“Killed more enemy soldiers than any other unit …”


A rare photograph from the period of the American Civil War, which shows an officer and gunner of Berdan’s sniper unit. They usually didn’t like being photographed. And they had reasons for this!

The military did not immediately appreciate the role of sniping – marksmanship of individual gunners at important targets. Moreover, the Civil War in the United States played a special role in the spread of this type of shooting.

We walk to Richmond with a dark blue wall
We carry stripes and stars in front of us,
John Brown’s body lies damp in the ground
But his soul calls us into battle!
Glory, Glory hallelujah!
Glory, Glory hallelujah!
Glory, Glory hallelujah!
But the soul calls us into battle!
(Battle Anthem of the Republic, USA, 1861)

Weapons of the Civil War. After the release of the material about the Colt revolver rifles, there were many requests to talk about the snipers who were armed with these (and other) sniper rifles during the American Civil War. We fulfill their request …


Truly, an amazing shot from the Soviet film “The Headless Horseman” in 1973 with Oleg Vidov in the title role. On it we see a Colt revolving carbine – which means that even such a rare weapon somehow got to us in Russia and ended up in the hands of the “filmmakers”

Sharp arrows required!

And it so happened that already in May 1861, the New York Post reported that Colonel Hiram Berdan was inviting the country’s best riflemen to join his sniper regiment.

Snipers, the newspaper wrote, are people who operate in small groups at a distance of up to 700 yards (640 m) from the enemy, fire one shot per minute and accurately hit the target, causing the enemy a lot of trouble. The main target of snipers is the enemy officers, the destruction of which brings confusion to his ranks.


Page from 1862 Harpers Weekly magazine showing a sniper in position

The selection for the unit was extremely tough. And the main criterion was, of course, the ability to shoot accurately. It is clear that there were not so many such shooters, so they were recruited throughout the country, and not in any one state. To get into the regiment, the candidate fired 10 shots and from a distance of 200 yards he had to put all the bullets in a circle with a diameter of 5 inches, and he had to shoot from a rifle with a regular sight! Failed, missed – you don’t belong in snipers. But those enrolled in the unit received weapons specially made for them, a good salary and … an unusual-looking dark green uniform, which markedly distinguished them from all other soldiers of the Union army dressed in dark blue uniforms.


Colonel Hajrem Berdan

By June 1861, the formation of Berdan’s sniper regiment was completed, and he was ready to go to the front. Interestingly, at first, his shooters were armed with Colt revolver rifles. And this despite the fact that there was a very bad reputation about them, they say, they are prone to “chain fire”. But it was Berdan who proved to his shooters that if you load them correctly, and most importantly do not forget to cover the space around the bullet with “cannon fat”, then nothing bad happens to them. But none of the small arms at that time had such a high rate of fire, and it was very important for snipers. The rifles were equipped with telescopic sights of almost the same length as their barrels, but this was the optical technique at that time.


Drawing by Don Troyani. Union soldier with a Colt revolver rifle of the Berdan riflemen unit

I must say that better than others, realizing the importance of well-aimed shooters on the battlefield, Hiram Berdan tried by any means to avoid his personal participation in the battles. It got to the point that he twice got to the tribunal because of his behavior and as a result was forced to resign. However, he nevertheless played his role in this war, and even a very noticeable one.


Colt sniper rifle with sniper scope

Further more!

The fact is that the successes of his regiment, and then of the brigade, naturally led to the formation of ten more such regiments, dressed in green uniforms. Usually snipers were in reserve at the command, which made it possible, depending on the situation on the battlefield, to send them there – their especially well-aimed fire was required. Therefore, they were most often used at the very edge of the enemy’s breakthrough in order to repel it or to inflict maximum losses on him before a counterattack by federal troops. They also conducted reconnaissance behind enemy lines.


Illustration by Liliana and Fred Funken. Shooters of the 1st and 2nd regiments of Berdan snipers: 1 – shooter with a primer muzzle-loading rifle with an optical sight; 2 – a lieutenant, who often had the same weapons as the privates, plus a revolver; 3 – a soldier armed with a Spencer carbine: such carbines were not a statutory weapon, but snipers bought them as a self-defense weapon; 4 – Colt rifle of 1855 – the main weapon of Berdan’s shooters. The second example will be the Sharps rifle. The soldiers’ buttons were made of matte rubber so as not to shine. Overcoat with cape – gray; 5 – a soldier with full gear shoots from Sharps (of course, no one went into battle with such a layout!); 6 – soldier reloading Sharps

And in May 1862, their enterprising, albeit cowardly commander, was the first in the army of the northerners to equip his soldiers with Sharps rifles, which were loaded from the breech with paper cartridges and had for that time both a good rate of fire and, most importantly, extremely high accuracy. Rifles for snipers were equipped with two types of sights: the same telescopic sights as on the Colt revolver rifle, but also simpler, adjustable folding diopter sights, which nevertheless allowed for fairly accurate shooting at a considerable distance.


A muzzle-loading sniper rifle manufactured by the Springfield Arsenal. Caliber .54, barrel length 36 inches

Moreover, what is most interesting is that it was the Americans who, even before the Civil War, were the pioneers in the use of optical sights. They were installed, for example, on the famous “rifles from Kentucky” model 1812, from a distance of 165 m hitting a quadrangle with a side of 28 mm with five shots! Well, later they were often put on hunting, but so far not yet military weapons.


The same rifle. Pay attention to the two triggers: one for a hard trigger, and the rear one is especially soft with a trigger.

It must be said that individual shooters continued to use muzzle-loading match (sport) rifles, often made to order and characterized by increased accuracy.


The muzzle with a front sight when shooting through a sniper scope could be removed

“Bad examples” are contagious!

Following the example of the northerners, snipers were introduced in the Confederate army, and they also used high-precision match rifles purchased for competitions before the war. However, there were few such rifles, and most of the southern shooters were armed with British Enfield rifles with an adjustable diopter sight (telescopic sights in the army of the South were an exceptional rarity). However, since among the southern snipers there were many hunters who were excellent shooters, they even fired so accurately from ordinary rifles and with the most primitive sights that they hit the officers of the northerners up to the generals literally at exorbitant distances.


Types of sniper scopes on Sharps rifles

Nevertheless, the Confederate snipers had their own unique weapon – the Whitworth and Kerr sniper rifles. The Kerr rifle, however, did not differ much from the Enfield. But on the other hand, Whitworth’s rifle, like his cannon, was the perfect weapon of murder. Its barrel had a polygonal cutting, patented by him back in 1854, and with it, his rifle, firstly, had a higher rate of fire, since the bullet was easily sent with a ramrod to the powder filling (it did not need to be hammered there!), And secondly, the compression of the cylindrical bullet when fired was enough to fill all the corners of its hexagonal barrel and ensure good obturation.


English rifle Whitworth

Between 1857 and 1865, 13,400 Whitworth rifles were manufactured, of which 5,400 ended up in the British Army and Navy, and 200 were bought by the Confederation, despite the fact that such a rifle cost $ 96! However, the southerners and this was for happiness, “after all, the breakers of the blockade” (remember the unforgettable Reth Butler from “Gone with the Wind”) had to transport these weapons under the very noses of the northerners, risking their freedom, their ships, and even their lives. So the southerners also had “super rifles”, and they used them with maximum efficiency, equipping only the best shooters with them!


Bullets to the Whitworth rifle

Efficiency that no one expected

A number of examples known to us testify to how effective the snipers of the North and South acted effectively in the Civil War. So, during the Battle of Pee Ridge in Arkansas on March 7, 1862, the famous Wild West gunfighter (gunfighter – “gun shooter”, master of his craft) Mad Bill Hickok killed 36 Confederate officers in four hours from an ambush. General McCulloch, horrified by such losses, ordered to find and destroy this sniper at any cost. And it all ended with the fact that Hickok was able to shoot this general himself, but, of course, the southerners failed to catch him!

During the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, a sniper of the federal forces with a well-aimed shot finished off the General of the Southerners, John Reynolds, after which the Confederates retreated from their positions and even left the city!


Whitworth Rifle Shooter

Accordingly, on September 19, 1863, near Chickamauga, a Confederate sniper from a Whitworth rifle mortally wounded General of the Federal Forces William Little, which … stopped the offensive of the units entrusted to his command!


Drawing by Ketty Rocco. Berdan’s arrows at the Battle of Gettysburg

On May 9, 1864, near Spotsylvania, Union Army General John Sedgwick decided to shame his soldiers, who were hiding from the Confederate bullets, rode forward and shouted: “What is it? Men are hiding from one bullet! .. I’m ashamed of you. Even an elephant cannot be hit from such a distance! ” And that was all he said, because a southerner sniper’s bullet hit him in the head. A well-aimed shot, as it turned out, was fired by Sergeant Grace of the 4th Confederate Infantry Regiment (although the name is also called Ben Powell) from a distance of about 800 yards (731 m)! Moreover, Sedgwick did not stand still, but sat astride a horse, which, of course, was not completely motionless, which means that he himself was not motionless. As a result, the death of General Sedgwick slowed down the pace of the advance of the northerners, reserves approached the southerners, and General Robert Lee won this battle!


Another photo of those years, in which we see an arrow with a Colt rifle in 1855

Such a high efficiency in combat, however, was costly for the snipers themselves. Both the soldiers of the northerners and southerners fiercely hated them and did not consider them as soldiers with all the ensuing consequences for the captured snipers. That is why, even after the end of the war, snipers preferred not to talk about their exploits and not say where and in the capacity of whom they fought.


Americans are very fond of dressing up in the uniforms of different regiments and portraying the brave soldiers of the past. But how Berdan’s arrows looked like, this photo shows very clearly

By the way, already in the 1880s, American military historians confidently stated that the same, for example, Berdan’s snipers during the Civil War incapacitated more Confederate soldiers than any other unit of the northerners’ army.

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