The Vaunted Enfield Rifle Musket
The English-made Model 1853 .577 caliber Enfield Rifle Musket was widely regarded as the best infantry arm in the world at the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. Favorable international press describing its efficiency in the Crimean War and in suppressing the Indian rebellion led to the widespread desire of American infantrymen (both Federal and Confederate) to be armed with these accurate and well-made arms.
|The lock plate of this well-worn P1853 Enfield rifle musket produced in 1862 shows the typical markings of a British-made weapon that made it through the Federal blockade. |
(Army of Tennessee Relics)
Enfield-pattern weapons were imported into the states by the tens and hundreds of thousands during the war years; one estimate stated that the Federal government purchased 500,000 while the Confederates purchased another 400,000. The Confederate government dispatched Captain Caleb Huse to Europe in April 1861 to purchase weapons and Huse focused on securing all the Enfields that he could lay his hands on. Northern purchasing agents soon arrived on the scene and the market prices crept upwards as both sides competed in purchasing Enfields. Southern firms such as Cook & Brother (see article here) also made Enfield-pattern copies during the war which supplemented arms brought through the Federal blockade. Most of the Northern purchases of Enfield pattern weapons took place before 1864 as by then various Northern manufacturers had ramped up production of the Model 1861 Springfield rifle to supply the army’s needs.
To be clear, there were a multitude of English manufacturers that produced Enfield pattern weapons for sale to the American market during the war years, and they were offered in two basic types: the three-band rifle musket and the two-band rifle. The rifle musket, a few inches shorter and at nine pounds slightly lighter than the American-made Springfield rifle, was imported in far greater numbers than the two-band rifle although thousands of the two-band rifles saw service in the Civil War, primarily with sharpshooters or cavalry units. Typically, the rifle musket was equipped with a socket-style triangular bayonet, while the rifle (the standard arm of the British infantry during the 1860s) was equipped with a sword style bayonet. A rifle musket with socket bayonet attached stood about six feet tall.
British manufacturing of Enfield pattern long arms centered on Birmingham and London and several firms produced these weapons during the war years specifically for the export market- this is a key point. Unlike Austrian Lorenz rifles (see article here), the Enfield weapons which saw service in the U.S. Civil War were not cast-off stocks from the British army but production specifically made for export. “The export Enfield generally can be told from those made for the British government by the absence of the Broad Arrow mark on the lock plate and barrel breech,” weapons historian William B. Edwards noted.
The typical Enfield rifle musket had a walnut stock, a brass butt plate, trigger guard, and nose cap with an iron barrel and barrel bands, typically with a blued barrel and case-hardened lock plate which gave the plate a mottled appearance. A leather sling hung from the front rifle band back to the trigger guard. The lock plate featured a crown over a V star R and the word Tower with a manufacture date above it. “The mark ‘Tower’ on an Enfield-type arm was apparently used more or less to deceive Northern purchasers as well as those of the South,” remarked Edwards, leading the Americans to think these weapons had been produced for the British Army and were, therefore, of the highest quality.
These weapons were typically produced with components from various shops which were contracted to produce specific components, one shop making the stock, while another produced the barrel, another the lock, etc. The assembler hand crafted the musket from these components, then a government inspector would affix various stamps to show that the weapon “passed muster.” That said, it is also not unusual for there to be subtle differences between weapons made by the various manufacturers and assemblers such as Potts & Hunt, Birmingham Tower, and the London Armoury Company. Not every Enfield was English made; there are some examples of Enfield pattern rifle muskets being produced in Liege, Belgium. As can be imagined, the struggles with the interchangeability of parts posed a continuing problem for the weapons’ American users throughout the conflict.
Interestingly, the genesis for the mass production of Enfield-pattern rifle musket originated in America in 1853. “The Enfield Commission visited the Springfield Armory and toured the Yankee gun mills,” Edwards stated. “Of particular interest to the British experts was the Robbins & Lawrence works in Windsor, Vermont.” The British contracted with this American firm to produce 20,000 of the new pattern weapons which shipped the following year. “The war in Crimea does not record many uses of the rifled British muskets, but a few of the new .577 Enfield type did get into service and when used were very effective with their long-range accuracy potential.” The American firm supplied manufacturing machinery to England but the British government gave the next contract to the Royal Small Arms Factory who started to cheaply crank out Enfields by the thousands. Robbins & Lawrence ultimately went bankrupt, but the weapon they helped produce “became the standard by which others were to be judged.”
U.S. Army officers were quick to point out that the U.S.-made Springfield rifle was every bit as good a weapon as the Enfield. “A skillful gun-maker, after a critical examination of the improved patterns of the English rifle musket and of the Springfield rifle musket would pronounce ours better in every particular except the lock,” a Virginia regular officer would write in December 1860. “The English locks are better than ours because all locks of our new pattern rifle muskets have unfortunately been encumbered and injured by affixing to them a contrivance known as Maynard’s attachment for serving Maynard primers. The cost of the weapon has thus been materially increased while the lock has been injured. And, as no troops use Maynard’s primers in the field, these attachments are justly and generally regretted. With one exception, our Springfield rifle musket is held to be the ‘queen’ of weapons, with great accuracy and force of fire, it combines the important qualities of strength, durability, and cheapness. And the bayonet, the never-failing arbiter of hard-fought fields, completes the efficiency of the arm.”
|The Maynard tape primer system shown above was included in the Model 1855 Springfield rifle musket but proved problematic and was dropped with the Model 1861 revisions.|
But once the shooting started in April 1861, the volunteer soldiers by and large wished to be armed with the vaunted Enfield weapons because they, unlike the Springfields, had been proven in battle. “The rifle loads readily, balances well, and is not too heavy to be manageable by a man of ordinary strength and stature,” one Southern editor noted. “An ordinary marksman can make good practice with it at 800 yards, but in the skilled hands of a more experience shot, a much longer range is attained. The Enfield confers a saving of three pounds in weight each soldier has to carry, the strength of the weapon is increased, as is the precision in firing.”
The morale of the 20th Tennessee skyrocketed upon receiving a supply of Enfield rifle muskets mere days before the Battle of Shiloh, having previously been armed with flintlocks. “Only a few days before the Battle of Shiloh, the 20th Tennessee drew new Enfield rifles with new accoutrements and English ammunition, and if there was ever a body of men that appreciated a good thing, it was this regiment for they had experienced the inferiority of their arms to that of their enemy on the battlefield,” Dr. William J. McMurray recalled. “And now we were well-armed and equipped, we thought that the 20th Tennessee regiment was able to meet successfully a like number of any troops.”
Not only was the Enfield considered precise and efficient, but also packed a deadly punch as noted in the following article which described a wound caused by “the conical expansive ball propelled from the Enfield rifle. The ball in question hit a member of the 4th South Carolina Volunteers, passing through the fleshy or rather the muscular part of his left arm above the elbow. It then cut in two a strong steel watch chain, passed through a Testament, broke a toothbrush, doubled up a pencil case, and glancing slightly from its original course, entered a little below the left nipple, but owing to the deflection occasioned by its glancing from the pencil case, did not penetrate the cavity of the chest but seems to have traveled round among the muscular tissues and finally came out on the right side.” A Federal observer noted after the Battle of Kernstown in March 1862 that the worst wounds appeared to be from the “Enfield rifle ball which tears out holes large enough to put a silver dollar in, smashing bones like straws. The effect of these bullets is well seen on the trees where the Rebel right wing was stationed. These are cut and gashed as if storms of grape and canister had been poured into them, stems as thick as a man’s wrist having been severed by a single ball.”
|Enfield bullet with wooden plug|
An Indiana newspaper reported on the following incident at the Battle of Rich Mountain in July 1861 where a Hoosier armed with an Enfield avenged an insult from his Confederate adversary. “It appears that one Secesher, thinking himself at a safe distance and holding the marksmanship of the Hoosiers in extreme contempt, turned his back, stooped over, and offered a galling insult to our men,” the Steuben Republican reported. “This act had the effect of making a Hoosier tearing mad. Considering himself highly insulted and having great faith in his own powers and that of his Enfield rifle, he sent his compliments in the shape of an ounce bullet, making a center shot, the ball traveling the whole length of the Secesher’s body and coming out at the throat.” Private Napoleon B. Risinger of the 17th Indiana happily noted in March 1862 that his regiment had recently traded in their smoothbore muskets for a stock of Enfield muskets and was delighted at the change. “I have lately changed my weighty musket for an Enfield rifle musket to carry 900 yards,” he wrote. “I will endeavor, if we engage in a battle, to pick off a few officers who are nearly always the most distant and bring home a few scalps.”
The volunteer soldiers became angry when armed with a weapon they considered subpar, and if a neighboring regiment received a stock of Enfields, great friction within a camp would occur if there weren’t enough guns to go around. "When we left Camp Dennison, we were told that upon our arrival here that our regiment would be furnished with the Enfield rifle," wrote one discontented member of the 48th Ohio. "Why such is not the case, no one seems to know. It seems to be a mistake in the government to throw her troops right in the heart of the enemy's country unarmed. Were but a small force of the enemy to come upon us well armed, we would be obliged to cave having nothing with which to defend ourselves." The 77th Ohio was issued a stock of large caliber Model 1842 Austrian rifled muskets and were none too pleased. "The guns issued were known as Austrian rifled muskets, a gun using a large caliber bullet,” recalled Robert Flemming of the regiment. “They were not considered a desirable arm and there was bitter disappointment among the men in not getting the Enfield rifle which was then considered a very superior gun. I well remember the bitter revolt of some of the companies and that Co. C stacked their guns in front of the company tents and almost mutinied."
Not everyone was in love with these English-made weapons, however. Editor John W. Dawson of the Fort Wayne Daily Times visited the camp of the 44th Indiana in January 1862 and after inspecting its stock of Enfield rifle muskets was convinced that this was yet another instance of “perfidious Albion” getting one over on its dullard American cousins. “The much-lauded Enfield rifle furnished to the Indiana troops is a very inferior arm and a gross imposition on this state," he wrote in an editorial. "The caliber of the barrels is not uniform as some of the balls will drop so easily that the furrows of the rifle will make no impression upon them, and others vary so much that it is an impossibility to crowd the ball down the barrel. The barrels are also filled with seams, fire cracks, and flaws which have been concealed by the high emery polish, but to the practiced eye they are discernible and upon a proper inspection would have been pronounced unfit for service. The locks are soft, never having been properly hardened while the springs of the locks have not sufficient temper to prevent their setting which diminishes their power to the extent that they will not explode a cap. The bayonets and rods have never been tempered, or if tempered, not given sufficient temper, and we doubt whether many of them have been manufactured from steel, this imperfection was so near patent that it must have been apparent to the person procuring them. From our earliest boyhood, we have heard those who were raised in the gun manufactories that even when making fowling pieces, if a barrel was defective, ‘put it in, it will do for America!’ These much-extolled Enfield rifles have been manufactured after that system and we doubt whether there has been any inspection of them. A good hickory club would be a more effective weapon than many of them we saw.”
Likewise, the Chicago Tribune reported rather acidly in December 1861 that a recent shipment of Enfields proved that “the Enfield rifles are now getting to be as bad as those from Belgium. The 24th Massachusetts has received its Enfield rifles which are described as a perfect sham. The mere jamming of the muzzle upon a wooden bench was sufficient to crook the barrel. The bayonet would bend like lead by merely sticking it in the ground, and the ramrod could be bent over the knee like a piece of rattan.”
Interestingly, as the Americans were tripping over themselves to buy up every Enfield they could find, a debate raged in the House of Commons on the question of whether the British Army should adopt the Whitworth rifle as it had been proven to be an improvement over the Enfield. “It was admitted that the Enfield rifle was a wonderful advance on the old Brown Bess, but notwithstanding the fact that in 1857 the superiority of the Whitworth instrument had been demonstrated, the Government settled down in its old routine of blind adherence to an adopted plan irrespective of the arms which were manufactured at the rate of a thousand a day. The fact has been established that by a trifling outlay, the Enfield machinery can be used to prepare the superior instrument and testimony was adduced to prove that when the rifles are made on a great scale, the price of both rifles will be about equal.”
Regardless of these news stories which highlighted the shoddiness embraced by some British manufacturers out to make a quick buck (or pound sterling), the Enfield rifle musket developed a very favorable reputation during the Civil War and was considered a first-class firearm by the War Department throughout the conflict. It was generally well-made, handy, and in the hands of determined troops, proved to be a supremely deadly instrument of warfare.
Edwards, William B. Civil War Guns. Secaucus: Castle Books, 1962, pgs. 242-255
“Modern Weapons,” Richmond Enquirer (Virginia), January 29, 1861, pg. 2
“The English Enfield Rifle,” Gainesville Independent (Alabama), July 13, 1861, pg. 1
“The Enfield Ball,” Daily Nashville Patriot (Tennessee), August 18, 1861, pg. 2
“Matters at Winchester,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), April 5, 1862, pg. 3
“A Broad Target with its Centre Driven,” Steuben Republican (Indiana), August 10, 1861, pg. 2
Letter from Private Napoleon B. Risinger, Co. H, 17th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Princeton Clarion-Ledger (Indiana), April 5, 1862, pg. 1
“The Enfield Rifle,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), July 15, 1861, pg. 4
Letter from unknown soldier in the 48th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Highland Weekly News (Ohio), March 13, 1862, pg. 1
“The Battle of Shiloh as a Private Saw It,” Robert H. Flemming, 77th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Sketches of War History 1861-1865. MOLLUS Ohio, Vol. 6, pgs. 132-133
“Government is bound to be cheated…” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), December 6, 1861, pg. 2
“Enfield Rifles,” Dawson’s Fort Wayne Daily Times (Indiana), January 28, 1862, pg. 4
McMurray, William J. History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A. Nashville: The Publication Committee, 1904, pg. 204
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