Civil War Weapons: A Closer Look at History

Updated October 15, 2021

Weapons That Won the Civil War

The American Civil War is a highly documented moment in American history, with thousands of academics and passionate history buffs dedicating their lives to following the stories - both big and small - of this period. One such fascinating aspect of this mid-19th century conflict was the rapid development of weaponry on both sides of the war. Civil war weapons such as new rifles, marine equipment, pistols, and proto-machine guns are the silent witnesses of these gut-wrenching battles, and you can give your own tribute to these artifacts through owning your own or visiting exhibits and collections of them around the states.

Civil War Rifles: Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle-Musket

Released just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1853, this European firearm was imported and used by both Confederate and Union soldiers throughout the war. According to the Smithsonian Institute, one of the significant elements that kept soldiers coming back to this rifle was that its .58 caliber bullets could also be used in other Enfield models. Coupled with reliability and accuracy, the Enfield made for a formidable weapon.

Civil War Rifles: Springfield 1861 Rifle-Musket

If you've ever seen a Civil War reenactment or watched a film about the Civil War, you've definitely seen the 1861 Spencer Rifle-Musket at work. Visually identified by its tapered, long barrel, this rifle was commissioned by the United States government to be the infantry's standard issue rifle. According to the National Museum of American History, there was about one million of these 1861-models to be manufactured over the course of the war, testifying to the widespread carnage that it facilitated.

Civil War Rifles: Spencer Repeating Rifle 1863

By 1863, fighting had progressed into devastating numbers, with the Union passing its first Conscription Act in March to keep up the war effort. Yet, the lack of volunteer recruits was mollified once Christopher Miner Spencer's repeating rifle, with its magazine of seven cartridges that could be fired off in thirty-seconds, was approved by the Bureau of Ordnance and distributed among Union soldiers. Created specifically to support the Union, this rifle was highly dangerous for the already flummoxing Confederacy whose own rifles were largely single-shot and had slower reload times, making the Spencer Repeating rifle one of the most beloved weapons in the war.

Civil War Rifles: Henry Rifle

Although you probably known the Henry Rifle better for its nickname as the "weapon that won the west," it first saw action during the Civil War. A precursor to the popular Winchester rifles, these lever-action rifles used a unique cartridge that implemented a metal casing instead of the older volcanic bullets (powder, ball, and primer). Granted, this weapon wasn't mass-manufactured in the way other rifles were during the Civil War were and saw most of its action with soldiers who could privately purchase them. However, they had such an impact that they would later be one of the most predominate rifles of the late-1860s and 1870s.

Civil War Handguns: LeMat Revolver

The LeMat Revolver was an incredibly interesting weapon of the Civil War because of the way it deviated from single shot pistols and multiple-shot revolvers. These handguns could fire buckshot, making them that much more dangerous to the people they hit. Designed by Dr. Jean Alexandre Le Mat and patented in 1856, the gun wasn't commissioned by the United States Armed Forces, but the Confederacy did order their own substantial shipments of these revolvers. One such man who carried a LeMat was Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Civil War Handguns: 1860 Colt Revolver

Legendary gun-maker, Samuel Colt, sold his 6-shot 1860 revolver to the armed forces during the war. These handguns came with Colt's superior craftsmanship and legacy, meaning soldiers of all ranks could rely on the gun to keep them protected in close-range altercations. Originally patented in 1836, this Colt M1860 Army revolver was continually produced until 1873, long after the Civil War was finished.

Civil War Artillery: Napoleon Cannon

The most frequently used piece of artillery in the Civil War was the model 1857 cannon, nicknamed the Napoleon after Emperor Louis Napoleon. A smooth-bore cannon, this reliable gun could fire a multitude of different types of projectiles, each accomplishing a separate task. Cannisters filled with grapeshot (small lead or iron balls) could raze a field of soldiers in a calculated blow and shrapnel shells would explode upon impact, imbedding pieces of metal into everything in its wake. In short, if the bullets didn't kill you during the Civil War, the cannon fire just might.

Civil War Artillery: Double Barrel Cannon

If you have the chance to visit Athens, Georgia--home to the University of Georgia--you should take a stop and visit one of the most unique pieces of weaponry devised during the Civil War. Invented in 1863 by John Gilleland, this double barrel cannon was devised to shoot two balls, connected by a chain, into the enemy to tear up the land and surrounding architecture that was in their possession. In spite of its ambitious premise, the cannon was a failure and now sits on display in the city for tourists and natives alike to enjoy.

Civil War Artillery: Howitzer Cannon

In Union and Confederate artillery batteries, two howitzer cannons were normally found. Howitzers were notoriously easier to maneuver than other artillery guns, and although they could shoot shells and shots at a shorter range, they could release them at a higher elevation. Thus, they worked well for fights against enemies that held the high ground. The gold-star standard howitzer of the Civil War was the 1841 model 12-pounder, which could fire a shell over 1,000 yards using only one pound of powder.

Civil War Artillery: Gatling Gun

The Gatling Gun is more impressive for its proof of concept rather than for the actual effects it had on the fighting of the Civil War. It was patented on November 4, 1862 by Richard Jordan Gatling, an individual who was said to be so affected by the horrors of the war that he devised a weapon which would prevent wars from happening in the future. Applying his agricultural knowledge of seed implantation to bullets in a barrel, he created a gun that could fire rounds at a rapid speed. This proto-machine gun grew popular in the post-war period, but without the Civil War and the innovations that came with it, perhaps the machine gun itself wouldn't have been invented for many years to come.

Civil War Blades: Cavalry Saber 1860

Perhaps the most elegant-looking weapon of the American Civil War was the Model 1860 Calvary Saber that was issued throughout the war. Undoubtedly, the Confederate calvary units were superior to those of the Union, and although their sabers (not all of which were the model 1860) weren't their main pieces of equipment for combat, they could absolutely be used whilst on horseback during the middle of a battle. Symbolic of an old-world gentility, these sabers became linked into the popular vision of the American Confederacy, making them quite a powerful propaganda tool.

Civil War Blades: Bayonets

Bayonets were a very dangerous mid-range weapon which infantry units could use against oncoming companies of men without having to get too close to the enemy. Accompanying the usual gunfire, these long triangular blades affixed to the ends of the rifle barrels and were thrust into the opposing enemy's flesh. Being gutted by a bayonet was a horrible, and almost always untreatable, way to die during the Civil War. If you were to survive the initial blow, you'd probably die of infection not long after.

Civil War Naval Weapons: Ironclads

If you've ever seen the film Iron Giant, then you have a small idea as to what the infamous Ironclads of the American Civil War looked like. These naval weapons were iron boats that fought around the East Coast. The Confederacy took an old steam frigate and replaced its upper hull with iron panels, making a difficult to penetrate CSS Virginia, while the Union's USS Monitor was better engineered, with a rotating gun turret covered in 8 inches of armor and a very low sea-level clearance, making it almost impossible to hit. While the ironclads didn't last long during the war, they paved the way for conventional steamships and what would become modern naval ships.

Civil War Naval Weapons: The H.L. Hunley

Submarines have come a long way since the Civil War, and although they were envisioned long before the war itself, the first successful attack of a submarine during warfare on another vessel did occur in the Civil War. In 1864, the small crew of the H.L. Hunley sunk the USS Housatonic, unfortunately being overcome themselves with the submarine disappearing for over a century. It was rediscovered in 1995 and successfully pulled out of the ocean in 2000, where she continues to undergo conservation efforts to this day.

You Can Collect Civil War Weaponry

There aren't many tangible artifacts left from the Civil War in great condition, aside from the many types of Civil War weapons. Granted, not all of these weapons can be collected or have high values. Rather, rifles, handguns, and blades from the Civil War period are the most collectible. Of these items, there are a few criteria which can significantly impact their desirability and price tags:

  • Having a highly documented provenance
  • Being connected to prominent figures on both sides of the war
  • Being able to be traced to a specific battle
  • Being in mint/mear-mint condition

Where to Collect Civil War Weaponry

The community of global military collectors is massive, meaning there're countless places online where you can find authenticated weapons from the war, as well as private collectors and dealers who can negotiate sales or trades of some of their own pieces to you. Similarly, if you live on the East Coast, there's a lot of regional ephemera connected to the Civil War, which you can find for sale in some antique stores as well. However, you should go ahead and prepare yourself to pay a couple thousand dollars, at the very least, for these artifacts. Here are some of the places you can visit first for these collectibles:

Artifacts That Always Tell a Story

The American Civil War was a momentously challenging period in American history, forever altering the country's trajectory and the world as it came to be known. Yet, as is common in the large-scale conflicts of human history, even the smallest artifacts can tell a unique story about life and death of the time. Despite their complicated history, you can appreciate these Civil War weapons in their historical contexts and preserve them for future study and personal enjoyment.

Civil War Weapons: A Closer Look at History