Weapons used during the Civil War

Civil War Artillery

Civil War artillery played a very important part during the American Civil War. It was used against infantry, buildings, fortifications, and ships. Artillery was limited during the Civil War to firing at targets the gunners could actually see.

There were no forward observers who could direct fire onto a target. Artillery fought side by side with the infantry on the battlefield.

Most artillery during the Civil War were muzzle loading guns, breech loading was a new technology and was not used much during the war. One example of a breech loader was the Whitworth cannon.

Civil War Artillery - 12 Pounder Napoleon

12 Pounder Napoleon

Civil War Artillery Types

Civil War artillery barrels came in two varieties. They were either smoothbore or rifled. Smoothbore artillery such as the Napoleon were made of bronze and shot round iron cannonballs.

Rifled artillery pieces such as the 10-pounder Parrott rifle and the 3-inch Ordnance rifle were made of cast iron and wrought iron and used conical shaped shells.

Field artillery during the Civil War were referred to as 10 pounders, 12 pounders or inches such as the 3 inch ordnance rifle etc…

Pounders simply referred to the weight of the projectile that the gun would fire. A 12 pounder Napoleon cannon shoots a 12 pound cannonball. Inches are simply the diameter of the bore. A 3 inch ordnance rifle has a barrel 3 inches in diameter.

Civil War Artillery Organization

A Civil War battery in the Union army typically had 6 guns of the same size and type. When moving an artillery piece each gun was attached to a limber. The limber contained a limber chest which held ammunition. The gun and limber were pulled by a team of 6 horses.

Civil War Artillery Battery

Artillery battery during the Civil War

Each gun also had a caisson which held additional ammunition and supplies, the caisson was also pulled by a team of 6 horses. Extra horses were needed to pull forges, haul supplies, or for officers to ride on. A typical Union battery would require around 18 horses per gun.

The Confederate army was not able to maintain this uniformity. Throughout the war the Confederate military was always short on cannons and horses. They usually had 4 to 6 horses per gun and 4 guns in a battery.

The guns in a Confederate artillery battery were not the same types and size. The Confederates gathered whatever guns they had available and threw them into a battery. They did not have the luxury of having uniform artillery batteries like the Union artillery had.

Civil War Artillery Projectiles

civil war artillery

civil war artillery shells

There are four types of Civil War cannon projectiles that were used during the war.

  • Solid Round Shot – This is a solid iron ball attached with metal bands to a wooden sabot. The powder bag is attached to the wooden sabot.
  • Explosive Shell – This is a hollow iron ball filled with black powder. This projectile uses a fuse that can be cut at a certain length so that the iron ball explodes when it arrives at the target.
  • Case Shot – Like explosive shell it is filled with gunpowder and uses a fuse. The difference is it has a hollow area that contains small iron balls, the shell explodes when it arrives at the target.
  • Canister Shot – This is a canister filled with small iron balls that when used at close range acts as a giant shotgun. Canister shot is used against infantry and cavalry at close range. It is generally only used as a last ditch effort when the gun is about to be attacked. Cannons can be loaded with double canister which multiples the shotgun effect against the target.

Civil War Artillery Gun Crews

It took eight highly trained artillerymen to crew one artillery piece. Each crew member was cross-trained so they could do each job that was required with the loading and firing of the weapon. If one member of the gun crew was wounded or killed, any member of the crew could step in and take their place.

Civil War Artillery at Antietam

Civil War Artillery at Antietam

Civil War cannons were very expensive, they were meticulously maintained and artillerymen had very strict discipline and rules to keep them operating, and in proper working condition.

Gun crews had a very important job so they were the most well trained soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies.

Each member of the crew was assigned a number. The gunner was in overall command of his artillery piece.

The gun crew consisted of:

  • Gunner
  • Number 1
  • Number 2
  • Number 3
  • Number 4
  • Number 5
  • Number 6
  • Number 7
Civil War Cannon with Limber Box

Civil War Cannon with Limber Box

Each crew member had a specific task to complete in the reloading process. After a shot was fired the crew used the following procedure to reload the cannon.

  • Number 3 – Uses a piece of leather over the thumb called a thumb stall. Places thumb over the vent opening on the back of the barrel. This prevents air from getting inside the barrel which could create a spark.
  • Number 1 – Uses a rammer with a sponge dipped in water to clean the bore of the gun and extinguish any remaining sparks. This prevents the gun from exploding when it is loaded for the next shot.
  • Number 7 – Opens limber chest while number 6 prepares shell
  • Number 6 – Removes shell from limber chest when gunner calls for it. If they are using an explosive shell he cuts fuse to the proper length.
  • Number 5 – Receives shell from number 6 and takes it to the muzzle of the gun.
  • Number 2 – Receives shell from number 5 and loads the projectile into the gun.
  • Number 1 – Uses the other end of the rammer which has a wooden block on the end to push the projectile down the barrel of the gun.
  • Number 3 – Removes thumb from vent hole. Pushes a vent prick into the powder bag inside the barrel.
  • Number 4 – Places friction primer in vent hole which is attached to the lanyard. When the friction primer is pulled it causes a spark which ignites the gunpowder in the cannon. Pulls lanyard tight and waits for command to fire.
  • Gunner – While these steps are taking place he is aiming the gun. Elevation changes are made using a handscrew located at the rear of the barrel. Side to side changes are made by moving the trail of the gun carriage either left or right.
  • Number 3 – Helps gunner aim the gun by moving the trail from side to side.
  • Gunner – After aiming is complete everyone moves out of the way to avoid the guns recoil. The gunner gives the order to fire the cannon.
  • Number 4 – Pulls the lanyard and fires the cannon.

After the shot is fired the recoil would push the gun back 8 feet or more. It would have to be rolled back to it’s original firing position after each shot and the whole process would start again.

Civil War Artillery at Gettysburg

Civil War artillery was extremely important, it even turned the tide of many battles during the course of the war. The artillery bombardment on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is one of the best examples of this.

The artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s Charge was so loud it could be heard sixty miles away in Baltimore. The people of Baltimore could hear a low rumbling sound coming from the west that lasted well over an hour. Imagine the sound of distant thunder from an approaching storm.

As the Confederates attacked they were riddled by Union artillery which was not destroyed during the Confederate bombardment.

Union guns raked southern ranks killing and wounded hundreds of men. When the remaining rebels finally reached the Emmitsburg road they came under rifle fire from the defending Union troops.

Only a couple of hundred Confederates were able to actually make it to the Union line but they were quickly driven back with heavy casualties. Union artillery effectively stopped Pickett’s Charge by greatly reducing their ability to break through the Union line.

Artillery played a pivotal role during the conflict. Destroying or capturing the enemy’s artillery became an important goal for both sides during the Civil War.

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Civil War Bayonet

The Civil War Bayonet was a sharpened piece of steel with a ring on the end that slid over the barrel of a rifle, it was then turned and locked into place.

This is called a ring bayonet, bayonets today are essentially the same as they were during the Civil War, just with different blade designs.

Soldiers in combat seldom ever used their bayonets in fighting.

They were usually only used in dire situations when they had no other options.

The effectiveness of the Civil War bayonet was more psychological then physical. Seeing hundreds of soldiers coming at you with large knives on the end of their rifles had a pretty frighting effect.

If you would like to learn all about bayonets during this time check out European Bayonets of the American Civil War

While hand to hand combat did occur, more often the enemy would run away before bayonets could be used.

Union Soldiers with Fixed Bayonets, Washington D.C. 1865

Union Soldiers with Fixed Bayonets, Washington D.C. 1865

Only about 1% of Civil War casualties were actually a result of a bayonet wound.

The vast majority of battlefield deaths and wounds were caused by the minie ball fired from a rifle.

There were however a few notable instances where the bayonet played an important role.

Civil War Bayonet Charge at Gettysburg

One of the most famous uses of bayonets in the Civil War occurred on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Confederates were attempting to capture Little Round Top in an effort to get around the Union left flank.

Union Soldier with Civil War Bayonet

Union Soldier with Civil War Bayonet

If the Confederates were able to achieve this it would make the Union position at Gettysburg untenable and they would be forced to withdraw, giving the Confederate army under Robert E. Lee a decisive victory.

The entire battle line of the Union army at Gettysburg resembled a giant fish hook, Little Round Top is a wooded and steep hill at the very end of the Union line. The 20th Maine infantry regiment commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain was the last regiment at the end of this line, there were no troops to their left, only woods.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain

It was vitally important they hold this position.

The Confederates under William C. Oates attacked the 20th Maine several times, each time being repulsed. The 20th Maine was taking heavy casualties and running out of ammunition.

Colonel Chamberlain had his men fix bayonets and ordered them to attack down the hill.

Shocked Confederates fled down the hill in panic and many of them were captured, killed and wounded. Colonel Chamberlain saved the Union left flank and received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Civil War Bayonet as a Utility Tool

Company F, 114th Pennsylvania Infantry (Zouaves) with Fixed Bayonets

Company F, 114th Pennsylvania Infantry (Zouaves) with Fixed Bayonets

More often than not soldiers used the bayonet as an everyday tool around their camp rather than a weapon.

It was put to better use cutting meat, cooking, shaving, or any other mundane task a soldier could find use for it.

It was a great tool both on the battlefield and off.

While it wasn’t used often in combat it was certainly there and could be relied upon when a soldier needed it most.

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Civil War Swords

Civil War Swords were important to officers.

It was the greatest symbol of their authority. It was a very useful tool to direct men in battle.

civil war swords

Civil War Sword

You could say it’s somewhat like how a conductor uses their wand to lead an orchestra.

Beyond a symbol of leadership however swords did not really have any function in combat.

Stonewall Jackson’s sword actually rusted because it was hardly ever removed from it’s scabbard. He just didn’t use it.

Swords just like the bayonet could be intimidating and did see some combat, but with gunpowder weapons in great abundance it just didn’t have a big place on the Civil War battlefield.

What about the Saber? Sure this curved sword was still being used by the cavalry, but the hay day of the cavalryman wielding his saber in combat was pretty much gone by the time the Civil War began.

Wielding a saber was mostly done for show rather than for combat purposes.

With multiple shot pistols and carbine rifles it became extremely dangerous and nearly impossible for cavalry to get close enough to the enemy to actually engage in any kind of a sword fight.

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The Whitworth cannon is a Civil War artillery piece imported from England by both sides during the Civil War. Only the South actually used this gun during the war however.

Shell Type

It was a rifled Civil War cannon that fired an elongated 12-pound shell.

Whitworth is a Breech-Loader

The Whitworth is a breech-loader. Most every other gun during this time period were muzzle loaders. This really made the weapon stand out as the forerunner to today’s modern artillery. The gun was extremely accurate and could fire a solid shot beyond 2,800 yards. The gun also made a distinctive shrill as the shot flew overhead.

Whitworth Problems

This gun certainly had its problems though. Breech loaders were in their infancy at this time so there were a lot of mechanical difficulties with the breech mechanism on the gun. This made it unpopular with both sides during the conflict and is the reason why it was a rarity on any battlefield.


Confederate Railroads

Confederate railroads could never measure up to their Union counterparts. The Civil War showed the necessity of a very good railroad system. Civil War technology created the first modern war and it was the first war of movement using railroads on a large scale.

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 both the Union and Confederate states had railroads in which to transport goods, services, troops, men, and much needed food supplies to the major cities.

Confederate railroads during the Civil War

Confederate railroads during the Civil War

Union Railroads

The North was an industrial powerhouse and it’s railroads were in full force connecting major cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Washington all having a viable, very productive and efficient railroad system in which to ferry goods and services to and from.

Railroads of the Confederacy Had Issues

The Confederate railroads were never in great shape even at the start of the war in 1861. There was no uniform gauge(railroad gauge is the width between the rails). Gauge in the south varied from 4 feet wide to 6 feet wide. This meant that a train could not freely travel across the entire Confederate rail network. Only trains that fit a specific size gauge could use the tracks.

The rail network itself was also not properly connected. Rail lines abruptly came to an end as soon as they reached certain towns or destinations. The south never put much effort into creating a great railroad transportation system. Their only real interest in trains was to use them to transport agricultural items such as cotton and tobacco to market and to the coasts where they could be loaded onto ships and exported for sale. They didn’t think using trains for anything else was very important.

This lack of purpose, connectivity and different gauge sizes made the Confederate railroad network a mess and extremely inefficient.

The Problem with the Confederacy

The Confederate States of America (CSA) seceded from the United States on the basis of states rights. They did not want a centralized Federal government telling each state what they can and cannot do. This attitude affected the Confederate government as well. Each Confederate state also did not want the central Confederate government to take away their individual states rights and start telling them what they were allowed to do.

This independent mentality is usually a good thing but in the case of the Confederacy it was bad. It meant that people and businesses wanted to act independently and do their own thing and not cooperate with each other. Normally this would be fine but it is much different in a time of war.

Contrast this with the Union mentality. The Union worked like a well oiled machine, everyone worked together as a team in order to win the war. Being independent minded is great but when you are faced with an enemy trying to conquer you it is best to start working together for the common good. This is something the Confederates never quite understood.

Confederate Railroads

This attitude extended to the Confederate railroad companies as well. The railroad companies refused to work together, they looked at each other with scorn and as nothing more than competition trying to steal their business. Each company used their own rail line and refused to allow any other companies locomotives to use their tracks.

Since the Confederate rail network was not properly interconnected with each other when a train reached the end of a particular line, goods and people had to be removed from the train and transported to another track and onto another train to continue onto their final destination. This delay required passengers to wait in town and find hotels and other accommodations. Meanwhile teamsters (they drove teams of horses with wagons) removed the train cargo and transported it to another rail line and onto a new train. This was no way to run a railroad especially during a war.

Fixing this problem by connecting all railroad lines together using the same railroad gauge and allowing trains to all use the same tracks would have solved this issue and make the railroads run much more efficiently. The railroad owners, teamsters and the local businesses where the trains stopped were against any thought of making these changes since it would hurt their business and ability to make money.

Confederate Railroads During the Civil War

The start of the Civil War revealed the glaring weakness in the Confederate railroad system. It took men and material to repair and keep the railroads of the South working. As the war began most of the labor joined the military to fight the Union.

Railroads did play key parts in some battles for the Confederates such as Shiloh, Chattanooga, First Manassas, the Peninsula Campaign and others.

As the Civil War dragged on the Confederate railroads deteriorated more and more. The Union blockade of southern ports made it impossible for the Confederacy to purchase the much needed supplies such as iron it needed to property maintain the tracks and the locomotives. The railway system continued to fall apart.

During Sherman’s March to the sea Union troops destroyed everything in their path. They ripped up southern railway lines, heated the rails on open fires and twisted them around trees making it impossible to reuse them for repairs.

The Confederates themselves were forced to destroy rail lines, bridges, tunnels and anything else that was about to fall into Union hands.

At the end of the war the Confederate railroads were decimated. They did however quickly rebound after the war ended. The Union understood the importance of a functioning railway system in the south and gave it priority during reconstruction. The new southern railroads helped to transport goods and supplies around the south in order to help repair the damage done during the Civil War.

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Union Artillery

Union Artillery had a great advantage over Confederate artillery. They had well trained officers in charge, and factories that manufactured their weapons. The start of the Civil War sent both sides into high gear as they devised and plotted with metal and iron to make cannons of every imaginable variety.

The North was highly industrialized, and therefore had factories that could manufacture these weapons. The South was more agricultural, and did not have the capacities the North had for great artillery, because they lacked the necessary factories to produce them. The North had massive industrial capabilities that would rival the larger older nations of Europe.

The Union Army primary set up their artillery in batteries. A battery consisted of 6 guns all lined up in a row. Eight men operated each gun in a battery. A lieutenant was in charge of two guns per battery, and a captain was in charge of the battery.

The Union Army also used brigades, which consisted of five batteries in control by a colonel. Each infantry corps had the support of at least one infantry brigade.

The Union Army also used Parrott rifles. Parrott rifles were composed of a combination of cast iron and wrought iron. Robert Parker Parrott invented the Parrott rifle, and they ranged in size from 10 to 300 pounders. Both armies used the 10 to 20 pounders. Many men did not like the Parrott rifle because it wasn’t very safe.

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Springfield Model 1861

The Springfield Model 1861 was the standard rifle used by Union infantry during the Civil War. The rifle was produced in Springfield Massachusetts, which is where it got its name. The total weight of the rifle is 9 pounds. Roughly 700,000 Springfield rifles were produced between 1861 and 1865.

Springfield Model 1861 Rifles

Springfield Model 1861 Rifles

Springfield Armory

Springfield Armory

This was not the greatest Civil War weapon of the era, however it was the most widely available. It is a one shot muzzle loading rifle.

The Springfield Model 1861 is an accurate rifle, however in the hands of green troops with little to no training, shots often missed their targets, typically shooting over the heads of the enemy.

Springfield Model 1861 Accuracy

Accuracy during this time was less important than raw firepower. Leaders used mass volley attacks to defeat their enemy. This tactic meant that accuracy of the individual soldier meant very little.

This rifle would essentially become the last muzzle loader to be used in warfare after the Civil War ended. Technology was already moving ahead with repeaters even during the war.

The reason the Union did not switch to using only repeating rifles was simply because the Springfield Model 1861 was readily available and it did not waste large amounts of ammunition.

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Spencer Rifle


The Spencer Rifle was the customary firearm for the Union cavalry trooper. The carbine version was used because it was shorter, lighter, and easier to reload quickly. This weapon was like because it was easy to load and relatively accurate when shot from any position, prone or horseback.

The Union army was at first reluctant to buy the firearm because it would require a drastic change in supply in order to provide the much needed ammunition. This rifle was a repeater so it was able to hold 7 rounds in its magazine tube. A soldier could fire roughly 20 rounds per minute. It therefore required a lot of ammunition.

The Spencer was the most advanced firearm of the day. The action of the rifle and the firepower was devastating. There were some drawbacks though, firstly, the cloud of smoke that was to be released could be a strong hindrance for aiming. It is difficult to see through a dense cloud of smoke and coupled with the issue was that the number of men firing at the same time made it very hard to see.

The second major issue that confronted the troops that used the Spencer rifle was once again, the ammunition supply problem.

There were just not enough of the necessary cartridges to adequately support a division let alone an army. The usual course of the men who used the Spencer during a battle would be relegation to the sidelines. Popping off the occasional shot as the armies fought in the interior of the foray. The problem most affected the Confederates who were lucky enough to capture one of these rifles.

Once they ran out of whatever ammunition they also captured they would no longer be able to use the weapon. The south could never supply the needed copper in order to create the cartridge casings needed for the ammunition.

The Spencer was a high quality rifle that could easily turn the tide of any battle where the opponent was still using outdated single shot muzzle loading rifles.

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Sharps Rifle


The Sharps Rifle was one of the finest rifles ever built. It marked the beginning of a new trend in the field of rifles and the men who used them.

The old-way of loading and firing a rifle was to load it from the muzzle; this weapon however could be loaded at the breach.

This made for much faster loading and firing times. This also allowed a soldier to lie down or take cover while reloading.

The rifle was designed in 1848 and entered service in 1850. It held only one shot. It used a falling block action which used a metal breach lock that slides up and down in grooves cut into the breach which is controlled by a lever.

Typically a soldier could fire between 8 and 10 shots per minute depending on his skill.

Roughly 100,000 of them were built between 1850 and 1881 when it was finally retired from service.

Sharps Rifle was used by both sides during the Civil War

Sharps Rifle was used by both sides during the Civil War

The weapon was popular on both sides. It was not widely used as a standard infantry weapon because the rifled muskets were much more widely available and easier to produce. The carbine was a shorter version of the regular rifle and was used primarily by cavalry troops on both sides. A Union cavalryman fired the first shot during the battle of Gettysburg with this rifle.

He fired this shot at the very first Confederate troops to arrive in the vicinity of Gettysburg. The shot missed its target, but it was the first of thousands over the next three days of brutal fighting.

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Railroad Train

The Union railroad train system was far superior to Confederate railroads during the Civil War. The Union had many industrial centers, and therefore could produce more railroads. The Union also had more manpower to maintain the trains. By 1861, two-thirds of all railroads in America were located in northern states.

Another advantage the Union railroads had was that the Union rails were all one gauge. The Confederate railroads were mostly different gauges. The Union armies could transport their men better than the South could, because they could ride from state to state without having to change trains. With the Confederate railways having different gauges, there was a lot of changing trains. Confederate soldiers could not ride from state to state as easily as the Union soldiers could.

The Pacific Railway Act was established in 1862. Lincoln signed this law because it allowed help in construction of railroad and telegraph lines from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. This act also secured the ability for the government to use these same lines for postal, military, and other purposes. This act placed all employees and officers under military authority. Daniel McCallum was placed as superintendent of the U.S railroads.

By the fall of 1864, most southern railways were taken over by Union armies. Sherman’s March to Sea also proved to be disastrous for the Confederates rail network. Sherman’s soldiers destroyed whatever they could of the Confederates railways as they marched along the way. From Georgia all the way through South Carolina, Sherman’s men placed rails upon ripped up ties and set fire to them. The rails were wrapped around trees and nicknamed “Sherman’s neckties.”

By the spring of 1864 the Union had demolished most of the Southern railways.

Railroad Train2019-06-25T21:11:15-04:00
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