Sweetwater County Museum Employees Examine Civil War Rifle

Sweetwater County Museum Employees Examine Civil War Rifle

The side plate of the Model 1861 Springfield, detailing the trigger, hammer, and percussion nipple.

GREEN RIVER — A muzzle-loading Civil War infantry rifle was recently brought to the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River for examination and research through the museum’s Vintage Firearms Research Program.

Museum staff determined the rifle to be a very fine .58-caliber Model 1861 Springfield, manufactured in 1862. About 660,000 Model 1861s were produced by Springfield between 1861 and 1865 at a cost of $15 to $20 apiece. (A slightly modified successor, the Model 1863, was made in similar quantities from 1863 to 1865.)

A mainstay for the Union Army, the Model 1861 was a large weapon – nearly five feet long with a 40-inch barrel. It weighed a little over nine pounds and fired a 500-grain “Minie Ball” lead bullet propelled by a black powder charge weighing 60 grains.

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In the age of muzzle-loading firearms, the Minie Ball was a major technological breakthrough. Invented by Claude-Étienne Minié, a French army officer, the Minie ball was a slightly underwidth,  conically-shaped bullet with a hollow base that was more easily loaded and far more accurate than a round lead ball. When the weapon fired, the exploding powder charge expanded the hollow base, allowing the bullet to bite into the bore’s rifling as it traveled toward the muzzle, imparting to it the accurizing spin of all rifled firearms.

The Model 1861 was a single-shot muzzle-loader. It had to be loaded from the muzzle with a powder charge and a bullet, which was then pushed down the barrel and seated with the rifle’s ramrod, stored beneath the barrel. The rifle’s hammer was then pulled back to half-cock and a percussion cap to detonate the powder charge placed on the nipple. Next, the hammer was pulled back to full-cock; when the trigger was pulled, the hammer fell on the cap, which sparked, causing the powder charge to explode, discharging the shot.

Soldiers armed with the Springfield carried wrapped paper cartridges, which contained a pre-measured powder charge and a Minie Ball. The shooter bit off the end of the cartridge or tore it off with his fingers, poured the powder down the barrel, started the bullet inside the bore, and seated it with the ramrod, often using the paper of the now-empty cartridge for wadding.

A well-trained infantryman could manage two to four shots per minute, and the Springfield was effective from 100 to 300 yards or even further in the hands of an accomplished marksman. (It was fitted with a three-leaf rear sight, set for 100, 300, and 500 yards.)

The Civil War Model 1861 Springfield rifle musket recently examined at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

By 1866 the muzzle-loading Springfield had been rendered obsolete by breech-loading, metallic cartridge rifles; some were single-shots, others were repeaters. It was replaced first by Springfields modified to serve as breechloaders, followed by the purpose-built Model 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield in .45/70, which remained standard Army issue until 1892.

People with a vintage firearm (or firearms) who would like to learn more about them need only contact the museum at (307) 872-6435 or via email at sweetwatercountymuseum@outlook.com.

There is no charge for the museum’s firearms research service.