Sunday, November 22, 2009

Less Known Weapons of the Civil War

The "Late Unpleasantness", as it is known around here, was fought at the intersection of modern and incredibly effective weapons technology and the inflexible and Napoleonic tactics. This resulted in the wholesale slaughter of thousands of soldiers in both sides trying to fight an old war with new weapons or fight a new war with old weapons. I recently visited the Museum of History in Augusta, Georgia and got to see some of the less well known weapons of the War of Northern Aggression.

Sorry about the quality of the pictures, the light was low and flash not allowed, so we will have to make do with what we have.

First off we have the Rains Grenade, designed by Confederate Colonel George Washington Rains. It is certainly not the first hand grenade, and most are familiar with the old style, iron orb black powder grenade with a fuse, although we mainly see it in cartoons.
(Damn moose and squirrel!)

There were two problems with the orb grenades. Firstly, an exposed burning fuse was not really appropriate for the task. It was unlikely to go out, but could burn too slow, allowing the enemy to get away, or worse, throw it back, or it could burn too fast, and that probably wouldn't bother you more than once. Secondly, the orb grenades were pretty close to the size and heft of a shot put, and consequently, were difficult to throw very far. This meant you had to get well within the range of other weapons to use it in an attack and you were pretty close to the blast radius of the grenade itself. Something better was needed.

The Rains Grenade was equipped with a pressure fuse, which caused the grenade to explode on contact when primed and thrown. Also, the stick that the explosive was attached to allowed a soldier to really get a good throw, increasing the chance of hitting the enemy and surviving to tell the tale. This idea was also used in the famous "potato masher" grenades of Germany in WWI and WWII. While the smaller grenade did not have as large a blast radius, their light weight allowed more to be carried and them to be thrown a longer distance.
These weapons were more useful in a defense situation, as the user would likely be behind cover and/or higher up than the attacker, giving the defender a big advantage.

There were large shortages of appropriate weapons on both sides in the first months of the war. Confederate authorities ordered a large number of polearms, pikes and halberds and such produced as a stop gap measure. They were as cheap and easy to produce as they were next to useless. A generation or two before, many soldiers could probably only fire 2 rounds a minute and would have difficulty hitting a man sized target from 100 yards away. But the technology of war is never idle, and by the beginning of the war, range and rate of fire were much improved, making pikemen and bayonet charges into suicidal jobs.

Here we have on the left a Clover Leaf pike, (which to me is a Partisan or Ranseur, but hey) and on the right, a rather neat, if pointless, retractable pike. Why a pike would need to retract, I'm not really sure. But the mechanism was pretty interesting. Other than guarding prisoners, there would be no use whatsoever for these weapons and after the Summer of 1861, they were quickly discarded. Today they are pretty rare.

The middle gun is a Burnside Carbine, designed in 1856 by Union General Ambrose Burnside. I've always liked ol' Ambrose, even though he is a Yankee, because I used to wear big sideburns and it is said we get the term from him. Google him if you want, he had some pretty impressive facial hair.

Anyway, the Burnside Carbine was a breech loading .54 caliber rifle. Breech loading is infinitely easier and faster than muzzle loading a weapon. The main innovation of the Burnside is that the cartridge and breech block eliminated the problem of hot gasses escaping the chamber during firing. This is an uncomfortable and distracting problem at best, and anyone who has gotten gas in the eye knows it is no fun.

Less well known than the Spencer (the rifle on the bottom) and Sharps Carbines, about 55,000 of the Burnside Carbine were produced, and many were captured and used by Confederate Cavalry units. The Burnside Carbine suffered from complaints that the specially designed and strange, cone-shaped brass cartridge would get stuck in the chamber after firing. The Burnside propelled the bullet at about 950 feet per second and had a range of at least 200 yards. Like its better known cousins, its short length and light weight made it a popular weapon for the cavalry of the day.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool grenades and polearms! mixed with iorn battle ships and the first submarine to sink a ship in war the civil war was a very odd war.