1861: Bureaucratic hurdles to use of repeating rifles

This forum is dedicated to the preservation of the WWII submarine USS Torsk in Baltimore, MD

Moderators: Gilbert, Bruce

1861: Bureaucratic hurdles to use of repeating rifles

Postby Malcom » Tue Jan 24, 2012 10:08 am


In late December 1861 Abraham Lincoln issued a directive that, had it been vigorously pursued, might have brought the Civil War to a rapid end: An order, via Gen. James Ripley, the Army’s ordnance chief, for 10,000 Spencer repeating rifles. Because Ripley resisted the order for months and did nothing to help put the rifles into volume production, initial deliveries didn’t start until about a year and a half after Lincoln first tested the rifle. Consequently, Union soldiers had to fight with less efficient weapons, handicapping them and greatly lengthening the bloody conflict.

Even though Civil War era muzzleloaders had rifled barrels that much improved their range and accuracy, the Army’s standard issue muzzleloaders would have looked familiar to soldiers who fought under George Washington: they were loaded by a ramrod, through the end of the barrel, one bullet at a time. ...Under the best circumstances, muzzleloaders could discharge no more than three bullets a minute, more likely only two in the heat of combat.

In contrast, Spencer repeaters, which had been patented almost two years earlier by a 28-year-old inventor named Christopher Spencer, contained a seven-shot magazine loaded with prepackaged shells and could fire eight rounds in a mere 20 seconds. ...

Many, including President Lincoln, immediately saw the importance of upgrading to repeaters and breechloaders. A small order for 700 Spencers was placed by the Navy only two months after Sumter. Lincoln personally tested the Spencer and Henry in the summer of 1861, possibly as early as June, and he was responsible for prompting all breechloader orders placed by the Ordnance Department that year. He wasn’t alone: a three-man military board that included the soon-to-be general in chief, George McClellan, recommended quick adoption of the Spencer.

The problem was General Ripley, the Army’s ordnance chief. By then 67 years old, Ripley was hostile to all breechloaders, which he considered “newfangled gimcracks.” But he had a special complaint about repeaters. Astoundingly, he concluded that the weapons would encourage soldiers to waste ammunition.
Nevertheless, where new rifles were employed, they played a decisive role: Gen. John Buford’s Sharps-equipped cavalry was able to hold off a larger number of Confederate infantry during the opening phase of Gettysburg in July 1863. The most impressive example of repeaters’ effectiveness came two months after Gettysburg, at the Battle of Chickamauga.

[Hood's army gets routed]
Could widespread adoption of repeating rifles have shortened the war? Leaders on both sides seemed to think so. One Confederate general who faced enemy breech-loaders reckoned the war would have been lost in the first year had Union troops been so equipped at the start. The engineer turned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Bruce concluded: “If a large part of the Union Army had been given breech-loaders by the end of 1862, Gettysburg would certainly have ended the war. More likely, Chancellorsville, or even Fredericksburg would have done it.”
Posts: 815
Joined: Fri Dec 01, 2006 5:18 pm
Location: Capehart

Return to General Discussion

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 6 guests