Explore the Civil War

Theory suggests Civil War could have ended sooner with different weapons

By Dan Dearth

The American Civil War might have reached a swifter conclusion had the federal government not armed its soldiers with inexpensive weapons to save money, said George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

The .58-caliber rifle that was the workhorse of the Union army was mass produced because it cost only $13 to manufacture, Wunderlich said. But the drawback was that the soldier had to reload the weapon through the muzzle after he fired each shot.

Wunderlich theorized that the war would have ended sooner had the U.S. government chosen to use more breech-loading rifles that cost $45 to produce.

Breechloaders predominantly were used by cavalry units.

Breechloaders, or rifles that were loaded from the back end of a gun’s barrel, could be loaded and fired faster than could muzzleloaders. Some breechloaders of the day, such as the .52-caliber Spencer rifle, had a seven-shot capacity that offered an increased rate of fire.

“If (the federal government) bought those weapons, they might have shortened the war,” said Wunderlich.

Although the Confederate army had some breechloaders, the South didn’t have the resources to produce the weapons in mass quantities.

Wunderlich, who also oversees the Pry House on Antietam National Battlefield, said that in addition to being more expensive to produce, breech-loading weapons required more expensive ammunition.

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