A rifled musket or rifle musket is a type of firearm made in the mid-19th century. Originally the term referred only to muskets that had been produced as a smoothbore weapon and later had their barrels replaced with rifled barrels. The term was later extended to include rifles that directly replaced, and were of the same design overall as, a particular model of smoothbore musket.
In the early 19th century, there were rifles, and there were muskets. Muskets were smoothbore muzzle-loading weapons, firing round balls or buck and ball ammunition, that were also designed to accept a bayonet. Rifles were similar in that they used the same kind of flintlock or caplock firing mechanism, but the main difference was that their barrels were rifled - that is, their barrels had grooves cut into the interior wall which would cause the bullet to spin as it left the barrel.
Rifles have the advantage of long range accuracy, because spinning bullets have far flatter and more stable trajectories than balls fired from smooth-bore muskets. Muskets had the advantage of a faster rate of fire. A muzzle-loaded weapon required the bullet to fit snugly into the barrel. For a smooth-bore weapon this can be a somewhat loose fit, but in the case of a rifle, the helical lands in the barrel have to cut into the bullet to make it spin. The fit needs to be sufficiently tight for the bullet to engage the rifling lands in order to impart spin; otherwise the bullet will wobble as it goes down the barrel, thus destroying its accuracy. Furthermore, if the barrel-to-bullet seal isn't tight, gases will blow through the rifling grooves and around the bullet, thus compromising muzzle velocity, accuracy and the bullet's terminal energy at the target. The greater accuracy and range made rifles ideal for hunting, but for military use the slower rate of fire was significant. The main disadvantage of rifled muskets is that the fouling caused by normal firing made them steadily more difficult to load.
Although outwardly similar, the way they were used in battle was quite different. Muskets had two functions. As firearms they delivered volleys of close range fire in close ranks. With fixed bayonets they acted much as the pikes that they replaced, using formidable line and square formations. Compared to modern weapons a musket had a limited range and slow rate of fire, meaning that the bayonet played a significant role, accounting for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties during the Napoleonic and U.S. Revolutionary War eras. Bayonets were so effective on the battlefield that often the threat of bayonets was enough to cause an enemy to turn and run. Since they were used as pikes, muskets tended to be fairly long and heavy weapons. They tended to be about four to six feet in length (six to eight feet including the bayonet), with a weight of around 10 to 12 pounds (4.5 to 5.4 kg), as longer and heavier weapons were found to be too unwieldy. The length of a musket also allowed them to be fired by rank, with no fear that the men in the rear ranks would accidentally shoot the men in front ranks in the back of the head, or, more likely, scorch their faces and burst their eardrums with the muzzle-blast. Muskets six feet in length could be fired in three ranks without fear of accidents.
The relative inaccuracy of the musket was not considered to be significant on the battlefield, because smoke from the black powder used at the time quickly obscured the battlefield and rendered the longer range of the rifle useless. Rifles were not even used by some armies, such as Napoleon’s. When they were used, they were typically issued to small units of riflemen trained not to fight in close ranks, such as sharpshooters. Since they weren’t fired over other men’s shoulders or designed for close-combat bayonet fighting, military rifles could be much shorter than muskets, which also made loading from the muzzle easier and reduced the difficulties associated with fitting the bullet into the barrel.
The problem of slow loading caused by barrel fouling was solved by the Minié ball, which had been invented in the 1840s by French inventor Claude-Étienne Minié. Despite its name, the Minié ball was not a round ball at all. It was long and conical, with an expanding skirt. The skirt allowed the minié ball to be smaller than the barrel's bore, so it would slip in as easily as the ball of a smoothbore. Since the skirt expanded when the weapon was fired it made a tight fit against the sides of the barrel, which caused less energy to be wasted in blow-by around the ball and also insured that the grooves and lands of the rifling would impart a stabilizing spin to the minié ball.
In the 1840s and 1850s, many smooth bore muskets had their barrels rifled so that they could fire the new Minié ball. These "rifled muskets" or "rifle muskets" were long enough to serve the function of muskets in close formations of line and square, were as quick to load as the old muskets and as easy to use with a minimum of training. Yet the Minié-type rifled muskets were much more accurate than smooth bore muskets. The loose fitting ball in a smooth bore musket was accurate to ranges of 50 to 75 yards (46 to 69 m), or less. Rifled muskets increased the effective range to about 200 to 300 yards (180 to 270 m), and a rifled musket could often hit a man-sized target up to 500 yards (460 m) away. This potential accuracy, however, required skills only acquired through training and practice; a rifle-musket in the hands of a raw recruit would not have performed very much better than a smoothbore.
In the 1850s and 1860s, new weapons produced with rifled barrels continued to be referred to as "rifled muskets" or "rifle-muskets" even though they had not originally been produced as smooth bore weapons. The term was only used for weapons that directly replaced smooth bore muskets. For example, the Springfield Model 1861 with its typical musket style lock mechanism and long barrel length was called a "rifled musket". In contrast, the Model 1860 Henry Rifle produced in the same time period did not replace a musket and did not have other musket-like characteristics, and was just referred to as a "rifle".
In the late 1860s, rifled muskets were replaced by breech loading rifles. Weapons like the Springfield Model 1868 were produced by simply changing out the lock mechanism of a rifled musket. However, once this change was made, the weapon was no longer referred to as a rifled-musket and was instead referred to as simply a "rifle".
In general, rifled muskets were the same length as the smoothbore muskets they replaced. This meant that they typically had about a 40 inches (100 cm) barrel and an overall length of about 55 to 60 inches (140 to 150 cm). The first rifled muskets, having originally been smoothbore weapons like the Model 1842 Musket, which were typically .69 caliber weapons, though smaller caliber weapons were sometimes modified as well. Later rifled muskets tended to be of smaller caliber, like the .58 caliber U.S. Springfield Model 1855 or the .577 caliber British Pattern 1853 Enfield. Tests conducted by the U.S. Army in the 1840s and 1850s showed that the smaller caliber was more accurate at a distance. The conical shape of the Minié ball also meant that the smaller .58 caliber Minié ball had roughly the same amount of lead and weight as the larger .69 round ball. While the caliber was reduced, the overall length of the barrel was not. Shorter rifles could have easily been made (and often were made) that would have been more accurate than the smooth bore muskets they replaced, but military commanders still used tactics like firing by ranks, and feared that with a shorter weapon the soldiers in the rear ranks might accidentally shoot the front rank soldiers in the back of the head. Military commanders at the time also believed that bayonet fighting would continue to be important in musket battles, which also influenced the decision to keep the overall length of the weapon similar to the length of a pike.
Some weapons were produced in a longer "rifled musket" version and a shorter "rifle" version, such as the Springfield Model 1855. The rifled musket version had a 40-inch barrel and an overall length of 56 inches (140 cm). The rifle version had a 33 inches (84 cm) barrel and an overall length of 49 inches (120 cm). In the British forces the distinction was retained between the full-length musket issued to the infantry as a whole, and the shorter handier version of the Enfield produced for specialist rifle regiments and marines. The long version had the barrel held to the stock by three metal bands, the shorter needed just two, so they are referred to as “3-band” and “2-band” Enfields respectively.
Since rifled muskets were meant as a direct replacement for smooth bore muskets, they were fitted with bayonets. Their designers envisioned that they would be used in battle much like the bayonets on older smooth bore muskets. However, in practice, the longer range of the rifled musket and changes in tactics rendered the bayonet almost obsolete. During the U.S. Civil War, bayonets accounted for less than one percent of battlefield casualties. This was a significant change from the days of smooth bore muskets, when bayonets accounted for roughly a third of all battlefield casualties.
Rifled muskets, like smooth bore muskets, were always muzzle loaded. Black powder was first placed into the barrel. Unlike smooth bore muskets, which required a wad to be inserted, the Minié ball did not require wadding. The lead Minié ball was greased and inserted into the barrel directly on top of the black powder. A ramrod was used to fully seat the round.
In military use, loading was simplified somewhat through the use of "cartridges". These were significantly different than modern rifle cartridges. They typically consisted of rolled up tubes of paper that contained a pre-measured amount of black powder and a greased Minié ball. Unlike a modern cartridge, the entire cartridge was not simply shoved into the weapon. Instead, the paper was torn open (typically by the musketeer's teeth), the powder was poured into the barrel, the Minié ball was placed into the barrel, and the paper was discarded. Also differing from a modern cartridge, a separate percussion cap had to be placed onto the percussion lock's cone before the weapon could be used. The Maynard Primer system attempted to speed up this last step by using paper strips like a modern toy cap gun in place of the percussion cap, but this proved unreliable and was not used on many rifled muskets.
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Rifled muskets were heavily used in the American Civil War. The British Pattern 1853 Enfield was the most widely used weapon in the war, and the American-made Springfield Model 1861 was the second.
The rifled muskets were not always successful on the battlefield, however. In the Italian War of 1859, French forces defeated Austrian rifled muskets by aggressive skirmishing and rapid bayonet assaults at close range.