Weapons-Evolution of Weapons

Soldier holding weapon
When Fort Scott was first established in 1842, infantry soldiers were armed with smoothbore, muzzleloading, flintlock muskets. Changes in weaponry had already been developed by that time, but the army was slow to adopt them. Part of the problem was that some of the new technology was not quite perfected. Additionally, the army was reluctant to give up something tried and true for something new. It was also costly to reoutfit all the units with all new weaponry. Nevertheless, the changes did come, the army would eventually adopt them and those changes would revolutionize warfare.

Flintlock vs. Percussion

Flint and Steel mechanism Pan (to hold powder) Flint Steel

Flintlocks were developed during the early 1600s to replace several other cumbersome weapons. This system employed a piece of flint (a hard quartz-like stone) that was clamped into the top of the musket hammer. When fired, the hammer fell forward and drove the flint Pan into a vertical, spring-held piece of steel. The steel served a dual purpose; when not being actively used, it was a cover for a small pan that contained a priming charge of about ten grains of black powder, and in operation, when the flint struck the steel, the steel snapped back exposing the priming charge at the same time a shower of sparks fell into the pan. The sparks ignited the priming charge and passed fire through a small hole in the side of the barrel that communicated with the main powder charge in the barrel. The system worked well, when it worked, but was very prone to misfires. The failure of the sparks to ignite the priming charge, a damp priming charge, or a lost priming charge were just some of the reasons the flintlock system was less than adequate.

Percussion Cap

The percussion system of priming that used the copper percussion cap is popularly credited to the Englishman, Joshua Shaw, who was issued a US patent in 1822. For shoulder arms, the percussion cap looked like a tiny top hat and was about the size of a modern pencil eraser. Pistol caps were usually straight-sided without the "brim" and were smaller still. The interior of the percussion cap had a small deposit of fulminate of mercury or another salt formed by dissolving a metal in acid. The correct formula produced a substance that exploded when it was struck a sharp blow. After loading the weapon with powder and ball or an externally primed cartridge, a percussion cap was placed by hand onto a hollow tube, called a cone or nipple, at the breech end of the weapon. With the percussion cap, there was no priming powder to blow away or get wet. The frizzen would not fail to spark during humid conditions. The vent hole (the hole that the spark from the initial explosion traveled through to ignite the powder in the barrel) was not as likely to become fouled with gun powder, thus eliminating the flash in the pan that occurred when the powder in the priming pan ignited but the powder in the barrel did not.

Percussion system of priming-cap went on nipple

The percussion system of priming was more reliable and easier to clean and to use. Dragoon units in the army were armed with percussion weapons from the creation of the units in 1833. The infantry was slower to adapt; however, the regular Army units were armed with percussion weapons by the Civil War, but some of the volunteer units still used flintlocks during the early part of the war.

Smoothbore vs Rifling Rifling (notice grooves) Smoothbore

Smoothbores vs. Rifles

For centuries, men had known that by cutting spiraled grooves inside a musket barrel to impart spin to the bullet, they could increase its range and accuracy. Hunting weapons were usually rifled and some eighteenth-century armies contained special rifle regiments. But the smoothbore musket remained the principal infantry weapon until the 1850s. Why? Because a bullet Bore has grooves in it. large enough to take to the rifling was hard to ram down the barrel of a muzzleloading weapon. After a rifle had been fired a few times, the residue from the black powder built up in the grooves and made the gun impossible to load without cleaning. Since rapid loading and the reliability of repeated and prolonged firing were essential in a military weapon, the rifle could only be used for special purposes.

This dilemma was solved by the creation of the Minie ball in the 1840s. The bullet was elongated with a base that expanded to grab the rifling as it traveled through the barrel. The expanding bullet would also clean the grooves in the rifle as it traveled through the weapon. The expansion would continue once it reached the intended target. Minie balls left small entrance wounds but large exit wounds, thus inflicting much more pain and suffering than the standard balls that were used prior to the invention of the minie ball. Minie balls were never used at Fort Scott, but were standard issue during the Civil War.

This development revolutionized military tactics. The maximum range of a smoothbore was 250 yards, but a soldier could not hit a specific target at distances greater than 80 yards. Because of the poor accuracy and range, fighting tactics with smoothbores called for soldiers to stand shoulder to shoulder in lines. Sometimes one line would fire, fall back, reload, and the line of soldiers behind them would follow suit. At other times, the soldiers would make a formation so that four lines of soldiers could fire at once. The idea was to put a large quantity of lead in the air at one time, so that even though an individual soldier would not hit what he was aiming at, he would hit something, because the enemy would be fighting the same way (at least according to the rules of civilized warfare). Infantry charges were a classic part of this tactic because with a range of only 250 yards, a defending army would only have time for a couple of shots before the opposing army would be on them with bayonets.

The rifle's range was four to six times that of the smoothbore. Its maximum range was 1,000 yards with an effective range of 400 yards. The old smoothbore tactics were no longer effective because an infantry charge would be cut to pieces well before reaching enemy lines because advancing soldiers could be hit from further away. US Army units were not completely armed with rifles until into the Civil War; although, some infantry units may have had "Mississippi" rifles at Fort Scott after the Mexican War.

Breechloader (breech flips up to allow cartridge to be loaded)

Muzzleloaders vs. Breechloaders

Muzzleloaders were the weapons that required the round to be loaded and then rammed down through the muzzle or barrel of the weapon. This type of loading was slow and cumbersome. Breechloaders could be opened at the breech or the butt end of the weapon and the round could be inserted directly in without the use of a rammer. Breech The breechloader was much quicker to use but it had its problems. The breechloaders had a gap in the breech that gases produced by firing escaped through. This escaping gas could blow into the soldier's face. More importantly, it caused the weapon to malfunction as the barrel heated with rapid use. Dragoons were armed with breechloaders in the early 1840s, but due to the above named problem, the breechloaders were replaced with musketoons in the late 1840s. The musketoon was a muzzleloader but was still a percussion weapon.

In the 1850s, several inventors developed copper cartridges or other devices that largely solved the problems of escaping gases, yet the Army was reluctant to adopt breechloaders because they were not a proven technology, and they were not widely used until late in the Civil War.

The information on this page came from An Introduction to Civil War Small Arms by Earl J. Coates and Dean S. Thomas

Soldier Shouldering Weapon
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Last updated: July 30, 2016

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