Selected Weapons of the American Civil War

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Model 1861 Colt Navy Revolver

The Model 1861 Colt Navy Revolver. Public Domain Image

From Small Arms to Ironclads

Considered one of the first "modern" and "industrial" wars, the American Civil War saw a wealth of new technology and weapons come onto the battlefield. Advances during the conflict included a transition from muzzle-loading rifles to repeating breech-loaders, as well as the rise of armored, iron-hulled ships. This gallery will provide an overview of some of the weapons that made the Civil War America's bloodiest conflict.

A favorite of both North and South, the Model 1861 Colt Navy revolver was a six-shot, .36 caliber pistol. Produced from 1861 to 1873, the Model 1861 was lighter than its cousin, the Model 1860 Colt Army (.44 caliber), and had less recoil when fired.

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Commerce Raiders - CSS Alabama

CSS Alabama burns a prize. US Navy Photograph

Unable to field a navy the size of the Union's, the Confederacy opted instead to send out its few warships to attack Northern commerce. This approach, known as , caused tremendous devastation among the Northern merchant marine, raising shipping and insurance costs, as well as pulling Union warships away from the blockade to chase down raiders.

The most famous of the Confederate raiders was CSS Alabama. Captained by Raphael Semme, Alabama captured and sank 65 Union merchant ships and the warship USS Hatteras during its 22-month career. Alabama was finally sunk off Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864, by USS .

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Model 1853 Enfield Rifle

Model 1853 Enfield Rifle. US Government Photo

Typical of the many rifles imported from Europe during the war, the Model 1853 .577 caliber Enfield was employed by both armies. A key advantage of the Enfield over other imports was its ability to fire the standard .58 caliber bullet preferred by both the Union and Confederacy.

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Gatling Gun

Gatling Gun. Public Domain Image

Developed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, the Gatling Gun saw limited use during the Civil War and is often considered the first machine gun. Though the US Government remained skeptical, individual officers such as Major General Benjamin Butler purchased them for use in the field.

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USS Kearsarge

USS Kearsarge at Portsmouth, NH in late 1864. US Navy Photograph

Built in 1861, the screw sloop USS was typical of the warships employed by the Union Navy to blockade Southern ports during the war. Displacing 1,550 tons and mounting two 11-inch guns, Kearsarge could sail, steam, or both depending on the conditions. The ship is best known for sinking the notorious Confederate raider CSS Alabama off Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864.

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USS Monitor & the Ironclads

USS Monitor engaged CSS Virginia in the first battle of ironclads on March 9, 1862. Painting by J.O. Davidson. US Navy Photograph

USS Monitor and its Confederate adversary CSS Virginia ushered in a new era of naval warfare on March 9, 1862, when they engaged in the first duel between ironclad ships in Hampton Roads. Fighting to draw, the two ships signaled the end for the wooden warships of the navies worldwide. For the remainder of the war, both the Union and Confederate navies would build numerous ironclads, working to improve upon the lessons learned from these two pioneering vessels.

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The 12-pounder Napoleon

An African-American soldier guards a Napoleon. Library of Congress Photograph

Designed and named for the French Emperor Napoleon III, the Napoleon was the workhorse gun of the Civil War artillery. Cast of bronze, the smoothbore Napoleon was capable of firing a 12-pound solid ball, shell, case shot, or canister. Both sides deployed this versatile gun in large numbers.

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3-inch Ordnance Rifle

Union officers with a 3-inch ordance rifle. Library of Congress Photograph

Known for its reliability and accuracy, the 3-inch ordnance rifle was fielded by the artillery branches of both armies. Crafted from hammer-welded, machined iron the ordnance rifle typically fired 8- or 9-pound shells, as well as solid shot, case, and canister. Due to the manufacturing process involved, Union-made rifles tended to perform better than Confederate models.

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Parrott Rifle

A 20-pdr. Parrott Rifle in the field. Library of Congress Photograph

Designed by Robert Parrott of the West Point Foundry (NY), the Parrott Rifle was deployed by both the US Army and US Navy. Parrott rifles were produced in 10- and 20-pounder models for use on the battlefield and as large as 200-pounders for use in fortifications. Parrotts are easily identified by the reinforcing band around the breech of the gun.

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Spencer Rifle/Carbine

The Spencer Rifle. US Government Photograph

One of the most advanced infantry weapons of its day, the Spencer fired a self-contained, metallic, rimfire cartridge that fit inside a seven-shot magazine in the butt. When the trigger guard was lowered, the spent cartridge was expended. As the guard was raised, a new cartridge would be drawn into the breech. A popular weapon with Union troops, the US Government purchased over 95,000 during the war.

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Sharps Rifle

The Sharps Rifle. US Government Photo

First carried by the US Sharpshooters, the Sharps Rifle proved to be an accurate, reliable breech-loading weapon. A falling-block rifle, the Sharps possessed a unique pellet primer feeding system. Each time the trigger was pulled, a new pellet primer would be flipped onto the nipple, eliminating the need to use percussion caps. This feature made the Sharps particularly popular with cavalry units.

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Model 1861 Springfield

Model 1861 Springfield. US Government Photograph

The standard rifle of Civil War, the Model 1861 Springfield gained its name from the fact that it was originally produced at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. Weighing 9 pounds and firing a .58 caliber round, the Springfield was produced widely on both sides with over 700,000 manufactured during the war. The Springfield was the first rifled musket to ever be produced in such large numbers.