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by Grahame Long, Curator of History
The very first area of the Charleston Museum’s vast collections I was tasked with managing after I began my curatorship over a decade ago was the assorted weaponry. This arsenal consisted of just about everything from dueling pistols, Revolutionary War artillery, cavalry swords, even an executioner’s axe. However, the small arms dating from the American Civil War period quickly became a study not just in history, but one of industrialized technology as well. In an age of rapid industrialization, the outbreak of war between the once United States became big business. So big in fact that anyone with even a remotely practical idea on how to gain an advantage in battle could cash in.
Nearly 250 weapons patents were issued in 1862 alone. Thus, an influx of firearm alterations, gadgets, gizmos, and other weaponized curiosa emerged rapidly in the 1850s and 60s. In fact, already sensing trouble as early as 1850, the South Carolina General Assembly budgeted $350,000 toward the acquisition of combat munitions. Out of those funds, the Palmetto Armory (Columbia) alone was commissioned for 6000 muskets with bayonets, 2000 pistols, 1000 rifles, 1000 artillery swords, and 1000 cavalry swords. Unsurprisingly, this surge in demand for small arms among southern states and the Federal military kicked off one of the greatest arms races the country had ever seen.
Of course, some technologies proved quite effective and extremely deadly. The Springfield together with it’s British counterpart, the Enfield, were both single-shot, muzzle-loading guns detonated with a percussion cap, However what appeared as ordinary mid 19th century muzzle-loading muskets were now been fitted with rifled barrels, making them both capable of accurately delivering a .58-caliber bullet upwards of 500 yards.
Other breech-loading rifles were successful in their utilization of metallic cartridges and loading mechanics. For example, likely the most popular – if not most easily recognized - breechloader of the War, the Sharps rifle’s drop-block breech made it a killer not only in bleeding Kansas during the 1850s but throughout the duration of the Civil War.
As spectacular as the successes were in small arms technology, so too were the failures. Despite the large numbers of weapons patents issued during the Civil War, not all those designs were world-saving breakthroughs. The Savage Revolver of 1861, for example, was a good try at improving an already dependable mechanism. Instead of manually re-cocking the piece, a secondary loop trigger re-cocked the hammer when pulled and rotated the cylinder when pushed back. A reasonably good idea to be sure, but it nonetheless made for a clumsy, unnatural hand movement between two fingers.
See more of our collection in The Civil War in Charleston
Curator Lecture Series 2011: All Indifferently Clad (full lecture video)
Curator Lecture Series 2011: All Indifferently Clad (special preview)
Curator Lecture Series pt 02: Ft. Sumter Copy Book (full lecture video)
Curator Lecture Series pt 02: Ft. Sumter Copy Book (special preview)