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Rapid-firing Civil War Weaponry

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Most Civil War weapons were loaded by single bullets and fired, and then reloaded and fired again. And whereas a good infantry soldier could load and fire his weapon two or three times in about a minute, inventors were working quickly to try to develop rapid-firing weapons.

President Abraham Lincoln had a fascination with firearms. He asked each inventor to demonstrate his new invention for the president to look at and consider.

Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling’s .58 caliber “Gatling gun” was capable of firing over 600 rounds a minute. The gun, featuring ten barrels and with shells being continuously fed by using a hand crank, even had a mechanism allowing for rapid fire for extended periods of time without overheating. The magazines were fed by a second soldier through a large hopper.

J. D. Mills’ Agar gun also known as the Coffee Mill gun (called by President Lincoln as the “coffee grinder gun”) was similar in style and function to the Gatling gun. It operated using a similar hand crank.

In spite of the president’s recommendation, his Union Ordinance Department were highly critical of the rapid firing weapons. It was their contention that the weapons wasted too much ammunition to be practically used.

Christopher Spencer invented a repeating rifle which he demonstrated in 1863. The seven shot firearm was loaded through the rear of the stock. The design allowed the soldier to fire seven shots within about 15 seconds. The Union used these rifles but the Confederates were unable to use captured Spencer repeating rifles once the ammunition was exhausted, because it could not be loaded with traditional power and bullets.

The .44 caliber Henry Rifle, capable of firing 16 shots without reloading, was made famous when one of General William Sherman’s soldiers said “the Johnnys say we are not fair, that we have guns we load up on Sunday and shoot all the rest of the week.”

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