Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Civil War Reenacting: Firing a Musket

By Matthew Pizzolato

There were many different styles of firearms used during the Late Unpleasantness ranging from converted flintlocks to carbines, shotguns and repeaters, but the most common for the infantry soldier was the muzzle loading rifle, or musket. 

When the War began, both sides used .69 caliber rifles converted from the old smoothbore muskets.  A smoothbore was only accurate at ranges of less than one hundred yards, but with the advent of rifled barrels, accuracy increased to five hundred yards.

The Model 1861 Springfield in .58 caliber was the most common for the Union forces, while the Confederacy relied on the imported British made 1853 Enfield, also in .58 caliber.
1853 Enfield rifle

Toward the end of the War, some of the Union regiments used Spencer repeater rifles that once loaded could fire seven rounds in thirty seconds.  Confederate soldiers often lamented the Union's firepower superiority, saying about the Spencer that it could be loaded on Sunday and fired all week long.
Loading and firing a muzzle loader, especially under combat conditions is not as easy as it sounds.  It's quite a complicated process.  Ammunition consisted of paper cartridges that contained a pre-measured amount of powder and a Minie ball. 

Minie balls recovered from Civil War battlefields
Bullet on left is unfired, the other has been fired.
First, the stock of the gun was placed on the ground.  Then a cartridge taken from the satchel, the end torn off, usually with the teeth before pouring the powder down the barrel. Then the bullet could be inserted.

Next, the ramrod had to be removed from the underside of the barrel, reversed and inserted down the barrel, ramming the bullet all the way down. Then the ramrod had to be removed and replaced on the bottom of the barrel. Once that was completed, the gun had to be primed by placing a percussion cap on the nipple of the gun. Only then could it be fired.

It's commonly believed that a good soldier could load and fire three times a minute.  Imagine trying to do that while bullets are whizzing past you.

In reenacting, we skip the step of using the ramrod and loading a bullet. All we do is burn powder, but there are still several steps to go through.

The stock of the rifle is placed on the ground, a cartridge taken out of the pouch, the end bitten off and powder poured down the barrel.  Then gun is raised and a cap placed on the nipple of the gun. Then we await the order to fire, unless of course the order is to fire at will.  I still haven't figured out which one of the opposing soldiers is named Will. 

Matthew Pizzolato's short stories have been published online and in print. He writes Western fiction featuring his antihero character, Wesley Quaid, that can be found in his story collection, The Wanted Man and the novella Outlaw

Matthew is the editor and webmaster of The Western Online, a magazine dedicated to everything Western and can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter @mattpizzolato


  1. I have a brother-in-law named Will. :)

    Thanks for the step-by-step instructions on loading. Most people don't realize that a firearm is a precision instrument, in a manner of speaking. Seems like if you have a shaky hand from bullets whizzing by, you might easily spill some powder, or drop the bullet, or get crossed up with the ramrod.

  2. Interesting information Matt. I can't imangine going through the losding process in the heat of battle while at the same time trying not to become either a KIA or wounded soldier. Those boys had some sand.

  3. WOW. You really would have to be able to just put things out or your mind and concentrate ONLY on reloading. This is a great post--as always! So much good information, Matt.

  4. Very interesting post, Matt.

    Ah, the dreaded Minie ball! So hated by surgeons during the crimean War and the Civil War.


  5. Really interesting post. Even poor Will liked it!

  6. And many soldiers ended up so scared, they jammed their rifles and couldn't do a thing. Plus they weren't trained well to handle weapons, most being farm boys. Officers had training, but most went from recruitment to the front line within a short time.

    I'd drop the rifle, first thing, or trip over it. Mess up tearing the cartridge open, then spill the powder. Drop the percussion cap. Yeah. Klutz all the way.

  7. I've always felt sorry for poor old Will.

    There was an episode of Sharpe that dealt with the issue of rapid reloading of a rifle. It was just a short scene in the story but, like this blog, it really brought home how essential speed was to the rifleman.

  8. This is an old article, but some how I stumbled across it. FYI the bullet pictured is a Confederate Selma arsenal and would have been fired from an Enfield rifle.