The 1860's Target Rifle

29 June 2000
By Joe Jones*
Northern Target rifle (Also see last photo)

As we all know, the standard weapon of the Sharpshooters after it's initial issue was the Sharps breechloader. Frequently, the writings of the Sharpshooters mention another rifle, a heavy target rifle, used only by an assigned shooter for long range work. I would like to discuss that oft alluded to "target rifle" of the 1860's period. This article will almost be a book report, as my primary source of information is a great book by Ned Roberts in 1944 called The Muzzleloading Caplock Rifle. He gives credit for much of what he knows about rifles and muzzleloaders in particular, to his uncle Alvaro P. Annis, who served with Co. E (New Hampshire), 1st Regiment, United States Sharpshooters in the Civil War (Footnote i) . Uncle Alvaro taught him how to shoot and take care of his gun, stressing from his experiences in the field that "the first thing to be done is to feed and water your horse if you have one, then clean, oil and, if necessary, load your rifle, then get your food, wash your dishes and get wood for the next fire. If you absolutely must neglect any of these things, go without your victuals and take care of your horse and rifle first, or you may not need further victuals." Why a Sharpshooter would be referring to a horse, I don't know, but the rest certainly holds true.

In the early days of the nation, target shooting was almost exclusively for hunting training. With the demands of colonial and frontier life, there was little time for the average person to shoot without an apparent purpose. "Shooting at the mark", which was a charred board with a piece of white paper fastened in the middle, was used initially to train people to shoot. Of course, the competitive nature comes out and people were soon doing "turkey shoots" or even "beef shoots". (Footnote ii) Somewhere between 1790 and 1800, the "match rifle" or "turkey rifle" was produced, with a heavy, full octagon barrel between 38" and 40" long, full stocked, double set triggers and a "tube sight". A tube sight is simply a tube with cross hairs mounted in it, with no lenses. With most target sights, such as the "globe sight"(Footnote iii), the object is to keep shadows and glare off the sights to aid the shooter. The rifling twist was slow, probably between 1:60 and 1:70, as it shot a linen-patched round ball. This seems to be the best spin for a round ball. The primer cap made its debut around 1815, which made things easier for the shooter.

The next development was in the ammunition, i.e. the bullet that the rifle shot. In 1835, match rifles began to shoot the "picket" or "sugarloaf" bullet, a conical shaped round that gave slightly better range than the round ball. It, too, used a linen patch. Because of its shape, it was difficult to get started down the barrel accurately. If the nose of that style bullet is not in alignment with the axis of the bore, one side of the base of the bullet will exit the muzzle sooner than the other, giving an erratic spin to the bullet, thus decreasing accuracy. In order to counter this, the "straight starter" was introduced. The barrel of the rifle was turned down to round for the first 1-1 1/2 inches. Sometimes a shallow depression, the size of the patch, was turned into the end of the muzzle. The bullet and patch were place on the muzzle, over the bore. The starter was machined to fit perfectly over the muzzle, and, on the end of the push rod, was machined to fit the bullet perfectly, so that the bullet was not damaged while being started. With one strike by the ball of the fist, the bullet was rammed about 4-6 inches into the bore. A ramrod finished the job.

The match rifles themselves still weighed in the 9-15 lb. range. They were generally around .45 caliber. The rifling twist had increased to 1:30, sometimes with a "gain twist", starting out with a slower twist, and getting tighter as the rifling neared the muzzle. The faster rate of twist was due to the longer bullet needing the faster rate of spin to stabilize. In 1840 the next significant development was the "false muzzle". This was a piece approximately 1 1/2 to 2" long, which had been cut off the end of the barrel during manufacture, after the bore had been cut, but before the rifling had been cut. Prior to being cut, four equidistant holes were drilled along the long axis of the barrel, from the muzzle end. After being cut, four pins were placed in the holes. The false muzzle was attached to the barrel, then the rifling was cut in both. The bore was reamed smooth at the other end to provide a "funnel" for the bullet being loaded. The false muzzle was placed on the end of the rifle, the base of the straight starter went on over that (with the patch and round placed on it), and finally the straight starter itself. All of this insured that the bullet would go into the rifle as straight as possible, and also protected the all-important rifling at the true muzzle. By this time, paper patches were being used for accuracy, in place of the linen patches. Paper patches are either cross or strip patches. Cross-style is cut with a special cross-shaped cutter, giving an "X" shaped piece of paper. Strip style is several narrow strips of paper, overlaid to give an "X" pattern or, with three strips, an asterisk (*) shaped six-point pattern. The paper was oiled with sperm whale oil (hardly available now!). The base of the straight starter generally had slots cut into it to place the patches in the proper orientation, with the bullet placed on the patch strips. The paper strips were found to be more accurate than the linen, as the bullet could be made to fit the bore more closely.

The first documented telescopic rifle sight was invented between 1835 and 1840. In a book titled The Improved American Rifle, written in 1844, John R. Chapman documents the first telescopic sights made by Morgan James of Utica, NY. Chapman, the author, being a civil engineer, gave James the concepts and some of the design, whereupon they produced the Chapman-James sight. A bit later, in 1855, William Malcolm, of Syracuse, NY began producing his own sight. He did not steal the Chapman-James design. He did it the old-fashioned way: he worked for a telescope maker to learn how to make them, incorporated achromatic lenses (Footnote iv), and made the windage and elevation adjustments more perfect. They were between 3X and 20X or greater. These and ones made by Mr. L.M. Amidon of Vermont were the standard during the Civil War.

In October of 1859 the National Rifle club had its first annual meeting, including a rifle meet. It was won by Mr. T. Spencer, with a string measurement of 54 inches for 50 shots, an average of 1.08 in from the center of the target at 40 rods (~220 yards), the standard competition distance at the time. Though the record does not mention the type of sight used, it is a very high standard, even today. The rifles were getting heavier, so it was necessary to establish some sort of handicapping. The "standard" rifle was considered to be 20 lb. Any rifle over this weight would have 1/8" per pound added to its 10 shot "string", any under this weight would have 1/8" per pound deducted from its string. The bullets being shot were a sort of elongated picket bullet, referred to now as conoidal-cylindrical, like a long minie ball without the base cavity. Some even had a sort of "boat-tail", as do some of our "modern" target bullets. The rifling was getting faster, with some of the gain twist types getting near 1:12 near the muzzle.

By the time of the Civil War, target shooting in the United States was a well-established and very accurate science. The Sharps breechloaders were a step in the right direction for speed of loading and accuracy combined, but as noted by the statistics above, they were not really more accurate than their civilian cousins were. This is why there were "special service" rifles with the Sharpshooters.

The Northern Target rifle is one of the specimens of rifle that was found at Gettysburg, post-battle. The origin of the rifle in the first photo in this article is unknown and is being traced by an interested party. One suggestion is that it belonged to a Confederate soldier who was found dead at the Devil's Den area after the battle. It was once stated that the photographer posed the picture and called him a Sharpshooter, but was later discredited. This source feels that he really was a Sharpshooter, that he was killed while sniping the artillery at the top of Little Round Top and that the photographer posed him with an Enfield rifle he found on the field, while his real rifle was blown away from him during an artillery barrage aimed at him, and found later. Interesting reading, like a forensic report.

Footnote i

By a footnote in the book, Alvaro P. Annis cannot be found on the rolls of this regiment, as he volunteered, was rejected during the physical, then substituted for a man who was drafted. Once he had passed the physical, which he did, and got into the army, his shooting skill was discovered and he got a transfer to the Sharpshooters. The name on the rolls was that of the man he substituted for, which he had to remember to answer to at roll call.

Footnote ii

"Beef shoots" are competitions for choice cuts of meat from a steer. For each cut, the marksmen paid two shillings (~33 cents) per round. During the first round, all marksmen would shoot one round at their targets. The closest to the center of the piece of paper on the board was the winner, who got the "first choice" cut of beef. A second round was shot to determine the "second choice", etc. until the steer was gone.

Footnote iii

The globe sight or hooded sight is a front sight made of very fine wire or pig bristle with a tiny ball at the top, shaded by being mounted in a cylinder aligned with the barrel, to keep sunlight off the front sight so that it can be seen more easily.

Footnote iv

Achromatic lenses are a combination of lenses to limit color refraction in an optical piece. Non-achromatic lenses have a "halo" of rainbow colors around the edges of the view field in the piece.


* Joe Jones is a reenactor, American Civil War period. He portrays a member of Co. D, 2nd United States Sharpshooters.



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