshooters for their delicate work. Standard issue muzzle-loaded long guns were, by far, the most common weapon used by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War.
An incredible innovation was the introduction of the percussion (cap and ball) method of igniting the payload. The previous method of igniting the charge of black powder required an antiquated and cumbersome process. Guns outfitted in this manner were called flintlocks. When the shooter pulled the trigger, the spring-loaded hammer advanced toward a metal appendage called a “frizzen”. As the flint struck the frizzen sparks flew igniting a small charge of black powder in the “pan” an indentation beneath the hammer and frizzen. The mini-explosion sent ignited bits of powder in all directions. The objective was to get the embers to proximity with a hole bored in the side of the barrel at the breach which provided access to the charge in the barrel by the embers. Fire meets the charge of black powder in the barrel breach and voila the weapon discharges and the projectile is airborne. The adage “flash in the pan” came from misfires which are all too common. In retrospect, I am amazed that the flintlock works at all. I can tell you from personal experience that they do, however.
This ingenious but arduous ignition system was replaced by what is known as the percussion or cap and ball gun. The action (aka lock) of the flintlock was modified into a more simple arrangement. The hammer still started the process, however, a block of metal was attached to the breach of the barrel that exhibited different features. Its interior was bored out to facilitate a larger amount of powder, giving the gun more punch and range. This block of steel was threaded and screwed into the breech of the barrel. The block had one other unique feature. On the side was formed a bulge that was threaded for a nipple ( a steel device that was threaded on the bottom and had a raised tube on top).
The initial spark was provided by a “cap” or copper crimped cone that contained fulminate mercury, a very explosive material when struck. So, the shooter pulled back the hammer, locking it in a ready position. He then placed a cap on the nipple, which made the gun ready to fire. This innovation provided more successful detonations and allowed innovators like Samuel Colt to produce pistols that could fire six shots before needing reloading.
Colt’s first rendition of the revolver was introduced in 1825, however, the concept was not popular until years later, when in 1849 he introduced the Colt Patterson. The 1851 Navy Colt and then the 1861 Army Colt set the stage for the 1873 Peacemaker which we have all seen in the movies; the “Cowboy Gun”.
The introduction of rifling in the barrels originated as early as 1540. Differing opinions by experts kept its general use at bay. The way war was fought influenced their decision. The conventional practice was to set three lines of soldiers, one behind the other, facing the enemy. The front row fired their guns on command and then receded through the other two rows to form a backline. There they reloaded and prepared to shoot again when the members of the other two lines took their shots. This method of warfare did not normally require long shots, since the clouds of black smoke emitted from the barrels of the guns when fired nullified any view of the enemy after a few minutes of battle.
This method of infantry warfare changed forever after the Revolutionary War. Amerian troops initiated the concept of” gorilla warfare”. That term was not used until centuries later, however, it was extremely effective and it demonstrated the need to make the long gun more accurate at longer ranges. Innovators reached back in time to rediscover the rifled barrel for better accuracy. Grooves were cut into the interior of the steel barrel. To further enhance accuracy, the grooves were cut in a spiral so the projectile could be spun to keep the wobble to a minimum. As an example, a full turn of grooves was cut every eighteen inches or every twenty-two inches to achieve better accuracy at longer ranges.
Yes, necessity is the mother of invention. Slavery drove our nation into war. The conflict fomented since the days before we created the Declaration of Independence. Few were surprised when the Civil War broke out. Inventors, observant of current events, worked furiously to create superior weaponry.
In my two novels about the McBride family, I discuss guns as tools to cross the frontier and tools to defend families from the enemy. I suggest you purchase Equal And Alike and Taken At The Flood. I believe you will enjoy the struggles of the McBride family to carve out a place for themselves in wilderness America during the mid to late 19th Century. These books can be purchased from Amazon. Barnes and Noble, Bookbaby, and other purveyors of fine books.
Take a moment to visit my website at to read other blogs that contribute to a better understanding of the life and times of Americans in those days.