The Alleged Rifle Revolution
Speaker: Paddy Griffith
Report by John Laskey
Paddy Griffith addressed the last meeting of 2009 with a thought-provoking challenge to the notion that ‘better weapons kill more people’. At least that is what Civil War commentators have been saying for a long time in respect of the rifled musket, using the notion to explain the large casualty figures and the general bloodiness of the conflict. Some historians have even gone so far as to say that the rifled musket was a more revolutionary weapon than any innovation from the First World War.
This was not the case at all, argued Paddy: yes, the rifled musket had an effective range of 1000 yards, and used a type of bullet - the minié ‘ball’ (actually a cone-shaped slug) that could be lethal up to that range. The problem with the ‘revolutionary’ argument was that these weapons were rarely used at long ranges. In fact, the sorts of ranges where large units shot at each other during the Civil War were much the same as they were in Napoleonic times, when much less powerful - and much more inaccurate - smoothbore muskets were the norm.
Paddy argued that there were several reasons for this. Firstly the quality of shooting by Civil War soldiers was low. Most troops could only expect one day of target practice before being sent to the front. And most recruits were green volunteers of no military background, being nearly all farm labourers and city dwellers. What Paddy called the ‘myth of the American rifleman’ was just that - a myth. He added that the war saw few tactical innovations, with most senior officers falling back into a defensive culture gleaned from their reading of French military doctrine. This mindset chimed in with the lack of a strong NCO cadre that might have geared higher strategic thinking down to more effective unit tactics. Secondly much of the terrain of the Civil War was dense, which simply did not allow use of rifles at longer ranges. Paddy conceded that ranges of fire did increase as the war went on. However, he felt this was proportionate to the arrival of more rifled muskets as the war progressed, with nearly all being rifled by the war’s end. He linked this to a phenomena he considered was much more common than is cited - combat avoidance, where units would (consciously or not) move out of range of their opponents and blaze away with little effect until their ammunition gave out: at which point - honour being satisfied - they would withdraw.
Paddy noted that the war did see the advent of the first effective magazine rifle, in the form of the ‘repeating’ carbines issued to some Union cavalry. These enabled a short barrage of accurate fire. But the innovation was only made possible by the effort of private entrepreneurs: repeating carbines were never produced to a level where they could have had a decisive effect.
Nor had the use of artillery changed much since the Napoleonic Wars. In spite of the arrival of rifled artillery, most ammunition expended was the solid shot, grape and canister used half a century before. The proportion of casualties from artillery fire appeared to have been low.
Paddy concluded that deaths on the battlefield were not caused by the longer range and power of weapons, but rather by the persistence of the war in the face of both political and military stalemate.
Paddy’s challenging appraisal of the art of war during the Civil War drew quite a few questions from the audience. In particular a thoughtful one about whether battlefield archaeology backed up this view. Paddy replied that this was a dark area, not least because modern preservation created a difficulty for modern archaeology.
Quite a few of the audience questions were formed around whether the armies really learnt from experience. Paddy felt that on the whole they did not, but that the main reasons were the comparative inexperience of the troops. Instead of becoming more daring, Civil War veterans seemed to cling fast to their survivor instincts.