Yesterday’s post on Civil War Sharpshooters was meant to be a shallow overview, but one thing leads to another, and so this morning’s scheduled post was thrown back into the sea so we can have some further discussion of this subject, and especially of the English rifle used to such great effect by the Confederates, the Whitworth.
Fred Ray, whom we cited in that post, commented and included a couple of links that may be of interest. First, he has traced the English word “sharpshooter” back to 1795.
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’s Whitworth article is this one. It’s well researched and was a good read.
Among the things we didn’t know about Whitworth were that he invented scraping for a flat surface; invented an early caliber, and was instrumental in standardization of threads and fasteners in Britain.
Because one good article deserves another, here’s the section on the Whitworth from Fuller & Steuart’s Firearms of the Confederacy. The Whitworth was not the only English rifle used by sharpshooters in gray, as they also made good use of Enfield and Kerr rifles, but the Whitworth is the one that has captured the imagination of historians, collectors and reenactors.
This rifle is of particular interest to students of Confederate arms, as it is believed to be the only one of the imported arms that was used exclusively by the South who used them in small numbers for arming sharpshooters. They were an accurate and powerful weapon — good for a range of half a mile and were responsible for the taking off of many a federal officer.
The specimen shown is marked on the lock plate Whitworth Rifle Company, Manchester and on top of the barrel Whitworth Patent.
Length of barrel, 33 inches. Total length of arm, 49 inches. The bore is hexagonal. Caliber .45, using an elongated bullet weighing 530 grains. the twist is one in twenty inches. The arm is an exceptionally well-made piece — iron mounted throughout and besides the regular site equipment, is provided with attachments for a telescope site to be mounted on the left side of the gun. The stock is nicely checkered and the arm has all of the characteristics of the highest type sporting piece. All parts bear the serial number 554.
In the year 1852 when the British ordnance department conducted extensive experiments to test the comparative merits of various rifles submitted to the government they found a wide variation in the accuracy updatable. Whitworth, one of the leading technicians of the day, was commissioned to make exhaustive experiments at the cost of the Government in order to discover the best form of rifling.
This gentleman had devoted a great deal of time and study to the design and manufacture of cannon and had adopted the polygonal bore as giving the best results and decided to use this type of rifling for his small arms. The advantage of the elongated bullet had long been demonstrated but in attempting to use it in connection with the polygonal bore considerable trouble was experienced from the ball “capsizing” or “turning over”. He became convinced that this action was due to the slow spiral and eventually after testing every graduation from one turn in seventy-eight inches to one turn in five inches found the necessary rotation to impart the required steadiness to the ball and cause it to maintain a flight parallel to its axis was best obtained at a pitch of one turn in twenty inches.
On tests before the Minister of War and many distinguished officers the Whitworth rifle of .45 caliber beat the Enfield of government factories by three to one. The mean deviation at 500 yards was four and one-half while the recorded best of any rifle previously tried was twenty-seven.
The rifle was never adopted into the Government service but 40 of them were made for the competitive shoot of 1860 for the Queen’s prize at the meeting of the [British] National Rifle Association. Plate XXIII shows an enlarged view of the bore of this arm and the machine made bullet used with it.
While the original bullet for the Whitworth rifle was hexagonal to fit the rifle bore, those used by the Confederates were for the most part cylindrical.
He notes that “20 or 30” of these rifles were slipped through the blockade, and divided equally between Eastern and Western rebel forces, but Bilby thinks that a much greater number of the Whitworths must have been on hand — probably hundreds.
Fuller & Steuart also reproduce this period article:
The Richmond Daily Examiner of November 10, 1863, says:
We have a wonderful gun in our army, the Whitworth rifle. it kills it 2000 yards, more than a mile. It is no bigger than the Mississippi rifle. [US Rifle M1841 -Ed.] With a few of these rifles Longstreet shot across the Tennessee River, killing the Yankees and completely blocking the river road.
They go on to reproduce some combat tales of the rifle in action.
Sergeant Grace of the Fourth Georgia killed General Sedgwick of the Union Army with a Whitworth rifle at a range of 800 yards.
Sergeant Grace used a globe sight. Most of the Whitworths were equipped with telescope sights, but these were easily lost.
Whitworth rifles are said to have done terrible execution at Fort Wagner, Charleston.
General Cleburne, writing in 1863, said: “The fire of five Whitworth rifles appeared to do good service. Mounted men were struck it distances ranging from 700 to 1300 yards.”
Twenty men of Company F, Eighth North Carolina Regiment, were armed with Whitworth rifles with globe sights at Morris Island. South Carolina sharpshooters also had Whitworths and General Lytle is said to have been killed at Chickamauga with a bullet from a Whitworth rifle.
One of the great Whitworth mysteries remaining is: why did the Union never buy any? Both armies bought plenty of Enfields from Britain. But if the Union bought even a single Whitworth, no trace of the transaction has been found.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out Fred Ray’s book on Confederate States sharpshooters. You can probably find it at your favorite online bookstore, but the promotional website has more information…
…and you can buy it there. (We did, hard and soft cover editions). There seems to be more useful information on the website in terms of an errata page, and more of Fred’s articles, that extend his work, and are free to read for those of who who can’t explain to Mama $30 on another book. (“What’s wrong with reading the books you already have?” <– one downside to making an important choice based on pulchritude alone, in the bloom of youth).
We let this go live without images, in the interests of speed, but Holy-Wall-o-Text, Batman, so we’ve added some illustrations to ease the barrage on your eyes. Apologies to early readers.