Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. History Dept.


Elizabeth D. Leonard


The German soldier and military writer Freiherr von Bülow (1755-1816) once said that tactics were “the science of movements which are made in the presence of the enemy, that is, within his view, and within reach of his artillery.” This viewpoint, which he espoused in his seminal text Spirit of the System of Modern War (published in German in 1799), was representative of principles that would hold dominion over much of 19th-century-military thought. However, the 1850s was hardly a time of intellectual stagnation in which innovation lacked amongst the military theorists of Europe. Indeed, it was a period of discovery and intense debate, spurred onwards by the potential implications of new weapons designs. The interest in improved arms extended across the Atlantic, too, as American leaders recognized the importance of keeping up with progress on the Old Continent.

If one had to denote a single technological advance as the most significant, it would certainly be the rifled musket. More than any other contemporary improvement, this new firearm arguably rendered von Bülow’s statement outdated. Boasting impressive range and greater accuracy than its forebears, the rifled musket represented a distinct challenge to traditional combat tactics dating back to the early 1700s. Nowhere was this demonstrated more broadly than in the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the weapon reached a zenith of popularity.

The rifled musket was the culmination of six centuries of firearms development and was widely employed on both sides of the Atlantic, a testament to its crucial role in mid-19th-century western warfare. There were numerous models in circulation, but it was the 1861 Springfield rifled musket that proved to be the most influential. Over the course of the Civil War, over 30 companies produced about 1.5 million pieces. However, statistics only provide the reader with part of the story. It is not sufficient to acknowledge the weapon’s numerical significance, for that alone does not indicate whether the weapon in any way altered the way war was fought.

To properly evaluate the qualities of the rifled musket, it is necessary to maintain a broad perspective. Considering its widespread use in the Civil War, it is easy to focus exclusively on that most bloody of American wars. Still, to do so would deny the scholar background information crucial to understanding the context of this weapons debate. The soldiers who fought in the “War Between the States,” armed with this and many other weapons, were not participating in a uniquely American experience. Europe had been ablaze with curiosity over the rifled musket for years prior to the Civil War, and so in this sense the United States was a latecomer to the new technology.

By considering both European and American perspectives on the firearm, the reader can develop a much more well rounded understanding of its significance in military circles. Nevertheless, this is only part of the analysis needed to judge its long-term importance. Ultimately, it is essential to evaluate its capabilities on the field of battle. Amongst the 7,000 actions of the Civil War, First Bull Run (1861) and Cold Harbor (1864) offer an ideal contrast for this discussion: the former was the first major field battle of the war, while the latter provided an unfortunate close to Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody Overland Campaign in the war’s final year. These engagements illustrate the evolution of combat on a scale hitherto unimaginable in the young nation. The soldiers who witnessed this transformation firsthand would be forever changed psychologically, and for this reason one must consider the rifled musket not only from a technological standpoint, but also from a psychological one. In this way, it is possible to place the rifled musket in context as both a major development in firearms design and a deciding factor in the nature of mid-19th-century warfare.


rifles, weaponry, guns

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