One of the most popular items to collect from the annals of American history is Civil War rifles. Heralded by military historians, American history aficionados, and gun enthusiasts alike, these iconic firearms have transcended their place in history (thanks to the myth making machine of Hollywood cinema) and have become a beloved family heirloom and collection centerpiece today.
Tips for Identifying Civil War Rifles Yourself
For non-historic arms experts, it can feel impossible to distinguish one old gun from a centuries-older gun thanks to their general appearances and similar mechanisms. However, there're a few ways that you can investigate your own family's old rifles to see if you might have one that could've been used in combat during the American Civil War.
Observe the Rifle's Silhouette
During the American Civil War, there was a real transitory period happening within the firearms industry. Smooth-bore muskets were cast aside for updated rifled muskets (which still had the same components as a traditional musket but featured boring in the barrels that aided in keeping ammunition going in a straighter, more consistent, line upon exit). These rifled muskets have an iconic look that makes them pretty easy to identify based on their silhouette. Typically, these rifles featured three metal bands along the long, narrow barrels with percussion cap mechanisms. You might also find these guns with long metal ramrods that were used to insert the ammunition into the barrel.
Check for Serial Numbers
Serial numbers are a way to pin down an exact date for antique weapons, so long as their manufacturer's historic records are publicly available. These numbers can be printed on the stock, butt, and gun's barrel, depending on the manufacturer and model. If you can find serial numbers on your antique rifle, you can use digital collections like the Civil War Weapons Search to see if your gun's serial number correlates to a known date. If it was manufactured between 1860-1864, chances are pretty high that it was used in some capacity in the war.
Age Can Be Misleading
Through the American Civil War, there was difficulty with arms manufacturing and keeping soldiers on both sides equipped with the most advanced weaponry of the time. Because of this, soldiers were frequently outfitted with firearms that were made decades before the fight even started. Therefore, you can't always rely on age to be an indicator as to whether a weapon saw action during the Civil War.
In this situation, anecdotal evidence and photographs or written documentation placing a specific rifle in the period can be very helpful. A family tintype of an ancestor holding the weapon in their uniform can give you some context as to whether the firearm was active during the 1860s, or is just a family heirloom.
Popular Rifles From the Civil War Period to Collect
A large variety of weapons were used during the Civil War, with rifles being the primary firearm soldiers employed during fighting. Some types of rifles were regionally specific, while others were used across all arenas of the war. However, there are no greater rifles to collect than these popular models.
The Springfield Model 1861 Rifled Musket
The Springfield Armory produced the most popular rifle of the Civil War, the Springfield model 1861 musket rifle. With an effective range of 600 paces, troops could fire three rounds per minute with an accuracy of up to 500 yards. These rifles were also equipped with a bayonet, and have the stereotypical silhouette associated with Civil War reenactments and big-budget Hollywood productions. Though there were several models of the Springfield rifle created during the conflict, the 1861 model was the most heavily used and the easiest Civil War rifle to find on the antiques market today.
Enfield 1853 Rifled Musket
This Enfield model 1853 was commonly used by both Union and Confederate infantry troops during the Civil War. It was second only to the Springfield model 1861 in popularity. Known for its quality, accuracy, and reliability, the Enfield is one of the most sought after Civil War rifles today.
Due to a lack of munitions manufacturers in the South, the Confederates depended on the British government to procure these weapons. When it became obvious that the southern states wouldn't win the war, the British government refused to sell any more rifles to the Confederacy, and they were forced to turn to gun runners and private sources for their stores. Due to this, it's statistically more likely for a family with a Union ancestor to have an Enfield in their collection than a Confederate family is to.
The Henry Repeating Rifle
The Henry repeating rifle can be considered the Rolls Royce of guns manufactured during the Civil War. Many soldiers saved their salaries to buy their own Henry rifle as their government issued weapons couldn't hold up to the rifle's speed and lethality. In comparison to the Springfield's three rounds per minute, the Henry rifle could fire 28 rounds per minute. Manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, these rifles have an iconic gold lever-action mechanism and blue finish.
Unfortunately for the lucky Confederate troops who happened to capture these rifles from Union soldiers, there wasn't an easy way to access the special ammunition that the guns required. Despite the limited quantities that were made during the war, the gun went on to be a massive success in the post-war period, becoming the Winchester model 1866 and launching the Winchester name.
The Brunswick was a muzzle loader rifle that was manufactured for the British Army in the early 19th century. Small shipments of this high caliber percussion rifle were delivered to the United States Armies during the Civil War.
The Brunswick rifle was a high tech rifle during the 1830s when it was originally manufactured, but by the 1860s, it was an obsolete firearm. The Confederacy, having a very limited ability to produce weapons, bought over 2,000 Brunswick rifles for delivery to their troops. The enterprising Confederates adapted these rifles to better suit their needs. Given that these rifles were infrequently used in the war, it's unlikely to find these rifles at auction.
The Burnside rifle was a carbine developed by General Ambrose Burnside in 1856. Burnside's design eliminated the expulsion of hot gas from the weapon when it was fired by sealing the area between the barrel and the breech. Five different models were manufactured and approximately 43 Union cavalry regiments used the Burnside exclusively. The Confederacy had at least seven units that were armed with Burnside rifles that had been captured from the Union armies. The men's main complaint about these rifles was that the unusually shaped cartridge often got stuck in the barrel after firing. Thus, the short-lived Burnside rifle didn't become a major winner with soldiers during the war.
Colt Revolving Rifle
The Colt repeating rifle was one of the first repeating rifles, alongside with the Henry. It had design similarities to the Colt revolver, with a rotating cylinder that held several rounds of ammunition (a unique feature on a rifle). The benefit of this Civil War rifle was that it could be fired in rapid succession without pausing to reload after each shot. This weapon gave the Union an advantage over the Confederate troops. It performed so well under combat conditions that the Confederate armies believed that they had attacked an entire division instead of a single regiment during the Battle of Chickamauga.
Although the Colt was excellent in combat, it had a major design flaw. The gunpowder would sometimes leak from the cartridges in the field and settle into the cylinder. When the gun was fired, it would ignite all of the powder at once, sending a volley of metal into the left hand of the person firing. The military tried to work around this in various ways, but the Colt Revolving rifle was discontinued. Yet, Colt collectors are willing to pay even for these less functional firearms, with one recently selling at auction for $2,550.
The Sharps rifle was a falling block rifle that also used a unique pellet primer feed. These differences made it easy to operate from horseback with accuracy, and this accuracy is what inspired the English term, "sharpshooter." Used by both the Confederate and Union troops, the Sharps were often used as a sniper rifle. You can find these rifles in antique auctions around the country for a few thousand dollars, such as with this 1861 Sharps rifle that's listed for $3,499.
Spencer Repeating Rifle
This rifle was manufactured for the Union army. Like the Henry, the Spencer wasn't used very much by the Confederacy because, although they could capture the weapon, they were unable to get a consistent supply of ammunition necessary. The Spencer had an excellent reputation in combat, with a sustainable rate of fire of 20 rounds per minute. Since most of the Confederate soldiers were shooting muzzle loaders that had a rate of two to three rounds per minute, using a Spencer gave the person firing the weapon a distinct tactical advantage. Typically, these rifles are sold for $1,000-$3,000 depending on their condition.
Additional Rifles of the Civil War to Consider
While both the Union and Confederate armies had their own standard weapons that they issued to the enlisted, soldiers would frequently bring their own supplies from home with them to the front lines. These home goods ranged from coats to shoes to even weapons. Thus, there's a small chance that non-standard weapons could've been used in combat or were at least manufactured during the 1860s.
These are a few of the more unique rifles that have documented use during the 19th century conflict.
- Fayetteville rifle - The Fayetteville rifle was produced for the Confederacy in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
- M1819 Hall rifle - The Hall rifle was at least 30 years old at the time of the Civil War, but saw some use on both sides. Most of these were in disrepair and not very dependable.
- M1841 Mississippi rifle - The M1841 Mississippi rifle was a percussion rifle manufactured for the Confederacy. It had a bayonet and was accurate and easy to use.
- Minié ball rifles - Various rifles were able to shoot minié balls, which created large, gaping wounds in the targets that they hit.
- Richmond rifle - The Richmond rifle was a rifled musket that used a .58 caliber mini bullet and was produced in Virginia.
Reference Material for Identifying Civil War Rifles
Reference materials are a must-have for any person interested in Civil War firearms or antique firearm collecting in general. Countless firearm experts have lent their own perspective to the subject, and a few contemporary books to check out are:
- Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms by John F. Graf
- Civil War Weapons: An Illustrated Guide to the Wide Range of Weaponry Used on the Battlefield by Graham Smith
- Civil War Firearms: Their Historical Background and Tactical Use by Joseph G. Bilby
Jump Into History With a Bang
Rifles from the Civil War are important pieces of history, and as such, they can command top prices from avid collectors, military enthusiasts, and Civil War fanatics. So, if you've caught the eye of an old looking rifle in your grandfather's shed in the backyard, take a minute to look it over and see what hidden treasures your family might've been hiding.