The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth

- A Selection of the Military Book Club

- A Selection of the History Book Club

- Finalist for Peter Seaborg Award, George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 2009


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“Hess hits a bull’s-eye with this fresh, provocative book.” -- Daniel Sutherland, author of Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861-1865


“A most welcome, meticulous, important, and easy-to-read addition to the literature.” -- Paddy Griffith, author of Battle Tactics of the Civil War


“Should be required reading, not just for students of the U.S. Civil War, but for anyone interested in the history of warfare.”  -- Mark Grimsley, author of And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864


“A landmark study.” -- William C. Davis, author of The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy


"During the past decade, Earl Hess has become the premier analytical military historian of the American Civil War. Virtually every other Civil War historian writes about individual battles, campaigns, or leaders; Hess aggregates primary evidence to explore critical, often mythologized, issues in Civil War military historiography." -- Samuel Watson, US Military Academy, in Civil War Book Review


Suddenly, obliquely to our right, there was a long, wavy flash of bright light, then another, and another! It was the sunlight shining on gun barrels and bayonets.-Leander Stillwell at Shiloh


Every man was shooting as fast, on our side, as he could load, and yelling as loud as his breath would permit. Most were on the ground, some on one knee. . . . The other side were yelling, and if any orders were given nobody heard them. Every man assumed the responsibility of doing as much shooting as he could.Eugene F. Ware at Wilson’s Creek


"There they are!" was no sooner uttered, than we cracked into them with leveled muskets….still advancing, firing as we moved, I, at last, saw a row of little globes of pearly smoke streaked with crimson, breaking-out, with sportive quickness, from a long line of bluey figures in front; and, simultaneously, there broke upon our ears an appalling crash of sound….All the world seemed involved in one tremendous ruin!Henry Morton Stanley at Shiloh


The Civil War’s single-shot, muzzle-loading musket revolutionized warfare—or so we’ve been told for years. Noted historian Earl J. Hess forcefully challenges that claim, offering a new, clear-eyed, and convincing assessment of the rifle musket’s actual performance on the battlefield, and its impact on the course of the Civil War.    


Many contemporaries were impressed with the new weapon’s increased range of 500 yards, compared to the smoothbore musket’s range of 100 yards, and assumed the rifle was a major factor in prolonging the Civil War. Historians have also assumed that the weapon dramatically increased casualty rates, made decisive victories rare, and relegated cavalry and artillery to far lesser roles than they played in smoothbore battles.


Hess presents a completely new assessment of the rifle musket, contending that its impact was much more limited than previously supposed, and confined primarily to marginal operations such as skirmishing and sniping. He argues further that its potential to alter battle line operations was virtually nullified by inadequate training, soldiers’ preference for short-range firing, and the difficulty of seeing the enemy at a distance. He notes that bullets fired from the new musket followed a parabolic trajectory unlike those fired from smoothbores; at mid-range, those rifle balls flew well above the enemy, creating two killing zones between which troops could operate untouched. He also presents the most complete discussion to date of the development of skirmishing and sniping in the Civil War.    


Drawing upon the observations and reflections of the soldiers themselves, Hess offers the most compelling argument yet made regarding the actual use of the rifle musket and its influence on Civil War combat. Engagingly written and meticulously researched, his book will be of special interest to Civil War scholars, buffs, re-enactors and gun enthusiasts alike.


Published By: 

University Press of Kansas

2501 West 15th Street

Lawrence, KS 66049


Full List of Books by Dr. Earl J. Hess

Author Bio