How did Civil War soldiers reload and fire the .58 Springfield?
October 22, 2007 1:45 PM   Subscribe

How was the Civil War .58 Springfield rifle reloaded? I understand that it was a percussion-cap rifle rather than a flintlock, and that it fired a muzzle-loaded minie ball. But what was the reloading process? What did the ammunition look like? There was no metal cartridge involved? How long did it take to reload and fire one of those things? Thanks, from a firearms n00b!
posted by jackypaper to Society & Culture (8 answers total)
answer is about halfway down, it doesn't look too complicated.
posted by parmanparman at 1:59 PM on October 22, 2007

Best answer: They used a paper cartridge. It was greased paper and contained a pre-measured quantity of powder.

The reloading process began with the soldier biting the end of the cartridge and tearing it off with his teeth. The powder was poured into the muzzle of the musket. Then the paper itself was crumpled up and stuck into the musket, and shoved home with the ramrod.

Next, the soldier stuck a bullet (a Minie ball) into the muzzle and shoved it home, again with the ramrod. The ramrod was returned to its holder, the musket was raised, and a cap was affixed to the hammer, after which the musket was ready to fire.

(The Springfield was called a "rifled musket", or just a "musket", because it was muzzle loaded. The term "rifle" as you are using it was used to refer to breech loaders such as the Sharps.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:03 PM on October 22, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks!
posted by jackypaper at 2:13 PM on October 22, 2007

Metal cartridges did exist at that time. A lot of pistols used them, and the first operational machine gun (Gatling's famous gun) used metal cartridges. Very shortly after the Civil War metal cartridges became standard for rifles, with the development of the Winchester Rifle in America and the Martini-Henry in military use by the British. But I'm not sure that it was industrially possible in 1864 for the Union, let alone the Confederacy, to produce metal cartridges at the rate they would have been consumed by the war. One day of combat in a large battle could consume upwards of a million rounds of ammunition. That's a lot of brass.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:15 PM on October 22, 2007

Interesting use of the best-answer feature.
posted by knave at 3:12 PM on October 22, 2007

Response by poster: Oops.

Okay, changed best-answer to someone's answer other than my own (which is definitely not the best answer).
posted by jackypaper at 3:21 PM on October 22, 2007

Fun historical trivia: Paper cartridges played a role in the Sepoy Mutiny, when rumors spread that the paper was greased with lard (offensive to Muslims) or tallow (offensive to Hindus), forcing them to ingest small amounts when they bit into the cartridge.
posted by ga$money at 6:37 PM on October 22, 2007

What the heck; I may as well talk about the Sharps, too. It came in two versions, a long rifle and a carbine. The Union cavalry was eventually armed with the carbine.

It used a paper cartridge, too, but it wasn't the same. The cartridge contained powder and a bullet and had a long paper tail. The soldier opened the breech of the rifle with the lever, shoved the cartridge in, bullet first, and closed the breech again with the lever, which sheered the back of the cartridge off, spilling out the powder. The soldier then affixed a cap to the hammer and was ready to fire. This was very fast compared to muzzle loading. But what was even more important is that it could be done prone.

Union cavalry used on the battlefield acted as mounted riflemen. (If anyone ever made a sabre charge on a battlefield during the Civil War I've never heard of it.) They'd move to where they were needed and dismount. One man in four would hold horses, and the others would move forward and begin to fire. The Confederates were always a bit shocked when they faced fire from the Union cavalry because the fire rate was so high, and because the cavalrymen were laying down when they fired and thus were damned hard to hit.

But of course brass cartridges are even better yet, and the Sharps was made obsolete by the Winchester rifle and similar weapons designed to use brass cartridges.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:12 AM on October 23, 2007

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