Civil War Sharpshooters

They stare at us out of ancient daguerreotypes and glass negatives, or take aim in a Winslow Homer print (right): serious young men. In the photos, they’re posed in a frozen position because of the photo technology of the day, dressed in rough uniforms and clinging to a long rifle. Most of them were, like soldiers of time immemorial, youths in their teens and twenties; a few of them were wise old men in their forties and fifties. They were the sharpshooters of the Civil War. And what does that mean, exactly? Who were they?

Berdan’s US Sharp Shooters. (All images do embiggen with a click).

The case of Civil War Sharpshooters is complicated by the English language. The term “sharpshooter” has come to mean an excellent shot, especially with rifle; in modern American military usage, it is the intermediate of the three grades of marksmanship badge, from superior to inferior: Expert, Sharpshooter and Marksman. But there also was, at the time of the Civil War, an important early breechloading rifle manufactured by the firm of Christian Sharps.

So, were sharpshooters soldiers who are sharp at shooting, or soldiers who shot Sharpses? Would you believe, the answer is: both, and neither?

Yeah, that calls for an explanation.

Etymology of “Sharpshooter.”

The word actually was “culturally appropriated,” as those whacky college kids say, into English about 1800 from modern German, and is a true cognate of the German Scharfschütze. In German that term now means a good marksman, often with precision equipment, but 200 years ago in America (or 300 years ago in the German principalities) it meant troops armed with (more accurate and slower-loading) rifles, not smoothbore muskets. These troops were used as pickets and skirmishers as well as being deployed as the 18th and 19th Century equivalent of designated marksmen. They were closer to what English military practice would call rangers.

In an interesting post on the term on a the Civil War blog, Fred Ray dismisses the idea that Christian Sharps and his breechloader had anything to do with the coinage of the term:

A persistent story attaches it to Berdan’s Sharpshooters, who with their Sharps rifles were then (so the story goes) called “Sharps shooters,” and later just sharpshooters. Trouble is, it’s not true, any more than is the tale that Fighting Joe Hooker gave his name as a synonym for prostitute.

In fact, sharpshooter goes back in Germanic Europe at least as far back as the early 1700s or so, when the modern rifle-armed troops were first used in the Austrian and Prussian armies….

[W]hen Christian Sharps was born in 1811, the term had already been in use for a hundred years or so. Sharps did not patent his breech-loading design until 1848.

Interestingly, the word means the same in German and English, and appears in both Old High German and Old English. One etymologist, Carol Pozefsky, traces the English variation of the term as applied to riflemen back to 1802. My surmise, then, would be that it came into modern English by way of the 5/60th Royal Americans, a mostly-German unit raised by the British Army as a result of their experiences during the American Revolution. The 5/60th pretty much went with the practices of the German jaeger light infantry, including, one would presume, the term sharpshooter. NOTE 1

The link to Carol Pozefsky’s etymology of the word, unfortunately, breaks.

Sharpshooters as skirmishers

At the time of the US Civil War (1861-65), then, “sharpshooter” was a term of art, already of considerable antiquity, and it meant rifle units either constructed for, or at least detailed to, skirmishing duties.  “Skirmishing” is not something one sees in a modern operations order, so what was that? Basically, it meant that they screened the army, almost like foot cavalry. With the Army in a static position, they would be posted forward as checkpoints and observation points — called by the now-archaic term vedettes, which like most sharpshooter tactics of the American armies was borrowed from French chasseur doctrine and practice.

On the move, the sharpshooters would screen the van and the flanks of the army. In theory, they would use their superior skills and greater weapons effective range, if need be, to break contact and deliver the ground truth to the commander. If it sounds like the Ranger companies in the Korean War US Army, well, unit names changes but tactical principles endure. They were not meant to be the equal of a regular infantry company or regiment in the line, although sometimes they were employed that way. (Indeed, that’s what broke the Ranger companies in the Korean War).

There was little difference in the employment of sharpshooters in the Union or Rebel armies. The difference was greater, in fact, between the more important armies around Virginia, and the less well-resourced armies contesting the West. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia both found reason to employ sharpshooters both as skirmishers and as long-range marksmen.

Berdan’s USSS

Berdan’s Sharpshooter, Reenactor

Hiram Berdan makes an an interesting character. In Joseph Bilby’s Civil War Firearms, which has a whole chapter on sharpshooters (NOTE 2), he describes the man’s character and attainments:

Hiram Berdan, born in New York and raised in Michigan, was a talented engineer, practical scientist and inventor responsible for such diverse devices as a gold crushing machine and a mechanical bakery. In addition, he was one of the premier American rifle shots of the 1850s. Berdan’s inventive genius, applied to firearms, would secure his place in history. The burdens centerfire primer for metallic cartridges, for example, is still in use world wide. One thing Hiram Berdan was not, however, was a soldier. He was a self-promoting windbag.NOTE 3

Contemporary news page with scenes of Berdan’s sharpshooters. Man at center is not Berdan.

But the windbag, self-promoter, and worse — Bilby also calls him out for “strong reluctance to personally confront the enemy,” a toxic accusation in the world of 1860s manhood, and one that was leveled at Berdan by his contemporaries — was an excellent recruiter of superior men. He ultimately recruited two regiments, the 1st and 2nd United States Sharp Shooters, promising them Sharps rifles, and paying any man for his target rifle, if he brought it along.

The men were selected, probably, by a marksmanship test. (That’s how other sharpshooter units did it, but there’s no proof in the case of Berdan’s Sharpshooters). The standard was not too terribly high, Bilby thinks: a 10-inch group with the service rifle, at 200 yards.

Berdan changed his mind about the Sharps and decided to get his men ordinary Model 1861 Springfield rifles. These were good weapons, more appreciated than the smoothbores, 1841 rifles, or Austrian Lorenz rifles many Union units had to reckon with. But the men rejected them, holding out for the Sharpses they’d been promised. They were fobbed off for a while with Colt repeating rifles, but Colonel Ripley, the director of ordnance, ultimately relented and let Berdan order 2,000 Sharps rifles, with any surplus to be stored in Washington. (Berdan spent the rest of his time in uniform defending his spare rifles from raids by other Union officers. He would resign before war’s end, and sell carbines of his own design to the Union Army). Berdan’s Shar’s rifles came with double-set triggers, and nlike all other Sharps rifles, with a socket bayonet. (The regular Sharps bayonet was a bulky sword bayonet. The USSS troops seem to have, mostly, thrown their bayonets away in any case).

The Colt revolving rifle had the problem of all cap-and-ball revolvers: you can generate a lot of shots, briefly, but then it takes a very long time to reload. Reloading was also a problem with the telescopic-sighted 30-pound target rifles of the era, which were shot in a now-forgotten supine position; one set of sharpshooters that found themselves in close-quarters combat had to use their rifles as clubs.

Other Union Sharpshooters

Because the term “Sharpshooter” was in general use for any rifle-armed skirmisher, there were quite a number of state Sharpshooter regiments of varying quality and equipment. The Massachusetts company shown below is well-stocked with monster target rifles!

They lacked Berdan’s regiments’ unique designation and green uniforms, but had their own tales of combat. We recommend you read Bilby’s works for more detail on these guys.

Sharpshooter Weapons and Equipment

Rifles for sharpshooters were always in short supply. The Ordnance Department was loath to let sharpshooter regiments buy Sharps rifles, because every time Sharps filled a rifle order, carbine production suffered, and the Sharps was the most preferred of the many breechloading carbines used by the Union cavalry (at least until the emergence of the cartridge Henry and Spencer later in the war, which still couldn’t match the Sharps carbine for range).

The bifurcated nature of sharpshooter operations meant that sometimes a heavy target rifle was just the thing, and other times a rapid-firing carbine or other breechloader was the right weapon. The USSS wound up issuing everybody Sharps rifles and maintaining a quantity of the target rifles as organizational equipment, brought up with the supply trains and operated by the best of the best shots.

The target rifles originally were recruited into sharpshooter regiments, as it were, alongside their owners. Some regiments paid a substantial premium for a soldier to bring a suitable long-range rifle. But these rifles were problematic as each used a unique bullet mold and false muzzle (for loading) that came with it, unlike ordinary rifle-muskets or even Sharps rifles that used a manufactured paper cartridge. Accordingly, the trade-off for the target rifle’s range and precision was a much lower rate of fire. And with their weight, they were disruptive on the march.

Rebel Sharpshooters

The Confederacy, too, used sharpshooters, but they do not seem to have sustained entire organized regiments. They would stand them up and break them down. They always struggled for quality firearms; a couple of state militias had bought some Sharps rifles before the war broke out and cut off that supply.

The South did have one rifle that that the North would have envied, had its military leaders had any sense: the Whitworth. (Its designer was the same Whitworth whose patent fasteners are cursed by restorers of old British cars and aircraft).  This was a .45 caliber English rifle with a hexagonal bore. It was meant to be used with hexagonal bullets, but could also shoot a cylindrical projectile — for which, it came with a mold — accurately to 900 yards (Bilby says even to 1,500, by using expedient extensions of the sights). Moreover, it was not significantly bulkier or harder to load than an ordinary Springfield or Enfield rifle-musket. Here’s a video of a presentation on the Whitworth:

The Whitworth was sometimes used with iron sights, sometimes with a high-mounted scope, and sometimes with the side-mounted Davidson scope seen below.

A rifle was only half the equation — maybe, less than half. The human factor was key to sharpshooter success.

Where the North had Hiram Berdan, who, whatever his failings, understood marksmanship perfectly for the era, the South had a similar impresario of sharpshooting, Major General Patrick Cleburne, who lacked Berdan’s character flaws. (Notably, he was not combat-shy, which led to his death in action on 30 November 1864). Cleburne drilled his men intensively, not on the parade-ground like most of his contemporaries, but on the rifle-range, stressing both marksmanship and — something that seems otherwise absent from the literature of the war — range estimation. Where did Cleburne learn all this? Born in County Cork, Ireland, he’d been an enlisted man in the British Army before emigrating to the United States!

In fact, most units’ marksmanship, including Sharpshooter units, was pretty dreadful, on average. This was offset by the fact that commanders often closed to smoothbore ranges before engaging the enemy, anyway.

Sharpshooter Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

It is unsurprising that Rebel and Union TTPs were mirror images, as most of the leaders of the Confederate States Army grew up in the United States Army. They went to the same schools, read the same books, adapted the same tactics from the manuals of the French Chasseur à Pied and Zouave units.

Cleburne seems to have developed one tactic that the North did not use: using his men and their accurate Whitworth fire to deny the Union the service of their artillerymen. In this period, artillery generally engaged using direct fire, and that meant that the only safety for the gunners lay in the fact that their guns outranged the enemy’s small arms.

The Confederates also used the superior range and accuracy of their sharpshooters, at times, to compensate for an overall lack of firepower or general lack of ammunition: the sharpshooter as a force multiplier or economy-of-force measure, not out of intent so much as out of necessity.

By and large, sharpshooters did not use the camouflage, concealment and stalking tricks of a modern sniper, although Bilby does recount one story in which a sharpshooter learned from a Native American buddy to camouflage himself with corn stalks whilst moving through a cornfield.


  1. Ray, Fred. Origin of “Sharpshooter.” TOCWOC Blog. Retrieved from:
  2. Bilby, pp. 103-128.
  3. Bilby, p. 105


Bilby, Joseph. Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background, Tactical Use, and Modern Collecting and Shooting. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1996.

54 thoughts on “Civil War Sharpshooters

  1. whomever

    “The link to Carol Pozefsky’s etymology of the word, unfortunately, breaks.” had a snapshot:
    web dot archive dot org /web/20120818133306/

    It’s a short page, slightly reformatted:
    Q: It has been suggested that the word sharpshooter is derived from the Sharps rifle (buffalo gun). Any chance of that being true, or does the word predate the rifle?
    A: Hello and thank you for your question,
    The word sharpshooter stems from the Old English (before 830) word ‘scharp’ appearing in the book ‘Ancrene Riwle.’ It meant pretty much what it means today; cutting, keen, or sharp. It’s a relative of the Old Frisian ‘skerp’ also meaning sharp. The modern Dutch word is ‘scherp’ the Old High German ‘scarf’…modern German ‘scharf’.
    Our word ‘sharp’ was first attached to the word ‘shooter’ (sharpshooter) in 1802. It’s meaning, of course, one who is keenly accurate with a gun.
    The best to you always, Carol P.

  2. Tom Stone

    I have handled two Whitworth rifles, one had the original side mounted scope and one the top mounted scope. They were beautifully made pieces and one was in nearly new condition with the case, the other had some honest wear and was regularly shot at the range by the owner.
    This was back in the 60’s when quite a few people were still shooting originals. And I can testify that properly loading a muzzle loading target rifle with a false muzzle wasn’t fast but the increase in accuracy is substantial when the bullet is seated concentrically and without being deformed ( Bullet hardness levels are a big deal with muzzleloaders if you are looking for maximum accuracy).

  3. John M.

    “The burdens centerfire primer for metallic cartridges”

    That looks like some sort of voice-to-text error, or at minimum requires a [sic].

    You also have a number of “NOTE (integer)” citations that follow these block quotes. I think they correspond to the notes in your post, but I’d recommend either in-line citations or superscripts with direct hyperlinks to anchor text in the post.

    Double typo:
    “Berdan’s Shar’s rifles came with double-set triggers, and nlike all other…”

    -John M.

    1. Scott

      Is the plural really Sharpses?

      holding out for the Sharpses they’d

      Or is it a perhaps a typo by Sméagol?

        1. Jim

          I have seen that issue (plural nouns ending with “s”) be addressed by adding an apostrophe to the “s” (Jones’, as opposed to Joneses; Sharps’ vs Sharpses).

          I don’t claim an adequate enough grasp of English grammatical technical knowledge, but I am abnormally well read. To my eye and mind, the use of the Apostrophe looks more normative in comparison to the breadth of literature I have been exposed to.

          1. John M.

            Use Joneses and Sharpses and Kurtzes to pluralize. Never Jones’ and Sharps’ and Kurtz’ to pluralize.

            In this context, pluralizing as “Sharps rifles” might smooth out the sentence a bit. But “The Sharpses wish you a Merry Christmas” is correct, while “The Sharps’ wish you a Merry Christmas” is wrong, wrong wrong.

            -John M.


            I hope you two don’t read and comment on my website. I don’t have enough bandwidth for all the typos and spelling/grammar mistakes you would feel compelled to correct in the comment sections.

  4. Martin

    There’s a typo in the german word for the sharpshooter, there should be only one Z, in the -ze at the end.

    1. Tennessee Budd

      My mother’s family was from “between the rivers”; I have old letters to & from them, addressed Model, TN (don’t look for it, it’s gone thanks to the Yankee government, & yes, it brought up a lot of old grudges when they kicked everybody out; my grandfather was buried in LBL as late as 1992, it being a family plot).
      I first learned of Jack Hinson a couple of decades ago. This past weekend, the county library was having a book sale, & I picked up a lovely copy of “Jack Hinson’s One-man War” for $1!
      Can’t have the young drones reading about a good guy who was against the .gov, can we? Had to purge that from the shelves. Actually, it may have been a spare copy: I have to check & see if there’s still a copy available for borrowing. I hope so.

  5. DSM

    Fascinating history. The Senich books have some great illustrations too.

    They’re often depicted sitting in trees. Considering one of the first considerations taught to us about a final firing position was not to use a tree, I wonder how accurate it is. It never worked out for the Japanese soldiers in the John Wayne movies either.

  6. SPEMack

    Weaponsman: come for the content; stay for the English lessons.

    Fascinating piece. Berdan was a unique fellow.

    I was gifted a copy of Bilby’s book from a teaching colleague of Mother’s. Need to bump it to the top of the must read stack.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Any of his books is awesome. I bought his Gettysburg book, I think, after Ian McCollum (Forgotten Weapons) recommended it. Or it might have been A Revolution in Arms, his book about the dawn of the repeating rifle. Here’s his Amazon author page.

      ETA: I am not the Kevin O’Brien he wrote the Irish Brigade history with; I have that guy’s middle initial outnumbered 2 to 1.

    2. Hognose Post author

      I probably should have mentioned that the Russian Empire adopted a single-shot bolt rifle in approximately .43 caliber (11mm?) that was a Berdan design.

      1. TRX

        Yes. Often called “Berdanka” by Russian troops. There was a #1 and an updated #2 design.

        In 1891 they adapted it to front locking and a magazine feed, and it became the Mosin. Once you look at them side by side, it’s quite apparent the Mosin is just an updated version of the #2 rifle, not an all-new design.

        Still works just fine, though.


    Fabulous work Hognose, thank you very much. I really appreciate the effort you put into articles like this. Well, all your articles actually.

    As a side note, you mention a long forgotten supine shooting position. I presume you mean the Creedmoor position, and if so, that position is alive and well in the world of big bore long range metallic silhouette pistol shooting. It looks so goofy that it must have some actual benefits. :-)

    1. SPEMack

      “Big bore long range metallic silhouette pistol shooting”

      I didn’t know such a thing existed; but I am glad to live a world where it does.

      1. LSWCHP

        Ha ha…me too!

        The position requires the gun to be braced against the leg. The dudes who shoot with revolvers in .454 Casull et al always have a thick leather apron over the leg to prevent their femoral arteries being sliced open by blast from the barrel-cylinder gap. Life is dangerous enough as it is without dealing with shit like that, so I mostly stick to PPC matches with my .38 and 9mm guns.

  8. James F.

    Here’s the Creedmoor supine position, with a link in nick to many other pictures of people shooting like that.

    There’s another kind of supine shooting, which where you fire a pistol from the ground after someone knocks you down, and, standing over you, is about to smash your head in with your own nightstick. Try to find a range that will let you practice shooting from that position.

    1. Tom Stone

      That second supine position was taught in one of the classes I took, the fall was on a mat.
      You drew after hitting the mat and had to engage two targets.
      Fighting from the ground is well worth practicing.

  9. morokko

    Very interesting article! I allow myself to add my two cents about the Root Rifle, which is quite an example of dead ends in the history of firearms development.
    It was phased out from the Berdan unit less due to its slow reloading speed and more because it was just a terrible choice for long range shooting. The cylinder is easily detachable via pulling out its pin, so theoretically it could be swapped with pre-loaded one, and at the time soldiers were issued with mass produced paper cartridges anyway. But the marksman rifle also had to have long and stiff barrel and use stout powder load and get substantial velocity for the heavy bullet. The Root has no way to seal off the gases during shooting, the barrel was long but thin walled and just screw in into the frame. There was an issue of proper barrel and cylinder alignment and bullet distortion, regardless of the barrel having the forcing cone. Muzzleloading target rifles used a cut down fragment of the barrel called the false muzzle to ensure precise seating the projectile into the thread and thus prevent such distortion during loading. The one Root replica I got my hands on, made by now long defunct Italian Palmetto company also had barrel droop, but this might not be an issue with original Colts, due to their supposedly better standards of manufacturing.
    The rifle length version of the Root, when hold accordingly to its manual of arms, is just very unbalanced gun. It is equipped with the fore-end, but if you try to hold it there during shooting, you would just get your forearm burned with hot gasses from cylinder gap or even blown away in case of chainfire. Placing both hands on the wrist of the stock, – which was substantially elongated exactly for this purpose – is just extremely awkward and makes for a tiring shooting stance. This was .56 calibre gun so the gas leakage was substantial not only from cylinder gap but also from the percussion nipples, that spit pieces of caps and burned powder straight into shooters face.
    I had shot a Remington 1858 revolving carbine which, comparing to Root rifle, is just a puny .44 calibre peashooter. It just get unpleasant when you start to use heavier powder load. At 35 or 40 grains, my face got speckled by powder residue blown from the nipple hole. The gun has light 18 inch barrel, so there is no problem with comfortably holding it with both hands behind the cylinder, like you would with normal revolver – which would pose a difficulty with the full length rifle the Berdan Root was.
    Now, the British – at the time still being very smart buggers – ordered from Colt a number of short Root carbines to outfit some cavalry units. Those proved to be somewhat more successful, but were also quickly phased out in favor of various patterns of local single shot breechloaders. Those carbines were then sold out to private arms dealers and some of them ultimately ended in the hands of guerilla units in my country during the January Uprising of 1863 against Russian Tsardom.
    Interestingly, most Sharps percussion breechloader reproductions available today are also not sealed properly from the factory and need substantial tweaking to be shot comfortably and accurately. They have major gas leakage problems, are troubled by frequent misfires and their breechblock tend to just jam after few shots due to powder fouling, also the bullet velocity differ with each shot because of uncontrolled escape of the gases. But they can be improved, which is rather impossible with percussion revolving rifle.

      1. morokko

        Namely the slanted breech block and gas ring made of platinum. Those were early abandoned due to their high cost. But importantly the production Sharps rifles were made of parts precisely machined from decent steel. Unlike Italian knockoffs we get these days for mere 1500 euro a piece.

  10. Winston Smith

    I know, I know; the Union won the war and gets to write the History, + I apologize in advance, but Please:

    “There was little difference in the employment of sharpshooters in the Union or Rebel armies.”

    Secessionist or Confederate armies are better terms. Especially in light of the struggles for Freedom/self determination today.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Seriously, next you’ll be wanting the War of Northern Aggression. Be grateful I didn’t use Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.

      1. SPEMack

        It should be correctly referred to as either the “War for Southern Independence” or “War of Northern Aggression”. There wasn’t nothing Civil about it. Appomattox was only half time.

        1. Tennessee Budd

          A pet peeve of mine, that.
          A civil war is generally considered to be two or more factions striving for control of a country. Our people didn’t want the North, they just wanted the North to leave them alone. The States were, at least nominally, sovereign. With those who disagree, I often ask whether they would join the Boy Scouts if told that they could join, but if you try to leave, they’ll kill you. Sounds more like the Mafia than a voluntary association.
          It was a revolution.

  11. Tom Kratman

    I think it’s in Nevins’ series on the civil war, an instance where a largish company (100 men or so, largish for the day) of Massachusetts, IIRC, marksmen, armed with the kind of bench rifles not uncommon for use in turkey shoots (longer, heavier at about 15-18 lbs, more precise), was assaulted by a much larger Confederate force and shot the living shit out of them. The quote, as best I remember it, was from a letter of a man in the unit, “Every shot spelt the death knell of one.”

    1. James F..

      This is from Nevins’s “The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861-1862,” p. 364.

      The link on my nickname should take you to the original article from the ATLANTIC, 1862.

  12. 6pounder

    Rebel armies? Who were they? Im pretty sure General Cleburne commanded a division of American combat veterans, some of our best by the way.

  13. Fred Ray

    Thanks for the link, Hognose. Since putting up that post I’ve done two more on the same subject, both looking at historical antecedents. So I think the question is settled, at least as far as any reference to Christian Sharps is concerned.

    Also check out my articles on the web site for my book, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, which deals with Confederate sharpshooters. There’s much more to them than Pat Cleburne! Couple of articles there on the killing of Gen. John ” Couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” Sedgwick and one on Joseph Whitworth and his rifles.

    Fred Ray

  14. Light Dragoon

    My Father-in-Law used to have a very nice Parker-Hale repro Whitworth Rifle (sadly now stolen, I’m afraid. I wonder how much they got for it from the fence?) It was a hoot to shoot with the octagonal-sided “bolt”, but DANG! One had to use a fair amount of powder to get it to shoot well. As I recall it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 grains of 2F, though I might have been more. I know that he came back from an afternoon of shooting it with a serious bruise on his shoulder though, and Mamma wouldn’t let him shoot it that much afterwards! (He should have then gifted it to me, at least then it would still be in the family, sigh…) But accurate? Oh yes!

    Oddly enough, so was the Colt Root 1855 revolving rifle. IIRC, they were actually somewhat more accurate than the Sharps rifles that they were replaced with, but much more uncomfortable to shoot. As Morokko above notes, even the smaller .44’s are a bit uncomfortable to shoot with the barrel-cylinder gap that close to your face, I can only imagine what shooting a .56 with a 60 grain charge would be like! Of course, I’ve shot the heck out of a few Hall’s, and they weren’t really all that bad to shoot.

    Likewise the modern Sharps M1859 repro’s aren’t too bad to shoot, but most people are unaware of the “floating chamber” that needs to be removed and cleaned after shooting, or it soon becomes “one” with the barrel. With that, the magic of the Sharps system’s gas reduction is pretty much lost, and they become less than pleasant to shoot with heavy loads. Most of the issues with difficulty in operating the breech block though come from the very, very poor grades of black powder that most people use, though. Good Swiss black powder is up there with the fine American gunpowders of the 19th Century, and your fouling is much reduced. Gotta love those “Beecher’s Bibles” any way you can, though!

  15. Fred Ray

    Service load for the Whitworth was 80 grains of black powder. Still kicked like a mule. Most seem to have shot the cast cylindrical bullets instead of the hex ones.

  16. Pingback: More on Whitworth and his Rifle | WeaponsMan

  17. Eric

    Excellent article (as usual) THANK YOU!

    Any chance of a piece on the deployment of sharpshooters at Gettysburg?

  18. whomever

    When people are talking half mile and full mile shots, how were they estimating range?

    To my amateur understanding, even today you need a pretty accurate range estimate at those distances, as in laser or accurate map. Even mildot estimation is getting pretty iffy past 1000 yards, isn’t it? And that’s with modern optics.

    I’ve seen schemes that work out to 500 or 600 yards (can you distinguish faces, legs, etc., but that’s far short of 1760 yards.

    Just squinting and saying ‘Yep, 1600 +-25 yards’ seems improbable.

    How were they doing it?

      1. whomever

        Wow! Were the trajectories of their rifles a lot flatter than a minie ball? Because squinting at Figure 1 here:

        mercersquare dot wordpress dot com /2014/03/27/minie-ball-and-its-parabolic-trajectory/

        looks like, even at 500 yards, the trajectory is dropping several feet in only maybe 10 yards. Can anyone really eyeball distances at 500 yards to +- 5 yards? Much less a mile?

        I know there are long range 45/70 BP shooters who can, I think, reliably hit targets at 1000 yds., but that’s at a known distance.

        Or maybe, today when we say a sniper can get hits at 1000 yards, we mean a reasonable probability of a first round hit, while in those days they meant get a hit eventually?


          If you don’t have it would recommend you track down a copy of Precision Shooting at 1000 yards, and read the chapter on Billy Dixon’s shot at Adobe Walls, which was around 1 mile. It details the shot, the authors re create the shot , and details why shots like that could be made by men of the day who took it seriously as well as the production of bullets and black powder of the day that allowed shots like that to be made.

          1. whomever

            Thanks, I’ll look for a copy. I went searching for info. Some of it suggests that it was a lucky shot.

            “Years later, Dixon admitted it was a lucky shot.”
            www dot rifleshootermag dot com /rifles/featured_rifles_billy_dixons_one_mile_shot_010311/

            There is a discussion of range estimation and trajectory of Dixon’s shot here, using Army trials at 1086 yards:
            www dot texasescapes dot com /CFEckhardt/Long-Shot.htm

            ” Still, an experienced hunter can estimate range with a fair amount of accuracy out to as much as a mile. The accuracy is nowhere near ±5% though. It’s more like ±10% at 600 yards to upwards of ±25% at 1000 yards or more. Still, we’re dealing with a very experienced hunter here. We’ll give Dixon a margin of error of about ±15%, which is probably pretty generous. That’s a 300 yard margin of error—the actual range may be anywhere from 936 yards to 1236 yards.

            What margin of error does our ballistics table allow us at 1086 yards? Our danger space at that range is only 7 yards—21 feet. The bullet is coming almost straight down. ”

            You’ve got to be really good to visually estimate 1000 yds to +- 3.5 yards reliably.

          2. 6pounder

            Correct, and the range was stepped off after the cavalry arrived to verify the distance.

  19. John M.

    A bit of word nerdery since many here are so inclined:

    A compound word that is taken from another language (such as “Scharfschütze”) and translated word-for-word into English (such as “sharpshooter”) is called a “calque.”

    This is contrasted with a loanword, which is a word from another language that is taken into English, spelling and all.

    Oddly, “loanword” is a calque (from German “Lehnwort”), and “calque” is a loanword, from French.

    -John M.


    Good article.

    A few things I want to mention.

    It is the War of Northern Aggression , Hognose. not “rebels” Maybe one day you yankees will learn that.

    There were other marksman units in the war with some interesting histories with leaders who had some forward thinking ideas, In one care a commander taught his men to fire prone then roll on their backs to reload the muzzle loading marksman rifles. The crouch to advance to the next prone firing position etc.
    Seems self evident you would think.

    The False muzzle used for proper bullet seating was used in target rifles of the day and was a practice that was still used in the very early days of what would become Benchrest shooting. Shooters would use a false muzzle to seat a bullet into their winchester Highwalls/low walls. and Ballards etc. Loading the case into the chamber with a filler wad to keep powder in the brass case and then slowly hand seat the bullet.

    Among the legends of War of Northern Aggression snipers, often you will read about claims at Gettysburg of a 1,000 yard or more shot from Round top to Devil’s den I have stoop on it and ranges it myself with eye balls and GPS. It is no where close. But the myth still pops up from time to time.

    I would like to hear more about Rangers in the Korean war. That is something I have often wanted to know more about but never seem to get anywhere with.

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