Musket Accuracy
Pvt. Duke Harless

3rd Regiment, Co. E, Engineers
January 2000


In Civil War Reenacting there is a common belief that the rifled musket, in the hands of Civil War Soldiers was an awesome piece of weaponry, and regularly brought down foes at ranges up to 800-1000 yards. Visions of a barefoot, ragged confederate soldier bringing his weapon up to his shoulder and repeatedly dropping Yankee officers at distances of a half mile or more are put into the public's mind by reenactors during living history.

After doing a little research I've come to the conclusion that if any soldier was purposely targeted and hit at a range of more than 200 yards by an average enemy with the standard musket of the day, he was indeed unlucky. The rifled musket indeed could kill at ranges of a thousand yards, and cause horrific, often mutilating wounds, however getting that .58 caliber minie ball to go where it could inflict that damage was another matter. The Soldier had many factors to contend with and this article will address them.

Bore Condition:  A rifle's bore, if worn out, dirty, or made poorly will affect the velocity, or speed of the round leaving the barrel. Machinery of the period though evolving, was no where near as accurate as the computer driven, hardened cutters of today. If a soldier was unlucky enough to get an older weapon out of prewar stocks, or a castaway European Import, there was no telling how much that corrosion or firing the weapon had worn the bore out. "Wear" is literally that, the wearing out or smoothing out the rifling (grooves) in the barrel of the musket. When fired, lead and burnt powder residue, while causing the weapon to be harder to load, quickly filled in the grooves of the rifle, also causing this "smoothing" effect. Either way, a rifled musket, when worn out or dirty to the extreme, would still have great range, but was not much more accurate than a smoothbore model. As another small explanation, "rifling" imparts a spin or spiral on a minie ball, much like throwing a football. A smoothbore would fire a round ball, with no spiral, only pure velocity forcing it out of the barrel and downrange, much like throwing a basketball.

Propellant: This is an encompassing term for powder and percussion cap. These two, in combination caused the explosion (force) that pushed the bullet out of the barrel. In ideal conditions that force would be the same each and every time, however for several reasons it wasn't. The Mercury Fulminate and Gunpowder that was used to cause this explosion was made in different "Lots" or batches, and could never be guaranteed to be chemically the exact same as another batch. Even if made the same day, caps and powder in cartridges, if exposed to different conditions, (heat or moisture) would undergo changes in its composition making it's "flash point" or "burn rate" different. A simple example is that Gunpowder that is stored at high temperate burns faster while damp gunpowder or powder stored at a cooler temperature burns slower. To the naked eye or ear the difference in these burn rates, especially when firing a musket may be indiscernible, however this can cause a drastic difference in muzzle velocity, or the speed of the bullet leaving the barrel. A bullet fired with low velocity tends to fall short, while one with high velocity would go further or even overshoot the target. One must also consider the quantity of mercury fulminate in the percussion cap and powder in the cartridge. These, though probably uniformly close, could have not been as exact as the modern cartridges of today, also when loading, there was a good chance of a soldier spilling some powder. Again the amount of powder and Mercury Fulminate that actually made it into the barrel would have an effect on the muzzle velocity. The more of each the higher the velocity and farther the range.    

Projectile: The bullets shape and weight determined how far it could go. Bullets though maybe close, were not exactly the same. On a smaller scale a rifle is just like your arm, it can throw lighter objects farther. Though 15 grains of lead on a bullet may not seem like much it can fall much shorter than another lighter bullet. A miscast bullet even with a slight defect can be ballistically unstable, it can be compared to throwing a football with a 2 ounce sinker glued to it. It will wobble and probably miss its intended target.

Seating: Powder and Projectile where seated by using a ramrod and forcing them to the breech end of the rifle. A tight seal and compactness of the bullet and powder, with little space for air, cause a faster burn rate and higher muzzle velocity. Higher muzzle velocity as stated before, causes the rounds to go further. A poorly rammed charge, with a lot of space between it and the breech could cause extremely low muzzle velocity, with the bullet falling well short of its target. Because of stress, fatigue or injuries individuals attempting to get a uniform seat could not get same ram every time.

After firing several rounds the Bore could become so fouled as to make loading uniformly and proper seating nearly impossible.

Now that I've touched on the weapon and ammunition, the accuracy could also be affected greatly by the weather and other external influences.

Wind: This had the greatest affect on the bullet. I personally have had to correct up to 55 inches for wind at 500 yards, and that is with modern .223 high velocity rounds have a much smaller surface to be affected on than a .58 caliber round that was fired at much lower velocities. The wind has maximum effect if blowing straight across the front, from left to right or vice versa, of the shooter. A wind blowing straight at or coming from behind the shooter has negligible affect on the round itself since the velocity is so much faster than even the highest wind speed. Wind may also affect the shooter, causing his position to be unstable and his aim to move.

Rain, snow, sleet, or hail: The effects of this are mostly before the weapon is fired, namely the effect it will have is dampening the propellant. Precipitation affects the shooter greatly. If he is unprepared and suffers from its affects his aim will not be stable. Strange as it may seem, precipitation has a negligible effect on the round after it is fired. The resistant caused by rain or snow on a fairly high velocity object is minimal.

Light and shadow: Play many tricks on the shooter. Glare itself can ruin a shooters aim, and the most common thing that happens is that shooters tend to overshoot due to an optical illusion caused by glare on his sights. This glare tends to "absorb" the very end of the front sight tip, making the sight tip seem "shorter," the shooter will use the "artificial" sight tip to align on his target, and therefore raise the barrel of the weapon higher. This causes him to overshoot.

Shooters Mistakes: When all this factors add up even a good shooter was hard pressed to hit a target. However the shooter himself could make many mistakes. A lot of the shooting in the war was done in an unsupported standing position. This is the most unstable position for shooting, and even with modern weapons is considered unfeasible after 200 yards. The shooter must steady the weapon, set the sights for the correct range, align the front sight tip in the rear sight, place the tip on a target, and maintain the sights on the target while squeezing the trigger. The standard musket had no windage (left and right) correction scale on the sights.  Even under ideal conditions this is hard, imagine trying to do it with your heart racing like crazy, men screaming, shells and minie balls zinging overhead and men dying close to you.

What worked ... massed musketry.  From article so far, one my think I'm inferring that muskets and the men that wielded them where ineffective.  As individuals, especially at longer ranges (over 200 yards) in my humble opinion, they even like most soldiers today, were more apt to miss than hit. But as the ranges shortened, the conditions affecting marksmanship had less effect and the average soldier could keep the weapon on target and deliver accurate fire. At ranges of 50-100 yards' especially when firing from a support such as a breastwork headlog, rifle fire was devastating. This accuracy, though it seems rather insignificant for modern times was a huge step from the older smoothbores which where accurate at about 80 paces at the most. Failure to adapt tactics that took this into consideration led to the appalling casualties common in the war.

I've contended that the average infantryman's rifle fire at over 200 yards was for the most part ineffective, yet there are reports of individuals being wounded and killed from great distances by enemy rifle fire. My answer for this is that infantry at long ranges would engage what amounted to be in modern military terms an area target vice a point target (individual soldier). The concept is fairly simple, if 300 men fire at a target that is 200 yards wide and 2 yards high, (about the size of a 400 man regiment in line of battle) even at a great range, a few will hit it. There's a saying in the service that fits this situation perfect, "you don't have to worry so much about a bullet with your name on it ... its the one that has 'to whom it may concern" on it that will get you." 

Sharpshooters and crack shots: There where undoubtedly a few men in each regiment that where talented shooters, and could if conditions were right and they fired from a supported steady position hit a man size target at 400 or 500 yards. These men where the exception rather than the rule. 

Sharpshooters where usually picked from these men, and if possible armed with better rifles. The Army Of Tennessee managed to get several Whitworth target rifles through the blockade. Patrick Cleburne selected his best shots to carry these rifles and they used them to get effect on the Yankees in the West. But for the most part, scoped target rifles were very rare, and sharpshooters where a small part of the Army's organization.

Existing records of weapons accuracy. I was very fortunate to acquire a book called "The Rifled Musket." An interesting chapter covered tests on accuracy of various weapons in 1860, from smoothbores to rifles. The process consisted of 5 marksmen firing at the center of a 10 square foot target, at ranges of 100, 200, 300 and 500 yards. They fired by File, Volley and as Skirmishers, in the standing position. The deliberate accuracy of the weapons was also checked by having one marksman fire the weapons five to ten times each, with careful and deliberate aim, from a rest, or supported position. It is interesting to note that due to the massed infantry tactics used at the time the standards for acceptable accuracy were very lenient, 10 square feet is literally "big as a barn door." Using the target pattern and assuming that the marksmen were aiming dead center I superimposed a target a little bigger than then the size of a man (6 feet high by two foot wide). The following is the data I compiled using the model 1855 Springfield, which was at the time of the tests was the state of the art musket being issued to the Army. This weapon converted to percussion cap from the Maynard system was basically the exact same weapon as the 1861/1863 Springfield.

¨       100 yards firing by file, in volley and as skirmishers an average of 26 out of 50 shots fired hit what would be considered a man sized target, for an accuracy of about 52. When firing deliberately from a supported position, a single marksman hit the man-sized target 50 out of 50 times for 100 accuracy.

¨       200 yards firing by file, in volley and as skirmishers an average of 13 out of 50 shots fired hit the man sized target making an accuracy rate of 26. There was no data         taken on deliberate fire at 200 yards.

¨       300 yards firing by file, in volley and as skirmishers an average of 5 shots out of 50 hit the man sized target for a 10 hit ratio. The marksman firing deliberately from a         rest hit the target 28 out of 50 shots for an accuracy rate of 56.

¨       500 yards firing by file, in volley and as skirmishers an average of 2 out of 50 hit the man sized target for a 4 accuracy rating.

¨       The marksman that fired deliberately from a rest hit 12 of 50 for a 24  accuracy rating.


As an aside, these are results using the best available weapon and ammunition firing at stationary targets, and one may conclude that the men who performed these test were more than likely crack shots. If these were average soldiers firing under combat conditions I would venture to say the results would not be nearly as good. If armed with an inferior weapon, such as one of the many smoothbores that were issued even in the mid and late war a soldier would be lucky to hit anything smaller than the side of a barn at greater than 200 yards. During the test performed, using a .69 caliber smoothbore at 300 yards only 3 out of 150 shots fired hit a man sized target for an appalling accuracy rate of only 1! Indeed, only 23 out of 150 shots even hit the 10 foot square target.

Conclusions: From my research I strongly feel that the chances of a single marksman armed with a standard musket, firing form the ranks in a standing position in the heat of battle had less then a 10 chance of hitting a man sized target at a range of 200 yards. As living historians I believe it is proper to point out to the public that though the range of the rifled musket was far, most of the casualties caused at ranges greater than 200 yards were probably the result of massed fire that counted on the law of averages to take out some of the opposing forces. I also feel that when safe and appropriate that reenactors use some sort of support or rest for their weapons when firing at long ranges (300 yards plus).

In closing I would like to have you think about how I would have written the scene in the movie “Gettysburg" when General Reynolds gets killed. After he collapses from his horse cut to a scene of a cross-eyed, ragged reb infantrymen 700 yards to the West reloading his musket, cussing, shaking his head and wondering how he missed that rabbit (his planned dinner) only 50 yards away. Little does he know that an overcharged cartridge, setting his sights improperly and the glare on his front sight tip has just allowed him to kill a The Union 1st Corps Commander.

--Pvt. Duke Harless