As military rifles developed, the recreational use of firearms also progressed. Around the beginning of the 19th Century some gunsmiths had begun to produce a rifle used for competition. These flintlocks were heavy, mounting octagon barrels of 38 to 40 inches in length, had full stocks, double set triggers, and used metallic tube sights. The competition rifle would continue to develop with such innovations as the addition of cap locks; pinhead front sights coupled with adjustable micrometer rear sights, and improved types of rifling such a gain twist. The later match rifles were equipped with false muzzles and bullet starters to allow a paper patched bullet to be loaded with out deformation. Attention to this small detail could double the accurate range of a particular rifle. After about 1840, according to no less an authority than Captain Ned Roberts, matches began to be fired at ranges of 100 to 200 rods, a rod being 16.5 feet, or 550 to 1100 yards with some regularity. When the Civil War began these rifles, and riflemen, would figure prominently in the selection of sharpshooters to serve under Colonel Hiram Berdan.
As the smoke in Charleston Harbor cleared and the defeated Union garrison of Fort Sumter marched out of the battered fortress, thousands of men flocked to the colours, be they the ‘Stars and Bars’ or ‘Stars and Stripes’. Of all the men, just a small proportion were skilled marksmen, experienced at hunting or competition, and willing to put their particular skills at the service of their respective governments.
The Confederacy, while long on martial sprit and outdoor and hunting skills, lacked manufacturing capability and the rifles used by southern sharpshooters were largely Whitworth and Kerr rifles that were slipped past the Federal naval blockade. The soldiers designated to use the expensive British rifles were chosen from those who had demonstrated superior marksmanship skills. They were not organized into bodies, as were the sharpshooters of the Union. By early November of 1863 the Richmond Daily Examiner would boast “We have a wonderful gun in our Army, the Whitworth rifle. It kills at 2,000 yards, more than a mile.” Hundreds of the British target rifles found there way into the hands of Confederate troops.
Originally designed as a 45-caliber rifle, with a polygon bore, the Whitworths were rifled at a rate of one turn in 20 inches and fired a hexagonal bullet. However, the Confederate troops used a 530-grain cylindrical bullet. The British Government never adopted this percussion cap muzzle-loading rifle for military issue. They were however used by the British National Rifle Association and were issued to finalists in the Queen's Prize, where events were held out to 1,000 yards. The rifle was equipped with metallic leaf sight that was graduated to 1200 yards. Some were fitted with a 14.5-inch low power Davidson telescopic sight mounted on the left side of the rifle. Rifles similar to these were manufactured and shipped to the Confederacy where the sharpshooters generally relied on the globe sights, as the telescopic sights were easily damaged.
Confederate snipers and their Whitworth rifles accounted for a large number of Federal troops and officers. Perhaps the most famous long-range sniping incident of the Civil War occurred at the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864. With his troops ducking for cover because of sporadic small arms fire, Union General John Sedgwick, demonstrated his bravery by remaining standing as he rallied his men by gently chiding them. ‘Uncle John’, as he was fondly known to his troops because of his unselfish and warmhearted character, called out, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” They would be his final words. Sergeant Charlie Grace of the Fourth Georgia, some 800 yards away, had Sedgwick in his sights and squeezed the trigger of his Whitworth rifle. The dead general, shot in the head, fell into the arms of an aide.
The Confederate sharpshooters proved to be a valuable and potent asset. While taking off Federal officers and troops at long range was good for the moral of the southern troops, the real worth of the sharpshooters was in keeping opposing troops under the constant threat of well aimed fire. The southerners often used its limited assets of skilled marksmen to try to neutralize the overwhelming strength of northern artillery by harrying the Federal gun crews with well aimed rifle fire.
While the south employed its sharpshooters in small independent teams the north took a more traditional approach in application but an innovative view of equipment. With the advantage of its industrial might the Federal forces formed two large units, the 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters under the command of Colonel Hiram Berdan. Berdan’s Sharpshooters were armed with mass produced rapid fire breech loading rifles and placed as skirmishers ahead of the main line of battle.
Just as the southerners had issued its precious Whitworth and Kerr rifles only to shooters of known quality the requirements of the United States Sharpshooters required a man to demonstrate a high level of skill. The prospective sharpshooter had to be capable of shooting, “...a string of 50 inches in 10 consecutive shots at 200 yards with globe or telescope sights from a rest....”. Shooting a string was a traditional scoring method by which a wooden peg was inserted into each bullet hole on the target. A string was then stretched from the center of the aiming point around each peg and back again, each shot in turn, with its total length determining the winner of a match. A group meeting the 50-inch standard would be about five inches across, some two inches larger than the X-ring on the present National Rifle Association short-range target. When a company of 100 New Hampshire sharpshooters under a Captain Jones reported for duty the best string recorded was a phenomenal ten inches, shot by Jones, while the average string was 30 inches.
Many of Berdan’s men came with their own competition rifles and were paid a bounty for bringing them. These personal rifles, along with some purchased by the government, would be used for special sniping activities that required long range accuracy. The troops would be issued a standard shoulder arm for day-to-day work, their favorite being the Sharps Model 1859.
Berdan’s command became one of the most famous units of the war. They were effective as both skirmishers and sharpshooters, feared by the enemy, and established the primacy of breechloading small arms. Berdan’s men boasted they were responsible for killing more of the enemy than any other unit in the Federal army.
By the time of Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomatox Courthouse the definition of long range had been altered by technological advancements. From the early 1700s until the Civil War, a shot at 200, perhaps 300 yards, was the ultimate in long-range accuracy. As the states were reunified and began its westward expansion, a successful shot of 600 yards, or more, was the new standard. The first to take advantage of the advancement in firearms technology were the competitor and the hunter.