Sharpshooting Rifles of the American Civil War

Published on
September 3, 2017
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Martin Pegler
978 1 4728 1591 0
Other Publication Information
Illustrators: Johnny Shumate, Alan Gilliland; 80 pages
Product / Stock #
WPN 56
Company: Osprey Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Provided by: Osprey Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Book cover

The American Civil War was a time of transition, both materially and tactically. On the material side of the equation, metallurgy and weaponry were seeing huge advances. The tactical side struggled to keep pace. When war first broke in 1861 commanders saw the battlefield as a linear environment. That is; long lines of men advancing toward each other to get close enough for the smoothbore weapons of the day to reach maximum efficiency. Technology moved forward with rifled weapons that were more accurate at longer ranges. And coupled with advances in sighting and powder, the ability to reach out and touch your foe at longer ranges meant linear battlefield tactics were becoming obsolete in a deadly way.

Changing tactics and weaponry are what this book focuses on. Printed on high quality paper by noted publisher Osprey Publishing, author Martin Pegler brings the tools and tactics of the sharpshooter clearly into focus. Covering 80 pages as number 56 in the Weapons Series, the book is divided into 4 main chapters, and includes an Introduction, Glossary, Index, and Bibliography designed to give the reader a clear understanding of the topic and a source for further reading. As noted in the title, weapons by Colt, Sharps, Spenser, and Whitworth are all featured. Museum quality specimens that reside currently in the NRA Museum are shown.

The first topic covered is development of sharpshooting weapons. When the war begun the most accurate weapons on the field were Kentucky and Pennsylvania rifles carried by some militia troops. Not only were there rifles beautiful to look at, but they were also highly accurate at longer ranges in the hands of skilled marksmen. Rifles designed primarily for the target range, where shots of 500 yards and more were often put into service. Some of these had rudimentary telescopic sights that featured long brass tubes equipped with fancy optics. One of the more famous, or infamous episodes occurred on 12 July 1864 when a confederate sharpshooter, armed with a British Whitworth rifle and Davidson scope was readying a shot at President Lincoln when Lincoln was quickly hauled back in at Fort Stevens, part of the Washington DC defenses.

It didn’t take long for the generals to figure out these marksmen could inflict more damage to the enemy if they were deployed in non-linear situations. The age of military sharpshooting and sniping had begun in earnest. One of the first to equip and lead an outfit of dedicated and purposely trained sharpshooters was Hiram Berdan. Dressed in green uniforms, as an early attempt at camouflage, these soldiers were deployed in areas forward of the main troops to inflict long range damage on the enemy. They were also deployed as skirmishers, pickets, and snipers in addition to other areas where quality marksmanship was needed. Places with names like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Malvern Hill all saw deployment of Sharpshooters. It should be noted that at the time, the role of the sniper was considered in civilized warfare to be little more than an assassin and were held in low regard. The rules of warfare in the period leading up to the Civil War contained rules of conduct that were considered chivalrous and sniping was not seen as a chivalrous act. Especially if it was the opponent’s officers that were set up in the cross hairs!!

While having less of an impact on the overall outcome of the war than ironclad warships would have, the role of sharpshooter was forever brought out of the shadows. Both sides deployed sharpshooters with varying degrees of success. The tactics and equipment developed during this period are the basis for what the modern sniper uses today. It’s not difficult to imagine that Confederate Sharpshooter at Fort Stevens and an Army scout/sniper of today concerning themselves with the many of the same things when preparing for the shot.

I’m familiar with this area of the Civil War, and like this book for the good overall view of the subject. The pictures of the equipment are all clear, concise, and illustrate the many different approaches taken by the manufacturers. The photos of the scopes and other accoutrements offer an interesting look at the “tools of the trade”. The cut away drawing of the Sharps rifle is very well done, and shows the action of a revolutionary weapon that had profound impact on the battlefield. The photos of the Colt Revolving Rifle are interesting. I’ve had the opportunity to view this piece in person, and it’s as confounding in person as it is in photograph!!

I also enjoyed this book for the clear writing, good drawings and photos, and the overall treatment of the subject. It covers an area of the Civil War largely unknown except to a small number of historians and others with an interest in the obscure weapons used by the soldiers who were sharpshooters. I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in the Civil War, or little known weapons. Check out the Osprey Publishing website for other great titles on many subjects!!

My thanks to Osprey Publishing, and IPMS/USA for providing this sample for review.


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